Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Kent Taikai 2011

(All photos courtesy of T. Patana - Sno-King)

This past weekend our dojo made its way over the mountains and across the state to attend the 15th Annual Kent Taikai.  This time around we didn't train on Friday night, instead opting to have a relaxed trip over and an evening of hanging out at the hotel and relaxing so we were all fresh and ready for the tournament on Saturday.

Saturday arrived and I felt pretty good.  I tried to remember to have a relaxed, carefree attitude about the day's events, instead just focusing on doing my best throughout the day.  I was able to compete not only in the individual matches in the 1-3 Kyu division, but Sinclair Sensei also decided to put me on the Spokane A team for the Senior Team division.  That not only meant more matches for me, but also matches against people that could range from 0 Kyu up to 3 Dan (I believe 3 Dan was the highest we had people competing at that tournament).  The juniors and junior teams came and went and I got to see some amazing, spirited Kendo throughout the morning, and a few hours after the opening ceremony my division was ready to start.

My first match was against a kenshi from University of Washington named Tagami, whom I had fought before at the UW Taikai in March.  As I stepped out onto the court I felt good, ready for the day and when the match started I stood up and steppin in with confidence, and also patience.  Patience seemed to be an ongoing theme for me that day, and it all started here in the first match.  I waited and watched to try and find an opening or a weakness, and after a few exchanges I was able to land a Men strike after he barely missed my Kote.  We reset and started again, both pressuring each other and exchanging blows before I was finally able to land a Kote and take the match.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

I had won my first match and I felt good going into my second match, which was against another kenshi that I have fought before named Wilkins, from Everett Dojo.   He has solid Kendo so I knew I had quite a match ahead of me.  We started out and again I waited and watched and tried to find a good opening.  He attacked first, and we exchanged strikes for a while until I caught him with a Debana Kote as he moved in to strike.  After we reset and stepped in again a funny thing happened.  He attacked my Kote, and I countered with Nuki Men.  I didn't get the point, but when I pressed forward he lost control of his shinai and caught it by the blade and was now in tsubazeriai with me while holding the "blade" of his shinai.  I immediately struck Hiki-Men since I hadn't heard the judges call a stop to the match.  They stopped the match after I had struck, called a short conference (Gogi) and decided to give him a penalty for losing control of his shinai (I was unclear whether they gave him the penalty for "dropping his sword" or for touching the blade portion of it.).  We resumed the fight again and after a short while I launched a Men strike as he stepped back out of tsubazeriai to take the match.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

I had made it to the semi-finals once again.  Just a couple more matches until the end.  But my opponent in this match was another kenshi from UW named Christianson, who had won the PNKF Taikai just a couple weeks prior and who I knew to be really good.  I have never faced him, but I knew of him and I knew that he consistently placed in the top 3 of any tournament that he was at.  I think out of all the matches that match was the most exhausting.  We started out and I stepped in and immediately struck for Kote, which was blocked, but I tried to keep the pressure up from there.  He would step back and I would follow and strike and keep him tied up.  I was able to take the first point with a Nuki Men as we moved in to hit Kote.  We reset and after a while he got me with a Kote strike to tie up the match.  We reset for the final time and again I kept the pressure up but I felt myself wearing out fast.  I didn't give up, though, and I finally landed a Men strike as he backed up to take the match.  One more match would decide the outcome of our division.

Final Score: 2-1 (Ruiz)

Once again I found myself in the finals.  Once again I found myself fighting a fellow Spokane member.  And once again that member was my buddy Matt.  We had fought before, at Highline in the quarter-finals there, and I had come out victorious.  Could I pull off another win against him?  We were about to find out.  The match started and we both stepped in, each pressuring the other and trying to find or create that opening where we could attack without being countered.  I have to admit I could feel a ton of pressure in that match, and afterward I heard that he did, too.  It makes me think of that scene in Big Trouble in Little China when the old good guy and the main bad guy fight and they use their magic to clash with each other, neither of them able to come out the winner.  Yeah, that's exactly how it was for us!

Each strike was calculated, as was each counter.  Any time we found ourselves in tsubazeriai neither of us wanted to back out because we both knew the other would chase us down.  This went on for most of the match, until with about ten seconds left I pressured in and struck his Kote to take the first point.  We reset and I played it smart and safe, not rushing in for that last point.  Time was called, the match ended and I found myself victorious once again, taking first place in the 1-3 Kyu division!

