Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Kent Taikai 2015 - The Bernice Special!

Photo courtesy of A. Melton
A couple of weekends ago we packed up and headed over to compete in the 19th Annual Kent Taikai.  This one is always one of my favorites, as I feel the atmosphere is very local and laid back.  I've told people before, for me, it feels like getting together with old friends, making new friends, hanging out and occasionally beating up on each other as we go through the matches together.  This year was no different and did not disappoint on the friends, the competition or the camaraderie.  We pulled up the morning of the tournament, helped set up a bit, changed and warmed up and got ready for a day of kendo.  There were ten of us total that were competing, across almost every division that they had this year (excluding the division for younger kids).  I not only was able to compete, but this year I also acted as shinpan, and was able to help in judging a lot of the matches for the kids and the kyu divisions before competing myself.  I have to say, shinpan work is tough!  But it's also very rewarding.  Having to focus not just on one other person, but on two, all while moving with your team and paying attention to what they're doing.  It's definitely mentally exhausting but I'm looking forward to doing it more and becoming more proficient at it as the years go by. 

Our division was the last one to go before the Senior Team division, so I had a long morning and afternoon to prepare, but the time finally came. I was the second match up in our bracket, and my opponent was none other than, in my opinion, one of the fiercest competitors in our division.  A great, highly skilled competitor and my friend, Bernice.  Might as well start out strong and keep going, right?  We had been laughing and joking before hand, but as we stepped in and took our positions it was all business.  The match started and I knew to expect quick movement, quick attacks and no quarter.  My plan was to use my height and reach advantage to even the playing field, and to that effect I think I did well.  I was able to control the distance most of the time, closing in when I was ready to strike and keeping her at bay fairly well the rest of the time, which was not easy!  My first break came when she backed up to the line and I saw an opportunity to unbalance her.  I was hoping that she'd be more worried about going out than blocking my incoming attack, so I bumped her slightly then went for hiki men.  Unfortunately she blocked my hiki men, but I was able to get her to step out, giving her one hansoku (1/2 point penalty).  We restarted the match and fought again.  At one point in the match I thought for sure she had taken my kote on a hiki kote attempt, but as she was backing up no flags went, and she was thrown off-balance by her momentum. I came flying up behind her since she was on the line, but I stopped short.  She was teetering on the line and ended up catching herself by her hand, outside of the court.  Unfortunately for her, this gave her another hansoku, giving me a full point, which I held onto until the end of the match.  It wasn't a stellar win, in my book, but a win nonetheless and I was moving to the next round.

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz by Hansoku)

My next opponent was someone that I actually fought last year in our team match.  Chu, from Sno-King.  She was a young, fast shodan who was good at taking any opening she saw, so I knew I had to be aware at all times.  The match started and I pressed in immediately, aiming to control the distance and the tempo of the match.  The first few attacks came fast and furiously, from both of us, but I was able to catch her kote as she came rushing after me to take the first point.  We reset and again I pressed in, looking to take or create openings to exploit and attack.  Again, attacks and counters were flying around, and I felt that I kept the pressure on pretty well.  The final point came when I stepped in and slid my shinai to the side, and then unleashed a harai kote to take the point and the win.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

My next opponent was C. Marsten.  He was young, he was fast and he was good.  This was my first encounter with him at a taikai, but I knew of him long before that.  And I knew I'd have to be at the top of my game to get past him.  The match started and we both took our time feeling each other out, trying to take and keep an advantage before attacking. Again, I had a slight reach advantage so I tried to utilize that, but he was very quick his his own attacks and counters when I moved in on him.  We seemed very evenly matched that day, but the first point finally came late into the match, when I stepped to the side and then came back to catch his kote.  I only had to hold out a few more seconds to take the match, but he landed a kote when I lost the distance to even the score, right before time ran out.  We were headed into overtime.  We both fought hard, each wanting that next point.  I was able to catch his kote again, though, ending the match and sending me into the semi-finals.

Final Score: 2-1 (Chris in Encho)

Only two matches left in our division, but my next opponent wasn't going to make getting to the finals easy.  My next match was against S. Day, whom I've fought on many occasions in the past, with varying outcomes.  He was quick, he had the reach advantage, and he was aggressive so I'd have to dig down deep if I wanted to win.  The match started and we both came out swinging.  Setups, attacks and counters.  I was already worn down a bit from my long match in the previous round, so I was trying to hold on and gain an advantage and end this match quickly, but my opponent had other ideas.  He ran me around the court a bit, but I was finally able to land a debana kote to take the first point when he came in for men.  We reset and I came after him again, trying to end the match early.  I was definitely feeling the exhaustion, and I was losing energy just a little more with each attack.  He was able to tie things up on me when I came in for kote late in the match.  He countered and took my men to even things up.  I knew time was running out, and I could see that he was also getting tired so I tried to find my second wind.  I knew that if I could and push him a bit I might be able to find an opening and take the match.  I tried to keep that pressure on him as much as I could, moving in with attacks of my own and letting him get out just enough to go over after him again.  At one point I moved in close and as I backed out I went for hiki kote, which found its mark.  It was a hard fight, but I emerged victorious.  I was heading to the finals.

Final Score: 2-1 (Ruiz)

This was the first time I'd been to the finals at this tournament in this division.  In years past I'd won the 0-4 Kyu and the 3-1 Kyu divisions, and teams, but never this one. I was so close, but I knew it wouldn't be easy in this last match.  I was already tired from my previous two matches and my next opponent was T. Marsten, the younger brother of one of my previous opponents.  He was young, fast, and was used to fighting at a level that I hadn't been at before.  This was going to be an uphill battle for me. I took my rest time to focus before stepping into the court with him.  If only I'd know about the marathon match I was about to have...

We bowed in and started the match.  If I could focus I could keep up with him, and I tried using my reach advantage to control the match again.  He would move in slowly and subtly, but each time I adjusted and tried to keep that distance until I was ready to strike.  He was very quick with his counters, but somehow I was able to compensate and keep myself out of danger, for the most part.  As much as I tried to keep the pressure on and attack when I felt I had an opening, he seemed to have an answer for everything I threw at him.  This continued on for the full three minutes, with not even a flag twitch either way, before time was called.  A tie; we would be going into overtime.  What came next was not just regular overtime.  No, that would be too easy for both of us.  What came next can only be what I can describe as a test of endurance.  In the semi-final and final matches time goes on until one person scores a point.  There is no judge's decision at this level.  Someone HAS to score.  It would be twelve long minutes before either of us scored and ended the match.  During that time I think our motivation to win was replaced by our stubbornness to not lose, as we both began running out of energy.  Flags were raised on both sides and waved off and it seemed that neither of us was able to get the advantage on the other.  I even stepped out of bounds!  The end finally came when I squared up and decided to go for men.  I knew that he would go for kote, but at this point I was trusting in my men being the stronger attack.  I stepped in and went for it...and he went for kote just like I knew he would.  Both attacks landed, but his was just a split second quicker.  The flags went, he had won.  I know that I was relieved it was finally over, even though I didn't win.  The exhaustion had set in long ago, I was fighting on fumes, and I think he felt the same way.  It was a good match, and we both gave it our all so I wasn't disappointed at all. 

Final Score: 1-0 (T. Marsten in Encho)

I'd have little time to recover, as Senior Teams were quickly starting.  I gathered up with my team and gave a short pep talk before we took the court against our first opponent, Cascade.  I was first out on my team (senpo) and was hoping that I was recovered enough from that marathon final match to do some good here in teams.  My opponent was Yamauchi, another young fast shodan.  I'd seen him before so was somewhat familiar with his kendo, but this was the first time I'd actually faced him.  We started and I moved in, keeping the pressure on while trying to find and create openings.  He was quick and had a lot of skill, that was for sure, but I had the experience edge and tried to use that to my advantage.  We ran each other around the court well, and I had a few close calls with him where I thought for sure he'd taken a point on me, but the lack of flags kept us fighting through the match.  It ended in a tie.  I hadn't been able to get my team off to a win to start, but I felt like I had brought the spirit out and set a high bar there.  The rest of the team picked up the tempo and soon took a couple of wins to put us into the next round.

