Sunday, October 29, 2017

Tying up the elbows for better technique

Yesterday we did an interesting exercise that carries on from my thinking about Kendo, geometry and robots.

We tried tying our arms together with old himo (laces) above the elbow and then performing kihon men. As you can see from the pictures, students were told to tie their arms together quite tightly. Tight enough so that some of the kids complained of discomfort. One was even prompted to exclaim, "Oh, my precious elbows!" which is about the second best thing I've ever heard said in the dojo.

But interestingly there was very little impact on people's ability to perform basic men cuts. Both from my observations, and also from self-reporting after the exercise. Most students reported either no difficulty with their technique or an improvement in their technique. Why?

The reason I believe is excessive flexion of the elbows, a common beginners' mistake that makes accuracy and consistency more difficult. Elbow flexion increases the overall tendency of the shinai to be able to veer and wooble through the air unpredicably. After all, the more joints you have, the more movement possibilities you have. Using the sword correctly however requires fewer movement possibilities, so reducing the number of joints involved in the action from six to four logically improves accuracy. Severely restricting the ability of the elbows to move during the cutting action shows the student how little their elbows contribute to the performance of an effective men cut.

Now there are many ways to skin a cat, and I know of experienced kenshi who use the elbows to great effect in their kihon waza. The key word here is experienced. Also, as I mentioned in training yesterday, the very vertical, up-down cutting action that Kendo employs, based as is it on Itto Ryu, is not the only way to use the sword. Tatsumi Ryu and Katori Shinto Ryu for example, both use cutting actions that are circular rather than linear as the basis of their kihon uchi.

However in the context of a Kendo club that teaches fundamentals to a wide range of ages and abilities, the desire is to find the most effective, efficient and easy-to-understand way of using the shinai, that nonetheless still matches the logic of using an actual sword (刀法 - toho). I think that this exercise is a great way forward in this respect.

If you try it out yourself, please leave a comment and let me know what you think. We only used it for kihon men. Next week we might try kote and do as well. I think it might even prove more useful there too, as the position of the elbows in the cut has an important influence on which part of the palms of the hands make contact with the tsuka, and how tenouchi is employed, which again has an impact on accuracy.

The only drawback is that it does make reiho pretty much impossible!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Fight. Die. Repeat.

Aargh! I'm sick of these tension headaches!
I've got you mate!

As a bona-fide Kendo tragic, I'm always thinking about Kendo. Often I get new insights into what Kendo is about when watching other pastimes, such as my son's soccer matches.

Soccer is a great thing to compare to Kendo because it comes from a very different cultural mindset. Players are allowed to celebrate, to criticise the referee (within limits) and to show disrespect to their opponents (within limits). And spectators are allowed to do the same. Rather than these things being problems, they are celebrated as part of the 'passion' of the game. The same probably goes for all football codes and most spectator sports in general.

The safest place to be at a Greek soccer match: outside the stadium.

It couldn't be more structurally different either: a team sport with 90 mins to decide the outcome of a single match in which you are allowed to score as many times as you are able. Soccer is unusual also in that is possible for the dominant team (the team with the majority of the possession of the ball or majority of the play in their own half) to lose. I suppose you could say the same about Kendo sometimes.

So watching soccer has helped me to clarify what I love about Kendo, about what makes it unique.

Recently I was struck by an incident in one of my son's games that showed me something lacking in soccer: intensive practice at winning and losing.

After an important goal towards the end of a match, members of my son's team yelled out ferocious encouragement to themselves that was also part bragging about how they were dominating the other team. The effect of this was interesting. It actually had the result of firing up their opponents, who had until that moment been demoralised at being down 2 nil. The opposition then scored a quick goal, and with only a few minutes left, suddenly saw they could rescue a draw, if not win. In the end it was a tense finish and my son's team didn't concede another goal. But their 'passion' and 'swagger' very nearly gave away the match.

“If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.” ― Sun TzuThe Art of War

It struck me that in Kendo one of the things we practice the most is how to win and how to lose. We know that to celebrate a win would only fire up our enemy. We know to show via our posture that we are demoralised also hands them victory. We regularly have to accept that despite our best efforts we get beaten, sometimes many times over! "Strike and reflect. Be struck and give thanks." This is, in effect, the point of Kendo. Victory and defeat, over and over again. Some people are easy to lose to. Some people are not. How will you manage it?


