Friday, December 31, 2010

Cross-training 2: extra training

Members of the Butoku Washinkai who visited Nanseikan in Oct 2010,
practicing a special drill we use to develop upright posture. It was a lot of fun as you can see!

Cross-training is where you regularly do some other kind of exercise in order to help your main activity, in this case kendo. Usually it means doing something completely different such as weigh-training, running or swimming. However I think extra solo training in kendo movements such as suburi and footwork can also count as cross-training.

Why do cross-training?
In previous generations it is likely that people were, on average, physically stronger than we are now. They may have not lived as long due to poor diet and lack of modern medicine, but generally they would have done more physical exercise either because they walked more as transport, or they did more physical labour because they didn't have machines to help them. They also didn't have so much free-time.

In the case of Japanese people, they would have been very strong in their legs and lower body from sitting on the floor. A lifetime of sitting right down on the floor rather than half-way down onto chairs and couches can make a big difference. This is one of the reasons why kendo has evolved the way it has. There is a great emphasis on legs and feet in kendo, maybe because this was naturally a strong point of the Japanese. This difference has been noticeable even up until recently.

Different reasons for cross-training
  • Basic — If you find that your natural strength or energy levels are always being tested by kendo training, in other words, if training leaves you feeling wrecked, then it can be helpful to do some other kind of exercise to build up your basic fitness. This is for people who are fairly new to kendo and who maybe have not done any other sports or martial arts before.
  • Technical — Another reason may be to help with technical issues, such as using too much right hand when cutting. This kind of training uses kendo movements done by yourself to help develop strength and skill, e.g. left-hand only suburi to develop left hand and arm strength.
  • Elite — Lastly, if you are aiming to improve your level of kendo and feel you are ready for intensive training, such as if you are preparing for a high grading, or if you want to do well at a major competition. This kind of training is for people who are already quite fit and ready for kendo, but want to be even more powerful and be able to develop stamina to last for a greater length of time. This is kind of training is similar to that used by elite athletes.

Principles of cross-training
If you want to get really serious about cross-training there is a lot of info on the net such as Caleb linked to in his previous Shugo-Nanseikan article on cross-training.

In the meantime, here are some basic pointers as to what to consider before starting a regime.

(5-11 y.o.) Cross-training does not really help you if you are still in primary school.

(12-14 y.o.) If you are in year 7-9 then some cross-training can be useful, especially if you are a bit unfit and having trouble lasting until the end of training. But in general just regular attendance at training is enough. You may find that some basic training, or some technical training might be helpful.

(15 y.o. +) If you are in years 10-12 in high school or at university, all three kinds of training can be beneficial, depending on what your needs are. It is at this stage that elite training really becomes possible for the first time.

Working out a program - amount
Exactly what you choose to do depends completely on what you want to get out of your cross-training, your age and your current level of fitness and experience. This needs to be worked out between you, your sensei, and in some cases a qualified fitness consultant

In principle, someone with little fitness who is new to kendo does not need to do very much extra training to notice a big difference.

On the other hand, someone who is quite experienced and who is already quite fit will need to do a great deal more cross-training than the beginner in order to see a difference. However at this level, the difference between winning and losing is tiny, and almost entirely dependent on how much you train. There is an old saying used by sports coaches, "When two competitors of equal skill meet, the winner will be the one who has done the most training."

What to do?
This is a question that can only really be answered in talking with your sensei, however I have some personal guidelines that might be helpful.

One thing to keep in mind: it is necessary to exercise the right muscle groups. Exercising the wrong ones can have at best no effect and at worst, actually be bad for your kendo. For instance doing chin ups to make your arms stronger won't help your kendo as your biceps (muscles on the front of your upper arms) are not so important for swinging the shinai correctly. You might even start swinging your sword like Arnold Schwarzenegger—eurgh!

  • Lower body (legs, stomach and hips) - in my opinion, developing fitness in these areas is most important for most people. This is why all Nanseikan training starts with zokin. If you come to training you will know already what that is! Running (as Caleb mentions in his original post) is very good of course, as is cycling, my personal favourite. Other static exercises (ones you can do in one spot) like lunges and burpees are also very good, and there are many, many different kinds. Also swimming that focuses on kicking can develop overall leg strength. Finally, practicing ashi-sabaki (kendo footwork) in your own time is definitely good, as it develops the correct muscles.
  • Upper body (shoulders, arms, chest and back) - in my opinion the best upper body exercises are all based on kendo movements. Weights should only be used by those aged 16 and over. Free weights are best so that you swing them like a shinai. However shinai or suburi-to (extra heavy bokken) are best. Hand-grips are good for improving hand-strength but again, only for upper high school or uni students and older.
Non-strength training
So far all my cross-training tips have been to do with developing strength and/or fitness. But there are other kinds of less physcial cross-training you can do.
  • Meditation - helps to calm and focus the mind. The benefits of meditation are hard to describe, perhaps because they are a little bit different for everybody, but it is certainly very beneficial for kendo. If you do it, you don't have to do it for long. A solid 5 minutes is enough at first. But you must do it regularly. Every day, and at the same time each day, is excellent. Just do the same as mokuso. The aim is not to think about anything at all. If you find that hard (and you probably will!), try listening to every sound around you, no matter how small and hear the direction that it comes from.
  • Tai-Chi - this is an ancient form of Chinese exercise that is a bit like moving meditation done standing. The focus is on breathing and moving the whole body in harmony and the movements are based on kung-fu (or is Kung fu based on Tai Chi? I'm not sure... :D). Of course you need to have an instructor for this, but it is probably the single best martial art to cross-train in for kendo.
  • Yoga - is an ancient Indian form of exercise that's very popular and like Tai-Chi focuses on breathing and harmonious movement of the body into many different positions that stretch the muscles and stimulate energy. Again, you would need to go to separate classes for this.
  • Image training - this can be done anywhere and you don't need to go to separate classes for it! You simply imagine yourself doing the kind of kendo you want to do. A good way to start is think of someone whose kendo you admire and then imagine yourself as that person, doing that kendo. This is sometimes called visualisation. You might already do it and think of it as day-dreaming! Well it's pretty much the same thing.
So, a pretty long post, I hope you made it to the end. Happy cross-training!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Kiai 気合

