Monday, December 29, 2014

The End of 2014

Let's talk about kendo!

This year has been an interesting one.  A lot has been happening, mostly in my personal life, but throughout it all I was able to keep a fairly regular kendo schedule.  I feel good about the progress I made this year, even though it's been very subtle to me.  Not a lot of giant breakthroughs or new insights into anything, but a lot of smoothing out and polishing what I know, and trying to improve the mental aspects of my kendo.  I believe, for the most part, that I've been doing a good job of it, although in practice I definitely notice that I get hit a lot more.  That's ok, though!  Practice is there for a reason and if I'm not getting hit I'm not doing it right.  One of the things I've been focusing on is trying to act with a purpose.  Not throwing attacks out here and there without thought, but really trying to focus and do everything purposely.  My attacks have become fewer, for the time being, but I feel like more and more of them are being done because I chose to and not because I jumped the gun or threw something out randomly.  It's a good feeling to me , as I feel like everything has more purpose now, whether my attack was successful or not.  This is definitely something I want to work on more in the new year.

My health and fitness have been a rollercoaster this year. Hopefully in the new year I can buckle down and really work on that.  I have a problem with being super motivated at first, and then having that motivation decrease and decrease as time goes on.  I think a lot of people can relate to that, but it won't stop me from putting it back on my list.  Trying and failing isn't a bad thing, as long as I can get up, dust myself off and try again.  I'm at a better place than I was at the beginning of this year, which is good, but I still need to work for more improvement so that I can take myself and my kendo to higher levels.

As far as technique goes, I worked on a few shortcomings that I had this year, and started to incorporate them into my practices.  I wouldn't say anything is stellar at the moment (kaeshi dou, for example) but at least I'm getting more familiar with them and less hesitant to use them when the opportunity arises.  I still have my go-to techniques that I use and work on and refine, but in my opinion it's always good to have a wide range of techniques at my disposal so that I can use them in various situations and with various people and styles of kendo. One of these days, way way way into my future, I hope to be able to release these techniques as second nature, without thought and without hesitation.  But to get there I need to be familiar with them and experienced enough using them that I'm comfortable.

So, just a short recap of some things that I focused on this year.  There will be more training, more learning, more breaking down and building up of techniques for me, but it's good to know that I feel like I'm stronger now than I was a year ago, and I'm going to start off 2015 on a good note.  To anyone that is reading this, I hope you have an excellent new year and keep training hard, because I'll be doing the same!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Kent Taikai 2014 - The Power of Ian Morgan and The Rise of Spokane Kendo
Photo courtesy of James O'Donnell
Two weeks ago the Spokane team and I participated in the 18th Annual Kent Taikai.  What a time we had, too!  A few surprises, a few gasps, laughs, and loads of spirit and energy throughout the entire day of kendo.  We had competitors strewn across the 1-3 Kyu, 1-3 Dan, 1-3 Dan Seniors, and Women's divisions, and overall our members did extremely well.  I was able to cheer on and witness a couple of our members in the seniors group take both first and third place, and our women's and kyu competitors do some excellent kendo in their matches.  My division, and the bulk of my dojo mates, weren't fighting until later that afternoon, in the 1-3 Dan group.

The afternoon came, and finally I was up.  My first opponent was Chaney, from Sno-King.  I don't know if he remembers but I fought him in my first appearance at this taikai, four years ago in the team division.  We ended in a 1-1 tie then, but I knew that this match would have to end with a clear winner.  I readied myself, we stepped in and bowed, and the match began.  I took my time, felt out the court and my opponent a bit before engaging.  Chaney has much more experience than I do, both in the dojo and on the court, so I knew I couldn't take the match lightly.  I don't take any of my matches lightly, honestly, but I knew I had to be in top form to walk away with a win here.  We engaged each other a few times but nothing landed for either of us for quite a while.  About halfway into the match I was able to take the first point - kote.  We restarted and I stepped back a few times before launching a surprising men from to-ma to take the second point and the win.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

 The first match is always the roughest for me.  It's definitely a weakness I have, one that I'm working on, but fortunately I was able to get through the first one in high spirits.  I watched the next match to determine who I would be fighting in the second round, and my opponent happened to be the oldest DeJong girl.  The DeJongs, in my opinion, have some of the smoothest kendo around, and I knew I was in for another tough fight.  I fought her sister a few tournaments back, so I knew I'd have to stay on my toes and not relax at all, or else she would definitely take advantage of my lack in focus. The match started, and we stepped in and got underway.  There was a lot of pressure from both sides, and she was quick to try and exploit anything that I gave her.  On my end, though, I was also staying alert and focused, and was able to fend off most of her attacks.  There were a lot of close calls on both sides, but we ended the round at 0-0, which forced us into encho (overtime).  The match started again and we both fought hard for that minute of encho.  She threw a lot at me, I threw a lot at her, and again we found ourselves at a standstill.  We had one last encho to go before they'd call hantei (judges' decision).  Again we fought hard, but again we ended without a point being scored.  I gave it my all, so I knew no matter who the judges deemed the winner I would walk out with my head high.  As fate would have it, I came out with my head high and the judges' decision. 

Final Score: 0-0 (Ruiz by Hantei)

I made it to the quarter finals!  And I'd fought two tough opponents to get there.  My next opponent is someone that I actually thought, in the back of my head, that I'd end up fighting; my buddy Ian, from Kent.  I've mentioned him before, as I've had a few matches with him (most of which ended in a tie).  This would be the fourth time I'd face him at a tournament, although the first time in an individual match as opposed to teams.  He was looking good that day so I had a dreadful feeling that I might be playing the mouse to his cat, but I mustered up my confidence and focus, stepped into the court and got it under way.  First thing about Ian - he's quick.  He's got great shinai speed and he can move in and out of distance quickly.  I don't know if I'm quite as fast with my shinai or my footwork, but I did a good job of giving him trouble throughout the match.  We both had a few close calls for points, but nothing that stuck, and at the end of three minutes we were tied.  The first encho started, and we both stepped in and threw what we had at each other.  One thing I noticed, and that I really appreciated in this match, is that neither of us did hiki waza.  I've actually been working on hiki waza lately, especially hiki men, but chose to keep things straight forward with Ian the entire time.  Maybe this was a bad idea, but it made the match feel a bit more honorable, for lack of a better term.  Again we found ourselves at the end of the first encho with no points, so we went into second encho.  Again we both threw what we had at each other, but the end came when Ian finally slipped in with a men strike that connected.  We bowed out, and I thanked him for the great match.  It was probably my favorite match of the entire day, even though I lost.

Final Score: 1-0 (Morgan in Encho)

I was able to watch Ian fight a couple more great matches, ending in a final match against Seth, one of my own teammates from Spokane,  That match went far into encho, too, before Ian was finally able to secure a win and take first in our division.  The team matches would start soon after, but I was definitely happy for my friend, even though he had to go through myself and a few of my dojo mates to take first.