We are told by our sensei to be thankful because the opponent who defeats us is the one who shows us the path to improvement. More than this, it helps us manage our egos, which is the real barrier to self-improvement. You've got to first recognise you're maybe not as good as you think you are, before you can work out what you need to do to improve. It's very easy, especially as you get some seniority, to go into denial about your defeats. You can tell yourself it was a fluke, or an anomaly. You might avoid shiai or shinsa where the outcome is uncertain, or only do keiko against your students. You might think that to admit to yourself and others that you've been defeated would be to lose face. The struggle against this kind of thinking is endless.

"The most important thing in Kendo is a flexible mind, which makes one humble enough to recognise one's own weakness, and to overcome it through practice."
Ishida Kenichi sensei 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Kiriotoshi sequence

This sequence was shot at the Kenshikan, Melbourne. Takizawa sensei is demonstrating kiriotoshi waza against Shinoda sensei (renshi 6 dan) while Yano sensei (Kenshikan head instructor) watches on.

As you can see by the action of the hands they are both cutting downwards. The third frame above shows the point at which Shinoda sensei's shinai stops. The kiriotoshi movement, although it is travelling in the same direction as Shinoda sensei's attack, has managed to halt his attack so effectively that there is a small bend in the shinai. This seems to go against the laws of physics! I am confident that Shinoda sensei was not 'pulling' the cut, that he was genuinely going for Takizawa's men. Video below for moving reference.

This is a sequence that needs a genuine slow motion camera to record it...

Monday, April 10, 2017

Why studying koryu is important for Kendo

Recently I have invited our senior students to join me in practising Tatsumi Ryu Iai before our regular Saturday morning training. This was partly inspired by the example of Ozawa Hiroshi sensei, who practices Mizoguchi-ha Itto Ryu in addition to Kendo at his dojo, the Kobukan, in Tokyo.

Over the years, I've found that most of the kenshi I admire, both Japanese and non-Japanese, have at least some, and in most cases a lot, of experience in one of the traditional sword styles or koryu. This practice gives them something extra in their Kendo, something that I think is worth investigating.

What are koryu?
Koryu literally means 'old style'. Briefly, these are traditions or styles of martial art that started before the Meiji period of modernisation in Japan. In other words before the 1870s. They usually use a system of kata to transmit the techniques of their style. Throughout history, koryu would often break off into different branches and form new styles. For instance the Itto Ryu has many branches such as the Ono-ha (Ono branch), Mizoguchi-ha and others. A very few of the oldest koryu still in existence date back to the Sengoku Jidai or Warring States Period (1467-1603). Most however were developed during the Tokugawa era (1603-1868). The main difference between Sengoku and Tokugawa era koryu is that the former contain techniques either for and developed from battlefield use (armoured opponents, various weapons, multiple opponents) and the latter tend to be more focused on duelling (unarmoured, single opponent, mainly sword use).

This video has some great sequences of Kato soke performing and explaining the basics of Tatsumi Ryu. 

Tatsumi Ryu Hyoho
In Melbourne we are fortunate to have a licensed instructor of one of the oldest and rarest koryu, Tatsumi Ryu Hyoho, in the form of Liam Keeley sensei. He has given me permission to start teaching the basics of the Tatsumi Ryu Iai curriculum to interested Nanseikan students for the purpose of developing their Kendo. Of course any Nanseikan students who become enamoured of the style are welcome to contact Keeley sensei directly about formalising their study.

Tatsumi Ryu dates from the Warring States period and is a sogo bujutsu, which means it is a comprehensive fighting system that has kata for all armed and unarmed combat situations samurai would find themselves in. That means as well as sword it teaches spear, naginata, staff, grappling and so on. Keeley sensei's organisation is called the Melbourne Koryu Kenkyukai.


My feeling about the difference between Seitei Iaido and Tatsumi Iai!