Final Score: Ruiz (1-0)

It almost didn't seem real that I had won.  As I sat and ate my lunch I felt odd, a mixture of nerves and adrenaline that made me feel like I was floating and not entirely in control of myself.   I ate and focused, though, because I still had my team matches ahead of me.

The team matches were an entirely different feeling than individuals.  Now not only was I fighting for myself but I also had to take in the entirety of the team and what had happened before and after my match.  I was placed on the Spokane A team in the third position (Chuken), each match being 5 versus 5.  Even though I was facing tougher opponents (I fought against one Nidan and the rest were Sandan), I actually felt more focused, more relaxed than I had been in my individual matches.  I think that this helped a lot because I was able to go into each match with a good head on my shoulders and not get impatient and try to go for points when I didn't need to.  My first two matches I ended up tying, fighting opponents from Kent's B team and from Highline.  We were able to pull out wins there overall, with all of our members either tying or winning their matches.  In the semi-final match against Bellevue I actually won my match against the Sandan I faced with a Nuki Men (I won 1-0).  Our team went on to take that match and make it into the finals against Kent's A team.  Everything looked good at the beginning, with our first two members taking their matches 2-0, but during my match I gave up a point and was not able to get it back, losing the match 0-1.  We ended up losing that match 2 wins to 3 losses, taking second place in the Senior Team division.  In the end I can say that I gave it my all and put my best effort forward.  I stood against people with years and years more experience than me and was able to hold my own and for that I can be proud

The weekend, overall, was a huge success for our dojo.  A lot of my fellow teammates took home trophies, many of them taking first or second place in their divisions, and we all were able to participate in and watch some great Kendo throughout the day.  I know that I learned a lot from my experiences and I will work to improve on the areas that I need to and to strengthen the areas that are working well for me.  I'm happy that I won in my division, but above that I'm happy that I did my best and gave everything I had to each of my opponents, and I hope that we are all able to take that from each other and continue to improve our Kendo!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Time To Reflect

Recently I had a short hiatus from Kendo practice.  I had real-world things to take care of (errands, etc) that needed to get done, but during that time I was able to take a step back to reflect on my current standing with Kendo.  One thing I realized is that sometimes I push myself too far.  I try to do too much too often and it wears me out.  Not only physically but mentally, as well, and when I'm in that kind of position it's impossible to practice at full spirit and energy.  I started practicing Kendo, and continue to do so, because I love Kendo.  I love the physical and mental aspects.  I love the people, both at my home dojo and the friends that I've made abroad.  I love the culture and heritage and I love that the more I practice the more those qualities from Kendo that I learn start to reflect in my everyday life.  I need to remember these points and keep them at the forefront of my mind, and I think sometimes a break is good for me, maybe even necessary, so that I can step back, take a breather and collect myself again and return stronger and better.  So we'll see.  I'll continue to work on this aspect and find out what works best for me.

On that thought I returned to practice last night.  Our last one before we leave this weekend for the Kent Taikai.  It felt good to be back in the dojo, kind of like coming home from a vacation, and it was great to see all my friends again.  I felt good during warm-ups and the first few drills, but I did feel a hint of rust in my technique.  Maybe it was in my head.  Most likely it was in my head.  Although on the upside my Men strikes felt good.  They felt fast, powerful, and I felt like I was carrying my upper body straight and not leaning into the strike. 

We worked on Nuki Do a lot last night.  On the timing and movement.  I tried to not just be a static attacker.  What I mean by this is I tried to not just stand there and react to the Motodachi trying to hit.  I tried to actively press in a bit and cause the Motodachi to start his attack.  This is the kind of Kendo I need to be practicing, being active instead of reactive.  Even though we were just doing drills there are still things I can change to help develop this.  As far as my Do strike itself it does feel more accurate the more I use it, and I feel like I can reach the target a lot faster nowadays.  I guess that makes sense with the amount of practice that I do, but Do has never been a big strong point for me so it's not a technique that I devote a lot of time to.  One of these days when I feel like my Men and Kote are at least adequate for the time being I'll dive into the mechanics of Do a little more.

