Thursday, December 22, 2016

Kent Taikai 2016 - Relaxation: Not a Myth

Photo Courtesy of A. Melton
It's been a couple weeks since our dojo competed at the 20th (20th!) Annual Kent Taikai in Kent, WA, but the matches I had there and the lessons I learned continue to stay fresh in my mind.  It was an awesome tournament experience, and even though I didn't place in anything this time around I feel like I had some of the best matches of my kendo life so far.  Let's get into it!

This taikai showed my return to shinpan duty.  I missed Obukan this past summer and they only used 4 Dan and up for shinpan at PNKF.  I did my best and received some good advice from the sensei floating around and my court judge.  Overall I think I did a good job of "keeping the triangle" between the three of us, moving to position quickly and efficiently and always being aware, but I was told that I may be setting my bar a bit too high for ippon for some of the matches.  This is one area that will just take more practice to really get a feel for.  At the same time I am confident that each time I gave a point or waved one off I did it with confidence and determination, even if I ended up being wrong.  I'm sure all new shinpan know that feeling of second-guessing themselves in the heat of the moment!  I was able to shinpan through three different divisions so I had plenty of matches to judge on the floor.

Our group was second-to-last to go on that day, with only the senior team division left after, so I had plenty of time to warm up in the morning, shinpan and watch matches, enjoy a lunch with all of my kendo friends and then warm up again in the afternoon and try to shake off the tiredness that was starting to set in.  I was about five matches in so even after we started I had a little time to get mentally ready and on the floor.  When I heard my name called, though, it was go time!

They definitely started me off with a challenge.  My first opponent was M. Suzuki, who I had watched earlier that day demolish the women's division and march straight to 1st place.  I had my work cut out for me from the beginning. I guess it's a little better than my first match last year, which saw me fighting a US national champ.  We bowed in and the match started and I definitely played it safe.  I'd seen her plenty of times on the floor and the way I would describe her kendo is "deceptively quiet."  She moves so calmly and with such relaxation that it lulls you into a false sense of security before she blasts you out of nowhere, or takes advantage of you when you move in to attack by countering everything you have.  I joked with my friends before the match that my strategy would be to "just not move" and I would win.  But on the floor it was no joke, she definitely showed that she would take advantage of any lapse in my focus or any opening I gave here while attacking.  We fought back and forth, pretty evenly, for the entire three minute match and through one overtime round.  There'd been a few close, close strikes on both sides, but during the second encho round I was able to score hiki men and take the win with a technique I borrowed from one of my dojo mates (Thanks, Seth!).  One giant challenge down, and what a way to start things!

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz in encho)

Well, one giant challenge down, one even bigger challenge in the next round.  My next opponent would be none other than my good friend Ian.  If you've read any of my past taikai posts you know that I fight him all the time.  All.  The. Time.  And all of those matches have either ended in a tie (teams) or a win for him (individuals).  I've not only never beat him, but I've never even scored a point on him in all these years!  So even though we were laughing and joking before the match I was a bit nervous to get out on the floor and fight him again because my track record has been less than stellar against him.  But when our names were called we bid each other good luck and stepped up to our opposing sides of the court to start.  The bow in and start felt very deliberate on both of our sides, with each of us exuding that fighting spirit as best we could from the first steps out onto the court.  As the match began and went I felt very relaxed, very in control.  All of a sudden my fears started to melt away.  Even though it was a match we were both fighting to win, it felt very satisfying.  I did my best to do my best, move as efficiently as possible and not waste a thing because I knew that Ian would take anything I gave him.  He seemed to be doing the same on his end, and it ended up being a pure joy on the court.  It's almost as if we had an unspoken agreement to do the absolute best kendo we could with each other.  I went in at one point for a kote-men, which turned out to be a mistake because Ian stepped right into my rhythm and nailed my men in the middle of my attacks.  First point for him.  We restarted and I found myself in that very familiar spot of playing catch-up with him to try and get that point back.  I didn't let it phase me too much, though, and kept the pressure on as best I could.  Toward the end of the match I pressured in, pressured in and then something happened.  I stepped in for harai kote just as he changed from a guarded posture to try and strike.  The flags flew, Kote for me.  I had just done something I had never accomplished before.  I scored a point on Ian.

