Thursday, December 5, 2013

Kent Taikai 2013 - Jazz Hands Everywhere!

Photo courtesy of W. Sinclair
A couple weekends ago our dojo traveled to Seattle to participate in the 17th Annual Kent Taikai, and there was definitely no shortage of great kendo to be had!  This tournament is interesting in that it's only for sandan and below, so to me it feels like the competition is a bit closer and heated amongst the participating individuals and dojos.  I say this because, in the team matches especially, there is no chance that I'll randomly be paired against a godan or rokudan, although on the other hand a lower kyu that gets paired against a sandan in a team match is probably feeling that sting that I'm talking about a bit more.  This time out I wasn't in charge of any of the courts so I had free reign to cheer on my friends and fellow dojo mates (and help out when necessary, of course!).  I was also able to visit with some of my kendo buddies, including my friend Mia.  She was the inspiration for the post title, because when I saw her she threw up her hands and waved them around.  Jazz hands!  I have to say that her match against Frank during teams was highly entertaining and I believe the whole room stopped to watch that one!

I watched great matches all day long, as our division (1-3 Dan) wasn't up until right near the very end.  Wendy and Jeff both had a strong showing in the Senior 1-3 Dan (45 years and up) division, both taking 3rd place finishes.  One of our newer, younger members also had a strong showing in his first tournament, and his team placed 3rd in the Junior Teams division.  As my time crept closer I warmed up and readied myself for my first match...

...Which turned out to be against none other than Janell, a member of our PNKF Women's team that competes at nationals.  I definitely had my work cut out for me.  The only obvious advantage I could see that I had over her was my reach, and I was going to try and use it as much as I could in our match.  We bowed in and began our match.  Many times I pressured in and got the response that I wanted, only to fail to capitalize on the openings or situations that were presented to me.  Over and over I did this, not knowing why I couldn't bring myself to follow-up like I knew I should.  We fought for about half the match and she finally took a well-deserved kote on me.  I fought to get it back but after a while time was called.  She took a well deserved victory over me and moved into the next round.  Well, so much for individuals this time around!

Final Score: 1-0 (Frazier-Day)

I might have been out of the individuals but I cheered on my fellow dojo mates as they fought their own matches.  Everyone had strong showings, and I was able to see some impressive kendo from the people in my division.  One thing that stuck in my mind was the devastating hiki-men that was delivered over and over by the eventual winner of our division, a kid named Ichikawa who fought for Bellevue Dojo.  I'd love to be able to strike hiki-men with such speed and explosive power, and seeing that has definitely inspired me to work on it myself.

The Senior Teams division started immediately after our division was finished, and we found ourselves in the first round of matches against Bellevue's B team.  They had a strong lineup, but unfortunately I believe that we had a big experience advantage on them.  Our strategy for this round was to finish them as best we could and not to underestimate any of them.  I was placed in the chuken (middle) position and barely had time to get my men tied and get ready before I had to step out onto the court for my own match.  Our first two members had won their matches 2-0 in mere seconds.  My opponent, Sipko, had taken second place in the 0-4 kyu division; a division that I had won at this taikai a few years' prior to this.  I stepped onto the court, bowed to my opponent, and the match began.  I immediately took control of the fight by strongly stepping in and going for a men-to-kote fake.  I hit a little deep so wasn't able to take that point, but my next kote a second later found its mark.  We reset and I flew in again with a men strike to take the next point and the match.  This sealed out victory, as we had taken the first three matches, but our last two members fought their opponents with as much energy as they had and gave their all to their opponents.  

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)
Team Score: 4-1 (Spokane)

Our second team match was against Seattle.  They always field strong teams, and this year was no different.  Our first two members, while not winning their matches as fast, were able to walk away with two solid wins for our team, displaying some very impressive kendo in the process.  My match was up and I was facing a very daunting sandan from Seattle, Phancenek.  He was a wall of an opponent, but I wasn't deterred.  I stepped in to start the match and immediately launched at his kote.  I wasn't able to hit it, but as he moved to push into me I side-stepped and threw his hands to the side, knocking him slightly off-balance.  The next few exchanges ended with a lot of shoving, a lot of dancing around taiatari by myself, and then me on the receiving end of a missed katate-tsuki which nearly sent my men flying off of my head.  The match was stopped temporarily while I sat and re-tied my men, simultaneously collecting my thoughts and my focus again.  I was definitely not going to lie down for that, but I was able to get myself back in check so that I could try and effectively take out my opponent.  I stepped back to the line and the match commenced.  I noticed that my opponent was a lot less forceful and physical this time around, and I was able to do my kendo without fear of being thrown around the court.  After a few exchanges I landed a men strike to take the first point, and shortly after restarting I landed one of the many kote that I had peppered him with to take the match.  Our last two members fought just as well as in the last round, both taking well-deserved victories to solidify our win.  We were on our way up again!

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)
Team Score: 5-0 (Spokane)

We were in the semi-final match, and our opponents this time were the members of the Kent Dojo.  We'd fought them many times before, and I was ready for a good match with good opponents and friends.  The match started and our first two members won their matches at 1-0 and 2-0, respectively.  My match was next and my opponent was my friend Ian, whom I've fought a couple of times in the past.  He is currently sandan, and a strong one at that, so I knew I had my hands full.  We started out pressuring each other, checking for weaknesses.  I honestly wasn't sure if I could win a match against him or not, but I was going to try and at least not lose.  I did this not by trying to stall and tie him up, but by doing good kendo.  I used everything I had and made clear, calculated attacks to try and score while also keeping him from landing anything on me.  There were a couple of close calls on both sides, and at one point I even had a flag in my favor here and there but nothing that stuck.  At the end of the match we came to a tie, although talking with Ian afterward we both felt that we wanted to keep on fighting, simply for the joy of fighting a good match against a tough opponent.  Our last two members fought beautifully, again, and Wendy was able to hold her opponent to one point in a nail-biting final match to keep us alive and in the lead.  

Final Score: 0-0
Team Score: 2-2 (Spokane by 1 point)

We made it to the finals!  One more round of matches would decide if we were going to stand tall as champions or if we would stand tall as almost-champions.  Either way, we had all fought hard, fought well, and deserved our place in the finals.  Our last opponents were the members of Highline Dojo.  I've always admired Highline, and they consistently produce kenshi with very impressive form and technique.  The matches started and our first two members found themselves in the toughest team matches of the day, each barely losing to their opponents.  My match came up and I found myself face-to-face with a guy named Chikuma, whom I'd just met that day in the lunchroom.  A little background on this mach-up; Chikuma is a friend of one of my friends, an exchange student that we had at our dojo from Japan.  He trained with us for a few months and even fought at the Obukan Taikai back in June on our team, doing exceptionally well and helping us take first place in teams.  I knew my friend to be very good and very fast, so I expected no less from his friend that now stood before me.  The match started and he immediately launched at my men.  I was ready and threw a kote of my own, but hit slightly high and was unable to take the point.  We exchanged blows for about half the match before he finally came in with another fast men that landed successfully.  We restarted and, try as I might, I was unable to take the point back.  Lots of close calls but no points for me.  The match ended when Chikuma landed a kote on me.  Our final members fought bravely, but unfortunately the round was already sealed.  Highline emerged victorious, and we took a well-deserved second place finish.  

Final Score: 2-0 (Maekawa)
Team Score: 4-0 (Highline)

Again, great kendo and great fellowship throughout the day.  I felt pretty good about my turnaround in the team matches, and I'll be working on taking advantage of those openings, whether I create them or they are presented to me.  Everyone on our team and from our dojo did extremely well, and I don't think any of us gave less than 100% of themselves.  I'll definitely be working hard to improve for next year, and I can't wait to return and see how things have changed between now and then.