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

Our next opponents were from Highline, and they'd actually won the Rose City Taikai just this past summer so I knew we were going to have a tough fight.  My opponent would be my friend O'Donnell, whose smooth kendo style is only shadowed by his smooth mustache style.  We took the court and began, and he immediately came at me with a kote-men that I thought for sure had scored.  No flags, though, so I kept my cool and turned up the aggression a bit.  I came back with a men of my own that just barely reached the target before his kote counter, and took the first point.  We reset and I came fling in again immediately and as I was there I was able to open him up and take hiki men for the last point and the win.  Finally, I had a match that was over and done with so I could have some time to recover a bit!  The rest of our team did extremely well, either neutralizing their opponents or taking wins of their own.  Because of them we were going into the next round.

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

 We were in the semi-finals, and as fate would have it we were facing UW.  They were our opponents last year in our semi-final match, too, so we were about to find out if history was about to repeat itself or if their team was going to take us out this time.  They had a strong line-up, and funny enough I found myself facing off against Bernice again!  Having already fought her earlier in the day, I knew what to expect so I readied myself and stepped out onto the court.  My plan was to control the distance and keep her on her toes, moving in and out to try and disrupt her and keep her from taking her distance and the advantage she wanted. I think she knew this, too, because she was much more aggressive with me this time around, and she actually closed the distance really well a few times.  Fortunately I was able to fight her off and while I didn't score any points, neither did she.  We ended the round in a tie, and each went to watch our teammates continue the fight.  They played their parts well, and we were able to take and keep an advantage that sent us into the finals.  We'd won this division last year, time to see if we could do it again.

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

Our opponents this year were, fittingly, the team from Kent.  They were all very strong players, and many of them had placed high in their divisions earlier in the day.  They actually ended up changing up their team line-up right before this match, I'm guessing to try and exploit our weaknesses.  My opponent to start things off would be Frazier-Day, whose husband I'd fought earlier in the day  Just like him, I've fought her on other occasions and with varying degrees of success and failure.  I was hoping this time, for my team, I could do well and hopefully start us off with an early lead.  The match started and I knew this wasn't going to be easy.  She was a very solid player and seemed to not let me have an inch for anything.  It was a tough fight, but about halfway through the match I landed a quick hiki men to take the first point.  I did my best to keep that advantage, and was relieved when time was up and the match was called.  I'd been able to hold on and give my team an early advantage.  The rest of the team fought beautifully, doing what they do and doing it well, and we were able to secure our lead in the fourth match when my teammate took his match 2-0 with a combination of distance control and skill.  The last match was a doozy, too, with Kent taking it for their team and a vicious tsuki to start things off, but we were able to take the team victory for the second year in a row.

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

The day was over, and what a day it was!  Four of our members placed in their divisions, and our team had won!  Spirits were running high and I was so proud to be on that team with everyone.  We all worked really well together, encouraged each other to do well, gave it our all and came out on top.  We were all also eager to get back to the dojo and continue working hard and improving ourselves and each other.  Until next year, Kent!

Photo courtesy of W. Sinclair

Saturday, November 14, 2015

PNKF Taikai 2015

Photo Courtesy of T. Patana
This past weekend our dojo participated in the 41st Annual PNKF Taikai, the biggest tournament in our region.  We attracted competitors from all over our federation, Canada and Mexico.  And, due to exchange students being present, we also had a few Japanese students fighting with us.  Our Spokane team actually had a couple of our own, which helped fill out our ranks and add to our team for the team division.

We started out the day early, getting to the venue to help set up and make sure everything was ready to go.  Afterward I actually got to lead our dojo warm-up before the opening ceremonies.  This was something usually reserved for Billy, but unfortunately for us (and fortunately for him) he has since moved onto to hopefully greener pastures in Japan.  My division, 3 Dan, wasn't up until about midday, so I helped out on the court we were assigned to and tried to take in some of the shake-ups that were happening in the 4 Dan+ division, and also root on our own guys when their divisions came up.  Everyone was fighting extremely well that day and, win or lose, everyone gave it their all on the floor.

A few hours in and my division was finally ready to start.  I was the second match in, so I had one before to get my bearings and nerves in check and get ready to take the floor.  My first opponent was a guy that I've fought a few times, with our last meeting during the team finals at Kent last year ending in a draw.  Before our match I was talking and joking with him, both of us having a good laugh as friends before we faced each other as opponents.  Out on the floor for our match there would be no laughs, only fierce competition.  We stepped in and bowed to each other, awaiting that familiar "Hajime!" to start the match.  It came and I took my time to come to a good kamae and let my kiai out, letting my opponent know that I was ready for business.  I stepped in, keeping a comfortable distance where I felt like he couldn't reach me yet I could reach him if he happened to step in.  I subtly pressured in, with both sword, body and spirit, and brought my shinai tip down slightly so that it was moving just under his.  As I came in I tried to keep calm, until I was at JUST the right distance, when I suddenly exploded forward with a kote strike.  It landed and I took the first point.  We reset and again I came to a good distance for me, hopefully not good distance for him.  I pressured in again, much the same way, but as I brought my shinai down and pressed in I let it go wide so that he could see it.  He moved his shinai to cover his kote and that's when I struck again;  this time it was men for the second point.  The match was done in just a few seconds, a good start to my appearance at PNKF again (I'd missed last year).

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

I waited for a while for my next match.  The sandan division was pretty big this year, so there were a lot of good matches that I was able to watch, including the one between my next opponent.  Just so happens that my next opponent would be a nito guy, who uses two swords to fight instead of one like I do.  I wasn't too worried because we have a couple of nito fighters at our dojo so I was used to fighting them and had a good idea what to expect, but even then I prepared myself for a good fight.  Our match came up, we stepped in and the match started.  I was a little more cautious with this one, since I've never fought him before, but I had the reach advantage and I felt like I also had a speed advantage, but I soon found out that my opponent was awfully fast to cover with his shoto (the short sword used in nito).  I was able to counter his strikes effectively, but I was unable to land a strike of my own before that shoto, almost magically sometimes, blocked my shinai.  This went one for at least half the match and even though I had a few close calls I wasn't able to land anything solid.  I finally found an opportunity when he went for a men strike, which I was able to block, and as we both turned to face each other I snuck in a hiki men, catching him right under his block on the left side of his head.  We restarted and after more of the stalemate we found ourselves in from the beginning, the match ended.  I'd taken it, barely.

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz)

as the division competitors decreased, the level of competition increased.  I found myself in the top 8 with only a few opponents left before I could possibly claim victory.  But it wasn't going to be easy.  My next opponent was J. Okada, who had actually previously trained and fought with one of our members when they both lived in Hawaii.  I knew about it, I'd seen his kendo and knew that he was a firecracker, always ready to counter and strike if I so much as thought of moving.  I'd have to be extra careful and on point if I wanted to take this match.  We stepped in and the match began, and immediately he was on me and striking for anything I happened to leave open.  He didn't land anything, but he was very close, and a few times I caught a flag flinch in his direction out of the corner of my eye.  I tried my best to keep up, and even had a few close calls of my own, but by the end of regular time neither of us were able to score anything.  We went into our first round of overtime, and then our second, again with no one able to capitalize on the other.  After 5 minutes of fighting, and no points scored, it was up to the judges to decide.  They called in his favor.  I'd lost the round, but I was happy I hadn't given up any points to him.  It was a good match, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed, despite the loss.  There were still teams to be had, though...

Final Score: 0-0 (Okada by Hantei)

I'd learned a lot in that match, and I felt that I'd improved a bit against people of his nature.  Small, fast guys that are able to strike when I wouldn't even think of it.  Even though he won I felt good.  Our team rounds were coming up soon, though, and it would be nice fighting as a team.  We had a couple of new guys on the team, as I mentioned earlier, a couple of exchange students that have been training at our dojo for a bit.  They were young, very fast, and we felt they'd do well with us.

Our first match was against University of British Columbia.  I wasn't too familiar with them, except for the name, so I wasn't sure what to expect, but we talked and everyone knew that they were going to do their best for the team.  I was picked to be first out (senpo).  It was my job to get out in front, hopefully take an early lead, and get the spirit for the team started on a high note.  I stepped out onto the court and commenced to try and do just that.  My opponent was young, fast, but I was able to keep a pretty good handle on the match, and after just a few seconds took the first point, kote.  We reset and fought again, and he actually got close to getting me a few times but I was able to pull out the win on a men strike that he was just a tad too slow to block.  I started us out with the lead, and my teammates were able to keep that going through the rest of the rounds, ending with us taking the match.  Onto the next one!

