Monday, February 27, 2012

PNKF Winter Shinsa 2012 - Shodan

What an amazing, long, Kendo-filled weekend!  After a much-appreciated day of rest and relaxation yesterday I'm ready to get back to it and log my experience at the shinsa this weekend.  It will definitely be a weekend to remember.

We started out with our usual van ride across the state and over the pass on Friday and attended the training at the Bellevue dojo that night.  It was kind of a special night there.  Not only were we there visiting but the UW guys and girls were there, too.  They are getting ready for the Harvard collegiate tournament and wanted to set up some team matches to practice.  I was picked to be part of that experience and was grateful for the chance to help...and for the chance to change rooms because the main dojo felt like it was about two hundred degrees!

We were split into teams, five on five, with a mix of people from different dojos banding together to face various sets of UW kenshi.  Honestly they did well all throughout, only losing out on a few matches that I saw.  I was placed as taisho (fifth and final spot to fight) in both of the matches I participated in.  The first match I fought Stern, whom I faced over a year ago at PNKF.  He has definitely improved since then as I had a hard time landing anything on him, but was finally able to score a Men strike as he backed up to give me the only point of the match and the win.  My second match was against Kim, and this is the fourth time we've faced each other (the other three times in official taikai matches).  Again I could tell that he improved a lot since last time, and neither of us were able to score although there were a lot of close calls from both of us.  That match ended in a tie.  I was excused to join the rest of practice and enjoyed some great jigeiko matches with many of the yudansha from Bellevue, including Yotsuuye Sensei.  I think that was about my favorite match of the night.  He has a very smooth, sure style and he was able to pressure me without much effort.  At least from my point of view it felt like he was very comfortable pressuring in and hitting me.  I definitely want to develop this in my own Kendo.  Such effortless grace in my movements.  After closing out and thanking our hosts we headed back to the hotel for dinner and sleep.

The next morning we were all up bright and early.  I don't think any of us could sleep with the amount of excitement in the air.  After a lazy morning we headed out to the shinsa to get ready.  We went through the opening and warmups and then split into our various groups for testing.  Our group didn't have long to wait.  There were three courts set up for the juniors, mudansha, and yudansha tests, and our group was first up on the court.  The jigeiko matches came first and I focused on being smooth and confident and not trying to do anything that I was unsure about.  I wanted to show the essentials of my Kendo, not try to throw out a bunch of fancy techniques that might or might not work.  In doing so I ended up doing various forms of Men, Kote, and Kote-Men.  I threw in a few oji waza, as well, when I felt that I had the right opportunity.  My second match was actually with my buddy Matt, which was a lot more relaxing.  We train together all the time and we are always pushing each other to be better so when we went out for our round we threw everything into that two minutes.

After all of the groups had finished we prepared for the kata portion of the test.  I had to perform Nihon Kata one through five, and my partner was my friend Wes from Idaho.  During my Ikkyu test I had done kata with a kenshi from Idaho and she performed wonderfully so I was looking forward to performing with another person from Idaho.  We went out and started, and for the most part everything went well.  There was one slight hiccup that I had when I started to move a half-second before Wes moved, but we both remained calm and quickly got back on track so we were able to recover smoothly.  After finishing and bowing out we watched the rest of the groups and waited for the results.

Before the results were posted, our judges gathered us together and gave us some advice and thoughts.  Imanishi Sensei stressed the importance of ki-ken-tai-ichi and urged all of us to really focus on bringing each of those elements together as one explosive action.  Curtis Marsten Sensei had some advice that really stuck in my head.  To paraphrase, he told us that Kendo has four pieces that work together, like the legs on a chair.  They are kata, shinsa, shiai, and keiko.  He said that if we want to have complete Kendo we must have all four pieces and be able to understand how they work together and be able to apply the principles that they teach us to each other.

The results were finally posted afterward and everyone was excited to see their scores.  I checked mine and was delighted to see that I had received a five out of five on both my jigeiko and my kata portions, which means that I am now Shodan!  While this is a definite milestone for me, I also know that this is just the beginning.  In reality, what this means is that I now understand the basics to a point where I can start really learning Kendo.  It might sound odd to some, but to me it makes sense.  On the way home from the shinsa we stopped for ice cream and celebrated a long-held tradition at our dojo.  Sinclair Sensei brought out three paper crowns to crown all of us Shodan that passed that day.  He also gave us the "Shodan Talk," as I call it.  He explained that we now have the essentials and tools under our belt to really start growing in our Kendo.  He also said that we should remember to not get big heads or egos due to our new rank (something he calls Shodan-itis :-) ), and that we should help to keep each other accountable to continue training just as hard, or harder than ever, so that we can continue to improve our technique and understanding of Kendo and also so that we can set good examples to others at the dojo.

