Monday, March 30, 2009

A Beginner's Point of View 38-47.5

Day 38 - 47:
The next several days were all spent practicing everything we would need for the testing. Sensei said, “Think of the tournament as practice for the testing. The tournament is for fun, the testing is important.” We spent all our time practicing kiri-kaeshi over and over. We practiced it in full bogu. We practiced it without men or kote. We practiced it in only keikogi and hakama.
Obviously, the less protection we wore, the slower we performed the strikes. This was to make us slow down and focus on making good, crisp strikes instead of relying only on fast strikes. Sempai reminded us many times, “It really doesn’t matter how fast you do kiri-kaeshi. The judges want to see you strike accurately.” This really set the tone for how we were to go down to the tournament and testing. We all decided that we wanted to go there and show that we were not going to rush our training just to show off.

We practiced kiri-kaeshi so many times, Sensei said, “You’ll be doing it in your sleep”. I didn’t dream about it, but I have caught myself doing it as I walk down the halls at my job and in my home. At first it was embarrassing, but I just decided to take the opportunity to just go through the motions and not only memorize it, but to ingrain the motions into my nerves so I may do it without thinking.

We also got out some athletic tape and marked off what a typical court would look like. We practiced the ceremony of bowing in and out of a court. The senior students got out the Shinpan flags and would practice regulating matches. The bowing in ceremony is not so difficult to remember. Both fighters stand at the appropriate edges of the court, facing each other. They take a single step in, then bow. They taito, then Kendo-walk up to their respective lines. They draw their shinais and then sonkyo. The lines will be taped out at such a position so that the shinais will be too far for issen-no-maai. The fighters rise and kamae. The Shinpan will declare “Hajime” and the match begins. We would also perform geiko (practice match) in order to tell if our waza was good enough. More often than not, the senior students would wind up telling us about our mistakes. But then, that’s the way it should be since we’re so inexperienced.
Day 47.5: (tournament and testing)

The Kendo club sponsoring the event made arrangements for the local hotel to have discounts for us as we would stay the night. Travelling to the location of the tournament and testing was a real pain. It took hours to drive there. I was smart and took the day off work the day before the tournament just so I could focus only on making arrangements.
After checking into the hotel, I went over to get a parking permit on the campus where the gymnasium was located. The directions I received were incorrect about where to go. I spent a couple of hours driving around the city and following the wrong road signs to the wrong places before I figured it out. Asking a couple of the locals helped also. I was very glad that I took the day off. One of our students could not take that day off and decided to drive extra early to arrive on time, only to have her alarm clock suffer from a power outage. She arrived late and missed taking part in the Mudansha division.

I could only take part in Mudansha and hopefully in team division. This will be the way it is for a long time, so I may as well get used to it. I can fill the time in between by helping out at scoring tables. My first match wasn’t even first at all. There were so many of us that we had to be split into two courts, each court having eight brackets, each bracket having three or four Kendoka. I was in the first court, eighth bracket. This meant I had a lot of time since the first round went round-robin. The winner, determined by the judges by wins and points, advanced to the single-elimination rounds. I was in a four-person bracket, and had to fight two other people. As the fights progressed, one of my classmates gave me his camera to take pictures of him during his matches. I took a few pictures of him as he walked in and as he struck targets.

When it came time for my match, I was nervous. I systematically went through every waza in my mind as a refresher. It took less time then I thought. Before I could get more nervous, I instead tried to study my opponent. He seemed very confident. I stepped in with as much dignity as I could and then performed the bowing in ceremony. When the match began, he immediately lauched into a flurry of attacks and action. I knew that my opponent was a hothead. His kiais were loud and aggressive. He was also smaller than me. I decided to use his aggression to my advantage. I let him attack me, then when his attack failed, I forced him into tai-atari. I let him scream at me, then I pushed him backwards. I stepped in to take his space and attacked his men forcefully. Over and over I did this, making him angrier and angrier. Soon, the Shinpan called yame. As we resumed our initial marks, the Shinpan gave him a warning for stepping out of bounds. I smiled and did it again. I would attack him, striking him over and over, circling around him, letting him attack me. I would turn my back to the edge of the court and let him push me close. Then I would circle around and push him out of bounds. I used lots of kiai and energy and men strikes without passing through. Soon, the judges were giving him another warning, which resulted in a penalty point for him. A penalty point for him in reality means a good point for me. The score was 1-0 in my favor. I knew he would not allow such a thing to happen again, so I deduced that he would not give ground. Instead I focused on men strikes and trying to trick him into giving me a kote strike. He got more and more desperate as time ran out. His defenses were getting sloppy and I knew I only had to wait for the right time. Suddenly, after I gave a kiai, I saw an opening for his men. I thought to myself, “I will strike his men”. Suddenly, I saw my shinai strike him on the men in a near-perfect strike. I actually do not remember going throught he motion of stepping in and swinging the shinai over my head. I passed on through and heard the judge call men-ari (point striking men). I knew I had won. I was completely ecstatic, but I was even more winded than that. My classmates congratulated me as I got ready for my next match. I had one match to rest before going out again. I couldn’t wait!

My next match was tougher. I studied my opponent and saw that he was giving nothing away. He probably saw me fight and decided not to let me push him. I decided to just attack head on and pass through. The entire match was attacking men and occasionally attacking kote. I would parry him and he would parry me. I knew it would end with no points scored, so I decided to make an impression on the judges. I would kiai louder and show more zanshin than my opponent. After we passed each other, I took three quick strides and turned around in chudan-no-kamae. I advanced on my opponent, who was taking many more strides more slowly. I waited for him to turn around and then launched another attack. In the end, the hantei (judge’s decision) was that the other fighter had won. I believe it was because his waza was more crisp than mine. If that is the case, I do not mind losing to that. It means I squared off against a superior opponent and held him off. Sensei calls it, “Losing without dying, which is almost as good”. After that, I was eliminated form the division. It’s too bad there are too many kendoka to keep track of. I would have preferred a double-elimination style, but the judges have too much to keep track of as it is.

The day of the tournament was very busy. There were over one hundred kendoka participating over all of the divisions. The few of us beginners were in the Mudansha division, which means all ranks below Shodan. The senior students entered the Shodan-Nidan division. The girls also entered the Women’s division as well. After that, Sensei entered the Sandan-and-above division. Halfway through Sandan-and-above, we broke for lunch. Bento boxes were distributed out to everyone, including a soda. Lunch was a combination of salad, sushi, teriyaki chicken and a few seafood items I could not identify. I’m normally a very fussy eater, but I was so hungry after just fighting in my own matches and then helping out with the scoring for Shodan-Nidan that I just started eating and nearly ate everything. It was very good.

Sandan-and-above division finished afterwards. Sensei did not win a single one of his matches, yet he was smiling the whole time. He said he was just glad to fight against others closer to his rank. It was fun for him and a great learning experience. I think he was trying to teach us not to focus on anything negative at all and instead just approach defeat with dignity and grace.

Then it was time for the team matches. Our dojo had enough students entering to form two teams. Sensei personally led the group of us four newcomers in our own team. He arranged us in a specific pattern to counter what he felt was the other team’s strategy. It turns out that in a team match, five kendoka line up. The number one position stands farthest away from the scorekeeper’s table. Normally, the first position is given to the fastest person and the fifth position is given to the strongest (or at least some kind of variation on those ideas). I requested the fifth position and Sensei asked me if I was sure. I told him that I was sure and I wanted it. This would be the only real time I could fight against a much higher-ranked opponent. Sensei let me have it and took the fourth position for himself. Our first two matches were fairly evenly matched, and no points were scored, so the Shinpan declared Hiki-wake (a draw with no winner). The third match had both fighters scoring a clear point each. We cheered for our teammate when he scored. The end result was another Hiki-wake. Sensei took his time and chose to attack his opponent intelligently instead of wasting energy. The result was him winning his match! The team score was 1-0 in favor of us. Then it was my turn to fight. We had the advantage. The team match was ‘mine to lose’ if I let my opponent win. I decided to curb my enthusiasm and fight intelligently, without taking foolish risks. My opponent was much smaller than me, which means I could have pushed her around a lot if I wanted to. Perhaps she would be expecting that. I decided to just try for crisp men strikes instead. Over and over, we struck and circled each other. The Shinpan decided that none of our strikes were good enough for a point. Finally, I saw a suki (opening)! She was leaving her kote open while hoping to attack my men. I let her attack, only to parry her strike. As she retreated, I saw her give me the kote suki, and I charged forward! Bringing the shinai up, I aimed for her kote. “YAME!” The Shinpan called for the end of the match because of time. On reflex, I finished the strike and passed on through. I heard the pleasant slap of the bamboo to leather and knew that if I only had half of a second more, I would have gotten the kote point. However, I had succeeded! My match ended in a Hiki-wake, making the final score 1-0 in our favor. We had won the first round of the team match! After shaking hands with our opponents, we had a short break until our next team match.