Our first team match was against Sno-King B.  We'd talked strategy beginning the night before, and our lineup ended up putting me in the fukusho position (fourth on the team, out of five people).  I'd never fought in this spot, and we all felt that it would be the best spot for me.  Depending on how the other matches went, I'd either be stress-free (having the match won for us by the first three guys) or I would be a pivotal point for a win or to keep us going.  Things went well in the first three matches, though, as our first three guys ended up winning their matches.  My match came, and I found myself against Chu, a yudansha from Sno-King that I'd never met before.  Since I'd never seen her I wasn't quite sure what to expect, so I started out fairly conservatively so I could find out how she moved and how she fought.  We exchanged a few attacks, and she came close to taking my kote a couple times, but I was able to score the first point with a hiki men out of nowhere.  We restarted and I found my next point soon after as she came in and I side-stepped for another hiki men.  Our last match ended in a tie, 1-1, but we were already on our way to the semi-finals.

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

The next match was against the team from UW, which included a good mix of strong, young guys and gals.  We'd need to step it up a bit to make sure they didn't run away with an early advantage over us.  Again, our first three guys went out and took wins for our team, with Seth fighting really well in the third spot against one of their sandans.  I stepped up, again with little pressure to win or lose.  My opponent was my friend Van.  She's still in the 1-3 kyu division, but she's sharp and I've seen her take out many a more experienced opponent with her kote.  We began the match and I made sure to watch out for that kote.  She did use it on me quite a few times, whenever she saw that opening, but I was unable to counter it with anything good.  I was able to fend her off for most of the match, and finally my opportunity came when I launched a kote of my own that landed, giving me the first point.  We rest and fought hard again, but neither of us were able to capitalize on the other after that.  The match ended, we bowed out and I walked away with another win for our team.  The last match also ended in a win for our team, putting us into the semi-finals.

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz)
Team Score: 5-0 (Spokane A)

The next match, as we found out, would be against Bellevue B.  We watched them fight a close match against Obukan, but they were able to step away with the win.  We all bowed in, and cheered on our teammates.  Our first guy came out strong, scoring a kote early in the match.  Unfortunately he was unable to keep that point to himself, as his opponent came back with a men to tie things up.  The second match also ended in a tie, with our member and his opponent unable to score anything on each other.  The third match turned things in our favor, as our member was able to take it 1-0 to give us the advantage.  When my match came I knew I'd have to pull out a win to secure it for us and not put the burden at the very end.  I stepped in, and had another opponent I'd never fought before.  Drackert, from Bellevue.  We started and I came out strong, throwing a quick men her way and rushing in to avoid a counter attack.  We traded blows a bit and I kept the pressure up and was able to score a men about a minute into the match.  We restarted, and I fought to keep the point without giving up one in return.  The end came when I stepped in and scored kote as she brought her hands up to block.  That win put us over the top, sending our team into the finals.  With our final match as a tie, we stepped off the court and into the finals.  Our opponents would be a team that beat us in the finals a couple years back - Sno-King A.

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

Here we were, the finals.  I'd been on our A team for the past 4 years, and each time we made it to the finals.  Each time we also took home second place.   This year I was hoping that would change.  Our opponents were Sno-King A, a team we'd fought many times in the past, and lost to on one occasion in the finals.  Things got underway, with our first member fighting and taking an early lead, and win, with a kote to set us ahead early.  Our second member fought hard, but his opponent took a kote of his own late into the match to end it in their favor.  We went into the third match evened out, and that match ended in a 0-0 tie.  My match was up, and my opponent was, once again, Chaney.  I had a plan, I had a previous win over him that day, and I knew I needed to not lose this match to keep us alive.  We bowed in and the match began.  I came out hard, pressuring and launching attacks when I perceived an opening.  Chaney, however, was ready for them, and was able to neutralize me quite well.  I had a few close calls, but nothing that got all of the flags to go up.  We were deadlocked for most of the match, neither of us able to get that point over the other.  The three minutes passed, and we found ourselves at a tie.  I was a little disappointed, but not for how I fought.  I was disappointed that I had left it up to our taisho, our team captain, to get a win or end at a tie to force us into sudden death.  He fought hard, but was unable to take a point or an advantage.  When the match was over, we found ourselves in a 1-1 tie with Sno-King.  There wold be a sudden death match.

We decided to send out Seth, a strong, young sandan, against M. Scott from Sno-King, another strong, young sandan. It would definitely be a good match.  They both fought hard, Seth flying around the court, and his opponent answering with quick moves and counters of his own.  They seemed pretty evenly matched, and I'm sure we were all on pins and needles the entire time.  The match went minute after minute, until right around the 3-minute mark.  Seth pressured in and his opponent went for a kote that wasn't there.  Seth saw this and came flying in with a men strike that landed, giving him and our team the win.

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

We'd done it!  Our team had fought well, both individually and together, and come out on top.  The final match was definitely one to remember, as I think we had everyone on the edge of their seats throughout, with a finish that was fitting for all the build-up.  I think the one that that I appreciated the most this time around, and others echoed, is that we really fought as a team.  We talked strategy in our team lineup the night before; we talked about the teams that we were going to face, and the individuals in those teams to find strengths and weaknesses;  we evaluated our own performance in between matches to see what we needed to focus on;  and we supported each other throughout the entire day.  This was not just five individuals coming together to fight, this was a team coming together to fight and I think it showed.  I, for one, am not going to sit back and relax, though.  I want to work even harder.  I found many things that I need to improve, and a few things that I'm doing well that I still need to polish up.  I was lucky enough to get a lot of feedback throughout the weekend from DeJong Sensei, which I have shared in part with my teammates but would like to share more of at a later time.  That is the reason I compete.  Winning is nice and feels good, but I definitely don't win all the time. Not even close.  My main reasons are to test and improve myself.  This is the fire to my blade, and I use it to temper myself and make myself stronger.  But, that being said, it is nice to allow myself a little happiness in the fact that we were able to fight and come out on top, as a team.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Power of Motodachi

Hey hey!  It's been a while.  A bit too long for my tastes, but I've had many personal things going on, as I have had this whole year.  First things first - I have a new son!  He was born about four weeks ago and he's been a little bundle of joy, wrapped up in some typical baby antics.  But he's finally here and it's a joy to have him be part of this world and my life.  So while I've still been able to practice pretty regularly, most of my free time has been devoted to him and not to doing things like writing regular blog posts.  But I hope that anyone out there (hello?) that is still reading this can understand.

With that being said, there's something that really struck me last night, as I sat talking with one of my friends and kendo teachers.  That being the importance of being a good motodachi.  It's always been one of my goals to be the best at kendo that I can personally be, and that includes all aspects of it.  One of the roles that we all play, quite frequently, is being a receiver (motodachi) during drills.  Being a good motodachi, in my opinion, benefits everyone involved.  It has obvious benefits for your partner, because then they are able to practice to the best of their abilities and get the most out of their time with you.  I think everyone has experienced the...difficulties of working with a motodachi that just isn't giving their all that night.  I will be the first to raise my hand and say that I've been guilty of being lazy, tired, not into it, etc, and that reflects badly on me and takes away from my partner's training.  It also has an effect on the group as a whole.  If you are a good receiver, you give that spirit and that feeling to your partner, and they take that on to their next partner, thus spreading the spirit and intensity about the room.  When everyone is doing this, it brings the feeling in the room to an almost palpable level.  I love those practices so much!  We could be practicing anything that night, but when the spirit is that high everything is intense and exciting and everyone feeds off each other and adds to the excitement. 

