Monday, February 28, 2011

PNKF Winter Shinsa 2011

We had our semi-annual PNKF shinsa this past weekend, and for me it was my first time to test in front of the PNKF panel of judges.  Up until now I've had two tests, and both were local tests.  Once when I tested for 7 Kyu, and once for 4 Kyu.  Last weekend I was testing for 2 Kyu.  I was a bit nervous, but felt that my technique was solid enough for the promotion.  As long as I didn't curl up into a ball on the floor during my test.  Sensei also had full confidence in me, and if he says I'm good enough than who am I to argue?

Our trip started out on Friday, with our Kendo van (I should get a picture sometime) and two other cars making up our caravan across the state.  Normal trip hijinx ensued, and we had many good conversations to fill the 5+ hour drive.  After unloading our bags at the hotel we headed to the Bellevue dojo for training.  Yes, we train the night before we do anything in Seattle!  Jeff Marsten Sensei and Yotsuuye Sensei were very accommodating of us, as always, and we were all able to jump into the advanced practice with them.

Their dojo is a lot bigger than ours, both in terms of physical size and number of members that come.  I would say there were around 50 people there last night, give or take a few, so there were definitely plenty of opportunities for us to train with new people.  After many rounds of mawari-geiko and a short break, we got back together for jigeiko.  I was placed in the 16+ Kyu group.  I think I was able to get to jigeiko with just about every person in that group, and it was definitely fun to go against new people that I don't ever see.  To see how they move and fight and their technique was great for me, and in the end I was truly thankful for that experience.  When I first started traveling with the Kendo group to other dojos I was a bit apprehensive about training with new people, but now I find that I look forward to it.  One thing I will say about that dojo; it was hot!  The heater was going for some reason, and there were no windows for circulation, so it got really hot really quickly which sapped my energy more than usual.  But I pushed on, and I'm glad I did.

After thanking the Sensei for having us as guests at their dojo, we packed up and headed back to the hotel for food and some fellowship and words of encouragement from Sensei before heading to bed.

The next day came quickly, but we weren't heading out to the shinsa until around 11am, so we had a few hours to relax, eat, and get everything in order.  I was able to get in on a conversation Sensei was having at breakfast about people that learn to think faster (such as in sports and martial arts) and can therefore react more quickly to situations and opportunities that present themselves or are created.  I wonder if that is happening to me?  I notice sometime that things that seemed out of my reach are now attainable, or at least a lot closer than they used to be (such as that Debana Kote on someone with a fast Men strike).

I believe there were over 70 people testing at this shinsa, with ranks ranging from 6 Kyu up to 4 Dan.  We had a few people go over for various ranks, as well (10 people in all, ranging from 2 Kyu to 2 Dan).  I got dressed and registered and headed back into the main gym for the opening and instructions.  Curtis Marsten Sensei came by and said something which sounded like "Nikyu group, get your Men on and get ready."  I wasn't sure so I asked someone else and they said "Yeah he said Nikyu group get ready."  So I put on my Men and Kote and grabbed my shinai and  jumped up, ready to go.  Turns out that he said "Ikkyu group."  Turns out that our group ended up going dead last.  Not wanting to take my Men off just to put it back on later, I left it on, and proceeded to wait for our group for about the next 2 hours.  During that time I got to watch some of the others test throughout the various ranks.  They had the Ikkyu/Dan group on one court and the Kyu group on another.  For the lower Kyu ranks the test included basic strikes, Kirikaeshi, and jigeiko.  For the Ikkyu/Dan ranks it included two rounds of jigeiko followed by kata.  Our group had it the easiest, as we only had to do two rounds of 1-minute jigeiko.  After preparing for the past few weeks for this occasion, I was ready to go when it came time.