This time, we came up against a much better team. Their first opponents had not shown up so they were more rested than we were. We lost every match, making the final score 5-0 in their favor. However, no one was disappointed. We were all smiling because we had fought against high-ranked people and gave a good effort. They really did work for their victory.
After the tournament was over, Sensei let me know that the fifth position on the team that defeated us was a 2nd Dan who was displaying the skill of a 3rd Dan that day. Overall, I think I performed very well. Twice I nearly got a strike in against him.

The next day was the day of the testing and promotionals. I wasn’t very nervous for the sole reason that I had fought in front of and sometimes with everyone who might be judging me. So, it was not as if I were to be testing in front of strangers, instead it was like a formality in front of an extended family. I kept my focus on behaving in a proper manner and chose to let my Kendo happen naturally. I did decide beforehand that I would step up my energy and kiai more. I have a habit of being too quiet sometimes.

Since we rehearsed the actual testing part at the dojo over and over, that was no big surprise. There were forty-five of us testing for various ranks. I made sure to remove my zekken before warmups. At some point, the director told us to line up. We lined up single-file and gave our names one at a time. The director would tell us what number we had to remember. I was number twelve. There didn’t seem to be a real system to the numbers except that people testing for lower ranks had lower numbers. Afterwards, we were told exactly where to sit. They arranged us into a grid-like formation twelve people wide, so I had the position in the front left corner. Then, they grouped us into four Kendoka together. We would put on men as a group, last-minute warmups as a group, approach the court as a group, and test in sequence as a group.
The panel of judges seemed to think that the first eight Kendoka were taking too long through the intricate ceremony of bowing in and out. Although we had all day, I think they were trying to speed things up to be fair to the ones who had higher numbers. Each and every Kendoka for the first twenty or so did the same things. They did kiri-kaeshi and ji-geiko (free-form sparring) against two different opponents. However, I did not receive kiri-kaeshi that day, only gave it. Others gave and received it. I think I was passed over by mistake. After that, we sat back down in formation again. Then, I realized that my ordeal was over for the whole day.

I felt more relaxed and decided to just watch and observe the good and bad that others were doing. However, I soon realized that the most difficult thing that day was all the waiting. I knelt in seiza as much as I could because I thought it was required. After a while, one of the coordinators came by and told us to “relax”. This meant “sit as you would like”. I immediately moved into the cross-legged position gratefully. However, the gymnasium floor was very, very rigid. After several minutes, even sitting cross-legged was painful. I had to fidget and re-align my legs over and over, still not being comfortable. I realized that only half of the Kendoka had been tested. It was a long day indeed.

After all of the testing happened, I thought we were done. Not quite. There was a break as we got up to stretch our aching legs. The 1-Kyu and 1-Dan candidates pulled out their bokkens and began to practice kata in the back of the gym. I knew kata 1 and 2 from practice, but I also got to see kata 3, 4, and 5. I liked kata 4, when you block with the bokken, then spin it around to attack the head form the opposite angle and shout, you can see how Sensei says, “This kata shows the fire coming out of your eyes”. The kata test was actually over very quickly, as they would test four pairs of Kendoka simultaneously. After that was done, then we were dismissed.

It took the better part of an hour to post the results. All my classmates got 3rd Kyu for their initial ranking. I got 4th Kyu. I was so disappointed. I had applied for 4th Kyu on my registration at first. After a couple of weeks Sensei asked if I wanted to change my request to 3rd Kyu, but I said no. I didn’t want to seem arrogant. However, I was secretly hoping they would give me 3rd Kyu anyway. I tried to hide my disappointment, because I didn’t want anyone feeling bad for me. After some time, I began to realize that the panel of judges most likely gave me 4th Kyu because my waza was sloppy. It was within their power to give me an even lower rank, so I should just accept it and plan for the next test. I should also work on my basic waza.

My body was in pain as I drove back home. Most of the pain subsided, but there stayed a persistence shooting pain in both my left arm and my left ankle. I knew I had sprained both. I had probably stretched both too far at the tournament, but then exaggerated them at the testing. A fellow student told me the arm sprain was from gripping the shinai too tightly. I know the ankle comes from trying to put all my weight on my heels during seiza for long periods of time.

A Beginner's Point of View 36-37

Day 36:

Today we focused on the men strike and giving kiri-kaeshi. Senior students put on full bogu and received kiri-kaeshi, each choosing to stand still or step back after the initial men strike. This forces us to adapt to the choice of whether or not to perform the tai-atari, which is to push someone back using your kote against their kote.

We also practiced the sayu-men drill going backwards and forwards, which reinforces the striking principle of raising the shinai straight up and then bringing it down a little bit sideways to strike migi-men and hidari-men. We were promised that we would work on kiri-kaeshi until we were more than qualified for testing.

My endurance is getting a little bit better. I did not have to stop once tonight for water or breathing, but still it showed I was tired. Hopefully, I won't show so much fatigue during testing.

Day 37:

Today was practicing the tai-atari (body check) for kiri-kaeshi. This is correctly done when you first semin, then strike men, then step into your opponent's space. If your opponent does not move, then you bring your fists down to in front of you while holding the shinai vertically. You then lock your elbows in place and then forcefully step forward. Your body, not your arms, will push your opponent backwards. You then step into his space, claiming it as your own. This is supposed to throw your opponent into disarray, which will create openings for you to strike.

Head sensei was here today as well as sempai. Both did not say anything to me directly, so I must be doing well. In Kendo, if your instructor speaks to you directly, it is because you have made a mistake and they wish to correct you. This advice is not to be taken badly, it is simply them trying to help you perfect your Kendo one class at a time. By saying nothing, they actually declare that your form and technique are good enough for your level of training.

A Beginner's Point of View 34-35

Day 34:

Today was more kiri-kaeshi. Even though last week sensei said we would work on receiving, today we gave again. Over and over, giving kiri-kaeshi to him and some senior students. Each time we would complete a full drill, we would receive advice on how to improve our technique.

Myself, I seem to be "out of alignment". I was told that my posture was not bad, but not perfect. It appeared like I was leaning forward, but was not really leaning forward. It was described to me as my upper half was forward of my lower half. My shoulders and spine were straight, but they were ahead of my hips. It was not easy to understand or even correct, but I seem to be improving my posture simply by trying to keep my whole body in line vertically.

We did kiri-kaeshi so much, that the time just flew by. I gave the closing ceremony again. I did better, but still not perfect. It seems that the list of commands I've been studying from wasn't perfect. At least this time I waited for everyone seated on the Dan side of the dojo to finish taking off their men and kote before continuing. I should also learn to cover my feet completely if I need to move out of seiza and just sit.

Day 35:

Today, we suited up in full bogu to practice giving kiri-kaeshi. It was a good exercise, since we would be expected to do the same for testing. A couple of the senior students put on their bogu so we may practice giving kiri-kaehsi to multiple different people. Some would not step back until we pushed them back, others stepped back automatically. Sometimes they would block our strikes, sometimes not. As long as I did not hurry, I successfully performed kiri-kaeshi each time. Sensei reminded us that kiri-kaeshi does not have to be lightning fast. It instead must be 'decisive'. Each strike must function independently, as if it were the last strike we will ever make. This broke up the exercise into smaller segments that were more manageable.