So I made it.  A milestone.  But this journey is far from over.  This isn't even the top of a mountain.  This is the very bottom and now I'm ready to begin the hike up the mountain (or mountains, as the case may be).  There is still so much more to learn, and so much more to improve and refine in my current technique.  Kendo is so simple to learn yet so impossibly difficult to master (I use the term "master" very loosely here), but therein lies the reward if we work hard enough.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The End Of An Era

Last night's practice was awesome.  A high point.  And, as I realized, the last practice I will have as an Ikkyu (pending everything going well this weekend at the shinsa).  Not only as an Ikkyu, though, but as a Mudansha.  Period.  So it was fulfilling that I was able to go out on a high note.  Realistically I've been preparing for this for for the last six months (or longer), but technically my journey as a Yudansha starts in a couple of days.  Let me share a bit of what went on last night.

My buddy Matt and I partnered up for kata at the beginning of class, as we've been going over it in depth for the past couple of months.  I've received a lot of good information about kata 1-5, which I'll be tested on this Saturday, and I feel confident in my kata.  I know the steps, I know the smaller details and now I just need to concentrate on letting it flow naturally.  Sensei had a few last-minute pieces of advice for us.  Nothing radical or game-changing, but he just reminded us all to be sure and take our time with each kata, especially if we are Uchidachi.  He said to move with purpose but not rushed, and to pause to give Shidachi enough time to move with us and be ready for the next part of the kata.  He also gave us some advice about hand placement, especially after bowing out and stepping back.  He noted that our hands should be relaxed down on our hip, like they are in seiza.  I'll be sure to focus on these small pieces this weekend.

After kata and warm-ups we suited up and jumped into the meat of the our practice.  Ando Sensei led us through some drills which included kirikaeshi and uchikomi with Men, Kote and Do, but then he threw in some variations that we don't do too often.  We went back over Men, Kote, and Do, but this time we focused on small strikes.  Small, quick movements with the shinai and kensen, but still having full force in our strikes.  One in particular that he called ura-kara Kote left an impression on me.  It is a Kote strike, but the kensen moves underneath the opponent's shinai and then up to strike Kote.  He stressed the importance of making the movement as small as possible and still striking with force.  The kensen should come only low enough to clear the partner's shinai, and then only about as high as kamae again before striking Kote.  After a few rotations to get into the groove with this technique I was able to practice with with Ando Sensei himself, and he was very encouraging towards me.  We also practice doing a small Men strike where the tip comes just inches above our partner's Men and a Do strike where the tip doesn't leave the body's silhouette.  On this particular one he said to imagine just making a twisting motion to move the shinai into the correct position to strike.  I admit, I need practice with that one as my Do was still too big.  But I still need practice on a ton of things, so I'll just add it to the list.

Afterward we had time for a few rounds of jigeiko.  I ended up fighting with Matt twice, whom is also going for his Shodan test this weekend.  I think those two matches were my favorites of the night.  We both threw our best into it and were both able to get some really nice hits on each other.  Matt is very fast and has great posture and movement, and he told me afterward that I was giving him a lot of pressure during the two matches, which made me feel good.  I tried to keep things relatively simple and go for openings instead of just striking blindly.  I went for Men and Kote mostly, with a couple of hiki waza thrown in when I felt that the opening was big enough for it.  I want to be able to bring that kind of feeling to my jigeiko matches during the test and I believe that if I stay calm and confident that I will be able to. 

After practice I talked with Ando Sensei and Wendy and received some more encouragement for this weekend.  At this point I'm not nervous.  I know I will be once I get my bogu on and am waiting for my turn in front of the judges, but for now I feel confident and I feel ready to take the next step in my Kendo journey.  I'm looking forward to uncovering even more layers of understanding and improvement, and also find new challenges to overcome.  I'm looking forward to continuing to refine my current level of technique and discovering even more about Kendo. So as long as all goes well this will be the end to my Mudansha era, and the beginning of a brand new and exciting era as a Yudansha.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Encouraging Spirit

Last night felt good.  Real good.  I would even go so far to say that it's one of the best practices I've had in a while.  Granted, I haven't really had a "bad" practice for a while, but this one definitely stands out among the rest.  I can't put my finger on any one reason it was good, other than things felt like they were all working together last night.  I felt pretty quick with my strikes and movement.  I didn't feel like I was leaning this way or that too much and I was keeping my center underneath me.  And I was told there was less hesitation in my movements.  Here's a bit of a rundown of last night's practice.