One thing that may not be readily apparent is how much benefit one gets for themselves when being a good motodachi.  I believe that it is equal to, if not more, benefit to be a good motodachi than to be a good kakarite.  As motodachi, you have a chance to really study your partner and find out how they move and react, depending on the drill being done.  You can find the nuances in their techniques; figure out what they do right before they launch an attack; find out what they do when they feint versus what they do when they make an actual attack.  There's a lot to be gained there alone, but in other drills (oji waza drills, etc) where motodachi is instructed to make an attack during the drill, that is even more opportunity for motodachi to really work on making heartfelt attacks.  If I go out and just throw a men strike at someone during a drill, there's nothing behind it.  But if I take that drill and turn it into an opportunity for me to blast my partner's men, despite them trying to keep me from doing so, well that's a challenge.  And when I have that focus and I'm able to get my men strike in even though they tried to counter my efforts, that's a small victory that I'll take and use again and again.  So again, being a good motodachi, in my opinion, has some very obvious benefits, as well as a lot of benefits that we might not think about at first.  This is the reason that I try and be the best motodachi that I can, and I put everything that I have into it.

Now, with all that being said, there is a time and a place for going all out as motodachi, or holding back.  That's something that has to be determined during each drill that you do, based on the instruction given, and/or figured out with each partner that you have.  I'm obviously not going to go flying in at a kyu that's new in bogu the same way that I would one of my peers or seniors in the dojo.  Also if one of my peers was actively wanting to work on a specific technique, I would probably tone it down for them, depending on what stage of development they are at with that waza.  But when we're instructed to go all out, either by our sensei or by my partner, I will do my best to give them a good challenge by being the best motodachi I can be.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Fast and Slow

 So I've had some thoughts on my mind lately, regarding my techniques.  Even though I'm just coming to these realizations, I remember that these are things that Sinclair Sensei has mentioned to us (and me) time and time again.  It's funny how things can be brought up and taught over and over, and yet it doesn't truly sink in until you are ready to hear it and receive that knowledge.  That is what happened to me over these last few weeks, regarding speed.

It started with hiki waza.  I'll be the first to admit, my hiki waza is not great, and I definitely need to work on it.  This last week or so I've been focusing on hiki waza as much as I can.  Something occurred to me, though, as I would strike and fly back, only to reset and do it again.  Most of my strikes were not hitting the target, and even when they did they were sloppy.  Too shallow, too soft, no snap to them.  It was like I was just flinging my shinai out there and hoping it would hit.  I finally figured out what I was doing that was so wrong.  I was going too fast.

Now, I'm of the belief that there is no such thing as too fast in kendo, but on the flip side of that the speed that's generated needs to be natural.  It needs to be effortless, and that only comes through training and training and training (in my opinion).  What I was doing was trying to force "unnatural" speed into my technique, which was totally wrecking it.  I was setting myself up for failure from the beginning without even realizing it.  I then stepped back up and focused on just doing proper technique without any unnatural speed injected into it and I was able to hit the target, and hit it well, the majority of attempts.  The strike was still plenty quick enough, but it was the natural speed that I had built into it by practicing it for all of these years.  So, in addition to the things that I'm currently focusing on, I have a renewed focus on not trying to produce artificial speed and just let the natural speed that I've created carry my techniques through.  This doesn't mean that I don't think there's a time and place for pushing myself and trying to be as fast and quick as possible; there definitely is, and it's always good to push those boundaries occasionally to see how far I've progressed.  My main focus will be on the techniques themselves and not on the speed, and try to be more conscious of it going forward.  Again, funny how things that I've heard and known about choose to hit me right in the face when I am ready to acknowledge them!

In other kendo news, we've been doing a lot of shinpan practice at our dojo lately.  It's a nice shift and good to refresh what I know about being a shinpan and also cover some new ground with it.  Also I'm glad for the practice, because my shinpan skills are lacking at the moment.  It's definitely a new world!  Not only do I have to move as a unit with other people, but I have to pay attention to the commands and my body posture and how I use the flags and, oh yeah, there are competitors on the floor that I'm watching, too!  Some advice that we've gotten that's really helped me is to put ourselves in the match, with the competitors.  This helps immensely when I'm trying to keep and eye on both participants and watch for points and issues that arise.  One thing that I've tried to stay consistent at, personally, is making a decision.  If I am going to fail, I want to fail with confidence. This is definitely something I need more practice at, but I feel good about the base I've developed so far, however basic it may be.  

So, in closing, being a shinpan is hard!  There are so many new things to think about and consider and learn, on top of actually having to call the points and penalties fairly and accurately.  As far as my kendo goes, the unnatural speed is wrecking my technique in a lot of ways.  Whether I'm doing it on purpose or unintentionally, it's something that I'll need to eliminate in order to let my best shine through.  There is a time and place for going all out and trying to push the speed limit, but in everyday practice I'll try and build that speed naturally from now on so that it's as much as a comfortable part of the technique as everything else.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thoughts on Kaeshi-Dou

Wow, has it really been almost two months since I've written a post?  Time sure flies, and I didn't realize that it had been so long.  I have been busy with life, and kendo, and lunch training, so at least that's all going well.  Lunch training takes up 4-5 days of the week now; almost every single day that I'm at work.  I have to get in as much as I can before we move offices, because once that happens I won't be just around the corner from the dojo and those trusty hitting dummies.  Once we move, though, I'll be sure to get together a new lunch training regimen.  For now, though, I'll continue to work hard and put in that extra time as best I can.

Last night was a good practice.  Monday night was a good practice, too, even though I've been dealing with a heel injury this past week.  Actually, two heel injuries.  My left heel is acting up, I'm not sure why, but the heel/Achilles tendon are starting to get sore.  Then about a week ago I stepped on the hem of my hakama during practice, and I'm sure some people out there reading this know just how painful that is!  Suffice it to say, I've had a lot of time to work on other things besides my footwork.  Last night I had the spotlight put on me for one such thing, even though I wasn't expecting it at all.

Lately we've been changing up the way we do kirikaeshi.  We've been combining what we do as first rhythm and second rhythm into one drill.  First rhythm, as we perform it, is when we strike and stop our shinai after each sayu-men (hitting to the left or right side of the men).  Second rhythm is similar, but we just take the pause out and made the strikes fluid motions.  Neither of them are fast, but very controlled.  the second version we've been doing is one where we start out normally, by hitting men and coming in for taiatari, but after that the motodachi will step back/forward while striking men, and the kakarite performs kaeshi-dou to each side as he steps forward and back.  Sounds simple enough, and for me it was, but it seems that I was doing something right because I was asked to demonstrate it for the class, and afterward had various people asking me about it and what I was doing to make it work.  I thought I'd take this opportunity to elaborate a bit on what goes on with me, both mentally and physically, when performing kaeshi-dou.