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

Our next match was against Seattle.  We've fought them before on a few occasions, with matches going back and forth fairly regularly.  This time would be a hard fight, though, as they clearly had the upper hand on experience.  But we were confident in our abilities, individually and as a team, and again vowed to do our best in what would be a tough team match.  I started out again, this time my opponent being Yen, another guy I'd seen and was semi-familiar with.  He always had good, solid kendo so I knew it would be a challenge to take the win.  We started and I noticed that this match was far different than my first team match.  Where that was one more physical, this one was definitely a bit more mental.  We both played at pressuring each other to see who would make a mistake.  He ended up striking first, a men strike, which I was able to block but unable to counter as he moved in too fast for me to strike.  He set up again, another men.  I threw out a kote of my own, but neither of our strikes were good enough for the point.  After a few more exchanges, I came in with harai kote, which didn't find its mark, but I used that as a springboard into my next strike. I once again pressured in, as if I were going to try harai kote again, but this time I slipped my shinai around as he blocked and came up for men.  He tried to meet my men with a strike of his own but I was already well into my strike when he started.  It found the mark and I was able to take the first point.  We reset and I decided to try and keep the pressure on and not let him have any breathing room.  I came in hot, striking men, retreating and then immediately going for kote.  We tangled like this for a few seconds before I came in with kote again, which gave me the second point and the win.  Again I was able to get us out to an early lead.  Unfortunately they tied it up again with their next match, their player taking it 2-0 against us.  We went back and forth like this through the rest of the matches, but ultimately Seattle sealed it towards the end with a men/kote split call that gave them the 1-0 win over us and into the next round.  Our guys fought extremely well, given the sometimes huge experience gaps against our Seattle counterparts, and I think all of us left that team match with our heads held high.

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

Seattle went on to fight Mexico in the next match, barely losing out in sudden death to them.  Mexico ultimately ended up taking third place, losing to Vancouver. Vancouver went to face Steveston in the finals, and another sudden death had to be fought there to determine the winner.  T. Yamada (Vancouver) fought N. Nakano (Steveston) in the sudden death match. Both of them fought well, Nakano had some close calls but the day would belong to Vancouver when Yamada struck hiki kote out of nowhere to take the match.

It was a great day of kendo, for me and my teammates.  I enjoyed some awesome matches, and enjoyed watching even more great matches.  I learned a lot, and made it to the top 8 without giving up any points, despite the loss by hantei. I felt really good, and I'm excited to take what I learned there to improve my kendo even more.  Also, the Kent Taikai is just around the corner!

Photo courtesy of W. Sinclair

Sunday, September 13, 2015


This past week I was in Boise for work.  It was a nice trip, made many times better by the fact that I was able to train with Stroud Sensei and the local members of the kendo club there.  For anyone that doesn't know, Stroud Sensei is Kyoshi 7 dan in kendo and Renshi 6 dan in iaido.  Since I don't practice iaido it was the kendo instruction I was most interested in.  And instruction I got...

Wednesday night was practice at BSU and there were about 6 of us there that night, ranging from brand new beginner up to 4 dan.  After warm-ups, we worked a lot on footwork, doing various drills up and down the dojo floor while adding in lots of kiai.  Afterward we went into basic striking drills, building on each one with lots of spirit, emphasis on good footwork and striking with our body, not just our hands (one of my weaknesses, as I found out).  We then suited up in full bogu and continued our drills, doing a drill that involved striking various targets in order, and adding more and more complexity as we rotated around.  By the end we were striking about a dozen different targets on each pass.  Kakarigeiko was next, with us being motodachi (receivers) for the kyus and then being motodachi and kakarite (attacker) with each other.  I pushed hard to make it through all of the rotations, even though by the end I was only able to step in and strike men over and over.  After a brief pause to catch our breath we partnered up again and finished out the night with jigeiko.  I think the highlight of my practice was being able to do jigeiko with one of the Atagi brothers, Rhett.  I'd never fought with him before so it was a great opportunity for me, and even though he blasted my men and kote over and over I tried keeping the pressure up and striking when I was ready.  I was able to get one or two strikes in, but that's all.  Still, it was a good practice and one I was thankful for.

Friday night I was able to practice with the group again, this time at a different location and with a lot more people.  The class was about half beginners and half of us in bogu.  I saw a couple of the same faces as I did on Wednesday, but also a few more kyus and yudansha came out, including the other Atagi brother (who is also 4 dan).  The format was very similar to class on Wednesday, with some kata thrown in for good measure.  I received some advice and corrections to take with me to work on, including my kamae in kata 5, and my kodachi position in kodachi kata 2.  I also received some interesting insight into kata 3 that I hadn't heard before, about where the shidachi's tip goes during the movements.  Again, something I will be adding into my own kata practice from now on.

It was a joy to practice with both Atagi brothers.  Both of them are very good, and struck me left and right, but I still persisted and tried to show good spirit and good movement of my own.  Even though I hardly got any strikes in of my own, it was a great experience.  I also got to do jigeiko with some new people that night, one of which was a 3 kyu with a pretty amazing debana kote.

All in all I had a great experience training with the Idaho group, and I'm very much looking forward to training with them all again, whether it be at their dojo, here at my own dojo, or somewhere else on a taikai or shinsa trip.  Some of the advice that I received from Stroud Sensei that I will be working on, as well:

-Use my hips and legs more for striking, not just my arms and upper body.
-Don't let my shinai fly up after I strike.  Instead it should move forward.  This could also be tied into using my hips and legs more, per Stroud Sensei.
-Be careful of my feet when I am doing footwork.  I have a tendency to narrow my stance as I move.
-During hayasuburi, kick forward more with the back leg.  Movement should be forward and back, not bouncing up and down, and I should be using the back leg to drive my body forward.
-I had a lot more advice, as well, but I think this is a good starting point.  Plus I can't give away all of my secrets quite yet.

Again, thank you to the Boise/Idaho members for having me at their trainings, and I am looking forward to meeting them all again in the future!

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Other Side

Once again, it's been a while since I've posted anything.  That's ok, I've been busy with life and with kendo.  A few weeks ago I took over teaching the beginning class.  I've taught and lead classes in the past, but always on a as-needed basis.  I'd fill in when other people were gone, or if I was asked to for that day or week, but never on a regular basis.  Now, though, the beginning class is my responsibility.  I'll be leading them through two month of practice, laying the foundation of basics that they'll build on in later classes.  I feel a sense of achievement in this, as I look back on the years of my own training and see where I was and where I am now.  I also feel a lot of responsibility for the students I have.  It will be entirely up to me what they learn, and what they don't learn.  If there is an issue with the way they strike men, or how they move their feet, it will be squarely on my shoulders.  But I'm definitely up for the new challenges and opportunities that this brings me.

We're halfway through our beginning training schedule right now.  The one thing that I've taken to heart is being a good example to my students.  If I tell them to keep a straight posture as they move, I want to model that for them.  If I tell them to slide them feet and not let their toes pop up, I get out and show them each time I move.  I don't want to just tell them about good basics, I want to show them, and that's been a big focus of mine as I go through each of the classes with them.  I feel that in this way they get not only a good verbal description of what we're doing, but a good visual description, and I try not to break that as we train.  This has also given me a chance to really look at my basics and see where my own faults lie, and also bring that into my own training.  Also, I have an opportunity to really look at what I'm doing and how to convey that to others.  I feel that I can do a fairly decent men strike, given the level of experience I have right now.  But how do I take what I know how to do and instruct others in an effective way?  I've thought a lot about this lately.  We have a good system in place at my dojo, though, and I get lots of help and feedback, so that helps tremendously, and at the end of the day I'm glad for this opportunity to instruct and pass on what I've learned, even though I am very much still a student myself (always will be a student, right?).

Since I started teaching, they've moved me to the teacher's side of the dojo.  This has been quite an adjustment for me, and right now I'm mainly getting used to being there.  Again, I try and model the best kendo I can.  Somedays is easier than others, as I'm sure others that have been there can understand, but I try and have a good, positive spirit throughout practice and do the best that I can, given my condition that day.  I also try and encourage my dojo mates as much as I can and helping bring out the best that they have.  This has always been something I've strived for, but now I feel it even more, being in the position I'm in. 