I tried to keep my elation internal, but for me the match was already over.  I didn't care about the rest of the outcome because I was satisfied with that.  But we did have a match to finish, so I came out strong and fought my best.  We ended up going through not just regulation time, but two rounds of encho with neither of us being able to take that next point.  It was time for the judges' decision.  Three white flags.  Ian had won.  He deserved it, he fought well, but I walked out of that match proudly because I had fought hard, fought my best, done the (previously to me) impossible, and pushed him all the way to the end.

Final Score: 1-1 (Ian by Hantei)

I might have been out of individuals, but I had a great experience.  I felt so calm and relaxed during both of my matches, and due to that I felt faster and more in control.  My sensei always tells me that relaxation is the key to speed, and I got to see it first hand that day.  I want to build on this feeling, see if I can improve it and evolve it into something new for me.  Not that I'm not always trying to be calm and relaxed, but this felt like a new level.  I'm looking forward to seeing what I can do with it this next year!  I got to witness some really good matches during the last part of the 3-4 Dan division, including my fellow dojo mate taking 2nd place.  After it was over, it was time for teams!

Our team has taken 1st place at this taikai the past two years in a row, so I knew that everyone else would be gunning for us.  And I wasn't wrong.  After watching the first round action our opponents would be Sno-King, a team that we've fought many times before, and in the finals at this exact taikai a few times, so we knew they'd be tough from the start.  I was up first and fought another guy I'd never fought before, M. Scott.  He was a tough one.  Seems like this was the taikai for tough matches for me.  Even so, I had a job to do for my team, so I bowed in, stepped up and did my best to deliver.  Did I mention he was tough?  I had a hard time pinning him down for anything, and he kept the pressure and strikes coming at me.  At one point my men even got knocked partway off my head so I had to stop and re-tie it.  I used that time to refocus and make sure everything was ready and I wasn't rushing back into a match without thinking.  It seemed to work.  After restarted and exchanging blows for a bit I was able to catch him moving backwards off a missed strike and land a kote-men for the first, and only, point of the match.  Time was called shortly after but at least I was able to get that early lead for my team.  Unfortunately Sno-King proved the stronger team that day and took the next match 2-0 before they tied up our later guys and held them to no scores and no wins.  We did our best, though, and I think all of us came out of the match in good spirits.  Sno-King was able to march onto a 3rd place finish, with our friends from Kent taking 1st place overall.  Great job, everyone!

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz)
Team Score 1-1 (Sno-King by 1 point)

Again, even though I didn't win anything or place this time around, I had great matches.  I fought some strong, remarkable people and learned some new things about them and myself.  I think I also gained a little more confidence in myself.  This will do well not only in the upcoming taikai and training that I'm doing, but also in preparing for 4 Dan over the next year. I've been doing a lot of prep for it, ever since I passed for 3 Dan almost two years ago, but this taikai taught me that I have the skills to make things happen, I just need that calmness and confidence to let it all shine.  Here's the next year of kendo!

Monday, October 3, 2016

Returning to Kendo - An Insider's View

Photo by A. Melton
 It's been a while.  I seem to write that a lot.  Not for lack of thought, though.  I've been doing the "kendo grind" lately, as I call it (The Kendo Grind).  A lot of it!  I have some big plans that are in motion right now that I'll post about later on.  But for now I wanted to look back on something that is near and dear to my heart, mainly because I went through it myself.

