Monday, January 31, 2011

1st Annual Spokane Winter Training/Taikai

Hello to everyone out there reading this!  I have just enjoyed a weekend full of fun, camping, friends, and some very concentrated Kendo!  I feel so...inspired and like I was able to improve a bit with my own technique and style, and I love sitting here, re-living the moments so I can, figuratively, put pen to paper and record the great times I had.  I should warn you all now, I will try to keep it concise, but this might end up being a lengthy post (but there will be lots of pictures to make up for it).  Here we go!

The camp began Friday evening, and we a little over a dozen people that showed up that day and camped out the entire weekend.  It was a fun-filled weekend, with many, many foam noodle fights!  After setting up in our cabin we headed to training that night...

Friday night training
We did some modified warm-ups and then moved straight into our full bogu and a LOT of kirikaeshi and jigeiko.  Since we only had an hour that night most of the time was taken with jigeiko, I'm guessing to let everyone get a chance to warm-up for the taikai on Saturday.  I had many good matches that night, and worked on seme seeing the multiple openings, and "explosions" as I've talked about previously.  Ando Sensei gave me some good feedback, and said that my Men and Kote are very good and I should continue along the path that I've found with them, to keep improving them within my own style.

Ando Sensei
Being the first night, I was working into everything that would be going on that weekend, and it was really neat to see my own progression as we went through the weekend.  After a last round of drills which included kakarigeiko and kirikaeshi we bowed out and headed back to the cabin for the night for dinner and relaxation.  We all hung out well into the night, with random noodle and pillow fights breaking out, as well as some impromptu art from Billy (and a VERY long game of Uno!).  Around midnight we all wound down and went to bed for the night.

The next day was taikai day!  We had even more people come up to be with us that day and ended up with seventeen people that entered the taikai.  Since we had such a diverse group in terms of experience and rank, we decided to modify the rules a bit.  Here's what we went with:

  • All matches were 2 minute matches, since we had so many of them to do that day
  • Only one shinpan was overseeing the court, and we also only had one court
  • The court was smaller than a standard shiai court, and stepping out of bounds was glossed over to a certain degree.  Despite this, not many people stepped out at all, and I only remember two people receiving hansoku because they were very obviously "out of bounds."
  • There was a handicap in place for Yudansha vs. Mudansha and Ikkyu vs. Anyone lower.  If you were the higher rank, each of your points counted as 1/2 point, meaning you had to get 4 valid strikes to win.  The lower ranked person in the match only had to get 2 valid strikes.
  • 1st rounds were all round-robin, with 2 winners (3 for women) going into the elimination bracket (based on wins/points scored).
Taikai time!
Group photo










 

The first round up was the women's round, which included Wendy (2 Dan), Jessa (6 Kyu), Makayla (3 Kyu), Aika (1 Kyu) and Sayaka (2 Dan).  Many, many good matches and high energy which set the tone for everyone else to follow.  Among the most memorable moments for me were Aika beating out her sister to grab one of the elimination round spots, and Makayla grabbing up one of the elimination spots, as well.  It was great to see such high level Kendo to start us off!

Makayla (W) vs Wendy (R)
Makayla (W) vs Aika (R)











The next round included matches between Billy (2 Dan), Harvey (2 Dan), Dan (1 Dan), and Jordan (1 Dan).  Again, really good fights in that bracket, with Billy and Jordan emerging to go on to the elimination round (unfortunately I have no pics of these rounds).

Next up were Justin (1 Dan), Jeff (Ikkyu), Seth (Ikkyu), and Aaron (Ikkyu).  This had some of the best matches in it, since the younger guys are super speedy, and Jeff and Justin had two of the hardest-fought matches of the day.  I could swear that they were out for blood, and each was so full of energy with each strike that I would say their matches took the award for highest spirit (if we were giving out an award for that!).  The two winners from that round were Justin and Seth.

