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