Our training this summer has been focused on waza, and going over various techniques and attacks.  I've been able to practice a great variety of things, some of which we haven't done in a while, with the purpose of finding a technique, or two, that I really want to focus on and develop and make my own.  I think I've found a few that work well for me and that I can see myself developing to a level to make them a "specialty" of sorts.  That being said, I still have a LOT of practice to do with them.  I've also ran into a few things that I'm just plain bad at, and some things I'm uncomfortable with (probably because I'm bad at them).  It's good to not only know my strengths but also my weaknesses.  Then I'll have a more complete picture of where I'm at and what to continue to strengthen and what I need more help and improvement with. 

One of the things I've been doing lately is trying to slow down a bit during jigeiko.  I was told by one of my seniors that I have great posture and movement when we're doing drills, and even in jigeiko.  When I go against others around my rank or higher, though, I tend to lean my body in and get a little frantic.  If I can slow down a bit, focus on that good posture, and then build my speed back up from there I think that will do wonders for me.  I definitely won't be able to hit everyone all the time, but at least I won't sacrifice good posture for a quick point.  To me, that's more important

Monday, June 29, 2015

Rose City Taikai 2015

Last weekend our dojo participated in the 2015 Rose City Taikai, hosted by our friends at the Obukan Kendo Club in Portland.  We had eight members, competing across five different individual divisions and the team division.  All in all, we did really well, and I was happy to see that our newer members were able to fight well while also keeping the excellent basics that they've been working on.  I also had my first chance to be an official shinpan.  I didn't get to do many matches, as we had a lot of the higher-ranks on our court and they kept changing me out for 4 Dan or up, but it was fun nonetheless.  This year I was also in the big boys' division - 3 Dan & Up.  It was quite the experience, and one that I'm about to share with anyone that wants to read it...

Our division started after lunch, so I was able to watch some amazing kendo before my matches.  I was quite a ways in, too, and saw some surprises within our division.  My match was up at the end of the second round, as I had a bye.  My opponent was a kenshi I've fought before, at this very tournament.  B. Choi, from Kogakukan.  He is tall, quick, and fights from jodan, so I had quite the fight on my hand.  The match started and I stood up, too my kamae and exerted my spirit by way of kiai. I tried to focus on distance and keeping control of the match, and not letting my opponent get me out of my "zone".  While I looked fairly calm and collected throughout the match, I honestly felt that he was getting his strikes in better than me.  He had a lot of almost moments, where a flag would go up and be waved off.  I didn't let that bother me, though, and kept pressuring, attacking, and countering where I saw opportunities to do so, or where I happened to create opportunities to do so.  The match went through this deadlock, into first encho.  He started with kote, which he had done at the beginning of the match, and I countered with nuki men.  While it found its mark, the hit was way too deep so we continued on.  Again, neither of us were able to get the advantage so we went into second encho.  I decided to press the attack early, and came flying off the line with a kote that nearly landed. I got one flag, at least.  I stood my ground, keeping calm and looking for anything I could use to take the advantage.  About halfway through he went for another kote, and that was it.  I let it come, reeled back and let loose with another nuki men.  Three flags went up.  We bowed out and I found myself moving into the next round.

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz in encho)

My next opponent was S. Day, from Kent.  I'd fought him multiple times.  His size and reach are very intimidating, and he had taken out two good opponents already that day, so I had to do my best if I wanted a chance of reaching the next round.  We stepped in, bowed, and began.  Things started off fairly slow, as we both felt each other out.  I knew that he would jump on any opportunity I gave him to score, and I believe he felt the same about me, so we both worked to probe around and see what we could find.  attacks came and went, counters were attempted, and we were at a virtual standstill for most of the match.  I felt that he was the aggressor in the match, as he was attacking quite a bit more than I was, but that was ok with me.  I was looking for just the right opportunity and found it about 2/3 of the way in.  All the fighting that he'd done had started to wear him out, and I was able to get in a hiki men to take the first point.  We rest and after a few short seconds time expired.  I'd made it through to the next round.

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz)

Semi-finals.  Time to shine.  My opponent was none other than Choi Sensei, from Portland Kendo Club.  He is a strong 5 Dan so I knew I had an uphill battle from the beginning.  We stepped in and the match started.  Immediately I felt the pressure.  He inched in closer and closer, and try as I might I felt I couldn't gain any ground with him.  I'd pressure in, he'd pressure back even more.  I'd step to the side or adjust distance, he'd immediately take that from me and keep coming.  I wonder if people ever feel like than when they fight me?  The match was almost entirely seme and pressure between us, but I knew I was losing.  The first exchange of attacks didn't come until over a minute into the match.  Choi stepped in for kote, which I neutralized with my own kote.  We move in tsubazeriai a bit before regaining our distance and resumed the seme face-off.  The next attack came almost two minutes in.  I stepped in and feinted to men, and he responded with a quick men-kote to close the distance.  As we backed up and regained our positions again, I thought I could get him to "flinch" again, so I stepped in, raised my sword high and went for men.  Joke was on me, though, as he kept an unflinching kamae and I semi-impaled myself on it as I came in to strike.  Oops.  The match reset and after a few more seconds of seme and pressure and backing me up, he stepped in and went for kote again.  Unfortunately for me my kote was a hair slower this time, and he took the first point on me.  The match reset once again and I did my best to regain even footing with him, while also being careful not to get taken out for being too reckless with my attacks.  We squared off again, back and forth a bit, and at one point I thought I might have had him.  I broke distance way back, and as I stepped in I quickly attacked his men.  He was ready for it, and answered with kaeshi-dou, but my attack was quick and got in before his block.  But, I found out later, that the mechanics were all slightly off, so no point was given.  The match ended soon after.  I lost the match, but I felt I was close. I definitely learned a lot and have a lot to work on from here on out.  Third place, though, that's commendable and something I'm proud of achieving.

Final Score: 1-0 (Choi)

I was proud that I'd made it so far and placed in a division that had so many skilled people in it, and I was happy to see that one of my fellow dojo mates also took third place.  But we would need to save our celebrations because we still had the team division.  This year we were able to field two teams, and I was placed on our A team.  Our first match was against Portland B.  I was chosen to be senpo for this taikai, so I was first up.  My opponent was a kyu named Vielhaber.  I'd never seen him before, and as always I readied myself to do my best and hopefully take an early victory for our team.  The match started and I flew off the line at his kote, although wasn't able to connect properly.  He fought back, darting in and out as best he could, but I was focused and calm throughout the match. I pressured in and struck men from the right side (ura) of his shinai to take the first point.  We restarted and I was able to take a second point quickly after catching him while he backed out of tsubazeriai.  The first match was done, and I was happy to see the rest of my teammates do as well, taking three more wins and a tie. 

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

Our next match was against the team from Northwest.  They had a lot of good players so we knew it would be a hard fight, but we had one distinct advantage in the fact that they were only able to bring four people into the match.  That gave us an automatic 2-point victory to start with.  I wanted to keep this advantage as best I could, and I knew it would be no easy task.  My opponent was Hashimoto, a young, fast shodan from Japan.  I knew about him because I heard that he is actually going to be training with us through the summer, and possibly beyond, so I was looking forward to seeing him in action.  The match started and I can say that I wasn't disappointed.  He was very fast, and I had to do my best to try and control the distance.  Any time I got anywhere near his striking distance, he came at me like a snake.  I fought back as best I could, but he was able to take the first point with a hiki men that caught me completely by surprise.  The match started again, and I turned up the pressure while also trying to keep control of the distance. I was able to take back the point when I pressure in for kote and caught him backing up.  The kote didn't connect, but with a quick step and another attack I took his men.  We fought out the rest of the match to end in a tie.  It was a great match, and I was very happy that I had been able to counter his speed as best I could.  I'm looking forward to training with him and gaining some of the speed for myself.  The rest of our matches were very close, with our taisho pulling out a 2-1 victory at the end to seal the match for us.

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

We made it to the semi finals.  Only a couple more matches and we could claim victory.  Sounds easy, but we had some tough opponents ahead of us.  Obukan A stood in our way, and they proved to be quite the challenge this year.  I was ready to fight.  My opponent in this match would be Nakayama.  He had a very quiet style, but very deceptive.  He is very good, and I knew I'd have to watch out and do my absolute best to walk away from the match with a victory.   Things started and we felt each other out a bit, both of us trying to get a read on the other person.  This was the first time we'd fought, so I only knew what to expect based on what I'd seen of him in other matches.  After a few exchanges with no points, he pressured in and...I froze.  I completely froze up.  He went for kote-men and took the first point easily.  I remember thinking to myself that I was going to attack, then he stepped in and I thought "What is he doing?" right before he got me.  We restarted the match and I tried to step it up a bit, being more active.  He put me away, though, as I stepped in for men and he countered with kaeshi-dou.  Hmmm, back to the drawing board for me.  It was a good match, and he definitely outclassed me that day.  The rest of our matches went back and forth, with us taking a 1-0 win in the second match, a couple ties, and another 1-0 loss.  We fought well, but unfortunately we weren't able to take back the advantage. 

