Thursday, June 30, 2011

Smother, Then Strike

Last night was a pretty good night of training.  I worked myself to exhaustion and then I pushed a little bit more to squeeze out all of the energy I had.  Sean was back with us and will be here for the next couple weeks, so we will have the pleasure of his company at training for a while.  It's always excited to have our old members back to visit, and Sean brings a lot of experience and skill to the table when he comes.

We started out the night, as we have been doing lately, with kata practice.  I jumped into the group that was going over Ipponme and Nihonme so I could refine some of my movements and my timing.  I also seem to have a problem with distance.  Namely ending up back in the middle of the floor after completing the kata, especially on Ipponme.  I don't know if my steps are too big or too small.  Judging from the way I also seemed to end up on the shidachi's side of the floor I would say my first step in to strike is too big (as uchidachi) and my steps back are too small.  But I also think I need an outside opinion on it.  Maybe I can grab one of the higher ups or Sensei to take a look and see where my distancing issues lie.

I was given some advice on Ipponme, which can be applied to both sides.  I was told when I bring my bokken up to Jodan I should make a bigger movement.  What I mean is that my hands should bring the bokken high and then settle down into Jodan.  I read somewhere else (I wish I could remember where) that the movement should be "like the rising sun."  I was also told that when I disengage I should lower my tip more, so that it sits just a few centimeters above my partner's knee.  I've been kinda spotty with this, sometimes dropping the tip low enough and other times not dropping it very low at all so I need to work on being more consistent.

We passed up warm-ups and jumped straight into practice with full bogu, starting out with some good ol' Kirikaeshi.  We went through the first and second rhythms, doing many rounds to get our bodies warmed up and then went into the main focus of the night, Men strikes.  Not just any Men strike, but specifically pressuring in and then striking Men.  The feeling that we were to focus on was sliding forward as if we were going to tsuki our partner, and then at the last minute making a small Men strike.  This was the first step, and one that I feel a bit better with these days.  We've been doing this kind of drill off and on for a few months now and I don't feel as clumsy with it as I first did, although I still feel a bit clumsy and off with my strike and timing, and I know that I can always be faster with it.

The next few drills we did focused on smothering our partner's shinai.  While keeping contact with their shinai, we would bring ours over the top of theirs and pressure them down and to their right.  This was accomplished by coming up over their shinai, turning our shinai so the it was sideways and pressing down towards their right hip.  We did this both from a stand-still and while stepping in.  The main focus here was to "gently" pressure them down and not to strike their shinai out of the way.  If you can pressure them down in this way it's a lot more subtle and some people don't realize that they're being pushed out of center until it's too late. That's not to say that Harai waza and the like have no place, I'm just saying that was the drill we were doing last night and what we were focusing on at the moment

The third drill, and the one that brought these two techniques together, involved sliding forward, and as we did we would smother our partner's shinai and then come up to strike Men when it was open.  I can get the smother and the strike in one step, but again it feels just a bit off and needs more work.  I was able to do this drill with Sean so I had a good example of what I'm shooting for and what it should look like when done correctly.

Next up was waza-geiko, and I used my time to work on Kote-Men.  Specifically the footwork and the timing of the steps.  I was concentrating on really snapping my foot back into place so that I could strike Men immediately after striking Kote.  I am hoping to improve on this even further later by developing multiple steps/strikes, but I do have to get the timing and the footwork down first.  Once I'm there and I feel comfortable with it I can add in more steps and more strikes.  I tried not to worry about my shinai or my speed with it, although I did try to stay nice and relaxed as I stepped in to strike.  I didn't do too bad with it, although there's ALWAYS room for improvement!

We ended out the night with a rather lengthy jigeiko session, and I got to fight quite a few people, including Sean.  I forgot how fast he is!  Every time I came in for an attack it seemed like he'd beat me there and was gone before I was done.  I still tried my best, though.  I do feel a bit sorry for Andy, the guy I fought afterward, because I was pretty dead tired at that point and was reduced to a mere pinata.  Afterward I stepped out for just a bit to catch my breath, stretch my legs and get a second wind so I could jump back in for a few final rounds.

All in all it was a great night.  Good practice, good gathering afterward with a few people.  Although today I am pretty tired, it was well worth it!

A few thoughts:

Kote:  It was pointed out to me during jigeiko that I have a rather obvious "tell" when going for Kote.  I will do my best to get rid of this issue.  Obviously it's a big disadvantage for me if people are able to pick up on it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Pig in a Pen!