Friday, November 8, 2013

PNKF Taikai 2013

Photo courtesy of T. Patana
Guess what?  It was that time again!  Time for the 39th Annual Pacific Northwest Kendo Federation Taikai.  I heard that the competitors this year were up into the 300s, although I don't have an exact number, and represented several states and countries.  Some great kendo went down last weekend, as well as some surprises.  Everything that's needed for a good tournament could be found at the Kent Commons and I'm glad I was able to be a part of it.

Our trip was a bit different this year.  Most of the six people that we took to compete had engagements that needed to be worked around, so we all opted to leave later in the day which meant we missed out on practice at Bellevue Dojo that night.  We arrived to the hotel pretty late, had a quick bite to eat and then headed to bed.  The next day came early, not only due to the late night but also due to us helping set up the courts this year.  We arrived bright and early and got to work helping set everything up.  I also had a new responsibility this year as I volunteered to be a court coordinator.  Basically I had to supervise one of the four courts and make sure that each job had a body to fill it, and to get people changed out when needed, etc.  It was definitely a bigger job than I first thought and it kept me busy on my court most of the day.  I was still free to watch a lot of the matches but I ended up hovering around my court most of the day to make sure that people were taken care of.

The afternoon brought the beginning of my division, which I would be sharing with four other Spokane members.  The 1-2 Dan division was made up of many competitors and spread across two courts.  My first match was actually well into the second round, and my opponent was a member of the Tozenji Dojo.  I'd never seen him before so I wasn't sure what to expect, but I knew that Tozenji had good, strong kendo so I readied myself for that.  I stepped onto the court bowed in, and started the match.  I tried to take some time and see what to expect from my opponent.  He was strong, and fast, like I had imagined he would be, but he was also very good at fending off my own attacks.  He was the first to score, with a men strike that found its mark.  We reset and after a few more exchanges I was able to tie up the match with a debana kote.  We fought and fought for a bit, and ended up running out of time.  First encho.  Again we exchanged blows but neither of us were able to gain the upper hand.  We went into a second encho, well on our way to forcing a judge's decision in hantei.  I, however, was able to take the match with a big swing to kote.

Final Score: 2-1 (Ruiz in encho)

I sat back, watched, and awaited my next match.  I ended up stepping onto the court with a member of the Vancouver Dojo this time.  Again, I found my opponent to be strong and fast, and possessing good technique.  We fought through about half the match when I had a moment of hesitation.  This moment cost me the first point, as my opponent quickly took my men.  We battled through the rest of the match but I was unable to take the point back.  He took the much-deserved win.

Final Score: 1-0 (A. Lee)

My opponent went on to fight solidly and take first place in our division.  With the team matches coming up shortly I wanted to try and be ready for them, despite my loss.  We ended up matched with Tozenji in our first match.  First match in individuals, first match in teams.  I watched my dojo mates go and perform solidly against their opponents, drawing a tie and a close loss, before taking the court myself.  I was in the chuken position on my team and was up against another opponent I'd never seen.  Ishikawa, from Tozenji.  He proved to be the death of me.  The match started and from the get go he faked me out with a men-to-kote.  Fortunately he hit a little high and did not get the point, although my resolve was already shaken.  We fought for a short time before he unleashed a hiki kote out of nowhere to take the first point.  We reset and I tried my best to fend him off while also trying to take my own point for a tie, but I was unable to do either.  He stepped in near the end of the match and struck my men to take the second point and end the match.   The rest of the team fought well, taking their matches by one point each, but unfortunately it wasn't enough to overcome Tozenji's point advantage.  We fought hard, and we fought well, but the match belonged to Tozenji.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ishikawa)
Team Score: 2-2 (Tozenji by 1 point)

Our team was out, but we still got to witness some amazing kendo.  I especially enjoyed watching the Mexican team, who ended up taking third place.  They were all so strong and sure with their kendo.  I saw a lot that I liked and a lot that I would love to bring to my own technique.  The last match of the day, Youshinkan vs. Hawaii, ended in another win for Hawaii's team.  This is the second year in a row they've taken first place in the team division.  They all fought well, and it was fun to see not just one, but two nito players on their team.

I fought as well as I could on that day, but I did feel that something was lacking.  I actually had a talk with Sinclair Sensei about this the other day, and he gave me some really good advice that I took to heart and already put into practice.  I definitely liked the change in attitude that I saw in myself and I'm going to try and continue to focus on what he gave me to focus on.  We don't have long until the Kent Taikai, only a few weeks, but I am confident that I can boost my mental technique and confidence before then so I can continue to do the best kendo that I'm capable of, while also raising the bar for myself and those around me.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Red Line

This week of training has had its ups and downs.  Monday I got to the dojo and felt ok, albeit a little tired.  Once training started, though, I realized that my legs were sore.  Super sore.  It made for a very tough practice, as we worked on footwork quite a bit at the beginning before going into the rest of our class.  Since we only had six people, myself included, practicing that night we had a little different format and took things a bit slower.  It definitely helped me make it all the way through, but even then at the end of class I felt like my legs were going to fall off.  I can't imagine how I would have fared if we had done a more intense practice.  During jigeiko I really focused on not backing up and not crumbling when facing my partners.  I tried to keep an "always forward" attitude and feel to my technique that night.

Last night we didn't have an extremely large class.  I think there were ten of us altogether, but seven of us were yudansha so we kicked it up a notch for training.  We all warmed up and did suburi and kirikaeshi together and then we broke into smaller groups for uchikomi practice.  We've done this a few times lately and it gives me a different perspective on the drills.  Instead of being part of a big, rotating line of people, I'm able to do my practice and then step back more frequently to watch the rest of my group go through their strikes and techniques before jumping back in for my turn.  I appreciate the new information or outlook that I get by doing these kinds of practices, and it's really good to be able to see my dojo mates and how they move and strike.  How does Seth strike kote so well?  How is Billy so fast with that men strike?  What small tells do they have, or don't have, when they are moving to strike?  There's a lot of benefit to watching and learning through watching, and I've heard before that this is called mitori-geiko.  We worked on a lot of oji-waza last night.  My strongest ones were debana kote and nuki men, which I do use quite often in jigeiko and in matches.  My kaeshi dou still leaves much to be desired.  I think it's gotten progressively worse, actually, since I hardly ever use it.  I can definitely use it and it's effective, to a point, but the setup and timing are lost on me sometimes when faced with faster partners and opponents.  It's definitely something I'll have to work on more if I want to make it a viable technique to use.

Sinclair Sensei brought up a good point on Monday, and it's one that Wendy reinforced with us last night.  He said to think of a canvas.  A blank canvas, ready for you to create a masterpiece.  Every day you see the canvas and draw a red line on it.  At first the line is faint, light, but it's there.  Each day you add another layer of paint on the line, and the color becomes deeper, richer, and more pronounced.  This is what happens when we show up and push ourselves at practice.  Each time we come and work on improving ourselves we are making that line darker and richer.  But when we show up and just go through the motions, or we don't show up at all, we can actually end up taking layers off of that paint, so that it starts to become lighter and faded again. What this means to me is that each day I show up I should work to improve myself.  If I can't improve myself physically, because of an injury of some issue I'm having that day, I should work on improving my spirit, or my form, or any other number of things that don't require much physical effort, or that will isolate those parts that I can't quite work on at the moment.  There's always a way to improve and to push myself, and I should be hungry to make that line as deep and dark and rich with color as I can.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Return To Form



Ok, I will be the first to admit that I've been slacking on my posting.  Two months is WAY too long to go without a post of some sort.  I will be working on carving out my time better to keep up on this.  This blog is an invaluable tool to myself, and being that's publicly available for anyone in the world I have a feeling that it's at least entertaining others out there that like to read about my kendo happenings.

