Sunday, February 22, 2009

Gradings



I just posted the list of requirements on Dojo News, but the list doesn't tell you how you must do what is listed. Here are some tips to remember in order to help you pass your next kyu grading.

Dress
How you wear your hakama and kendogi, and at higher levels, your bogu, tells the grading panel a lot about your kendo. Make sure you ask a fellow teammate or another kendoka (preferably someone who is more experienced) before your grading to check whether your appearance is correct. Sometimes because of nerves or lack of experience you might tie something incorrectly. You should also be comfortable, without feeling like your uniform is too tight or too loose.

Don't!
  • Wear t-shirts or anything else visible under your kendogi (including necklaces)
  • Wear a kendogi that shows your leg through the side vent of your hakama
  • Wear your hakama so that it drags along the ground, or sags down at the back
  • Wear jewellery (including wrist bands of all kinds) or a watch
  • Wear a hakama and kendogi that is worn out or torn
Do!
  • get a senior person to check how you look before your grading
  • wear a clean uniform, with a hakama that has been pressed carefully (or at least kept folded between trainings)
  • make sure the back of the kendogi is stretched flat across your back
  • make sure the hakama himo have been tied properly and are flat
Reigi Saho
The single biggest impression you can make on the grading panel is the way you perform rei, sonkyo and kamae. Take time to practice the movements at home by yourself. Handle the shinai likes it is a sword and always picture your opponent clearly.

Especially practice sonkyo, at home if you have trouble doing it properly. You must be able to lower yourself down into sonkyo and stand up into kamae with a straight back all the way.

Practice sonkyo as part of your warm-up when you get to the Kenshikan, so that you can do it without wobbling in your grading.

General advice
Remember, even though you feel nervous, that the grading panel is not there to try and trick you into failing. They, and everyone else, want you to have the opportunity to show your best kendo. If you are not sure about what you are being asked to do, then you might make a mistake that affects your performance. So if you are not sure, put up your hand and ask the Dojo Steward who is giving the commands to repeat his or her instructions and also demonstrate what is required. You cannot fail your grading for asking for an explanation to be repeated.

I'll say that again...
  • If you're not sure what you are supposed to do, ask! You cannot be failed for asking for instructions to be repeated.
Having said that, make sure you watch the gradings before yours, so you can learn what to do before you are asked to line up.

Future gradings
After your grading has finished you'll probably be a little relieved and exhausted. You might want to have a bit of a rest. But make sure when the gradings for the level above yours are due to begin, that you spend some time watching them. That way you will know what to expect for next time. Also observe those whose kendo seems to be a cut above the rest and try to work out what it is that makes it better. This is called mitori-geiko, learning by careful observation.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Tenouchi - the grip


Tenouchi
in kendo means the swordsman's grip on the sword. Literally translated it means "the inside of the hand", in other words, the palm of the hand. When referring to the bogu it means the leather palm of the kote. In Japanese generally it can simply mean "skill".

There are many common mistakes people make when holding and swinging the shinai.
  • Holding too tightly with the right hand.
  • Opening the grip of the left hand to increase the size of the swing.
  • Holding the shinai with the wrong part of the left hand
Maintaining the correct tenouchi is part of suburi practice at home. This is why it is important to make sure that your tenouchi is correct before you spend time practicing by yourself: you don't want to practice bad habits!

Strength at the bottom, softness at the top
I was taught that you should hold the shinai mostly tightly with the fingers at the bottom of the shinai handle, in other words the little fingers of your left hand. Then your grip should be slightly less with the thumb and index finger, a bit less with the little fingers of the right hand, and softest with the thumb and index finger of the right hand.

Eventually tenouchi becomes so quick and efficient that even though you train all the time, you no longer get callouses on your hands. This happens at around 7th dan I believe...

Holding too tightly with the right hand
People who hold the shinai too tightly with their right hand find that:
  1. Their cuts are not as accurate
  2. Their cuts are slower
  3. They tire more quickly
  4. They develop blisters on their right hand
Below is a picture of someone holding too tightly with the right hand. There is quite a sharp angle in the wrist as a result.

incorrect

The correct way is to hold more lightly with the right hand. You can see this by less of a bend in the wrist. The fingers appear a little more open, with the index finger reaching forward to just touch the tsuba.

correct


Holding the shinai with the wrong part of the left hand
The first picture shows the shinai being held with the wrong part of the hand, with the tsukagashira (end of the handle) lying between the two bumps on the heel of the palm.

incorrect grip

The second picture shows the correct way to grip the tsukagashira, with both bumps of the heel of the palm on top of the handle.

correct grip

Opening the grip of the left hand to increase the size of the swing.
This is pretty self-explanatory. The top picture is the incorrect way. This is a hard thing to be aware of by yourself. Usually it takes a sensei or senior student observing you to let you know if you are doing this wrong during suburi.

incorrect

Below is the correct way. In kendo, the little fingers of the left hand should never release their strong grip on the tsukagashira. This means that your wrist has to provide the flexibility and strength for the cut. Chiba sensei's technique for developing this strength and flexibility is to perform kirikaeshi with horizontal men cuts.

correct

Tenouchi and strength
There is undoubtedly a connection between good tenouchi and strength in your hands. Next time you train with an 8th dan sensei, have a good look at their hands. You will most likely notice that they are pretty strong, with what looks like bicep muscles on each finger. This only comes from lots and lots of training.

This takes us back to the importance of suburi. Even if you don't do 1000, daily suburi will definitely make it easier to strike sharply.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Bokuto training sequence

image from Mushinkan Kendo and Iaido Dojo

The bokuto ni yoru kihon waza keiko ho is a set of 9 "kata" designed recently by the All Japan Kendo Federation to help teach kendo basics. At Nanseikan we have practiced these for a period of time every year for the last three years or so. Still, we do not practice them all the time, so a little reminder in black and white will be handy.