気合 is a term used in a lot of Japanese martial arts. Ki is a difficult word to translate but it can mean both energy and also spirit. Ai means meeting or harmony. In kendo we usually think of kiai as being something to do with the voice, but that is not strictly what it means. Kiai is a form of communication with your opponent, letting them know your intention to give everything to the match. It is possible for kiai to be completely without sound.

The AJKF Kendo Dictionary defines kiai as:

"The state where one is fully focused on the opponent's move (sic) and one's planned moves. Also refers to vocalisations one produces when in such a state of mind."

So we do use our voice to express kiai but kiai is not just the voice. In Japanese the shout itself is called kakegoe 掛声. The voice is how we begin to understand kiai, using our shout very carefully and deliberately to show our intention. This is why we say ki-ken-tai-itchi is:
  • ki 気 (energy) = the shout
  • ken 剣 (sword) = the cut
  • tai 体 (body) = the right foot
  • itchi 一致 (as one) = happening together
Different kinds of kiai
There are different kinds of voiced kiai in kendo. They include:
  • kiai that tests your opponent
  • kiai that creates an opportunity
  • kiai that expresses your intention to cut
Kiai that tests your opponent
This is the kiai that you produce as soon as you stand up from sonkyo when in a match or keiko. It announces your resolve, your courage. In a sense it asks a question of your opponent: "Are you ready? Because I am!"

This kind of kiai is also used throughout the match as the two kenshi vie for supremacy from the distance of to-ma.

There are no set words or sounds for this kind of kiai. Everyone eventually develops their own sound with their own "words" (which of course aren't words at all). Often one's kiai will change over time, even after it has reached 'maturity'.

Kiai that creates an opportunity
The previous kiai can easily lead to this kind of kiai. There is an old school of naginata that has a specific word for this kind of voiced kiai, and that is yagoe 矢声, or "arrow-voice". It means sending your voice out like a weapon that strikes your opponent even before your attack does.

This kind of focused kiai is not an easy technique to achieve each and every time, but we could say it comes from a very powerful intention to overcome one's opponent. Usually the opportunity that such a kiai gives us to attack is extremely small, especially with experienced opponents, so there is no time to sit back and watch for their reaction. You step in with your body and your spirit, confident that you will overcome them, and then you attack with confidence immediately.

Kiai that expresses your intention to cut
This is the kiai that happens when you cut. It must be in unison with your cut and your body movement. It is either "MEN!", KOTE!", "DO!" or "TSUKI!"

In the beginning it can sometimes be difficult for shinpan (referees) to detect an inexperienced person's intention through their attitude, especially since kyu grade matches can become very messy. So it is necessary for the kiai of junior kenshi to be very clear as well. As they become more experienced it is easier to tell what their intended target was and whether they have achieved their aim, so this is when the actual sound of "men", "kote", etc, becomes a little blurry. It is not so necessary for a senior kenshi to pronounce the words properly, or even at all, for the shinpan to know when they have scored correctly.

However even if your kiai is not clear in terms of what it sounds like, I believe it should still be loud, it should be long and it should start at the moment of cutting, not after or before. Lately there has been a fashion for Japanese kenshi of university level (sometimes as high as police level) to produce their kiai quite a moment after their cut has been made. Personally I believe this is a kind of affectation and should not be imitated.

What is a good sound to make?
Apart from the names of the datotsubui (target areas), the best kiai sound I believe is "Yaaa!" With experience you will find a sound that fits, not your personality, but your body. But you will come up with it naturally. In the meantime, "Yaaa!" is a very good start. It is simple. It prepares your body for action. It can be projected easily and forcefully. And it doesn't mean anything embarrassing in any language that I know of!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Zanshin 残心

Zanshin translates as "remaining mind". In basic terms its kendo meaning is follow-through. Zanshin in its fundamental form means moving forwards after completing one’s attack and hence passing by one’s opponent, then at a safe distance quickly turning and taking up kamae ready to continue, regardless of the success or failure of one’s previous actions.

In other words, you follow through the same whether your cut scores or not. It is the readiness to follow-through both with your body and your mental attitude.

Zanshin is a natural by-product of one’s commitment to, and momentum from, the attack. It cannot be added if/when one sees one’s attack has been successful. If you do try to add it on after you've seen that your attack worked, then it only shows that the attack itself was a fluke.

Kiai in the form of a sustained, powerful voice should be used to assist zanshin:


Zanshin is expressed in the Bokuto Kihon not as follow through, but as a mindful drawing back to distance, maintaining focus on the opponent by keeping the kensen pointed at their throat. Your threat is not lowered until you return to kamae.

Zanshin is expressed in Nihon Kendo no Kata in various ways appropriate to the techniques employed in each kata: sometimes following through (sanbonme, nanahonme), sometimes drawing back (gohonme), sometimes taking a new kamae such as jodan (ipponme, ropponme).

