Tuesday, December 28, 2010

High on Kiai

Last night was another endurance lesson.  I'm still fighting with this sore throat and stuff in my lungs (yuck).  It's hard to keep the pace up when you can't breathe very well to start.  Also last night I managed to cut my foot open, right on the ball of my left foot.  After some heavy tape application I was back on the floor, but it definitely affected my fumikomi.  So what did I do to counter-balance this?  I worked on having a high spirit every second that I was out there.  I think that I succeeded, for the most part.  I remember Sinclair Sensei telling us about how our kiai should be pushed out from our abdomen and "center", and I saw a video yesterday in which Sumi Sensei talks about the same thing.  Kiai isn't something that I've really focused my attention on before, it just sort of happened.  What I did last night was let it happen, but to make sure it was happening in the right way by pushing it up from my center.

We went over some new drills last night, and a couple that we haven't done in a while.  The focus of the night seemed to be on Kote drills, including Kote, Hiki Kote, and Debana Kote.  I felt pretty good with all three, and I remembered to pressure forward on the Kote strike and then push through as hard and fast as I could.  I felt like I was pushing the Kote out more, instead of just bringing my shinai up and then down to strike.  With Hiki Kote I think I still need more explosion there.  Sensei has told me before that I need to eliminate the pause from between tsubazeriai and actually striking the target, and I think it's creeping back in.  I'll remember to work on this later.

Debana Kote also felt ok.  I was able to strike in a straight forward position like we have been going over lately, but Sensei advised me that I need to turn faster after striking so I am in a ready position more quickly.  This will help me to set up to strike or counter as needed.  So after the strike I should immediately turn to face my partner again.

We worked on Do a bit last night, too, going over Kote-Do and Men-Taiatari-Hiki Do drills.  I have to say, when I look back over the past few months up until now I can see how drastically my Do strike has changed.  My speed and power behind it (not too much power, hopefully), as well as accuracy.  More often than not I hear the satisfying cracking sound of shinai on Do contact and I smile a bit on the inside each time.  It was such a problem for me before, and now I feel comfortable using it.  I even threw it out in jigeiko a few times last night, one notable time against McNally Sensei when he went for Men.

I can feel the emphasis I put on flexible wrists coming into play more and more, and it's starting to feel like something I'm doing without any thought, so I think I can safely check that issue off of my list and move onto something else.  Also I do feel like my posture is straighter while I move and strike, but I'll have to ask Sensei or someone else about it so I can tell for sure.  Both of these issues I've been working on pretty solidly for the past couple of weeks.  I'm hoping that I'm working on these issues in an effective manner, especially after Sensei talked to me about the primary basics theory.  I want to train smarter, not harder.  Hard training will get me results in the end, but smart and efficient training will get me results in less time.

I was able to do jigeiko with the Yudansha again last night, and I gave it my all.  Despite that, though, I felt slow, sluggish, and like I was a bit out of it.  Not sure why.  I kept getting distracted by things outside of the practice.  I'm usually pretty good at focusing on what's going on in front of me when I train, but last night I was off in space most of the time it seemed.  I'm going to chalk that one up to a one-off issue, since I don't normally do it, but I would love to try and figure out why I was doing it in the first place.  I was still able to train and I got in a few hits here and there (although Andy and Dan seemed to dance around my hits pretty effectively).  Sensei gave me some advice about jigeiko, and said that after I strike I should try to move through on the side instead of moving straight through my partner, so I don't "punch" them in the face as I more forward.  I think I did this to Ando Sensei accidentally a couple of times, so I'll try to remember that for the future.

There were good times and bad times last night, but I feel that despite the bad and my own health and other issues I still did well.  My exhaustion was a sign that I, yet again, pushed hard during practice, and I feel like I reached another level with my spirit.

A few thoughts:

Kamae:  McNally Sensei told me that I have a great kamae, perfectly straight and centered, but he said that for people at a higher rank than me that leaves my Kote wide open.  He said that I should try moving my kamae just a bit.  He suggested moving the kensen over towards my partner's left eye, instead of right at their throat.  This subtle movement will help to shield my kote from strikes.  I might play with this in the future to see how effective it is for me.

Kote:  Again, that feeling of pushing the Kote out instead of just down was good last night.  I think I got the nod (or grunt) of approval from McNally Sensei on the Kote drills.  I just need to make sure my left hand is coming up high enough for the strike before driving the shinai down and forward.

Jigeiko:  I'm doing good with keeping my hands lower now during my follow-through, but I need to make sure that I'm moving to the side of my partner during jigeiko, instead of going straight through them.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

One Thing at a Time

This past weekend I was sick.  Missed work on Friday, and carried on fighting it all through the weekend.  I hate being sick.  If I could eliminate one thing from my life it would be that.  I feel like it wastes so much time when I have to recover.  Time I could be using to do other things, like exercise, or Kendo...

Last night I was fighting off the last of my sickness.  Everything felt better, except for my throat and lungs.  I was still coughing and dealing with a dry/scratchy/sore throat and some other issues there, and I could tell my energy level wasn't up to where it usually is.  I took it easy, though.  Stepped out as needed, and made sure to not over-extend myself on the drills, and I was able to stay in the entire time.  Go me!  We also had another "guest" last night.  McNally Sensei, who left our dojo in September for college, is visiting his family right now and came to practice last night.  He will also be with us tomorrow night.  Having him there felt like old times, times when he would push everyone to try and match his level.  It's something I strive for.  To be at that level, and then to finally exceed that level. 

Sensei talked about some concepts of training with the intermediate class last night, and his advice and insight was something that I carried into my training.  He talked about different ways to train, and the way that most people train is to take a handful of issues that they have and try to correct them all at once.  So over a course of a couple months they touch on everything a little bit and are only able to fix a few of the issues that they have, if they are able to fix any during that time.  On the other hand, one can take one issue and concentrate on it, focus on it solidly for a couple weeks and be able to fix that issue, and then move onto another issue and fix it in a couple more weeks.  This method of training will see greater results over time than trying to fix everything at once.  Do you still have other issues and receive advice on them during this time?  Of course you do!  But you take that information and store it for later, until after you are able to correct the initial flaw that you have with your technique, your movement, your spirit, etc. 

This is actually a very elementary suggestion for us, as I remember Sensei going over it with us when we were in the beginning class.  He says to pick three things about our techniques and work on them.  One issue about our shinai work, one issue about our footwork, and one issue about our spirit/kiai, and work on only those issues at one time.  After I heard Sensei's talk last night I couldn't believe that I had let that piece of information slip my mind.  Coupled with the primary basics concept that he presented me with a couple of weeks ago and the way to change my own training slapped me in the face with its obviousness.  I had fallen into the trap of trying to correct too many things at once, and I'm glad to have heard this information at a time when I really needed it.

Practice itself went by pretty smoothly.  No real big issues, other than me pacing myself.  My Kirikaeshi is still coming along.  I had a dreadful time trying to keep the right breathing rhythm last night due to my throat, but I do feel like I'm slowly getting faster with it.  Sensei talked about how each cut should be not only with downforce but with a forward-cutting motion, even the Sayu-Men.  As we advance we are presented with more advanced thoughts and techniques, this being one of them.

Men drills were done with an emphasis on explosive speed.  Going from zero to one hundred percent in a second, and we practiced from uchi ma and from to ma.  I feel that my timing while at to ma is pretty good.  I take into account the advice that Sensei gives us about not stopping our feet when we start to move forward, and to press the shinai forward before striking.  But I feel that I hit too deep a lot of times, so I either have to take smaller steps or I have to start from further out.  Again I feel like I can cover a huge distance with my steps and with my fumikomi, so I have to start further out than even I think I can reach.  Hopefully I'm not breaking posture while doing this.

We broke into Mudansha/Yudansha groups about halfway through practice and did a extended period of waza geiko.  I was able to work entirely on Men (with one Kote drill thrown in for variety).  I went over the drills we did earlier, where I attacked from uchi ma and to ma, and kept the emphasis on snapping my wrists (shinai work), keeping my posture upright and naturally straight (body/footwork), and keeping my kiai going until I turned back to kamae(spirit).  I'll continue to work on these for a couple more weeks, and hopefully by then my concentration on these areas will make them into habits.

Jigeiko felt pretty good last night, even though I only really got to go with two people because our rotation kept getting messed up, and because there were only four of us in the Mudansha group (myself included) with bogu.  Again, I concentrated on mostly Men strikes, even in jigeiko, and I was able to get in a few really good strikes.  I also practiced taking the center, and I tried to throw in some Ai-Men when I was able to see the opportunity.  This is a technique that I'm slowly developing, and I know that if I keep at it I'll be able to turn it into a very powerful technique.  One last thing.  Seme.  I used it, and it was actually quite effective a few times when I was trying.  Now if only I can get into the mindset of following that up with an attack.

A few thoughts:

Men:  Explode more on the strikes.  I'm doing ok now, but I need to be able to go from relatively stand-still to striking and pushing through in an instant.  I notice sometimes I "fidget" before I strike.