As a disclaimer before I begin, I'd like to say that I'm no expert at kaeshi-dou.  It's a waza that I rarely use and I'm still figuring out the mechanics and timing of it myself.  If I may be honest, I would even say that my kaeshi-dou sucks right now, but hopefully in time it'll become usable.  So please remember, these are the notes of someone that is still very much a student, but here are a few points that I try to remember while doing kaeshi-dou:

  • Timing - I always try to wait until the last minute to counter and strike.  It doesn't do any good to start the movement early.  If this happens, you get to hang out waiting for the strike to come in, which not only turns kaeshi-dou into a two-step process, but also leaves you open to anyone quick enough to pick up on it and change their tactic.  Instead, I try to wait until the last possible second and then counter.  On this note, when I counter I try and make it one beat, with the block and the counter-strike becoming one movement.
  • Shinai -  when I perform the movement with my hands, I bring my left hand slightly out of center, so that I can angle my shinai properly for the block.  I am in the habit of blocking out in front of me, so my arms move more up from kamae into the block, instead of coming in close to my head and body for the block.  I've seen that version of kaeshi-dou done, and done well (Teramoto Sensei), but I've never been able to get it to work for me.  The angle that I make shouldn't be horizontal, though, or else the counter won't work right.  To prevent this, I try not to block "too big", by taking my arms way too far out of the centerline.  Only a slight deviation is needed for me to get the right angle.  Right when I feel contact between my shinai and my partner's I bring my shinai down sharply, with my left hand coming back to center, while my right hand is used to whip the shinai around to my partner's dou.  This part is important to me, because if I try to move the shinai too early it will mess everything up.  I have to wait until the moment of impact to move/twist the shinai around, which also helps me use my partner's power to give my strike even more "oomph".
  • Distance - Since my partner is usually the one committing to the strike and closing the distance, I let them do most of the work there.  That way I'm able to take just a small step to the side as I counter and strike their dou, or in the case of kirikaeshi I'm able to take small steps forward and back (to match whatever distancing they are setting).  When I first learned this waza and tried to use it I was in the habit of stepping forward as I struck, which would cause me to hit way too deep on the target.
These are things that I've heard over and over at the dojo, but as I practice this waza they make more and more sense to me, and I'm able to utilize them more and more.  I think the points that really helped me the most were keeping a good kamae and not striking until the very last second, making sure that I'm not stepping in too far as I strike, and not over-blocking but using just enough angle to "catch" their shinai before I return that strike to my partner.

There's still so much I'm learning and working on and failing at with kaeshi-dou, but at least with some good basics under my belt I'm able to land  a fairly decent one from time to time.  I'm sure that the more I learn and the more I practice, I'll revise my thoughts on dou, add new things, maybe even take some other things away.  All in the name of having more good days with it than bad days.  The road is long and difficult, but I'm willing to walk it for as long as it takes.

Thursday, July 31, 2014


Marsten Sensei said something at my last shinsa, back in 2013, that has stuck with me ever since.  He was addressing the group of us and explained that kendo is like a chair, with the four legs being made up of shiai, shinsa, keiko, and kata.  He said that we needed all of them to have successful kendo.  Now I know that this won't apply directly to everyone, but the idea is the same for people that have no desire to compete.  What is a chair with 3 legs?  A stool!  I believe whole-heartedly that these four elements (or three, in some cases) are needed to create full, rich kendo in someone, but I'd like to add that all of them need to be balanced to reach full potential.  Have you ever tried to sit on a chair with uneven legs?  What happened?  I'd make a guess that the chair would fall over, or break. 

I enjoy all aspects of kendo.  I train a lot, by myself and with my dojo members.  I enjoy kata in the same way, as a solo endeavor and with a partner.  I also regularly compete in our regional taikais throughout the year, and I participate in shinsas for testing whenever I'm able.  One of my ultimate personal goals is to make my shiai kendo and my regular, every day kendo one and the same.  I do this by working hard on my basics and techniques, trying to move properly at all times (no bendy kendo!) and having overall "beautiful kendo", as one of my sensei would frequently comment on.  In my mind this can only be accomplished by putting in the same amount of focus and dedication to each part of my kendo.  If I practice hard every week at my local dojo and do well there but let it fall apart during competition, what does that show others?  If I perfect my kata to the best of my ability at my level but I neglect my regular training and keiko time, how can I apply what I've learned between the two?  And if I have a strong showing at each shinsa I attend, but am lazy and unengaged at regular practice, how will that be viewed by everyone else?  I would think that any answer to these questions would be more on the negative side.

I've been thinking a lot about this during our semi-annual kata study that we do at our dojo.  I'm lucky to be in a place where these points are important and we are given ample opportunities to improve our abilities, both by practicing together with other members and by ourselves.  I've noticed a lot of people that I admire in kendo have a good balance between all of these aspects.  They test well; they take kata seriously and work to improve it each time; they show beautiful kendo at tournaments, win or lose; they do their best at regular practices and work to improve themselves and everyone that comes to train.  I hope to emulate these traits in my own way, through my continued training and focus on balancing the four legs of my kendo chair.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Layers and Curtains

Kendo is an interesting art.  There's not much to it, physically.  The footwork and attacks are all relatively simple, compared to some other martial arts out there.  There's a handful of different movements and even less targets and attacks, but all is not what it seems.  Kendo is about layers, and curtains.  You peel back one layer, peek behind another curtain, and all of a sudden there's more than you first realized.  A men strike is a men strike is a men strike, but it can mean vastly different things depending on if you are a beginner, upper kyu, or upper dan.  I love this aspect of kendo.  Easy to learn, difficult to master, and when you think you've got one thing down you discover another dimension to it which makes you see it in a whole new light and gives you more to think about and practice.

This mindset comes up to me all the time, as a lot of the advice and instruction I get are things that I've heard before.  Maybe not in the same way, but along the same lines.  It seems, though, that each time I hear it, or practice it, there's more going on.  Or there's something else to add to it to make it stronger.  When I learned to strike men, I focused only on what my hands were doing (for good or bad).  I thought about the correct structure of my swing, about hitting the target correctly and accurately, and about using tenouchi to give it that nice snappy feeling.  When I felt comfortable with that, I began to think about my body and what it was doing.  What are my feet doing when I strike?  What about my upper body?  Am I leaning?  Am I moving from my center or are my arms leading my movement?  So many new things to consider once I got down the actual motion of hitting men!  Now when I strike men, a lot of my thoughts are on my pressure on my opponent, or his/her pressure on me.  Is there an opening to be taken?  Can I create an opening from my current position?  Can I even hit them from here if given the chance, or do I have to adjust my distance?  In my own example here, I can see many, many layers that are being built upon one another to make one single men strike.  I also know that there will be many more layers added upon what I have already built in the years to come.

Layers are not only present in shinai kendo, but they also show up in the kata.  We have been studying kata again lately at the dojo and a lot of what I'm focusing on now involves distancing, timing, and my connection with my partner.  Before my mind was filled with the physical movements themselves and making sure I had those right.  Now that the basic "shape" of the kata are burned into my memory, I'm free to turn my concentration to other aspects and to explore the kata and begin making them more robust.  The kodachi kata, in particular, is where our focus has been, and I'm glad to have this time to bring them up to par with the first seven kata that I have learned and to bring them all, as a whole, up to new levels through this practice and focus on different aspects.