I recently read an article about returning to kendo written by Zoe Hinis.  It was a well-written article and touched on a lot of points that I had considered myself.  But I wanted to write this and put it out there as a look at it from the viewpoint of someone that went through it.  A little backstory, to start.  The first time I stepped into a kendo dojo was WAY back in 2004.  I had heard of this "kendo" thing and wanted to check it out.  I had always wanted to take up a martial art, and I had always loved swords, so when I heard that there was a martial art out there involving swords AND it was available in my city I wanted to go check it out.  My mental picture of kendo, though, were way off. Nowadays I liken my early thoughts about it to iaido; I thought that kendo would be a lot of learning various strikes and movements with the swords that are built around kata, much like I see iaido actually is.  Imagine my surprise when, after I signed up and showed up for my first beginning class, I walked into the dojo and saw people clad in armor, shouting and flying at each other with bamboo swords.  I was in awe from that first moment and glad that the reality of kendo was so much more than my mental picture made it out to be.  So, with this new picture in mind, I began my experience with kendo.

Let's fast forward a couple of months.  Even though I had the interest, I definitely didn't have the dedication.  I was 23 and nothing could really hold my interest for too long, which unfortunately meant that I ended up missing more training than I was attending.  I made it into the intermediate class, received my first uniform and....that was it.  I soon dropped out. Partly because of a new job with the railroad that first sent me to Oregon for training before sending me to Texas and California for the better part of a year to work, but I also dropped out because I just wasn't making it a priority in my life.  I wrote my sensei an email about it, detailing why, but even after I left the thought of going back to training was always lingering in my mind.  Some days it was a faint whisper in the recesses of my thoughts.  Some days it was front and center, demanding all of my attention.  But it was always present.  One year turned into two, into three, four and five.  Five years and no kendo, and not one day went by where the thought of returning was silent.  I guess I had the kendo bug before I knew what the kendo bug really was.

2009 and life had handed me a lot of twists and turns.  I had a kid, got married, got divorced and was kind of finding my own way again.  I decided to finally make good on that thought that had hounded me all those years and I contacted my old sensei again to find out if they were still training and if I could possibly come back.  Sinclair Sensei remembered me immediately, noted that he was glad to hear from me and told me that a new training class had just started the week prior and that I was more than welcome to return and start training again.  Since it had been so long he and I agreed that starting over was the best course of action.  Honestly, besides the stance and some basics about swinging the bokken and shinai, I'd lost everything.  But that didn't matter to me.  What mattered was that I was finally returning to the dojo that I had left and making good on one of the regrets that had plagued me ever since I left it.

Starting out again wasn't easy, at all.  I didn't see anyone there that I had started with before.  None of that class from five years ago had stayed, even though there were people there that somewhat remembered me from before and had been training even longer.  I got through the beginning and intermediate classes without issue this time around, and was welcomed into the advanced class for pre-bogu training.  This is where we, without armor, train with the main class and learn to use what we've been learned in a more fast-paced and realistic environment.  Soon after I was given the ok to get my own bogu.  Even though I wouldn't be able to afford it for months after that, it was nice to have that acknowledgement that I was ready for it.

I bought my first set of bogu in March of 2010.  About a month after I started really slacking again. I was finding any reason to not train.  I didn't feel good, I was tired, I had errands to run.  In reality these were all just excuses, and bad ones at that.  This went on for about a month.  It finally came to the point where I had to ask myself "Is kendo something I really want to do, and if so am I willing to get serious about it?"  Fortunately the answer to both questions was "yes."  Since that day I've mad ea very conscious effort to attend each and every training and to push myself as much as I can.  That was six years ago.  Today I am 3 dan and teaching beginning classes at our dojo, along with improving my own kendo each and every day, and I love every minute of it.

That's not to say it's been easy.  There have been up and downs in the road.  Days where I really didn't want to go, but I had no actual reason so I would drag myself to practice.  Those days were almost always the best trainings for me.  There would be days where I was lazy and I'd get called out on it, sometimes in private and sometimes publicly, which would push me to train even harder next time.  There have been days where I had an injury and could have easily rested at home but instead I went to the dojo and did what I could within my physical limits.  The road so far hasn't been easy, but man has it been fulfilling!