Wrists:  They are feeling a lot better and more flexible, but now I have to watch out and make sure I'm not dropping my kensen too far behind me again.

Posture:  Haven't heard any issues with me leaning into the hits these days, so hopefully this issue is almost gone.  Luckily I can practice this one anywhere I go, not just at the dojo or when I'm at home doing suburi.

Kiai:  When I get tired my kiai starts to suffer, and I need to still be able to continue it all the way through with my follow-through and after I turn to face my opponent again.  Get into a good habit now so it stays with me later on.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Driving the Shinai

"Who is driving your shinai?"  This question was posed to us at the end of class last night by our sensei.  The answer, of course, is obvious; you are.  Simple as it is, though, it has many implications in our training.  I thought I would expand on my thoughts and feelings on this subject, since most of our drills last night involved controlling and "driving" the shinai in one way or another.

To me, the simplest manifestation of this idea is that you are in control of where your shinai lands, and you are responsible for the accuracy of your strikes.  It may seem simple, but it takes a lot of practice to be able to strike the same spot consistently at higher speeds.  In a nutshell, it's harder than it looks!  Digging down a little deeper, we come to how hard, or soft, we hit.  This is also a demonstration of shinai control, and one that many of our partners will appreciate.  Sensei went over a few drills that we can do on our own time to help develop better control of the strength and power in our hits, which involved taking a towel or some other object and wrapping a tree branch or bar or something that you can hit that is about the height of a Men strike.  He gave us four examples of suburi to try:

  • Stop the shinai above the target, about 1/2 to 1/4 inch
  • Lightly tap the target.  
  • Hit with the amount of force that you believe is correct
  • Hit with more force than is necessary
For people who currently have or have had issues with hitting too hard (most of us, we took a poll last night), these exercises can help us develop proper control and tenouchi (grip) when swinging the shinai and when striking a target.

Digging even deeper, we see that controlling the shinai comes into play in a lot more areas.  Sometimes very obvious, and sometimes very subtly.  We went over a few drills last night that involved moving the shinai and kensen to get our partners to open up for us, and then striking a variety of targets.  Each of the movements to get our partners to move out of center were very subtle (the slight "J" movement used before striking men, or the lifting the kensen up at the opponent's face before striking Hiki Kote), but the strikes afterwards were quick, explosive, and a stark contract to the slight movements from a moment before.

Big, explosive movements are obvious, and can show our true intentions.  If we suddenly jerk our shinai to the side to try and get our partner/opponent to open up they might expect that you're trying to bait them (which you are).  But if the movement is subtle, gentle, almost seemingly accidental they are more likely to go for the bait and spring the trap.  I believe this to be a very effective and very powerful technique, and one that I will continue to work on.  I honestly felt a little bit of inspiration when going through some of the drills last night, as I had never thought of doing some of the movements like we did last night.  I hope to be able to someday use these techniques and thinking effectively in my own Kendo.

A few thoughts:

Men:  We practice striking from To maai a few times last night and I tended to step a bit too close and hit a little too deep on a few of them.  I'll either have to practice starting further out, or making a shorter fumikomi.  I'm still playing with distancing and learning to use that effectively.

Kote:  During Hiki Kote we were given the chance to try hitting from different angles with the shinai, but he said to make sure to keep proper, upright posture while striking.  Many people get into a bad habit of leaning their bodies while trying to strike, and this is something that we are going to try and avoid.

Jigeiko:  Sensei told me last night that I'm staying in the "middle distance" too long.  I am within my striking distance, but I tend to hang out there a bit too much.  He said that I should either attack, set them up for a counter (oji waza), or I should back off and set myself up again.

Wrists:  I'm still working on my wrists, trying to get them more flexible during my strikes.  I can do it when I think about it, but now I have to transfer that into a habit that I can do without thinking.

On a side note, I had my first foray into teaching solo, with the Valley dojo members last Friday.  I felt a bit awkward and out of place having to be on the Sensei's side of the room, but everyone showed up and everyone gave just as much effort to me as they do to our Senseis in the Valley.  They are a great group of people and it was a pleasure to teach them!

On another side note, it is my birthday today, and I am going to get beat up with Kakarigeiko tomorrow at training.  Wish me luck, and if I die from exhaustion I will miss writing these posts =)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

What Are You Working On?

This is a question that Sensei has been asking me a lot lately.  Usually after practice when I step up to bow to him.  The more I think about it, the more answers I can come up with, and the more I think about it, the higher my bar of standard for myself raises.  I've been told I have beautiful Kendo, and when I really think about it, I guess I do considering my level of experience and training (which isn't much).  But I always want to strive for more.  I never want to lose that hunger to keep progressing, keep learning and improving myself.  It's one of the things that drives me in Kendo.  I have a definite passion for it, that much I can say without hesitation, and even though I know nothing I continually push myself to take more steps along this path.

The first things that pop into my head, and the things I'm concentrating on most right now, are keeping a straight posture, and making my wrists more loose and flexible.  Now, straight posture, to me, doesn't mean rigidly straight back.  It means having a "natural" straightness to my stance.  We talk about this a lot, mainly when it comes to holding the shinai in kamae and with the legs in kamae.  It does apply to many other areas, though.  Naturally straight isn't locked in place; it's a relaxed position, with the slight curve (from the kneee, or the loewr back, or the elbows).  Things are neither locked in place or bent out of place, they are natural, and, well, straight!

My wrists are an issue that pop up here and there, but I've been concentrating on them for a few weeks now, ever since I was first told that they were too tense.  Wrist movement is a key component in a good, fast shinai swing.  As it was explained the wrists should bend back as the swing starts, so that the upswing and the wrist motion are all one, not two separate movements.  The way I understand it is that on the downswing the wrists should snap out last, kind of like a wave.  The energy running from your shoulders, which are driving the sword down, through your arms, to your wrists (which snap forward) and then out through your shinai to connect with the target (Men, Kote, Do).  I might be wrong on this, though, so don't take my word for it, but this is how I understand the movement, and it makes sense to me.  Up and back, down and forward, power through the left hand, guidance through the right.

Will my thinking change on these areas?  I would say most definitely.  As I grow in experience, things that made sense before become more refined, until they are entirely different ideas, but for now this is what I know and it has helped me a lot. 

Monday, December 6, 2010

Takado Sensei

This weekend we had a special "guest" with us.  Takado Sensei returned to train with us after being gone for a few months.  I say "guest" because a lot of us still consider her part of our dojo, myself included.  Having her back, even for a short time, was like filling a hole that was left in our training and I think that a lot of people felt it, judging by the level of Kendo and the high spirit that we all had on Saturday.

The main focus continued to be pressing in with our shinai before we strike, and we went over a lot of kihon drills to emphasize this.  First in place, with no Men or Kote on, and we continued from from there into our normal practice.  I, myself, also worked on keeping a straight posture and bending my wrists back and making them more flexible as I began my swing.  I've been too stiff, and I would like to eliminate it from my strikes as soon as possible.  It will add some much needed speed and (less needed) power.  I've also been working on trying to keep my swing rather uniform with the way I hold my Kamae, as Billy showed me a couple weeks ago.  Not straightening my arms out when I raise up to swing, and instead letting them stay "naturally straight" like in Kamae.  It seems to be going well, so maybe soon I will ask Billy to watch my swing again and see.

I didn't actually get to practice with Takado Sensei, since we were split into Yudansha/Mudansha groups, but still the energy was there.  Everyone as at the top of their game on Saturday, giving their all, with very high spirits.  I would have loved to just sit back and watch it and take it all in (I did step back momentarily but was quick to jump back in after a round or two).  It seemed like we were all feeding off each other and the overall spirit of the training that day to keep going, to keep pushing.  I know personally after I stepped back in I was fresh and ready to go and stayed in for the rest of the practice time.

Jigeiko was really fun for me on Saturday, and I worked on (among other things) striking first.  With a lot of people I experimented with striking immediately after bowing in, and for the most part I was successful with it.  One of my friends commented that he did not see me coming that fast, because a lot of people get into a pattern of bowing in and then taking time to settle in and get into the match (or the practice).  I do this myself, but I was trying to eliminate the wasted time, as Sensei has been advising us to do recently.  It proved to be a good strategy, but like all things I'll try not to do it too often so that people don't expect it from me.  I also tried using a bit more oji waza, including Nuki Men and Debana Kote.  I can do Debana Kote in drills, but in jigeiko it's way harder to get the timing down because you have to anticipate what your partner is going to do, or entice them into doing what you want (which is also something I'm trying to work on).  Also I've been trying to develop seme in my practice, putting that unseen pressure on my partners during jigeiko.  Since I'm farily new to this, it's a hard concept to grasp and try and implement, but as I practice and study it I'm sure things will become clearer for me.