Aaron (W) vs Justin (R)
Jeff (W) vs Seth (R)











The final round-robin group consisted of Marek (1 Kyu), Andy (1 Kyu), Damon (3 Kyu), and myself (4 Kyu), and I definitely had a lot of fun in this round.  It was good to be able to rotate between everyone and test my skills against theirs.  My first match was with Andy, and our match ended in a tie, 1-1.  The second match I had was with Marek, and I think this was my hardest match of the day.  I ended up winning 2-1, but Marek definitely made me work for those two points.  Given that he had a handicap against me, as well, is even more amazing on his part (he had 3 valid strikes and only needed one more to win).  my final point on him came when he stepped in and I launched a Kote strike to finish the match near the ending seconds.  The last match I had in that round was against Damon, and even though I won the match 2-0 he definitely had a lot of good attacks and put the pressure on me.  I think I did a good job of using my distance in that match but looking back at the video I can see some things that I definitely need to work on.  So coming out of the bracket to go into the elimination rounds were Marek and myself.

My first opponent was Aika, and she gave me a run for my money.  The funny thing that I've noticed about Aika is that in regular practice she's very reserved and quiet, but when she is in taikai and the pressure is on she turns into a Kendo beast!  She beat me 1-0 (2 valid strikes on me), and I ran out of time before I could try to get a point to tie the match and for encho.  I distinctly remember one of the points she scored on me.  I thought she would go for Kote, since I thought she was too far out for Men, but she leaped forward for Men which took me totally by surprise.  I diverted my attack and went for Ai-Men, but I knew she had the point.  The flags went up and I couldn't help but laugh to myself for her awesome Men strike on me!

The trophies
So I was eliminated in the first round of the final bracket, but I definitely enjoyed my matches and the chance to do some very good Kendo with all of my friends.  The later matches were very intense, as well.  In the end Seth and Justin tied for third place, and Jordan barely beat out Aika in the final round, scoring a Men strike in encho to take 1st place.  Again, great spirit and great Kendo from everyone that participated, and I'm definitely looking forward to doing it again next year.  I'm going to take another shot at that monkey trophy!



After heading back and enjoying lunch and relaxing for the afternoon, we all decided to go up for another round of jigeiko and some free practice that evening, and I had a chance to do some great keiko with my fellow kenshi, including another round with Ando Sensei.  One of the highlights of the weekend for me was that I scored a real, legitimate strike on him, and from his manner afterward I knew that I earned it.  He pressured in on me and went for Men, and instead of flinching and backing down I stepped forward with Debana Kote, and caught him just as his hands started up.  These little victories are what give me energy and inspiration, and afterward he congratulated me on my Kote strike.  He also said that I should start thinking about my distancing, and varying them to keep others guessing.  He said that I should have three effective distances to attack from, and that I should look into using "tobikomi."  I asked around about this, and from what I understand it is a leaping step, longer than a regular fumikomi step.  I might ask someone to demonstrate this to me at practice tonight so I can see it with my own eyes.  Ando Sensei advised me that I should vary my distance and fight from closer in, and then unleash tobikomi on a partner/opponent when they least expect it, because they will be used to me fighting closer and won't know my true striking distance that way.

Yes, someone is under there!
Noodle Fight!











Dinner, movies, naps, Uno and more noodle fights rounded out our evening, and again everyone drifted off to bed around midnight.  The last day of camp was beginning...

After breakfast and getting ready we all headed back to the hall for our last training session around nine in the morning.  We suited up, did some warm-ups and kirikaeshi, and then moved into a lot of drills involving hiki waza.  We did some variations such as Men-Hiki Men-Men and Men-Hiki Do-Men individually, and then came together as a group and went through them again, with three receivers in the middle and everyone taking turns running through and striking them.  I concentrated on quick movements and only taking one step back on hiki waza before springing forward with my next strike.

During my last round of jigeiko I definitely noticed an improvement in myself, especially when fighting with Aaron.  He is becoming super fast and really aggressive, and on Friday night he was exploiting and striking all of my openings.  But on this last day I was able to keep up with him pretty well and was able to get in some really good strikes of my own.  I love being pushed by the upper Kyus and Yudansha, it always makes me elevate myself to their level and makes me feel so accomplished afterward.  I look forward to each of these opportunities.

The Red Team
Camp definitely wouldn't be complete without a game of War, and we ended the training and camp in a great way with our indoor game (it was definitely too cold and icy outside to do it there).  We separated out into teams of 5 vs. 5, with the Red team consisting of Seth, Billy, Aika, Dan and myself, and the Yellow team consisting of Aaron, Andy, Marek, Sayaka and Ando Sensei.  We each had 3 balloon targets: two on the Men and one of the right side of the Do.  If you've never played War, the rules are to pop the balloons using good Kendo (or as good as you can make it in that environment).  We got ready, suited up, and broke off into our groups to plan.