I owe a lot to the friends I've made at the dojo, most of whom are as close as family now, and to my teachers that have helped guide me and push me to find the best I have and make it even better.  But I also owe a lot to that voice that was with me for those five years I was gone.  That voice that pushed me to return to kendo.  I know many people in our dojo that have left since I came back.  Some have returned themselves and others have not (not yet, at least).  To everyone that has gone and has considered coming back I say listen to that voice.  I did and it was one of the greatest decisions I've ever made.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

2016 US Nito Seminar

Boise! Boise! Boise!  I've been there before on work-related trips, where I was able to enjoy training with the local clubs, but nothing in this capacity before.  This past weekend Boise played host to the 2016 US Nito Seminar, a yearly weekend-long seminar dedicated to the pursuit and practice of the unique two-sword style of kendo.  I was lucky enough to be able to participate this year and it was an experience that I will carry with me throughout the rest of my training life.

This year there were over 80 participants hailing from all over the US and Canada, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Japan, Italy and Malaysia (and a host of others I may have missed)!  We all gathered together at the Boise State University campus to participate in this 3-day long seminar, which provided plenty of lecture, practice, keiko and even a bit of shiai at the end.  I had never done nito before and I played with the idea of practicing it before I went, but decided against it.  This year we would have not just one, but two 8-dan sensei, both of which passed their test using nito.  The only two in the world to do so!  Joining them were three other 7-dan sensei as well as a 6-dan sensei.  They were all strong beyond belief and it was a pleasure watching their kendo in action as much as it was to be on the receiving end of their strikes!

The first day we all broke the ice with a bit of morning keiko.  I was able to practice with some old friends, familiar faces and some totally brand new to me people.  I enjoyed each session and it made me hungry for the rest of the weekend to come.  We only went for about an hour before a short lunch break and the proper beginning to our weekend.  While sitting in one of the campus theaters we were treated to talks from Toda Sensei about kendo, itto (one sword), nito (two swords) and how they are one and the same.  Fujii Sensei (8-dan) then treated us to a showing of his test and gave his thoughts on the test and leading up to it.  After this we all went back to the main gym for some practice on some fundamental footwork and body movements from Sasaki Sensei (7-dan), as well as some basics on how to hold the two swords and how to strike properly.  After practicing this for a while we ended out the day with a keiko demonstration from the 6- and 7-dan sensei before they opened it up for the rest of us to keiko with the visiting guests.  I was able to jump in with Fujii and Ugajin Sensei before our time ran out.  Fujii was very intense and so fast, but let me try and find that correct moment to strike and was gracious enough to let me hit him a few times.  Ugajin brought on the intensity and beat me up, but I learned a lot from him, as well.

Saturday started much earlier and was led by Fujii Sensei and Sato Sensei, who again went over some of the strikes and what to do with the shoto (short sword).  He showed us how to use it to pressure correctly before striking.  The afternoon session was led mainly by Toda Sensei himself, whose main focus (from what I remember) was on seme and using it to create a conversation with each person.  He made it clear that we shouldn't rush or skip this conversation.  He also pointed out that we should work to "lead" the conversation and that we should all try and only strike when we have the absolute best moment to do so.  It was very enlightening and doing the seme drills were mentally exhausting even for the short amount of time that we did them.  Again we ended out the day by forming lines with the visiting sensei for jigeiko.  This time around I was able to train with Sato Sensei and Harris Sensei, from Hawai.  Sato was so powerful.  I'd seen him fighting some of the others and he was so quick and strong that I knew I had no chance.  Luckily he took it down just enough to keep me reaching for that level, and let me get in a couple of hits before letting me go.  Harris Sensei was also a lot of fun to train with, even if he did run me around the room.  He again emphasized taking the lead during the seme "conversation" and not letting him run me around like he did.  I'll definitely have to work on that but he did give me some points to consider for my own training.