For the past few months I've been plagued with physical issues.  Some of them were oldies that just won't go away (my hip pain) but some of them were new.  I had quite a sore muscle in my right leg that held on for about a month and caused me to have to slow down and miss some practices.  Sinclair Sensei was kind enough to offer some help and gave me some stretches and exercises to do, which seemed to do the trick.  For about a week now I haven't had any pain in that muscle, and I pray that it doesn't return.  I'm finding that even though I consider myself fairly young, at 31, I am already beginning the fight against my own body.  My mind wants to go and go and go, and I have to find ways to get my body to agree to go and go without running it into the ground.  Throughout all of it, though, I've tried to keep my spirit up so that I am at least giving 100% of that to every partner that I train with.  Also, slowing down has taught me quite a bit about other areas of my kendo that were lacking before.  I love being able to cut loose and just fly around the dojo when I'm at practice, but I also equally appreciate the times where I choose to (or am forced to) slow down and take it easy.  It's at these times where speed and physical movements are almost thrown out the windows, and instead I have to focus on areas such as seme, creating/exploiting openings, timing, distance, and reading my opponents, among other things.  I have a chance to work more on the "mental" side of kendo as the physical side takes a backseat to heal up.

Since I've been feeling better this past week, I've been working on melding the physical and the mental side of my training.  I'm back to flying around the dojo (as best I can), but I'm starting to combine that with the skills that I had been working on prior.  Last night, in particular, I felt like it was all clicking together very nicely. I was able to move about freely, but also felt that I was reading my opponents and creating openings better, or just pressuring them in a better way than I used to.  I also felt like I was attacking with more commitment than before.  Even when I was getting blocked or countered I felt like most of my attacks were true, and that I didn't hesitate in using them.

Our annual PNKF Taikai is just around the corner and I'm going to be doing my best to sharpen up what I already know.  I'm at the point where trying to add new tricks to my bag is futile and will only be detrimental to my performance at the taikai, but I can definitely work on the things that I already know and make sure that they are the absolute best that I can make them, for myself and for my teammates.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Same Window, Different Visual

Photo courtesy of J. Fugitt
Well, I hadn't realized it had been so long since I posted.  To anyone that is a regular reader, I am sorry for the delay.  July proved to be a very busy month in my personal life.  But hopefully I'll get back on my regularly scheduled updates.  I had no lack of training, though!

We're just about to finish up our semi-annual kata study, and I've learned quite a bit.  Nothing that I didn't already know about, but I learned a lot about the way I approach it.  The feeling behind the kata.  The subtle changes in tempo, rhythm and movements.  Kata is becoming less of a step-by-step guide and more of an actual dance.  I'm able to concentrate on things beyond the physical movements, because I have practiced the movements themselves for years and years.  Now I can make kata personal.  Wendy made a good point last week, stating that we must always try to learn something new when we do kata, or find news ways to look at it, even though it's the same movements over and over.  In this way we can keep kata fresh and exciting.  If we let our minds become lazy then we will not be able to progress, and kata will become a boring exercise that is only required for shinsa.  There is much to be learned through kata, if we only take the time to focus and study.

The same idea can be applied to the rest of our kendo.  Same window, different visual.  How many times during practice do we perform a men strike?  20?  50?  I'm guessing at least a couple of hundred times.  Each of those is an opportunity to make our strike better than before and to examine and contemplate our strengths and weaknesses.  Yet a lot of times I find myself just going through the motions.  Sometimes it's on purpose and I just want to let my technique be what it is and do kendo at that time, but other times I'm blindly doing the drills and my mind isn't on anything in particular.  I need to tighten that up a bit and work to always be mindful.  In this way, with this kind of focus, I can continue to find new and interesting aspects of my techniques and can better work to fix them.

Lately I've been working a lot on my footwork, trying to keep my feet in a good position so I can attack at any time, and trying to keep myself alert, especially during jigeiko.  Sinclair Sensei touched on some points last night about being alert and ready, especially physically.  Your posture and balance play into this a lot, and he emphasized the need to turn and be ready after a strike so that you can attack or counter as necessary.  We should turn and be ready immediately, which means one step back into kamae while keeping good balance.  We should also turn and not lose focus, bringing our shinai around into a good position while keeping our mind open to look for an opening or opportunity to strike.  His words, as always, helped me a lot since I'd been doing a little bit of that myself lately, especially the turning and immediately being ready.

I've really felt solid during jigeiko these past few weeks.  I don't know if it's from the extra team training I've been doing or my emphasis and bringing everything together and trying to attack with purpose, but whatever it is I feel like it's been working for me.  I have a lot more confidence when I fight, and I'm able to pick up on openings a bit better than before.  Plus I'm making my own openings, even on people at my own level, which is a great feeling.  I hope to continue this and break it down even more so I can see what is the catalyst behind this improvement.

Kata and keiko go hand-in-hand, and each can benefit from the other.  If we are willing to put in the time and effort, there's and endless array of things to learn and interpretations to be had from each one.  Same window, different visual.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Best of The Best

Photo courtesy of J. O'Donnell
Sinclair Sensei and Wendy have been out of town all week for the women's seminar being held all this week in Seattle, WA, so we've been left in charge at the dojo.  My buddy Aaron and I have been running the intermediate classes and Kuster Sensei has been taking our advanced class.  The intermediates have been doing an awesome job and we've been laying out some refinements with distancing, footwork and sword work/final sword positions.  I explained to them last night that when they think about and focus on certain parts they do really well with those parts and that we're going to be combining everything together so that they feet and swords and hands and everything start working simultaneously.  There's a lot of promise there, and if they keep improving like they are right now they'll be joining our advanced class in no time!

Kuster Sensei brought up a good point last night, and one that I tried to hang onto throughout the remainder of class.  He told us to imagine the best strike we'd ever done (his example called for us to think about the best kote strike we'd ever made).  Once we had a good visual in our heads, and the memory of how that felt, he asked why we wouldn't try to strike like that every time we are at practice.  We have many MANY opportunities to make a strike like that and to try and do even better, so why would we not make the best of them?  Each time we strike is a unique, individual opportunity and one that we'll only have once in our lifetimes, so we should strive to always make it the best strike we can.  I kept this on my mind the rest of practice and worked to try and make everything the best I could.  Another, similar idea that I've heard and I teach myself is that when we do drills we should think about each and every strike individually, not just as a group of strikes for that particular drill.  Instead of doing five men strikes we should do one men strike, five times over.  There's definitely a big difference.  The former is just a set of strikes within the drill, not indistinguishable from each other.  The latter gives each strike personality and character and makes you think about each one from setup to strike to finish.

We've also been working on carrying our kiai through each strike and even through our turn and back in kamae.  We've been doing the "awkwardly long" kiai drill where we basically hit and kiai until we can't anymore, even after we've turned and are ready to go again.  It's tough and I never realized how much I let my kiai drop off and stop until I had to keep it going for so long.  Also I've found out just how lazy my lung capacity and/or breath control really is.  Sinclair Sensei has given me some exercises to help with this but I've been slow at picking them up on working with them.

Even though we didn't work on anything crazy as far as physical technique, the mindset that was introduced to us yesterday and on Monday helped put a different spin on things.  I'd always heard to try and do my best on each strike during practice and while doing drills, but the "best strike ever" image really helped drive that home for me.  I'll continue working on it and trying to push past all of my mental and physical blocks to hit the best kote/men/do I can, over and over again.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Small Class, Big Spirit

Wednesday night an odd thing happened.  Due to various circumstances (injuries, plans, etc) I found myself as the only yudansha at training, among a class of about 10 people.  Wendy Sinclair Sensei was there, but she was busy teaching class and making sure we were all doing what we were supposed to so she didn't have an opportunity to jump in with us.  Even though we didn't have that many people, we more than made up for it with the amount of spirit and energy we had.  I felt a duty to lead by example, and so with each and every person I gave 100%, even while nursing a couple of injuries of my own.  That didn't slow m down or stop me, although at one point at the end of class it did make me do fumikomi in place when I would strike.