After practice I had a chance to talk to Takado Sensei.  I'm hoping that we will be able to do jigeiko and practice together next time she visits.  She did tell me that I have beautiful Kendo, and she said to not lose that.  Don't worry about points in matches or anything like that, just keep my beautiful Kendo.  I was very honored to hear this from her, considering she has an enormous amount of experience, and I will definitely take her words to heart and continue to develop my beauitful Kendo.

Some thoughts:

Ai-Men:  I'm think I'm starting to get the hang of it.  There were a lot of times when I would go against people and we would end up knocking each other out of center and neither of us would hit our mark.  Other times I was able to hit Men fairly easily and straight.  I'll continue to work on this technique, as I can see a lot of potential with it.

Debana Kote:  In order to use it more effectively in jigeiko I think I need to create the opening myself instead of waiting for one to happen.  That way I can be in total control of when the moment arrives.  I'll work on opening my Men for people to try and force their movement.

Nuki Men:  It's looking a lot better than it did at PNKF, and I'm able to hit while going forward with most people.  I'll continue to develop this technique, as well.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Back to the Dojo

Last night was our first practice downtown in over a week.  The Thanksgiving holiday plus a food drive at the gym we use kept us away from the downtown dojo since last Saturday, and even then a lot of us were off at the Kent Taikai.  We had a practice in the valley last week on Tuesday, which was great because a lot of downtown people showed up for that, but other than that there's been nothing Kendo-related going on.  It felt good getting back in the dojo, kinda like returning home and seeing all the familiar faces and getting that warm, comforting feeling all over.  That's the good side.  The bad side is that I was really busy last week and hardly got a chance to practice at home so I was definitely feeling my week off last night.  I felt really slow and really sloppy with my training, but in the back of my mind I know that it's just my body dusting itself off.  Give me another practice or two and I'll be back in gear and ready to improve.

We had a smaller group last night, maybe about a dozen or so of us there.  It snowed a lot last week, and I'm guessing that this kept a lot of people away.  Driving in the snow is hectic, at best, plus there's always a round or two of sickness that gets people during the cold weather.  After warm-ups, instead of putting our Men and Kote on we jumped into pairs and took a step back to our basics a bit.  We worked on our Men strikes, a lot.  First in place, making full swings and concentrating on eliminating wasted movement and time (we were instructed to make a very quick cut, as quick as we could while keeping good form).  This built up into striking and pressing the shinai forward to make the "second" cut.  He emphasized extending our kiai, which in turn would help extend our cut forward.  We added in a quick step after this, doing fumikomi and then pulling our left leg into place.  This all led into the main focus of the night; pressing with with our shinai before striking. 

This is a concept that I first recall seeing during Stroud Sensei's visit.  The basic idea is to press in with the tip while beginning your right foot into the fumikomi motion before striking.  Sensei pointed out that we should try and direct the kensen towards our partner's neck, or (preferably) right between their eyes.  He demonstrated this a couple of times by stepping forward and poking the Men right in the face, between the eyes.  Good thing we have metal grilles on the front!  after pressing in we then strike.  Not a hard concept to think about, but pretty hard to actually implement and execute.  I think that after a while I was doing it during the kihon drills, but later on it just fell apart unless I totally concentrated on it.  Sensei wanted us to focus on this for the rest of the night, and he made it a point to tell us that we should be constantly trying to improve ourselves and our Kendo and not fall into the trap of repeating the same movements and doing the same thing all the time.  If we do that, we'll never improve.  I can see this as another step in improving my own Kendo.

We worked on Kirikaeshi quite a bit last night, and really worked to use what we had just went over in the Men strikes everywhere else.  The places that this showed up in Kirikaeshi were very apparent.  during the Shomen strikes we can press in before striking.  During the Sayu Men strikes we can be quick and crisp, with no pauses or wasted movement.  I tried my best to remember these points while going through the drills.

We moved into more Men strikes next, and again concentrated on pressing our shinais in on our partners before striking.  We first practiced from uchi ma (hitting distance) and then from to ma (outside of hitting distance, which forced us to step in first and then step and strike).  Sensei made a good point during to ma, saying that if we are able to practice pressing in from uchi ma, it makes the movement from to ma a lot better.  The footwork become more fluid, and the strike becomes easier to execute.  I'll continue to work on this in my own Kendo, because I can tell I'm going to need a lot of work with it.

We did two rounds of jigeiko, which book-ended some time spent going over Debana Kote.  I tried to keep the spirit that I had a couple of weeks ago over the taikai weekend, but I felt so slow and rusty.  I'm hoping that it doesn't last long.  I will say that I had a pretty intense round of jigeiko with Seth, one of our Ikkyu kenshi.  I believe that we were on the same wavelength while fighting, because we ended up striking the same targets at the same time for most of the round. It felt more like a battle of pressure and seme than anything, both of us trying to find or create the right time to strike.  Sensei talked a bit about finding and creating openings, which is a good thing, but that we shouldn't get into a habit and a pattern of doing that all the time.  We must also be dynamic and be able to strike, see another opening, and strike again.  He made an example using the curtains on the shomen side of our dojo.  He said that many people do Kendo as if they are hitting the curtain, and that's fine and has its place.  But he said that we should also work on not just hitting the curtain, but doing so to reveal what's behind the curtain, because there is a lot more behind it.  In the same way we should use our attacks of open up new targets and opportunities to strike again.  I know that this is an issue that I have, being able to create multiple opportunities to strike, so this is another point I'll be working on a lot.

After some rather grueling endurance drills we lined up, settled in, and ended for the night.  It was great to be back at practice, I missed it a lot, but I do think a week is WAY too long to be without Kendo.

Some thoughts:

Men:  So much to fix here I don't know where to begin.  First off, Sensei pointed out that my wrists were too tense and I wasn't using them during my small Men strike.  I could feel it after a while, too, after he pointed it out.  I need to loosen them up, and they should be the first thing to go back as I lift my shinai up to strike.
Also, and this goes for all of my strikes, I should keep my hands down on my follow-through.  Either my right or left hand should be about face-high.  Sensei told me to imagine punching my partner in the face as I go by them to get an idea of where my hands should be. 
Lastly he said that I was leaping forward a bit on my strikes.  I think this might have been because I was starting my strike from too far out.  I should work on controlling the distance more so I can better gauge how far out I can hit from and still keep good form and technique.

Posture:  Not sure where to put this one, but I need to work on my posture.  I noticed that in the videos from Kent I am leaning forward ever so slightly.  I do this in kamae, when I strike, in tsubazeriai, and it's a bad habit that I need to work on correcting.  Last night, before practice, I concentrated on moving from my center (tanden, if I remember right), and keeping my posture as upright, while being relaxed, as I could.  I don't know what caused this, or if I've always done it, but I'm going to try and correct it as soon as possible.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Kent Taikai 2010

The annual Kent Taikai took place this past weekend, and I have so much that I could write about.  For the sake of space and not boring anyone that might read this I'll try to keep it as concise as I can while still painting a picture of the events that took place on our trip.

We left Friday from Spokane to make the trip to Seattle for training in Federal Way that night.  Of course along the way we busted into random games of tag, as is tradition.  Training in Federal Way was enlightening, in that it showed me that I have a long, long road ahead of me.  I knew this, and it's something I always consider in the back of my mind, but every once in a while I have a training session that reiterates that truth to me.  Also, Marsten Sensei is pretty cool (Curtis, although I'm sure Jeff is just as cool).  He's a great teacher, and I was grateful to be his punching bag during jigeiko.  The night ended with everyone in the hotel sharing dinner and a few laughs.

Saturday was the day of the taikai.  We cleaned up, ate breakfast, packed and headed to the taikai, which took place at the same venue as PNKF a couple weeks prior.  After changing and warming up we were ready to start.  The rules were about the same as PNKF, if I remember right.  Three minute matches, two points to win.  If the match ends in a tie there are two 1-minute sudden death rounds where first point wins, and judge's decision if there is still a tie after those rounds.  Final matches and team matches had unlimited time for the sudden death round, as I remember.

I competed in the 0-4 Kyu division again, and as I was preparing for the match I was mentally preparing myself as well.  I kept a positive attitude throughout the whole time, and I think this helped me immensely.  I also watched the matches and watched everyone to try and get a feeling for what to expect if I had to fight them later.

My first match was with a girl by the name of Yu from Bellevue.  The match began and after a few exchanges I scored a Kote on her to get my first point of the match.  She didn't seem too shaken, as she quickly went on the offensive and ended up scoring a Kote of her own to tie the match.  I came back with an offensive of my own afterward, and stayed on her with regular waza and hiki waza.  I finally scored the final point when she went for Kote and I struck it down with Uchiotoshi Men to win the match.











