Monday, December 10, 2012

Kent Taikai 2012

Photo courtesy of J. O'Donnell
This weekend our dojo competed in the 16th Annual Kent Taikai.  We had quite a full group this time, too, with seventeen members heading over to compete in divisions all across the board.  My division was the 1-3 Dan, and it was by far the largest division with well over half of the competitors. 

After arriving at the taikai on Saturday morning and warming up, we got things under way.  Our division wasn't fighting until right before the team matches, so I had quite a few hours to wait.  I passed the time by helping out on the scoring table for one of the courts, catching up with some friends, and getting as much video of our guys in action as possible.  I was able to watch some great matches that my dojo mates took part in, as well as feel the energy building up for our division later in the day.

The time finally came, and I suited up and got ready for my matches.  I had a bye in the first round, and got to watch my first opponent in action.  I took some mental notes and prepared myself for our match in the second round.  That opponent happened to be Day, from Kent.  A sandan that was on our PNKF regional team that competed at nationals last year.  I remember saying that I wanted a challenging tournament, and I was not about to be disappointed!

The match started and about ten seconds in he scored the first point with a nice men strike as I backed up.  Honestly that threw some doubt into my head as to whether I could actually win that match, but I didn't let it get to me and continued on.  We reset and I came out, guns blazing, trying hard to get that point back.  After a few close calls (and waved off points in my favor) I finally tied the match with a men strike.  All tied up, we reset for the final point.  Neither of us made it easy on the other one, but I finally landed a kote as my opponent backed up to take the match.

Final Score: 2-1 (Ruiz)

Wow!  What a fight that was, and it was only the first one of the day for me.  But, as things go sometimes, that was not going to be the last of the tough matches for me.  My next opponent was a woman by the name of Kikkawa, who fought for UW.  She is also sandan, and won the Women's Dan division at PNKF this year.  I knew I was in for a fight.  We started out and circled each other slowly, trying to find an opening.  Once the pressure broke we exchanged attacks, flying at each other trying to land a good strike and take the first point.  There were close calls and waved off points for both of us, but after the three minutes were up neither of us had been able to score a point.  We went into the first round of overtime (encho), and again fought each other to a tie.  One more encho and we would go to a judge's decision, one which I felt I probably wouldn't win.  Unfortunately for me it didn't come to that.  Part way into the second encho she landed a clean hiki kote on me to take the point and the win.  So my time in the individuals division had come, but not without a good fight.  I gave all I had in that match and I walked out with no regrets.

Final Score: 1-0 (Kikkawa in encho)

I still had the team matches to prepare for, and what a time we had there!  Our team consisted of myself at chuken (middle spot), flanked by some of the best our dojo had to offer.  The first match we fought was against Portland, and they ran the first round a bit differently than normal.  They placed a rule in effect that said once a clear team winner was determined that the matches would stop right there.  That meant to us that we just needed to win the first three matches to take the win and move on.  Jordan and Andy went out and fought beautifully, taking their matches 2-0 each.  My turn came up and I was up against a brand new kyu from Portland in his first tournament.  I stepped onto the court determined to win and took the first point, a kote, after just a few seconds.  We reset and I was able to take the second, and winning, point with a men strike after parrying his kote.  The match ended right there and we were bumped into the next round.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)
Team Score: 3-0 (Spokane A)

Our next opponent was Seattle, and they had some heavy hitters on their team and came out of the gates swinging.  By the time my match came Seattle was up with one win and a tie, and my opponent was a sandan named Guidi.  I had never fought him before but seen him at many taikai previously, so I knew that he had a lot of experience that I would have to try and overcome.  I stepped out onto the court and partway in scored the first point, a men strike.  We reset and after trading blows for a while longer I was able to score again with another men strike, taking the win for our team.  Seth and Billy rounded out the final two matches with a couple of wins, pushing us into the semi-finals.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)
Team Score: 3-1 (Spokane A)

The semi-final round brought us up against the team from University of Washington, which also boasted some serious competition Jordan and Andy were both able to tie their matches, and I was looking to hopefully turn that around and grab a win if I was able, or to force a tie if I couldn't take the win.  My opponent was a guy named Cheng, a nidan from UW that I had fought a couple years ago.  He beat me back then, pretty easily, so I knew it was going to be tough.  He had good kendo and was very fast, and it showed once our match started.  We both did our best but couldn't land anything, until finally about halfway through the match Cheng connected with a do strike to take the first point.  I was in a bad spot now, but I focused and almost immediately took the point back with a kote strike of my own.  The match was tied now, and we were both looking for that final point.  Time ran out before either of us could get it, though, so the match was left up to Seth and Billy.  Seth pulled off a spectacular win against Kikkawa, the girl that had beat me in individuals, and Billy pulled off a win in his match to seal it for us.  We were heading to the finals!

Final Score: 1-1
Team Score: 2-0 (Spokane A)

 For the second year in a row we had made it to the team finals at Kent.  Only one more match and we could claim victory.  Our opponent in the finals was Sno-King.  They all did really well in teams and were a force to be reckoned with.  Jordan and Andy started off, tying both of their matches against some tough opponents.  My match was up, and I was pitted against Grimes, a sandan who had fought on our women's PNKF team at national last year.  I kind of felt a pattern, as over the past year or so I've fought almost all of the women's and men's team members, with varying results.  I had never faced her before, but I'd seen her in action many times and knew she was very, very good.  The match started and I immediately pressured in, trying to use my reach and distance to my advantage.  I was unable to connect with anything, but on the other hand neither was she.  We kept this up for a while and she finally caught me off-guard, faking to my kote before wheeling her shinai around to strike my men.  We reset and I fought desperately to get the point back, throwing out almost everything I had at her, until finally....time ran out.  I was unable to recover the point and she took the win, 1-0.  Seth and Billy fought hard but unfortunately it was not our day to take the victory.

Final Score: 1-0 (Grimes)
Team Score: 1-0 (Sno-King)

In the end we claimed second place in teams.  Not a bad finish at all, and everyone did an awesome job and fought well.  Overall our dojo members did really well, placing in many of the divisions that they had entered.  I, myself, walked away with some wins, some losses, more experience and some definitely ideas on what to improve and work on and strengthen in my own technique.  I have no regrets about how the matches went, and am grateful that I was able to fight against such strong opponents and gain some valuable insight and ideas to work on.  Today is our first practice after the taikai, and I'm definitely looking forward to getting back to the dojo!

Photo Courtesy of W. Sinclair

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Solid Foundation, Solid Building

After a short hiatus for the Thanksgiving holiday, I'm back.  I also feel like my focus is returning to me.  For the last couple of weeks I've felt a bit off.  I don't think it was anything with my training or my technique, but still the feeling was there.  It very well could have all been in my head.  After this weekend and last night's practice I'm feeling the focus returning, though, and I'm feeling ready to tackle the Kent Taikai this weekend.

Our sensei and his wife had the pleasure of spending the weekend at a seminar with Nakata Sensei, hanshi hachidan from Tokyo, and brought back all kinds of valuable information and advice to share with our dojo.  As such, we started out class last night in a most peculiar, and good, way.  We began class without our bogo or shinai/bokken.  After bowing in Sensei began to share a bit about what they learned about kendo, showing us that everything was connected, like links in a chain, and how we were going to build upon that throughout the next few weeks as we begin our winter kata study.  We started out with seiza, which might sound odd or too basic for some people, but it was pointed out that everything in kendo is connected, and if there are problems with your seiza and the way you enter and exit it, then there will be problems later on with your footwork and with your fumikomi and with your kendo overall.  This definitely goes along with what I've always believed - that basics are the foundation of good kendo, but it went past even what I normally think of as "basics".  We then moved into how to do proper rei (bowing), entering and exiting sonkyo, and how to draw your sword when you step into sonkyo.  All super basic, but all things that are the way they are for a reason and build upon each other.  That's why we should be more mindful of the way that we carry ourselves and perform these seemingly small tasks.