Sunday was the last day and after warmups and a little bit of practice with the sensei we were grouped into teams for the upcoming shiai matches.  The format was much the same as the previous years.  Each team would fight two matches so each person could fight once using itto and once using nito.  The team that did the best on each court would then face each other in a final match.  We had people from our team of various ranks and locations.  Everywhere from UW in Seattle to Chile were represented on our team.  Our first matches were done using itto and I (somehow) was grouped up against one of my dojo members for my first match.  We both fought hard and did our best but the match was ultimately a tie.  It was sure entertaining, though!  Overall our team won the match by one win over the other team.  Our second match consisted of us fighting in nito and even though we didn't do as well we put up a good fight.  My match was against a 4-dan from Michigan and, surprisingly, I won!  I was able to score two men uchi.  Even though I gave up a kote to my opponent I fought as well as I could for someone that had just picked up nito and came out on top.   Unfortunately it wasn't enough to send our team to the finals, but honestly we all had a ton of fun and came out all smiles and high fives anyway.  The final match was 3vs3 and it was nice to see that one of my dojo mates was on the team that was in the finals and eventually won.

Toda Sensei ended the seminar with a few words of encouragement for us, saying that he was glad to see nito gaining popularity and strength here and that he believes this will be the hot bed for the future of nito.  With their guidance and teaching I'm sure he's right!  This seminar had a bit of something for everyone, from the absolute beginning student to those yudansha that have been training for decades on end.  I know that I gained a lot not just from the seminar proper but also from the side conversations and meetings with various people.  I came home with a renewed sense of myself and my kendo and a lot of ideas for myself and for our dojo.  I'm not the only one that shared those feelings, either, as it seems like all of my other dojo mates that went had the same thoughts and ideas for our dojo.

So, from someone that had never touched nito before, I'd highly recommend this seminar to anyone that is looking to start nito, refine their nito, or even who is not interested in doing nito at all.  The them of the weeekend was "Itto and nito are as one (the same)".  To me this says that itto and nito are not two separate entities of kendo, but more like two sides of the same coin.  I never was planning on taking up nito full-time but after this weekend I can see the benefits of it for my own kendo and am encouraged to use it to help enrich my own understanding of this martial art.  So even though I still don't plan on switching permanently to the two-sword style I'll begin to use it and the teachings I received to enrich everything about my kendo.

To anyone reading this, I hope to see you next year!  And to all the awesome new friends I made this weekend, I hope to see you AGAIN next year!

Friday, April 29, 2016

UW Taikai 2016

Courtesy of T. Patana (Kendo Photography)
The 40th Annual UW Taikai.  Forty years of competition at the University of Washington.  I've competed in five previous tournaments here and always had a challenging (although fulfilling) time.  This tournament would be no exception.

My division started in the afternoon, so after warming up in the morning I was able to cheer on my teammates in the Women's and 1-2 Dan divisions before going out and fighting my own battles.  There seemed to a lot of drops and changes to the line-up this year, so I ended up fighting C. Marsten in my first match.  I'd fought him before at the Kent Taikai a few months prior so I knew I could win if I fought smart enough.  But even with that past experience I knew I was in for a tough fight.  H is definitely a force to be reckoned with and would take advantage of anything I gave him.  It's funny, too, since we'd already been on the court together that day, as shinpan (judges).  Now instead of working together we'd be fighting each other.  Bring it on, I say!  The match started and we both took our time to get a feel for the other person and what they'd be bringing to the court that day.  After our introduction, I pressured in and tried to give him the obvious kote before going for a big men to start.  He went for the kote but unfortunately was too fast moving in for me to catch with my attack.  This would set the tone for the rest of our time, I think.  Both of us fought hard but neither could capitalize on the other.  I did my best to open him up and counter his incoming attacks, but he was always just a tad too fast with his movement or his blocks for me to take the point.  Likewise on my side I feel like I was able to stay out of danger fairly well with his attacks, although he did get close a few times.  Regulation time ended and we found ourselves fighting through not one, but two rounds of encho (overtime).  During that time I believe we both had flags fly in our favor, only to be waved off by the other judges.  The match ended and we ended the match at a 0-0 tie.  It was up to the judges. Unfortunately for me the judges ruled in his favor.  Good job for him, he fought well, but my time in the 3 Dan division came to a close early this year.  I definitely learned a lot from the match, though, and saw a few things I did well and other spots I need to work on.  I've taken this information home and have already started working on it at my home dojo, so that next time we meet I can give him an even better match!