Our head sensei was actually present during the entire practice this time. He split his attention between our group and watching the other group, which was comprised of students who needed a refresher on basic strikes and footwork. The head sensei gave me some advice about men strikes. He said I was lifting the shinai too high. It was a waste of energy the way I was doing it. He counseled that I should raise the shinai just enough that my left fist would be even with my eyes. This goes slightly against what I was taught by sempai. Sempai said to raise the shinai so that both fists were above my eyes, so I may see the target. I'll try doing it the way the head sensei says. Maybe it will conserve energy.

There are so many things to remember during kiri-kaeshi, it can sometimes be overwhelming: footwork, striking, rhythm, pushing, counting, kiai, and spacing, which is called maai. Still, sensei promises that we will practice kiri-kaeshi so much, we will be able to do it in our sleep.

Today, I almost finished practice without needing to stop. At the very end, I was feeling light-headed and off-balance. I decided to move off to the side and sit in seiza for a short time. After a minute of just breathing, I felt better and it was time to perform an abbreviated bowing out. I hope my endurance increases some more. It's embarrassing to have to stop and breathe while everyone else keeps going.

A Beginner's Point of View 32-33

Day 32:

Today was much better. We spent the entire class practicing aspects of kirikaeshi and some of the final bit of class practicing men and kote strikes. It's all part of the plan to get us ready for testing at the end of next month. Sensei took over teaching this time. We constantly gave and received kiri-kaeshi with each other over and over.

My kiri-kaeshi is getting better when I don't hurry or rush. My men strikes are sharper and my footwork is more coordinated when I take it slowly. I need to practice kiri-kaeshi over and over this way until I perfect it at slower speeds, then increase my pace. As my old Foil Fencing instructor said, "Form first, then speed". I think that's also true in Kendo.

With only about ten minutes left in class, we stopped doing kiri-kaeshi and just walked across the room practicing strikes. We did men strikes, turned around, then did men strikes going back. Over and over again we repeated it, no breaks. Then, we did the same with kote strikes. Over and over again we repeated it, no breaks. I was getting winded. I wanted a rest. Then, we did it again with kote-men strikes. Over and over again we repeated it, no breaks. I was exhausted. I wanted nothing more than to collapse form fatigue. However, I found the extra energy to stay upright. It actually seemed to me that the more I got physically tired, the more my spirit increased. My body wanted to collapse, but my mind wanted to keep practicing.

Day 33:

Today was the best kiri-kaeshi practice yet. I say this because my men strikes were getting sharper and I was actually coordinating my footwork together with my strikes. I also did not get quite as tired this time. Last class I was visually sagging my shoulders at the end because of exhaustion. This time I was not. I was breathing hard, but not to exhaustion. I think my endurance is getting better.

Our Head Sensei was here tonight. He gave a good lecture about the progress of the class’s kiri-kaeshi. He said that we were practicing a “low kiri-kaeshi” and that was good. However, we should now move up to practicing a higher level of kiri-kaeshi. The exercise is not just mindlessly stepping through the moves, it is about intimidating our opponent. We wish to drive them back and take their space. This opens up opportunities to strike men that our opponent does not wish to give up. He also said that in the end, our kiri-kaeshi must “flow like water” into one “very long” movement. He demonstrated techniques in kiri-kaeshi that were very advanced. He did seem to flow like water and yet be both powerful and fast.

Perhaps next time I will receive kiri-kaeshi and practice that. I need to practice both giving and receiving.

A Beginner's Point of View 30-31

Day 30:

Well, I received a lesson in humility today. We started off with hauling out the full-length mirrors and standing in places in front of them. We practiced footwork and swinging while watching ourselves to see if we are moving straight or if we are pulling off to the side. I seemed to be doing well, with only a few minor corrections by sempai.

After that was done, we put on our men and kote and spent most of practice receiving kiri-kaeshi. It was a good exercise, although I was having trouble keeping my footwork steady. I kept trying to invent a way to figure out which foot goes back first, only to lose it when it came time to actually put into practice. Eventually, I learned to use my opponent’s shinai is an indicator. If they swing to my left, I move my right foot. They also start on my left side. So, I take a Kendo step back using the left foot first, then alternate.

However, when it came to the end of class, my last few receives for kiri-kaeshi became sloppy. I missed a step and wound up on the wrong footing. Finally, we gave kiri-kaeshi as a finale. My footwork became horrible. I had a total disconnect between my arms and my legs while giving kiri-kaeshi. Even I was embarrassed as I tried to correct myself. Sempai called for me to finish the last part twice before giving up on me at the last part. She gave me a lecture about how perhaps I put on bogu too soon. She thought that clearly it was interfering with my timing and that I should have waited up to another three months before buying it. I can see her point, but I have to question it. How is it that I can suburi just fine (not perfect, but acceptable), but kiri-kaeshi suffers?

A long, agonizing drive back home after practice, I came to the conclusion that I was trying to perform the kiri-kaeshi too fast for my skill level. My old Foil Fencing instructor told me, “Form first, then speed.” I think I should remember for next time that I should just step through the exercise one step at a time and not try to mimic the advanced students helping me. Even if it looks goofy, it will be a correct kind of goofy (which is better than the mess I was showing).

At the end, sempai picked me to lead us in the closing ceremony. I had studied the opening and closing ceremonies very closely. However, we sometimes do then a tad differently than listed in our instruction page. Also, I was too upset from my terrible performance in kiri-kaeshi to remember very well. Another advanced student led me though the ceremony by quietly reciting the phrases, and I shouted them afterwards. It was slightly different then how we did it last week, such as the student actually called “Otagai ni rei” instead of the sempai. After today, I think I shall be a long time before being invited to the advanced class. Probably for the best.

Day 31:

Due to the bad ice storm, the dojo is expected to be closed today. Maybe I”ll work on some of my kiri-kaeshi in the kitchen. I just need something short to simulate a shinai that won’t strike the ceiling.

A Beginner's Point of View 28-29

Day 28:

Today, my normal sempai did not show up to teach the class. Instead, another senior student took that place. Since we were only a class of two today, we did our own warm-ups and put on full bogu. We practiced footwork and men strikes to finished warming up. Then, we practiced receiving men, kote, and doh strikes from sempai. The point was to get us used to being hit and not flinch.

It was easy for me since I’ve been used to being hit in ice hockey. When students hit me, it’s a quick annoyance. However, sensei also practiced hitting me and I have a red mark on my right arm (just under where the kote protect). It’ll go away overnight, but it shows how serious some of the more advanced practitioners can be. It also teaches us to try not to cause too much pain to our opponents out of respect. After all, you wouldn’t want them hitting you too hard out of revenge, right?

One thing did bother me. The top-sides of my men were pinching my head all the time I wore it. Sempai told me that was most likely because I tied the men himo too high around my head and put the knot too high. I should bring the men himo around the side of my head rather than the top. That way, it won’t pinch. I’ll try that next time.

Day 29:

Today was brutal. Again, we suited up in bogu and exercised on our own. The Iaido class before us was squeezing in extra practice to perfect their kata for the upcoming seminar and testing, so they ran a few minutes over our Kendo time. That’s okay, let them have it. I’m sure they would give us a few minutes extra time before a Kendo tournament.

After suiting up in full bogu, I remembered to tie the men himo lower behind my head this time. The men did not pinch me, although it did seem to tilt forward the whole time. I kept wondering if I didn’t tie it right until sensei mentioned that I was actually lowering my head under the weight of the metal cage in front of the men. I need to remember to keep my head back so the weight drags it to center.

We spent over half of class striking each other with men, kote, and kote-men strikes. It was very good practice and I still ran out of breath several times. However, I seem to be recovering quicker. I think that since joining Kendo, I have lost five pounds of weight off my body. It’s good exercise for endurance.

My partner for striking was hitting me very hard on the men and kote. I think I recognized his enthusiasm as the kind I felt when I first started. Sempai would often tell me that it’s not necessary to hit so hard for drills. Now I know what it feels like to be hit in the men too hard.