Iai and Kendo
One of the reasons I prefer Tatsumi Ryu Iai to the 'normal' Seitei Iaido (which is what most Kendo people know), is because of the Tatsumi Iai belonging to a larger curriculum*. There is a very simple but profound rationale behind everything in Tatsumi Ryu. Whereas Seitei Iaido has a small range of very handsome kata with various methods of drawing, cutting and sheathing the sword, Tatsumi only has a couple of very straightforward ways of doing the same. But those simple techniques are then expanded into literally hundreds of different applications. To me, Iaido feels like a demonstration art, like a piece of decorative furniture, that shows (off) all the different things one can do with a sword. Tatsumi Iai is just the bare bones and feels more purposeful, almost as if it was designed to learn quickly because you, as a samurai, are going to need to use it for survival-- tomorrow! I find there is a great sense of urgency in the techniques for that reason: you must study and master this! You must get it right! There are some historians who see this as evidence of Tatsumi Ryu's wartime origins whereas Seitei Iaido's antecedents were created during times of relative peace and stability.

If at its heart Tatsumi Ryu Iai has this martial urgency, by contrast the outward movements emphasise softness, naturalness and as a result, a kind of invisibility. Iaido people show great kigurai and shisei-- commanding presence and beautiful posture-- when they perform their Iaido. The hakama is deftly and proudly swished out of the way when they go into a seated position like seiza or iaigoshi. Tatsumi Iai doesn't show you when it has started. Kneeling in seiza takes half the time and no noise, but all the more leg strength in order to do so!

In Tatsumi Iai the sword is initially grasped very lightly, as lightly as a ballerina resting her hand on the barre, or a dragonfly sitting on a reed. The characteristic action of the sword in Tatsumi Ryu, zenkai, is executed with soft hands and supple wrists. The Tatsumi student learns the importance of letting the sword move naturally with the help of gravity, not muscling it to follow their will. Use of muscle power is momentary and extremely focused, returning quickly to softness. Kendo of a high level also has this exact aim. It is all about minimum effort for maximum effect. Simple to say but years of practice to achieve!

Tatsumi Ryu is, almost by accident, a very good fit with Kendo and there are many kendoka amongst the ryu's Japanese members. The same cannot be said of all koryu, and especially not of other Sengoku Jidai koryu.

Understanding the sword
As well as the improved understanding of use of the body, Iai also teaches about what a sword can and can't do. It shows what we should keep in mind when using a sword. For instance, not using your index finger to guide the blade into the saya! And it deepens our understanding of the culture of sword use, the why, when and how of the sword. This is true of Tatsumi Iai and Seitei Iaido equally.

On the other hand, part of the larger Tatsumi curriculum is close-quarter techniques, known as Yawara. These are not 'unarmed' techniques since Tatsumi Ryu assumes both self and enemy always to have at least a sheathed dagger or bo-shuriken in their belts, as much as for situations when samurai were forbidden to draw their weapon, or elected not to for various reasons. In learning these techniques you are drawn directly into a practical understanding of the history and ethics of the feudal Japanese class system. It also reminds us of the fact that even today soldiers and indeed civilians are subject to laws about appropriate use of force in violent conflict. The very breadth of sogo bujutsu, or comprehensive systems, gives expanded understanding to each component part of the curriculum. The parts form the whole but the whole even more so informs the parts.

This expanded understanding is also what I think koryu practice gives the kendoka; the connection to a whole culture of sword use so that even carrying the shinai feels different. You no longer have to imagine the shinai is a sword, it is no longer an abstract concept. You really understand that it is a sword that you are holding in your hand. And you start to be confident that you will know how to handle it correctly, with every nuance of what that word implies.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: It is not my intention to denigrate or belittle Seitei Iaido via my observations of the differences between Seitei and Tatsumi Iai. The practitioners of Seitei are dedicated and knowledgeable group of people, many of whom are my good friends and possess amazing skills. And a lot of them do Kendo too! If, dear reader, you are in an area where the only option for sword-based study is Seitei Iaido then I would encourage you to take it up!

* Of course Seitei Iaido is connected to related koryu, most commonly Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and/or Muso Shinden Ryu. However this connection is not aurtomatic, nor easily found in Australia. Iaido students often have to travel to seminars around Australia and internationally in order to progress their koryu practice.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Finding the switch for focus in high school

Teachers talk about focus all the time: "Sit still and focus!", "You need to bring your focus back to the task." "If you focus on studying effectively then you will do well in the upcoming test."

But what is focus really? How do you get it? Some kids seem to get it easily and never get in trouble from their teachers but others don't seem to know what it is. In this article I hope I can explain not only what focus is, but also how to get it and why we need it.

The most important thing is to realise that you probably show focus already in things that you love to do. What sorts of activities are easy for you to find focus in? Playing a soccer match? Drawing? Making or building stuff? If you get so engrossed in something that you forget the time, or you forget to eat, then you know what focus is.