Final Score: 0-0 (C. Marsten by Hantei)

Even though I was out of the running early I still had a great time.  I cheered and rooted for my fellow teammates and was able to see some amazing matches, both from our guys and from the other dojos.  The most shocking to me, I think, was T. Hamanaka's win over S. Asaoka in the 4 Dan+ finals.  What a kote that was!!  I also got to see one of our guys take third place in 1-2 Dan and was very happy for him.  With the 4 Dan+ over, though, it was time to get ready for teams.

Again, it looks like the line-up was switched around from what we originally thought, so after a few moments of confusion and waiting we found ourselves facing our first opponents - Seattle.  To me, the Seattle Dojo has always had solid kendo.  They have (in my opinion) some of the best technically skilled members of our federation so I knew that this match would be a good one.  I was placed at chuken, the middle position, and as we lined up I saw my opponent would be G. Suzaka.  Anyone who's been around our federation for even a little bit of time has probably heard or him or met him and today I had the pleasure of facing him for the first time.  As it turned out, our team came into my match with a 2-0 lead in matches.  This would be the turning point for both of our teams.

We bowed, stepped in and began the match.  Even though I was, admittedly, a bit intimidated I tried not to let it show.  I was still going to do the best out there that I could.  We took our time again, feeling each other out and pressing here and there to see what we could open or take advantage of.  The first attack, a kote by both of us, came in quickly and luckily I was able to keep up with his and at least neutralize.  Unfortunately I wouldn't be able to keep that up for long.  After a few back and forth exchanges I stepped in for what looked to be a nice open kote, only to find out that he had totally baited me and I fell for it.  He countered with a men strike that I hardly even saw coming, let alone had time to do anything about.  We reset and after a few more exchanges I fell for the same thing!  The match was over and unfortunately Seattle took two more matches after that for the win.  Well, I lasted longer than I thought I would, at least!  That's a good thing.  I also learned that when someone of that rank and experience level shows their kote it's probably not by accident.  I'll have to be more mindful of that next time.

Final Score - 2-0 (G. Suzaka)
Team Score: 3-2 (Seattle)

We all fought our best but unfortunately for us our team match run was cut short, as well.  But we kept our spirits high and finished out the tournament as happy competitors and spectators.  We were even able to see the Kent team, amid some issues, do a stellar job and take second place in teams with only four fighting members, falling only to Steveston in the finals.  It was a sight to see and I'm glad I was there to witness it.

It seemed to me that everyone has been stepping up their training.  I myself have been inspired to do the same and will hopefully be able to train hard (and smart!) so that next year at this time I can come and demonstrate everything I've worked on and improved. Until then, UW, it was a blast!!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

California (Kendo) Love

California!  Last week I had the chance to travel to Los Angeles for business, and while there I, of course, took advantage of the excellent kendo culture and training.  This was my first trip to the area and I didn't actually know anyone down there, but I took a chance and visited both Butokuden with Ariga Sensei and Gardena Kendo Club, with Mamiya Sensei.  Both were very welcoming of me joining their training, and both gave me a good look into SoCal kendo and some ideas and advice to take home and work into my own training.

Tuesday night was training at Butokuden.  Bad news was that Ariga Sensei couldn't be there himself as he left that day for the European Kendo Championships.  Good news was that they were celebrating a new member and were having a potluck after practice, so I came at a good time!  The dojo itself was very nice, having been built right next to the E-Bogu warehouse.  The floor was very nice, and plenty of room for movement, although I'd say that the total width of the floor wasn't quite what we have in Spokane.  They also had a nice additional matted area where people could put on their bogu and warm-up before practice.  I was told that since it was spring break for many there, there might not be as many people at practice as normal.  Even with the missing members there were still about forty to fifty people in attendance. 