I had never met either of my two partners in my test before, so it was interesting going into matches with complete strangers. I took my time during both matches, trying to show good basics, show reservation (that I wasn't rushed to try and hit), and show that I could pick and choose the opportunities that came to me so I could get a good hit or two in.  I also tried to stay out of tsubazeriai as much as I could, and did not get sucked into ai-uchi matches with people.  For the most part I think I did really well, but we would find out later on if the judges agreed with me.  I was not nervous before the matches at all, but after I was done I started to feel the pressure.  There were two others testing with me from our dojo, and we watched the remainder of the matches and then joined the Kyu group in the smaller dojo for a brief talk from the judging panel.  They pointed out that the biggest thing that they saw was footwork.  Footwork for our group, as a whole, needed a lot of improvement.  Also basic court etiquette needed to be observed more.  I think I was guilty of this one, as I think I only took one step into the court instead of two.

Our judges finished up, and shortly after the results were posted. I went to look for my number, 68, and saw next to it that 5 out of 5 judges agreed that I was 2 Kyu material.  I had passed!  One of my resolutions for this year was to pass my Nikyu test, and it came earlier than I thought it would.  I ended up skipping 3 Kyu, which put me up to my goal a whole six months earlier than expected.

My next goal is to work hard for Ikkyu in August, and then hopefully Shodan in February.  Now that I'm in the upper Kyu ranks I need to start looking forward to Yudansha level and preparing for that, which means more work and more responsibility on my part.  I've heard a saying that you should be shooting for two ranks above your current rank, and with all of the training I do with Yudansha these days and with my own motivation and dedication I think it's well within my reach to be there by next February!

And now, some pictures to end out my PNKF shinsa experience.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Beauty and Excellence

Beautiful.  Sensei was talking about that word last night and how it pertains to Kendo.  He made a good point, that it doesn't seem to be a word that should fit with Kendo, with Kendo, outwardly, looking like such a violent martial art. However, "Beautiful Kendo" is something that I, and a lot of others, strive for.  It not only applies to our techniques, but also extends out to everything else we do.  The way we carry ourselves and interact with others.  The way we wear our uniforms and bogu.  In a sense you could say that those things extend to our Kendo.  Sensei pointed out that if we are conscious of these things that we'll be as equally conscious of details in Kendo and in our partners/opponents.  This is a belief that I fully subscribe to, and personally I always try to do my best in every aspect of my Kendo.  We should strive to have beautiful Kendo, in all aspects of Kendo.

Last night was our last training session here in town before the PNKF shinsa.  We will have one more session somewhere in Seattle on Friday night, as is our custom, but I used this week to really focus on good Kendo.  Nice big swings, good footwork, and good spirit. We have also been focusing on shinsa-geiko during our normal jigeiko time, and Monday night I had a lot of feedback from the Yudansha.  I know that my biggest weakness is backing up, and so I tried last night to eliminate that as best I could.  When people would move in I would either stand my ground or try to find an opening to attack (using nice swings and good form, of course).  for the most part last night I felt pretty successful with it, although on Monday I felt very lacking.  Billy gave me some good advice, though.  He said that because of the difference in our ranks and experience, if he does shinsa-geiko at his level (going for Sandan) and I do shinsa-geiko at my level (going for Nikyu) that I shouldn't be able to do anything against him.  While he's working on things such as controlling his opponent and creating opportunities, I'm working on things such as demonstrating good basics and nice swings and technique.  After talking with Sensei and everyone else, though, they are convinced that I am more than ready for the shinsa this Saturday.  So I just need to be confident in myself and show the best Kendo that I have.

Last night was a pretty exciting night for us.  It started off with a local shinsa, for people testing for 4 Kyu and below.  We had eight people test for ranks between 8 Kyu and 5 Kyu, and I'm happy to say that they all passed!  They included my own brother passing his 7 Kyu test (he started in September).  The next step for him is to get bogu and begin his journey through the rest that Kendo has to offer.  I was called to help on a few occasions, for Kihon Kata and to receive for drills and jigeiko.