We've also been going over some interesting things at the dojo lately.  Not any one strike or technique in particular, but rather what happens before, during, and after.  We've been breaking these three pieces down and building them back up, and I've found that I definitely need to work on the "after" part of my attacks.  This seems to be my weakest link, due to footwork breaking down, or my kiai ending too early, etc.  I'll try and remember this in the coming weeks so I can really focus on it.  Next up, I would say that my "during" needs some work, as I'm not always as accurate as I'd like to be.  Also I still need to work on relaxing and using strength right at the very end, like Stroud Sensei has shown me a couple times now.  I've done a lot to build up my kamae, and the "before" my attack, so I feel like at this point that is my strongest area.  At least for now, for where I'm at in my training.  I'm looking forward to breaking it down and building it up again once I get to that next layer, or when I pull back that next curtain to reveal what's waiting behind it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Rose City Taikai 2014: The Road to The Top

 It's that time of year again!  Time for the Rose City Taikai, hosted by the Obukan Kendo Club in Portland, Oregon.  Our dojo took some very excited members down this year and participated in the kendo fun this past weekend.  As I've mentioned before, this is always a special trip for me.  It was the first taikai I'd ever participated in, so I always use it as a watermark to see how far I've come since the last year.  It's also a great extended trip with my friends and dojo mates.

This year we were only able to take five competitors, due to work or school or personal schedule conflicts, but I believe that the five of us showed strong kendo all weekend.  We started the trip early on Friday morning, departing from our home here in Spokane and made a ton of new memories in the AC-deficient kendo van (yes, the AC was out in the van, but that didn't kill our spirit!).  We made the long drive down to Portland and arrived in time for training with our friends at Obukan Kendo Club.  The night was filled with good fellowship and good kendo, and I was able to practice with many new and old faces.  After practice, I was feeling good and confident for the next day of competition.  We headed out for a nice dinner and relaxing at the hotel before turning in for the night.

The next morning we packed up and headed to the taikai grounds, which were at the same venue  as last year.  I knew the competition that day would be good as there was a good turnout in our division, and also all but one of my dojo mates would be in the same division with me.  Competition would be high and fierce!  We were able to see some fantastic kendo to get us motivated, as they started the day with the Senior Dan and 3+ Dan divisions.  After a quick lunch, our 1-2 Dan division was up.

I was originally slated to fight in the fifth match in our division, but they decided to split our division onto both courts, so my match became the first match.  My opponent was Stroud Sensei's son.  What a way to start!  He had taken second place in our division last year and I'd seen him fight a few times and knew that he had very good, very straight kendo.  We had been laughing and joking before the matches, but I knew that when the match started we would put our best foots forward in hopes of coming out the victor.  I stepped in, we bowed, and our match got under way.  I took my time to begin with, feeling him out and trying to discover any weaknesses or any openings I could use to my advantage.  We traded blows for a bit, with me running into him at full speed at one point and bumping him a little more than I wanted.  I found my first point when we both moved in for kote-men.  We nullified each other's attacks, but I turned and pressed in with another men that found its mark.  We reset and I did my best to keep my point advantage while also looking for another opening and keep him at bay.  The next point came near the end of the match, when he came charging in for kote-men, I slid my kote in just a split second sooner.  Tough match to start the day with, and I'm glad I had to a chance to face him

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

My next match was with my friend S. Stern, from Ren Ma Dojo in Portland.   We had been joking about fighting each other the night before at practice, so when I saw the line-up I had to laugh a bit.  He had a distinct height and reach advantage on me, but I was going to do my best to even the field with strong kendo and good movement.  We stepped in and began the match.  Again, I took a reserved approach to the match, trying to take my time and see what was open and what wasn't, and how he reacted to my movement and pressure.  He did a good job of keeping me out at his hitting distance, but with about a minute left in the match I was able to connect with a debana kote for the first point.  We reset and I rushed him off the line, throwing my shinai back for a katsugi men that connected when he went for my kote, which was now gone from its original spot. 

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

Semi-finals, and my next opponent was T. Imanishi, from Cascade.  It's funny, she actually fought on a team with me the first time I came to Obukan, and now here we were facing each other as opponents.  I knew that she would be a tough match, but I also knew that the finals were within my reach.  We stepped in and started the match.  As a reverse of the last match, I was now the one with the height and reach advantage, but I knew she had very good footwork and movement and could move into her hitting distance quicker than I might be ready for.  I kept this in mind as I stepped in and pressured her.  We traded blows here and there, and more than once I noticed that her kote strike came dangerously close to scoring on me.  I tried to move in and out as much as possible, keeping her on her toes and wondering about what I might do next.  I kicked myself mentally at one point, though, when I had a solid strike to her kote that got the shinpans' flags moving, but then kept it going into a men strike that disqualified my previous strike.  We fought hard for the three minutes of the match, but neither of us were able to take a point, so we reset and readied ourselves for overtime.  When the match began anew, we both stepped in and laid on the pressure, both physically and mentally.  it seemed like forever before I started to press in and launched a kote.  It landed just as she began to swing up to hit my men.  The flags went up and I found myself in the finals.

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz in encho)

I'd made it.  I would be in the final match.  My opponent was still being decided on the other court, and I laughed to myself when I saw it was two of my own dojo mates fighting for a spot.  After a couple of minutes it was decided - Yarrow would be my opponent in the finals.  He is young, he is fast, he has a super long reach and his technique is outstanding.  What more could I ask for in a final opponent?  He took his rest time to re-focus, and after a bit we stepped in, bowed, and started the match.   The electricity between us was almost palpable.  Neither of us wanted to make a mistake in this match, and we both knew that the other had the ability to end things very quickly if we weren't careful.  Yarrow would attack, I would counter, and vice versa, but neither of us were able to connect anything at first.  The break came when Yarrow went for kote, which I answered with a kaeshi-men for the first point.  We reset and fought for a while more.  I thought I would be able to take the win with that point, but Yarrow came raging back with a kote-men that gave him a point and tied the match.  Even after a crazy flurry of strikes, neither of us were able to gain the upper hand again, and we were forced into overtime.  The suspense was now hanging heavy, and as the match restarted, we both increased our intensity and will to win.  I tried to keep a calm demeanor and kamae, not letting myself get taken out and creating an opening.  After a short kote-kote-men from Yarrow, we stepped back in and I pressured in with everything I had.  I watched and finally saw my opportunity, when he flinched as I pressed forward.  I threw out a kote that landed just as he began to lift his hands to hit my men.  The flags went up;  I had just won the 1-2 Dan division.

Final Score: 2-1 (Ruiz in encho)

There wasn't much time for me to celebrate, as we had our team matches immediately after our division.  We suited up and headed out for battle once again, with our first matches against Portland's B team.  My match wasn't too spectacular, as it ended in a tie.  I was unable to get my opponent to open himself up or even attack me much, and I was unable to find a way through his blocking, so I did my best with him but was ultimately unable to land anything.  The rest of my team fared better, winning their matches and sending us into the next round.

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

 Our next match was against our good friends from Kent.  They always have a strong showing, and we've gone back and forth on wins and losses for as long as I've been part of Spokane Kendo.  Today was going to be no different.  I started things off strong for our team, taking a two-point win against my opponent very quickly.  Yarrow kept our team alive by negating arguably their best member and forcing a tie.  Unfortunately we weren't able to hold onto that lead and ended up in a tie at the end of the team matches.  My team sent me out, and my opponent was S. Day, whom I had fought before.  This was a one-point sudden death match, so the first person to score would win it for their team.  We started strong, trading blows and playing pretty conservatively.  Things heated up quickly, though, and at one point I saw an opening for hiki doh and went for it.  I felt and heard it connect but as I launched backwards he followed me and landed a men strike that they called to end the match.  Lesson learned on my part.  I felt a bit of sorrow and unease for losing the match for my team, but that's how things go sometimes.  You win, you lose, as long as you learn and use it to improve, and I'll definitely be improving from that experience.