Squaring off with Ando Sensei
Our original plan was to have Billy and Dan double-team Ando Sensei, Aika would take on her sister, Sayaka, Seth would take on Aaron and I would try to handle Andy and Marek, but that soon fell apart in the chaos that is War!  I ran into Aaron right off the bat,and we were both able to pop a Men balloon on each other.  After that I found myself squaring off with Ando Sensei, with no backup at all.  I remember calling out "where are my strategy guys?!" because I was all alone with Ando Sensei, and he still had all of his balloons.  After trading a few blows I tried to get away, but he followed me, so I knew that I would have to stand my ground and fight him until one of us was out.  It cost me my other Men balloon, but I was, miraculously, able to defeat him and pop all three of his balloons!  Another small victory for me.  I was soon taken out myself, though, when my last balloon was popped by the Yellow team.

Our team fought brilliantly, and they were able to take out everyone and leave Aaron as the last standing Yellow, with only his Do balloon remaining and facing three of our guys: Dan, Billy, and Seth.  Aaron fought really well, though, and was able to take out Billy and Dan, and forced a Jodan showdown between himself and Seth, both with only their Do balloons remaining.  After a hard-fought battle, Seth ended up popping Aaron's last balloon, to take the individual title and the team title for Red!

Last Men Standing: Aaron & Seth
Fierce Bunnies!











After one last lunch, a few showers, and packing up we all said goodbye to Deer Lake and to camp, but I know that we are all looking forward to coming back this summer, and next Winter to do it all over again!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Through the Roof!

Last night I had a very intense, very exhausting, and very rewarding practice.  I believe that everyone stepped their spirit and energy level up a notch.  I could feel the abundance of energy coming from each of my partners last night.  What made it even better was that Sensei and Wendy were both gone, so it's very cool to see my fellow kenshi are so focused and so into the practice that we were able to do that without our normal leaders being present.  That doesn't mean that we had no leadership, as we were in the very capable hands of Ando Sensei.  I believe that intensity and Ando Sensei go hand-in-hand, especially after training last night!

The night for me started in intermediate training, as in I was teaching.  With Sensei and Wendy gone, Billy and I took over teaching the beginning and intermediate class.  We had one student show up for intermediate, and I was able to go in depth with Kihon Kata 1-5 with him, as well as directly relate it to shinai practice by going over drills such as Harai Men, Nuki Do, and Hiki Do.  All in all I think things went well, I just hope I didn't confuse him too much!  I can definitely ramble about Kendo if given the chance.

Our advanced class started off with about an hour of Nihon Kata practice, and my partner and I worked on 1 (Ipponme) and 2 (Nihonme) in detail.  Each of us took turns being Uchidachi and Shidachi, formal opening and closing, and just about every combination of these two kata that we could think of.  Along the way Billy and Ando Sensei helped us with some great advice and corrections.  Among the points that I took in last night were:

  • After Uchidachi strikes me in Ipponme, the two steps back can be either two equal steps, or one small step and one big step.  Ando Sensei prefers (as do I) the small step first and then the big step back.  The small step allows Shidachi to bring their kensen down right between the eyes, and being so close makes the kata look better, in his opinion.
  • When I'm Shidachi I should not take too big a step forward when stepping through to left Jodan.  The bokken should be brought up into Jodan position assertively, instead of bringing it up above the head and settling down like when the kata begins.
  • When ending each kata, the kensen of each bokken should be the only thing crossing.
  • When disengaging after each kata, Uchidachi should have a slow but steady pace while lowering the bokken.  Each bokken should stay in contact until being about parallel with the floor, at which point keeping contact is hard to do.  At this point the movement down and at an angle is a bit swifter.  Kensen should be about knee height. (This is the way that our dojo practices, it is not a universal truth for everyone, since there are many acceptable ways of disengaging after kata)
  • On Nihonme I'm still having an issue with flexing my wrists too much and letting my kensen drop too low on my upswing.
 I definitely learned a lot, and had a chance to practice some quality kata with my partner.  Afterward we threw on our Men and Kote and, after a few quick rounds of kirikaeshi to warm up, jumped straight into jigeiko before finishing with kakarigeiko.