We start with kata, and I had the chance to practice with a guy that was preparing for his sandan test in November.  We went through the first seven kata just fine, and then he wanted to dig into the kodachi kata a bit and get my advice on them.  We went through a quick crash course on kodachi kata 1-3, with me serving at uchidachi and having him do each movement separately and giving my advice and instruction that I'd received on each part to him, before putting it together into the finished product. It went well and I'll be crossing my fingers for him to pass come November.

After kata we bowed in and started training proper.  We did motodachi geiko style rotations, with 12 of the sensei and upper dans service as motodachi and having about 3-4 people in each of their lines.  We would all rotate through the drills together before the person in front of each line would move over to the next motodachi line.  The drills were nothing new to me, as we practice the same drills and basics, but what struck me was the amount of pressure and seme I felt from a lot of the motodachi.  One lady in particular really built up the an almost fever pitch before launching her attack on me.  The feeling was palpable between us.  I did my best to show my absolute best form and technique and really make solid strikes and attacks on each drill.  The drills we did consisted of kirikaeshi, men uchi (big and small strikes), kote-men, kote-men-do, and a final round of kirikaeshi. 

After a short break we went into open floor jigeiko where I had a chance to go with people of all different ranks and skill levels.  Hsueh Sensei completely dominated me in our brief exchange, although I think I might have slipped in a kote once or twice.  His men was so fast, though that it caught me almost completely by surprise each time.  A testament to the raw speed that so many of them possess.  I also was able to keiko with a kid that was getting ready for his ikkyu test in a few weeks, although if you had asked me I would have sworn he was more shodan/nidan level.  I'm sure he will have no problems at his shinsa for ikkyu.  The night ended and I was invited to some good beer and good food at the potluck.  And I do mean good food because a few of the members were/are chefs at various places around the area.  I'm definitely looking forward to visiting Butokuden again when I'm in the area.

I was able to visit Gardena Kendo Club the following night and wow, what a great training!  I was excited because a member of the US kendo team trains there and I was looking forward to that experience.  Mamiya Sensei was very gracious with me, but he did inform me that the practices are run entirely in Japanese.  That would be a big change for me.  The little Japanese I know consists of "kendo Japanese" but even at that during the training I was able to piece together the terms and the movements he was doing to get a good idea of what to do or what he wanted us to focus on.  One thing that he really pushed were quick hands and quick feet.  Many times he would stop the group during suburi to emphasize a quick, solid strike with the shinai and quick feet to match.  When he demonstrated the shinai would fly through the upswing and strike in one quick movement, with a very definite stop right where the target was, and snappy footwork to bring him forward and back into a good stance each time.  Speaking of warm-ups and suburi, they were exhausting!!  But I did my best and made it all the way through with a good attitude and (I think) solid movement and technique.

Afterward we suited up and started training proper.  They used a mawari geiko style rotation, where everyone would rotate around after each drill.  Although they did have the teachers peppered into the rotation who held their spots each time.  They also roped off areas of the floor so that the kids/beginners and advanced members had their own boundaries.  Just like with Butokuden, the drills we did were nothing new, but being that I was familiar with each one I did my best to build that pressure, step in with confidence and deliver each attack as best I could.  The jigeiko that night was "shinsa geiko" style, and Mamiya Sensei said that we should do each round as if we were in front of the judges at our own shinsa for our next rank.  So I did my best to imagine the yondan shinsa (still at least two years away) and used that feeling throughout my rounds with everyone. 

Just like with Butokuden I found that many of the member possessed insane amounts of speed.  I would definitely not be out-racing anyone to hit that men.  So I really had to work on my distancing and timing and trying to take and keep control of the rhythm of the match to set up my own attacks and counters.  I feel like, having that focus, I held my own with a lot of people there.

