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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.


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