Over the last few weeks I've been working to correct my kote.  Maybe "correct" is not the right word to use here.  Let's say "improve" my kote.  I have a pretty solid kote, for the most part, but there are things about it that I am not happy with and would like to change and improve upon.  Billy has been a big help in this area, as he's given me some good advice and suggestions and constructive criticism to push me in the direction that I want to go with it, but I know it's not going to be an overnight change.  Through the course of the few short years I've been training I've ingrained a certain way of hitting kote into my muscle memory, so to step back, undue that, and move forward with a new approach is very hard to do.  But I'm definitely up for the challenge because I know afterward I will end up with a better, more efficient, more ferocious strike. 

After our basics overview we did a very concise warm-up of kirikaeshi and men-uchi before breaking out the courts and doing shiai-geiko.  We've been doing this quite a bit over the past few weeks, and I've honestly felt pretty good for the most part.  I'm definitely not perfect at all, but I think I've done a good job of keeping my focus on the court and being more aggressive while fighting intelligently (although I can always do with more of both).  I've been trying to bring that feeling I had at PNKF into my normal jigeiko and training - that feeling of pressuring my opponents without letting up, for lack of a better explanation.  This, again, will be a long, difficult task to carry out.

Since we've been doing a lot of shiai-geiko lately, I've also had a chance to work on my own shinpan skills.  Yes, they are skills.  A kenshi is not automatically good at being a shinpan just because they have been training for a long time, and being a shinpan is a whole new world of focus and discipline and things to learn and work on.  When I'm judging the lower kyu matches it's not too terribly difficult to see when they score a good point or not, and when they do something that they shouldn't or not, but as we move up the ranks the competitors start moving faster and that's where things get more difficult.  I know this is a skill that I will just have to continue practicing to improve, so I'm not beating myself up over it...yet.  I'll continue to do my best and take any information and advice that is given to me, and I'll do my best to be the best shinpan I can.

We have one last practice before we head out this weekend to the Kent Taikai.  There's nothing new I can learn between now and then, as far as my technique goes, so this next practice I will just focus on what I know and work with that and keep my spirit high for myself and for my dojo mates.  It's definitely going to be an eventful weekend and I'm looking forward to it very much.

Monday, November 5, 2012

PNKF Taikai 2012

Photo by. T. Patana
This past weekend our dojo participated in the 38th annual Pacific Northwest Kendo Federation Taikai.  This year we had over 200 competitors from all over North America.  Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Calfiornia, Hawaii, even Texas and Alaska were represented there, as well as Canada and Mexico.  We had twelve competitors ourselves, Ranging in ages from 16-40+, and all yudansha.  What took place over the weekend was one of the best taikai and kendo trips that I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing.

We headed out on Friday, as per our usual routine, so that we could make practice at Bellevue that night.  One big difference we had on this trip was the absence of Sinclair Sensei.  He had been in Hawaii all weekend for Doshinkan Karate training (lucky!).  He was definitely with us in spirit, though, and we were able to talk to him a bit that night at the hotel.  He told a fun kendo story and then wished us all well the next day.  I was actually surprised that night to hear that I would not only be competing in individuals, but also in the team matches as part of the Spokane team (we're only allowed one team at this taikai).  That just turned a big day into an even bigger day for me.

Saturday came and I felt as ready as I was going to be.  Our division (1-2 dan) wasn't up until that afternoon, and we had the unfortunate luck of having all of our dojo members competing at the same time.  Five other members were competing in my same division with me, and we had five other in the high school boys division and one in the 3 dan division.  I tried to catch as many of the matches as I could in between mine, but I missed them for the most part.

My first match finally came and I was against a nidan from Kent named Duong.  I gave myself a little pep talk before the match and then stepped out to begin.  I immediately locked in on my opponent and did my best to figure him out.  After a few exchanges I was able to score a men strike as he backed up out of tsubazeriai to take the first point.  We reset and began again, and a few moments later I pulled the same tactic and scored with a men strike after striking down his hiki waza.  I was onto the next round, which is as far as I've ever made it at a PNKF taikai before.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

My next match was against Tagami, from UW.  I had faced him before so I kind of knew what to expect, but at the same time it had been about a year.  From the moment the match started I could tell that he had improved a ton since the last time I fought him.  His attacks were quick and his timing was great, and I had a hard time retaliating with anything.  I couldn't land men or kote to save my life!  I even tried gyaku-do at one point, which fell far from hitting its mark.  About halfway through the match I pressured in and connected with a harai kote to take the first, and only, point of the match.  Neither of us were able to score after that point, but it was enough to bump me up to the next round.


Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz)

Third round..the furthest I've ever made it.  I had surpassed my past PNKF showings, and anything above and beyond this point was rewarding to me.  My next opponent was another UW guy, Christianson.  I had faced him last year at the Kent Taikai and just barely grabbed the win that time, so I was anticipating a tough match.  I was ready to give it my all when I stepped out on the court.  The match began and we sized each other up a bit, and I honestly don't remember who launched the first attack.  We exchanged blows a bit, neither of us landing anything, when I was finally able to take the first point with a (rather shaky in my opinion) nuki men.  We restarted and he launched off the line with a men strike, but I was ready with debana kote, which found its mark to end the match.  I was onto the semi-finals, and one of the scariest matches I've ever had...

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

Wow...semi-finals at PNKF!  I never actually thought I'd make it that far, but I wasn't about to settle for third place.  I wanted the top spot, and only a couple of people were left to face.  Unfortunately one of them was, in my opinion, one of the best in our division.  R. Murao, from Steveston, a guy that I knew was fast as lightning and skilled enough to mop the floor with any of us that day.  Many, many times in the past I've watched his matches because I admire his kendo a lot.  It's fast, strong, and "deadly."  And now I had the pleasure of facing him personally.  The match started after a short break, and we both took our time.  I'd never faced him before, and he'd never faced me, so this was new for both of us.  His attacks came quick, but somehow I was able to fend him off, although I couldn't put together an attack or counter that found its mark.  This seemed to be an issue for both of us, as none of his attacks were landing, either.  We went like this for the full three minutes and the match ended in a tie.  We reset and went into the first encho round (first point wins).  There wasn't going to be another round.  I pressured in, fully focused on my opponent, and launched the best attack I could muster.  a straight, small men.  He countered with kote.  Both attacks found their targets, but only the red flags went up.  My flags.  My attack had landed a split-second before his.  We bowed out and I have to admit that I was in total shock for a few seconds.  From some of the looks of awe and disbelief I think most of the people watching the match were in shock, too!   I had made it to the finals of the biggest tournament in our federation, and I was well on my way to winning it all.  I just had more more opponent.

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz)

My last opponent turned out to be one of my own dojo mates.  Seth, a young, fast, very good nidan.  I'd fought him many many times before at the dojo and a few times at taikai.  I had beaten him last year at Obukan, but lost to him at this year's Obukan in a rematch in the semi-finals.  We constantly go back-and-forth in shiai-geiko at our own dojo, and now we were going to face each other to see who would win at PNKF.  I was ready as I stepped out on the court to begin the match.  We took our time, trying to find an opening to exploit, but we each knew how we fought so well that it was hard.  After exchanging a few attacks I stepped in and launched at his men, and he countered with kote.  Again, both of our attacks landed and the shinpan split their decisions on who took the point.  One flag was up for me.  Two for my opponent.  He took the first, and only, point of the match.  I tried my hardest to regain that point, but was unable to.  On the other hand he was unable to take the final point to end the match.  Time ran out, and we both bowed out and then hugged each other after the match.


Final Score: 0-1 (DeNardi)

Even though I lost that final match, I was not ashamed.  I did my absolute best and I totally outdid myself in terms of the goals I set for that taikai.  The loss didn't even matter to me.  We had both fought magnificently and were both able to stand tall afterward.  But the day wasn't over.  We still had the team matches to look forward to.  Our first match was against Portland, and we came out swinging.  Andy and Aaron both won their matches 2-0 and brought the advantage to our team as I stepped out for the chuken match.  My opponent was Kato, who was shodan like me.  I was definitely out to win the match, and I did so with a well-placed debana kote and men.  Seth finished out his match 2-0, and Billy held up Portland's taisho to a tie, giving us the win and moving us into the next round

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)
Team Score: 4-0 (Spokane)

Our next match was going to be tough.  We faced Youshinkan, which housed not only strong, good kendo but a couple of previous Canadian national team members!!  We were going to have to try and win the first three matches if we wanted to have a chance at moving on.  Andy and Aaron did their very best out there, and were able to pull through with ties in each  match (Aaron was even able to take back a point that his opponent had scored early on to tie it up 1-1).  My match was up next, against a sandan named Chien. Billy's parting words were "Do what you need to do."  I went out to begin and fought well, taking an early point with a men strike, but was unable to take any other points.  My opponent's suriage men counter was getting dangerously close to scoring so I decided not to try and risk it too mcuh and ended the match with the 1-0 win in our favor.  Seth and Billy went out to fight the Asaoka brothers, and fought well, but were unable to pull out a win.  We might have lost the match, but we did our very best and I think we can all be proud of that.


Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz)
Team Score: 1-2 (Youshinkan)

Our day was over, but the memories will definitely live on.  I was glad that all of the little things I'd been working on recently came together so perfectly this weekend, and I don't think could have dreamed I would do so well at such a big tournament.  One big thing I learned this weekend is that I seriously underestimate myself.  I try to be humble, but sometimes I think I go too far with that and it ends up being detrimental.  I don't need to be cocky, but I do need to have more confidence in my kendo and my abilities.  I'll be sure to work on this as I train this next month in preparation for the Kent Taikai in December.

Photo by T. Patana

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Learning to Fly

Photo by G. Hoover
 These past couple weeks have been pretty rough.  Not in a bad way, but in a very good way.  I've been pushing myself hard at practice and I think it's starting to show.  I'm still dealing with my sore hips, but I'm working with Sinclair Sensei to resolve that issue.  As far as technique goes, I feel like all of the little improvements I've been working on are starting to come together pretty nicely.  I'm feeling things start to "click" for me.  I'm pushing through to that next level and it's an awesome feeling, if somewhat difficult. 

We've been working a lot on footwork lately.  Building speed, starting with an explosive movement that happens all at once, and making that movement continue through with our follow-through.  I, personally, have also been working on some more aggressive footwork and being to able to set my left foot when I move and launch immediately, so putting all that together has put more stress on my hips.  Also the fact that I've been turning my hips as I strike has caused some pain and soreness.  This is a new issue that I wasn't aware of before, so I've been taking small steps to try and fix it, and also being more mindful of it during practice so I can catch it early and eliminate it quickly. 

I went to the dojo on Friday night to work with Billy on some different footwork drills and what not, and afterward I stayed and watched the team training.  Sinclair Sensei brought up some points that go along with his motto of  "Train like you fight, fight like you train."  The points that he brought up I've heard before, but they were good to hear again because they really resounded with me.  So Saturday before class I tried working on them on my own.  I have to say that they helped, a lot!  I might not have made any major leaps in skill or technique that day, but I did make a chance in my mindset that I feel showed on the floor during the rest of practice that day.  One of the main things I did was to treat each strike in our drills as a real situation, and to make each strike count.  It helped get me out of the "practice" and "drill" mentality and into a more serious mentality.  Not that I don't take practice seriously, but even making that small change in the way I was thinking about things changed the way I moved, the way I attacked, even the way I did my kiai.  I tried to make each strike count on its own, not only during jigeiko but during each of our drills. 

In addition to the footwork and the new mindset, I've also been working on making my kote better.  It's pretty quick as is, but there is still wasted movement in there, so Billy went over some things I can do to change that and make my kote strike more efficient.  I don't want to necessarily build more speed, I just want to be more accurate and eliminate the wasted movement, so when I have time to work on that I've been breaking it down into it's pieces and going from there.  I'm hoping that here in a few weeks I'll have shown some real improvement with it.  The few times I was able to strike the way Billy showed me it definitely felt better.  Practice practice practice!

All in all, a great couple of weeks.  And even greater because we're leading up to our big PNKF taikai in a couple more weeks.  I hope that I do well since I'll be in the 1-2 Dan division this year, but even more so I hope to continue to show beautiful kendo.  I'm sure that the changes I'm making and I'm seeing develop with my technique will accomplish that goal for me.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

2012 PNKF Shinpan Seminar

This past week our dojo has been focused on shiai-geiko.  Not for the sake of getting practice in the matches, which was fun, but so that our yudansha could learn about and get some experience being shinpan.  For anyone that doesn't know, a shinpan is a court judge in a kendo match.  There are three of them on the court.  Two judges (fukushin) and one head judge (shushin).  Together they call points and penalties and generally ensure that everything goes well and smoothly during each match.  We focused on this aspect of kendo this whole week, leading up to the PNKF shinpan seminar that took place in Seattle, WA this past weekend.

Last week Sinclair Sensei took some time at the end of a couple classes to go over the basics of being a shinpan.  We learned the commands, how to use the flags to signal each one, and some other information about how to stand, how to move with the flags, etc.  Monday and Wednesday we were able to put these ideas into practice by judging matches between our fellow dojo members.  I have to admit, it's a whole different world being a shinpan!  The first thing I noticed is that I couldn't just relax and watch the match.  I had to focus, a lot, on not only one person but on two people that were fighting.  Plus I had to focus on my fellow shinpan to see where they were moving and what they were doing.  It was all so mentally draining!  I can see now why it's so important to keep the shinpan fresh by rotating them out regularly, and I also have a much better appreciation for what they do.  Not that I didn't appreciate them before, but after having been in their shoes, even for our practice matches, I can see what pressure they have on them during each and every match!

I heard Billy say that we are not just judges on the court, but to be truly effective we need to be part of the match with the two competitors.  This was echoed at the seminar itself by Elliott Sensei.  What that means to me is in order to truly excel at being a shinpan I have to be able to mentally fight with each of the competitors on the court.  And I have to be able to have this kind of attention and focus while also paying attention to my fellow shinpan.  We'll see how well I do with it as time goes by.

One of the main things I noticed about myself was that I had no trouble calling the commands. I felt like I was loud and clear with each command, from starting the matches to calling the points to handling out penalties when needed.  One thing I need to work on is actual flag positioning.  Specifically keeping my palms down when I call points.  I tend to let my palms face forward when I bring the flag up so I'll have to keep that in mind next time.  Another thing I need to work on (and this is a biggie) is handing out points too generously.  I tend to give points when sometimes I should be more reserved.  Along this note it was good to hear Marsten Sensei tell us that if we call a point early and then change our minds we can always wave off our own point.  I hope to be able to work on this so that I don't have to wave off my own points too often, but I feel like being able to see and call a good point is something that will get easier with time.  Just like when I was first learning to do a correct men strike, now I am learning how to JUDGE a correct men strike.

All in all we had a great weekend at the seminar (which I just now realized I didn't write about much).  One thing that I remember is some parting advice that Dejong Sensei gave us.  He said to "make your own mistakes."  What he meant was to take what we learn from others and then go out and try to always improve that.  Note other shinpan's mistakes and learn from them, and if we do make a mistake fix it next time.  That way we are always working towards improvement.  In addition to this piece of advice, I gained so much new knowledge about being a shinpan and had plenty of matches to run through to work on my own skills.  I feel like this is really a step in having "complete" kendo and it's a duty that I want to take seriously and improve as much as I can.  Just like everything else, though, practice makes perfect.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Efficient Improvement

Lately I've been talking a lot about working on and making improvements, not only in my own conditioning and endurance, but also with techniques such as kaeshi do.  I had a somewhat specific plan of action when I decided to work on kaeshi do, and it's a plan that covers any technique that I want to learn, and it was taught to me by Sinclair Sensei.  Now, granted, I'm sure I took some small shortcuts here and there, but the basic foundation is the same, and it's a way of tearing down each technique and to their core movements and then building them back together to build a strong technique with strong basics.  It really mimics the style of teaching and training that we use, and something that I've been exposed to since day one in the dojo.  It's also been an emphasis in the dojo for the past couple of weeks.  Sensei has been taking time to go over the process with us in detail.  It's something I've heard many times before, but I'm always grateful to go over it again because each time gives me new ideas and new insight, and also strengthens what I already know and practice myself.  I'm excited to put this process to use learning and improving other techniques that I know and use, or even ones that I'm not too familiar with or good at.  I've always been of the mindset that just because I don't use a particular technique that often doesn't mean I should ignore it or not be able to use it effectively when the time comes.  I want to train towards a point where I can be totally clear and focused during practice and just let the movements and the techniques flow out of me as the situations to use them arise, and to be able to do it without necessarily thinking about it.  One of these days...