Final Score: 2-0 (Nakayama)
Team Score: 2-1 (Obukan A)

It was a good match, we all fought well, but in the end we weren't able to claim victory.  Third place isn't bad, though, and we all fought well and should all be proud of how we did.  Obukan A faced off against Highline in the final match,with Highline narrowly taking the win and first place this year.  I, for one, learned a lot from my time there.  I had a lot of good matches, close calls, and learned a lot and came out of it with a lot of advice and ideas for improvement.  I'm excited to train through this next year and come back in 2016, better than ever.

Photo courtesy of W. Sinclair

Friday, May 8, 2015

From Practice To Application

We're running into the warmer months around here, and with that comes the time of year where our dojo typically dives into all kinds of fun drills for practicing all manner of techniques.  We usually go through many, many different techniques and situations for using them, encouraging people to grab a couple of waza that they really like and want to develop.  Lately at practice I've been hitting men, dou, and kote from all manner of position and distances, and using various forms of footwork, body movement, and shinai manipulation to get to my target.  I love this time for the dojo because I get to do a lot of drills that I don't normally get to do, as well as practice techniques that I'm both fairly strong at, and I also am terribly, well, terrible at! 

Ando Sensei has been leading a lot of the practices lately, having us go over various situations.  It seems that he's especially fond of having us hit from to-ma (far out, more than one step away from the target) uchi-ma (our normal hitting distance) and chika-ma (a close-quarters distance, closer than one step to the target).  I've found that I've gotten better at striking from chika-ma, trying to make my hits as smooth and quick as possible from that position, and that from to-ma I need to make my footwork quicker to cover that distance.  I think my problem is that I take fairly big, sweeping steps.  I need to work on making them smaller and snappier, while still keeping them smooth so I can "float" into the target and strike without them realizing what's going on. 

He has told me a time or two after practice my techniques are "beautiful" and has encouraged me to use them more during jigeiko.  While that SOUNDS easy enough to do, having recently tried to put that to use I'll say that it's a lot harder than it sounds.  I think that I'm fairly simplistic when I fight.  I stick to what I know and I seldom deviate from it.  This is both a blessing and a curse for me, so lately I've been trying to add at least one new thing into my keiko, usually something that we'd worked on previously that day during training.  I try to figure out how to get myself into that position that I was in during training, so that I can unleash that waza or technique.  So, for me, the set up is just as important as the actual technique.  This has led to me getting nailed by my partners more than a time or two, but every once in a while I'm about to align the stars just right so that I can create that opportunity to attack using that new technique.  Case in point - last week at team training we were doing 1-minute, sudden death matches.  I had gone through the rotation a few times, doing fairly so-so as far as wins/losses.  I stepped up for the last match with my partner, and the time started.  He's a young, fast sandan, but I was able to keep him at bay with attacks and counters to match what he was throwing at me.  No one had scored until time was almost up.  I found myself in tsubazeriai and I remembered a technique for hitting hik-dou that Ando Sensei favored and shared with us.  So I tried it.  I had the correct setup and position for it, and when I used the technique it worked like a charm!  I was able to strike the target, just as I had a few days earlier during training using the same technique that was taught to us. 

When something like that happens, I try and review it in my head, what went right and wrong, so that I can improve it for next time.  I'm grateful that kendo only has four targets (men, kote, dou, tsuki), because even with just those four targets, the combination of movements and techniques to open them up and strike them are sometimes overwhelming!  I try and think about what I did, so that next time I can do it without thinking so much, and do it again without thinking so much, until I finally reach a point where I'm able to unleash that technique without thinking about it.  It's funny, to me, that in order to use a technique without thinking I actually have to DO all of this thinking about it prior. 

In addition to the techniques we've been covering, I've been diving more in-depth into body carriage and movement, which has been prompted, challenged, and helped by one of my friends and kendo seniors.  While I'm not at liberty to name names, or to divulge super-secret information, I will say that he's been a huge help to me, in thinking outside the box and even more in detail about things than I normally do.  Hopefully all of that knowledge is not wasted on me!  One of the biggest things that I've been working on, and have been for months now, is having a purpose in what I do.  I have a few people at the dojo that are perfect matches for this.  When I square off with them in jigeiko, they are good at flying in at me and constantly pressuring me.  I always see it as I'm either going to break and try and match them, which forces me to try and do their kendo, or I'm going to stick to my guns and do MY kendo, taking my time and trying to control the distance and timing of everything until I strike with purpose.  This works, sometimes.  Sometimes I fail and try to match them move-for-move, and sometimes even though they hit me 5-6 times or more, I'm able to get that one or two meaningful strikes in there.  Those are the times that I feel great, when I was able to not shy away from improving my own kendo, even when the easier path would be to give it up and fight their way. 

Practice to application.  While it's easy to say, hard to do, I think the best way to approach it is to go in with a plan.  While it's taught that you want to be able to execute techniques without thinking, I believe that there is plenty of thinking that has to be done before-hand to get yourself to that level.  Each time I think about a waza or technique I want to use, execute it, and think about the results after, the closer I am to that magical day when I will be able to unleash it naturally.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

UW Taikai 2015 - New Division?!

Photo courtesy of T. Patana
Last weekend my dojo and I participated in the 39th Annual UW Taikai, hosted by our friends at (where else?) the UW Kendo Club.  The weekend started off great, with a great practice at the Bellevue Dojo the night before, and with me getting some great practice and advice from my friends and sensei over on the coast.  One thing I need to remember is to be a better actor, courtesy of Goh Sensei!  Since I recently bumped up a rank, I would be fighting, for the first time, in the sandan division.  I've fought that level of people before in other tournaments but now I was officially there myself and I was excited, and a little nervous, to see how I'd do throughout the tournament.

Our division started fairly early, going just after the women's division finished up.  I had a bye into the second round so I got a chance to check out the competition that day, namely the person I would be fighting first off.  I personally don't like byes and would rather fight first round out, but I go with the hand I'm dealt that day.  My first opponent ended up being J. Frazier-Day, from Kent.  She was a wickedly good player whom I'd fought (and lost to) a couple years ago.  So, right out the gate I was thrown into an intense fight and knew I'd have to bring everything I had.  The match started and we squared off, neither of us attacking too early.  We stepped around each other, both fighting for the center and feeling each other out for openings and weaknesses.  I attacked first, going for kote, but it was quickly blocked.  We kept up this back and forth for quite a while, it seemed, with both of us attacking and fending off the other's strikes, until she landed an excellent dou on me to take the first point.  We restarted and I fought hard, but smart, to get back to the point.  My chance came when I stepped back and threw hiki men out of the blue to tie up the match.  Neither of us were able to get another advantage, so we went into not one, but two encho rounds (overtime).  Try as we might, we still were unable to take the lead by the end, so it went to hantei (judges' decision).  I could only see one judge out of the corner of my eye, and he raised the white flag for Frazier-Day.  I thought I had lost, but after congratulating her on a great fight she informed me that I had actually won the decision.  I was moving onto the next round!

Final Score: 1-1 (Ruiz by Hantei)

I made it through!  I was moving on, and my next opponent would be none other than a young, fast kid I've fought three times before...and lost to three times before!  A. Lee, from Vancouver, emerged from his round victorious and would be facing me in the quarter finals.  We stepped in, bowed, and the match began.  I knew I couldn't make any mistakes with him.  Having fought him so many times previously I knew to expect blazing fast speed, good reaction time and a large repertoire of strikes and techniques.  In all of these he did not disappoint.  His first attack came, a men strike, and I was able to manage the distance to avoid getting hit.  I turned quickly to face him, threw a hiki men out at the opening I saw, and glanced off the side of his men.  I missed!  I had the opening and opportunity and I missed.  I quickly re-focused and was able to fend off his attacks by controlling the distance, but he was moving in too fast for me to get a decent counter on him.  He goes for men, I set up for debana kote but was unable to find the target again.  He moves again, I step back or to the side to avoid it but am unable to do anything else.  Partway through the match I noticed he started holding his shinai tip rather low.  I knew he wanted to hit my kote, but part of me still wanted to go for men.  My mistake.  He was able to take my kote with ease as I lifted up into his strike.  We reset and although I fought hard and kept him from scoring again, I was unable to take a point myself and ended the match with another loss to him.  He's very good, I'm proud of the job I did and maybe next time I'll be able to take him.  But not today.