The next big thing that happened last night was we had some students from the college come and interview us and take pictures for an article they're doing for their newspaper.  They interviewed Sensei and a few of us during a break between class, and they got a ton of pictures to use. I'm really excited to see the article and how it turns out!  We went over a lot of uchikomi drills, as well as waza-geiko and jigeiko, which gave me time to really focus on what I was doing (even with a photographer getting every angle of my movements).

All in all, it was a great practice, and a great week, and after getting rid of some of my worries (like about chakuso), I feel that I am ready for the shinsa this weekend.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Turn Up The Heat!

I suffered yesterday.  I still do.  I have a pain in my neck and it won't go away, and it made last night a terrible night of sleep.  I think it happened at my mom's house, before I left for Kendo practice last night.  Must've moved it just the right way, or wrong way I should say.  But despite that I went to practice and gave it my all.  Billy said that he wanted to "turn up the heat" last night, and I was going to do my best to help!

We are starting to come to a close with our bi-annual kata review.  Twice a year, in the summer and winter, we take two months and go over kata.  Learning new ones, and finding out details about old ones that we might have not known.  Adding layers to our kata and refining it.  I thoroughly enjoy the kata practice that I get with my fellow kenshi, so I'm kinda sad to see this kata time winding down, but for this next week or so I'll be squeezing out every last little bit of goodness that I can get.  I spend last night going over Sanbonme with Courtney (Haney Sensei - Valley), and I tried to remember Ando Sensei's words to me on Saturday.  He said that my kata is very good, but that I'm using too much power, which makes me rush.  He said it's ok to go slow, and be relaxed as I step and as I strike.  It's not a race.  I think I did an ok job with this, but it's hard for me to tell from this particular kata if I was succeeding or not.  Still, I concentrated on my partner, following when appropriate and leading when appropriate, and I tried to stay as relaxed as possible.  Each movement I tried to do with purpose, and with proper timing so that each movement was an individual part of the puzzle.

During Kirikaeshi practice Wendy really emphasized the importance of a proper Men strike.  Too often we forget about it while transitioning to taiatari, and our strike suffers because of it.  She wanted everyone to make sure and make a good, strong Men strike with proper follow-through, and only dropping the hands down and bringing the body up to meet the hands in taiatari at the last second.  This is something that I've been working on for a while, so it was nice to see it emphasized last night and I had no trouble working on it in my own drills.  Seth did mention to me, though, that when I start speeding up I start striking higher on the shinai, insttead of at the proper Men height.  He said I had good form and rhythm, but to just watch how high I start hitting.  I'll definitely keep that in mind.

We concentrated a lot on Men strikes last night, and on the way that we turn and set ourselves.  Billy, freshly back from the Detroit Taikai, helped us go over a new way to turn and set.  Instead of turning and settling back on our left foot, he had us turn on the left foot and bring the right foot around and forward into a proper stance.  Not only does this physically help us keep ourselves going "forward" but it also mentally helps us think "forward".  Kinda tough to explain in words, but if you can visualize stepping forward after turning instead of settling back you get the gist of what we did last night.  We emphasized this turn by doing a few drills in which we would strike consecutive Men strikes in a row, mostly on one breath.  This is one of those things that I can do when I think about it, but I'm still working everything out with it so it was pretty ugly last night.  I felt slow on the turn because I was trying to break my old habit, and also I would turn too soon so I was way to close for a folllow-up hit.  Still it was good to be able to go over a new technique, and I can see the value that it holds.

To further emphasize this new technique we broke into two lines, both facing a person in the middle.  The first drill we did was Ai-Men, in which the person in the middle would strike with their partner, and then immediately turn and face the one behind them and strike again until the lines were both depleted.  I didn't do too shabby on this drill, except that I think my left hand needed to come up more.  Also Wendy said to step forward more on the hit to help my left leg from trailing behind me.  We also ran through a version of this drill with Debana Kote.  After my turn all I could think of was how dizzy I was!  Wendy said that I had great form and timing with Debana Kote (my hands were reaching out rather than bunching up against my body while hitting), but again I need to step forward into the hit to keep my left leg from dragging behind me.