In addition to our focus on breaking down and building up our techniques, Kuster Sensei has been gracious enough to host a three-part jodan seminar.  Or rather, how to fight against jodan.  We've been going over this for the past two Mondays, with the last part taking place tomorrow, and I have to say that it's been an eye-opener.  I thought I knew quite a bit about how to fight against jodan just from the advice that Billy has given me, but after these first two sessions I've learned so much more that it puts what I did know to shame.  We've gone over everything from the basics of kamae against a jodan player, to how to move in and strike efficiently by using footwork and body carriage and I'm super excited to see what's in store for our last session tomorrow.  I know that next time I face a jodan player in shinsa or taikai I'll definitely be more prepared.

Short post today, for anyone reading, but there's definitely a lot that I was able to take away from all of the teaching that I've had lately, both personally and to the whole dojo, and I am working towards tightening everything up before the next taikai in November.  I might not turn any heads with crazy new waza, but I hope to raise the bar for myself and show some all-around improvement.  If I can do that then I'll be happy no matter what else happens.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Conditioning

This past week has been pretty good, as far as kendo goes.  I'm finally starting to get all healed up and my foot isn't as fragile as it has been for the past couple weeks.  I am still kinda taking it easy on it but it's nice to be able to somewhat do fumikomi correctly without having pain shoot up through my heel.  Now I just have to get my hips in proper order, which right now they're out of whack due to my sleeping situation recently, but that also got straightened out so it should only be a matter of time for them to start behaving, as well.

What I really need to work on right now, inside and outside of the dojo, is my endurance.  I know that this has always been the one biggest weakness that I have, and so far my willingness to correct it has been sporadic.  I will dive headlong into fixing it for a while (weeks, even months sometimes) but then I let the daily grind get to me.  I get "busy" and I "don't have time" to properly run or work out, and it's perfectly justified to me, even though I know deep down it's just an excuse.  Or I will injure something that will cause me to have to slow down, at which point I kind of fall off the bandwagon again.  This time, though, I want to make a determined effort that won't fade away in a few weeks.  This time I'm serious about improving, more so than I have been before.  I'm writing it all down here to keep myself accountable, so that I can see it every time I look at this page.  I started running again, after a few weeks of not doing so, so I have a good feeling that I'll be able to ramp that up to where I was before fairly quickly.  Also I will be doing more core exercises at home, as well as more hayasuburi.  In practice I will be pushing my limits, as I did yesterday.  During yesterday's training I stepped out once, briefly, to stretch my hips and let them relax for a bit, but I was back in as soon as I felt I was ready.  I want to push myself hard, but I also have to watch out for injuries that I might have or that I'm just getting over so I have to be able to recognize when to keep going and when to step back because I'm not doing my body any good. 

Wednesday I had an interesting experience.  Before class our sensei came and asked if I could lead the advanced class in kaeshi do drills.  This was a big first for me.  First time I've taken control of the advanced class.  I kept things simple, first breaking down the strike the way that I've seen and been taught and I tried to have people focus on making on smooth, quick movement with the shinai from block to strike, and making a very small step.  I built up from there until a few drills later we were doing the full kaeshi do drill, where both sides would hit and go through.  It was pretty fun, and a bit nerve-wracking, to lead the advanced class, but in a lot of ways it was way easier than the beginner or intermediate classes.  The advanced members have all been around long enough that a lot of explanation is not necessary.  I was able to just point out a couple of points that I thought were important and they followed suit.  Still, I enjoyed the experience and look forward to hopefully doing it again in the future.

I've been concentrating a lot on kaeshi do myself, as I've written about recently, but I've also been working on kote.  I seem to do a fine job of using debana kote when the opportunity is present, but when I step in to hit just a straight, simple kote I am not very successful.  I'd like to change this, so I've been working on just stepping in and striking kote.  My main problem seems to be that I don't get in deep enough and I end up hitting the tsuba or the wrist a lot.  Ando Sensei gave me some good advice on this, advice which I will be sure to use the next time I have a chance to practice.

Lately in jigeiko I've had a lot of time and gained a lot of experience fighting against nito.  This is due in part to the return of Jeff, one of our members that had been away from the dojo for a few months due to work.  It is also due in part to Sensei's son, Dan.  He has started using nito in jigeiko, after practicing with it for months and months during our regular drills.  So now we have three consistent nito players at our dojo.  It's interesting to see the similarities in all of their styles, but also the vast differences in the way they all fight, and it keeps me on my toes to try and adapt to all of them while also fighting against two swords.  It's definitely a challenge that I look forward to, though.

So, to wrap things up, I'm hoping that over these next few months, and into the future, I'll be able to make a change and vastly improve my conditioning and my endurance.  Stay tuned to see how I'm doing with it!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Two Paths, Same Destination

This whole week Sinclair Sensei and his family, as well as a few dojo members, are gone on vacation so it's been left to the yudansha to help run the show while they're away.  I've been tasked with leading and teaching the intermediate classes.  This is something I'm used to and do often, but when I'm left to myself with no clear lesson plan it's always a challenge.  I have to take a look at the students and where they're at in their development, and try to put together a class that is appropriate for them.  Also trying to introduce the basics of new ideas, but not overwhelming them, is interesting.  If anyone has led a class, I'm sure they know what I mean.  Being that I'm only shodan, I definitely have a lifetime worth of kendo knowledge and technique left to learn, but I do the best with what I have and what I've been taught. 

Ando Sensei took over teaching our main class last night, and he led a very good, and exhausting, practice.  I've always marveled at the way that he and Sinclair Sensei have two entirely different ways of teaching, but they are both conveying the same information.  For example, the way they explain a small men strike is vastly different from each other, but I can see that the mechanics of both of them are exactly the same in practice.  I wonder if this is what others experience from sensei at their dojo.  It reminds me of how people learn in different ways.  Some learn by reading, some by doing.  Some by repetition, etc.  But no matter the different ways of learning they are all learning the same thing.  This might not be a big, profound idea to a lot of people, but it's always good for me to see the two different teaching styles working together to drive us all to the same goal.

I hurt myself about a week ago, bruised my heel on a wrong step, so I've been taking it pretty easy recently with training and when given the time I've been working on my kaeshi dou strike.  I realized that the main reason I'm so bad at it is my timing is way off.  I not only block/counter too late, but I make two motions instead of just one smooth movement from the block into the counter.  So, to save my foot and let it heal, I've been practicing just the block and strike itself with very little body movement.  This one simple point to focus on has done wonders for my kaeshi dou, and I'm able to strike quickly and more on target than I ever have been able to with this technique.  Once everything is back to 100% with my body I'll start doing full-fledged kaeshi dou drills and see if I can incorporate the strike I've been working on with the body movement.  It also doesn't hurt that Ando Sensei broke down the movement for us to the very, very basics last night, and I hope to use that later on, as well.

Not too much to write about this go-round, but it's been a slow process trying to recover from that one wrong step.  Let this be a lesson to always push forward and never hesitate at the last second!

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Four Mental Sicknesses - Hesitation

In my ever-changing and growing kendo life, I come across various ideas and theories and techniques that are all over the spectrum of understanding for me.  A lot of things seem relatively easy to grasp, on the surface, only to reveal their complexity later on down the road.  Some things completely pass me by the first time I hear then, and then as I grow and mature and revisit those ideas they suddenly begin to open up and share their knowledge with me.  The idea of shikai - the four mental sicknesses - was one of those ideas that was way over my head the first time I heard about it, but recently I've had a chance to take another look at it and I'm beginning to understand what it has to teach me.

Shikai, as the meaning implies, are detrimental to our kendo and can hold us back from performing at the best of our abilities.  The sicknesses are kyo-ku-gi-waku, or astonishment (surprise), fear, doubt, and hesitation.  Each one of these I've experienced in varying degrees throughout my training, whether it was at the dojo during jigeiko or in the middle of a taikai match.  I'm definitely no expert in all of their meanings or ways that they can hinder us, but it's good to know I'm starting down the path of understanding.