During the jigeiko time, I focused on a few pieces of advice that Sensei gave on Saturday during the team training jigeiko (which I'm sure I posted on Saturday).  One of the main points I worked on was seeing the openings, both the obvious ones and the openings behind that.  Kind of like layers, or curtains, that open up to reveal even more than you see at first.  I had a lot of comments on being more aggressive during jigeiko, so for the most part I'm very happy with how I did on that.

The second thing I was working on was to not sit and wait in my hitting distance (Issoku Itto No Maai, or sometimes also referred to as Uchi Maai).  Sensei said that when we come into that distance, something should explode.  Either I take the initiative and strike, or I force my partner to strike.  I shouldn't come in and just wait, or I shouldn't hang out there if I'm trying to pressure my partner into moving and they don't "take the bait."  It's a very dangerous place to be, so I tried to either pressure in and strike, counter-attack, or back out if nothing was working.

After kakarigeiko I was dead, I was ready to fall over, but I cheered on my fellow kenshi to finish strong, and afterward we had one final 30-set of hayasuburi to end the night.  I can't write in words how good I felt last night, and how satisfied I was with the practice we had.  Sometimes I can almost tangibly feel improvement, and last night was one of those nights.  This is a very good feeling to have as I move through this week towards our Winter training this weekend!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Mini-Post

It's Saturday. I have practice this afternoon, last night, and on Wednesday and wanted to jot down a few thoughts and things to work on so that I can refer to them later and check out my progress.  Of course anyone reading is more than welcome to sort through my thoughts and notes, as well!

Fumikomi:  I am currently working on snapping my left leg up as fast as I can, and I've found some creative opportunities to work on this, not only in class but outside of class.  I began snapping the foot up during hayasuburi and other drills that we do, at times that I usually don't even think about it.  I think that this kind of mindset is also helping me in other places, and I'm beginning to notice things that I didn't before.  I've also taken to doing this at work, when I walk down hallways.  I'll fumikomi forward a bit, and then snap the left foot up as fast as I can.  You'd be surprised at how many times I can do this walking down the halls of my building!

Wrists:  The wrists are feeling better these days, more flexible (at least to me).  I am going to have my valley sensei watch and see if I'm improving any.  Now I just need to watch out for dropping the shinai tip down too far.  I don't think I do this, for the most part, but I will have to be more careful of it.

Debana Kote:  In my quest to become faster with this I developed a bad habit.  I tend to start turning as I fumikomi forward, and this isn't good.  Sensei pointed out that I should still step and my hips and everything should still be facing forward as I hit, then immediately turn and step back afterward.  I'll have to keep this in mind in the future when we go through these drills and as I use it in jigeiko.

Harai Men:  My small Harai Men is passable.  I absolutely suck at it when doing a full swing, though.  I can feel my timing screwed up a lot, with my foot landing way before my strike, or with me trying to rush my strike to catch up.  I'll have to work on this one, as well, to be able to do all of the movements as I fumikomi forward.

Jigeiko:  I stayed late after practice to watch the team training jigeiko, and picked up some valuable information that I can start using in my own training.  This is a method that I've read before, but it was really cool to see it in practice.  Sensei talked about pressuring in with seme, and then when you are in your correct hitting distance to either explode and strike or make your opponent explode and strike, but some kind of explosion should be happening.  He says that you don't just come into that distance and hang out there, you do it with purpose and I should remember that.  If you pressure in with the intent of making the other person move and nothing happens, step back out and try it again, don't stay in that distance and risk getting hit because you weren't thinking.

He also talked about recognizing openings, and seeing the openings behind the obvious ones. He said that there are always one or two more openings beyond the obvious one that you are striking at in that moment, and we should be thinking about those, as well, not just about the one strike.  When we first start we tend to hit once and go through, reset, and try again, and I know that I do this, as well.  But I should try to shift my mindset to one that is always looking for an opening.  If I don't hit that Men or Kote the first time I can come to tsubazeriai and try to hit again, or immediately turn after I pass my opponent and attack while they're turning and not paying attention.  The openings are there, I just need to look for them.

Just a few pieces of info and thoughts, but all are very good things that I will try to work on and incorporate into my own training.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Kata? Yes Please!