I was also struck on the kote too hard. It stung very much over and over with little breaks in between. Every third kote hit actually missed my leather and hit me on the arm. Now, that hurt a lot. That red mark sensei gave me last class is only one-third the size of the new one. Still, it will heal overnight.

I’d like to apologize to sempai and sensei for all the pain I caused in my zealousness to impress them. I think I’ll scale back the power of my strikes as to not cause so much discomfort. I can still move quickly without being too powerful.

Finally, our head sensei showed up tonight. I like it when the head sensei makes the effort to add a little something to our class. He’s polite enough not to overshadow the instructor while they are teaching, but he does say the best things. Sempai and sensei tell us technical matters. They say our shinai is too high for chudan, they say that our back foot is not straight, and they say that we need to life higher before strikes to practice good form.

The head sensei doesn’t tell us technical details, he fills in the rest of the blanks. He will repeat what the instructor says and then tell us “why” we do it that way. He strings together all of the individual details into the full, flowing end result, and then lectures about the non-physical aspect of Kendo.

Tonight he talked about the attitudes of Kendo. He said something like, “If you try to strike kote, miss, and then give up, that is not Kendo. If you try to strike kote, miss, try to strike men, miss, then give up, that is not Kendo. If you try to strike kote, miss, try to strike men, miss, pass on through, not turn around to threaten your opponent, then give up, that is not Kendo. Kendo is giving all of your energy in every strike and claiming every attack as a victory. If you miss, then you try again. If you pass on through, you turn around and try again. Having the attitude of constantly making every single attack be the one that claims victory and then setting up to do it again automatically, that is Kendo.” (Of course, I am paraphrasing his words.)

Our head sensei is very smart about Kendo because he not just memorizes the moves, he also strives to perfect his attitude at the same time. That way, his students receive the answers to “why” as well as “how”. Having only part of the answer can be frustrating.

A Beginner's Point of View 26-27

Day 26:

Today is a proud milestone for me. I recieved my bogu in the mail, including the carrying bag. It all came together, but not laced up. There were no instructions on how to lace up the men and doh, so it was confusing. The kote had all the laces in them already. They seemed just the slightest bit loose, but they fit. I also got all my paperwork and fees together for the tournament. Right before class, I submitted all my paperwork and fees to sensei. I also ordered our club's custom zekken through him, too. The company that sold me the bogu also had a service to embroider a zekken for a fee. However, our club has a kind of "sleeve" type of zekken that is easy to put on and remove. That way, you don't have to tape up or otherwise cover your school's insignia. Instead, you just remove the zekken "sleeve" and you're ready.

Today had a larger class than usual, which was good. We each counted 1 to 8 in turn for warm-ups. This pushed us to do more warm-ups, which is good work for me. I need more endurance (and footwork, but that's a different story). This also reinforces the idea of unity within us. We are one school, no just 'several people wasting time'. Unfortunately, without instructions, I could not lace up my bogu in time for class, so I went without. I'll try tomorrow looking for a manual that shows how to attach the himo (strings) for the first time.

I know that sempai has a lot to deal with by teaching a class, but every once in a while, when there are new students, someone (sempai or sensei) needs to end class with a quick lesson on how to tie up, wear, take off, and maintain a single piece of equipment. Reading a manual by yourself at home may not work for everyone. I was lucky I got a manual that had several good pictures on how to tie the shinai tsuru knot near the tsuba, or else I would have had to waste my instructor's time doing that when I should be learning how to do it myself. Perhaps just a few minutes to show the piece of equipment and explain the proper use and care for it would be good. I remember my very first class. At the end, sempai took all of us aside and took apart a shinai in front of us to show us the inner workings and what to do to sand, oil, and rotate staves. That was very useful. It allowed me to read the manual and try it myself.

We quickly worked up from walking to swinging to charging again. I really have been working hard on my footwork. I can tell because my shins hurt at night and the next morning. Once some senior students put on their full bogu, the class split up. The newer students would practice men strikes while my group practiced kote/men strikes. We also practiced kiri-kaeshi, which was good for our sense of timing and for when we will be tested. The tournament is only 2.5 months away, but I really need to work up my endurance until then. I had to take 2 rest breaks to get my breath back. I have low ceilings in my house and no hardwood floors, so practice is hard to come by.

Day 27:

Today I brought my bogu to class. The bag I bought to carry my bogu was described as the largest model, but it's still difficult to place everything in the central space. I wonder if I would have been further ahead to buy a 'backpack' style bag instead of a 'suitcase' style bag. Maybe the doh just needs to be broken in before it will fit well. For now, I will bring my athletic bag for my change of exercise clothes and supplies and use my bogu bag just for bogu. They all fit in the trunk of my car just fine anyway.

I also learned that bogu must NOT be stored in the bogu bag, only carried. The bogu bag will trap the moisture from sweat and cause mold to grow inside the pieces. When back at home after practice, you take the bogu out of the bag and set it aside in a well-ventilated room to air out.

It was a good thing that I practiced tying the doh knots before I came to practice or else I would have forgotten them. The doh knots look like they are flimsy, but they are not. They are meant to easily tie and untie but they are strong enough to hold the doh in place. I also practiced the tying up the men, but that is not so easy, especially since you cannot see the knots. The cords try to creep around the sides of the men and move out of place. I wonder if there's a trick to it.

Practice was very good. Warm-ups went smoother this time. I only messed up the count once, but recovered better. We spent most of practice practicing drills that work up to a certain ni-dan waza. We step in, semin, strike kote, strike men, and pass on through. Eventually, this should be a quick, small, flowing, single movement. It also sets you up to collide with your opponent doh-to-doh, which pushes them back and lets you take their space and thusly control of the match. The advanced students practiced colliding with the doh, the rest of us passed by. I learned that when deciding which side to pass the opponent, the kote overrule the men. Normally, you pass on the right when you strike men. You pass on the left when you strike kote. If you strike kote-men, you pass on the left. This is because you strike kote first, thus putting yourself on the left side. It would be too complicated and too open to switch sides while trying to pass through. Passing through is a straight line, allowing you to use all your energy to pass quickly. Changing sides robs you of your energy and slows you down.

A Beginner's Point of View 24-25

Day 24:

Today, I put on bogu for the first time. Myself and another kendoka were borrowing club-owned bogu for practice to get used to how it feels. Sempai still thought it was too early for us to wear bogu and practice, but sensei felt that since the next tournament is only a couple of months away we should be getting ready to compete. I borrowed sensei's bogu, and it seemed to fit well. Let me explain how to put it on.

First, you seiza and put on the tare. The broad, horizontal strip goes over your waits and the flaps just fall into place. You loop the strings around your back and bring them to the front. You tie them into a knot under the front-center flap. Done.

Next comes the doh. You place the doh against your belly with the bottom edge covering the broad horizontal tare strip on your waist. you then separate and tie the four strings in the back. The upper strings go diagonally across your back and forward over your shoulders towards the loops on the upper-front of the doh. The knots are fairly sophisticated, but sensei says there are several knots to choose from. The bottom two string tie behind your back tightly, but leaving a little room for flexibility.

Next comes the headcloth, called the tenugui. The purpose of this item is to make the men more comfortable to wear. You take the cloth and fold it lengthwise. Then you fold it into thirds and turn the outside lengths at an angle, crossing each other. Flip the cloth over and fold the angled corners up into the cloth. It forms a hat to wear on your head.

Then, you put on the men. Inside, there is a ledge to rest your chin upon. The men is heavy and fits tightly around your head. This is important because you may expect to be struck on the head often. The men strings are tied behind your head. As I did not know how to do this, sensei tied it for me. According to our club's manual, you loop the men strings through the forth (or fifth) metal bar on the front of the men, loop them behind the men, loop in front through the topmost bar and behind again. Use your thumbs to hold the men open and put it on your head. I found it easiest to put it on chin-first. Sensei then tied the strings behind my head tightly. It was difficult to hear and the metal grill gave the men a tendancy to pull my head forward.

Finally, I put the kote on. It is not difficult, but they remind me of thick mittens with the four fingers of your hand all together. It makes the act of re-positioning your grip on the shinai during bowing in and out awkward, but not difficult.

