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.