Think a bit about that feeling. It might be hard to do because the focus comes by itself. It's almost like you're not doing it. It's like you're so absorbed in the activity you forget about yourself altogether. You forget about trying to be focused. You just are.

But when it is something you don't like so much, or you're not good at, staying focused is really difficult. Sound familiar? Most people are like this, adults included.

The way to bring yourself back to focus is realise that there is a switch for it. And that switch is the fact that you've done it before. Remember a time when you were focused and it was something you didn't enjoy so much. At school, tests are a good example. Maybe it was a big maths test in class, or perhaps the dreaded Naplan. They're stressful and sometimes, like with Naplan, you have to sit still and not talk for quite a while, as you focus on answering the questions. Beforehand it was stressful, but after it was all over there was relief. Often students think, "what was the point of that really?"

Well apart from giving teachers an idea of where your knowledge is at, the test situation itself is a really important experience for you. It shows you can focus when you choose to. And this is the point. You are the one that turns the switch on. No-one else can do it for you. Just remind yourself that you've done it before.

The more often you flick that switch, the easier it gets. And if you can learn to do that, then you can turn your mind to learning anything!

Why is focus so important?

the action starts at 2:04!

Perhaps this video is a better explanation than I can put into words. This pistol is being cut in half by water. That's right, just water! It is high-pressure water that is focused to a single point. This is a great image to have in mind when we wonder what can be achieved with focus. When you focus on something you can overcome huge obstacles.

But the first obstacle you have to overcome is yourself. That's why it's important to remember that you can find focus when you try, because you've done it before.

Focus is important because it is what will help you learn new things. There are a whole lot of things at this stage that you don't even know that you don't know! To go from not knowing about something, to knowing about something, to then being an expert in something takes focus.

Remember it might be hard to focus at first, but hang in there. Like anything, finding your focus gets easier with practice.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Lessons from the Hokkaido Police

The various police forces around Japan have a special connection to Kendo*. When the Tokyo Metro Police (Keishicho) was established, it's first Superintendent, Kawaji Toshiyoshi, stipulated that police officers should learn bujutsu in order to keep in shape and apprehend criminals. He was no doubt inspired by the success of the Battotai, an early police unit of the Meiji Government who helped to defeat Saigo Takamori's rebels at the battle of Taburazaka (1877) using only swords. To this day, each prefectural police force maintains a Tokuren (Special Training Squad) and a Kidotai (Riot Squad) that recruits the strongest university kenshi. Places on these Tokuren are coveted, as the members have special dispensation from regular police duties to train in Kendo. Over the years the vast majority of All Japan Champions have come from the police force.

This video is of the current members of the Hokkaido Police Tokuren. They have great skill, speed and strength. But their basics are also really solid. Each technique is demonstrated and explained, then a slow-motion repeat is shown. I will go through the video and translate some of their main points.

The video is produced by Let's Kendo, whose Youtube channel is an extensive collection of videos from all the major Japanese tournaments.

1:01 Suburi
Matsui sensei emphasises making a big, sliding step when you do your suburi. This is something Yano sensei at Kenshikan also says. Matsui-s. also says to bring up your trailing foot quickly.

Notice also that his arms at the end of each cut are both straight.

1:49 Kiri kaeshi
Hayashi sensei has a very powerful, fast and correct kirikaeshi but what can we learn from it? His first kiai is huge, this is important. Even though his cuts are fast his left hand comes up above his face every. single. time. and his footwork is in sync with his cuts. When he finishes, and important detail is that he turns and holds a stable kamae before relaxing.

His points: aim for the opponent's head, not finishing your cuts above it; also he says to cut sayu-men on each side from above your head (literally "from furikaburi" which is the name for the high point of a men cut), not by bringing the shinai around your shoulders, so to speak. Cutting down at 45 degrees.

His partner Kuraoka sensei's point is to receive your partner's cuts in kirikaeshi by pulling back your shinai towards you on either side, which helps with timing and also allowing your partner to cut close to the target area (as opposed to blocking a long way from your own head).

3:29 Men
Iida sensei says for small men cuts not to raise your kensen too high, it opens your kote to attack. Instead you must choose the shortest path to your opponent's men. Apply seme to opponent's throat by driving forward with your kensen towards tsuki, and at the last moment cut men. Remember not to raise your sword first.