In continuing with our focus on Nihon Kata for this month and next month we went over some more of the finer details of Ipponme and Nihonme last night.  We have yet to actually go through any of the kata, but despite that I am thoroughly enjoying the focus and attention to detail, especially the detail of movements that seem insignificant.  Things like bowing in, bowing out, placement of the feet, placement of the hands, etc, etc.  A lot of it is review, but I'm always able to find new info that I didn't know before.

For example, before we started this I didn't know that when you draw the sword while coming into kamae at the beginning that it's done one handed, with a slight angled cut forward as you draw before you bring the sword to the left hand for kamae (did that make sense?).  Also I dd not know that after the third step, when pulling the left leg into position that you should already start sinking your center down into the sonkyo position.  Details like this are what I appreciate.  I eat them up.  

A quick recap of what went on last night in our kata session:
  • For Ipponme, both Shidachi and Uchidachi should bring their Jodan kamae high above their heads and then settle down to the proper position.  This is not a quick movement.
  • When Uchidachi strikes in Ipponme, the sword is brought to the midline and back/up so that the left hand is above the head.  Do not let the tip drop down, the movement is similar to how Shidachi moves their hands back/up when they strike.
  • Don't look down during the strikes.  Always keep your eyes up and on your partner.  Since we didn't have a partner I should have been looking ahead.  I think I might have been watching where my bokken was going, but when I'm not doing that I should always have my eyes forward or on my partner.
  • For Nihonme, Uchidachi's Kote strike should be parallel with the floor.  They are striking through the Kote.
  • Shidachi in Nihonme steps back and VERY slightly to the side.  They also angle their body as they do so, effectively changing the midline.  The bokken should drop straight down and come straight up, not do any weird movement to the side just because the body is moved.  Also they need to step back far enough so that they can have a proper step forward to strike Kote.
 Lately Sensei has been having me concentrate on bringing my left foot up quickly after stepping and striking, and Saturday he gave me a bit of advice on how to visualize that.  He told me to try and imagine that there is something between me knees, like a board, and then to try and bring my left knee up as quickly as possible to break that board.  He said if I think about it this way it might help me a bit more than just thinking "bring the left foot up faster.".  Last night I put most of my focus on trying to bring the foot up faster, and I do think that the visualization helped me out a bit.  I just have to keep working on it, keep beating it into my muscle memory so that it becomes a habit that I don't have to think about.

Since we've been taking time for kata we have had to revise the rest of practice, so we've been combinging warm-ups into the first few rounds of Kirikaeshi and other drills.  This has led to some interesting drills, like one we did last night in which we did Jogeburi with our full bogu on.  Trying to get my shinai back with my Men on is HARD, so I finally gave up on trying to get it all the way back and just went back as far as I could.  Different, and fun!

During Saturday practice Sensei broke the Mudansha into their own group and went over some details with Debana Kote.  I greatly appreciated this time, as it helped me to get a new perspective on it.  Last night I was able to put that into practice a bit with the Debana Kote drills we went over, one of which involved the Kakarite striking Debana Kote and turning and then immediately striking Men when Motodachi would turn around.  This was a nice way to reinforce what we went over on Saturday, which was when we hit and step to the right we should take one step to the right and then one step to turn, no more than that.  If we go more than that then we miss a chance to strike our partner as they turn, which puts them at a natural disadvantage.

I had a lot of fun during jigeiko last night, and I think it's because Jeff was there (he's usually not there on Mondays).  Not only was he there, but he ran me into the ground during jigeiko.  I still find his defense high impenetrable, but I'm starting to get some strikes in here and there.  I just have to keep working at it, keep chipping away at that wall.  I worked on a lot of Suriage Men during jigeiko, and I wasn't even consciously trying to do it.  It's like my body latched onto this new (well, old) technique and is now trying to refine it on its own. 

All in all, a great practice last night.  I really pushed myself.  I remember thinking at one point that I needed to take a break, but then I thought "come on, just one more," and I actually ended up going the entire time.  There was one incident where I had to step out for a quick second to check an injury, but I was back in before that rotation ended.  I'm looking forward to more Kendo on Wednesday!

A few thoughts:

Wrists:  My wrists are feeling pretty flexible these days, so I hope that it's improving my swing and strike, as well.  I've been thinking about how some of my fellow kenshi strike and I've been trying to emulate that.  Also the "Throwing the ball" analogy that was given to me by another fellow web kenshi has been helping.