We took a bit of time during class to work on how to properly perform taiatari.  "Taiatari" translates to "body crash" and is a technique that is usually performed after a strike.  The two kenshi will literally crash into each other, usually in the hopes of unsettling the other person to create an opening for a follow-up attack.  Wendy emphasized using the whole body to crash, not just the arms, and I tried to reinforce this with each of my partners.  I always imagine bringing my hands and arms down to my center and curving them to create a circle between my arms and my body, and using this "circle" as a kind of spring or shock absorber depending on if I'm performing or receiving taiatari.  Also, I try to imagine all the energy from my center moving through that circle and into my hands when I crash into someone.  A lot of imagination going on!

The class size really made me think, and I realized that we don't need a huge class to have a successful practice.  Even though we were short on numbers, the spirit and intensity of everyone, and the hunger to improve, really made the difference.  I would definitely prefer a small class of really dedicated and energetic people than a whole room full of people that were just going through the motions, if given the choice.

Lately I've been working a lot on seme and pressure, and trying to have a purpose to my attacks.  I don't like blindly throwing attacks at my opponents and hoping that something lands.  Instead I want to create openings, or take advantage of an opening that is presented.  I had a good talk with my sensei about this today, actually, and will be putting some of his advice and suggestions to use for me over the next couple of weeks.  The lack of mobility, due to some injuries, has also helped me focus on this aspect of my kendo.  When I can't move myself effectively I'm left to the mercy of their movements in some cases, but that doesn't mean that I can't still control the engagement with pressure and timing.  I'll continue to work on this and incorporate it more and more into my practices.

I'm looking forward to more practices like Wednesday night, and I hope that the others that were present felt the intensity and will use that for their own gain in the future!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Rose City Taikai 2013

Photo courtesy of W. Sinclair
This past weekend was the Rose City Taikai in Portland, OR, hosted by the Obukan Kendo Club.  We took thirteen people down in the kendo van, with 12 of us competing across all divisions.  Once again the bulk of our competitors were entered into the 1-2 Dan division, my division, so I knew it would be a tough fight to the top.  Our weekend of kendo actually started that Friday because after a nine hour road trip we went straight to two hours of training with Obukan.  I was definitely feeling the exhaustion of the day and hoped that it wouldn't leak over into the tournament the next day.

Saturday arrived and we packed, ate and then headed out.  My division wasn't until right before the team matches, later in the day, so I had time to prepare and watch my teammates do their best.  My friend and dojo mate Yarrow pulled out a spectular win in the 1-2 Kyu division to take 1st place, and I got to see a lot of good matches from our people in the 3 Kyu and Below and Women's Open divisions, too, as well as strong showings from our two sandan that went and competed in the 3 Dan and Up division.  They took 3rd and 2nd place, both narrowly losing to Atagi Sensei from Idaho.  I even had an old high school friend show up to watch the tournament and cheer me on!

1-2 Dan finally arrived, and my first match ended up being a bye because my opponent did not show up that day.  This left a hollow feeling inside me.  I had come to fight!  I stepped in, bowed, and waited for them to declare me the winner before bowing and stepping out.  I visited with my friend a bit and cheered on my dojo mates before going out for my next match.

My next match was none other than Christianson, from UW.  I've fought him before and every time I've given him a good fight even if I ended up winning or losing.  Unfortunately that was not the case on Saturday.  I don't know what happened on my end.  Christianson fought very well and took me out quick with two great debana kote strikes.  With me, though, I don't know why I fell apart.  I came off the court and asked myself, as well as had others ask me, what happened and I didn't really have an answer for them.  I hear that this type of situation happens to everyone and this was the first time having it happen to me.  I've thought about it a lot since that day and the only thing I can think of is to try and improve to the point that I minimize or eliminate that kind of situation in the future.  My opponent took a well-deserved win against me and I'm only upset that I wasn't able to give him a worthy fight.

Final Score: 2-0 (Christianson)

So my time in individuals ended early.  I was able to watch my dojo mates go on to take 1st and 3rd place in that division and I just hoped that I could pull it together for teams.  I was placed on our A team as sempo, so it was my job to go out and set the tone and pace of the matches.  We had a bye in the first round (seemed to be a trend with me that day), so we moved straight into the second round and a match against Seattle.  I had my first opportunity to fight a nito player from outside of our dojo as I was set to fight against Walker.  The match started and I tried to catch him off guard, but he was already ready.  I lunged toward his kote but wasn't quick enough and hung out a bit too close for too long.  He nailed my men and took the first point.  We reset and I played a bit more conservatively, although aggressively.  I was able to fend off the rest of his attacks and about halfway through the match landed a kote to tie the match.  We ended in a tie but my teammates were able to win a few of their matches to give us the overall win.

Final Score: 1-1
Team Score: 3-1 (Spokane A)

We watched the matches between UW and Obukan to see who would be our opponents in the semi-finals.  Obukan pulled out a slim victory to move on.  After the matches my friend Mia came up to me and said, "We were so close to fighting each other!" I replied, "I know!  So close I could see your glasses!"  We had a good laugh.  One of these days we'll enjoy a match, either in taikai or in jigeiko, but today was not to be the day.  After the second round matches were over we started the semi-final round against Obukan.  My match was against a guy I've never fought before; a sandan named Holtorf.  I'd seen him before and had jigeiko with him a time or two in the past but this would be our first meeting in a taikai.  We started off and I immediately noticed that he had a strong center and kamae, and also did not give at all when we would taiatari.  I was unable to open him up to take a point, even though I was close a few times, and he eventually landed a hiki men to take the one and only point in our match.  I fought to get the point back and possibly take the match, but he neutralized me well and ended the match in his favor.  We started with a setback, but the other members were able to win a few matches to put us up and over the top and into the finals.

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

We'd made it to the final round, and watched in anticipation as Kent battled our Spokane B team to see who would be joining us there.  The B team fought really, really well but barely lost out in the end and took 3rd place.  It would have been fun to have an all-Spokane final round!  Kent had a good team, and we knew this wouldn't be an easy fight.  Especially not easy for me as my opponent was a sandan named Morgan.  Off the court he's a great friend, but on the court he's a beast and I was honestly a bit nervous to fight him again.  Last time we met he beat me 1-0, in a team final match no less.  I stepped out for my match and when it began I decided to play it a little on the safe side so I wouldn't get taken out and put my team at a 2-0 disadvantage from the beginning.  I kept my distance and tried to pressure in to see if I could force a reaction, or to see if he would let down his guard.  He never did.  We ended up clashing and blocking and countering for the whole three-minute match but neither of us were able to land anything that was worthy of a point and so when it was all done we stepped off the court with a 0-0 tie on our hands.  I watched my teammates fight and noticed that our teams were very evenly matched.  Everyone ended up in a tie...everyone except one guy.  Our jiho match, Takahashi, pulled out a 2-0 win to give us the lead.  A lead we held until the end.  We stepped off the court as victors for the day, in a well-fought match against our friends from Kent.

This tournament was bittersweet for me.  It started out at a very low point.  A point that I will work hard to not repeat.  But I was able to pick it up a bit in teams and even though I didn't score many points there I feel like I held my own against some guys that have far more experience than me and I can claim a small victory in that.  I was also happy to see our dojo field two strong teams this year and I look forward to the time that we can create a Spokane A vs. Spokane B final team match.  That will be one for the history books!
Photo courtesy of M. Nelson
The first picture is Bob, my lizard friend for life.  I caught him just outside of the Stonehenge monument and he posed for some pictures with us.  The others are just a couple of shots from our hike up above Multnomah Falls, just outside of Portland:
Photo courtesy of W. Sinclair





Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Prepared Body, Prepared Mind

Photo by T. Patana
Last night felt great.  Better than great!  For the first time in a while I was able to practice without anything slowing me down.  No pain or injuries or anything.  The only thing that was bothering me was the heat, but that's typical during this time of the year and it's something that I'll get used to, like I have every other year.  I also, for once, felt like a true nidan at practice, which tied in well with what Sinclair Sensei focused on throughout the evening.  About halfway through practice he brought us all together and talked a bit about being not only physically prepared, but mentally prepared.  