Kuster Sensei led practice last Saturday, while our juniors were away at Jr. Nationals, and we concentrated on one of the four sicknesses - hesitation.  I won't try to transcribe everything that was taught that day, because I would fail horribly, but I do know what I took away from it and what I'm working on.  One of the things that I realized, or rather, that came to the front of my mind during that training session, was that I hesitate a lot.  I second-guess myself a lot, which leads to holding back and "false starts"  where I will begin an attack and then just stop in the middle of it.  It's a very bad habit of mine and one of my biggest weaknesses, and now that I'm aware of it I can work to overcome it.  That day we worked a lot on making sure that we had our feet set in a proper stance, we had our weight distributed properly, and that we had a properly kamae.  Not only with our swords but also mentally.  We worked on our drills by striking on the whistle, but were instructed that if we started to go prematurely that we should strike without stopping.  It was VERY hard to get myself to stop and wait, or to just go if I started early, but after a while I was able to kind of calm myself down, for lack of a better term, and it helped to greatly minimize the number of false starts that I had.

This is something that I will be working hard to eliminate in my own kendo.  to not second-guess myself when I start a technique, and to blast through when I do start a technique.  As Kuster Sensei told us, we shouldn't be concerned with being countered or blocked, our only concern should be getting to the target so fast that our partner/opponent has no chance to do anything.  I know it's going to be a long road to fully clean this up and overcome it, so I'm not expecting anything drastic anytime soon, but even after that lesson last week I've noticed less hesitation during jigeiko all this week.  I've been making a lot of small changes and improvements like this for a while now, and I'm hoping all the small things can add up to big improvements and cleaner, more precise, and beautiful kendo down the road.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Shiai-Geiko

Recently our dojo has been focusing a lot on shiai-geiko (practice matches), mainly to get the juniors ready for the AUSKF Junior Nationals taking place this weekend in Seattle, WA.  This isn't something that we usually focus on, so the change of pace at practice has been both interesting and welcome.  While treating these matches as "real" matches, I've also tried to focus on a few things throughout.

First off, I tried to make a connection with each of my partners.  Mirroring their movements and keeping that connection through the beginning and end of each match.  I believe this is to be an integral part of kendo and one that I constantly strive to improve.  If I'm able to make and keep that connection then I tend to notice when they lose focus and am in a position to take advantage of that opening.  This is still being developed in me, and I look forward to improving on it in the future.

Each time a match started I would rise from sonkyo, step forward, and immediately kiai with full spirit.  This not only set the pace for the match, but seems that a few times it helped set the pace for others.  It also showed that I was there for business, and not to be taken lightly.  Something that I do, personally, is try to imagine projecting my spirit and energy at my opponent as I kiai.  it might sound silly, but it works for me.

I also tried to be as aggressive as possible, and not let up on my opponents.  This is something that I'm always working to improve, just like keeping a connection, but a valuable skill that has served me well through the years.  In one of my earliest matches I was beat by an opponent that was more or less on the same level as me as far as technique goes, but he was way more aggressive and it was that skill that led him to victory and led me to develop that in myself.  What I mean by this is I tried to not block without a counter, and I was constantly pressuring in and looking for an opening, both physically and mentally.  When someone backed up, I would follow and attack.  When I backed up I tried to find an opening for hiki waza as I did.  Things like that.

Lastly I tried to perform the best kendo and techniques that I could.  I felt that I kept my posture straighter than I ever have before, and I was snapping my left foot up more consistently, instead of letting it fly up behind me.  A few times I felt it happen, but for the most part it felt like my left foot and leg snapped into place fairly quickly.  I also worked on not leaning into my strikes, and instead trying to move from my center.  Again this is something that I've been working on for a while, and will continue to work on all through my kendo life, but it's good to feel change and improvement after so much practice on it.

So, not a lot to comment on over the past few weeks, but it's these little changes and improvements that really help me along.  It seems, for me, that climbing the kendo mountain is a series of small steps that build up over time, instead of huge steps with major, immediate improvements.  I don't think I'd have it any other way, though!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Ipponme And Maai

We've recently started our in-depth study of kata that we do twice a year, and we've started with ipponme.  No matter how many times I study these kata, I'm always introduced to new things, new ways of looking at what I'm doing, and differently mentalities and mindsets to focus on.  One new idea had to do with maai, or spatial distance.  Billy introduced us to a new concept concerning ipponme that will greatly improve the rest of my kendo.  Or maybe, an old concept that I am just now ready to understand.

Those that are familiar with the kata know that both sides take up jodan-no-kamae.  Nothing new there.  But one thing I didn't realize, or didn't consciously realize, is that when you do that it takes away your "measuring stick."  You no longer have your shinai or your partner's shinai in front of you to judge distance, and I realized that I do that all the time without even thinking about it.  But with both sides raising their swords up it forces you to judge distance between you and the other person, not just between your shinai.  Billy pointed out that smart players can use this to their advantage, and use the "shinai distance" to trick their opponents into thinking that they are either too close or too far away, so it's very important for us to be able to determine the distance between us and our parnters/opponents without using our shinai as a measuring tool.  Ipponme can teach us that, and I hadn't even realized it until yesterday. 

We used most of our time yesterday working on this point, running through various drills using our bokken and finally leading up to going through the entire kata with our partner.  We then put on our bogu, grabbed our shinai and focused on some practical uses of the distancing points that we went over earlier.  We worked on not only having the proper distance to our partner, but also on following them after they hit and being ready to strike when they turned.  So not only did we need the proper distance, but also to have our body, sword, and mind ready to strike. 

A very valuable lesson, indeed, and one that I hope to focus on in the coming months.  No longer will I have to rely on my shinai to measure distance.  I'll work on not only being able to judge distance to my target, but also work on using that distance to my advantage.  And it's all thanks to a new, different look at a familiar kata.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Sutemi

 The Japanese-English Kendo dictionary, located at www.kendo-usa.org, defines sutemi as:

"Sute-mi  (n.)  1.  Concentration and effort with all one’s might, even at the risk of death.  2.  Concentration of all one’s effort into one strike, even at the risk of defeat."

Ok, so risking everything at the risk of defeat or death.  But how does that apply to our own training?  Fighting to the death is a very foreign concept to many of us, but I believe that we can all understand fighting at the risk of defeat.  This is a concept that we've started examining in more detail at our dojo lately, and one that I believe can be learned at any stage of practice that you're at.

To put it simply, Sensei explained that sutemi is putting 100% effort into a strike.  Holding nothing back and leaving all cares and worries behind so that you can give all of yourself over to that strike.  it sounds like a complicated idea, and it is, but just like all things in kendo I believe that it has many layers.  We just need to find the layer that is appropriate for where we're at.

For the beginner, and this is what I worked on (and still work on) is hitting without hesitation.  Stepping in, having a good stance and kamae, and then letting loose with everything on that hit.  One thing that helps me, and that I've heard before, is to think of each pass as a separate strike.  In a men-uchi drill, for example, we do five strikes.  But instead of thinking of doing five strikes, I try to think of striking once, five times.  

One thing that was brought up today was the idea that the person that is willing to risk it all and lose is the one that will most likely come out as the winner.  If you have a mindset of holding back because you don't want to lose, you can never fully commit to a strike.  But the person that throws it all away, at the risk of being countered, is the one that is able to fully commit to the strike and can win the point, or the match, or even just win the moment.  So along with all of my other focus points, since Sensei brought this up I've been trying to incorporate it into my own training.  He said that if we can all put in an effort to really develop this over the next few months that by the end of summer our kendo as whole will be much more developed and solid.  

Speaking of myself, I do tend to hold back here and there, and it mostly comes from doubt.  Can I really get that strike in on my partner/opponent?  What if I get countered?  Maybe I should just play it safe.  These are all thoughts that cross my mind as I struggle to develop a mind and body that will fully commit to each and every strike that I make.  

Sensei also brought up a good point about zanshin.  He said that we can't have proper zanshin if we don't have proper commitment to the strike.  If we strike with doubt and hesitation, and then see that the strike was good and try to exhibit zanshin, it's too late.  He pointed out that sutemi directly relates to good zanshin and follow-through.  Another great point, and one that I have experience many times.  When I do have those moments of clarity and can throw everything into an attack without a second thought, I always feel that my zanshin afterward is much much better.  It seems like a natural progression from seme to sutemi to zanshin (pressure, committed attack, alertness after the attack).  