Zanshin and sutemi are inextricably linked. Your commitment to your attack results in a momentum that cannot be stopped and must be expressed somehow. This expression is zanshin. It also can refer to a kind of "situational awareness". This is a term used in Military and Law Enforcement training to describe a mind that in always alert for danger.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Seme - overview

Seme 攻め means to attack, in the sense of 'to storm a castle'. When I was first learning kendo it was translated as 'pressure', that you put pressure on your opponent. I think it is that too, but it is more than just pressure.

How does it work?
I have spoken about seme a few times in different articles, and very often in the dojo. It is one of those things that is easy to talk about but hard to put into practice!

Seme is a force which creates the opportunity for you to strike your opponent.

Seme does not happen accidentally, it happens because you make it happen. In English we usually say that someone 'creates seme'.

You create seme by convincing your opponent that you are about to do something that they will not be able to stop.

So you have to be able to threaten your opponent convincingly. There are several ways that can happen. The first group are physical threats:
  • you threaten them with your size
  • you threaten them with your speed
  • you threaten them with your appearance (how you look in their eyes)
  • you threaten them with your kiai
  • you threaten them by closing distance
  • you threaten them by knocking their shinai off-line
  • you threaten them with your attacks
There are also non-physical threats, known generally as kizeme 気攻 which are much more subtle and come mostly through experience. These are outside the range of this article. However in principle they have a lot to do with knowing your opponent and being able to stifle their plans, creating a sense of threat with little or no physical movement on your part.

But to return to the physical actions above, let's look at them one-by-one.

Threaten with your size
This is easier for big people because they are used to seeing others react to their size all the time in everyday life, but it is still possible for everyone to create a sense of size to their kendo. To do this you need:
  • good posture, so that you are as tall as possible
  • a well-shaped men, to create an imposing shape
  • well-looked after dogi, especially a hakama that is straight and the right length
  • self-confidence
  • the feeling that you are looking down on your opponent, even if they are taller
  • an enormous kiai – there are no height limitations to this!
Threaten with your speed
Of course this works for people who are naturally fast, but speed is not just how quick you move, it is whether you can move before your opponent. It means being first by seeing the opportunity to act before your opponent does. Everyone can improve their speed by:
  • regular suburi at home
  • other exercise, especially for the lower body like running, bike riding or soccer
  • getting to the dojo before training and being ready at the designated start time (not arriving at the designated start time and being ready 10mins later)
  • being first to understand instructions and act on them
  • being first person to put on men and be ready in line
  • being first to do keiko with sensei or experienced visitors
Threaten with your appearance
This relates closely to 'size', and many of the points are similar. If you have clean and well-maintained bogu and dogi (including tenugui that is washed and ironed before each training) you will make an impression on your opponent as someone they should take seriously. The way you act when not training is also important: no chit-chat during training (before and after yes, during - no.), no chewing gum, no leaning, no sitting down with legs outstretched, no leaning against the walls or furniture, etc, etc.

When fighting, your face gives away a lot about you and your intentions. Keep a calm and emotionless face – it's more threatening and less tiring than a war-face.

Always keep the best posture you can. Pull your chin in, shoulders down and back, tilt your pelvis back slightly, weight even on both feet, glide lightly across the floor. The way you stand should show a sense of grace and dignity. It will make you seem tall, whether you are or not.

Threaten with your kiai
When each keiko starts, you must begin with your best kiai. This is the first waza (technique) of any keiko.

Over time, your kiai will naturally become stronger, more impressive. This is not just about how loud you are but about your character. You kiai tells your opponent that you will never give up, and that you are confident in your abilities. It is an upward spiral – your kiai will also give you that confidence. As you say it, at that very moment it becomes the truth.

Threaten by closing distance
Being the first to close the distance to your striking distance (uchima) is the way we train basics (kihon) at our club. From far distance (to-ma), step confidently in to striking range (uchima) and kiai "YAAA!". Then cut men and follow through. This is our normal sequence.

So this closing of distance should be familiar. The main points are:
  • do not step in unless you have a strategy
  • step in with utmost confidence and decisiveness always
  • always aim to step in straight and take control of the centre-line (chushin). Never go around your opponent's kensen!
  • step in and quickly come to a position from where you are balanced, ready, and can strike. This means stepping in without crossing your feet.
  • bring your back foot into position with lightning speed
When the tip of your sword crosses that of your opponent, it is like invading another country. Be ready to go all the way to the capital city and capture it decisively without hesitation, then you will have conquered your enemy competely!

Threaten by knocking their shinai off-line
This is not just a technique for creating an opening, it can also be research into your opponent's mindset and how they react. Do they flinch? Do they start to attack as an automatic reaction? Is their grip weak or strong?

Done at the right moment and with enough tenouchi, a slap of the shinai can also have a strong psychological effect, worrying or distracting your opponent enough that they forget their strategy for a moment. It can be done with or without kiai, with or without fumikomi. But it should be done no more than about twice in any keiko or shiai. It must always have a purpose—either to create an opening to attack straight away (as in harai waza) or to observe your opponent's reactionotherwise it becomes a sign not of your confidence but of your nervousness.

Threaten with your attacks
This is what it all comes down to – will you follow through with your threats?

"OK", says your opponent to themselves, "they look confident and they sound pretty loud. Are they really that tough? Oh, they've stepped in to range... what are they going to do about it?"