4:27 Kote
In this you can see what I was explaining last week about how in Japan it's usual to practice kote by finishing with tai-atari rather than following through past your opponent. This makes for a different kind of zanshin. Watch closely how Yoshida sensei demonstrates zanshin, and also how Eto sensei receives.

Yoshida sensei says to cut, again with the shortest, most direct movement, then come in to meet your opponent with tai-atari making sure to keep your posture straight, and then return to a good, solid kamae, maintaining your strong spirit. She makes a point of saying not to dodge or fade away to the right after cutting. This is a common trait in high school Kendo, who are probably the main audience for this video in Japan.

5:16 Hiki waza
As we have only just started looking at hiki-waza (techniques moving backwards from tsubazeriai) I will just summarise the main points that Jishiro sensei makes here. Other than that, please watch his movement closely.

His main points that apply to all forms of hiki waza are to keep a straight posture and have enough of a space between yourself and you opponent when in tsubazeriai. He says if you lean your upper body back when you make the technique then your cut will be too shallow. For hiki do he says to push down slightly on your opponent's fists to create a counter-movement where they raise and reveal an opportunity for you to strike.

8:41 Tsuki
Lastly, Ando sensei demonstrates morotezuki or two-handed tsuki. His points are simple: make sure you seme strongly so that opponent flinches and then follow up immediately with tsuki. This is important. Tsuki can be very dangerous when executed against someone who is moving towards you. Your opponent must be static or flinching away from you in order to perform tsuki safely in keiko and shiai. He also says not to withdraw or step back after delivering the tsuki, but to step up. This makes it possible to perform a follow-up technique if necessary.

Ironically enough, here is a video of Ando himself performing a tsuki in shiai where he withdraws afterwards in just the way he says not to! To be fair, this is a stylistic thing in high school and university, and this video was taken when Ando was on the Kokushikan University team in 2014. Or at least I'm assuming it's the same Ando. It is a fairly common name! I'm guessing each of these Hokkaido Tokuren guys have been chosen because the waza they demonstrate is their favourite, or at least one they're known for.

Regardless, Ando sensei's tsuki waza here is pretty formidable! The main thing to do is to admire and watch closely to see what else you can glean about his technique.

Thanks to Let's Kendo (and Zen Sankei) for these great videos. Support original and worthwhile content on Youtube by subscribing.

*From an excellent short history of Kendo

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Reflections on my first kodansha grading

6 dan candidates waiting for the venue to open, Esforta Arena, Hachioji

Kodansha (高段者) means someone who is either 6th, 7th or 8th dan. The other terms in Kendo are yudansha 有段者 which is some who has a dan grade, and mudansha 無段者, someone without or not yet dan-graded.

    What does it mean?
    Lots of non-Kendo people ask this question. The short answer is that now I am taken seriously as a kenshi. As one sensei told me, now you are considered an instructor in Japan. This means a lot to me. Ever since I was a teenager doing Kendo in Melbourne I have always looked to Japan as the pinnacle of Kendo. I've always felt that the depth of Kendo there was beyond my capacity to understand. Part of my journey to sixth dan was to do my best to understand this depth by throwing myself into Japanese Kendo at the deep end, as much as I could anyway. So there were many trips to Japan where I was smashed by all and sundry, including the students of the sensei I was visiting, and no success at all in terms of grading. Looking back, these visits were a big part of my preparation.

    What was it like?
    My first trip was overwhelming. Although I was as ready as I could be at the time, it became clear that I was not at the same level as the others who were going for sixth dan.

    What I learned was that there was a certain level of familiarity required regarding the experience of grading in Japan. In other words, I had to fail a number of times in order to be able to deal with the pressure of the grading situation itself. Familiar with what? Well, among other things, there not being any instructions in English, the sheer number of people around you, the pressure that these things place on you, how short 60 seconds feels like when under this pressure, fighting opponents you've never met and who may have much more training under their belt than you (a situation that those who compete at national and international level would be already familiar with) and so on.

    On each of my four trips to grade in Japan I received a huge amount of support from the people I met. I never just turned up for the grading and went home again. On my first trip this was problematic because the very helpful sensei who was looking after me was intent on reconfiguring my basics, one week out from the grading. In hindsight this may have been detrimental but it did mean that I had lots of things to take home with me and work on. The first time I failed 6th dan was also the first time I had ever failed a grading, so that was a extra kick in the guts. I had lots of work to do.