We started out with kata, as we have been doing for the past couple of months.  I paired up with Andy, my fellow Ikkyu buddy, and we went over Nihon Kata 1-5.  We are both testing for Shodan next weekend at the PNKF Shinsa so we were both just getting everything "dialed in."  I felt really relaxed during each kata.  Usually I am pretty tense in the shoulders but last night I felt like I moved through each kata with ease and without that tension that I usually have.  I know a lot of that comes from knowing the proper steps in each kata.  I've gone over them a lot so now I'm at a point where I barely even consciously think about the steps themselves, which frees up my mind to focus on the details.  The slight variations in movements with each kata.  The feeling of pressure and connection between my partner and myself.  Breathing.  And on and on.  I was given some pointers here and there to improve my kata, but for the most part I think I'm good and ready.  I do love kata, though, and I'm glad that we implemented a weekly kata practice so that I can continue to improve upon them.

After warm-ups we suited up and jumped into our regular practice, which seemed short but oh-so-sweet.  During Kirikaeshi I tried to incorporate what Ando Sensei and Sinclair Sensei told us recently; that is to have a faster downswing.  The upswing can be fairly relaxed, though not slow, but the downswing should be quick, relaxed, and explosive (especially the last few inches of the strike).  It's not an easy thing to do, but I did my best.  I tend to either go all relaxed and "slow" or all tensed up and fast.  It's hard to get that good medium and stay relaxed the entire time.  But I'm learning, slowly.

Next up we went through some uchikomi drills, focusing on Men, Kote, and Do.  I've been working on eliminating the wasted movement in my Men strike, as well as moving from my center and snapping my left foot up afterward fumikomi, and last night it felt like it was all coming together.  Not perfectly, but I felt comfortable with my strikes.  There's always room for improvement but I was fairly pleased with how I did.  Sinclair Sensei noted last week that I've had a noticeable improvement in snapping my left foot up, which is always good to hear.  It's something I'll continue to work on because later on I want to be able to do multiple strikes smoothly and quickly, and having the foundation of good footwork and body carriage will help immensely with that. 

We did a little waza-geiko, where I focused on Men and Kote-Men, before going into a few rounds of jigeiko to finish out the night.  I felt good while practicing with everyone and only had to step out for about a round to stretch my legs and hips a bit.  I think the highlight, though, was my final jigeiko round, which was with Ando Sensei.  I haven't had a chance to do jigeiko with him since he returned from Japan (about a month ago) so being able to practice with him was great.  As always, he beat me up, but I received some valuable experience and advice.  He told me after class to keep working on my Men strike because it's coming along nicely and to continue to be confident with it. 

On another note last night I really tried to not only keep my spirit high but I also worked on encouraging others.  I have a very quiet, introverted personality by nature so I tend to keep to myself a lot.  I will talk with people I know but I don't usually branch out outside of that because it's "uncomfortable" to me.  But I want to try to break out of that a bit.  I want to be able to encourage others to keep on going and to want to improve, so last night I tried to be a little more outgoing during practice.  Sinclair Sensei advised me that this not only helps raise my own spirit, but helps others, and can benefit the whole dojo.  And anything that can benefit the whole dojo is ok in my book.

Just a couple more practices for me until the shinsa...

Monday, February 6, 2012

2nd Annual Spokane Winter Taikai!

This last weekend we held our 2nd intra-dojo taikai here at our dojo.  Last year we opted to have a winter camp/taikai up at Deer Lake Resort, but this year we just had the taikai here in town.  The good thing, though, is that we had a lot more people that came to watch and to participate.  We had about 10-12 people in each category (Beginners, Mudansha, Yudansha) and overall things went smoothly and we were all able to see and participate in some great Kendo!

The beginners started first, which included anyone that was in the intermediate or pre-bogu class, and they had three categories that they were competing in:  Kata, Kirikaeshi, and Uchikomi.  Each pair would go together, and three judges would decide to outcome using hantei-like rules (each would raise the flag of whomever they thought did the best job out of the pair).  I was very impressed with everyone and the effort that they put into each category.  Each person showed strong basics and grasp of the teaching that had been given to them in all their classes lead up to that day, and I was very impressed by each person out there.  Even those that were on the fence about jumping in and competing ended up showing really strong basics and technique.  At the end of the competition my friend Evan ended up winning the Kata division, and a fairly newcomer in our pre-bogu class, Kieran, took the Kirikaeshi and Uchikomi divisions.  But again, great showing by all and I look forward to seeing that level from them in the future!