Final Score: 1-0 (A. Lee)

I was able to watch some awesome matches throughout the rest of our division, and took home a video of the finals to study.  A. Lee faced off against Asato, also from Vancouver, in the final match.  They were both young, fast kids, equally impressive against anyone on the floor as they were against each other.  Asato was able to emerge the victor after scoring a quick kote on Lee and holding onto that point until the end.  After the other divisions finished up and lunch rolled around, we were ready for teams.  I would have another chance at doing my best, this time for my team.

Just like in my individual matches, our team got a bye into the second round.  Our opponents would be Tozenji.  Their team was comprised of upper kyus all the way to 3 dans, all of them young and fast.  We had our work cut out for us right from the start.  I would be fighting in the chuken spot, the third spot, on our team, which can be a very pivotal role to play.  Our first team member was able to win his match, our second tied, and I was given the instruction to go out and get a win and get us an advantage.  I stepped up and my opponent was the winner of the 1-2 Dan division, L. Oka.  As the match started I was able to make him play my kendo.  I was patient, controlled the distance, and probed for weaknesses that I could exploit.  I was able to get a good look at his reactions as I stepped in a couple times to force him to attack, and was also able to fend off said attacks without letting him score.  He was fast, and good, so I knew I had to keep playing it safe.  I began my attacks, going for a few counters, and then riding over his shinai to try and take his men.  One flag went up but the other judges waved it off.  I quickly turned and launched a kote at him, which found its mark when he lifted to try and hit men.  All three flags this time.  We reset and I continued to play it smart, but also aggressively, darting in and out of distance and protecting my lead while also looking for any opportunities to score again.  I wasn't able to do so by the end of the match, but I was able to take another win for our team.  the next match went down as a win for Tozenji, and our final match was a tie, which put us into the next round.

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

 Our next match was against a team that we've fought numerous times before, Kent.  They always fielded a strong team, with many of their members fighting on our PNKF regional teams.  This time around ALL of their members were either current or former regional team members.  This would be a good match, no matter how it went.  We began and our first match put us to an advantage right from the start, with a win in our favor.  This was followed up by a surprising unanswered hiki dou in the second match to give us another win.  My turn.  If I won I would seal the match in our favor.  If I tied or lost it would give Kent a chance to get back into the game and possibly take the victory.  My opponent was S. Day, whom I'd fought a couple times in the past.  Our last meeting didn't end well for me.  I fought a sudden death match in teams with him at Obukan last year, and he was able to hit my men as I retreated off a missed hiki dou.  This time I was hoping for a little redemption for that loss.  the match began and he immediately threw a men strike at me.  I was ready, though, and caught his kote early for the first point.  We reset and he took his time with me a bit more, but he was still plenty aggressive.  I was able to fend off his attacks and offer up attacks and counters of my own.  We both had some close calls, with a single flag flying here or there, only to be waved away by the other judges.  At one point he attacked my men, I blocked and turned quickly and answered with a hiki men of my own.  When only one flag went up I immediately came back to kamae, stepped in and slammed his kote as he came charging at me for the point and the win.  It was a good fight, an intense fight, but I was able to take the victory for myself and our team.  Our next fight ended with a tie, and our final match we were able to take another win.  We were moving to the semi-finals!

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

I was feeling really good.  We'd made the semi-finals for the second year in a row at this tournament, and our team was doing really well together.  We had a real shot at making the finals and taking first place, but one big obstacle stood in our way.  Vancouver was our next opponent, and their team was good.  It included three national team members that would be fighting at the World Kendo Championships this May, and two up-and-comers, A. Lee and Asato, whom I'd mentioned earlier.  Things kicked off and our first team member, even though he fought well, lost the match to give Vancouver an early advantage.  This was followed up by another win in their favor.  My match was up.  My opponent, Asato, had just finished winning the sandan division, as I'd mentioned earlier.  We started and he immediately took up his distance and began the attacks.  I kept up fairly well for a little while, fending off his onslaught of attacks while launching attacks and counters of my own, but unfortunately he was the better player that day.  He caught me with a quick hiki men as he backed out to take the first point.  Again, I fought hard but was unable to gain any ground or advantage, and after striking a hiki men of my own that failed to score, he chased me down and landed a (honestly very beautiful) tsuki-men combo to take the second point and the win.  That was it. Their team had won, but our remaining members still fought their best.  Our fourth match ended in another win for Vancouver, but in our final match my teammate was able to keep them from scoring and ended with a tie.  Vancouver out-skilled us and took the win, but we definitely fought our hearts out and I think that's the most important thing.

Final Score: 2-0 (Asato)
Team Score: 4-0 (Vancouver)

We were able to watch some fantastic final matches, with Vancouver facing Portland in the final match.  Vancouver once again emerged victorious and took the team title this year.  For myself, I think I did pretty well for my first time in the sandan division.  I fought well, I fought smart, and I didn't try and over-extend myself or let my opponents knock me out of my groove.  I definitely have a lot I still need to work on to improve, but I felt really good with my performance overall.  To paraphrase a saying that I've heard before, "Strike, and reflect.  Be struck, and give thanks."  There are many different ways to take this, but what it means to me is that I must find guidance from both wins and losses.  When I make a successful strike I should think about it and reflect on the points that made it successful.  Likewise, when I am struck I should give thanks to my opponent for showing me my weaknesses so that I may work on improving them.  Let's see what another year of practice and training can do to help me improve for the next UW Taikai!

Photo courtesy of W. Sinclair

Friday, March 6, 2015

PNKF Winter Shinsa 2015 - Sandan

Photo courtesy of D. Pan
Last weekend was the PNKF's Winter shinsa.  I was fortunate enough to be able to participate, going over to Seattle to test for the rank of sandan (3 Dan, the "black belt" ranks).  I've been training hard for the past couple years since I tested for nidan, and I was about to put it all to the test again in front of five judges that would deem me ready or not for the new rank I was challenging.  I felt confident, and was hoping I could relay to the judges once my time came.  Before the test, though, we had a chance to train with our friend at the UW Kendo Club, as well as a chance to give their college team some good practice before their big event at the Harvard collegiate taikai next month. 

Elizabeth Marsten Sensei put together a team and team lineup for us, and we would face off against the UW team in a couple of practice team matches.  Without going into too much detail, we gave them a good fight, stressed them a bit, and enjoyed some great matches together.  Personally, I was able to win both of my matches, taking the first match 1-0 and the second match 2-1, and our Spokane team was able to take the first team match victory, and barely lost the second team match.  Overall it was a good display of kendo on both sides, and we were happy to help them practice a bit before they go to face their competition.  If anything of them are reading this, I wish you all good luck at the taikai!  After the matches the rest of the time was given to open floor, and I was able to participate in many, many matches with old friends and new acquaintances alike.  I tried to not fight so hard as to injure myself that night, but I also tried to put up a good fight for everyone that I crossed swords with.  At the end of the night, I was tired and very well satisfied with the amount of practice I was able to get.  We all headed back to the hotel that night for dinner, fellowship and some much needed showers!

The next day came and we headed out to the shinsa site around noon.  This year they split the floor into 3 courts, with kids on one court, adult kyu-1 Dan on one, and 2 Dan - 4 Dan on the last one.  This made things go fairly quickly, as I was in the second group to test.  After watching the nidan applicants rotate through their rounds of jigeiko, I suited up and readied myself for my turn on the floor.  I can honestly say that I wasn't nervous up until the moment right before my match, while waiting for my number to be called.  I tried to push that back and focus on what I wanted to show the judges, but I'll admit that the nerves showed up just a bit while I was out there.  My turn came and my first partner was a guy that I've fought in a couple of tournaments.  I was familiar with him, which helped, but I wasn't out there to score points.  I was there to show the judges my best kendo.  The round started and I stood, trying to show them a good kamae and good spirit through my kiai.  I wasn't rushed to try and hit just for the sake of hitting, but instead I tried to use my distancing and my pressure, both mental and physical, to create and opening or draw one out of my partner.  I focused on keeping good posture, keeping a connection with my partner, and striking men and kote.  I think I succeeded in these, for the most part, but I did have some issues that I'll address later.  The round ended after about 90 seconds, and I felt pretty confident that I'd done well. 