If your opponent is thinking that way, this is good. But if they get to have that whole last thought, then you haven't acted, but have just stood there looking impressive when actually you're just a paper tiger. Pretty soon your opponent will know they can control and dominate you mentally without too much trouble. No matter what you do to try to create seme, it won't have any effect, because it carries no threat. They know that nothing's going to happen. This is where seme becomes difficult.

This is how it should sound in your opponent's mind:

"OK. They look confident and they sound pretty loud. Are they really that tough? Oh, they've stepped in to range... wha--"


Just as they start to wonder, you cut off that thought with your attack. Even if it doesn't score, you've now got them on the back foot. They know you will attack if you need to, that your seme has a real threat to it, and that you are now controlling their thought process, not the other way around.

This is the beginnings of seme.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Sumi sensei seminar notes - 23 Oct 2010


Kendo Seminar
with Sumi Masatake sensei
hosted by Mumeishi Kendo Club Australia

23 October 2010
Kenshikan, Melbourne


First session

Suburi training method

To avoid excessive lever action being applied during suburi, start practice with hands together on the tsuka near the tsuba.

Practice –

• joge-buri
• naname-buri with hiraki ashi
• renzoku sho-men
• renzoku sayu-men with hiraki ashi
• hayasuburi

Then repeat this sequence of suburi styles with hands in normal position on tsuka.

Kihon practice
(men o tsuke)

1. Start by practicing cutting men with no follow through. Stop at fumikomi. This practices balance and posture.

2. Then change to cutting and following through to tsubazeriai but no taiatari, just come to a point of touching opponent’s kote in tsubazeriai. After 3 times, on the last time follow through as normal.

3. Next, cut men and follow through but opponent retreats, remaining in front of you. The opponent then does the technique. One for one. “Endless!”

4. Next is men and coming in to taiatari. Practice one for one also. “We must remember to do these step-by-step…” (increasing in difficulty with each drill, the last one the hardest).

Repeat steps 1—4 this time focusing on kote.

After cutting kote come to taiatari, but be sure to bring shinai back to omote (right) side of opponent’s shinai when in tsubazeriai. This allows you to keep your hips straight on to your opponent, and allows you to effectively control their shinai.

Repeat steps 1–4 with do. Think of do as being up-down, same as men and kote, not up and around-and-down.

Next, practice men-kaeshi-do, starting by cutting and moving to the left of your opponent using hiraki ashi, no follow through. Then practice men-kaeshi-do stepping away to the right, hiraki ashi, no follow through.

Kiri kaeshi - Sumi style

Perform kirikaeshi to this patterm with no follow through.

Men ------------------------→taiatari, 5 x sayumen (cutting on the spot)
last men cut and draw back to distance


Men ----------------------→ follow through

Do sequence in one breath.

Try increasing to 7 x sayumen in one breath


This sequence of drills looks at seme and it’s application to shikake waza (attacking waza).
1. From to-ma, close distance to your issoku itto no maai (IIM). Then from there, seme.

2. Seme with either you head or your front foot in order to create a change in your opponent’s mind and posture.

3. Then attack with the whole body: sutemi 捨て身 (“sacrifice everything”) .

This is the basic practice of seme. It is an ideal situation, not the reality of a match.

Hikiwaza based seme exercise:

1. Both sides cut men (ai-men),

2. one side does hiki waza – either hiki men, kote or do, whichever they prefer.

3. Then both sides come back into IIM, look for the opportunity, and attack.

The important aspect of this exercise is to continue kiai all the way from the hikiwaza through the final technique. “Don’t cut your spirit!”

(NOTE: This exercise was quite tricky for many people because it appears that one person is the motodachi but in fact both are participating equally. Steps (1) and (2) are simply a way of creating a higher level of anticipation and energy prior to the actual seme exercise. In particular it is important for the two kendoka to examine the difference in the intensity of their preparation before the cut, whether they are the one who has done the hiki waza or the other one who has not. The one who has done the hiki waza should have a slight edge in terms of their preparation and energy level, which their opponent must be careful either to match or exploit in some way).

For the first set of this hikiwaza based exercise, the final attack should be just men.

For the second set, use any target.

Third set should be ni-san dan waza. Don’t just choose conventional combinations like kote-men, kote-do, etc, but explore less common variations such as men-kote, tsuki-men, tsuki-kote, etc

Fourth set should finish with a perfect* attack.

Next, the whole sequence can be repeated starting with both sides striking kote instead (ai-gote).

*Sumi sensei means that after starting with the most simple variation, then building up to very complex ones, to come back to executing an ideal waza, but one which now has a greater intensity and realism as a result of the dynamic drills completed just prior. This is a basic principle of his teaching method.


This sequence of drills looks at seme and ojiwaza (counter-attacking waza).

Starting at tsubazeriai:

1. perform hiki waza of your choice

2. offer men to your opponent (should include a small seme step in)

3. counter attack with oji waza of your choice

“Hiki waza. Stop. And then invite—step in, and keep balance!”

Second variation, repeat steps (1) to (3) but offer kote instead and counter to kote.

These oji waza drills starting with hiki waza work on the same principle as the previous seme drills focusing on shikake waza: to examine the way that intensity, preparation and initiative vary between opponents according to the situation. Always starting drills from a static position allows you to train only an ideal kind of waza, whereas a more dynamic starting point allows you to train for not only more realism but also how to capitalise on, or neutralise the ascendancy

Kirikaeshi – Sumi style

Men -----------→ taiatari then 3 x men


back to distance

men -----------→ opponent absorbs

Change over.

When receiving, block only one or two of opponent’s cuts randomly. If opponent does not strike your men properly, they must repeat the sequence.