Sensei brought up a lot of good points and gave us all really good advice, and I am going to take it to heart and really focus on it.  Basically he said that we can be physically talented in kendo, having done hours and hours and hours of training to develop our technique, but if we are not mentally ready and confident then all that training will be for nothing.  Our body and our mind need to work together to bring about successes throughout our kendo lives; they form a symbiotic relationship with each other, just like in all facets of our lives.  He talked for quite a while on this subject, giving us advice on how to prepare our mind so that it can utilize all of the training that our body has gone through.

We didn't do anything too crazy as far as drills.  Ran through some uchikomi, then waza-geiko and finished with jigeiko and a last round of kirikaeshi.  It felt really good to cut loose again, and I felt like I was flying around the dojo once more.  I noticed that some of the higher kyus have really been stepping it up lately, and it was really good to be pushed by all of them during jigeiko.  The more they improve, the more I have to push to improve myself, and in the end everyone benefits from it.

I still have a lean during certain attacks and techniques (fighting against jodan and nito, in particular), but I have also worked on eliminating it in other areas (hiki waza).  I'm glad that Kuster Sensei is there to point out my flaws and give me constructive criticism that I can use to improve.  Besides working on my body carriage and trying to keep a strong, straight posture when I attack I have also been working on my footwork.  Trying to use not only big but short steps and making them snappier to get me into an attacking position faster.  Technique-wise I'm trying to be explosive with all of my attacks and eliminate the wasted movement in my swings.  It's a slow process, but all throughout practice and our drills I try to remember to make each attack count.  Make each attack a serious effort and remember to not only move with confidence, but think with confidence.

It's good to see such high spirits from everyone lately, and seeing them all stepping it up.  I'm not sure what the future holds, but I have a really good feeling that we're on track for big improvements overall.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Japan Week 2013




Photo provided by J. Fugitt
 Japan Week is a yearly even that goes on in our little town; a celebration of Japanese culture throughout the city.  Naturally our dojo is a big part of this event, and the past couple of years we've organized a dinner to celebrate and introduce people to a bit of the culture first-hand.  We used last year as a template and set out to improve upon that dinner, and I'd say that we succeeded.  I hope that our guests felt the same way!

The Wave, a local Japanese restaurant/sushi bar catered the event again, and once again the food was outstanding.  This year we decided to get some servers to help with the food, which made a huge difference. Everyone got their fill, even their seconds and thirds, and we still had plenty of food left over.  During the dinner Spokane Taiko performed and they sounded amazing.  I also think they picked up a few new recruits.  The iaido group also put on a demo, showing the crowd the elegance and grace of drawing, cutting, and sheathing a sword.

After about an hour it was our turn to go.  We started with kata, and since we had very little room we presented them as a single pair at a time.  I was partnered with Seth for the duration of the demo, and we decided on sanbonme, with me as shidachi.  I have to say, in my opinion, we did a great job with it. The distancing all throughout was spot on, as well as the movements themselves.  I really focused on blocking out the crowd and treating it like I was performing kata for a shinsa, which helped put me in a great mindset to showcase the best I had.  After the other groups went we put on our men and kote and went into some uchikomi drills to show them the various tragets, a bit of kirikaeshi, and then a few matches.  Once again I was paired with Seth, with Billy calling points.  I scored first, after knocking down Seth's attempt to strike my kote and delivering a men that found its mark. He retaliated with a hiki men and then a regular men to take the match 2-1.  We put on a good show for the crowd all throughout.

The next day we performed another demo, as part of the opening ceremony at the downtown mall.  Once again I was paired with Seth for kata and everything else.  We decided on yonhonme this time, and once again I was shidachi.  We moved fluidly through the whole thing again, minding our timing and distance with each other and the crowd.  We moved into uchikomi drills again, and this time I used a combination of big strikes and small strikes to demonstrate the various attacks.  I don't know if anyone in the crowd noticed what I was doing but it made me feel good :-).

Seth and I were paired up for the final match of the demo, with Billy emphasizing "young, fast people that are fun to watch" before we stepped out.  We traded blows a bit and I was able to catch Seth with a debana kote, and then a bit later with a hiki men to take the match 2-0.  Once again I feel that we gave the crowd a good show, although at one point I did slip on the mall floor while trying to launch an attack.  I stayed on my feet, but the attack was definitely nothing to write home about!

I love these demos.  It's fun to be able to show people what kendo is, and let them see various levels of experience and age ranges performing, both male and female.  We had kids fighting with each other.  We had giant men fighting less-than-giant females.  And, as Billy said, we showed a bit of the "young, fast guys" that are just fun to watch.  Although I wouldn't exactly call myself young or fast!  Maybe younger than some, and maybe faster than some is more appropriate.  I'm definitely looking forward to the next demo, when we can come together again as a dojo and show the town this martial art that we love so much.

And now for some pictures!  All pictures were graciously provided by J. Fugitt of Spokane Taiko.

 
 





Monday, April 15, 2013

UW Invitational Taikai 2013

Photo courtesy of T. Patana
The 37th Annual UW Invitational Taikai was held this past weekend, and what a memorable event it was.  Not only for the taikai itself, which brought together kenshi from all over the Pacific Northwest and Canada (even a couple of competitors from Hawaii), but also for some of the "natural disasters" that occurred during the tournament.  I'll get to those later.

We headed over on Friday and the first noticeable thing to me was the absence of Sinclair Sensei.  He was in Boise for karate training and unfortunately could not be with us at this tournament.  But Wendy Sinclair Sensei did a great job of taking care of us and making sure everything was taken care of before, during, and after the trip.  Ten of us headed over to compete, and we spanned the 1-3 kyu, 1-2 dan, and 3 dan divisions.  We were also able to field two teams for the team division.  I found myself on the A team, and was placed as sempo (1st position).  While not a normal position for me I was ready to take up the new challenge and set the pace for the rest of my team.

After a great training on Friday night with our Bellevue friends, we made our way to the taikai on Saturday morning (after some batter problems).  We all had some time to kill after the opening ceremony, and I used that time to check out some great action in the women's open and 3 dan divisions, as well as scoping out my first opponent.  After a couple of hours my division, 1-2 dan, began and I started to prepare for my first match.

My first opponent was a woman from the Steveston Kendo Club, in Canada.  I've fought many of their members before and I know that they all have strong kendo.  I was also able to watch her matches in the women's open.  I was sad to see one of my friends lose to her in their first match, but I gained some valuable insight on her kendo and was able to put that to good use in our match.  We started off and I tried to use my height and reach advantage to keep her at a distance.  She was quick and was able to shut down most everything I tried, but I was able to neutralize her as well.  After about a minute I launched for another men strike, but quickly pulled back when she went to block and hit her kote to take the first point.  We reset and not long after I was able to catch her with a men strike as she turned to face me.  First match of the day down, and I was happy to not only win against a strong opponent but also avenge my friend.  That one was for you, Mia! :)

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

My next match was with not only another woman, but one of my friends from Bellevue.  I couldn't let that get in the way, though, because Bernice was also on the junior national PNKF team a couple of years ago and I knew I couldn't give her any advantage or else she would take me out.  Again I found myself with a reach and height advantage, but I had to be very careful because I also had quite a big weight advantage on her and didn't want to win with "big guy" kendo.  The match started and we exchanged blows for a while, both of us getting some close calls and some flags that were waved off by the other judges.  After the full three minutes we found ourselves at a standstill and had to settle it in encho (overtime).  After exchanging blows again we found ourselves in close with each other.  I stepped back and pulled out a hiki-kote, which I never do, which caught her unaware.  I took the point and the match.