After regular practice and bowing out, Gardena did something very interesting. They had a period of open floor for anyone that wanted to stay longer, and Mamiya Sensei invited me to stay and continue keiko with them.  I was able to go with him and Sandy Sensei, and each one of them completely blew me away on the floor.  Both had not only speed but skill and could pretty much hit me at will.  Honestly, though, I expected that coming in so that wasn't a surprise to me.  Despite the obvious difference in my level and theirs I did my best and was able to get some good feedback from both senseis.  Sandy Sensei, in particular, gave me a lot of good advice and tweaks that I can implement to really make my kamae and men strike shine later on.

I was glad  for the opportunity to visit a hotbed of American kendo in LA and I'm definitely looking forward to traveling down there again and reconnecting with the people I've met and possibly meeting new people and exploring other dojos in that area. I feel that the experience and advice I got will be invaluable in improving my own kendo, and the spirit I got will hopefully be shared throughout my own dojo.  Until next time, LA!

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Kendo Grind

Lately I've been wanting to write a new post, but I just have had no real inspiration.  Since the last time I wrote, about the Kent Taikai, I've pretty much just had my nose down to the grindstone at my local dojo.  So, why not write about that?  So here we go.  Apologies in advance to anyone else reading this, I might start rambling.

Ever since I passed sandan last year, I've been thinking "what's next?"  I'm always trying to look forward and see what I have to improve, what I have to do, to get to the next level.  I believe that kendo is a lifelong journey; one that never ends.  So I try to reflect that in my training.  I can find small victories in breakthroughs I make, or fixing problems that I had, but I always want to keep looking forward and looking how to improve even more.  My thoughts since the sandan shinsa have revolved around "what do I need for yondan," or, more specifically, "What do I need to be the best yondan I can be, so that when the time comes to test again I can show everyone that I'm already there."  It's never too early to start preparing for the future, right?

After talking with Sinclair Sensei, I've received more insight on my hip/shoulder dip issue, so now I'm going back to the drawing board with my footwork.  I have a tendency have too narrow a stance, and that is causing my hips to turn, which then puts more pressure on them as I move and which then leads to me turning/dipping my shoulder.  So, all of these issues are stemming from that one point and I know I'll definitely need to fix that for the test (immediate goal) and for the rest of my kendo training (long-term goal).  A beautiful stance and posture is important to me so I've been taking extra time when I can to work on this, almost going back to the basics with my footwork and concentrating on widening out my stance and squaring my hips.  It's slow-going but I'm starting to feel a little more comfy with the wide stance.  I should clarify, though, that "wide" doesn't mean uncomfortably so.  I have very broad shoulders and so my stance has to adjust to match that.

Another thing I've been working on, and this was actually even before my sandan test, was moving and striking with purpose.  I've never been one to attack without thinking about it, as I've mentioned before, but I really want to refine that and make sure that everything I'm doing has a purpose.  This is a another step in me eliminating wasted movement in my technique.  Why should I move or strike if there was nothing behind it?  If someone were to ask me why I stepped to the side, or why I pressed in, or why I went for men/kote/etc, I should have an immediate answer for them.  I'm not there yet, not even close, but this is often my focus during training.  During drills I always try and think about what I'm doing and try to do it to the best of my ability, and make sure each strike "counts" during multiple strike drills.  Likewise in jigeiko.  This has led to me being struck more often than before, but that's ok.  If my partner hits me twelve times and I only hit them once or twice because I was focusing on this skill I'm ok with that.  That's why we practice, right?

As far as actual techniques, I've been trying to take some of the strikes and movements and techniques that I'm terrible at right now and purposely practice them more.  I'm hoping to take some of those weaknesses I have and, in time, turn them into strengths.  I've always believed in being well-rounded and to do that I need to be comfortable using a variety of techniques at a moment's notice.  I've also been talking with Ando Sensei about some specifics which, for now, I'll keep to myself.  I have to have some secrets.

So, while nothing life-changing or awe-inspiring has been happening lately, its ok.  I understand that the grind is part of the process, and hopefully sooner or later others will start seeing the fruits of my grinding labor.  And, honestly, if you can't learn to love the grind then you are going to have a bad time with whatever it is you pursue.