My division, the Mudansha group, was up next, and we did your basic shiai-style.  For most of the competitors they had normal rules, which were 3-minute matches with the winner being the first to two points or the winner with a one-point lead at the end.  We had a single encho rule in place but none of the matches went that long.  There were three of us Ikkyu fighting that day, and we had a slight penalty against everyone else.  When we fought any of the lower ranks each of our scores only counted as a half point.  So we had to score four times to get the full two points to win.  I wasn't too worried about the handicap, though, and took it as a chance to really focus in and see what I could do in a match.  Mine ended up being the first match of the day, and my opponent was none other than my buddy and fellow Ikkyu, Matt.

Matt and I have fought twice before and each time I was barely able to pull out a win against him, so I definitely had to be focused from the very beginning.  We stepped up to start the match and immediately both pressured in, looking for the opening.  I wasn't able to find anything on him; it seemed like every opening I thought was there was taken away as I struck, and when I would back up I had to really be careful because he would chase me down with his "machine-gun" style that he's known for.  I barely escaped a few strikes that he threw my way, but after a while I was finally able to land a Hiki-Men on him.  We reset and I did my best to be smart and hold onto my point so I could at least take the win by running the clock down.  At one point, though, he went to strike Hiki-Men and as he backed up I saw my chance.  I launched a Kote strike against his raised Kote, which connected and gave me the win.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

After watching a few more matches I was up again.  This time my opponent was a guy named Jacob, and I honestly don't know what rank he is.  I heard that he'd been in Kendo for a few years before I started up and then left on a break for a while.  He recently started up again, though, and has been a welcome addition to the dojo again.  I had a penalty in this match so would have to fight a little harder and smarter if I wanted to advance.  We started off and immediately I pressured in, trying to take a little time to figure him out and see what I could and couldn't do.  I baited a bit with my Kote, which he went for, and I was able to take the first score with a Nuki Men.  We reset and started and again I pressured in.  This time I didn't feel the same yearning from him to strike, so after a few exchanges I launched forward with a Kote, which landed, giving me the second score (and a full point).  We reset again and he almost immediately launched forward for my Kote, which I countered with another Nuki Men to take the third score.  One last one and I would be able to take the match.  It came after a few seconds.  I pressured forward and slightly to the side, exposing my Men, and then launched a Do strike as he sprang forward to strike.  My Do strike connected, giving me the last point and the win.  I was in the finals!

Final Score:  2-0 (Ruiz)

I watched the other semi-final match and quickly saw who I'd be facing.  Andy, a fellow Ikkyu and our sensei's son.  He had been taking people out with his wickedly fast Men strike all day and I was going to try and not let that pattern continue.  After a short break we both stepped up, bowed, and started the match.  I could tell that he was taking his time, trying to find the perfect opening.  Made sense, because I was doing the same thing.  I knew better than to take Andy lightly.  He was younger than me, faster than me, and had way more experience, so I knew I had to fight carefully.  We exchanged blows here and there and I did a great job of avoiding or neutralizing his Men strike but was unable to bring a counter of my own back.  It stayed this way for what felt like forever, until finally I let him sneak in a bit too close and he landed a Men strike on me to take the first point.  We reset and I fought hard to try and take the point back.  Kote, Men, Do, I tried everything but was unable to land anything.  After a while I pressured towards his Men and then launched a Do strike, which connected!  I heard the judges say something when it happened, and as I turned to face Andy I heard them repeat it.  "Time!"  Time had run out a split second before I connected with my Do strike, and unfortunately it did not count.  We went back to the starting line and bowed out.  Andy had won.

Final Score:  1-0 (A. Sinclair)

I did my best, but in the end I was beat by a better person.  I wasn't disappointed or anything because I think I did a great job, and I definitely learned a lot from all my matches.  Andy had the well-deserved win and I had pushed him hard to get it, so I feel good that I gave it my all and came out in second place.  I spent the rest of the time watching the Yudansha division with my mom, explaining the basics of a Kendo match to her and trying to point out why this and that happened.  I think she caught on a bit by the end.  The Yudansha matches were super intense to watch, as they are all really fast and really good.  I think my favorite match out of that group was Jordan's (Nidan) match against Shu (Nidan).  Shu is an exchange student from Japan and he is very fast and very powerful.  I knew that match was going to be a drag-out fistfight, and I was not disappointed.  They flew at each other every which way they could and in the end Jordan was able to take the match.  Jordan eventually went on to take first place, fighting my buddy Billy in the final match.

We closed with the trophy ceremony and I received a pretty awesome handmade dragon trophy for my second place win.  I think it's my favorite trophy now!  I'm definitely looking forward to next year's Spokane Taikai, and any others we might decide to run between now and then!