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz in encho)

I had a bye in my next match and found myself in the quarter-finals.  My next opponent was none other than one of our sensei's sons and my friend, Andy.  We train together a lot and he is very good so I knew I was going to have a good, and challenging, match ahead of me.  We stepped in, bowed, and began the match.  He was very quick, throwing men and kote at me which I was, fortunately, able to block or counter.  I was unable to land anything of my own, though.  Sometimes because I was off-target, sometimes because I would hit and stop (a bad habit I will be correcting soon).  We were both at a standstill with each other for almost the entire match, until Andy landed a nice men strike on me in the last few seconds of the match.  We reset and I immediately rushed him, trying to get him to go for my kote.  It worked perfectly, and I wound up for nuki men and...he blocked it.  I was just a little too slow on the counter.  Time was called immediately after and we bowed out.  I had lost, but it was a great match nonetheless.

Final Score: 1-0 (A. Sinclair)

My time in individuals was done, but I felt good about how I did.  I think that my footwork was a lot better than it has been, and I'll continue to work on it to make it even snappier and more efficient.  I also noticed that I was a bit too nice in my matches and wasn't taking advantage of a lot of the openings that I saw.  I was too concerned with playing it safe, I think, instead of letting my body do what it does.  This is almost why I like losing more than winning; I can see where my faults are and I have a clear idea of what to improve on for next time.

I watched the rest of the matches and saw some great kendo, both from our members and other members.  One thing that really impressed me was Mr. Mabale, a yondan from Seattle Kendo Kai, who executed a, in my opinion, perfectly set up debana kote.  I was also able to witness S. Asaoka Sensei, from Youshinkan, fighting from jodan.  I had not seen this side of him before and it was really fun to watch.  After the 4 dan+ division we readied ourselves for the team matches.  Fortunately our two teams had been split up enough that we would not face each other until the finals.

Our first match was against Tozenji, from Canada.  We all knew we had a tough match ahead of us, and it was up to me to set the level for the rest of our team.  My opponent, Takahashi, and I stepped up to the line for our match.  He was quite fast, but a little hesitant with me, it seems, and I was able to finally take advantage of that and score a hiki-kote about halfway through our match.  We reset and we both fought our best but I was able to hold him off and take the first match for our team.  My teammates did well in all of their matches, and we were able to take our first team match and move on to the next round.

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

We sat on the sidelines and watched the match between Bellevue and Steveston A develop, as one of them would be our next opponents.  They were tied after their final match, which forced an encho round.  After a grueling match Steveston A took the win and would move on to face us in round two.  We were once again faced with a tough match.  We all bowed in and I stepped up to face my opponent, P. Lee.  He was a big guy and had a reach advantage on me so I naturally thought he would try to go for my men.  I found out how wrong I was when he popped my kote right from the start to take the first point.  We reset and I tried my best to at least take the point back and possibly win, but my efforts were shut down each time.  We fought for a while longer and he scored another kote on me to end the match.  My dojo mates fought hard and were able to pull out some surprising results in their matches, but in the end Steveston A outplayed us and took the win.

Final Score: 0-2 (P. Lee)
Team Score: 0-2 (Steveston A)

Steveston A eventually went on to win the division, taking out their own Steveston B in the final match.  Speaking of the final match, we had not one but two power outages!  The first came immediately after the chuken match and lasted for about 10 minutes.  The second came right in the middle of the taisho match.  The competitors actually fought for a few seconds in pitch-black darkness before the judges called a stop to the match and declared it a draw.  Kudos to them for not stopping until the judges told them to, even in the midst of a power outage.

The way home was paved with a bit of difficulty, as well.  On top of having battery issues, we found out that the pass had been closed!  Luckily for us we have some very good friends in Seattle, and I'd like to thank Miss Shinoda for giving us emergency housing for the night.  Nothing like a hot shower and a comfy place to sleep after some bad luck like that!  We were able to venture over the pass the next day and arrive home safely.

I love these trips, so much.  I was able to witness some great kendo and a lot of inspiration for my own training.  I fought a bunch of new people and made some new friends and caught up with old ones, and I found some new things to work on and improve.  I'm looking forward to getting back to the dojo so I can continue to improve myself and my kendo!


Thursday, April 4, 2013

Cornerstones

I heard a saying a while ago, and I've talked about it here before, but it's something that deserves bringing up every now and again.  "Kendo is eighty percent footwork, and twenty percent swordwork."  Along with basics, this has always been a key focus for me and even though I don't have the prettiest footwork or body carriage right now I do my best to work on it and make it the best that I can.  I hold onto the belief that you can have the most beautiful and effective sword strikes in the world, but if you don't have the footwork to get you to the target then it won't mean a thing.

We've been focusing a lot on footwork lately, doing some old and new drills and even doing some ladder drills, which have proven to be interesting and very entertaining.  The main focus has been on short, quick steps.  We're not trying to cover a long distance with each step and getting from one end of the dojo to the other the fastest isn't the point.  Each step should be smooth, quick and snappy, and there should be a lot of small steps instead of a few large steps, if that makes sense.  While these have been a killer on my hips, I can see progress being made and improvement when I'm doing other drills.  Also, the hips don't seem to be keeping me out for long these days.  I do have to step out every once in a while to stretch them, especially after our intense footwork drills lately, but I'm usually ready to go again a rotation or two later.  As long as I keep on top of them at the dojo and at home I hope to get rid of all the pain and soreness one of these days, just like I did with my shins.

Technique-wise, I'm still ironing out my kote, as well as working on some new oji waza.  I'd like to take some of those techniques that I'm not good at and shy away from and turn them into strengths.  I definitely don't have a shortage of techniques to work on, either!  Along with the footwork and techniques, I've also been working on being more explosive, especially when I strike and move past my partners.  I was recently given a bit of insight by one of my dojo mates, and have been using it to give my follow-through a completely different feel.  It's hard work, but it will be worth it when I can start doing it without even thinking.

I was able to talk to my sensei a couple weeks ago about what it means to be nidan in our dojo, and some ideas on where to take my kendo at this point.  One of the points that came up again was my endurance and conditioning, especially my joint health (see hips, above).  While still a weak point for me, I've been working to improve it by running and exercising outside of the dojo, as well as changing my eating habits a few months ago (still hit or miss on that one, but it's better these days).  I was also given some suggestions on how to help my breathing in practice, because I have noticed for a while now that my breathing is very inefficient and definitely detracts from my performance at practice.  It's nice to have all these things to work on and keep me busy!

Our next tournament, the UW Taikai, is just over a week away.  I don't know if I'll have anything shocking and head-turning under my belt by that time, but I can feel the improvements in myself.  Little by little, step by step, that's how this lifelong journey will go, and someday I'll look back and realize that I just climbed a mountain with all those little steps.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Highline Taikai 2013 - Introspection



Photo courtesy of W. Sinclair
This weekend our dojo sent five competitors to the 36th Annual Highline Taikai in Seattle, WA.  The trip over was awesome, as always, and the training the night before was both information and fun, as we were able to take part in the shinpan seminar that Jeff Marsten Sensei was holding at his Bellevue dojo.  Afterward he invited us to open floor to practice with whomever we wished.  I got to do jigeiko with my friend James, and after a good few minutes of sparring with him I was instantly approached by another Bellevue kenshi to have another round of jigeiko.  After we were done I looked back and noticed that a queue had formed up for me, which remained 4-5 deep the whole night.  Long story short, I was able to fight with a lot of people that night!  Pizza and fellowship followed at the hotel before we all got some rest for the next day.

This year they added a new division to the tournament.  In years prior it had always been a mudansha tournament (below black belt), but this year they added in a 1-2 dan division.  Four of the five members that we brought, including myself, were fighting in this new division.  After a strong showing by our sole mudansha member they started our divisions.  The first round of matches were round-robin style, with the top two competitors in each group moving on to the elimination rounds. I suited up, grabbed my shinai and awaited my first match.

