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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!

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