We finished out the night with jigeiko, interspersed with the pre-bogu people doing kakarigeiko.  I got to do jigeiko with Aika, Marek, Dan, Ando Sensei, and Wendy, and I used my time to look for or create good opportunities and work on seme, maai, and solid strikes.  I did notice that a few times my hits were really light, or they wouldn't connect at all because I would pull them if I saw my partner moving to dodge or block.  It's a bad habit that I need to fix before it gets to far away from me, because it's affecting my follow-through, as well.

I received some good advice from Ando Sensei after class, regarding our jigeiko session.  He said that I back up too much.  This is true.  He said that when he steps in that I should hold my ground, or step in myself and pressure him.  He also told me to trust in my Men strike.  He told me that when the opponent steps in, I should step forward, close my eyes, and strike Men.  I don't think he meant this literally, but I see what he's saying, all the same.

Wendy commented after practice on how great our spirit was that day and how she appreciated the effort that everyone put forth.  I think that everyone did a great job of "turning up the heat."

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Kihon Kata pt. 2

I've been meaning to do this post for a little while, since my first post on the subject only covered the first five Kihon Kata (there are 9 of them).  This one will go over what I have learned about Kihon Kata six through eight.  Please remember that these are my own thoughts on the subject and shouldn't be taken as "Kata Law."  Also, if you'd like to see my previous post on Kihon Kata, it can be found here.Here we go!

6 - Suriage Waza.  Kote-Suriage Men.  Motodachi steps in for Kote, and Kakarite responds with Suriage Men.  Suriage is an upward, arc-shaped movement of the blade that is used to deflect an opponent's incoming strike.  During this kata, Kakarite takes a slight step back for the suriage movement and then forward for the Men strike.  It should all be done as one movement, with no pauses in between.  Motodachi and Kakarite both take one step back to their starting positions while coming to kamae simultaneously.
7 - Debana Waza.  Debana Kote.  Motodachi takes a half-step forward while beginning to raise hands for a strike.  Kakarite responds by stepping forward with a small Kote strike.  I find this one odd because Motodachi doesn't make any strike of their own, they simply motion to making a strike by taking a half-step forward and slightly raising their kensen.  Kakarite takes one step back to kamae, and one more step back for distance.  Motodachi takes a half-step back and comes to kamae with Kakarite's last step.
8 - Kaeshi Waza.  Men-Kaeshi Do.  This kata is very similar to kata five (Nuki Waza) except that instead of immediately stepping to the side Kakarite delays their step to perform the block and counter-attack.  The Japanese-English Kendo Dictionary defines Kaeshi waza as "The action of blocking a strike and rotating one's shinai to the other side of an opponent's shinai," and this can be seen in the kata.  As Motodachi steps in to strike Men, Kakarite raises their bokken up with the tsuka pointing down and to the left and the kensen pointing up and to the right.  The left hands comes out of center slightly to the left for the block, and Motodachi's bokken should strike down on the lower portion of Kakarite's bokken, near the tsuba.  At this time Kakarite rotates the bokken around to the left, bringing the left hand back into the centerline  to deliver the Do strike.  The step forward and slightly to the right is started with the kaeshi block and the left foot snaps into place as the Do strike lands.  The rest is exactly like kata five, with both partners taking an angled step back and to the right, coming to kamae, and then taking a step to the left to reach their starting positions.  The most important thing that I've noticed as I practice this kata is the timing.  The timing of the block/counter-attack has to be almost at the last second.  You have to make Motodachi feel as if they are going to get a valid strike and cut you down, then at the last second you deliver the block and counter.  This kata is definitely easier understood when it is seen, and there are plenty of videos out there on the internet that show the steps that are done.