    The second time I was better prepared but still a bit at sea when it came to the actual grading. I don't remember my first opponent but my second opponent was a woman, quite a bit shorter than me. This should have given me an advantage, but she was, like many female kenshi, very good at protecting herself from being struck. Her waza were quite slow, but her degote timing was good under pressure and this unsettled me. I was definitely more afraid of what my opponent was doing than focusing on my own technique. She and I both failed.

    The third time I was knocked off my feet by a taller, more powerful opponent. He was adept at using tai-atari after his opponent had attempted a men cut. My failing there were that I had been knocked off my feet rather than pivoting around his tai-atari, and for having a 'banzai' (arms raised) follow through. His failing was to try and negate my attack without offering any kind of oji-waza (counter-attack), which showed his nervous insecurity. We both failed.

    The fourth time
    My fourth attempt was the successful one. As with all my other gradings, my opponents were both Japanese. Both were men. On this trip I had also had my basics pulled apart and analysed by a very helpful Japanese sensei just a week before the grading. But in this case, that sensei was hachidan and also a grading panel member. I was confident that what he had shown me was of such value to my future Kendo that in a sense I didn't mind if it upset my preparation and caused me to fail. I had been on this journey to sixth dan for so long now (seven years) that I felt that I might be able to incorporate these changes into my Kendo in time to be effective in the grading. Either way, I knew I was being true to my ethos of 'throwing myself into the deep end of Japanese Kendo.'

    In a previous post I mentioned that I was in bad shape physically by the day of my grading. Again, the length of time I had been on this journey meant that I was pretty sanguine about it. There's really no such thing as 'perfect preparation', or rather, there is, but it doesn't in any way guarantee you success. This, I realise now, is an important mindset to have. In line with what I said in that same post about 'heijoshin' (everyday mind), just plowing ahead in spite of circumstances is of fundamental importance. It's interesting that many people understand this when it relates to going for a single cut: throwing everything into the attack. But they forget it also applies to the bigger picture. Many people complain that they don't feel ready, or 'it didn't feel right' to go ahead with their grading because of some circumstance. I suppose this is each person's judgement call. But I feel that some people could practice not listening to their inner doubts a bit more.

    The part of the grading that was most stressful was, for me, the prospect of getting to the grading venue, which this time was a 90 minute train journey west of Tokyo to Hachioji. The stress came from the prospect of making connections between trains at the various major stations like Shinjuku. How difficult would it be? Would we have enough time to make our connection? I was there with Teoh sensei from Fudoshin Kendo Club in Melbourne and he was much more confident about the logistics. In the end we were fine, but I worried about it right up until the moment we finally got out at Hachioji station.

    The doors to the arena opened and there was the now-familiar rush for spots to park one's gear and start getting ready: another aspect of grading in Japan that can be daunting for the first-timer. The sheer number of people is quite astounding. Soon it became apparent that Esforta Arena, being a very conventional four-sided box of a building, had a lot more space than the Nippon Budokan which is octagonal and has no 'corners'. It is also considerably bigger than the Tokyo Budokan. So while there was more space for one's belongings, there was still no shilly-shallying about getting ready and getting down onto the floor for a very quick warm-up.

    Three things interrupt one's warm-up before the grading proper starts: 1) the distribution of grading cards and allocation of kaiba (grading area), 2) the pre-grading briefing to all candidates by the organisers and 3) the allocation of grading numbers. Generally speaking if you haven't had a warm-up by the time you have to gather for the briefing, you're not going to get any more than a quick (and discreet) stretch in beforehand. In my experience a physical warm-up is probably not such an important thing to aim for anyway. You will only be doing Kendo for a total of  120 seconds, so it's not going to be physically taxing. And you'll have to wait for anything from 5 mins to 3 hours before your grading, so any physical benefits will be lost for all but the first few candidates. And part of your preparation should have been the ability to perform -- to be "on"-- at a moment's notice. This is another reason to discard the notion of the perfect preparation. At sixth dan your mental state should remain unflustered no matter what happens.