I stayed later than usual for the first half of the advanced class. We practied kiri-kaeshi with different partners. It was tiring with the bogu on, but since I was expecting the extra work, it was not so bad. As I was leaving, it sounded like the club was having a free practice match. In the future, when I become an advanced student, I'll have to re-arrange my schedule to show up for the advanced session later at night, but that is for the future. Sempai made sure to politely explain that just because we may wear our own bogu does not confer rank or status. It is our technique and posture that says what our status is. I agree with her.

Day 25:

Today, there was another new student. It’s nice to see the class growing. It’s better when there are more voices shouting the repetitions of warm-ups. I think that’s the biggest thing I’m getting in Kendo, just being part of something bigger.

After warm-ups, we worked on some footwork for a few times before sempai asked me aside. She thought my footwork wasn’t as well along as she thought it would be. After walking back and forth across the room at the “pass by the opponent” speed, I figured it out. I’m slowing down and moving awkwardly. My right leg was straight out when it should be bent just a little. It’s the left leg that should be straight.

I was also turning my left foot a little bit when it should face forward. It’s a leftover instinct from foil fencing, where your left foot is always at a right angle to your direction of travel. I’m going to need to keep working on straightening my legs out more if I’m going to get better at moving forward quickly.

At least I’m learning to turn around better. To properly turn around, you must act as if you are stepping while turning your body. Easier said than done. Also, you should step forward 1 step after turning to show confidence towards your opponent.

A Beginner's Point of View 20-23

Day 20:

I was feeling poorly today, so I decided to stay home instead of making myself sick. I did spend some time practicing my footwork in the kitchen. The linoleum had square patterns like tile, so I could use the lines to keep my footwork straight.

Day 21:

No Kendo practice due to the holidays.

Day 22:

Today was the day of the potluck dinner and Balloon Kendo game. Since I didn't have my bogu yet, I wasn't allowed to compete. (I expected that.) There were students from other Kendo clubs here as well. We did a full set of warm-ups to start, making sure everyone got a chance to count out loud. The harmony and unity in the dojo was amazing. Everyone was working in unison for the same goal, and that was inspiring.

My laziness over the holdiay break was obvious. I was getting tired during warm-ups and even lost count a few times. It was embarrassing. Fortunately, no one said anything. At length, sempai had to tell me not to get so "excited" during warm-ups. I was overworking myself and bleeding away all of my energy. Once again, I was showing my lack of expertise and fitness. I should probably start exercising on a daily basis just to bring my endurance up.

Balloon Kendo was fun, even if I didn't compete. What happens is a balloon is inflated and then tied to the metal frame of the men. If necessary, the balloon is held back by tape. Sometimes, you will also tape a balloon to each of the kote, but today we didn't do this. Round balloons are not good for that. You fight one-on-one until someone pops the balloon. The one who pops gets a point while the other gets another balloon. The first 4 kendoka who get 5 points are the semifinalists. The semifinalists compete in one-round elimination and then the finalists fight. The winner receives "all the fame and glory", as sensei says.

Myself and one other did have have bogu, so we volunteered to tie balloons and mark points. It was easy at first, until we started running out of inflated balloons. Then it was a race to inflate balloons, mark points, and then tie balloons (sometimes in that order). I'm not sure how this would happen if everyone had bogu and was competing.

Day 23:

No Kendo practice due to the holidays.

A Beginner's Point of View 18-19

Day 18:

Today we learned something new. We learned the doh strike, which attacks the side of the belly. First, you take chudan. Then, when your opponant tries for a big men strike, you move forward and to the right just a little bit. You raise up your shinai overhead high, then bring down in a slight curve to the left and bring it down on the side of the waist. You want to strike the side of the body, where the armor wraps around the body. Once you strike, you move quickly past your opponant while dragging your shinai across the front of their belly. This emulates the act of splitting your opponant's belly open, which is a fatal strike.

The doh strike is easy enough to do, but only if you start out right. The difficult part is the first part, which is striking in the right place. It is tempting to strike too high or too low. If you strike too high, you risk hurting your opponant. Considering that Kendo competition is treated as an honorable sporting event, this is a bad thing. You do not wish to cause harm to anyone. (After all, we all wear armor for a reason, right?) If you strike too low, then you hit the hip. The tare should protect the hip, but it is not considered a clean strike. You need to hit the right target for it to count as a point. Also, it is considered bad form if when dragging the shinai across the belly, your hand drop down lower than the point of impact. Your hands should be level with the point of impact.

Class ran late today because we wanted to practice the doh strike as much as possible. At first, we practiced doh strike on Sensei. Then we practiced kote-doh. Finally, we practiced the combination of men/kote-men/kote-doh/men/men/men a few times before class let out. I had to leave a little early because class ran very late. I have to be in for work early, so my schedule is very tight.

Day 19:

Today was a lot of work. We started out with warm-ups and then did some simple footwork to sharpen our posture. After that, we practiced left and right men strikes in preparation for kiri-kaeshi. I’m sure I kept my sword-swinging well during the men strikes, but maybe I let my footwork slip a little (just a little).

Once those were done, some of the advanced students put on their bogu and let us practice kiri-kaeshi on them over and over. It was a lot of fun and it was a LOT of hard work. To keep up your energy at a high, steady rate all throughout the drill is taxing on your endurance, especially when you do it over and over with different instructors every time. Even Sempai and the Head Sensei of our school suited up in bogu and let us swing at them.

Practice seemed to last forever, but in a good way. This is possibly the most fun I’ve had since joining Kendo, even though I had to stop halfway through to catch my breath and rest for a few minutes before getting back to it.

At the end of practice, our Head Sensei stayed after to give advice and lessons on some things that are more difficult to understand in Kendo. He explained an example of “zanshin”. He said, “When you finish kiri-kaeshi with the men strike, do not slow down at the end. When you finish, you finish with speed and energy. You come right back to the starting position (chudan) and face your opponent, ready to start again if need be. That is zanshin”.

I think Head Sensei was trying to say that by finishing your actions by returning to the ready position, with confidence that you could do it all over again without regretting it, then you have good Kendo spirit. If you slack off at the end, you think you are done. If you are not done, then your opponent could walk up and strike you when you are not ready. That is not good Kendo spirit. He makes a lot of sense.

A Beginner's Point of View 16-17

Day 16:

Today, we started something completely different. It's called the kiri-kaeshi and it's an advanced exercise that all Kendoka learn. It combines footwork, striking, blocking, spacing, and timing. We started off with just footwork and then just striking. In order to do the kiri-kaeshi, you must strike men, separate by a step, then alternate striking men for 4 steps, then walk backwards while alternate striking men for 5 steps, then take 2 more backwards steps to open the distance, then repeat the strike, forward, backward movements, and then strike men while passing through. It's very tricky to get the timing and spacing right.

Instead of our receiver blocking us, today they let us hit men because if our receiver ever fails to block, then we should hit the men anyway. The alternating striking men can be difficult as well. It's only a tad off to the right, then a tad off to the left, etc... It's not a large difference. The side of the men should not be hit, it's still the top.

When done properly, the kiri-kaeshi looks like a cross between a simple dance and a deadly swordfight. Sempai told us that kiri-kaeshi is sometimes considered the very essence of Kendo (if not just visually demonstrating the point of Kendo). This is not a ‘sometimes’ exercise. The advanced students often perform this routine nearly every practice session.

This exercise was a lot of fun, but it did take a lot of energy. The class split up into 2 lines and alternated between performing kiri-kaeshi from Sensei to Sempai and back and forth. I performed it 3 times before class was over. This exercise did knock some new dents into my shinai. I’ll have to rotate the staves carefully later this week when I take it apart to maintain it.

Day 17:

Today was different. We still did a lot of footwork, which was good because I still keep turning my left heel inward no matter what I do. Nowadays, I just take it in stride (excuse the pun). I figure I’ll get better faster if I stop obsessing about it and just keep correcting myself.