Final Score: 2-0
Team Score 2-1 (Kent) 

So this year we weren't able to claim a team victory, but all of our members had a strong showing. A couple of our members were fresh back on the court from pretty lengthy hiatuses, but they looked so comfortable and so in control that it was motivational to the rest of us.  I'm glad to be part of such a strong group, and I feel that the kendo we showed this past weekend will continue to solidify Spokane as a dojo that strives to push the bar for PNKF.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Let It Go!

First, I must apologize to everyone that came here looking for the next big Frozen remake.  You'll find no such thing here, so move over Elsa, I'm taking the scene!

I've been working a lot on some new things this past month, but last week I decided to do something that I don't think I've ever done before.  I decided to let it all go and just focus on kendo.  We have a tournament coming up, and instead of polluting the waters with new things that I'm not used to or proficient with, I wanted to take a step back and just work on what I know and focus on strengthening what I've already got.  For as long as I can remember, I've always been working on something.  They say that kendo is easy to learn, but takes a lifetime to master, and this is so true.  I see it more and more every day that I practice.  Kendo is definitely a multi-layered beast, and just when you think you've perfected a certain technique or movement or theory, you peel back to reveal even more beneath.  It can be the most frustrating and yet most rewarding feeling ever, sometimes. 

Sinclair Sensei has been gone a lot this past month, focusing on his own training with his teacher, so I've found myself in a teaching position a lot lately.  When I would take the reins, I wanted to focus on things that were important to me, or things that I was actively working on in my own training.  I focused on practicing pressuring in and hitting, physical pressure with the body and the shinai, as well as keeping a relaxed yet controlled grip, and using proper tenouchi to add the power and the snap of the strike at the end.  I also had a little fun, bringing back some old kote drills that Ando Sensei used to have us do when he was at our dojo.

I've actually felt pretty good this week with my training, besides the usual physical issues that arise here and there.  Even though I haven't been focusing on anything in particular, and just working on enjoying my kendo and strengthening it, I feel like my strikes have been snappier, and that my small men strikes have been small, without as much wasted movement as I've had before.  I also feel that my movement from my center has developed quite nicely, and that I'm not leaning as much as I used to.  I know there's still a bit there, but hopefully with continued practice it'll soon fade away.

So, will this new focus help me at Obukan next weekend?  I can't say for sure at this point.  I guess I'll have to wait and see what happens.  But I do believe that it's nice to just step back sometimes, clear your mind, and just let it all go.  Remember the reasons that you started kendo.  Remember the reasons you've grown to love the continued practice.  Remember the reason you tighten those men himo.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

UW Taikai 2014: Fighting Fire With Fire

This past weekend our club participated in the University of Washington 38th Annual Invitational Kendo Taikai, and all throughout the day we managed to show strong kendo.  This year we had the smallest group from our club that I think I've ever seen; only four of us went to compete.  We ended up having to borrow a fifth person to complete our team, and he turned out to be a great asset.  I would like to say thank you to S. DeBlieck from Sno-King for fighting with us this weekend!

We started out with our usual tradition of driving over on Friday, and were in time for a bit of training at Bellevue with the locals there.  They have such a large group at their dojo, it was wonderful to practice with so many new faces!  This time I came away with fewer bruises and injuries than the last time I practiced there, so I was grateful for that.  After a late night of Telemundo with my dojo mates, I finally got some rest in.

We awoke early on Saturday, ate, and then headed to the college.  As usual, opening ceremonies were early but my division didn't start until well into the afternoon so I had a few hours to kill. I was able to witness some great matches in the Women's Open division, and the Sandan division, watching and rooting for a couple of my dojo mates that were fighting there.  Time came and went, and finally I was up for my division.

I actually got moved around a bit due to some drops, so I ended up facing a guy in my first round that I'd fought previously at PNKF.  Last time I fought him, we went into encho at 1-1, where I finally scored on his kote.  This time I was going to do my best and hopefully not push it to the edge like that.  The match started and we exchanged some blows.  He was fast, but I felt like I controlled the distance pretty well.  My first point came when I missed on a kote and he lifted to block his men, at which point I slammed his kote once more.  We reset and fought again, with him very nearly landing a men on me partway through, but I was able to come out victorious with another kote, although I didn't hear the call and continued to fight until they stopped us.  My first match was in the bag, and my nerves were starting to calm down a bit.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

My next match, funny enough, was with another guy I fought from PNKF.  Unfortunately our last match did not have a happy ending for me, as I lost 1-0 to a quick men that he hit off the line.  I knew what to expect so I was a bit better prepared,but he was still fast and very good so I definitely had my hands full.  The match started and he came at me with a quick kote-men.  I tried to take his kote but came down on the wrong side of his shinai and he pressed forward, so a quick step to the side kept me out of harm's way of his attack.  He continued to press his attacks, and I pressed my own, but at one point he was able to take a point against me after I failed to take his kote.  We reset, but the rest of the battle was downhill for me.  I tried, hard, to take that point back, but he was too quick with his blocks and counters, neutralizing everything I threw at him.  The match ended, and unfortunately so did my run in the division.

Final Score: 1-0 (A. Lee)

Well, I lost.  Losing isn't so bad, though.  I received some valuable advice from Stroud Sensei, who was the shimpan of my match with Lee.  I'll definitely be using it to fix some issues that he saw in my technique.  I was able to catch some great matches in the 1-2 Dan division, as well as the 4 Dan+ division, before the team matches started. A bit of lunch refreshment, and renewed focus, and I was ready for some team action!

I was placed as senpo (1st out) on my team, and our first match was against Cascade.  I hate to say it, but I never caught the name of my opponent, but she was a small, fast sandan from Tokyo that was fighting for Cascade's team.  I resolved myself to come out strong for my team and set the bar in spirit and energy so that the rest of my team could follow suit.  We bowed in, and the match started.  She came in attacking, but I think I did a pretty good job of getting in and out as best I could, while also keeping my own attacks up and keeping her on alert.  We fought for a while before I was able to land a debana kote to take the first point.  We reset and almost immediately I parried her kote strike with a kote-men of my own to take the point and the match.  The rest of my team fought very well, as well, and in the end we came out victorious.

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

Our next opponents were a strong team from Highline, and we all knew we definitely had our work cut out for us.  But we are also a a tough team, in our own right, and have a great team dynamic and level of spirit.  Hopefully this would help overcome the pure technical skill and experience we were about to face in the Highline team.  We bowed in, and I found myself starting a match with an opponent that I've never fought before - one of the DeJong girls.  I knew that she came from a kendo family, with all of them being extremely strong, as well as smart, fighters.  I might have been physically stronger, and had a bit of reach advantage, but this was not going to be a walk in the park.  the match started and we sized each other up for a bit before unleashing our attacks against each other.  I had to stay on my toes, because every little opening that she thought she saw, she went for.  This led to many close calls and raised flags on her part, but I did my best to fend her off while trying to deliver attacks of my own.  The first point came about halfway through the match, when I waved off her kote and delivered a strike to her men.  We reset, and for me the next 90 seconds felt like an eternity.  I did my best to try and take the second point, or at least hold onto my lead without giving it up, although she didn't make that task easy at all.  When the time was finally called, I let out a huge mental sigh of relief as I walked back to the line to bow out.  The rest of my teammates did an awesome job of fending off their opponents, and in the end we came out on top.