What a night of training!  I felt really accomplished after making it through last night.  I had quite the weekend, helping one of my friends move to a new house, so I was still feeling the effects of that.  At first I wasn't planning on going, but as the day went by I started feeling better and started convincing myself that, yeah, I can make it!  And boy did I make it!  I'm really glad I decided to go, it was very fulfilling and I felt great afterward.

 We started out with a bit of kata practice.  We usually take a couple months, twice a year, and really study and practice kata.  This year we're introducing the Kihon Kata into our practice, as well as the traditional Nihon Kata.  Wendy had us pick one Nihon Kata that we wanted to work on and focus on that.  I was paired with Aika and I decided to go over Sanbonme, while she focused on Nihonme.  We had a nice time, and I really tried to focus on the distance and timing of the steps and strikes.  I'm to a point where I know the steps and the order of each kata, but that is only the beginning.  That is only the gateway into the bigger world that is kata, and now I'm trying to dive a bit deeper into them to find the other benefits that they provide, including connection with my partner, correct distance, correct timing, and the "feeling" that each side represents.  Not much more to add physically, but mentally it is a big step.

After some brief suburi for warmup we went into full practice mode, starting with Kirikaeshi.  We've been breaking it into three levels, which I think I've mentioned before.  The first is a nice slow pace with breaks at each strike.  The second is still a relaxed pace but with no pauses between each step and each strike.  And the third is all-out, forget about everything and go as fast as you can speed.  I've been trying to work on shortening up my steps on the second and third levels, as Sensei has pointed out that this is keeping me from speeding up my strikes.

Next we jumped into Men, and various ways of using seme and harai-type movements to open our partner up for the strike.  Wendy pointed out that when we pressure in, to move the shinai tip toward their face and then raise up to strike at the last minute.  When I practice this, I almost feel like I'm suspended in the air as I bring my tip towards their face, so it feels really slow to me.  But like anything new it takes time to develop, and I'm willing to put in the time!  Another drill we did involved smothering our partner's shinai with our own.  We would bring our shinai up over the top and pressure down towards their Kote, and then strike Men.  This would move them out of center and if we were fast enough we could strike before the recovered.  Finally, Harai Men.  This is a technique that I have been playing with in jigeiko recently, not only Harai Men but other Harai waza, so it was good to be able to do a few drills with it.  Billy and Wendy pointed out the importance of giving a sharp strike to our partner's shinai to move them out of center, and Wendy said that the further down their shinai we are able to hit, the less force is needed to get a bigger reaction.  Does that make sense?  For example, she hit her partner's shinai out on the end, between the nakayui and the tip of the shinai (about the top 1/4 of the sword).  She had to use quite a bit of force but barely moved them.  Then she did the same thing, but struck their shinai down by the tsuba.  Same amount of force, but it moved their shinai clean out of center.  Definitely a powerful technique if I can develop it for myself.

Next we did some Kote drills, and again started out by pressuring towards our partner's face, as we did in the Men drills, and then dropping down to strike Kote.  The purpose being that if we make our strikes all look the same, and pressure in with them, then our partners will be hard-pressed to figure out exactly where we're striking.  After a few rotations we changed up the drill a bit and would strike Kote after knocking our partner's shinai out of center.  This was accomplished by dropping our shinai tip down toward their right knee, and then snapping it up toward their left shoulder.  This would knock their shinai up and out of the way, opening their Kote in the process.  The closest definition I could find of this in the Japanese-English Kendo Dictionary was Harai-ageru, which is "Creating an opening to strike one's opponent by deflecting their shinai upwards."  Yep, sounds about right.  We also practiced this movement while striking Men.  All I can say is that I need practice with it.  I felt like my timing was way off, and I would either step and then strike, or strike and then step.  Or if I had both correct I wouldn't have enough force to knock my partner out of center.  The Kote strike, especially, is a technique I'd like to develop, so I'll keep working on it.

After a short break we did several rounds of Motodachi-geiko, followed by jigeiko.  I was able to fight a wide variety of people, since I was put into the Mudansha group for jigeiko.  I haven't fought with the Mudansha for a while so I used the opportunity to work on pressuring in and using Oji Waza effectively.  It was hit or miss but it's feeling a lot better to me. I'm able to pull out the techniques a bit better to match the situation, even if I'm not 100% on my accuracy or timing yet.