My first match was with a nidan from Bellevue that I had never faced before.  The match started and I took some time to kind of feel out the situation before launching my first attack, which my opponent blocked.  I found out very quickly that he was very good at neutralizing my attacks.  On the other hand, I was also able to negate most of his attacks while trying to deliver a counter of my own.  This went on for some time before I was finally able to score a men strike, taking the first point of the match.  My opponent answered back almost immediately, getting a men strike of his own to tie.  The final point was up for grabs, and after a few more tense moments I was able to pressure in and get another men strike to take the match.

Final Score: 2-1 (Ruiz)

I was immediately up to fight again, and my next opponent was another guy I had never fought before.  He was an older gentleman from Highline.  The match began and I immediately flew in to hit doUnfortunately only one flag went up, and I went out of bounds for a penalty.  We restarted and after trading a few blows I was able to score hiki men for the first point.  We reset and started again, and after a few more blows I launched a kote, which found its mark.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

I took the first spot coming out of my group and waited for my next match.  My opponent was a guy from UW that I had never fought before.  I thought it funny because I think I've fought almost everyone from the UW team at some point in my kendo life.  I had seen him before and knew that he was fast and very good, so I was in for a good match.  I was not disappointed.  The match started and after few seconds the sparks started to fly.  Attacks were launched, counters were made, but neither of us were able to land a solid hit.  Halfway through the match I launched a men that finally found its mark, giving me the first point of the match.  We restarted and my opponent tried his hardest to get the point back, while I tried my best to neutralize him and land my own strike to finish the match.  Neither of us were successful, but at the very last second he landed a kote, which found its mark.  The judges called in favor of time, though, and waved off the last point.  I felt kinda bad for him, as I would have welcomed encho to settle it, but it was something out of my control.  I fought my best and ended up taking the match in the end.

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz)

Quarter finals were up, and my opponent was Christianson, from UW.  I had fought him on a couple of other occasions and knew he was a strong opponent.  I readied myself and stepped in to begin.  We started and circled each other for a while.  We both knew what the other were capable of, and didn't want to give up an easy point.  We both tried pressuring in to see what the other would do, and after a while we both launched our first attacks, which were both kote.  I was unable to find many openings at all, and I noticed that when I did find them I was either too slow to capitalize, or didn't have the right distance.  This went on for almost the entire match, the back and forth between us, but he was finally able to score a hiki men on me when I left myself open.  We restarted but, unfortunately for me, I was unable to regain the point or the upper hand.  Time was called and we both bowed out and thanked each other for the match.

Final Score: 1-0 (Christianson)

I realized where I went wrong in that match, which is good for me.  I talked with my sensei a bit about it and I'm already working on improving it.  He pointed out to me at practice last night that we learn a lot more from our losses than our wins, which is so true.  I will definitely take that experience to heart and use it to improve my own kendo and technique, both physical and mental.  I was able to enjoy the last few matches, which included a showdown in the finals between two of my friends and fellow Spokane members.  During the awards ceremony we also found out that we had taken second place in overall points, taking 28 points throughout the tournament with our five competitors.  It was a great day for all of us, and I hope that my new found experiences and lessons, as well as those that the others learned, will help all of us to improve the overall quality of our kendo and our dojo.  I can't wait for the next tournament!

Photo courtesy of W. Sinclair


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

PNKF Winter Shinsa 2013 - Nidan

Photo courtesy of D. Pan
This weekend I headed to Seattle with four of my dojo mates and our sensei to participate in the PNKF Winter shinsa.  I was testing for the highest this rank this time around, shooting for nidan.  What happened over the weekend amounted to a lot of good fellowship with my friends, laughing and joking with my Seattle friends that I don't see too often, and a lot of good kendo.

Since I was the highest ranked person on the trip, I felt a little sense of responsibility for our group so I did my best to make sure that everyone had their stuff in order (bogu, uniforms, etc) and that everyone was ready to go when we needed to, and to offer encouragement and advice when needed.  I jokingly wrote to someone that I was handing out pep talks like they were candy over the weekend :).  We all arrived on Saturday morning with plenty of time to get ready and get situated before the test started.  My group wasn't going to be up for a couple of hours so I enjoyed watching my dojo mates during their tests, as well as watching some of my other friends from around the region.  I wasn't feeling nervous at all, but calm and collected.  I was definitely ready to face the judging panel and show them that I was ready for a new rank.

My turn was finally up.  For nidan I had to go through two sparring matches and then kata (nihon kata 1-7).  I stepped in for my first match, bowed in, and once things started I focused solely on my partner.  I wanted to not only get good strikes in, but do so with beautiful technique and work on not only responding to openings but creating my own.  I think I did a great job in the first match, and an even better job in the second.  I have seen many things I still need to work on, but for the most part I think I accomplished what I set out to do during the jigeiko portion of my test.

After all of the ranks (1 dan through 4 dan) finished their jigeiko we moved on to kata.  My partner for kata was a guy that I had tested with last year for shodan, and whom I had fought many times at tournaments.  I was shidachi (student side) for kata, as I have always been, and we ran through each one in succession.  I did my best to keep a connection with my partner, and focus not just on the steps themselves but on the overall feel, keeping in mind distancing and timing and being a shadow to my partner, who was leading the kata.  Again I was calm and collected throughout, which showed.  We bowed out and I was finally able to relax a bit, as my test was officially over.

After all of the various ranks had finished, we waited for the results.  I went to look up my number, 63, and was very pleased to see that I had a perfect score of five out of five on both keiko and kata.  Each judge at the panel believed I was ready for nidan.  I had done it!  I was also pleased to see and hear that my dojo mates had all passed their tests with flying colors, as well, although I was not surprised to see that they had done so well.  They were all ready, that's for sure.

For me, this marks the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one.  As the sun sets, so too does it rise, and the future looks bright indeed! 

Photo courtesy of W. Sinclair

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Sun Sets...

A thought occurred to me last night during training;  a thought that made me both happy and a little sad.  I realized that, if all goes well this weekend, last night was my last training as a shodan.  I will be testing for nidan this weekend at the PNKF shinsa.  I feel ready for it, and everyone else says that I'm ready.  I just need to relax and not be nervous, and let my body do what it's been trained to do.  I'm glad to have this opportunity, though.  Sometimes I feel like it's too soon since I've only been training for just under four years.  In fact, it will be four years in May.  I feel like I've accomplished a lot in such a short time, but compared to this entire journey that I've set myself on it's only a drop in the bucket.  I definitely have my dojo, and the members, to thank for getting me where I am right now.  They all push me hard, right to the limit, but they also encourage me and will be the first ones to lend me a helping hand or encouraging words when needed.  And I have to thank my sensei for their instruction and for bringing out the best I have to offer. I wouldn't be where I am now without them.

Last night's practice was a bit different.  We started off with a local shinsa, in which a lot of our newer members were able to test.  We had both kids and adults, men and women, testing for ranks from 10 kyu up to 5 kyu.  Kyu, for anyone that might not know, are ranks below the black belt level (dan ranks).  One big thing that I noticed is that everyone had great spirit and kiai, and all of them did great with the basics.  Full swings, keeping the left hand in the center, etc.  Even the kids were doing great with these points, which was awesome to see.  Oh, and I also got to be on the judging panel, which was new for me.  I noticed as we went up through the ranks that the level of kendo presented rose.  Timing became more synchronized.  Swings were faster, cuts were sharper, footwork was a bit more refined.  Again, very refreshing to see, and great job to everyone last night because they all ended up passing.