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

After a short break to re-arrange and get suited up again, we found ourselves facing our next opponents - Team Vancouver.  This team included not only a former Canadian national team member, but the winner of the 1-2 Dan division, and a couple others that medaled in their respective divisions, including my previous opponent that I'd lost to that day.  And guess what?  He was going to be my opponent again.  As I walked to the line and bowed in, I prepared myself for another tough match.  One that I would hopefully not lose again.  The match started and I came out firing.  I felt faster, better than I'd fought him previously, but this didn't do me any good.  He nearly turned it up even more on his end, and soon took my kote for the first point.  We reset and I fought hard, again, outdoing myself again, but it was not meant to be.  I pressured in and went for a kote-men, but he was too quick and slammed my kote to take another point and the match.  The rest of my team fought extremely well, but unfortunately this was the end of the line for us.  But, this was also the semi-final match, and we'd placed in the top three for teams that day!

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

Vancouver went on to have a stellar match in the finals against Steveston, but they walked off the courts the winners of the day, taking first place.  For myself, I was very proud of how we did, and noted that since I started attending this specific tournament, this is the best we've done as a team.  We all had some great matches, and we all learned a lot.  I definitely learned that I cannot fight fire with fire, as in I can't hope to win against someone that's faster and technically better than me by trying to go faster myself.  I need to learn to fight smarter against people like that, and since that day I've received some good advice and feedback on what I can work on for next time I'm in that situation.  I'm definitely looking forward to putting all of this new advice and observations to good use at practice.  Until next time, UW!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Benefits of Solo Training

I was a little divided on what I should write, because I have a few ideas going through my head.  A lot has been going on lately, much of which has involved me running the main class.  It's been fun, exciting, and kinda challenging on my part, but I think I did well.  I definitely talk a lot.  What little knowledge of kendo and techniques that I possess, I try to pass on when I teach.  It's not much, but I do my best and I think all of the people that were in on my classes had fun and I hope they learned a bit in the process.

Recently, I have been focusing a lot on my "secret lunch training."  These are times when I go to the dojo, during my lunch break from work, and work on things by myself.  I do fully understand that kendo requires tutelage in a dojo setting, but I also believe that time spent practicing on your own is very valuable.  Since my home dynamics have changed and my time in the dojo has been cut down a little bit, I'm finding other ways to try and compensate for that, and that involves taking advice from my sensei and my senpai and putting it to good use, and practice, during my lunch breaks.  I mainly focus on footwork, with suburi thrown in at the end.  It's my goal to improve my footwork and my joint and body health through this, as well as refine what I already know.

I've found that practicing by myself is very relaxing, and can be very rewarding.  I'm free of any distractions that come, and I'm able to go at my own pace and work on whatever I would like, although I've been keeping it in the realm of movements and techniques that blend together, and things that we work on during regular training times.  We have a few dummies, as well, and they provide a nice target for men and do (unfortunately no kote yet, as they don't have forearms).  In particular, with them I've been working on pressuring in and hitting men.  Small men, big men, anything, as well as doing some basic strikes to try and work the proper muscles a bit more. 

One of the big things that I ran across lately, almost by accident, was that my grip was too tight.  I don't know if it was because I was focusing on my footwork and body posture at the time, but a couple of weeks ago I looked down at my hands and noticed that they were holding a very tight grip on the shinai, which was causing my arms and shoulders to tense up.  I played around with the idea of "no sword," in which I put the shinai down and went through all of the motions of striking without it.  I then picked my shinai back up, made sure I was nice and relaxed and had a nice relaxed grip, and then tried to mimic the feeling of striking that I had without the shinai.  I found that when I would strike with that relaxed feeling, as if the shinai weren't there, and then used proper tenouchi at the end, my strikes were more crisp and had a better feel to them than I was doing previously.  Go figure, proper tenouchi helps! 

I'm definitely a proponent of at-home training, and training on your own.  As long as it's done in a way that is best for you.  I would never tell a beginner to go home and practice for thirty minutes, but instead to focus on one piece of class that we went over that day and maybe try it out for five minutes or so, in a slow and controlled manner.  At-home training can consist of whatever is good and proper for the level of experience that you are currently at.  For me, it means heading to the dojo and refining what I already know and what I've been taught and advised to do, and it's definitely beginning to show improvement in my overall kendo.  I can move better, I believe I have a better posture, and I'm more confident with my techniques.  I hope to open the door to even more improvement as time goes on.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Highline Taikai 2014

Photo courtesy of T. Patana
Ok, so the whole "keeping this updated regularly" idea is failing right now.  I do apologize to anyone else that reads this for not keeping up.  I have a lot of things going on right now that are taking up my small portion of free time these days.

That being said, I do have an update!  Our Spokane Kendo Club participated in the 2014 Highline Taikai this past weekend.  I've always enjoyed this tournament for it's friendly atmosphere and small dojo.  It always makes me feel like I'm reconnecting with old friends for a weekend of fun.  This is second year that they have included a 1-2 Dan division, as well, so it was fun to compete and rub elbows with some old and new friends.

The day started off well, with a couple of our mudansha competing in their division.  One of them had his very first taikai experience, and was able to get his feet wet with some real live competition.  I think he learned a lot and will hopefully use that experience to the best of his abilities.  Our other competitor in the mudansha division did really well and displayed great technique and basics and was able to make it to the quarter finals before his run ended.  Both of them did extremely well under the tournament pressure and it was nice to see good quality kendo from both of them.

The 1-2 Dan division began around noon, and we had, as is typical for this tournament, a round-robin grouping wherein we were placed in groups of 3-4 and would fight amongst all the other people in our group until two winners were determined.  The top two competitors would move on to the medal rounds.  My first opponent was a guy that I was somewhat familiar with but never had the pleasure of fighting until that day.  Lui from OSU.  We started the match and I began a bit cautiously, as I knew he was very good. I pressed in a bit to see what reactions I could get, and then struck when I thought I had the opening.  Turns out I didn't get the kote but I was able to move in fast enough to avoid a counter.  We fought back and forth a bit before I was finally able to take the one and only point in the match; suriage men.  I'd been working on that technique for quite a while, and was happy to be able to pull it out in the heat of the match.  We reset and both fought well, but even though my opponent landed a few strikes that I thought were good and should have scored, the match ended with me still having the advantage.