Fumikomi:  I'll continue to work on snapping my left leg up fast after I step.  Sensei said that I don't necessarily have to have super fast follow-through footwork afterward, just that initial step is what needs to be quicker.

Debana:  I need more accuracy with my strike.  If I can read my partner and strike as they start their movement I can usually catch them with their Kote wide open, but if I can't read my opponent and instead I react to their movement I usually miss...so maybe what I need to do is learn to read my partner better, instead....

Suriage:  I'm still too deep on most of my hits.  I think I either need to start my swing sooner or not step in as far.  I'll continue to work on it.

Men:  I've noticed that some of the Yudansha have been pressuring my shinai and moving my kensen out of the way before the strike Men.  I tried this a few times last night and found that it was VERY effective.  It doesn't even need to be a big movement, just a subtle movement that pushes their kensen out of the way by a few inches.  A few inches is all you need to create an opening.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Need for Speed

...And I'm not referring to the racing games, although they are fun.  I'm referring to that scene in Top Gun, where Goose and Maverick are talking.  "I feel the need.  The need for speed!"  Now, jets and Kendo usually don't have much, if anything, in common, but last night I think I know how they felt.  I, too, felt the need for speed.  Speed in my strikes, speed in my legs with my follow-through, and I think I found it.

Before I get into the meat of the night, at least for myself, I'd like to talk a little more about kata.  We started our semi-annual study of kata, and last night I was able to go over Kihon Kata six and seven with the pre-bogu people, as well as learn 7 for myself.  If you don't know, Kihon Kata 7 is Debana Kote, and these kata are fairly new and are designed to be directly applicable to your shinai Kendo.  From what I've seen so far they are an invaluable teaching and training tool to have.  Anyway, back to Nihon Kata.

Billy led us in learning some of the finer points of Ipponme (Kata 1), which has both Uchidachi and Shidachi start in Jodan no Kamae (Upper guard; the sword is held above the head in a ready position).  Some of this was review, which is always good, but some of it was also some new information that I hadn't heard lately, and helped put things into a better perspective for me.  Here are some of the points that I gained from the instruction

Uchidachi
  • Uchidachi starts with the left foot forward,  and draws up to Jodan no Kamae.  This is "left" Jodan, and the bokken is slightly off to Uchidachi's right side.  This is accomplished by placing the left hand in a position above the left eye, and the right hand above the right eye.  Both hands are about a fist away from the forehead.  Billy explained that if we keep the hands in this position the bokken will fall into the correct position automatically.
  • When Uchidachi strikes, even though the strike is going all the way through the opponent the power should still stop at their Men.  Good tenouchi and follow-through brings the shinai all the way down.  This is proper and also safer for the Shidachi.  In case they don't move you can still stop the bokken.  
  • Speaking of striking, Uchidachi does raise their bokken up to strike.  As you step forward with the right foot to strike, the hand raise up and also move back to the center line.  This part is very important for a clean, correct cut.
  • He also talked about the sound the bokken makes while cutting through the air, and demonstrated the difference between the fast, powerful cut and the nice, slow, controlled cut.  He said that the slower cut makes a more correct sound, and he was right.  The fast cut had a rather hurried "whoosh" to it, while the slow cut had a more even, drawn out "whoosh".  I found that really interesting.
Shidachi
  •   Shidachi start with right foot forward, and raised up to Jodan no Kamae.  Unlike Uchidachi, they use "right" Jodan.  In this stance the bokken is held with both hands on the center line and with the bokken pointed up and back at around a 45-degree angle.  Again, the left hand is about a fist away from the forehead.
  • Much like Uchidachi, Shidachi also raises the bokken up when striking.  The shinai should go straight up and back as they move their hands up and out of the way.  The best way to think of this is if you had a tube around the bokken and raise up into it.  The shinai would continue to go straight back and up, not drop down at all.
  • When Shidachi steps forward to pressure with Jodan, they raise up into left Jodan, the same position Uchidachi uses when starting the kata.
I could write so much on just kata, but I have to try and limit myself for now.  I've gone over Nihon Kata 1-5, but I definitely always appreciate and enjoy refining and learning more and more about each of them.  I thoroughly enjoy kata and I definitely think it's something that I'll continue learning more and more about as the years go by.