Today I was challenged by this concept, though.  We went through many one-point timed matches where the winner would stay and fight again (kachi-nuki sen, as was pointed out to me).  At first they were two minute matches, and I was able to settle into my own, familiar pace, but once we switched to one minute matches I really had to change the way I approached the match.  Instead of having time to set-up and observe my opponent, I had to go out and throw everything I had in the hopes that I would come out victorious.  the first few minute matches I had ended up in a tie, in which both of us exited the court and two new kenshi would step in to fight.  But as I got used to it I started really throwing everything I had into the matches, into the strikes.  Each one was valuable, as I was only able to get so many in before I would be defeated by either my opponent or the timer.  There was definitely a shift in my thinking and mental state by those last few matches, and this was the point of the shorter matches.

Again, sutemi is a varied concept, both simple and complicated depending on our level of understanding and application.  I'm excited to have this time to start focusing on it, though, and I hope to be able to start showing improvement in my own kendo through it.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Going Out In Style

Yesterday was a special time for the members of my dojo.  For the past school year we've had a nidan from Japan training with us.  He came over as part of an exchange program for school, and yesterday was his last practice with us before he heads home this week.  The energy and emotional levels were high, and we all did our best to give him a proper send-off.  I'm sure that he'll return home with some lasting memories, and I'm glad I got to be a part of all of it.

Sensei really emphasized having sharp footwork and sword work yesterday, and we spent much of our warm-up time working on these aspects.  Stepping forward and back, side-to-side while snapping our trailing foot into place quickly, as well as making our strikes all one quick motion, instead of two motions (bringing the sword up, pausing, and then swinging forward to strike).  Personally I feel like my swing is ok, it can always use more work, but the footwork is something that I can definitely pick up the pace on, and something that I've been working on recently.  Just not quite in the same way.  So all during practice I tried to keep that focus of sharp, crisp footwork and snapping up my trailing foot quickly. 

As an extension of the sharp, quick strikes we also worked a lot on kote and debana kote.  Except for a few hiccups I felt really good with them yesterday.  For the most part I was accurate, and quick.  Although when going against jodan I still have so many issues with the timing.  I feel like I'm either way too early and not actually doing the right timing, or I'm way too late (usually this) and the target is gone before I can hit it.  It's definitely frustrating, I don't feel like I'm getting any better at it when facing jodan.  But I'll keep on it.  Hopefully all of the advice that Billy gives me will start sinking in sooner or later.

After a few weeks of missing him in rotation, I finally had a chance to do jigeiko with Ando Sensei again.  I tried to focus on just hitting and not hesitating like I have been known to do with him.  It seemed to work pretty well, for the most part.  Even when he struck me (which was often), I felt like I was also pushing myself forward to strike.  So even though I maybe would have lost the point if it were a match, I felt like I won in overcoming myself.  These small steps might be just that, small steps, but they are encouraging nonetheless.

At the end of practice we had a going away event of sorts for our friend that was leaving.  All of the yudansha formed a big circle with him in the middle and he did tachikiri-geiko with all of us.  In other words he had to fight all of us, in a row, with no breaks.  We started with us at the shodan end of the spectrum, and worked up to Ando Sensei in the final round.  Each round lasted one minute, and we pushed our friend hard.  There were only about nine of us, but by the end I could tell that Shu could barely stand.  But he was still able to grab a burst of energy here and there and throw out some great strikes.

In the end we had a great practice, not only as far as training goes, but for the fact that we were able to send our friend off in style. And hopefully in the future we'll be able to practice with our friend once again!

Photo by W. Sinclair

Monday, June 4, 2012

Rose City Taikai 2012

This weekend our friends at the Obukan Kendo Club hosted their annual Rose City Taikai in Portland, Oregon.  We traveled down Friday with 14 people, 11 of whom were competing.  This year we also took a couple of our pre-bogu members so that they could be part of the taikai and kendo trip experience.  Overall I think it's safe to say that everyone had an amazing time.

Friday we showed up a bit late to the Obukan dojo, so we went straight from the van to the changing room to the floor as quickly as possibly to get in on a few drills and a whole lot of jigeiko.  I felt a bit off, a bit slow, but that could have been due to the eight hour van ride we just had prior to training.  Still I gave it my best and was able to get in a few rounds of jigeiko with a lot of the Obukan members, including their head instructor, Hancock Sensei.  I could definitely feel the difference in humidity between their dojo and ours, though, as it had me sweating buckets by about the fourth rotation!  It's amazing what a little change in weather patterns can do to a person.  After training we headed back to the hotel for dinner, relaxation, and much needed showers!  The next day would soon be approaching, and I wanted to be refreshed and ready for it.

Saturday came and after loading up the van and eating we headed out to the Portland Community College and the start of the day's events.  I read through the information packet and saw that my division was the second-to-last division of the day, so I had a few hours to prepare and watch my fellow team members and the other divisions before I was up.  I have to say that Billy was mighty impressive in the Sandan and Up division, as well as Andy and Yarrow in the Junior 13-15 division and Junior Teams.  Nathan, 3 Kyu, also had a strong showing in the 2 Kyu and Below category.  Ours was the next one up, and I knew it would be a tough fight.  The bulk of our members were competing in my division, 1 Kyu-2 Dan. Not only would I be fighting some great kenshi from other dojos, I was almost guaranteed to run into some of my own dojo members.  Our division started and I felt a lot of inspiration and energy from our strong showings in the previous matches and I really wanted to carry that on through our matches, as well.

My first match was against a kenshi named Choi from a dojo that I had never heard of, Kogakukan.  We stepped in and as soon as the match started I was pleasantly surprised.  My opponent immediately lifted up into jodan-no-kamae.  I had fought Billy at our dojo many, many times, but this was the first time that I had the chance to go against a jodan kenshi in a tournament setting, and as I changed the angle of my shinai to point up to his left kote I almost let a smile slide across my face.  I stepped in and held my ground, wanting to see what he would throw at me and what I could expect from him compared to my fights with Billy.  He was fast, no doubt about it, and I had a tough time countering his attacks, but at the same time I felt that my experience fighting against jodan gave me a slight advantage in that I wasn't intimidated or confused at all by the change in kamae.  I just went out and remembered what I had learned and been advised about fighting jodan and put it to good use.  I was able to keep him from scoring on me, although there were a couple of close calls, but on the other hand he was also able to keep me from scoring.  I honestly felt a bit sluggish during that match, like I wasn't fully warmed up, but I tried not to let that stop me and I did my best.  The match ended up going into not only one encho round, but two, and when neither of us could score after that they called hantei (judge's decision).  From where I was standing on the court I could see the head shinpan's flag go up white, for my opponent...ouch.  On the other side I saw one of the other shinpan's flag go red, for me.  So it was all up to the shinpan that I couldn't see behind me to decide the outcome. I soon knew what he had decided, as I saw the head shinpan's flag change to red and he called the match in my favor.  I had not only fought my first match against a jodan player, but I had also won my first match by hantei!

Final Score:  0-0 (Ruiz by Hantei)

After a bye and a few more matches I was up again.  My opponent this time would be, not surprisingly, someone from my own dojo.  My buddy Aaron, Nidan.  I knew that Aaron was very fast, had a reach advantage on me, and also took part in team training and went to the US national taikai last year, so this was not a match I would take lightly.  We set up, walked in and bowed to each other, and the match began.  Nothing happened for a few seconds, as we both pressured in, and Aaron was the first to break the ice and attack.  I was ready, though, and as he swung for and missed my kote, I raised up for a nuki men strike that found its target to take the first point.  We reset and Aaron and I fought hard against each other for a while longer, both of us trying to get the advantage and take another point, but it was me that took the next point, and the match, with another well-timed nuki men.