Final Score:  2-1 (Ruiz)

My next match was against a kenshi name Kim from University of Washington.  I stepped in and immediately attacked Kote and put the pressure on my opponent, and caught him quickly with a Men strike after he stepped back on Hiki Do.  We reset to our spots and I quickly caught him with another Men strike as he stepped back to strike Hiki Do.  I had been working on being more aggressive ever since PNKF and it really started to show through during this match, and the ones after.  I had set a new personal record, as well.  In my previous two taikais I had never made it past the second round, but this time I was onto the semi-finals.  I felt really good about myself at this point, and felt I had a real shot at winning.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

 My semi-final match was with Cook, from Tacoma.  The match started and I immediately scored a Nuki Men for the first point.  We reset our positions on the lines and went at it for a second time.  I tried to play smart, since I already had a point, and he played pretty aggressively, but we both used a lot of waza, taiatari, and tsubazeriai to try and overcome the other person.  I finally ended the match when he backed up for hiki waza and I immediately sprang forward with a Men strike.  I had made it to the final round, and I could hardly believe it!























Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

My opponent had just finished winning his semi-final match, a guy by the name of Dominey from University of Washington.  He opted to take his break before the final match.  I used the time to watch, wait, and focus.  I tried to empty my mind of everything around me.  Winning, losing, everything.  I focused on my soon-to-be opponent.  He finally stepped to the line, we bowed in, and the match was under way.

He came out strong, with a quick Kote to take the first point.  I have to admit, my focus was almost broken at that point, but as I walked back to my line I strengthened myself to try and take the two points that I needed to win.











As the shinpans dropped their flags to continue the match I stepped forward, toward my opponent.  I was determined to do my best to gain back a point to tie, and a point after to win.  Dominey and I both surged forward for Kote strikes, and I went on the offensive, striking forward and backward whenever I thought I had an opportunity.  He did his best to tie me up in tsubazeriai, to which I responded with hiki waza.  Everytime I backed up he followed and tried to finish the match with a quick Men or Kote strike, but I was able to hold him off fairly well while trying to set up my own strikes.  Finally, about a minute and a half into the match, after striking Hiki Men and stepping back I sprang forward and was able to land a Men strike to tie the match.  We reset ourselves back to our lines, and I began to think that I might be able to pull off a win.  I just had to be smart about it and use everything I had. 

Dominey tried to end the match with another Kote strike, but I was able to block it and follow him into tsubazeriai.  After a moment we let each other out gracefully, back into Kamae, back to squaring off with each other.  Dominey tried a couple of fakes, doing fumikomi in place to try and get me to move, but I was holding strong to my Kamae.  He rushed in for another Kote, which is what I was looking for, and I countered with Nuki Men.  I missed, but was quick to turn around and follow him.  As he turned and began to settle back down to Kamae I launched  Men strike at him again.  This one found its mark.  The flags went up.  I had won the match.










I walked off the court and congratulated my opponent.  He had given me everything he had and we both definitely did our best out on the court.  Sinclair Sensei, Jeff, Aaron, and Dillon were there to be the first to congratulate me on a job well done, and on winning my first taikai ever.

Final Score: 2-1 (Ruiz)



When everything was all said and done, after the rest of the divisions were done and we lined up for the award ceremony I still couldn't believe that I had achieved victory.  Sure, it was something I was aiming for.  I knew that when I first signed up for the taikai.  But it was taking a back seat to the chance to perform good Kendo; Kendo that would make my dojo proud.  I believe that I also achieved that goal.  They called out the winners for all of the divisions, and I ran up to receive my trophy and a new shinai from Maruyama Bogu, a prize graciously donated by the company for all of the first place kenshi.  After they called all of those, they had another award to give out.  An award that went to two kenshi, a junior and a senior, and was explained to me as awarded by all of the judges to two people that showed the most beautiful Kendo and the best spirit of Kendo at the taikai, with no regard to winning or losing.  I was the recipient of that senior award, the Spirit of the Day Award.

I was shocked.  For a moment I didn't realize what was going on. I couldn't believe that they had called me, out of everyone that competed that day.  I saw some great Kendo and I didn't think my Kendo was anything too special.  After a few moments of shock, and with everyone watching me, I ran up front to receive my award.  I have to be honest, I was also having a hard time keeping my eyes from tearing up.  I have to say that I played a small part in all of that.  I learn from everyone around me, and anything special in my Kendo comes from all of the people at my dojo that helped me and taught me and gave me advice along the way.  So in a way that award was a reflection on our whole dojo, I was just the humble recipient of it.

I hope to be able to use this experience to further myself and my Kendo, and to improve even more in the future.  I'm hungry to get back to the dojo, and not to relax, but to train even harder and push myself even further.  Sensei says that when you win you should put more effort into your training, as if you had lost every match, and I intend to do the best I can with that mentality.



Thursday, November 18, 2010

Raindrops

By the time class ended last night I was broken and exhausted.  Not only did I train hard the night before in the valley, but I trained with the Yudansha last night, which is always a good lesson in endurance.  I also injured myself, a couple days before the next taikai.  We were performing Men-Nuki Men and when I went to hit my partner I brought my left hand right down on the tip of his shinai.  Let me tell you, at full speed that does NOT feel good!  I had to step out and let my hand recover a bit because every time I would strike after that incident the fingers on my left hand would start to throb and hurt bad.  That would have been bad enough if that were the only issue I ran into last night, but about the time we started jigeiko I got a bad ache in my side.  I had to basically remain stationary for the first couple rounds because anytime I moved too much the pain shot up my side.  I'm glad that only lasted a little while, but it sure didn't help me last night when I was already injured and tired.

So where do raindrops fit into all of this?  When we bow in and out we have a time called mokuso that is used to clear our minds and concentrate on our rhythmic breathing.  At the beginning of training it's a good time to clear your mind of everything that's happened throughout the day so that you can concentrate on Kendo, and at the end of training it's used to help calm your body down from the (hopefully) exhausting practice you just finished.  I usually concentrate on my breathing during these times, but every once in a while my mind will wander while sitting there with my eyes closed.  Last night I couldn't help but notice the sound of the rain on our building.  Rain always has such a calming effect, at least the sound of it does, and I started to think about how many other kenshi have been in this same spot before me.  In mokuso, after a hard training session, listening to the raindrops...

Like I stated at the beginning, I already had a pretty hard practice the night before out at the valley dojo, so I was already tired coming into last night's practice.  The whole practice turned into somewhat of a lesson in endurance for me, as I pushed myself way past what I am normally capable of in class.  We interspersed our Kirikeashi drills with our kihon drills, doing regular Kirikaeshi as well as Do and Kote variations, between our regular Men, Kote, and Do drills.  I had to step out a couple of times because I first had to help a fellow kenshi with his splintered shinai, and then I had to fix my own splintered shinai.  My poor shinai, it's been through so much and I keep rebuilding it with new bamboo staves, but I think it's on its last legs...again.

After kihon drills we went into some more advanced stuff.  Sensei was really centering on keeping a focus with our partner during our drills, and one of them focused on this in a big way.  Kakarite would hit Men and push through, and Motodachi was supposed to follow them and hit them as they turned, trying to catch them when they were at around a forty-five degree angle to Motodachi.  I had varying degrees of success with this, but was thrown off when my partner would turn sooner rather than later.  Some people had quite a pattern to their follow-through and turn and were easy to catch at that forty-five degree mark, but others (like Billy) were nearly impossible to catch at the right time, and I constantly found myself hitting too late.  It doesn't help that he's WAY faster than I am, but I'm working on it, every single practice.

I like the fact that we've been doing a lot of oji waza lately, as I feel that a lot of those techniques I'm pretty weak with.  We went over some Nuki waza drills last night, including Men-Nuki Men and Kote-Nuki Men.  I only got to practice Men-Nuki Men, as I injured myself and had to step out for the Kote variation, but I was quick to step back in for Ai-Men.  The purpose of this drill is to strike before your partner does.  A lot of times it looks like both people strike at the same time, but there's a lot more that goes into it than that.  In my very, VERY limited experience with it, I can see a few key points (at least, key to me).  One is that the kenshi who is able to take the center has the best shot at landing their strike.  Also speed comes into play a lot.  If you are slower than your partner, you'll want to try and take the initiative to strike first, or else you will never beat them to the target.  Sensei wanted us to play around with it last night, too, and not just strike, turn around, and strike again.  Through this I found that if I was able to draw someone in to stepping into my hitting distance (uchi ma) then I had a better chance of landing my Men strike before they did.  Probably because I can set up while they are still stepping forward and strike before they are able to fully settle into their position.  Of course these are my own observations, and my own thoughts, and they could and probably will change in the future.

Jigeiko was fun last night, as I got to practice against the Yudansha (I had been in the Yudansha group since we started Nuki waza).  Fighting against them always keeps me on my toes, even when I'm tired out of my mind, and I think that I got to do jigeiko with all of the Yudansha last night, including Ando Sensei.  He is definitely a wall when he wants to be.  A fast, powerful, accurate wall.  Even though I can never get a hit on him it's great to practice with him.  If I keep practicing, maybe one day (decades from now) I'll be able to move as swiftly and powerfully.