Tsubazeriai is performed with the tsubas locked together.

Like this…

Not this way…

Performed correctly, tsubazeriai allows you to stifle attacks on both omote and ura sides of your shinai.

Second session

Bokuto Kihon

Sumi sensei led the team that devised the Bokuto ni yoru kihon waza keiko ho, or “Sequence for practicing basic technique via use of the wooden sword”. Sumi sensei calls this “Bokuto kihon” for short. The basic nine kata should be familiar to most by now.

While this exercise is usually done without bogu and using the bokuto it can also be practiced with the shinai and using full bogu. In this case, full contact is made when performing the exercises, including tsuki.

Opening rei for bokuto kihon with shinai:

1. Rei and Sonkyo as normal
2. Kamaete
3. Kamae o toku (lower the sword in the ‘truce’ position as for kata)
4. One, large step back.
5. Kamaete

For kihon ichi, take care to observe that each cut has a different starting distance.

You must be careful to come to the correct distance for the next technique of kihon ichi when finishing the previous one.

Motodachi receives kote but lifting their kensen straight up.

"Fast backswing is important for a correct cut.
A fast backswing leads to completing a cut in a single movement ('ichibyoshi')"

When receiving kihon ni, ni-san dan no waza (kote-men), motodachi receives kote lifting straight up, then steps back and pushes kensen down to point at four o’clock so as to receive men on the omote side. Motodachi should have a brisk rhythm, not

“kote....... men”


“kote, men”

Motodachi, when receiving kihon san, harai waza: after crossing swords and making ‘mind contact’, then looses power in their kamae so harai can take place. Harai-men should be one action not two.

Kihon yon, nuki do: the footwork for the nuki do is not just sideways but diagonally forwards. Backswing for the cut only needs to be in front of your own face (not above your head), then the feeling is cutting forward, with a feeling of “throwing off” or casting the kensen forwards.

Kihon go, hiki do: kakarite strikes men, motodachi blocks (similar to kirikaeshi), then both step into tsubazeriai (see diagram above). Kakarite pushes down on motodachi’s tsuba and then cuts do.

Kihon roku, suriage men: suriage kote handwork is forwards, footwork is backwards.

Kihon nana, debana waza: Motodachi lifts straight up to receive kote.

Kihon hachi, kaeshi do: important to consider that kaeshi is not blocking but that kaeshi and cut are a single movement.



“Kaeshi. Do.”

Kihon kyu, uchiotoshi do: kakarite must use feet to change direction of hips when receiving motodachi’s do attack.

You can also do Bokuto Kihon as uchikomigeiko. Use continuous kiai and suriashi, (but no follow through).


Jigeiko contains many different forms of practice. When doing jigeiko against motodachi for instance, jigeiko should start as gokakugeiko, or practice between equals. This means the motodachi fights the student with complete intensity and both try to find the opening by unbalancing their opponent.

After a short time, the motodachi will change the training to either hikitate-geiko (training where they try and draw the best techniques from the student) or kakarigeiko (repetitive attacking practice).

Kakarigeiko should not be attacking willy-nilly, but creating a connection before attacking with sutemi.

Jigeiko format – Sumi style

1. Standing up from Sonkyo, student gives a big kiai.
2. Motodachi responds with their own big kiai.
3. Student kiais .
4. Motodachi kiais
5. Student gives a final big kiai and then cuts men following through
6. Student does five men following through
7. On the last men, student comes to taiatari
8. Student cuts sayu men five times on the spot. Motodachi blocks and also receives on their men randomly. If student misses on of the strikes to motodachi’s men, must repeat that sequence.
9. After last cut student draws back to distance.
10. Repeat steps (7) (8) and (9)
11. Student cuts men following through.
12. Student and motodachi commence jigeiko.

These notes are an incomplete record of the day’s instruction. Any errors or omissions are my own. b

Monday, September 13, 2010

Solo training: variety

One of the most important ways for really developing your kendo is the training you do by yourself. This training falls into two main categories: fitness training and technical training. With either kind, the thing that will keep you doing it is variety. Solo training can get boring, so it's important to work out how to give yourself some variety to keep it interesting.

Sometimes that variety can be quite a small change, but it might be enough to help you reach the end of the routine you have set for yourself. Let me give an example.

You have set yourself a target of 500 hayasuburi everyday. OK so 500 all at once is maybe a bit tough in the beginning. What do you do? Do you say, "oh that's too hard, I think I'll update my Facebook profile instead"? Of course not.

Start with a small amount, e.g. 50 hayasuburi.
Have a short break and then another 50.
OK, now you're feeling good, you've got some energy back. The next 50 will be easy... But at around 39-40 you really start to struggle. Don't get discouraged!
Now break them up.
Do 20 shomen, 10 sayumen and 20 shomen...
Done! Easy.

That little bit of variety helps distract your mind from thinking about getting tired. Instead, even as silly as it sounds, you can look forward to the change from straight cuts to diagonal cuts. I guarantee you'll finish the set much less tired, and looking forward to the next one.

So instead of doing your suburi with thoughts in your head like, "oh man! this is so hard!", you do them thinking, "Ok only 10 more then I can change." Negative thoughts tend to tire you as much as the physical exercise itself. Probably more so. Positive or neutral thoughts allow you to just do what is necessary.

My pattern is to count in sets of 20. That means I think of 100 suburi as being not 100 movements but 5 sets. If I think I only have to do 5 rather than 100, already that makes it seem easier.