The final drill that we did was called Pig in a Pen.  It's a game, of sorts, where we all get in a big circle.  Two people go in and they had one minute to score a point.  First person to score a point wins that round, and they face the next person in the circle.  If no one scored a point in a minute both were out and two new people jumped in to fight.  It was very fun, very fast-paced, and was a good change of pace for the night.  I, myself, didn't do too bad.  I won three of my matches, lost two, and tied one.  I think the highlight of the night, though, was watching Billy fight against Ando Sensei.  Billy fights in Jodan, and Ando Sensei seems to be a wall.  A wall that can hit you at will.  The match ended with no points scored, but for that minute the intensity level was through the roof!

Again, a great night of training and I'm glad I was able to make it.  Not only for myself, but for everyone else there.  The beginners and intermediate people I help out with.  My fellow dojo mates that come to practice and learn and grow, like me.  I gave them my best, physically and mentally, and I came out exhausted and appreciative!

A few thoughts:

Ando Sensei:  Ando Sensei commented on my kata, saying that my strikes were still too big.  I'm not sure where my problem lies, but I have an idea that maybe I'm swinging too fast.  I tense up at the last minute, and swing fast, which causes me to swing too big.  I need to work on relaxing and swinging smoothly without dropping the tip down behind me.  He also pointed out that my Kote strike is very nice, and if I want to use it effectively I should strike more Men and Do.  This will keep my partner guessing and cause them to open themselves in all sorts of ways, which will allow me to get that Kote strike in on them.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Rose City Taikai 2011 - Breakthrough

This weekend our dojo traveled down to Portland to the Rose City Taikai, and if I had one word to describe the trip I would say it was awesome.  Not just the taikai itself, but the whole trip.  We had a good trip down and back, and were able to do some fun things, see some fun things, and generally spend time bonding as a team.

This taikai was my first one ever last year, and I did fairly well for being new to it last year, so this year I was really excited to see how well I would do after a year of practice and taikai experience under my belt, and I feel that I improved a hundred times over from last year.  I came into the tournament last year as a 7 Kyu in the 0-3 Kyu division, and this year I was a 2 Kyu fighting in the 2 Kyu - 1 Dan division.  Quite a step up and I knew I had to bring out my best Kendo for the day.

My first match was against a Shodan from OSU by the name of Burns.  The match started off and after a few seconds I came in with a big Men strike to take the first point.  I was actually going for Nuki-Men, thinking he was swinging for Kote, but hey it worked in the end and I got the point.  We reset and traded blows for what seemed like an eternity after that.  Neither of us were able to land a good strike, and we were both being really aggressive about it.  In the end I chased him down and landed a Kote-Men strike to take the final point.

Final Score:  2-0 (Ruiz)

My next match was an interesting one.  My opponent was a fellow Nikyu named Wes Horn, from Idaho.  He has been a reader of my blog for a while now, and came to introduce himself to me before the taikai began.  It was really fun to meet a reader in person, and I wanted to honor him by putting forth my best effort in our match together.  The match started out and I was able to land a Debana Kote fairly early into the match to take the first point.  We reset and I tried to remember to not be carefree with my strikes, so I held back a bit from how I fought in the last match and tried to pick and choose the moments when I went in to strike, and also tried to create an opening.  I finally saw one and stepped in to strike Kote, taking the final point to end the match.  I was amazed out how fast he was, and how good his timing was with his strikes, and I look forward to facing him more in the future!

Final Score:  2-0 (Ruiz)

I had made it into the semi-finals, and my opponent was none other than a fellow Spokane member, my buddy Seth.  He is Shodan, and I've mentioned before that I really admire his Kendo.  His basics are absolutely amazing and he is very fast and accurate with his strikes.  I knew that I had quite a fight ahead of me.  We bowed in and the match started, and for a while we circled each other, each looking for or trying to create an opening.  Things finally kicked off and we both rushed in to trade blows.  I tried to watch out for his Kaeshi-Do, because he has caught me with it more than once in practice and I know that he's very good with it, so each of my strikes I tried to close the distance between us as fast as possible.  Seth ended up getting the first point after he stepped back for Hiki-Men and I chased him. I went for Men, but he was too fast and landed Debana Kote.  We reset and after a short exchange I landed a Men strike as Seth turned to tie the match.  Everything came down to this final point, and at one point I actually ended up stepping out of bounds after going for a Men strike, receiving a hansoku for it.  As Seth stepped back after hiki waza again I launched forward for a Men strike, and stretched far for it.  I ended up striking his Men with the very tip of my shinai to take the final point and the match.