The night was not without it's fair share of advice, though.  During the drill where we chased down and hit our partner, Sensei let me know that I need to turn and move with them faster so that I'm in a good spot to hit them when they turn around.  I kept coming in too late on some people, and as I worked on it, it slowly improved, even if my aim didn't.  Wendy also gave me a good piece of advice for this kind of situation.  She said that if I step around my partner a little more, instead of coming straight at them, that it will give me an extra split second to set up and strike, and from more of an angle that my partner/opponent might be ready for.  This split second can give me just enough time to get in a good Men, Kote, or Do strike.  Also during our Nuki waza drills Billy said that when I hit and push through I'll want to keep my hands from lifting up.  Not only is this a bad habit but it also hinders the kakarite from striking properly because my hands are in the way.  I wasn't trying to do this on purpose, but this was also during the time that I was suffering from my hand injury, so I ended up stepping out right after this because I couldn't hold my shinai properly.  Live and learn and grow.

A few thoughts:

Nuki Waza:  I've been practicing lifting my hands up out of the way and feel that I'm ok at it now, considering my very short time in Kendo.  I need to work on being more accurate with the Men strike, though (if Men is what I'm aiming for).  Also, when up against a faster partner, it's ok to do Hiki Men, and I pulled off a really good one on Justin last night (before I smashed my hand into his shinai, that is).

Debana Kote:  Just reiterating what I've already written about this, but be sure to catch the opponent at the moment they move, not after.  Being the motodachi last night I saw a lot of this, and I was able to hit people's Men before they could make it to my Kote for a successful Debana strike.  Also little to no step forward is required, fumikomi in place is ok, and after hitting straight on you turn your body to the side and keep your zanshin going as you move back.

A great practice last night, I was thoroughly exhausted.  Our next stop is going to be in the Seattle area on Friday night, and then the Kent Taikai on Saturday!  I'll have a lot to write about and more pictures next week.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Aggression

You would think that after having a weekend full of Kendo I would be tired of it and want a break.  I don't.  I thoroughly enjoyed our practice last night, even though I had to step out a few times due to coughing.  It appears that my throat is not 100% healthy yet, and I forgot my water bottle, so each time I stepped out I had to take my Men off to get some water to try and calm down my coughing fits.  Still I did all I could and knew when to push and when to back off a bit.

I actually started my night by teaching the intermediate class.  Not only that, but my brother is now in the intermediate class so he was able to participate in one of my classes.  I kept things simple, going over kihon drills, kirikaeshi, and then getting into a bit of hiki waza at the end, which was new for him and the other new intermediate student.  I tried to break it down and explain as best I could, and I think I did a decent job since everyone was looking really good with their footwork and form.  With teaching, I take baby steps.

Before we started class we were each given a chance to give our own report of the taikai and to talk a bit about our favorite match of the day.  I said that my favorite match was the one in which I lost.  Sounds odd, I know, but I learned so much from that match that I am itching to apply to my own Kendo.  I'm hoping that when I go back for the Kent taikai in a couple of weeks that I will have improved, even just a bit, because of that match I had and the areas it gave me to work on.  Ando Sensei also talked a bit about our Kendo, and how proud he was of all of us for doing "beautiful" Kendo.  He said that a lot of people get into doing tournament Kendo, and even can win matches it's very ugly, in his words.  He said that he, and everyone else, notices our dojo for its good, clean Kendo.  I'm very proud to be a part of that.

Ando Sensei actually led class last night, and put us through a lot of endurance drills, having us do kirikaeshi at the end of almost every drill.  Also he had us move in and strike from to maai a lot, as well.  This is a distance outside of the ideal striking distance (issoku itto no maai), which forced us to take a big step in before striking.  I tried to concentrate on swift movement, small strikes, and good follow-through while keeping my kiai going all throughout.  I think I did ok, but I was a bit hindered by the constant coughing and dry throat.  Hopefully next week I'll be better.

Ando Sensei had us go through some drills afterward in which he would blow a whistle and have us either strike a target given by our partner once, twice, or perform ai-men with our partner.  Very interesting drills, and I could see in some others the speed that they possess to see an opening, process it in their mind, and strike (Dan in particular).  Ai-Men was also fun, and I think I'm getting faster with my strike, although I need to watch out for how far up I raise my shinai.

Our jigeiko session lasted for quite a while last night, and I really worked on being more aggressive overall.  It definitely felt that way to me, and from some of the others I asked later on it seemed that a few of them noticed, as well.  I tried to stay on my partners a bit more, watch their movements, follow them, and try to strike as I saw opportunities.  I also tried to create more opportunities by using some off-timing and other techniques.  I have one technique in particular I would really like to work on, although I didn't get a chance to do so last night.  Sadly I had to step out of the kakari-geiko we did to finish the night, but I definitely cheered my heart (and voice) out for everyone else that went.

After class Ando Sensei told me that my Men strike was very beautiful and fast, and that if I keep practicing it will be my specialty.  I was very glad to hear this from him, who has been beating me senseless in jigeiko for the past few months with Ai-Men.  I'll take his advice and continue to work on my Men strikes.

A few thoughts:

Jigeiko:  I should definitely keep trying to turn my dial up a bit on jigeiko.  I know I have a little bit of skill, and I think I can handle working a bit harder and keeping on people like I did last night.  One of the reasons the guy at the taikai beat me was because he kept the pressure on me, so I want to be able to develop that in my own Kendo.  Seme.

Nuki Men:  I have to work on my accuracy with this technique.  I have the speed and timing, I just need the accuracy.

Fumikomi:  I think I need to work on a little longer fumikomi.  I saw some of the pictures and the video of myself and realized that I have a good fumikomi, but it could be longer in some cases.  I should be able to do short, medium, and long fumikomi, so I can have versatility with my strikes and movement.

All in all, a great practice to have after coming back from a weekend of Kendo.  I look forward to tomorrow night!

Monday, November 8, 2010

PNKF 2010 - Patience

It's Monday, and I'm reflecting on this weekend's events.  What a great weekend!  It was full of training and good friends and bonding with the team and lots and lots of Kendo!  Not much happened during our training in Bellevue on Friday since it was open floor training.  A group of us were selected to be receivers for the beginning class, which was fun.  They have a lot of kids that practice with them, so it was interesting to see some young people up and coming in their training.  During open floor I was able to get in a few jigeiko matches with some of the Bellevue locals, but I think the highlight was when Takado Sensei showed up and I was able to jigeiko with her.  She hit me, a lot, but I still enjoyed myself and enjoyed the time to practice with her.  Afterward we went back to the hotel to have dinner, clean up, and rest up for Saturday's taikai.

Saturday came pretty quickly, and I felt like I had no sleep at all.  But sleep or no sleep I was determined to do my best that day.  We headed out and arrived at the taikai around 8a.m. to help with court setup.  After getting everything in order we all got dressed and did a bit of suburi, kihon drills, and jigeiko for warmup, then headed back for opening ceremonies around 9:30.  I wish I had a picture of the opening ceremonies, as we had a lot of kenshi participating that day, including people from as far as Alaska.  Four courts had been set up for the day, and they were all used thoroughly.  My matches weren't for a while; they began after the 13-15 year boys and the 3-1 Kyu categories.  Out of those categories we did have some winners.  Dan took first place in the 13-15 category, with his brother Andy taking 3rd (both of them are Sinclair Sensei's boys).  Marek also took 3rd in the 3-1 Kyu category.

After getting my Men and Kote on I waited patiently for my match.  I wasn't overly nervous, but I had a healthy bit of the shakes going on.  A few matches into the 0-4 Kyu category and I was finally up.

My first opponent was a Yonkyu from University of Washington named Stern.  I came right off the line with a fake to Men followed by Kote.  my opponent reacted exactly how I thought he would, by raising his hands to block Men, but unfortunately for me he stepped back when he did it, and I didn't fumikomi far enough to hit his Kote, so my beautiful setup was all for naught because of my bad distancing.  I'll definitely work on this in the future.  We exchanged blows for a while, both of us doing some great Kendo, and about halfway through the match I finally scored a clean Kote for the first point.










We went back to our starting positions for the second point, and after fighting him off for ALMOST the rest of the match I got careless and my opponent ended up getting a Men to tie things up a few seconds before the match ended, thus forcing the first overtime (encho).










The first encho came and went without either of us scoring a single point, although my opponent got close as he hit Men just a hair after the flags went up to end the round.  This forced us into a second encho.  The rules for this taikai stated that if we were still at a tie after two encho rounds that it would be judge's decision for the winner, and I didn't want to go to that.  About ten seconds into our final round I stepped forward with a Kote-Men to taiatari.  I stepped to the side and then knocked my opponent's shinai away and I hit Hiki Sayu Men on his other side to score the winning point.  After the match Sensei came up and congratulated me on my win and my good Kendo, but he also gave me advice about keeping my point.  He said that when I have a point I should work to keep it and not be overly aggressive, like I was out there.  I should have patience and play with my distance and move in and out of tsubazeriai, or even stay there if my opponents wants to.  I shouldn't be greedy for that last point because that's what almost cost me the match.  I'll be sure to take this advice to heart next time.