Then I think of them as being one set straight, one set diagonal, one set straight, one set diagonal, one set straight. So three sets straight and two sets diagonal. Thinking of it as 3 and 2 is even less than 5! Even though I still end up doing 100 suburi and my brain knows exactly what I'm doing, it's still possible to "trick" myself into thinking the exercise is easy rather than hard.

So either 100 (sounds hard!).

Or 5 sets of 20 (sounds much easier!)

Or 3 sets and 2 sets (easiest of all!)

Try this yourself and let me know how it goes. Let me know what patterns and variety you end up thinking for yourself. b

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Make your own isotonic sports drink

Antioxidant balls growing on a tree.*
Save yourself money, plastic bottles and being ripped off by big business!
OK, so what's this got to do with kendo? Plenty. As the northern hemisphere swelters through a hot summer you'll be needing a good way to rehydrate. Here it will be our turn soon enough!
At the Kitamoto Summer School for Kendo it's nothing for some people to lose up to 7 kg of their body weight in the course of a day's training. As 1 litre of water weighs 1 kg, that's 7 litres if water coming out as sweat!
Of course water is good for rehydration, and 麦茶 (mugi-cha or cold barley tea) is great, but both do pass through your system quite quickly. Isotonic sports drinks have been shown to re-hydrate the body more effectively through the addition of electrolytes. The theory, as far as I understand it, is that the addition of these electrolytes (i.e. salts) encourages the body to retain a higher percentage of fluids. In other words you don't go to the toilet as much!
Years ago I heard a story that athletes at the 2004 Olympics in Athens were responding to the extreme heat and shortage of sports drinks by emptying sachets of salt into their water bottles. Whenever I buy a sports drink I always feel ripped off at how little 'content' there is. Basically water, sugar and salt. And for that you pay a premium for the privilege of adding another plastic bottle into the recyclosphere.
Recently I was bed-ridden with a bad case of gastro. My wife bought me some bottles of sports drink and I had time to read the label. This New Zealand-made brand was thoughtful enough to list all of them in detail (Australian labelling laws allow for the use of substitute code-numbers). From that, and some trial and error of my own, I came up with this recipe. Fine tune it to your own taste and save a fortune!
Ben's isotonic wonder drink (makes 750ml)
2-4 heaped teaspoons of sugar
3 drops apple cider vinegar
EDIT: the tip of a teaspoon of salt
1 tbs lemon juice (or lime, orange, mandarin, etc, or any combination)
hot and cold water
Dissolve the dry ingredients in 1/2 cup hot water. Then add vinegar and lemon juice. You can experiment with honey instead of sugar if you prefer. Add remaining cold water. Voila!

You know you have right amount of salt if there is an extra taste of something but not actual saltiness. Basically it tastes like a sports drink.

As you can see there is indeed very little 'content'. It's 99.something% water. The electrolytes are just sodium chloride, a.k.a. salt. The secret ingredient is the vinegar. The right amount helps to combine the taste of the salt and the sugar, making them palatable without the vinegar being noticeable itself.

This drink contains everything the commercial drinks contain:
  • carbohydrates (sugar),
  • electrolytes (salt),
  • antioxidants, Vitamin C (a.k.a. lemon juice)
—everything except for one thing, the added B-group vitamins. And there's an easy way around that, just eat a Vegemite sandwich with your drink! b

* (Yes, they're just lemons really).

Friday, July 9, 2010

Is kendo fake?

The answer is yes, absolutely.

Kendo is not real swordsmanship. It is an art based on swordsmanship.

If that sounds harsh then let me say that kendo is to fighting for life-and-death with real swords what a Van Gogh painting of sunflowers is to real sunflowers. It is not the real thing, but it is a wonderful substitute, a work of genius.

Van Gogh, Vase with Fourteen sunflowers

Let's go back a bit...
Before kendo, some styles of swordsmanship used sparring with bokken, or with early shinai. Some developed armour. But most did not.

When Japan opened up to the West in 1868, many teachers of swordsmanship fell onto hard times. Japanese culture was out, Western culture was cool, and not many people wanted or needed to learn how to fight with swords. (Later there would even be Imperial decrees banning first the wearing of the samurai topknot, and then the wearing of swords in public).

So a man named Sakakibara Kenkichi (sitting down on the right in the picture above) organised exhibition matches between different styles of kenjutsu using armour and shinai. Even though the styles used different techniques, some common ground could be found. Perhaps it was like a kenjutsu version of the UFC... These exhibition matches drew large crowds and for a while made enough money for some of the participants to eke out a modest living. For that reason alone, many other teachers of swordsmanship looked down on these competitions, called gekken kogyo, as crass commercialisation. But after a while the people grew tired of them and they closed down. What no-one realised then was that a new artform had been born.

Is kendo some kind of WWE?
Kendo has its origins in the entertainment industry as much as on the battlefield. But that was only for a short time. It left the world of vaudeville and entertainment behind. Something new had been created, a way of testing the effectiveness of sword techniques in a non-lethal setting, and in a standardised way.

Some senior teachers of swordsmanship were still troubled by the fact that Japan's sword heritage – all the knowledge and skill amassed over centuries – would be lost. They applied to the Education Department to have this new artform, gekken (later to be called kendo), made an official part of the high school curriculum. Eventually they succeeded. At around the same time the Imperial Police force was having trouble with several rebellions by disgruntled samurai who didn't like the way Japan was headed. It was decided that as a result all police would need sword training as well.

To this day, high school and universities on the one hand, and the police force on the other, are the places were kendo is practiced most intensely in Japan.