Final Score:  2-1 (Ruiz)

I had made it to the finals.  Only one more opponent to face and then I could claim victory in my division.  Easy, right?  Well, not so much when that opponent happens to be Jordan, another Shodan from Spokane.  We've fought many times in jigeiko, and I knew that I would be in for a huge challenge.  He's very fast and very powerful for his size, and many times throughout the match I was caught unaware because of his speed and power.  We exchanged blows, each trying to find an opening, and a few times he came into taiatari so hard and at such an angle that it knocked my men loose.  The second time I had to stop and re-tie it to make sure it stayed on.  Jordan ended up taking the first point with a quick Men strike.  We reset and started off again, and I fought desperately to get that point back to at least force a tie and encho, but in the end he sealed the match with a Kote strike that snuck right up on me, as he hit and maneuvered around me.  We both fought with a lot of ferocity, but that day Jordan was the better man.  I couldn't have lost to a more deserving opponent, I think, and I was very happy with how I did overall.

Final Score:  2-0 (Duplain)

After our division, I was able to watch some great Kendo matches in the 2 Dan+ category, and also participate in the team division with our B team, which consisted of myself, Billy Joe, Sayaka, Wendy, and Harvey.  We lost our first match to Obukan A, but it was still fun and a good learning experience.  I think that the most intense matches of the day involved our Spokane A team, though, and their (close) victories over the PNKF Women and Seattle.  Each match was suspenseful to watch, each point taken and lost had us on pins and needles.  Our guys fought great, against some of the best people and teams in our region, and ended up taking second place, losing to Obukan A (the team that beat us in the first round).

I'm definitely looking forward to this trip and this taikai again next year, to take another measure of how far I've come.  Before my matches I was really feeling like I didn't belong in that division, because everyone else was so strong and fast with their Kendo.  But through my wins and losses that day I really felt that I did, in fact, belong there.  I could stand toe-to-toe with people of that level and hold my own, and it was due to the work I've done since last year and the excellent training I've received at my dojo.  And it was also due to the strong bonds I've formed with my dojo mates.  I see a lot of good things happening in this year to come, and I hope to continue improving myself and my Kendo as much as possible.

And now a few pictures from our trip and the taikai! (click for larger images)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Like A Pack Of Wolves

It's been a while since I last posted.  Partly because the site was doing some weird things to me, and partly because last week was a bad week for me as far as Kendo goes.  I was able to make practice on Monday and Tuesday night, and I felt like I was lacking.  I was kind of in a slump over my Kendo and I was really down and hard on myself.  But things picked up over the weekend because I found some inspiration and confidence and was able to bring it out this week, just in time for the Rose City Taikai this weekend!

Last night we trained in the dark.  Literally.  During our warmups a nasty storm blew in, with hail, thunder, and lightning.  While we were doing hayasuburi the lights actually ended up going out.  Did this stop us?  No, not entirely.  There were still a few people that finished out their sets in the (almost) pitch black.  Luckily it only lasted for a couple of minutes, but that's what I love about our dojo.  Even if the lights go out and all is dark we're still going to give our all and do our best!

We ran through our normal kirikaeshi drill fairly quickly and jumped straight into small Men strikes.  We ran through kihon strikes and then some Harai Men strikes before doing a pursuit drill.  This one was kind of fun, although tiring.  The kakarite would strike Men and push forward all the way across the floor.  Motodachi would then turn, follow, and try to strike them as they turned around.  The purpose was for motodachi to try and get around to the side enough that when kakarite would turn to face them, they wouldn't be there and have an advantage.  Billy explained that there are two way to accomplish this.  The first, and what I was doing initially, was to make a big arc that swung out and around kakarite to get in position.  This works, but it takes a lot of energy.  The second way was to pick a point to kakarite's side and after you turn make a straight line to that point and then attack.  This was more efficient and still just as effective.  Like he said, the shortest route between two points is a straight line.

We got into some oji-waza for the remainder of the night.  First up was Debana Kote.  Wendy pointed out that we should anticipate our partner's strike and most straight forward with our Kote strike before turning off to the side.  This takes a lot of commitment, as you have to throw caution to the wind and disregard the fact that you will probably get hit as you perform this action.  But if you are committed enough, and your strike is accurate and fast enough you will beat them to the target.