We did a new exercise this class. Sensei joined us and we formed two lines of three people. Pairing off, we stood in chudan and then practiced moving together to keep spacing. One person would pressure the other, who would move backwards to keep the proper distance, which was at the saki-gawa crossing. The two people are supposed to move together. However, sometimes the one pressuring would take a diagonal step or step too far, thus forcing the other to move off-balance to keep up. I’m sure my posture wasn’t very good at the end of the drill, but that only served to catch Sensei off-guard, so he was fooled into moving the wrong way. It was amusing. This was very good for practicing the spacing for future kiri-kaeshi.

A Beginner's Point of View 14-15

Day 14:

Today was a small class, only 2 of us learning. We did much more striking and learning the finer points of what happens before and after the strike. Too often, it is overlooked about when you declare your target. Many people fall into the trap of shouting, “Men” after the strike, which is bad form. You are supposed to shout it before the strike, preferably on the way down with your shinai.

Also, you must be prompt when turning around, lest your opponent whack you before you’re ready to defend yourself.

After dealing with men strikes, we practiced kata again. We practiced only Kata #1, which shows a men strike. Sensei practiced with us and showed us more than just the forms. He also taught us to show lots of energy and intensity as we go through the motions. As we progress in rank, our kata should come closer and closer to the body of our partner. At the Dan level, we should be able to stop our bokken just touching their hair. That will take a lot of control. I like practicing kata. It may not be the competitive side that tournament fighting involves, but it is fun.

Day 15:

Today a lot of new people showed up to join the club. This means that Raven went back to teaching the basics from the beginning. That’s okay. I can never have too much practice with footwork. We did a large amount of stretches and opening drills. That was fun, but I did get to experience something I wanted to experience since seeing it at the tournament.

We had a group of nine students all performing Shomen Suburi together in unison. Our voices rang out loudly and in synch. I’ll bet people across the street could hear us. It’s that camaraderie and unison that I see in Kendo that was so attractive in the tournament.

We did not split up the class like I thought we would do, but those of us who have been here for a while got to perform kote strikes against Sensei while the newer students did men strikes. We took a long time since there were a lot of us. Also, Sensei and Sempai said a lot of encouraging words to give us incentive to stick with it. As a result, we stopped practice late. Some people stayed behind to keep practicing, but I had to go home.

A Beginner's Point of View 12-13

Day 12:

Today was a good day. After a full stretching exercise, we worked on some more footwork. Progress seems slow, but steady. I like to say that my footwork is getting better "percent by percent". Before, I was standing too far forward on the front of my feet, tiring them out quickly. I still need to stop turning my left heel inwards.

There are so many Japanese terms to memorize that it's overwhelming. I'm still keeping tabs on the document I'm writing, and it's filling up fast. I split it into two separate documents, one for Japanese language and one for Etiquette and Drills. Now, I need to record the names of the suburi drills. It's hard since I must use phonetic language and I have to remember them even after concentrating only on footwork and strikes.

Halfway through, the class was split up again. This time, sempai took the newer students aside to work on footwork, while sensei took us to refine our men strikes. When striking men, he would lean back some, forcing me to extend my arm fully to hit him. It took a couple of strikes, but I'm getting more comfortable extending all the way. Now, standing at the proper distance for men strike doesn't seem so far away. You only have to be close enough for the saki-gawa to cross, and no more. Only about 1/4 of the shinai is needed for men strike.

I also learned that I was gripping my shinai too tightly. I was squeezing it, as if trying to keep the staves together with my hands. This is not correct because the staves will stay together by means of the saki-gawa and naka-yui, not me. I only need to "carry" the shinai through my form. It does not "carry" me through its form. Once I loosened up and extended my arms fully, striking men became much easier. We also learned to follow our opponent with our eyes so that we turn around sooner after passing through.

In retrospect, I figured out that I was taking too big a step forward and too small a step backward. They need to be equal in length. Whenever I do the forward-back-right-left drill, I need to end up back in the same place I started. Sensei says that "We learn to do things. Then we do things 'flowing'. Then we are good." So, more practice will help me tone down my efforts to a more proper proportion. Sempai also had something good to say. She said, "We strike men lots of times. Eventually, you get tired but still need to keep striking men. Your last few men strikes are close to perfect because you're so tired, you stop forcing it and just do it."

Day 13:

What happened today? I started off with warm-ups like usual, but I was so clumsy that I hit myself in the head with my shinai three times. Each time I reflexively looked around, hoping that no one saw, but I know at least two people saw me (one of them being sensei). Maybe I didn’t stretch my shoulders enough or maybe I was concentrating too much on extending that I didn’t pay attention to how high I was raising it above my head.

We did mostly the basics of footwork and men strikes today. Good refresher for me. Either the floor was sticky or I wasn’t trying hard enough because when I tried to kendo-walk, my feet just wouldn’t slide very well.

Being embarrassed by my warm-ups (I also messed up the rhythm on the first set), I tried extra hard to just let the men strike flow. It worked. By the time practice was over, I was back to proper form. Also, we did a drill where an instructor would hold their shinai high up horizontally and we would men strike to extend our range of strike. It was a lesson in just how big the shinai really was. Good practice all around.

A Beginner's Point of View 10-11

Day 10:

Today I have to skip Kendo. My job is requiring me to work multiple long shifts close to each other. In the last 24 hours, I have worked 16 hours and only offset it by 5 hours of sleep, 2 roast beef sandwiches, 2 chewy granola bars, and 1 apple. End result: I am exhausted and hungry. With only 45 minutes to prepare, I’ve decided that I’m too overexerted and undernourished to practice today.

For a while, I felt guilty. I’m asking sensei and sempai to take time out of their lives to teach me Kendo. However, I also realize that it would do me no good to strain myself and collapse from exhaustion. Kendo is an Art that is practice as a combination of movements, like a symphony of energy and muscle. Stepping and striking. Breathing and moving. The step and strike are performed together, like having energy and spending it. One needs to be in good health to learn it.

I still have to work tomorrow, so I’m going to spend this time recovering and get ready for practice later in the week. Besides, I can just practice my footwork in the kitchen without stressing myself.

After a conversation with sensei, he told me to be ready to train harder than ever. One just gets done from a tournament only to start training for the next. Always go, go, go. It’s like Kendo never stops. Well, maybe it doesn’t, but you can take a rest when you need one.

Day 11:

Today there was a new student who seemed to be someone who wanted to stick it out. We went through all of the first drills that I went through as a new student. I saw how he didn’t do so well. I immediately had the urge to advise him on how to stand and hold the shinai. I remembered that it was the sempai’s job to teach that, so I didn’t speak.

Still, I am no longer standing on the extreme left end of lining up. This makes me feel as if I have a responsibility to help everyone less skilled than me. I also did much better at the jumping footwork drill this time. I could keep up with the others this time without twisting my foot.

Also, today was the first day I wore my keikogi and hakama to practice. I was seriously worried that people might say that I am not wearing it properly or it’s not the right size. In the end, nobody said anything, which I understand means everything’s all right. Whew.

It was a basic day, and I think we will start over again from what was my beginning and loop around. I wonder if I’ll be in the more advanced group if the class gets segregated again. Of course, sempai had to correct my Kendo stance again, so maybe not.

A Beginner's Point of View 9

Day 9:

Today sensei was busy with other things, so I arrived to see the Iaido class being taught by one of the Iaido sempai. I had received my uniform in the mail today from the vendor at the tournament. They promptly shipped it by FedEx, who decided to throw the box into the bushes next to my garage. Perhaps they thought no one would notice it there and want to steal it. Sheesh.

The uniform seemed of a darker color than I expected. I suppose since it's a practice uniform that it's all right. I may have to try a different vendor in the future for extra uniforms. I haven't had a chance to open up the plastic bundles and try on the uniform yet, but I intend to this weekend. I want to practice wearing the uniform and tying the strings before I show up for practice in one.

My foot is getting better, but my knee is still stiff. I think that day of endless footwork drills in front of the mirror has really worked the muscles and tendons very hard. I'm not in pain, but it is annoying. I think I'll need to massage it this weekend also.