We also worked a bit on Kote-Men, specifically using it to neutralize and counter our partner when they step in for Kote.  Sensei's advice on this technique was to not necessarily strike at our partner's Kote itself, but rather to strike for the tsuba of their shinai so that we disrupt them and knock them out of center, and then bring our shinai up quickly to strike Men.  This can be done as either a forward movement or a backward movement, depending on how fast our partner moves in, but the Kote strike itself we would do in place.  About 90% of the time I was able to strike going forward, but when paired with some of the younger, faster guys I was forced to do a Hiki Men strike and move backwards after neutralizing their Kote strike.  My personal belief is that it's important to be able to do both so that I can use one or the other to match the situation I'm in.

Jigeiko was a lot of fun and we continued our scenarios in which Sensei would give us one minute.  One side had a point and needed to focus on keeping their point, and the other side had to try and get a point themselves before time ran out.  Playing out both sides of this type of jigeiko is great for me since I tend to have a problem holding a point if I have one.  I always think to myself, "I think I can get that last point and finish this match," and a few times it's gotten me in trouble.  But recently I've been a little better at it.  I've had more patience when I'm up a point and have been better about trying to find a good opening to strike instead of moving in and not thinking.  I hope to continue and improve on this.

So, all in all it was a great practice.  I was thoroughly worn out by the end but that's to be expected.  And it was a great way to lead into this weekend where I will do my absolute best at the tournament!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

PNKF Taikai 2011

This weekend we had our annual PNKF Taikai in Seattle, WA.  For us Spokane member is meant not only the tournament itself, but a full weekend of travel and Kendo.  We left Friday afternoon from Spokane and arrived in time for practice with our friends at the Bellevue dojo.  Jeff Marsten Sensei gave us the time for open floor that night and I was able to do jigeiko with some old friends as well as some new friends.  We also had a special treat; the Hawaiian team joined us all at Bellevue, as well.  They were impressive, to say the least, and all had very fast, very strong Kendo.  Seeing skill like that in person is always inspiring and gives me goals to shoot for in my own development.  Afterward we all headed back to our hotel for a night of rest and relaxation (and dinner!).

The next day was tournament time.  We headed out and arrived early to the site so that we could change and warm-up before everything started.  This year was my first time in the 3-1 Kyu division at this taikai, but I had been training a lot and was hoping for some good results and good Kendo.  My first match was against a gentleman named Kuniyasu, from Cascade.  I'm not sure what had happened previously, but when they called his name for the match he was still putting on his Men.  My guess is that he might have misread the match line-up, which also happened to one of our teammates earlier.  In any case I had a few moments to focus and prepare myself.  We finally stepped onto the court and started the match.  I started out nice and slow, sizing him up and changing the distance to see how he would react.  I finally pressured in and exploded forward for a Men strike, which connected to give me the first point.  After resetting our positions I stepped in for a Kote, which missed, and then stepped back out to get back to my distance.  After a few more moments, and tapping his shinai out of center a few times, I shot forward for another attempt at Kote, which landed.  We bowed out and stepped off the court to thank each other.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

My next match was against a fellow named Richards, from Simon Fraser University in Canada.  This is what I had been training for.  I knew that the Canadians had good Kendo and were very aggressive, and I wanted to see if I could overcome that this year.  Last year I had lost in the second round to a kenshi from Steveston dojo, and I was itching to try my hand at fighting another Canadian opponent.  The match started and he immediately sprang forward at my Kote, which missed.  Unfortunately this set the tone for the entire match, and he was able to control the match and the distance almost the entire time.  After a few exchanges he landed a solid Debana Kote as I stepped in for Men to take the first point.  Things went pretty downhill from there, as after a couple of Hiki Kote attempts he finally landed one to take the point and the match.  I will admit, I was a little disappointed in the match, but not against my opponent.  He fought well and it was a pleasure to face him.  But I know that I could have done better and I succumbed to my nervousness and doubt.  But the best thing I can do, and what I AM doing, is analyzing what happened and using it to improve myself.  There's not use dwelling on it in a negative way, and I will use that defeat to improve my own Kendo and come back stronger next time.