Nuki Men was next, and we focused on doing big, fast swings with our shinai, and also a couple of strategies to entice our partners in to actually hit Kote.  We can have the prettiest Nuki Men in the world, but if we can't lure our partner in to strike we won't ever get to use it, right?  Wendy showed us a couple of ways to expose the Kote, first by coming up and over our partner's shinai with our own.  If we were in normal kamae, this would mean moving our tip up slightly and then to the left, taking center and smothering our partner's shinai.  This movement exposes the Kote.  The second way she showed us was by stepping in and dropping our shinai tip slightly.  She said that this one is risky because if our partner is fast enough they can take advantage of that move and strike before we can move to counter.  I also found out that against Jodan the movement is the same, even though I have a slightly modified kamae (holding the tip off to point at my partner's left Kote while in Jodan).  Billy explained that I should still snap my hands into center and drive the shinai straight up and back when he moves to strike Kote, and then bring it straight down to strike Men.

After a short break for my leg I stepped back in and jumped into a round of waza-geiko, where I worked on Kote-Men with Harvey.  Harvey fights in Nito and I learned that when I do Kote-Men with him the action should almost be like sweeping the shoto (short sword) out of the way with my Kote strike, and then moving in for Men (or Sayu-Men, to strike off center and get past the daito).  I also did a few Nuki Men drills with Harvey earlier and learned that for Nito I will want to move my shinai up and out of the way before his shoto can catch it.  He uses the shoto to suppress my shinai and then moves in for Kote, so I have to go just a bit earlier than I think so I can raise up and past the shoto.  After I caught onto that part he said I was doing really well with Nuki Men against him!

We finished out the night with jigeiko, and I threw my all into each match, and I ran through partners from our whole spectrum of experience.  From Billy at Nidan down to Nathan at 6 Kyu, I gave each one everything that I had at the time and felt really good afterward.  One of my favorite matches of the night was with Jordan, who is always so quick with his strikes and is really good at creating openings on me.  I feel like I'm starting to catch onto his timing, though, and maybe slowly catching on to how fast he really is.  I felt like I was able to at least avoid a lot of strikes he sent me way, although I need to learn to not just block/dodge his strikes, but follow them up with a counter attack, or use his strikes as part of my oji-waza.  Even though I feel like I was able to nullify a lot of his attacks, he was still able to hit me for most of the match we had and I was only able to get a few Kote strikes in on him.

We had one last drill of the night, which involved Harvey, four other guys, and a lot of kakarigeiko!  It was Harvey's birthday yesterday, and it's tradition in our dojo to do birthday kakarigeiko with a few people.  He gave it his all, and in the end was still standing.  Happy Birthday Harvey!

Wendy had some advice for us after class.  She said that it's been pointed out that one of our biggest strengths as a dojo is our team bond.  We are not only dojo mates, but friends and it shows when we show up to taikai or shinsa.  We stick together, fight hard together, and support each other.  But we are too nice to each other when it comes to shiai (tournament matches).   Wendy used the analogy of our dojo being like a pack of wolves.  We're very fierce and we hunt as a pack, but once we get the kill we need to be equally as fierce with each other to claim it as our own.  Be fierce to get that point, take that spot, get that win, against each other as much as against other people from outside our dojo.  I'll be sure to keep this in mind this weekend when we head down to Portland.  I have a feeling I'll be running into a few of my teammates on the shiai court...

A few thoughts:

Harai Men:  Jordan pointed out that I was doing more of an upward sweep, like a suriage movement, during my Harai Men.  He said that I want to try to do more of a sideways or downward strike to get my partner's shinai out of the way.  Wendy also pointed out that the harai movement and the follow-up strike should be fluid and all-in-one, instead of two separate movements.  It helps tremendously to do them both on one fumikomi, which is what I try to practice.

Jodan:  When I fight against Jodan I need to remember that my strikes should come at an angle.  If I bring my shinai straight up, even on small strikes, it's wasted movement, so I need to let my shinai follow the modified path that it's on and bring it up at an angle, the same angle that I used when pointing the tip towards their left Kote.  Billy always tells me that he gets to cheat when he uses Jodan, so I get to cheat when I hit him in Jodan.