It is sometimes said that kendo turned a way of death into a way of life, but perhaps it also produced something real from something fake. b

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Intention: the difference between kendo and pillow-fighting

One of the most important things about kendo is intention. You can't score a point if the shinpan think that you accidentally hit the target area. An intention is an aim or plan. You have a plan to do something then you carry it out. In kendo there are no accidental cuts. We would say that all cuts in kendo must be deliberate, which means something done consciously and intentionally; fully considered, not impulsive.

Why is it so important?
Without intention, kendo would become wild and chaotic. There would be no need to train because a beginner would be just as likely to score with a 'fluke' shot as would a more experienced person. This would make kendo about as meaningful as a pillow fight: lots of fun for a short time, but not something you would spend your life studying.

How do you show intention?
In kendo there are several ways we show intention:
  1. yelling the name of the target area when we strike
  2. co-ordinating the timing of the right foot, strike and kiai
  3. following through without hesitation
One of the ways that the rules of kendo guarantee our cuts were intended is that these three aspects must take place together. When this happens we say there is yuko datotsu, or the requirements for a valid strike. In a competition this leads to being awarded ippon.

But what are the nuts and bolts of 'intention'?

捨て身 Sutemi or to "sacrifice yourself" is an important kendo concept. It means that once you have made up your mind what you are going to do that you throw everything into your attack; holding nothing back in reserve, not even the slightest shred of doubt or desire to protect yourself from any counter attack. This is how we practice kendo until the level of about 3rd dan, with great vigour and energy, not worrying too much about anything but our own commitment to our attacks. From 4th dan onwards, a different approach is required, but one that requires a solid basis in training with sutemi in order to be successful.

Katte utsu
勝って打つ Katte utsu or "win first, then strike" means that you should create the opening in your opponent's defenses before cutting. It also means not having a strategy of just charging headlong at your opponent with a barrage of attacks and hoping that one of them gets through. Katte utsu is not something we can achieve every time. It is something to strive for, like mushin, and sometimes we get a glimpse of what it means in practice.

Katte utsu
is a direct contradiction of sutemi and seems to cancel it out, but kendo we know is full of paradoxes. Katte utsu requires the ability to apply convincing seme (attacking pressure, threat) to your opponent in order to make them hesitate. Without a solid grounding in the practice of sutemi, which you could call "the ability to attack 100% no matter the odds", your seme will lack sufficient threat and your opponent will not be put off. When your seme does have this authority then you will be able to control your opponent.

It should be mentioned that you will naturally find you can apply katte utsu against those less experienced than you most easily, those with the same experience only sometimes, and those with greater experience almost never. From 4th dan onwards, katte utsu should become central to your kendo, replacing sutemi but still informed by it. And even if you are a long way off reaching 4th dan, it may be helpful to know a little of what lies ahead.

Intention means having a plan of what you want to do. Obviously in kendo it is then necessary to put that plan into action. In the beginning you might be happy to seize opportunities that come about by themselves. In English this is called being opportunistic. But as you progress, you learn how to make those opportunities happen. In effect you are no longer a passenger in the car, you are now the driver who decides which way to go.

This article has been a brief look at the idea of intention as it applies to kendo, and some methods of applying it. However it is a very subtle idea and requires practice and your own research in order to understand it for yourself. b

Monday, June 21, 2010

Kendo strategy 3 - the scientist

To recap what I spoke about last Saturday, here are some thoughts to take with you into next weeks shiai at Melbourne Uni.

How is it that some people enjoy shiai and some do not? Recently we had a woman named Christina training in Melbourne. She is from Europe and in her country she is national women's champion. She is also a scientist. That fact got me thinking about why she might be so good at shiai: perhaps she looks at shiai like science. Rather than feel like she always has to win, maybe she thinks instead that she always must collect data, information. A scientist never expects every experiment to work. Most of them fail. But every experiment tells the scientist something important, even the failures. In that way there really are no failed experiments, they are all useful.

This is the way we should look at shiai. Be curious about finding out information about your opponent. If something doesn't work, make a note of that and then try something else. If you can have this open-minded approach, you will be able to perceive a lot more about the situation. On the other hand if you are only interested in trying not to lose you will become fearful and nervous. You will get tunnel vision and may miss opportunities. You will also tire more quickly.

You can either see the world like this:

Or like this:

Be like a scientist. Be curious. Be logical. Always look for the most up-to-date information to help you make your decisions. I think this is the more enjoyable way of approaching shiai. b

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Why is kendo called kendo?

This is a Nihonto (日本刀), a Japanese sword.

image (c) Miyako Budogu

刀 means sword. This character is also pronounced katana.

This is a ken 剣. It's a Chinese sword.

This kind of sword is used in Tai Chi Chuan.

You can see that it's a straight sword and that its handle is only big enough for one hand. It is also double-edged, not single-edged like a katana. Not very much like the swords we use is it?

So why are we learning kendo 剣道 and not todo 刀道?

Well as far as I can work out, there are two main reasons.

In English, if we want to refer to something in general, we can say "a sword". However if we want to talk about something specific, we can say "the sword". Japanese does not have "a" and "the" like English does. We say "Do you own a sword?" and "Yes, the sword over there is my sword." In Japanese you would say, "Sword have?" and the answer would be "Over there's sword is", or more simply, "Hai."

This is all well and good if talking about concrete objects: actual swords. But what if you want to talk about the epitome of all swords, an abstract, ideal or conceptual sword? In English we solve this by using capital letters. We talk about the swords we use in kendo, and then we talk about The Way of the Sword. Notice how both "Way" and "Sword" have a capital letter. This means we are talking about not just any old way, not just any old sword. Japanese does not have any capital letters so they have to find another way to talk about the 'mother of all swords', if I can put it like that!