Purpose
The purpose of the bokuto keiko ho is to give an introduction to the basic techniques of kendo, both shikake and oji waza, and at the same time an experience of handling the bokuto. It has been formulated especially for beginners so that they can practice something fundamental even before they are able to wear bogu. And it is a sequence that can be useful for all kendoka to practice from time to time.

Roles
In the bokuto keiko ho, there are two roles. They are the kakarite: the person who is practicing the techniques, the attacker, and the motodachi: the person receiving the techniques. The role of the kakarite is a bit like the role of the uchidachi in kata, only much less active. For all of the shikake waza, the motodachi just shows the correct opening and receives.

Order
The order of the keiko ho is this:
  1. kihon ichi: kihon men, kote, do, tsuki
  2. kihon ni: ni dan waza, kote-men
  3. kihon san: harai waza, harai-men (from omote)
  4. kihon yon: hiki waza, men-tsubazeriai-hiki-do
  5. kihon go: nuki waza, men-nuki-do
  6. kihon roku: suriage waza, kote-suriage-men (from ura)
  7. kihon nana: debana waza, debana-kote (also called degote)
  8. kihon hachi: kaeshi waza, men kaeshi do
  9. kihon kyu: uchiotoshi waza, do-uchiotoshi-men
There is a little rhyme in Japanese for remembering the order. It goes:
  • ichi, ni, hari, hiki, nuki, sure, ba, kaeshi, uchi
A detailed description of the actions, as well as video for the entire sequence are readily available on the net. Just google "bokuto ni yoru" (or click on the photo above).

Zanshin
Zanshin is particularly important in the keiko ho. For example, in the four kihon waza contained in kihon ichi, there are two steps back by the kakarite after every technique. At the first step back the kakarite must be aware of demonstrating zanshin by pausing for a brief moment to hold centre and threaten the motodachi's throat. The helps to prevent the keiko ho from becoming just an empty set of movements. Like kata they must be performed with the feeling that you are actually using these techniques to defeat the motodachi.

Distance
Like kata, the distance is very important. When you perform a technique, it should reach the target area so that if you wished you could physically strike the correct part of your opponent's body. Naturally your well-practiced tenouchi stops this!

The only exception to this is the fourth part of kihon ichi - tsuki. In this case, as you know, the motodachi takes a step back at the moment kakarite delivers the tsuki in order to guard against accidents.

Format
The way the keiko ho is perfomed is very like kata, with largely the same reigi saho (performance of etiquette) as kata, the same starting from kyu ho no maai (9 steps distance), taking three steps in, etc. When using the bokuto it should be performed with the same feeling as kata.

The keiko ho can also be run as a sequence where both sides are wearing bogu and using shinai. In this case, full contact can be made and the instructor may decided that you not perform all of the reigi saho each time but instead use it as the basis of training drills at full-speed.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Ashi sabaki - footwork

footwork diagram from Boston Kendo Kyokai

Footwork is the base of kendo. Without good footwork, you cannot get better in kendo.

Actually in Japanese ashi means leg as well as foot, so we could say it's called "leg-and-footwork". To have good ashi-sabaki, you must develop strong legs and feet. Personally I believe it is more important to have a strong lower body (which includes stomach, hips and lower back) than a strong upper body (chest, shoulders and arms). For this reason I strongly recommend cycling or running as important training for kendo development.

There are two main kinds of footwork as you know: ayumi ashi and okuri ashi. Both use a kind of suri-ashi or sliding action across the floor. As you know also, the heel is not used in kendo except at the moment of cutting. At that moment the footwork is called fumikomi ashi.

The left foot
The secret to achieving excellent footwork in kendo is the left foot. If you can bring the left foot up quickly to the start position, you will be ready more quickly to take the next step. The left foot is very much the driving force in propelling you forward. I think of it as having a rear-engined, rear wheel drive car, like a Porsche. The engine in the back drives you forwards.

When going backwards it becomes the right foot which drives you backwards. In both cases we say it is the trailing foot that is provides the power.

The left knee
When you face an opponent in kamae, the left knee is very important. In kendo it is said that, "wherever you point your left knee, that is where you will go". Therefore it is important, as you and your opponent move around in shiai or jigeiko, always to keep your left knee pointed at your opponent.

The left knee should be slightly bent, relaxed, but filled with power. A weak left knee will bend when your opponent applies pressure or seme. Bending the left knee when in kamae will cause you to lean backwards. This is what creates the appearance that you are being overwhelmed by your opponent, and indeed this is exactly what is happening!

Both knees should be slightly bent, relaxed and ready to move, but not about to buckle. In my own words I would say your knees should be "braced but not locked". Whether that makes sense to anyone else I'm not sure. This is a very difficult thing to explain and can only be learned through your own practice. However it is a good thing to think about.

Fumikomi ashi
This is an area that a lot of people have trouble with, even after they are confident with the rest of their footwork. However thinking through the basics and practicing them carefully will help you learn the correct way.

The secret is again the left leg and foot. With fumikomi ashi the main difficulty lies in smoothly linking the big fumikomi step with the continuous okuriashi steps of your zanshin. If you can quickly bring your left foot up, you will be able to stop yourself 'falling in a hole'. If you are having real difficulty over a long time with this, it may be because you are trying for too big a leap with your fumikomi. Go back to only doing short fumikomi and you will find it easy to link it with your zanshin. Then gradually lengthen your fumikomi until you can both cover a lot of ground and also follow through smoothly. Remember if you have been away from training you might need to go back to short fumikomi while you get your strength back.

Needless to say the right foot should never come very high off the ground and you should always strike the ground with the whole right foot flat when you do fumikomi ashi.