Saturday, March 21, 2009


Teramoto vs Takanabe in 2007 All Japan C'ships. Go here for the video of this men-uchi.
Photo by Tyler Rothmar

A lot of people new to kendo see more experienced kendoka and all they see is speed. "If I can move as fast as that then I'll be as good as them."

True, being able to move quickly is part of it, and that does come with practice. But there are many other aspects to what experienced kendoka do, more important than simple speed, that allow them to be effective.

How does one get faster? The most basic way is to be able to perform the techniques of kendo in a relaxed manner. This means not being tense in your muscles as you swing, or as you step. The tricky part is that in order to not be tense, you have to stop trying so hard to go fast.

Another way to become relaxed in your movements is to train them. A LOT. Do suburi until you can hardly lift the shinai, then you will know what it means to really relax. Go to a lot of different trainings and train hard: uchikomigeiko, kakarigeiko, again until you can hardly keep going.

Being able to perform the basics of kendo with a unified body also helps speed up your movements. Co-ordination is helped by using kiai, which both prepares the body and helps launch it.

気剣体一致 Ki-ken-tai-itchi: the kiai, the cutting action and the footwork together as one.

The real secret to how great kendoka are able to cut with such apparently blinding speed in this: perceiving the right opportunity or kikai. When your opponent finds an opening in your kamae, it may seem fast to you but to them it may be like they've got all the time in the world.

This comes only with much practice and experience, although most people with only a few years kendo experience will have had the occasional experience of what this is like. Though some people seem to be able to do it more easily than others, everyone can improve their ability in 'seeing' the openings.

Here is a simple diagram that shows some of the different moments of opportunity in kendo, and two different ways to refer to them.

(c) Ben Sheppard

Speed Game Test
And finally, here's a little online game for you to test and train your reflexes

Don't worry if your first few results are bad. If you practice you will get faster: relfexes are not set at birth (like height or other physical attributes) but respond to training. Apparently the absolute fastest anyone can be is 0.2 of a second...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The basics of ma-ai

Another important concept in kendo is ma-ai (pronounced with a short pause in the middle, or sometimes "mawai").

It is used a lot in the dojo by instructors and is usually translated simply to mean 'distance'.

Ma'ai between you and your opponent
This distance is broken down into three basic kinds:

1) to-ma: far distance, where there is a gap between your kensen (sword tip) and your opponent's [below]

2) issoku-itto-no-ma-ai: "one step-one cut distance", where the two shinai
are crossed just past the tip

3) chika-ma: close distance, where shinai are crossed at between one third and
one half of the way down the blade

In the beginning we need to use the shinai to measure the distance between ourselves and our opponent. Even with this very obvious 'measuring stick' it is still easy to lose track of the ma'ai during keiko and allow your opponent to get too close without realising.

With more experience one becomes more aware of ma'ai and in fact it is possible to develop very strong instincts where it becomes almost a sixth sense.

Ma'ai in the dojo
We always train in the dojo along the centreline, coming back to the centre after each drill before we sonkyo with our opponent and part. Developing instincts about where you are in the dojo: how close you are to the wall behind you, how close you are to your training partners next to you, and so on, these are important distances to become familiar with as well.

Before we even start training we need to be able to judge kyuho no ma'ai (nine steps distance) so that we can bow, take three steps in to sonkyo and know we will be in the right place. When we do kata, a sense of where we are in the dojo helps us to stay near the middle and not 'drift' to one side as we perform them in sequence.

In these cases we don't have the shinai to use as a measuring stick, but we do have the fact that we train in the same way over and over. This helps to hone our sense of where we are in the dojo at all times.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Metsuke means "gaze" and in kendo it means where you look during keiko. Metsuke not only helps you see what your opponent is doing or going to do, but it also gives your opponent information about you. Even if you feel scared on the inside, you should have a steady, confident gaze that doesn't give anything away to your opponent.

Suburi and kukan datotsu During suburi and kukan datotsu (practicing cutting and following through without a target) you should always imagine your opponent and look at where their eyes would be. In other words you shouldn't be looking at the ground. Occasionally look at your feet to check your footwork but other than that, look straight ahead.

This also applies to kyu gradings where you might be asked to perform techniques in front of the grading panel. Just look straight ahead at your opponent, not at the floor or the grading panel. This will give a very good impression.

Against an opponent
In this case you should look straight at your opponent. This shows confidence. If you look away or at the ground, your opponent will gain confidence because they know their presence is having a strong effect on you.

Many sensei say you should look directly at your opponent's eyes. Other sensei warn that looking at the eyes can be mesmerising and that you should look at the whole person from head to toe. As you practice you must think about what works best for you.

Metsuke and facial expressions
As I said above, metsuke can give your opponent important information about your state of mind, how you are feeling, and so on. The other thing that can give your opponent information about your state of mind is your facial expression.

Generally, people who pull exaggerated faces during keiko are not that scary. The most effective facial expression is just your natural, calm face. No matter what happens, your face stays serene. This is much more unsettling for an opponent than an angry war face. And it is much less tiring for you. If you have a calm face it helps you to stay calm, and this in turn helps you to observe your opponent, because you are not busy with trying to rev yourself up.

However if your are strongly intent on cutting your opponent, your calm face will naturally take on a piercing and intense quality, like the snow leopard above. She is not putting on an act. She really is intently focused.

Metsuke is a very important part of all Japanese swordsmanship and there has been a lot written about it over hundreds of years. I will leave it up to you to investigate further if you are interested.

Friday, March 6, 2009


picture (c) Richard Stonell

Uchikomigeiko is a drill where the motodachi shows various openings to the student or kakarite, who does their best to cut and follow through as quickly and as correctly as they can.

After a while, motodachi sometimes get lazy or forget their job, and they show the openings to the student before the student has entered ma'ai. This makes the student's job much easier and they can come into ma'ai recklessly and without stopping. This helps create the false feeling that the uchikomigeiko is flowing smoothly.

I say false because to enter ma'ai recklessly, just assuming or trusting that your opponent will show an opening is not good kendo strategy. Even when training fundamentals, we should be developing a sense of what really works.

The motodachi plays an important role here. They should always make the student seme strongly before showing them the opening. If the student ignores this, the motodachi should keep their shinai in the centre and allow the student to run onto the kensen (according to the experience of both partners, the strength of this mukaezuki should be modified, i.e. kyu grade motodachi may allow the kensen to touch their opponent's body but then should quickly remove it. Experienced motodachi can keep the kensen there and really stop their partner in their tracks, provided their partner has the experience to receive it properly). They will then get the message and be a bit more wary.

To find a balance between recklessness and waryness is what training in uchikomigeiko is all about. The student steps in and shows good seme, not knowing how their opponent might react, but ready for any opening. Being able to improve this kind of all-around readiness is the great benefit of uchikomigeiko.

Remember: to the casual observer uchikomigeiko should look like it is flowing, but to each of the two people doing it, there should be: 1) seme-> 2) opening-> 3) seeing the opportunity and taking it.