Final Score:  2-0 (Ruiz)

The next match was the semi-final match, and my opponent was Seth, another member of my dojo.  We had fought in this same situation last year, in the semi-finals of this taikai, and I had barely won.  Would I be able to win again this year?  We were about to find out.  We stepped in and started the match, and the pressure between us was electrifying.  We knew each other well, and knew how each other fought, so neither of us wanted to give a blatant opening or opportunity to the other person.  We fought through the entire three minutes of the match with no score, both of us coming close to taking a point but neither of us able to get it.  Our first, and second, encho rounds went the same, as neither of us were able to score on the other during the extra minute of time in each round.  It came down to and unlimited encho round, in which the tournament rules stated that one of us would have to score a point to advance to the finals.  We fought for what felt like forever, and I was exhausted by the time the point came.  Unfortunately it was not a point for me.  I had struck and moved through, and as I turned Seth nailed me with a well-placed men strike that I was unable to block or counter.  He took the well-deserved victory and a place in the finals round.  I wasn't mad or sad at all to lose to him.  We both had pushed each other to the edge and given each other everyone that we had, and in the end he came out on top.  That day, at least :-).


Final Score:  1-0 (DeNardi)

So my road in the individuals division was over, and I took third place.  I was happy with the outcome. I came and fought some great people and I think I earned that third place finish.  But my day wasn't over yet.  I still had team matches to attend to.  We were able to field two teams, and my team consisted of (in order): Matt, myself, Wendy, Nathan and Aaron.  Our first match was against Cascade dojo, and they had quite a strong team.

Wendy gave Matt and I the order to "Go out there and get the win," so we would head out strong and get a couple of wins in our favor.  Matt performed beautifully in the first match, winning by a score of 1-0.  It was my turn up and my opponent was a fellow named Barlos, a kenshi that Cascade had borrowed from Kogakukan.  After a brief pause for debris on the court, the match started.  I pressured in and my opponent immediately went to strike kote, which I countered with nuki men for the first point.  We reset to the lines and he rushed in for a quick men as soon as the round started again.  I was ready, though, and was able to take the match with a debana kote that found its mark.  Wendy and Nathan were up next, and although they fought bravely they ended up losing their matches to their opponents.  Aaron was the last to fight, and at this point everything was tied up between our dojos.  We both had two wins and three points each, so the winner of this match would determine which dojo moved on.  Aaron was ferocious and smart out there, and ended up forcing a tie.  That meant that each dojo would have to send one person out to decide the outcome, in and unlimited encho, first-point-wins match.  Cascade decided to send Ono, the kenshi that had beat Wendy in our team match and the guy that took second place in my division.  Our team decided to send me.  With the fate of our team on my shoulders I wasn't about to go down easy.  I wasn't about to go down at all.

The match started and I pressured in but kept my distance a bit, just to see how he would react.  He launched many kote and men strikes at me, but none landed.  I kept this up for quite a while, running him around the court and forcing him to use up more and more energy.  And then I began to attack.  I could tell that he was exhausted, and I also noticed that I wasn't tired at all.  I knew I could take the match if I was patient and smart and waited for the perfect opportunity.  At one point I thought I had it, as my opponent had missed with a hiki men and backed up all the way to the court line.  I came flying in and struck his kote.  I wasn't able to get the point, and my opponent decided to step in to taiatari with me, right on the court line.  That didn't end well for him, as I ended up sending him flying out of bounds and into the wall beyond.  I felt bad, but in the middle of the match was no time to apologize.  I just calmly stepped back to the line and waited while they gave him a penalty for stepping out of bounds.  The match restarted and after a few more exchanges I was able to take the match for our team with a well placed hiki men of my own.

Our next match was against Obukan's A team, and unfortunately it would be the last team match that we were able to participate in.  Obukan's A team had all of their top kenshi on it and for the most part they were able to take the matches against my teammates.  I wasn't going to let that deter me, though.  When I stepped up for my match we were already one win and two points down, but I was able to fight well against a much tougher opponent (Stabley, a Sandan from Obukan) and not only take the first point with a well-placed kote, but also take the win for our team.  We traded kote points in the first half of the match, but I was able to back my opponent to the corner and take the match with another debana kote, winning 2-1.

My day of competition was nearly over, but I felt great about it.  I felt that I had done well in the individual rounds and extremely well in the team matches.  In fact, all of our members that competed did extremely well.  We were able to go out and do some great kendo, and I was able to confirm to myself that I could not only hang in this new yudansha division, but that I could definitely be a great force to contend with.



Thursday, May 31, 2012

Pre-Taikai Thoughts

Tomorrow we head out for the Rose City Taikai in Portland, OR.  This will be the third year I've competed in this taikai.  This is also a special time for me.  Three years ago, at this very taikai, was my first experience competing in kendo.  I've never really competed in many things in my life before I started kendo.  A couple of local skating competitions when I was a teenager.  A spelling bee here and there for school.  But other than that not much.  I wasn't big into sports growing up so I never had the opportunity for competition. 

The one thing I've noticed, in my own experience, is that it's not about winning and losing to me.  Don't get me wrong, winning is nice and it feels good to come out on top, but to me that's always just icing on top of the delicious cake that makes up the taikai experience.  I enjoy seeing my friends that I've made throughout the area, ones that I don't get to see or hear from much because we live in different parts of the state.  I enjoy the atmosphere and all of the wonderful matches and great kendo that goes on.  And I love putting myself against others to see where my strengths and weaknesses are.  I always learn so much about myself after a taikai; that aspect alone is worth the trip.  And I always come back to my dojo a rejuvenated man.  I believe that this year will be no different.

This year is going to be a tough one, though, because about 90% of the people going from our dojo will be in the same division.  Despite that I feel ready, and I feel confident in myself.  I know that they'll be giving everything they've got, and I plan to do the same.  I will give everything to each one of my opponents this weekend, and win or lose I know that we'll both come out of it improved in some way.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Behind The Curtain

I've had a pretty solid, and tiring, couple of weeks of training since my last post, and I have to say that working on the little issues that I have is tough!  I've put a lot of focus into those things, and I've tried to keep that focus throughout practice...with varied success.  It's definitely an exhausting, and humbling, experience.  Plus the last week I've been fighting a sore throat and the onset of allergies so I haven't felt like I've been quite at 100%.  Anyway, time to dig into a bit of content from the last week!

On Monday things started off regularly, but after kirikaeshi and a few kihon drills we focused on hiki waza a bit.  During this time Sensei explained a bit about hitting the left kote, as well as when it is considered a valid target.  So, more for completeness sake rather than practical application, we did some work on hiki kote and striking the left kote.  What a weird feeling that was!  I'm so used to going for the right kote that it's my first reaction, so I really had to force myself to hit the other one.  I don't think I did that well with it, but I tried my best.  Being on the receiving end of this drill made me realize just how much of a tolerance to pain my right forearm has built up, because every little strike to the left side was pretty harsh.  I toughed it out, though, although I now have a nice bruise on my left forearm.

Sinclair Sensei talked to us a bit about multiple strikes on Monday, as well.  Not just kote-men or kote-do or strikes like that.  What he talked to us about were the openings BEHIND the initial attack.  Being able to see those openings that we create and capitalize on them.  The example he gave was a curtain that has been blown open briefly.  At first all you see is the curtain itself, but for the brief instant that the curtain moves you can see what's beyond it.  Likewise, with our kendo we should be able to attack and immediately recognize the next opening and attack again.  This is definitely a weak point for me, as I'm used to seeing the first opening and taking that one.  I've also noticed that this is a big difference between myself and the nidans in our dojo.  They tend to attack and then immediately follow-up afterward with another attack.  Try as I might during jigeiko that night, I was pretty unsuccessful with trying to see and attack the opening that I created.  But I'll continue to work on it.

Last night's practice was a lot of fun, although it seems that everyone was pretty tired out by the end.  We warmed up a bit, went through kirikaeshi and a few kihon drills, and then immediately went into jigeiko for the rest of the time, which amounted to about a full hour of jigeiko. I was able to practice with most of my dojo mates at least two or three times, and as I went I really tried to focus on what Sensei told us about the curtain.  Again I was not that successful but practice  makes perfect, right?

As far as work outside the dojo, I've been doing a lot of running and core exercise to build up my stamina and endurance.  I've also been focusing heavily on the footwork drills that I was given to help improve my explosiveness.  It's a long road, but I'm starting to feel more and more comfortable using both of my legs during fumikomi, instead of just one like I had a tendency to do before.  While this is all definitely beneficial for me, I'm also usually pretty tired afterward.  But it seems that, little by little, I'm able to push myself a little farther each time.  I'll hold onto this and use it as my motivation to keep going strong!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Little Things

Lately I've been shifting my attention to try and focus on the little things that need improvement in my kendo.  Not necessarily any big things like trying to master new techniques, but small changes in my current techniques, and also in my body carriage and footwork.  While the improvements may not be as noticeable by themselves, together they will make for better, stronger kendo.