I immediately went into my next round, with a partner that I'd never fought before, or even met in person prior to the shinsa.  The round began and again I stepped in with a strong kiai and good kamae.  My partner was good, very good, and he was able to open me up a few times without me being able to do anything about it.  On the other hand, the fact that he was on point that day made me fight harder, and try to push my "best" to new levels.  I pressured, attacked, counter-attacked and used my distancing and timing to try and make beautiful movements and strikes.  Again, I had a few hiccups but overall I felt good again.  We bowed out after about 90 seconds again and I sat back, watched, and waited for the kata portion of the test to start.

This time around I would be performing all ten kata, which include three with the long sword and, since I was shidachi, three with the short sword.  We lined up and I tried to make my focus entirely on my partner.  I wanted to not just do the steps and strikes of the kata, but make a real connection with my partner and focus on "What if this were real?"  As I stepped in with my partner for the first kata, following his lead on the movements, I knew that we would be able to bring out the best in each other.  As we went through each other, him leading and me following, I tried to keep my focus on striking as if this were real, as if we had real blades and this was life and death.  I still made some minor mistakes here and there, but overall I felt very satisfied on how I did.  Once the last kata was over and we were bowing out, I felt a huge relief, as if all the stress and worry of testing were being lifted.  I stepped off the court and watched the rest of the applicants test for their requested ranks.

The results were posted soon after the last groups finished their kata, and I went to see how I did.  my sensei caught me first, though, with a big grin on his face, and informed me that I had passed.  I was so happy to hear that!  But I wanted to see for myself.  I looked up my number, 69 and saw that I had not only passed, but passed with 5/5 on everything!  It was official, I was now sandan!  I'm glad that I didn't let my nerves overtake me at the last second, and that I was able to hang onto the training and teaching that I had received throughout the years leading up to this.  As I told some people, though, now begins the hard climb to improve myself even more and possibly challenge for 4 Dan in a few years.

So, some things that I see that I need to improve, or that I was informed about.  First off, in both of my sparring rounds, in the first few hits I did I let my left foot pop up off the ground as I stepped in.  My friend calls this "bunny footing" and it is something I've been told about before.  I tested this after I got back to the dojo this week and found that it mainly happens when I try and step too far.  I need to find the right distance to strike from and stick to that, and work on making my legs and center strong enough to propel me further without compromising my posture or that back foot.  Another thing is that I need to work on not letting my left hand drift around so much.  It's hard to notice in the heat of the moment, but it does move a bit more than I want and I would do well to try and use it sparingly, unless I'm purposely moving to set up a strike or to actually strike.  Also, another friend of mine told me that I'm very good at getting around someone else's kamae, but I need to start working on opening them up.  The idea, I think, is that if I am able to open them up correctly I won't need to go around and can instead go straight through.  For kata, I still need to work on my distancing and timing.  It was minor, but I saw a couple instances where I was just a tad too close during a strike or after the kata, or when I step a little too early during a counter.  These might be small details, but I'm all about the details and they will all work together to make my kata that much better. 

Along with the keiko and kata portions of the test, there is also a written essay portion for anyone challenging 1 kyu and up.  This year I wrote about the meaning of "enzan-no-metsuke".  The basic thought I had was that if we shift our gaze from our opponent to something grander than them, such as a faraway mountain, then we not only see our opponent as a whole, but we are able to take in everything around us at once.  We can see more of the picture, instead of what is right in front of us or what is readily apparent.  This, I believe, is integral to our kendo development.  I am obviously still learning, still experiencing new things and still going through trials and errors of my own, but I think I caught onto a little bit of the deep kendo knowledge that encompasses that idea. 

So, for me, the shinsa was a big success.  I came to show the judges that I was ready to move up in rank, and they affirmed that thought.  Part of me is celebrating, but a bigger part of me is already thinking of how to improve and continue along this path this is kendo.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Steveston Taikai 2015 - No Expectations

Photo courtesy and property of T. Patana

This past weekend I finally, after many years, was able to travel to and compete at the Steveston Taikai, in British Columbia, Canada.  This was the 53rd year for this event, and I was glad that the stars finally aligned and I was able to make the journey.  It was a long one from Spokane up to Vancouver, but it was well worth it.  I had a great weekend filled with friends, adventures, road-tripping in our van, and lots of action at the taikai! I went to the taikai with no expectations of how I would do, or even who I would face.  Since it was the first time I was there all I wanted to do was exhibit good kendo in all of my matches, whether that ended up being one match or ten.  I think I accomplished that...

We arrived at the site early Saturday morning, and the first thing I noticed was how big the venue was.  There was the main gym, with four courts, and two auxiliary gyms.  One was being used for housing equipment and bags, and for warming up ,and one was used as an extra courts.  I also noticed that the courts seemed smaller than what I was used to, so I would definitely have to be mindful of my surroundings a bit more.  It was also the first time that I fought at such a big event.  They had us do the walk-in while they called our dojo names.  Felt like a big deal to me, even though I'm sure that's how they always do things.  But that upped my desire to show good kendo even more.  Even though my division was one of the first ones to compete, I had quite the wait as I had a bye to the second round and ended up having to wait through 20+ other matches before mine came up.  I did get a chance to check out my opponent in action before I had to fight him, though, which proved invaluable.  As the second round started and my match approached, I suited up and began focusing myself for my first round of action.

My first match was against Horii, from SCKF.  From what I know of California, their kendo is strong and fast, so I had a tough match from the beginning.  We stepped in and started, and at once I saw that speed coming down on me.  He went for my kote and men a lot, I did my best to counter, but he was always quick getting in and out, or with throwing up a block of his own.  Instead of trying to match his speed, I worked more on distancing.  I was a bit taller and used that to my advantage, moving in and out of my hitting distance, trying to control when and where he would hit with my own movements and seme.  Neither of us had scored, although we both had close calls.  I finally took the first point when I pressured in and nailed his kote as he lifted up for my men.  My advantage didn't last long, though, as he quickly came back with a men fake to open my kote.  We were at a standstill of 1-1 at the end of the match, so encho would be used to decide the winner.  We restarted, and I realized that they only do one encho round there, instead of the two rounds I was used to, although I do think it was longer (maybe two minutes?).  We both fought hard for the point that would decide the match, and both of us had more close calls.  I tried to keep my cool and kept trying to control the distancing and the pace of the match.  I think it must have worked.  Neither of us were able to score another point so we went to hantei (judges' decision).  One flag was raised for Horii, but two for me. I had won the first match.

Final Score: 1-1 (Ruiz by Hantei)

At this point in the taikai, I was happy with how I'd done.  I had done my best kendo in that first match, and I hit a great kote that sent the flags flying.  I could have lost that match and still have been happy with how I'd done.  But I ended up winning and moving on!  My next match was against Holzner, from Tozenji.  Little side note about him; they had marked him as being from our dojo (Spokane) on the division bracket. Funny that he ended up facing me, who is actually from Spokane.  The match started and we both stepped in, ready to go.  The one thing that sticks out in my mind about him was his men strike.  It was SO fast!  I was barely able to see it coming and many times I was taken by surprise at how quickly he moved in for it.  I thought for sure he would get it, but I put those thoughts at bay and concentrated on once again taking control of the match.  I was able to again use my distancing and timing to get a hold on things, and I was able to keep his attacks from scoring, while also delivering attacks and counters of my own.  Nothing that either of us was doing was landing, though, until partway through the match when I landed a de-kote as he came for my men.  I took the lead and was able to hold it until the very end.  I had advanced through another round!

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz)

I'd reached the quarter finals in my first shot at Steveston!  And I was feeling pretty good, as my first two opponents were young, fast guys.  I couldn't match their speed, but I used other assets to my advantage, and I hoped to keep this up in the next round.  My opponent this time would be Yao, from Steveston.  I've seen him many times before so I was familiar with his name and his style, but I still knew it would be a hard fight.  The match started and I found him quick and solid, but I did my best to fight back, going for openings when I saw them and countering when I could.  At one point I remember I nearly got his men when I came around his kensen and up.  The block came just in time, but at least I knew I was focused enough to possibly get a point.  Unfortunately that didn't happen for either of us and we headed into encho.  We restarted and upped our intensity, both of us fighting for that point and the win.  I attempted to push him out of bounds at one point, I think it was the only time I did in that whole taikai.  I came barreling in with kote and when I noticed it didn't land I crashed into him and sent him back a few feet.  Not enough, though, as he was still inside the court, but it gave him a moment to pause and look back to check his position.  We both fought hard, but in the end I was able to land another de-kote to take the point and the win.

