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!