I've been talking to Sinclair Sensei recently to figure out what I can work on that would be the most effective to help fix the issues that I'm seeing right now.  He gave me three specific issues to work on, and said that if I concentrate on them for a solid two weeks that I should be able to fix not only those issues, but other issues that stem from them.  Last night I really devoted my time to those issues, and I feel that, at least for a couple of them, I saw a lot of progress.  The first issue was my spirit, and keeping my attack alive by keeping my kiai going all the way through my attack and follow-through.  I've actually been working on this one for a while now, and I feel that I'm doing a great job with it.  Even when I miss a strike I'm trying to remember to keep pushing through and keep my kiai going until I turn and am ready again.  Unfortunately, for now, this also tends to make my kiai very loud.  While not necessarily a bad thing, I think I can cut it back just a bit once I make it a habit to always push through with my kiai (which I feel is really close to happening).

The second issue I was working on is to snap my left foot up as quickly as I can after I step and strike.  For this one I've been reverting back to Billy's lesson a few months ago on having the right mindset.  If you think you are faster you can drive yourself to be faster (Check out the original post here).  I concentrated most of the night on pushing myself to be faster on my follow-through and I definitely felt a big improvement, despite almost running into the wall on a few occasions.  Pulling my left foot up quickly has always been a challenge for me, as I tend to let it trail behind me most of the time when I'm not thinking about it, so I'm putting a lot of emphasis on changing that.  "I WILL change it" is the attitude that I have right now, and I know that it will pay off in a few weeks.

As far as drills, there was a new one that we went over last night.  We've done variations of this one before, which involves the Kakarite hitting Men and going through and having the Motodachi turn and hit men as they turn back to face each other, but the one we did last night was very, very effective.  Instead of Motodachi turning straight around to hit them, they would take a step off to the right so that they were not directly behind Kakarite when they turned.  This gave just a split-second more time to set up and strike.  From personal experience with my partners, what I would see when I turned is them off in my peripheral vision, and I usually only saw the tail-end of their strike a split second before it landed.  Like I said, VERY effective and one that I hope to integrate later on into my Kendo.

After the uchikomi drills we did was Wendy referred to as "Motodachi geiko," in which the Yudansha all lined up and everyone else would line up with the person that we wanted to do jigeiko with.  I was able to do jigeiko with Jordan and Ando Sensei last night.  Both have a very different fighting style, but both are equally effective with that style.  Jordan is kind of like a storm.  a big storm.  He comes in and completely ravishes my defense and kamae and hits me every which way he can, on top of being the only person that can regularly disarm me.  I was able to get in a few hits on him, but wow that kid is quick and accurate!  Ando Sensei, on the other hand, is very intimidating.  He's fast, he's powerful, and he's precise and calculated.  Almost everything he does when you fight him has a purpose, whether it's to draw you out of kamae, pressure you to move where he wants, or counter you when you think you have an opening.  I really shouldn't be amazed when I fight him anymore, because I've fought him countless times in jigeiko now, but every time is the same, and I'm left with a half fearful/half wide-eyed feeling afterward.  One of these days I'll have Kendo on that level, and beyond.

After a few more rounds of jigeiko amongst our Yudansha/Mudansha groups, and one last Kirikaeshi, we bowed out and ended the night. What a night it was, too!  While I didn't feel like I jumped over any major hurdles, I do feel like I made quite a bit of progress with my issues and with my Kendo.

A few thoughts:

Men:  I've been practicing Men a lot.  Being the most basic strike, and one that I use a lot, it's always good to practice, plus I've been able to use it to work on the three issues that I'm fixing at the moment.  Ando Sensei says that my Men strike is very quick and to hold onto it as it will serve me well.

Kote:  I keep hearing comments that my Kote strike is getting faster and faster, and I guess it is, but I'm still looking to improve on it.  I feel like my hands needs to come up a bit more when I strike, and then I need to have proper zanshin and follow-through.  Too many times in jigeiko when I hit Kote I end up in tsubazeriai afterward.  I want to try and cut down on this, which means I'll have to either come in and bounce off my partner or change my follow-through so I go around them instead of into them.

Jigeiko:  Ando Sensei said that I am coming in and fighting in his maaii, which lets him practice but is not good for me.  He said that I should hit when I feel that I have the correct distance, and I shouldn't hesitate.  I will try and remember this, and I know it's a bad habit of mine.  I've been trying to not just hit without thinking, I try to make each strike deliberate, but in doing that I hesitate a lot and I miss a lot of openings.