Again, these are my own interpretations of the kata, and many other people can expand on the principles and movements that are done, so it's always a good idea to ask your sensei about them if you are curious.  Our dojo has been actively implementing these kata for a while now, and the results are definitely visible in the up-and-coming beginners, intermediate, and advanced people that have had the privilege of learning and studying them.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Other Sinclair Sensei

We had a special "guest" with us at last night's practice.  Mick Sinclair, Sensei's oldest son, came over to hang out with all of us lucky Spokane people for the week!  He is Sandan, and like all of the others I know, is not only good at what he does but he has good advice.  It was a real pleasure being able to see him again and to do keiko, and I hope that I get to hang out with him a bit before he leaves us.

Ando Sensei led the group again last night, and he put us through our paces, as is his custom.  I definitely appreciate the hard work he drives everyone to, especially with the breathing drills.  Lately I've been trying to learn to love the drills that I honestly don't care for that much (kakarigeiko), so this was a good exercise in that.  We started off the night with kata, and I was able to get a few more pointers on Sanbonme from Billy.  I will share what I learned:
  • After Uchidachi strikes Tsuki, Shidachi is, in a way, granted control for the next two steps.  When Shidachi retaliates with Tsuki and then steps through with the left foot, they should be separate, precise movements, not all bunched together.  The way Billy explained it reminded me of a clock ticking off the seconds.  Tick - Step forward and Tsuki, Tick-Step through with left foot while pressuring forward
  • Uchidachi takes control again for the 3 steps back while Shidachi pressures forward and lifts the kensen between their eyes.  The steps should be quick as Uchidachi succumbs and retreats and Shidachi pursues and continues to pressure with the kensen.
  • Billy also explained that the blocks that Uchidachi does after their missed Tsuki shouldn't be rushed or robotic/automatic.  In essence they are responding to Shidachi's Tsuki and advance with the left foot, so the block should represent this feeling.
  • Ando Sensei told me the other day that when Uchidachi blocks, the blade should face the ground and also be slightly pointed toward Shidachi's blade.  So the first block with be pointing down and the the right, and the next block will be down and to the left.  Small detail, but these are things I love to absorb so I know how to do them properly/what to expect later.
The meat of our training included distancing drills, hitting from to-ma and chika-ma, as well as the various breathing drills (5 Men strikes on one breath, or a combination of strikes on one breath).  I tried to work on not only snapping my left leg up after my strikes, but also pushing my body forward instead of up, as has been a bad habit with a few of my strikes lately. I've also been thinking about flexible wrists, although I think that one is pretty much cleaned up (for now).

After a short break we jumped into jigeiko, with a few final rounds of kakarigeiko.  I had a lot of fun with jigeiko tonight, as I have been lately.  Ever since I talked to Billy and he gave me a different mindset on jigeiko I've felt like my mind has been freed up to concentrate on distancing, connection, seme, and reading my partner.  I also enjoyed jigeiko because I fought Mick not once, but twice.  He's very, very good, with quick strikes, fast follow-through, and great seme, so it was a joy to fight with him.  And he was gracious enough to let me hit him a few times, so I took full advantage of those times to try and do my best Kendo that I knew.

Unfortunately I had to pull out after the first round of kakarigeiko, due to a stabbing pain in my side, but I cheered on the rest of my fellow kenshi as best I could.  I learned a lot last night, and I'm definitely looking forward to Wednesday trianing!

A few thoughts:

Men:  Ando Sensei gave me a piece of advice last night.  He said I have a beautiful Men strike, and that a lot of sensei consider the Men strike a mirror of the person's character.  He said that I should keep improving it how I am, and work to have a clean, precise, quick and true Men strike.  Very encouraging words to hear!

Kote:  We worked on a drill last night in which we brought the kensen underneath our partner's shinai and struck Kote from underneath.  Seth said that I had the speed and technique on it, but my aim was a bit off.  More times than not my kensen would keep going and I would end up hitting the tsuba instead of the Kote.  I'll have to work on my accuracy with this technique.