In the footwork department I've noticed (and been told) that I not only carry my back heel a bit high, but also a bit too far out.  So I've taken steps to correct this issue, including turning my foot in a bit during drills and keeping my heel down low.  I try to make it a habit to "feel" where the floor is as I step into the correct stance, so that I don't get in the habit of raising my heel too high.  After I get used to knowing how far down to keep my back heel I'll be able to step into it naturally.  While these changes are fairly easy to implement during drills, I still have a tough time with them during jigeiko and end up falling back on bad habits.  I'll continue to work on it, though, so that it becomes habit to keep my heel lower and my foot a bit straighter.

With my body I've really been focusing on keeping my upper body straight and leading with my center instead of my arms and shoulders.  I've had to shorten up my fumikomi to work on this properly, but after I get into the habit of moving and striking from my center I'll be able to expand my fumikomi out again.  Sensei also has me working on more explosive movement, as was my request from him a few weeks ago, so I'm doing some specialized drills on my days off and before practice to help with that.   The process is, honestly, very tiring because I end up engaging both of my legs more than I was before, but it's starting to feel a bit better compared to when I first started, so that tells me that improvement is being made (slowly but surely!). 

With my kamae and sword work I've been working on keeping a good center, no matter what my partners/opponents do.  This one is tough, as a lot of times I end up giving up center prematurely which leads to me getting hit a lot.  But it's still a work in progress.  I've also been trying to eliminate the wasted movement in my swings, which is an ongoing focus, and also to work on various multiple hits, including kote-men and kote-do, and trying to make them as smooth and quick as I can while still keeping my proper technique.  And with my spirit I've been trying to not only keep my spirit high throughout training, but to also remember to carry my kiai as part of zanshin as I follow-through after an attack, and trying to work on keeping that mental alertness that follows an attack, so that I can attack or counter as necessary afterward.  Again, very much a work in progress.

So that's me right now in a nutshell.  Submitted to the wide world of my blog as both a mile marker and a source of motivation to improve these issues.  I'm constantly tweaking and trying to improve my kendo, and with it out in the open for me to see (and anyone else that reads through here), I'm able to better visualize where I'm at and what still needs work. 

On a side note, our dojo welcomed a host of new people into our advance/pre-bogu class on Wednesday night.  We had about 8-10 people that moved up into our class from the intermediate class, and it was so good to see such a large class stick with practice and join us.  I've had the privilege of helping out and even leading their classes quite a bit through the past few months, and I hope that they all continue to practice hard so that they can all be ready for bogu in the (hopefully near) future.  From personal experience it can be quite a shock in our dojo to jump up, because there's so much going on and so many new techniques thrown at them, so I'll be sure to make myself as available as I can for them, and I know that the other dojo members are just as eager to help as I am.  I'm definitely excited to see their progress and their contributions to our dojo over the course of training.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Spokane Japan Week 2012

Photo by C. Parsons

Last weekend was the opening ceremony of our annual Japan Week here in Spokane.  All week there are fun things going on all over town for people to participate in and learn more about all things Japanese.  This year our dojo shook things up a bit by hosting a dinner at our dojo the night before the opening ceremony, as a kind of "grand opening" of our new location.

The fun with dinner kicked off a week prior, when we were told that there were about sixty people signed up for dinner (not including kendo members).  We were all pretty happy hearing that, but in a couple of days that number doubled to around 120, and then finally when the day came we were sitting at 200 people and counting!  I think we exceeded any goals that we had for dinner.  We had planned not only a dinner but various martial arts and taiko demonstrations during the time, as well as some other fun things such as door prizes and a movie afterward for anyone that wanted to stay.

My biggest concern was how we were going to fit that many people into our dojo and still have floor room enough to do the demos, but when I arrived on Friday to help out I saw that Sensei already had that taken care of with the tables and the layout.  I would have to say that even though this was our first attempt at something like this, and despite a few minor hiccups, everything came together pretty smoothly.  Dinner was catered by one of our local sushi restaurants and was delicious, and taiko drumming and flute playing carried on throughout dinner.  Spokane Taiko performed wonderfully and set the tone for the rest of the evening, which included demos for karate (Doshinkan), iaido, and kendo.

We took our turn on the floor last, and after kata and a few drills to show the basic strikes and some more advanced drills we broke up for jigeiko.  I had the pleasure of fighting against a nito kenshi and did my best to put on the best show I could for the crowd.  I got hit a lot, it felt like, but I also landed a couple of great strikes, including a do strike early on.  We finished up, bowed out, and changed to help with clean-up.  Again, I believe that our dinner went off pretty smoothly and I look forward to hopefully doing it again next year!

Saturday brought with it the opening ceremony for Japan Week, at the mall.  This year I was part of the walk-in, which included people from all of the various events that would be going on.  Afterward I had a chance to sit back and watch the other demonstrations, which included more taiko, karate, dancing, iaido, and probably a few others that are slipping my mind at the moment.  When it was our time we stepped into the circle and went over pretty much the same format as we did the night before, with a few subtle changes.  This time we had more people, including some friends from Mukogawa, and some people that weren't in armor.  I think that we had a good mix of younger and older, male and female in our group this year and from what I saw things went pretty smoothly.  We all did our best and I hope that the crowd enjoyed our kendo.  I know that I made some new friends, saw some old friends, and put my best kendo on display for all to see, and I look forward to being able to come back next year!





Thursday, April 19, 2012

Stepping Up

Ever since the shinsa back in February, I've been thinking of ways to improve and step up my training.  I want to be the best that I can be, and I know that there's always room for me to improve.  But how do I do that?  I had a nice talk with my sensei about it last week and after getting some advice and guidance I have a lot of new ideas.


The main things that I want to work on (and am working on) right now are moving from my center and being more explosive.  I believe that I'll have to put in a lot of work to move with my whole body before I can start making it faster, but that's ok.  I want to be able to strike with everything, not just my hands and upper body, and I want to be able to do it in a split-second.  To go from relaxed and pressuring in to striking and flying through all at once.  The first step in doing that is to change my mindset.  Sinclair Sensei put a big emphasis on changing my mindset to begin to improve the rest of my body.  If I want more speed and explosive movement, I need to think of myself as faster and more explosive.  He said to imagine myself as a "small, wiry guy."  For me that is going to be a chore, as I am anything but small and wiry, but after trying to keep that focus the last week I can see a slight hint at improvement already.  So there's step one down, as long as I can continue to keep that mindset.

I've been doing a lot more running lately, since it's warming up outside, and I've also been staying on top of my at-home exercises, doing them just about every other day.  Over time I've noticed an improvement so I'll continue to do those.  Sensei gave me some new variations to work on, as well, so I'll change up my routine and start using those.  I also have some new footwork drills to work on to help with creating more power in my fumikomi and my follow-through.  I just received the new drills last night so I'm excited to try them out.  I just need to remember to start out small and build up to more reps with each one.

Another point that Sensei made was that my shinai speed is already pretty fast.  I shouldn't concentrate on that so much at the moment, and instead shift my focus to proper distance and timing.  Again I will take this to heart and begin to make it my focus.  It's going to take some time, and a lot of practice, but I'll do my best to keep on these two points, as well.

What will all of this add up to?  A stronger, faster, better me!  I not only want to be healthier (with all the exercise and running) but I want to be able to always give 100% every time I train and compete.  As long as I'm doing that I feel that I'll never have a regret concerning my kendo.  I also want to be able to give my best to each of my dojo mates, and to push them and encourage them all to improve, as well.  I have a strong desire to help our dojo be the best it can be, and I can do that through my continued support and help when needed, and also through my willingness to give everything I have for each of my partners during training.

Hopefully over the next few months I'll be able to really focus on these points during my training and begin to transform my kendo into something more than it is now.  I feel that I have a good foundation to work with and now it's time to begin shaping my kendo into what I want it to be, and what I want is beautiful, powerful kendo.