Suriage:  I've been trying it lately, I'd like to try and work on it so I can use it more effectively.  I definitely need to work on the timing of the strike.  It seems that I can do the movement ok and knock my partner's shinai out of center, but I hit too deep with my own shinai.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Year, Fresh Beginning

The new year is upon us!  I hope that anyone reading this had a wonderful new year and holiday season, and I hope that this year treats you even better than the last. 

I haven't ever really had the habit of making resolutions, but last year I made a couple that I was able to follow-through with.  They were to 1) Do more Kendo than the year before, and 2) acquire my bogu.  I accomplished both so I decided to make another one this year.  My resolution, my goal this year is to achieve Nikyu (2 Kyu) rank by the end of the year.  If I work hard and push myself I know I can do it. 

I set out with a goal for this first practice of the year.  I wanted to do the best I could, put my all into it and set a high standard, and then to see if I can break that standard, push my limits, little by little each practice (or possibly each week?).  I will try to have this focus in the back of my mind throughout this year.  I know that even last night, during practice when it seemed that I needed to step out for a minute I pushed myself just a little further instead.  I actually ended up just stepping out to fix the tape that was on my foot, so I missed a couple of rotations there.  All in all I was proud of myself, and I think I accomplished what I set out to do for that practice in that regard.

Twice a year our dojo goes over kata, and I thoroughly enjoy the time we get to spend with it.  These aren't the Kihon Kata that we've been learning lately, these are the traditional Nihon Kata.  I appreciate the time that we have to go over these as a dojo because I always learn something new about kata.  To steal a line from a rather popular movie, kata has layers.  Many, many layers.  On the surface are the movements themselves, but to know the movement is only the beginning, not the end.  The movements are the start of everything else, and once you have the movements and the order down you are then able to begin the journey of kata.

We went over the traditional opening to kata, the formal bow-in.  That's it.  Sounds boring, right?  But in that are many aspects and jewels of information and insight that we can take if we are looking for them.  Sinclair Sensei had us practice this part many times last night, each time focusing on the points that he gave us, which are:
  • Start and keep a connection with your partner throughout the kata.  This should be done by making eye contact with your partner, and then taking a step in to the spot where you bow in at.   This is a very deliberate action and shows your partner that you are ready to begin kata.  The connection is the first part of the kata, and should be created before stepping in.
  • Uchidachi leads, Shidachi follows.  It is Uchidachi's job to set the pace, which means that he/she has to be sensitive to the level of Shidachi and the speed at which they move.  It is Shidachi's job to be their shadow.  They should be following, but it should appear on the outside as if they are moving at the same time, ideally.  As you can imagine this takes a lot of focus between partners.
  • When drawing the sword, on the last step, the tsuka (handle/grip) should be pushed out with the right hand, not pulled out.  Subtle, but it makes a world of difference in the hand/arm placement and the movement itself.  
  • After pushing out halfway, release the bokuto with the left hand (left hand moves to rest on the hip).  Right hand should bring the sword out and up and stop around face-height.  At this point the sword is being supported by the right thumb and index finger, hand at an angle on the tsuka, and right small finger wrapped around the tsuka.  This part is VERY important.
  • Using the webbing on the right hand as a pivot point, pull the sword around and forward with the right small finger.  The sword should swing up and cut forward, at an angle that is parallel to the angle of the keikogi (where the opening for the neck is, about a 30-degree angle down and to the right towards the floor).  The final position for this movement should have the sword drawn, kensen at eye level, and the right hand should be in front of the right shoulder (sorry, hard to explain in text).
  • After drawing the sword out and cutting forward, move the sword to center and bring up your left hand into position on the tsuka.  You should end up in a good, strong kamae position.
  • The sword drawing and cutting are done while the last step forward and the beginning of sonkyo is going.  Bringing the sword to kamae should be done at the very end of sonkyo so that you are finishing the cut/kamae at the same time that you finish sonkyo.
As you can see the formal opening has a lot more going on then we think of at first.  When we first look at it, we see "Bow, walk forward, draw the sword, sonkyo," but if we remember the layers analogy, we can see that there is much more going on then just what's on the surface.  I'm very excited for this season of kata practice, and I look forward to learning even more and adding to my understanding of the various Nihon Kata.