Sounds like the title for an epic martial arts movie...or at least a good anime episode.
Monday night we had a visiting sensei lead our Iaido and Kendo training. Stroud Sensei from Idako Kendo Club in Boise, ID was gracious enough to come and lead/train with us, and I will do my best to try and recall here some of the key points that he taught and elaborated on. We also had one of our dojo members, Billy, return to us. He has been in Japan for school and Kendo training for the past four months, so it was very good to have him back at our dojo.
After warm-ups, we all gathered around while Stroud Sensei went over a basic Men strike. He said that even though we are in practice, we should perform the strikes and movements with full dedication and spirit, as if it were going to count in a shinsa or taikai. Our strikes can be big, but not too big (not behind the back like in jogeburi). Our footwork should be smooth yet quick, with the left foot pulling back into a good stance as quickly as possible. Our footwork and our strikes should flow into one smooth movement, not broken up as two (or three) separate movements. Our kiai should also flow with our movement and strike, and not be broken up. It should continue as we move, strike, and perform zanshin and follow-through.
After donning our Men and Kote, we partnered up and went over Men strikes. We started from issoku-itto no ma, which is the basic distance between opponents while in kamae. It is about one step from your striking distance (uchi ma). We would then pressure forward to uchi ma, which was different for everyone, and then strike Men. There were a few layers that were added to this drill. First we just did the strike with our kiai, trying to keep the kiai going and building as we struck, through the follow-through, until we turned and faced our partner again. Next Stroud Sensei showed us how to pressure while striking, to try and eliminate any weaknesses in our technique and keep everything flowing smoothly. This was done by slightly extending the kensen (tip of the shinai) forward while we raised up to a Men strike position, and then bringing it back down for the strike. This was all done as quickly as we could while still maintaining good technique. The next layer that was added was to snap the left foot back into place behind the right foot as we did our fumikomi step. The way he explained it is that the left foot should try to arrive at the same time as the right foot steps back to the floor. In this way we can move quickly without much effort, and we will eliminate dragging our left foot behind us during the follow-through. Since this is one of my weaknesses I was sure to remember this bit of advice and practice it during the drills.
Next we moved into Kirikaeshi drills, but Stroud Sensei had us perform them a bit differently. We entirely took out the Taiatari part of Kirikaeshi. He said that we all had a habit of collapsing our hands in before the Men strike was finished, so to eliminate that he had us perform the Men strike and actually take a few follow-through steps while the motodachi took a few steps back. We continued on the rest of Kirikaeshi the same way we've always done it. He said that we should try to use this drill as our normal Kirikaeshi drill, and maybe try to do the Taiatari/Tsubazeriai drills as a specialized drill later on. It was very weird to do Kirikaeshi differently, since we've been doing it our way since I can remember, but I have to admit that it made it a lot easier to concentrate on the Men strike without worrying about giong to Taiatari immediately afterward.
The rest of class was used for jigeiko, and everyone tried to get in a turn with Stroud Sensei, and his son JP. I, unfortunately, had to step out before I was able to practice with either of them. I jammed by thumb, again, just a week after doing it the first time. It also happened while practicing with the same person. I'll have to be careful with that from here on out, as I don't want to keep hurting it. But I was able to get in some jigeiko with quite a few people, including Billy. He definitely taught me to try and find openings faster that I was used to, since he would immediately step into my hitting distance (uchi ma) and attack. I had to stay on my toes and very alert so I could look for openings. Sinclair Sensei pointed out that everytime he goes to hit Kote and his shinai comes out of kamae, he is open and I should try to strike at that moment. After a few failed attempts I finally was able to hit a good Shomen strike on him.
After I stepped out due to injury, I had a chance to watch some of Billy's and Stroud Sensei's matches. Both were impressive, but I was especially in awe of Stroud Sensei. I've never seen our Yudansha stuggle to find openings or strike properly with anyone, but Stroud Sensei seemed like this wall that beared down on each of them. He didn't move particularly fast, but he was very accurate and moved almost before his opponents did. He was able to control their movements, and predict when and where they would strike. It's definitely something that I can strive for. At the end of class he said that we should try, even at this time, to do Kendo like the Yudansha, especially the higher-ranked Yudansha. If we have that mindset now then we can take our Kendo to higher levels than we initially thought possible.