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz in encho)

At this point I was completely blown away.  I had far exceeded anything I'd hoped to do at this taikai, so the rest was just icing on the cake, so to speak.  I found myself in the semi-finals, and my opponent was a guy that I was actually hoping to fight the whole time.  He was one of two nito players that were in our division.  Stelck, from Edmonton.  We bowed, stepped in and started the match.  We have a few nito players at our dojo, so I was really excited to fight this one and see how I would do.  I'd previously fought a nito player from Portland and tied him 1-1 in teams, but this one wasn't going to end at a simple tie.  He had a solid kamae and was able to deflect much of everything I did, but I stuck to what I knew and what I'd been taught and pressed him, attacked when I had a chance or an opening, and tried to keep the pressure on.  Unfortunately he was able to take the first point on me with a strike to my men.  We reset, and at this point I knew I had nothing to lose.  I needed to press the attack and be aggressive or else I would lose.  When I started again, I came at him more ferociously.  I threw attacks at him, crashed in, used my footwork and speed to my advantage and worked hard to get that point back.  Unfortunately my end came when I stepped in from seigan kamae and struck for men.  He went for men, too, but as I was coming in from the side it gave him a perfect line right down the center to hit me.  He took the point, and the win.

Final Score: 2-0 (Stelck)

I had a good run, and was definitely not hurt by the loss.  In fact, I went and talked to Stelck after our match and got some good advice on what he noticed I did wrong there.  He did say that I definitely looked like I knew what I was doing, having fought against nito before, but that my distance was too close.  Now I have more to work on and more to help me improve.  I got a chance afterward to enjoy some great matches in the women's 2 Dan+ and men's 4+ plus, coming to a great final with Ara Sensei from Renbu beating out Ariga Sensei from E-Bogu/SCKO.  Teams began immediately after, and my dojo mates and I got ready for our first match.

We began the team division against SFU in the first round, a Canadian team with many strong players.  I was jiho this time around, as we tried using a different line-up than we normally do, and my opponent was Hsu, who fought in jodan.  I've fought jodan once before at taikai, plus the practice that I get at our own dojo, so I had a good idea of what to expect and what to do, but I found her jodan to be more of the presure-pressure-pressure-strike that I see as a kind of traditional approach.  It was very effective, too, as she had a great grasp of distance and timing.  This got me into trouble, as she merely had to pull her hands back many times for me to miss her kote completely.  She took the first point partway through the match, when I stepped in and went for her right kote.  Thinking I had it, I let my guard down for just a second, but that's all it took for her to strike my men.  We reset and after baiting me with that left kote again, she reared back for a nuki men that found its mark and gave her the match.  The rest of the matches were very close, going back and forth for our teams, and we ended up in a tie and sent DeNardi out for a sudden death match.  Fortunately for us, he pulled through for our team after a wicked double men strike a few minutes in.  We were onto the second round.

Final Score: 2-0 (Hsu)
Team Score: 3-2 (Spokane in Sudden Death)

Our next opponents were from closer to home - Portland.  They had fielded a great team, and again our matches were back and forth.  I faced Holtorf in my match.  I've fought him before, a couple years ago, and lost to him 1-0 then, so I was looking to keep my team alive and possibly pull out a win.  We began and I pressured in, moving and using my shinai to try and find an opening or create one.  He had a solid kamae and would try and punish me each time I charged in before taking the center, and he was very quick with his own strikes and counters.  We fought for nearly the entire match, neither of us landing anything but taking a lot of close calls each.  I was finally able to land a de-kote as he rushed at me after a missed hiki men.  This gave me a one-point lead, which I was able to keep until time ran out only seconds later.  I was happy to take the match and help my team out, and in the end we ended up in another tie.  This time we sent out Sandberg to represent our team in daihyo-sen.  Portland send out Lee, and their match proved to be not only very long, but very exciting.  Shinais flew, hits, misses and a few hansoku were handed out, but in the end Lee was able to score a solid kote to take the win for their team.

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz)
Team Score: 3-2 (Portland in Sudden Death) 

We were out in the second round of teams, but we were definitely able to hold our heads high as all of us fought really well and I'm sure were able to turn a  few heads.  Personally I far exceeded what I thought I could accomplish at that taikai, and I was able to get some good feedback on the matches that I lost so that I may continue to improve my own technique.  I witnessed some amazing matches and found a lot to work towards in my future training.  Until next time, Steveston!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Welcome Back!

I've said it before, but I'd like to say it again - I'm extremely happy to see Ando Sensei back at our dojo!  We got the news that he would be returning to our city for work, but we weren't sure if he'd have the time to come and train with us.  Turns out he does, and he seems to be back in full force!  We were lucky to have him not only for all of our regular practices last week, but also for our Friday night team training (name pending!).  He brought so much to our dojo last time he was here, just over two years ago, and it will be good to have his experience and leadership again. 

These last few weeks for me have been about tightening everything up.  Getting out the screwdriver and making sure all of the nuts and bolts are secured properly, so to speak.  I've been putting a lot of feeling, for lack of better word, into my kata lately, treating each go at it with my partners as if we were at the shinsa and had a panel of judges and spectators watching us.  This has forced me to try and be picture perfect with my moves, or as perfect as I can be at this stage.  Perfection, to me, is relative, and I believe there are multiple levels of perfection you can achieve, in whatever it is that you do.  But that's a subject that could fill a whole other blog, multiple times over.  Being so focused has also brought out some things that I really need to fix, and things that I can definitely continue through without issue.  One thing I want to try and fix before the shinsa is, when I'm uchidachi, to keep my eyes on shidachi.  One spot in particular that it comes into play, and this might be the only spot so I'm not TOO worried about it, is in kata 4, as I step in to tsuki shidachi I sometimes keep my eyes straight ahead instead of following shidachi as they sidestep and counter.  As Ando Sensei pointed out, this changes the target that shidachi strikes.  Instead of striking me dead-center, they strike the side of my head and it looks bad.  So that is one little thing I feel I can fix in the next few weeks.  Other issues that I have, while they feel glaring and obvious to me, aren't noticeable most of the time unless I draw attention to them.  I just need to be confident and perform the kata that I know, that I've done hundreds of times, and have that confidence show through in every movement I make. 

Training has been awesome lately!  It's always so amazing to me the amount of spirit that our dojo is able to produce during training.  It doesn't seem to matter if it's a big class or a small class, or if we have a lot of yudansha and longstanding members or if the majority are newer members, we have an ability to raise the level of spirit and intensity to new levels almost each and every time.  This is so great, especially when I'm physically sore or tired or losing speed.  I get that boost from my dojo mates, and am able to give it back and it actually helps me to be better, stronger, faster.  It's a great feeling and I'm always so glad when we can share that amongst ourselves and with visitors. 

I haven't been focusing on any one thing in particular lately, unless you count my focus on being confident.  Like with my kata, I have started to develop a confidence in my technique during drills and jigeiko that is shining through in everything I do.  I've also tried to be more mindful of the movements I make and the strikes that I do.  This is something I've been working on for a while now, too, and have mentioned in previous posts.  I definitely get hit more during practice, but one of my sempai made the observation this weekend that I'm "fighting smarter" lately.  It's also helped a lot with getting rid of my leaning body and the tells that I have before I strike.  Although not entirely gone, I have reduced them, in some cases dramatically, and I'm feeling pretty good about that.  One thing that Ando Sensei has given me to work on lately is to watch out how high I let my left hand rise up after I strike.  I have a bad habit of letting it fly back after I strike.  Instead, he said I should keep it down, about head or upper chest heigh, and drive through that way.  I remember him mentioning this to me before he left, too, wording it in a way that if I should keep my hand down low, as if I were going to punch my partner in the face with my fist if they didn't move.  I'll be working to correct this, as well.

All in all, training has been really good here, and it's been even better with the return of one of our members.  I hope that we are all able to take advantage and raise up all of our kendo during this time with Ando Sensei.