    I was surprised to find that Teoh sensei and myself were up quite quickly: the previous time we had both been in the last grading group of the morning session. This time we had to wait less than an hour. Candidates are organised according to date of birth and it happens that Teoh sensei and I are so close in age that we were once in the same group of four. This time I was in the group following Teoh sensei's, so I got to watch both his gradings. Unfortunately he didn't get to watch mine as he was moving off the grading area and thanking his opponents. By the time he had done that I had finished my grading.

    the main arena for jitsugi

    $3000 kiai
    One of the sensei who had helped me prepare gave me this advice. When she heard how much it cost for me to come to Japan for each attempt she was a little shocked. "I'll never complain about flying up to Tokyo for a grading again!" She also knew that I had been told to make sure my first kiai was especially loud, so she said, "make it a $3000 kiai!" This was an easy bit of advice to put into action!

    It's hard for me to say how I went. I'm never good at remembering the individual waza I perform in gradings. I know there were a couple of degote, a couple of kaeshi-do, and perhaps a suriage men that wasn't 100%. I think I might also have landed one or two debana-men, which is the technique I had been working on the most. But I couldn't have said how well I had done any of those. I don't think there was a cut that felt 'wow'.

    Nevertheless when I was finished I felt good. I had done everything I could have done on the day. I had not been intimidated, and I hadn't tried to negate my opponent's cuts. I only did positive Kendo. If I didn't pass I felt that was OK. Passing and failing are outside our control. I had done my best with the things I had control over.

    The big piece of butcher's paper
    At these national gradings, the first results come out pretty quickly. After the first 16 groups of four candidates had finished they calculated the results. The grading was continuing on in the background when the big pieces of paper come out, just like in the documentary. Each kaiba had its own, and the dutiful Nittaidai students who do all the basic admin jobs hold them up: a reassuringly analogue display in today's digital world.

    When I saw my number I was strangely unmoved. I looked, thought "that's my number", looked down at my zekken to double-check, then looked at it again, "yep, that's it." Sadly Teoh sensei's number was not there. We commiserated, and then I looked around to see who else had passed and who had not. From memory neither of my opponents passed. People whose numbers were there started to congratulate each other: it's well known that the kata section of the grading is much easier to pass. Unless your grasp of the 10 kata is very poor you will receive your sixth dan.

    the kata arena

    The next part of the grading, Nihon Kendo no Kata, starts almost immediately. The successful candidates from all eight kaiba were called on to make their way to the second arena. We were assigned new numbers and then had to sit, while seven pairs of kenshi performed kata in front of three hanshi hachidan sensei. I recognised two of them: Ota sensei who had once visited Melbourne long ago, and Iwatate sensei, whose DVDs were playing at one of the pop-up Kendo shops in the foyer.

    We sat cross-legged and waited in rows. This arena was a real contrast to the one where jitsugi was still underway. The only sounds here were the kiai "yah!", "toh!" and the occasional clash of bokuto.
    The mood was one of restrained excitement, like children waiting to unwrap their Christmas presents, a total contrast to the more oppressive tension in the main arena. When my turn came after almost an hour of sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor, it was a relief just to be able to stand and move around. I did a passable set of kata, non-plussed a little by the 'blunt' kissaki (tip) of the bokuto that the All Japan Kendo Federation provides for all candidates. I must have done OK because in spite of the fact that I was placed directly in front of the grading panel, I passed kata as well. There was a moment of tension as results were tabulated and we realised there would indeed be a "pass-fail" announcement, then widespread relief when it was announced that the three candidate numbers on the butcher's paper were of those people who had failed. Out of a cohort of over 200 kenshi, that was a rather different pass rate than of the jitsugi. Overall the pass rate was about 20%.

    One thing I was very grateful I had the presence of mind to act on was to remove the tape on my feet before I did kata. There was tape on both my toes and also some kinesiology tape on my left Achilles which was falling off and stained a mottled-blue by my hakama. When we changed numbers on our zekken I thought to throw these bits of tape away with my old number, and I'm glad I did, especially given that I was placed directly in front of the grading panel. One never knows what might tip the old turtles over the edge, and dirty, ragged sports tape is pretty undignified. Little considerations like this were a product of my three previous attempts, and all the advice and disappointment along the way.

    Kendo is a personal journey. My path to 6th dan is my own and unlike anyone else's. Your story will be different. You have to write it yourself. However there are some fundamentals that are common to all successful attempts. Your ability to perceive what those things are and how to incorporate them into your Kendo will be part of your story.