Final Score: 1-1 (Ruiz in double encho)

Second round and my opponent was a guy from Steveston by the name of Leung.  I could tell from the start that he was very, very good.  I hardly had time or room to setup properly because he was all over me in the match.  Partway into the match he went for Kote.  I had guessed he would so I pulled back for Nuki Men.  I had the timing down but my Men strike was just off target, so it ended up sliding off to the side.  He recovered very quickly and hit Men to score the first point.












After resetting we traded blows a little more.  I ended up in tsubazeriai with him at one point, and noticed that his hands were just a bit high.  I stepped back for fumikomi and his hands went up to block Men, but I had other plans.  I threw a Hiki Do at him, and when it connected (CRACK), all three flags went up.  I felt really good about this one, because I had been working on it, so it was great to see that I was able to pull it off in a match against someone else.

We reset one more time.  The score was tied, and this was the final point.  I stepped in and circled a bit, and had plans to try and set up my opponent for another strike.  I knocked his shinai out of the way to see what he would do, and backed up for a second.  When I stepped in again he flew at me with a Men strike, which caught me completely wide-open.  When the flags went up I knew I had lost the match.  But losing was alright with me, as he was definitely a very experienced kenshi.  I didn't step out of bounds or drop my sword, or incur any other penalty against me, so he beat me on pure skill.

Final Score: 2-1 (Leung)

With my matches I gained valuable insight on my own Kendo.  I can see some strengths shining through, and see that some of the issues I've been working on have started to disappear.  I've also seen what I need to work on to continue growing and maturing in my Kendo.  The rest of the day passed, and I was able to witness, photograph, and record some truly great Kendo and matches (Seth vs. Tanimura Sensei, Sean vs. Jeffy, and too many others to list here).  I am thankful for this experience, the whole trip was a great time for me, and I hope that my teammates feel the same way.  I'm looking forward to the Kent Taikai in a couple more weeks, and to coming back next year to see how well I do again.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Body and Mind

So life blessed me with sickness at the beginning of this week, proving once again that Murphy's Laws do exist.  One of these days that Murphy guy is going to get what's coming to him.  I am, however, recovering smoothly, and should be back to 100% by Saturday, just in time for the PNKF taikai.  I've been looking forward to this one for a while, and I'm am going to relish the opportunity to demonstrate good quality Kendo (hopefully, in my opinion it is) with others from around our region.  I'll be sure to keep notes so I can give a good playback of what went on when I return.  But for now, onward!

During our warmups Sensei talked about how we should be performing suburi.  The way I understand is that we shouldn't go full force, 100% with each strike.  But we should definitely not be lazy about it, either.  He demonstrated the difference to us.  He was able to strike at the same time as his son, even though he started later. We should have quick, crisp strikes, good footwork, and not be lazy about any of our movements.  This helps us to get into the right mindset for training, as well.  If we are lazy, we'll have a lazy mindset.  I've mentioned this concept before when speaking about mokuso and breathing, and that we use it to calm the body down and the mind will follow.  Same concept for warmups, so we should be active and focused to help us warm up both our bodies and our minds.

After Kirikaeshi and some kihon drills (Men, Kote-Men, Do), our focus shifted to Oji Waza.  We went over Nuki Men and Nuki Do, Kaeshi Do, Debana Kote, and using Kote-Men to neutralize our partner's strike and counter attack.

Nuki Men and Nuku Do both felt pretty good tonight.  I can still work on my timing and my speed, but I felt that I was better at reading my opponent so I could see that moment that they began to move to strike.  Sensei made a point to let us know that with Nuki Men our movements should be fairly big, so we can move our Kote out of the way of our partner's strikes.  Some people try to do a small movement with their hands and end up not getting out of the way in time, so we should be sure to bring our hands above our heads, like we are performing a medium strike (and remember to not let the tip drop, this is wasted movement).  With Nuki Do a small movement is preferred, the small "heart" or "C" shape that Sensei has used as examples before.  Fumikomi should be short, as I've mentioned before, due to the Motodachi closing distance with their strike as well.  Sensei also pointed out that hips and body should be turned to the side as you strike, but your eyes still be on your opponent until you move past them.  Eyes should always be level and not looking down, because this tends to bring the head down and then the body will begin to lean forward.  So much to think about!

I still need to work on my timing for Kaeshi Do, as well.  I can get the block, but bringing my shinai down to strike is a bit awkward still.  Sensei said to catch the other person's shinai early so that you have time to bring your own shinai around for the counter-strike.  Most of my opponents were too fast for me to get the proper strike in after blocking, so I might need to try stepping even further to the side after I block.

We worked a little on Hiki Waza before we went into jigeiko.  One of the drills we did focused on multiple hits.  the Motodachi was instructed to try and not get hit, while the Kakarite was told to try and get a good hit, and try to go for multiple hits to throw the other person off.  I landed a very nice Men strike on one of my opponents after missing with Hiki Men and drawing their shinai down with a Kote strike.  I'd love to put in some good practice time with this sometime in the future, but I was only able to get in a few rotations with it.

Jigeiko was, well, it was jigeiko.  Nothing really special to report on it.  I was doing my best to not push myself too hard so that I could last the entire time, but I did feel like I'm still learning, little by little, to capitalize on openings that I see and/or create.  This will serve me well as I advance in my Kendo life.  I say life, because it's something that I hope to hold onto for the rest of my life.

A few thoughts:

Nuki:  As I stated before, when going for Men make I need to make sure my hands are up and clear of my partner's strike.  With Do I should work on a shorter fumikomi to the side, but still keep my eyes on my opponent.  And don't lean into the hit!

Kaeshi:  Still needs a lot of work. Maybe more shinai speed will help.  I know I was holding back a little bit last night, so next time I'll be sure to put 100% effort into the shinai speed.  Also I can step more to the side to compensate for my opponent closing distance, and turn my hips when I strike.

I can't wait to return from this weekend with pictures, maybe some video, and a nice story to tell!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Yudansha Group

Saturday's practice was downright awesome, and I feel that I pushed myself and did exceptionally well.  Not because I did perfect Kendo (that'll be the day), or because I picked off everyone in jigeiko (I didn't, not even close), but because Sensei gave me a challenge and I rose to it and pushed past my limits.  He invited me to practice with the Yudansha group, which usually contains the 1 Kyu and up kenshi (I'm currently 4 Kyu).  Yesterday we had a great mix:  a lot of Ikkyus and Shodans, a few Nidans, and Ando Sensei (Yondan).  It's definitely a different experience there.  Everything is faster, with purpose and intent, and I had to be at the top of my game, both physically and mentally, to keep up.

When Sensei asked me to join the group, I was almost at the end of my stamina, physically, but I took up his offer and jumped in with them, knowing that I wouldn't be able to step out at all for the rest of class.  I really didn't want to be that guy, the one that has this privilege given to him and then balks it with his actions.  I found my second wind and jumped in with their group about halfway through practice, so I had a chance to do some kihon drills with them before diving into waza-geiko (I practice Nuki Do, with varying degrees of success), and jigeiko.  I did my best to put up a fight in jigeiko, and ended up fighting almost everyone, including Ando Sensei (which is always a joy, though a humbling experience at the same time).  Sensei had us play out a couple of different scenarios, as well, in which he gave us 30 seconds and our goals was either to protect the point that we have, or to try and gain a point on our opponent.  Obviously different strategies and styles come through depending on what we were trying to do, with the people a point up being very cautious and mindful of the actions, and the people without a point trying desperately to create openings to strike. 

Again, this opportunity to practice with the Yudansha was a great one, and I took full advantage of it.  I felt that I had more mental focus, I chose my strikes and opportunities better, and I worked harder to create openings of my own to capitalize on.  I also don't think I did too bad at protecting my point in those scenarios.

A few thoughts:

Men:  Sensei advised me to not let my hands go too high after I strike.  He said that I should try and keep either my left or my right hand at about my partner's face height and no higher.  It was an easy correction to take once I started thinking about it, but I'll be sure to think about it throughout the week.  I should also be sure to keep my small Men strikes small, and not raise up too high on my swing.

Debana Kote:  I had a chance to demonstrate my Debana Kote for the class, so I must be doing something right with it, but after watching Sayaka demonstrate I realized that I need to turn faster after the strike. 

Tenouchi:  Harvey pointed out that I am still gripping my shinai too tight for too long, and that proper tenouchi should only be for an instant.  Squeeze, then relax.

Ashi sabaki:  I have been working on being lighter on my feet during ayumi ashi, but I still need a lot of work on it.

Great practice for the weekend, and I'm really excited to see what's in store the rest of this week, all leading up to PNKF on Saturday!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Kiai!!!

I was trying to think of a title for my post today.  Most of the time I like to have a title that represents what I got out of the training, and sometimes it isn't necessarily what we focused on.  Last night we focused a lot on our kiai and spirit, but there was another topic that I almost named this post after, and I'd like to share a bit of it here. 