Today was a very informal day. After a very haphazard method of stretching, we did a few footwork and striking drills, called suburi. After that, we learned about how to properly line up and how to properly rotate through the lines for drills. That may not seem very important at first, but when you have a class with dozens of students all training at once, proper rotations ensure that everyone gets the chance to drill and not be skipped. After that, we practiced striking against a senior Kendoka in bogu. I did only men strikes, but the others were practicing more advanced strikes, such as Kote, Kote-Men, and the Men, Kote-Men, Kote-Men, Kote, Kote, Men combo. Apparently, Kendo takes a lot of time to master, as evident by my subtle but continuous improvement in my footwork.

One thing I did learn was the distance one needs to swing for a men strike. The proper distance away from your opponent is to just barely have the saki-gawa of the shinais crossing. That's the starting distance. Take one Kendo step forward and swing. You are forced to extend your arms to the proper form in order to hit the men. Now I think I'm getting better at the men strike. Before, I had to imagine my opponent, now I had a real one to show me where to really hit. That was useful.

A Beginner's Point of View 8

Day 8:

Over the weekend, I did what every Kendoka has to do eventually: shinai maintenance. This long, involved process can be intimidating to most, especially if you’ve never done it before.

First, gather all the necessary tools to help you. I went and bought a plastic drop cloth that painters use to avoid getting paint on the floor for only a couple of dollars. Then, I got needle-nose pliers, some 220 grit sandpaper, a roll of paper towels, and a small bottle of vegetable oil. I also got an upright rectangular moving box standing upright in a plastic bin.

Next, I pulled off the tsuba and tsuba-dome. I used the pliers to undo the knot close to the tsuba and unravel it until it detached from the leather wrap on the handle. I pulled off the leather wrap (with a great deal of muscle-power) and slid off the saki-gawa and naka-yui. I set these things aside. They were new and were not damaged.

Next thing I did was to carefully pull apart the 4 wooden pieces, called ‘staves’, and laid them out as if unrolling them apart. Inside the depths of the handle was a little metal square of metal that held the staves in proper position. Mine was stuck tightly inside a stave, so I left it in, but it could come out if needed.

I picked up a stave and marked its place amongst the four. This is important because unless you’re very lucky, all four staves MUST be arranged in a single, special way or else they don’t go together. I examined the stave with both my fingers and eyes and I carefully (CAREFULLY!!!) touched along the side of the wood. This is where splinters form, and they’re very nasty if you stick yourself. Some sandpaper will dislodge a splinter at its root. You do NOT want to tug and pull off a splinter as it will just get bigger and start to crack the wood. Bamboo is a kind of grass, so you must be careful in handling and fixing it.

Once all of the staves have had their splinters removed, I used the paper towels to rub some vegetable oil onto all of the surfaces of the stave. I also found out that a little goes a long, long way. This keeps the wood moist and flexible. Dry bamboo can become brittle and crack. I put the staves separately in the upright box and left them overnight.

The next day, I put the staves back together. At first, the leather wrap for the handle did not go back on, and it confused me. After a while, I realized that two of the staves were reversed. They did not fit together. After I fixed that (thank goodness I labeled them all by using digital compass headings), the handle went on. It was still tight and difficult to put on the last couple of inches, so I used some baby powder to smooth it in. With a lot of muscle power, it went on. I replaced the naka-yui and saki-gawa in position and began tying the tsuru back. I printed out step-by-step instructions, with pictures, and it was not too bad. I did have to pull and tug and yank hard to get the tension just right, but after a few big loops, it started to hold by itself. I finished tying the knot like the pictures showed and then tightened the naka-yui as best as I could. I was done!

The staves were not rigid in their shape and would slide around if I squeezed the sword, but my other shinai was just the same way. The second shinai was brand new and therefore had to be right. I had completed one of the more intimidating tasks of Kendo and felt more confident now. They say maintaining your own shinai gives you “Samurai Spirit”. Well, I do feel a little more competent now.

Today was more footwork in front of the mirrors. I still turn my back heel inwards automatically, but at least I can tell when I do it. This will take a lot of work to correct, but I can finally see some of my progress. I also don’t seem to extend the shinai properly when I swing. Some more practice should fix that. Soon, my keiko-gi and hakama should arrive in the mail so I can wear the uniform when I practice. I won’t feel so out of place anymore then.

I often wonder if I have a rank to start with or if I am without rank and must earn my first rank. This also makes me wonder just what are the testing requirements for all the Kendo ranks. A little research should prove useful.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Beginnner's Point of View 7.5

Day 7.5 (Tournament):

Well, the first Kendo tournament arrived with much work to do and much confusion as to the limited parking spaces. I brought some ice for the drinks and planned to just watch the main part of the tournament. I had other plans for the day, but I had plenty of time.

It turned out to be much bigger than I thought it would. More than a hundred Kendoka arrived, packing the gymnasium! There were also a couple of dozen others for support, but mostly supporters of certain schools. It was huge (and crowded)! The schools had to take turns in an organized fashion to perform warm-up exercises. Hearing all the different schools go through their drills in near-perfect unison while chanting the number of repetitions over and over was enthralling. You could just feel the harmony and camaraderie in the air.

Sensei was very busy walking back and firth around the entire building, getting everything organized. He walked up to me and asked if I could help out because they were short-handed. He gave me the stopwatch and the yellow flag. A normal Kendo match lasts for only 3 minutes. The clock only stops at the end or when the judges call a stop.

Kendo is a very swift and aggressive martial art. The experienced competitors are poised and graceful as well as powerful, especially the Nidan and above ranks. They wield their shinais as if they were mere feathers. It take a great deal of skill and intelligence to plan out your defense and counterattacks to best your opponent.

First, the area is marked out by white tape. An “X” is placed in the center, with a short line of tape about a shinai’s length on left and right of the “X”. The Kendo match only takes place inside the marked-off area, outside is a penalty.

The Shinpan are the three judges who decide on the match. There is a head judge who makes the calls and the other two assist him. Each judge carries a red flag and a white flag. The red flag represents the Kendoka that starts on the head judge’s right side. The white flag represents the Kendoka that starts on the head-judge’s left side. When the head judge and one of the supporting judges both call the same thing, the head judge calls for Yame, or a stop in the action.

If any one judge thinks a call should be made, he raises the flag of the one who he thinks has scored a clean hit. If the other judges disagree, they shake their flags below the waist to “wave it off”. If a flag is raised above the shoulders, it indicates a point in favor of the Kendoka with that color of ribbon tied to the back of their bogu. If a flag is held out below the waist, it indicates a penalty for the Kendoka with that color of ribbon. As an example, stepping out of bounds gives that Kendoka a warning. The Shinpan stop the match and return the fighters to the starting positions. The head judge gives the warning to the offender and starts the match again. If the offender steps out of the area again, the judge will repeat his actions and this time grant a point to the opposite Kendoka.

The match is decisively won if either Kendoka gains 2 points. The match is also won if the score is 1-0 and time runs out. If the match is a draw, then the head judge will award the victory to the Kendoka who has shown the stronger Kendo (aggressiveness, style, proper form, etc…). If it is still even after taking all of that into account, then the head judge will declare the match a draw with no clear winner.

This continues in a standard tournament style until there is a final winner. Often times, semi-final or perhaps final matches will have no time limit, depending on the decision of the Shinpan. In our tournament, there were divisions for Kendoka of mixed lower ranks, Kendoka of Nidan and above, one for women, and a team competition which was a best-of-five match between different schools.

I wound up staying a lot longer than I expected, because of the chaotic way that so many Kendoka needed to be scheduled (and tracked down from wherever they had wandered off to), that I had to fill a role that demanded constant attention. I was glad to help out, and I also put in an order for a uniform and a shinai maintenance tool. I also got a carry-bag for my shinai and bokken. Once my order comes through, maybe I will feel more like a Kendoka. Even though sensei assures me it will be months before I can suit up in bogu, I can’t wait to start.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled since in ice hockey, you wear armor from the first practice.

A Beginnner's Point of View 7

Day 7:
Things are shaping up nicely. It turns out that I partially twisted my left foot during leaping drills on Day 6, but it's mostly healed. After a quick stretch, we started off with normal drills and footwork. Since there was a new student, he just watched a lot. My foot was stiff from healing, but it was all right to practice.