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz)

My next opponent was from Bellevue, C Kim.  I had caught glimpses of him from the Friday practice with Bellevue so I had a good idea of what to expect.  We bowed in and started the match, and I immediately noticed an opening and went for it.  I was able to land a quick men strike from the start to take the first point and the lead.  After resetting we fought a bit and I tried to take my time and not do anything to give him an opening, while also trying to find or create another opening of my own.  We fought for a good while, back and forth, before I was able to open up his men for another point and the match.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

I had made it out of our group, sitting in the first spot.  My next opponent was Bogucharov, from Bellevue. I had fought him and barely pulled out a win last year, so I was curious to see how things would play out this time with us both having more time and experience under our belts.  We bowed in and the match started.  I pressed in early, and went for his kote.  He was ready for it and countered with men, but I moved in quick enough to avoid giving him the opening.   We both stepped back and I pressured in again.  This time he went for my kote.  I launched a quick nuki men that found its mark and gave me the first point.  We reset and fought back and forth again. I ended up stepping out at one point during hiki do.  I didn't hear the call so I thought I had gotten the point and when he rushed in I quickly stepped to the side and landed a nice hiki men that popped its target.  Too bad it was all in vain because they had already called me out of bounds seconds before that!  We reset again and after a flurry of debana kotes (none of which found their mark) I was able to pressure in and hit men again for the final point and the match.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

I'd made it to the quarter finals.  Just a few more matches and victory would be mine!  Standing in my way, though, was a  petite Japanese girl by the name of Oya.  I'd watched her match with one of my friends right before mine and saw that she was very quick, very good and would take me out in a heartbeat if I let her.  We bowed in and started the match, and she immediately sprang up and came at me.  I stepped back a couple of times and barely had time to block her initial men strike.  Again I realized that this was not going to be an easy match at all.  I fought back and kept her at bay as best I could, and for a while neither of us could land a good attack on the other.  That changed when I pressured in and launched a men strike against her, which she was ready for.  She countered with debana kote to take the first point.  We reset and I fought hard, trying to win back the point.  It looked like I was going to lose it, until second before time was called I snuck under her shinai and landed a kote to tie things up.  Shortly after we reset again, time was called.  We were going into overtime!  We started again and both fought hard for a few seconds, but she side-stepped me and launched another quick men that connected, giving her the point and the win.

Final Score: 2-1 (Oya in encho)

Oya went on to win our division, defeating her opponent in the finals by 2-0.  I didn't place in that tournament, but I didn't feel bad, either.  I demonstrated my best kendo and I felt that I kept the quality high all throughout my matches.  I genuinely felt, at the end of the day, that the kendo I brought outshined any wins or losses that I had that day.  I have been putting in a lot of extra training these past couple months and I feel that it showed.  I had better footwork, better body posture and movement, and a much improved men strike. I hope to keep up this tempo and improvement, branching out to fix some other issues that I noticed during the weekend and previously in my training.  For the day, though, I felt like I might not have won the tournament, but I definitely won in kendo.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Kendo, Straight Up

 I have a problem.  It's not a huge problem anymore, as I've worked to improve it, but it is a lasting problem that I've had since about the time I started kendo.  I lean.  I'm not talking about the Fat Joe kind; I'm talking about leaning my upper body into my strikes. 

Since I'm a firm believer in proper technique over getting points or strikes, I want to fix this in myself as soon as I can.  I can go back and watch videos of old matches and see just how bad it used to be.  It was terrible!  Especially in my kote strikes.  I can say that it's gotten a lot better and I'm usually able to carry myself fairly properly, but in the heat of a match or jigeiko I still tend to lean in just a bit.  Luckily Monday night this was the focus of our training, and Billy presented some points that I'd never thought about and ways to fix it.  The main idea that came up was that people tend to lean when they try to strike from too far away.  When we come up short from our body movement, we (guilt as charged) break posture and try to lean the upper body forward to get that extra distance.  How do we fix it?  By striking from a distance that is comfortable for us, of course!  The idea was so simple, but one that I hadn't thought about.  I'd fallen into the thought that if I just kept trying it, it would eventually get better.  This was all wrong and I'm glad it was brought to my attention.  I'll definitely be looking at that as I practice from now on, and focusing on it here for the next few weeks to see what other improvements I can make.

Since I started the new year, I've been doing some super secret (or not so super secret) training at lunch.  I mentioned in the last post that I was going to be doing this more, and I've stayed true to my word.  I've been going three times a week for the past three weeks, and I can already see improvements.  My hips no longer feel like they're sore and ready to give out at any moment.  My legs feel stronger and are able to move me into position a lot quicker and solidly, and they don't feel tired as soon.  Also my men strikes are feeling a lot better these days.  This might be due to the extra time I've been putting in, or it might be due to some words of encouragement that Sinclair Sensei gave me.  I'm guessing it's a little of both.  No longer do I feel so hesitant to use it, and even when I get hit I've been trying my best to finish my cut and push through, as though I did land a good strike.  These little changes in my physical ability and mental state are definitely helping me, and I'm hoping that I'm building good habits through the continued practice that I've been putting in.

So, to anyone out there that's struggling with "the lean,"  I would say the simplest, and most effective, advice is to move in a bit and shorten your distance.  I tried it and even for the one class it helped a lot, and I'm confident I'll see some good improvements and changes as I work on it myself.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Spokane Kendo 2014 - Refinement In Motion

Ok, I'll be the first to say it.  A month and a half is WAY too long between posts.  One of my first goals for this new year is to be more consistent with writing.  This blog is an excellent tool for myself, and hopefully a source of entertainment and/or inspiration for anyone that has come along to read an article or two.  I've seen far too many blogs fall to the wayside and die out prematurely and I don't want to be one of those.  I still have a whole lifetime of training and experience to gain.

That being said, I've entered into the new year of 2014 and have some great kendo goals in mind.  First and foremost, I want to tighten up everything that I have right now.  I think I can say comfortably that I have pretty good technique for where I'm at.  Maybe it's nothing stellar in the grand scheme of things, or if I was measured up against all of the other nidans in the world, but for how long I've been training (coming up on five years!), my age, my health and fitness (current and former), and everything else I think I'm doing ok.  I love training and pushing myself to the edge, and a little over each time, and I want to continue to do so in this new year.  But I also want to take what I know and elevate it to the next level.  I am at a point where I'm realistically facing moving forward to sandan and when the time comes I want to walk out in the front of the judges and show them that, yes, I am more than ready for that rank.

I just had a conversation with Sinclair Sensei today, and he gave me a lot of good ideas and advice on what to do to make that a reality.  He gave me some health and fitness ideas and goals, and also talked to me about some ways to sharpen my techniques.  Without going into too much detail, I will say that I'll be using our dojo a lot more this year.  It's a block away from my work right now, so I really have no excuse not to go a bit during my lunch break or even after work.  While there I'll be focusing on some footwork drills that were given to me so I can work on my footwork and my endurance, as well as going over some hitting drills with the dummies that we set up last year.  Those dummies and I are going to become best friends, methinks.

During practice, when I have others to work with, I want to work on seme, and what it really means to create openings.  I'll be doing this with a few key pieces of advice that Sinclair Sensei gave me.  Hopefully my dojo mates will be able to see this change in me, even if it's a small and subtle change at first.  One of the things I will share is that I need to work on my hesitation.  It's a big weakness that I have, and I think it comes from a combination of me not being confident in myself and either not creating proper openings or not taking advantage of the ones that are presented to me.  I'll be doing my best to eliminate these issues so that I can strike without fear of consequence, each and every time.  Will I get hit?  Yes, a lot.  I'm expecting that.  But in the same way that a piece of metal can be tempered into a beautiful sword, so shall the ups and downs of practice transform my techniques into finely tuned attacks.

I will strive to achieve these goals in the new year, and bring my kendo up like I know I can.  Winning or losing at taikai doesn't matter.  Getting beat up each and every practice doesn't matter.  If those things happen and I am able to improve my technique through them, then I'll consider it a success.