Warm-ups are a big part of our Kendo training.  Sensei pointed out, and I'm sure everyone would agree, that warm-ups are integral to being able to release our full potential for training sooner.  If we properly warm up, we're able to push ourselves early on, instead of using half of the class to get warmed up, as he put it.  I'm not sure how other clubs do it, but we have a three-stage process with our exercises.  We do exercises with the wrists and upper extremities, the legs and lower extremities, and the spine, and we do three levels of each which increase in intensity.  The physical exercise is only half of what we're doing, though, and this is a point that I haven't thought about too much.  He said that as we increase the physical intensity, we should also be increasing our mental intensity, and our spirit.  It should become more and more intense and focused (but not necessarily louder) as we move through each level of the exercises, and our hunger, our craving, to pick up our swords should also be increasing.  By the time we're done with our exercises we should be eager to pick up our swords and start doing suburi or hitting drills.  I have always had the mindset to be really focused on each drill, but I don't know if I've necessarily been increasing that focus as we move through each exercise or not.  It's definitely something for me to think about.

Like I mentioned earlier, we focused a lot on our kiai and spirit last night, especially on keeping it going through our hits and into our follow-through.  Sensei mentioned that if we keep our kiai going, even after our strikes, we keep our mental focus on our opponent, show them that we're serious, and it can often lead to creating openings in a weaker opponent.  Imagine if you were fighting an opponent and they showed no spirit and ended their kiai right after each hit.  I would say they're not very intimidating.  Now imagine an opponent that is full of spirit and energy, has a strong kiai, and is constantly pressing in on you with it even after the strike.  Much, much more intimidating, in my opinion.

We took this mindset into many of our drills last night, and did some different variations on our normal drills to focus on our kiai.  The first one was a Men drill, and we made two big lines at one end of the dojo, with two people as Motodachi (one for each line).  The rest of us would strike Men and push through, making our feet faster and our kiai stronger as we went, until we reached the other end of the dojo.  I, unfortunately, was distracted a few times watching the others hit and go through, but I was quick to set myself and go through.  Another Men drill we did to focus on our kiai involved hitting Men in place twice, and on the third strike pushing through to the other side of the dojo (with our partner, one-on-one again).  Both of these drills dovetailed nicely with the work I've been doing on making my follow-through steps faster, so it felt great to bring my shinai work, footwork, and kiai/spirit together.

The next set of drills we performed involved Kote and Taiatari.  After doing some kihon Kote drills (in which I actually didn't hit the top of anyone's shinai, yay!), we moved into Kote-Taitari, with the emphasis on keeping our kiai going even after crashing into our partner.  It did feel a bit awkward, as I've never practiced this way before, but it was pretty easy to pick up after a few rotations.  The hard part was keeping the kiai going, but when I did I could almost feel a physical difference in my focus on my partner.  This led us into Kote-Taiatari-Hiki Men, which was performed as a fast drill.  What I mean is that we would strike, Taiatari, and then immediately bounce back and do Hiki Men.  The next drill was Kote-Taiatari-Hiki Waza.  Two things changed in this drill.  We were told to stay in Tsubazeriai (the position with our partner after Taiatari, in which our shinai tsubas and our right fists are locked together), keep our kiai going, and then after a few seconds strike any target that was open.  I didn't do too bad on this drill, but Courtney had some good advice for me.  She said that when I fumikomi forward that my toes are slightly popping up, but that when doing Hiki Waza they stay down on the ground.  I'll have to be mindful of this and work on it.  She also said that my little "cheater step" is starting to go away, and she hardly noticed me doing it last night, so it's good to hear that I was able to quickly jump on that issue and work to overcome it.

During my time with waza-geiko I worked on Men (refining it and trying to get rid of that cheater step some more), Do (Not something I've done a lot of lately and it was nice to hear that satisfying "Thwack!" that comes with an on-target strike), and Debana Kote.  I neglected Debana Kote for a bit because I thought it was "good enough" for the time being, but after our previous lesson on Debana Waza I've been wanting to work on it more.  I really concentrated on trying to read my opponent and see the exact moment that they were going to strike, and I think that I was pretty successful at it last night.  Mark pointed out that I was "frustratingly fast" with the strike, which is nice to hear.  I also concentrated on doing a short fumikomi, since my partner is flying in at me and I don't need to go forward really at all.  There was also another piece of advice given to us, as a group, a few practices ago from Wendy. She said that if we strike and move to the right (our partner's left) to be sure to strike Kote straight on, and then step off to the side.  We should avoid stepping to the side as we hit, even though it's very tempting to do, so I was trying to work on this as well when I would step to my right side after the Kote strike.  I would say that I wasn't too shabby with it, and it's definitely improving.

I tried being a bit more aggressive in jigeiko last night, since we have our tournaments coming up next month, and I think for the most part I did ok with it.  I tried to look for openings or create openings, tried baiting my partners a bit, and worked on Kote-Men or off-timing with some other techniques, all with varying degrees of success.  The thing that worked the most for me was taking the center and just doing straight techniques, which involved mostly Kote and Men strikes (or maybe entirely Kote and Men...).  One thing I do need to work on is attacking from Tsubazeriai, either Hiki Waza or countering and attacking while my opponent is backing up.  I'll try to work on these over the next couple of practices before we head to PNKF.

All in all, a great practice.  I worked hard, gave it my all, and came out with some more things to work on and a bit of improvement.  Looking forward to next time!

A few thoughts:

Kote:  I think I'm getting better at stepping to the side and lining my right foot up with my partner's right foot as I strike.  I haven't slammed down on top of anyone else's shinai in a while.  I need to see if I'm making too big of a motion with my strike, though.

Fumikomi:  Keep my toes down!  I think I need to focus on this a bit here in the next week and I should be able to correct it fairly quickly, like I did with the cheater step.

Kiai:  I should start incorporating our extended kiai practice from last night into all of my training, to help keep my focus and mental state in the right place.

Taiatari:  Since we've been working on this a little bit more lately (last night and Tuesday night out in the valley) I need to remember to use my whole body for the "crash," not just my arms.  I don't think I'm using only my arms, but it's something to be mindful of.

Ashi sabaki:  Sensei said that my follow-through steps were too heavy, so I need to work on being lighter on my feet.  This is actually something I noticed the other day out in the valley, it felt like I was stomping with each step instead of sliding forward quickly.  Like many things, when I concentrated on it I could fix it, so I need to do concentrate on it until it becomes second nature.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Setting the Trap

I practiced on a Wednesday this week!  Not something that I have done for a while since I've been taking Wednesdays off as my self-appointed "rest day from Kendo," but last night I decided to go, and I'm really glad I did.  I only caught about half the class (I was helping out a kenshi with their brand new uniform), but that last hour was pretty intense.  They kept our group mixed the whole time, so I was able to practice with the higher Mudansha and Yudansha the whole time, including jigeiko at the end with a few of them.  There were some good times, some bad times, and I definitely pushed with all I had.

I jumped into the last hour of class, after helpiing out my fellow kenshi, so I didn't get a chance to do warm-ups or suburi. I'm not sure if this helped or hindered me, as I still felt just as exhausted after class as I do on any other day.  We were already in full swing with the training, and Ando Sensei was teaching.  He went over a lot of drills that had to do with distancing and oji waza.  The drills included hitting from issoku itto no maai (one step from your ideal striking distance) and chika ma (close distance), as well as stepping between them.  We also covered many various oji waza, including Debana Men, Suriage Men (from both sides of the shinai), Kaeshi Men, and Nuki Men.With each drill the motodachi didn't just step in and strike and the kakarite countered with their own technique, though.  The kakarite had to bait them into hitting a bit.  This was done by making a small step in, and moving the kensen into various positions (i.e. lowering the kensen to make the Men look open, or raising it up to give the impression of the Kote being open).  When the motodachi would take the bait the kakarite would launch their attack.  It seems to me that the most important part of each of these is the timing.  If you're too early you can miss and end up getting hit yourself.  If you're too late your partner/opponent will be either in your face or long gone past you.

We did many variations on each waza, so I'll try to document my thoughts on each one here.  We started with Men-Kaeshi Men and Kote-Kaeshi Men.  With Men-Kaeshi Men we practiced blocking close to our faces as well as further out.  I definitely favored blocking further out, since I felt like I had more time and was able to hit my opponent correctly.  When blocking closer to my face I felt like I buried my tsuba into my opponent, instead of hitting with the kensen.  Will have to work on this.  Timing and faster shinai speed, I think.  With Kote-Kaeshi Men I was a bit more successful.  I actually was able to block and whip my shinai around fairly well, but hitting my opponent was, again, an issue.  With faster opponents they were already almost on me, so I had to do a lot of Hiki Men to hit them, but with others I was able to get a decent Men strike, although it needs polishing.

Men-Suriage Men was next, and we performed this from the right and left side of the opponent's sword.  I had more success with this one than with the kaeshi waza, but still felt that with faster opponents I had to perform Hiki Men instead of hitting and going forward.  I wonder if it's something I'm doing wrong?  I'm sure it is, but I'll have to ask Sensei or someone else later.  I haven't done any suriage waza in a while, so I was VERY rusty with it.  I felt better performing it from the right side (the omote side, in this case), than I did from the left (ura side), but I will work on mixing it up in the future, when I start trying to incorporate suriage waza into my jigeiko.