Final Score: 2-0 (Richards)

The rest of the day I was free to watch my teammates' matches and take plenty of video for them.  There were some outstanding matches, and I think the ones that stood out in my mind most were my buddy Billy's matches.  He was fighting in the 1-2 Dan division and was also fighting in Jodan.  He was one of the few at the taikai fighting in Jodan and I'm pretty sure that he was the lowest ranked person doing it.  Anyway, most of his matches ended up going into Encho (overtime; first point wins) but each time he was able to pull off the win with his skills and determination.  He ended up making it to the final round where he was beat in Encho by a kenshi from Oakland, CA.  It was a very exciting match, though, and he definitely gave it his all.

Another match that was the highlight of the day was the final team match between Hawaii and Vancouver.  Each side fought well and in the end it came down to a tie-breaker match between Fujimoto Sensei (Hawaii) and Yamada Sensei (Vancouver).  I'm not sure how long that match was, I would guess around thirty minutes.  They each fought with everything they had and pulled out some very interesting combinations of moves and techniques.   In the end Yamada finally took the match, and first place for his team, with a Kote strike.

I not only witnessed but took part in some awesome Kendo this weekend, and I know that the experience and lessons that I learned will stay with me and help shape my Kendo future.  Even as I write this I'm itching to get back to the dojo so I can continue to grow and improve and refine my own Kendo.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Small But Effective

We had a small, intimate class last night, with only 8 of us training, but having small classes can be advantageous for those of us that are able to attend.  A lot of times we're able to do different drills, or focus on different things that we wouldn't normally focus on, or even get different instruction on different area of Kendo or techniques or things of that nature.  Last night we were able to do a whole mixed bag of drills that focused mainly on breathing correctly while striking and on keeping our centers underneath us and moving from there. 

After warm-ups and Kirikaeshi we got into Men drills, with the emphasis on breathing.  Ideally we should be able to take a big breath in and then let it out slowly before we attack so that we don't get into a habit of "Breathe in, lift shinai.  Breathe out, strike."  This is very inefficient and slow, so we should work to take a big breath in and then slowly let it out so that we always have that breath to strike with.  We tried to focus on this kind of breathing exercise throughout all of the drills last night.

We also went over Kote-Men, Kote-Men-Men, and Men-Men-Men, performing each strike in rapid succession while keeping our center underneath us and not leaning forward.  I did pretty well with this up until our Ai-Men drills, when I started to slightly lean forward while striking.  After I was advised about this I was able to immediately correct it, but I need to remember to always keep a good center when I strike no matter what technique I'm doing.

We got into a few pursuit drills next, in which the Motodachi would strike Men and the Kakarite would follow and either strike Men or Kote as soon as they turned around.  The idea here was to try and catch them at the 45-degree angle where they are open and able to be hit but before they are able to react and block or counter.  I had mixed results with this, but for the most part I was happy with the results.  Especially when I went for Kote, I was able to come in and strike quickly and accurately for the most part.  If I can work on this and make it part of my "style" then I know it can be a valuable tool for me.  A lot of times people, myself included, are not the most aware at that moment that they turn around.  And I know that personally I've been caught by someone that was focused and followed me after I would strike and follow through.  So being able to do this technique well AND be aware of it being performed against me are both very valuable.

After a few more drills we cleared the floor for some shiai-geiko matches.  Billy was our Shinpan and we all took turns fighting each other in 3-minute matches.  Everyone looked really well out there and personally I felt like I did a great job.  I was able to fight against some people that had a lot more experience than me and also against some that didn't have quite as much experience but had a lot of energy and spirit and really pressured me to do my best.  I fought against both Chudan and Nito opponents and got to explore a bit of a new approach by purposely being aggressive and a bit "pushy" in one of my matches (I was told to, by the way).  While I wouldn't normally fight like this with no reason, it did show me that I can be a bit more aggressive than I am right now and still be able to do good, clean Kendo.  I think as it is I'm a bit too nice in matches.  I don't get too physical with any of my opponents and instead let them do all the pushing and moving around most of the time.  But, that aside, it was a great night of training with a solid group of people and I look forward to another training on Wednesday before we leave for the PNKF Taikai this weekend.  I'll definitely do my best to bring out that spirit and focus not only this coming weekend but during our practices, as well.