China's is a much older culture than Japan's, and China gave Japan so much: writing, tea, Buddhism, etc, etc, etc. The Japanese therefore feel deep down that China is, in many ways, the source of things. This is much the same as how European cultures think of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. When people want to describe something almost beyond words in English, they might use Latin or Greek to explain it.

So the Japanese refer to a sword that came from China, a very old design, maybe older than Japan itself: something from the mists of time, almost magical.

Most Japanese would think of this fellow when they think of someone wielding a ken.
His name is Fudo Myo-o and he is one of the Buddhist protector deities.
His ken is used not used to kill things, since he is a Buddhist, but rather to "cut off delusive thoughts"
which means thoughts that are silly or a waste of time.

A to/katana is something you use in battle, a real thing you can hold in your hand. But to the Japanese, a ken is an idea, a myth, something that exists only in the mind. This is perhaps why we call the Way of the Sword kendo, and not todo. Ken is how you say "the Sword" with a capital "S", in Japanese.

So to recap: 刀 is a sword.

剣 is the Sword.

This is one reason.

The other reason is much briefer and I came across it today in a new book. At the end of the book the author, Mr Toshinobu Sakai, says that with the double-edged sword:

"One blade edge points towards the enemy, and the other edge always at the internal Self."

By that he means that the ken reminds us that the sword has a dual purpose: we must try and defeat our opponent, but we should also try and improve ourselves, always. b

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Welcoming an attack

irasshaimase! (welcome!)

Yesterday we practiced oji-waza (counter-attacking techniques) and in particular different kinds of nuki-waza (escaping/evading techniques). The waza we practiced were men-nuki-men, men-nuki-kote, and men-nuki-do.

First we practiced the timing and distance against a suburi-style straight men cut with no follow through. Then we practiced against an opponent who was trying to cut a conventional men-uchi with follow-through. This second exercise required us to use seme (attacking pressure) to induce our opponent to cut men.

In the beginning it was hard to perform the seme and then wait for the opponent to start their attack. Most people did the seme and then rushed, willy-nilly, straight into performing nuki waza. This caused their counter-attack to fail because it was too early, or occasionally it succeeded but was so early that it became debana waza (forestalling techniques). Of course there is nothing wrong with scoring using debana waza in a match. But during training we are trying to perfect all our waza, not just repeat the things we are good at.

With practice it became easier to induce the opponent's attack using seme, then with courage, allow them to start their attack and choose the right moment to evade and counter with nuki waza. The important thing here was having the courage to let the opponent attack, then use footwork to evade their attack while staying in a good position to deliver the counter-attack.

It is important to remember that we can't stop our opponent from attacking us, but by welcoming (迎え - mukae) their attack and observing what they do, we can easily counter any attack.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Kuzushii 崩

Don't worry, everyone was evacuated before it fell.

There is a word for what high level kendoka do to create an opening, and that is kuzushii. It is often translated as unbalance, or unsettle, but it can also mean demolish, give way, break, cave in, etc. It's a very cool looking kanji as well, made up of a mountain sitting on top of two moons.

Exactly how you create this kuzushii in your opponent is what kendoka spend their lives studying. But I think the image of something like the picture above happening inside your opponent is a good one to have. b

Monday, March 15, 2010

Shikake waza and centre

Why a broom? Well, harai means 'sweep'...

Shikake waza are the techniques in kendo where you attack your opponent before they move. Usually this means moving their shinai off the centre-line (chushin) first. We recently practiced the main shikake waza:

Harai - usually a "J"-shaped sweeping movement from below.
Ose - pushing down on your opponent's shinai from on top with the feeling of "riding" it.
Makiotoshi - a spiralling movement of your shinai that finishes by flinging your opponent's shinai into the ground.
Uchiotoshi - striking down strongly on your opponent's sword from above.

All these waza can be done on both sides, omote (forehand) and ura (backhand).

This is what they look like, but how do we make them actually work?
To be effective the following points need to be kept in mind:
  1. In the case of harai and uchiotoshi, you should use the monouchi (top 1/3 of the shinai) to strike with, and you should strike your opponent's sword around the halfway point or even closer to their tsuba.
  2. In the case of ose and makiotoshi, your sword should not make contact with just one part of the opponent's sword but should slide along it, getting closer to their tsuba as you do the technique.
  3. In all these shikake waza, your body should be moving towards your opponent as you are doing the technique.
  4. Most importantly, and as Fujiwara sensei noted, your own sword should stay close to (or immediately come back to) chushin once the waza is finished and just prior to the cut.
Why come back to centre before the cut? Shouldn't I just do the waza and then cut?
Many people, especially beginners make the mistake of making a large movement that takes their shinai off the centre-line so that it ends up pointing at the ceiling or the wall. They then have to bring their sword back in line before they can cut correctly, or worse, cut from an off-line position so that their technique becomes wild and undisciplined.

If you concentrate on bringing the tip of your shinai back in line with your opponent's throat as soon as you finished any shikake waza, you give yourself the best chance of then being able to make use of the opening you have created.

The feeling is a bit like how you have learned to snap your left foot into place as quickly as possible. So you should have the feeling of snapping the kensen (tip of your sword) back to the centre line as soon as possible.

When do I use these different waza?
If you go to this post on Shugo-Nanseikan from a while back, you will find some of the different situations when particular shikake waza are most useful.