The last oji waza we worked on was nuki waza, in this case Men-Nuki Men.  Ando Sensei demonstrated that you should take a slight step back and then you can hit either going forward (preferred) or back.  the movement is the same as the movement in Nihon Kata one (Ipponme), in which you step back and raise your hands up to get them out of the way of the Uchidachi's sword.  I had the distinct pleasure of practicing nuki waza with Dan and Jordan.  They are, in my opinion, two of the faster juniors that we have at our dojo.  The first few attempts at Nuki Men on them ended in failure, but after a while I started improving just a little bit on the timing.  Still not anything I would attempt on them outside of jigeiko, but with proper practice it could be VERY useful.

I continued to try and look for more openings in jigeiko, and found a few of them.  It's a slow, steady process for me, and even though I only made a little progress it felt really good to be able to fight against the higher Mudansha and the Yudansha, which I don't get to do that often.  I made sure to stay in for each round of jigeiko, so that I could get the most out of it,. and by the end I was thoroughly exhausted.  Thank you to Ando Sensei for such a great class!

Some thoughts:

Kamae:  On all of the drills, I need to give clear openings (well, not too clear, but enough for my partner to feel like they can hit me), as well as step in to a distance where they can hit from.  Billy pointed this out to me, to make my step clear and far enough that my partner/opponent feels like they will be able to strike me cleanly.  Ando Sensei spoke about moving the shinai and kensen to offer up your Kote/Men as an offering to them, and then at the last moment performing your counter technique.  I need to work on both, since my movements feel a bit too subtle.

Oji Waza:  I definitely need to work on my timing with everything, especially Kaeshi Men and Suriage Men.

All in all a great practice, even if I only caught half of it.  It was good to mix things up a bit, and I'm always thankful for any training that I get between all of our Sensei.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Tighten Your Men Himo

Sensei talked a bit about the Tacoma taikai before class started, and the fact that everyone that went over did so well.  I'm sure that if you look around you can find results, and most of the people from our dojo that read this already know the results, but we did pretty well, to put it lightly.  In light of that fact, he wanted to remind everyone that we shouldn't relax at all because we won.  We should strive to work even harder, and those that competed should have a mindset as if they had lost each and every match.  He mentioned a saying that goes, "When you win, tighten your men himo."  So we should all be pushing even harder after a victory, not relaxing, and putting everything that we can into our practice.  On the flip side of that, though, he also wanted to advise us about pacing ourselves throughout practice.  We should always work hard and put everything we have into our training, but we should also be able to stretch ourselves out over the entire time, instead of having to step out midway through because we pushed too hard and ran out of energy for the last half.  Pacing is something I've been working on, with some measure of success, and it was nice to hear it re-iterated for everyone's benefit.

We jumped into things fairly quickly last night, grabbing our Men and Kote right after warm-ups, and proceeded into some extended Kirikaeshi drills.  We worked on going slow, then fast, then we threw in some Do and Kote versions for good measure.  Considering I haven't done these two in a while it was a welcome addition to our line-up.  Sensei pointed out to me again today that when I try to do faster Kirikaeshi I am still stopping while going forward, which is breaking my rhythm.  He says that I have the right rhythm going backwards, but I definitely need to work on it going forward.  I've been practicing this at home and I seem to cover a HUGE distance while trying to go faster, so this might also be part of my problem.  I'll continue to work on it.

I began noticing a rather odd issue lately, and my suspicions were reinforced last night.  Courtney pointed out that sometimes during Kote, and especially during Men drills, my right foot would sneak forward a bit before I did fumikomi.  I noticed it about a week ago, so it's nice (and not nice) to hear that is what's really happening.  I'll definitely have to work on that.  She said that when I was more tired it wasn't happening, and the reason that I can think of for this is because it's wasted movement....something I've been trying to get rid of.  But at least I was able to catch it early so hopefully I'll be able to take steps to get rid of it before long.  While I'm getting into some of my faults last night, let me mention that Billy let me know that on Men, while trying to go faster I was hitting harder, which was actually causing me to slow down.  Sensei went over this a bit last night, as well.  He said that when you want to hit harder, you don't necessarily have to put more force into the strike.  You just have to cut deeper.  Instead of stopping at the top of the head, he said to try and cut down to the eyes.  This will make your cuts harder, more firm, and not sacrifice speed or technique.  I'll work to incorporate this into my own technique.

We moved into a few Kote-Men drills, and then onto many variations of Do.  I'd like to point out a couple of issues I had with Kote-Men, as well.  Sensei noticed that I was striking a little from the left and not bringing my shinai straight down.  He said that I should bring the shinai straight up and straight down, and that my body should be moving.  It seems to happen on Kote-Men more than anywhere else I use Kote, though.  Wendy also pointed out that I should not raise my kensen up too high, because it's wasted movement.  She said that my strikes are really good and firm, but that I just need to shorten them up a bit.  On the plus side, I played around with striking in place.  What I mean by that is my initial Kote strike is done with fumikomi in place, and then launching forward (short fumikomi) to strike Men.  I feel a little better with it, and feel it's something that will serve me well when I polish it.  I would say that if I had a strong technique, it would be Kote-Men, so I'd like to refine it as much as possible.

We spent quite a bit of time working on Do drills last night.  In the recent months I've been getting a lot better with Do.  I've been placing my hands in the center, striking more accurately, and getting over the mental block that comes with Do, so it was nice to focus on it for an extended amount of time.  after kihon Do drills we went over a couple of oji waza (counter techniques) involving Do.  The first was Nuki Do, the second Kaeshi Do.  Two techniques that are very similar and connected, as Sensei showed us.  Nuki Do is performed by stepping out of the way and striking Do as your opponent tries to strike, the point being that you are not physically at the place that they strike.  Kaeshi Do is performed by blocking the opponent's strike and using that energy to strike Do.  In both cases it's good to remember that fumikomi needs to be shortened up, or to the side (as is the case with Kaeshi Do).  Since the opponent is moving in at a high rate of speed it's very easy to bury your shinai into their side if you try to step forward, as well.  Sensei had a couple of the juniors perform Kaeshi Do for us, one of which had a lightning fast strike.  He said that the key to having a fast Kaeshi Do is to have a fast Nuki Do, and the hardest part of Kaeshi Do is the timing.  Each individual piece is fairly easy to perform, but putting them all together with the right timing is the trick.  I think, for my part, I was a tad more successful than not with both techniques, although I did notice the soft thud that accompanies a missed Do here and there.  I need to remember to bring my left hand back to center after I block, though.  I'm not sure if I was doing that last night, as I was concentrating on other things, but in the future I'll try to be mindful of it to see if it's an issue or not.


We had some time for waza-geiko before we jumped into jigeiko, and I used the time to continue to work on Nuki Do.  A few months ago Sensei told me that if I developed that technique he thought it would be a great technique for me, so I've always kept that rolling around in the back of my mind.  Again, I think I'm getting better at it, at least little by little each time, except next time I'll remember to not try to perform Nuki Do against Billy (who fights in Jodan).  I'm definitely not fast enough to make it connect before he hits me, so maybe I can work on Kaeshi Do with him if I ever run into that situation again.

During jigeiko I really felt like I saw a few openings and capitalized on them.  Not all of them, not even close to all of them, but there were a handful of times when I saw my opponent's guard drop, or saw their shinai wander away and I took the opportunity to strike.  It felt great when I was actually able to get a good hit in after seeing the opportunity.  I'll keep working on that, and also on creating openings.  I'm horrible at that.  I have been getting more aggressive with my strikes and attacking first, but I need to figure out good ways to create openings.  I have been trying to not hang out in tsubazeriai as much, as well, but when I'm there I should remember to work on hiki waza.  I'm still kind of terrible at that, so any practice I can sneak in is beneficial.  But overall I felt great with jigeiko last night.  Everyone got some really good hits on me, but I was able to give out quite a few myself.  Kote, Men, and I even had some good Do strikes in there.

A few thoughts:

Men:  This one goes for all of them, but don't hit as hard.  Don't put so much force into the hit.  As Billy told me, it slows me down.  Instead work on cutting deeper, like Sensei talked about.

Kote-Men:  Make sure that my shinai is coming straight down on the Kote strike, instead of from the side.  Also shorten up my Kote, if I am doing a small Kote strike.

Kaeshi Do:  Sensei broke down Kaeshi Do for a us a bit, and said that the block should be performed with our bodies facing forward, and then turning at an angle to fumikomi and for the strike.  The fumikomi can be a short step forward or to the side, if our opponent is really fast.  Afterward pull the shinai through and follow-through.

Fumikomi:  Get rid of that small step forward that I take with my left foot during Men and Kote.  I'll have to keep my focus on this for a while.

I'm looking forward to more training on Wednesday!