After the shinsa we had open floor, and we used the time for jigeiko.  We grabbed partners and did over an hour of jigeiko, and in that time I had many great rounds with my friends and partners, and learned a lot during that time.  I tried to just focus on doing the best kendo that I had, because that's what I'm planning on doing at the shinsa on Saturday.  I worked on making my own strikes sharp and defined, and making my timing as perfect as I could, and keeping my footwork crisp and snappy.  I had a few good hits, and a few misses, but all throughout I never gave up and kept my focus.  I still have a ton to work on, but for now I feel good about where I'm at with my training. 

I can feel the sun setting on this chapter of my kendo journey.  I had a great year at shodan, but the end of this chapter marks the beginning of a new one.  I am hopeful and positive and will work to make this new chapter the best that I can.  I'm looking forward for what's in store for me in the future.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Encouraging Spirit

A point was brought up Monday night by Kuster Sensei, and I've been thinking about it ever since.  The point being that we should always have high spirit, both directly in our kiai and also in our movements.  I've always heard, and experienced, that when you are tired the thing that can keep your going and push you to do more is spirit.  It can also mean the difference in a match between winning and losing.  When pitted against an opponent that is of the same skill as yourself, the person with the most spirit will usually win out.

When we practice we should always try to have a high spirit, not only for our own benefit but the benefit of everyone in the dojo.  These days I can definitely tell the difference between someone that has a high spirit and someone that does not.  The person with the high spirit is like a trampoline that boosts me up even higher, or even like a friend reaching over an edge to help me up to their level.  I know that I've had my fair share of times where I just haven't been into it, and it's been physically noticeable a few times, but these days I do try to be mindful of it.  I try to keep my own spirit high because it not only helps me to overcome any "blah" feelings I might have at the time, but it also helps all of my training partners throughout the night.

To touch back on what I mentioned earlier, spirit is not only shown through our kiai, but in our movements and attacks.  I try to make each drill as real as I can, because I know this is the best way for my partners to practice.  If they are not used to people coming at them will full force and speed in practice, how will they be used to it when they face someone in a match?  Or at testing?  I do understand that training with people way below my rank and experience requires a bit of finesse and slowing down on my part, but even then I still try to keep it someone challenging for them without being impossible (a skill unto its own!).

One of the simple joys that I find at practice is when the lower kyus, especially the younger children that I train with, actually kiai back with full force and push me to improve.  So not only does my spirit benefit people below me in rank and age, but their spirit actually helps to lift me up and perform better, as well!  If we can continue to focus on this, I think training as a whole will vastly improve for everyone that shows up.

On a different note, I have been thinking a lot about one of my big goals, which is to put forth my best effort to make the regional team that goes to the US national kendo tournament next year.  I've had a chance to take another step in making this a reality.  I decided to start team training at our dojo.  This will not only be an extra training session for me every week, but a commitment to do my best and go above and beyond where I'm at right now with my kendo.  I know it will be very difficult, and I might even hate it at times, but deep down I also know that if I really want to have a chance at making the PNKF team, this is where to start.  Through team training I hope to improve my kendo above what I might even be expecting out of myself, and to learn a lot more about training and discipline that I can apply to the rest of my life.  It will be hard work, but I'm excited to see where this training will take me.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

"Heavy" Kamae

Recently we've been learning the steps and the details of the kodachi kata, and during that study the term "heavy" has come up a lot.  It's been explained by Sinclair Sensei that our movements between striking and taking kamae should not be slow, but should not be a quick snap.  They should be done at a good pace but feel heavy while doing it, and we should have a feeling of still pushing forward with the kamae even when we do not have the sword directly in front of us.  One thing jumped into the forefront of my mind when I heard this, and that was "seme".  The way that I've been interpreting this is to mean that within the kata themselves there should always be an almost physical pressure emanating from your center and from your sword, no matter which kamae you take.  Even when you aren't moving forward or physically pressing forward, your partner should feel as though you are, and when tested your kamae should be strong and not easily collapsed or unsettled.  This is a great lesson from kata that can be taken directly into shinai kendo, and it's one that I want to try and work on more.

I have not always been so mindful of my own kamae.  Sure, I know how to place my feet into a proper stance and keep my body upright in a good posture and how to hold my sword correctly, but after that I've had a nasty habit of forgetting about it and letting my muscle memory take over.  Kamae is not only a physical position or stance, but also a mental one, and I need to remember this and improve it so that I am always ready to attack an opening or counter-attack when someone moves in to strike.  Also being more mindful will help me to keep my kamae from collapsing while also making it stronger and more effective.  I need to have that heaviness translate into all of my drills and jigeiko.  I believe if I can do this I'll see a lot of improvement in my own kendo.

I might have mentioned that recently I've felt pretty good at practice.  It feels like things are finally coming together and clicking, and that techniques I use are working better and better every day.  I'm on the edge of a breakthrough and just need to keep pushing myself to get there.  My posture feels a lot better these days, as does snapping up my back foot after fumikomi.  They still need work, but I can tell I've made improvements recently.  I'm also still working to eliminate the excess movement in my strikes, especially my men strike, and again it still needs work but it's coming along nicely.  As far as actual techniques I've been working on kote-men a lot lately, trying to polish it up and make it not only usable but effective.  We'll see if I get a chance to use it later on down the road.

Just over a month until I test for nidan.  I'm definitely super-excited for that opportunity, and I hope I do a good job on that day.  If I keep practicing and pushing myself like I have been I'm sure things will turn out well for me.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Determination

I received some really good news last week, which pertains to one of my goals for this year.  I have been recommended to test for nidan at the next regional shinsa, which will be in March.  I am thrilled to have the opportunity and I feel that all of the training and instruction I've received from my sensei and my dojo mates has prepared me for it.  It also made me stop and think about where my kendo was, is, and where it's going.  I started kendo in May of 2009 and four years later I'm here, standing on the edge of nidan.  It's been a wild ride, for sure, and I've put in countless hours of practice, both inside and outside of the dojo.  I don't think I've done anything spectacular, though.  Quite the opposite.  I think most of what I have now is from my sensei and his instruction and encouragement, and from the other dojo members pushing me to do my best, even when I didn't know exactly what my best was.  The one thing I will admit to having a lot of is determination.  I'm very good at pushing myself even when I don't necessarily feel like doing kendo or going to class, and (for good and bad) I'm able to keep telling myself "just one more drill, just one more round, just one more..." even at times when I'm physically drained and exhausted.  I believe that part of me, coupled with the great dojo that I'm a part of, is what has brought me to where I am today, and what will take me to even greater heights in the future.

As far as actual practice goes, we've been working a lot on kodachi kata 1, breaking it down to its basic movements while also getting used to handling the kodachi.  It's a very awkward feeling for me, going from my bokuto down to the kodachi.  The way you hold it, the footwork and kamae all feel weird to me right now, but on the other hand I'll have plenty of time to practice and improve!  This bit of time with the kodachi has been the main focus of our practices lately (for the yudansha, at least).  I love learning new things, especially when they're related to kendo.  The rest of practice has been a mix of kirikaeshi, uchikomi, jigeiko, and endurance drills.  One of the main things we've been told to focus on there is making our practice count.  In other words, make our uchikomi drills feel like our hits in jigeiko, or in shiai-geiko.  They should, ultimately be one in the same, which goes along with our motto of "Train like you fight, fight like you train." 

Ever since I got the news that I can test I've been trying to actively step it up at practice.  I don't know why this would have been the catalyst to start me on my way, but something inside me said "Ok Chris, this is starting to get serious," and since then I've been trying to keep that a focus as I'm out on the floor.  What I want is to bring together what I know at this point so that it all works together, and keep building from there.  This goes along with my goals of refinement and beauty that I set for myself at the beginning of this year.  So far I feel like the quality of my practice has improved and I'm not only doing better with the drills and with jigeiko, but I'm also pushing myself to improve, even if it's just a little bit each practice.  It's definitely an exciting feeling.  I still mess up all the time, but the focus is there, and so is the determination.