Then we started in with the leaping footwork again. I performed the drill with a little fear because this is was hurt me in the first place. I'm normally slow with drill since I'm not used to leaping back and forth quickly, but I gained speed. I did lag behind everybody else, though. I wonder if I'm not doing something right or just too cautious. Either way, I began to pick up speed when OUCH! I landed wrongly again. Fortunately, this time it wasn't painful, just undid the last day's healing. I was good enough to perform the rest of the practice.

Most of the rest of class was simple footwork drills. The class was segregated again. The more advanced students were learning to quickly run while balancing the shinai on their heads. The point of this was easy to figure out. The Kendoka must separate their body into upper and lower parts. The lower part must not influence the upper part. Otherwise, you would bounce the sword up and down on your head. Since the shinai represents a real sword, it would injure you. The point is to Kendo-run across the floor while keeping good posture and not bouncing.

I'm still rusty with my footwork and still need to extend my arms fully for a men strike, but I can tell I'm improving. My instructor seemed to notice that I was tired from all of the drills. I'm normally not so exhausted, but I was breathing harder than usual. I think maybe we were doing more exertion than usual. She was concerned that I was pushing myself too hard, but I've worked harder than that before.

I think one of the reasons that Kendo stance is difficult is because I try to lift up the heels of my feet too high. Maybe if I just shift my weight to the front of the feet and just lift up slightly, then it will be better. I also need to work on my speed.

The new student kept shouting sarcastic comments for attention. I didn't like that. It's disrespectful, but it's also disruptive. I found it distracting and almost decided to tell him to be quiet. Instead, I let the instructor deal with it.

The tournament is this weekend. I'm not nearly good enough to compete, but I'm going to show up. I'll at least learn some court etiquette and buy some more equipment. I think it's time I got a real uniform and carry case for my shinai and bokken.

We also ended class by doing a practice for the tournament. It wasn't very complicated, but it did have the Kendoka seeming to start the entire process. That's different from other events of other activities I've been to. In Foil (and other types) fencing, the judges control everything. They tell you when to show up, when to step into the bouting strip, when to adopt the proper posture, when to move to "en guarde", and when to began or end. There's more personal initiative in Kendo, and both before and after the actual fight, both Kendoka must perform their actions simultaneously. Different, but good.

A Beginnner's Point of View 6

Day 6:
Today was all footwork. Good footwork is deceptively simple. There’s balancing on the front of your feet. Carrying your body weight at the right time, proper Kendo stance, proper movement, and then including swinging the shinai on-target at the same time. I liked it, especially since I need so much work on it.

Today we had a full-length mirror to take turns practicing in front of for each of the more advanced drills. The mirror had to be tilted to stay stable against the wall, so the image had the shinai higher than you did.

I’m not sure my instructor keeps good perspective when correcting me in my chudan (basic sword position where you point at your opponent’s throat) since she keeps dropping the point down a couple of inches. It looks to me like it was right before. Take into account that she’s shorter than me and maybe it was right before she corrected it. Maybe it was right afterwards, I don’t know.

We added a new footwork drill today. Forward, right, forward, left. The mirror helped with this one. It’s different than the ‘box step’ (forward, back, right, left) that we’ve done. The box step was easier, but this new one was hard. The rhythm is easy, but the 90 degree shift in weight throws one off balance.

Also, we did something called ‘rapid footwork’. Normally in Kendo, you never let your feet leave the floor. Here we did just that. We leaped forward and backward, over and over. This provides a springing step for a quick attack and a quick retreat. I had to go slowly since I didn’t feel like falling down.

Each week I keep learning new stuff. It’s all good, but there’s just not enough time in the day, unless Kendo was my job. Too bad.

A Beginnner's Point of View 5

Day 5:
Today was different than the others. Normally, all of the beginning students train together. However, there were few of us and sensei had an errand to run. So, we rushed through stretches and then segregated the class. Our normal instructor took myself and one other beginner off to the side while another senior student took the rest (a few showed up late to fill the ranks).

Our small group was put through remedial exercises of kendo stance and proper footwork. I cannot speak for the other student, but I needed that workout. Our instructor took great pains to assure us that we were not considered "lesser" because of this particular day. We simply needed to work on more basic drills than the others. If the others worked with us, they would not gain as we would. If we went through their drills, we would not improve our basics that they have mastered. Personally, as an engineer, I agree with this idea. The only problem was that since we all shared the same dojo, their kiai shouts drowned out our instructor. So, half of what she said was missed by us. Fortunately, I could guess what she was going to say since she's said it to me several times before. Having a larger practice area so the two groups could be farther away from each other would have helped, but that's something that's beyond my control.

For the whole practice, the other student and myself would simply practice walking in Kendo stance across the room and back. A lot of good questions were asked and all of them were answered. I think I've improved my stance somewhat. It turns out that proper stance does not place your weight on your front foot. It goes on the back foot. Instead of your body pulling your back leg along, you are supposed to slide your front foot out and then slide your body forward. I was not doing that before. At least my leg muscles don't burn so much anymore.

I also figured out why I have trouble with Kendo stance in general, not just weight and balance. I took French Foil instruction for 2 years and then continued to practice what I knew for 2.5 years after that. So, my body has been in Foil Stance for more than 4 years with little interruption. I've adapted that defensive stance as my natural stance. Kendo has both feet facing front and leaning forward on the soles of your feet. Foil has your back foot twisted "outward" by 90 degrees and your whole foot on the floor. Foil also has you move by picking your foot up, moving it forward, and setting it down. You do not slide, since the fencing strip most likely is carpeted. In Kendo, you have a hard, smooth surface for your bare feet. I think I shall have a lot of work to deprogram myself to adopt Kendo stance as natural, but I don't think I shall give up. Even if I'm going to lag behind others, it's worth pursuing. I'm just going to count on my instructor and my sensei to be patient with me.

I think the lesson is "change is hard, so stick with it".

A Beginnner's Point of View 4

Day 4:
Today was much better. I tired using my new fix to footwork and I was at least standing better. Movement still needs work. Today started off with a quiz on shinai parts. I knew a few words, but not all of them.

We did stretches again and the standard foot drills to start. Good, I needed them. We also started the work of class with performing the bowing to joseki and sensei. Our instructor also explained the term sempai, meaning senior student. Class was a little more formal this time. I could tell the others just wanted to get back to swinging the shinai, but I liked the formal part. It set the tone. This time, over half the class showed up late, but I suppose their lives demanded them elsewhere and they did show up. Eventually, we did more strikes against the sensei, who was in full bogu. This time, we added something new.

Normally, the advanced students always made some kind of sound as they set up for the striking drill. I normally don’t male any sound since I’m a quiet kind of guy. I don’t like to make too much noise or draw attention to myself. It seemed that everyone would say what sounded like actual Japanese words (or something that has a meaning). I had nothing, so I just decided to tap into a little anger to give me an idea. I was supposed to be scary and aggressive, so I growled. Apparently, sensei liked it. Growling got my energy flowing, so I kept using it.

I still need to work on my footwork, but I can feel it getting a little bit better. At the end of class, the sempai and sensei gave us a pep talk about not being discouraged by how hard something is and to just stick to it. That was reassuring since I didn’t make as much progress with the footwork as I’d hoped. Next class should also be fun.

A Beginnner's Point of View 3

Day 3:
We met again in the same practice area as last time. Apparently, this was the usual dojo from now on. Only a few students showed up this time. Maybe the others were busy. I decided to stretch my way again. Last time, my muscles weren’t so sore after stretching both my way and Kendo way. I think I’ll keep doing that.

By the time I was finished, our Kendo instructor was calling for us to line up again. As we assembled, she called seiretsu (say-ret-su). Everyone else seemed to know what she meant, so I just followed along again. Later, I would search on the internet for some common Japanese Kendo translations and learn that meant for us to line up for instruction. We skipped the ritual bowing this time and went right into footwork and basic strikes. This time, I nailed down exactly what word she was saying. It was men (men), meaning helmet. We also learned the strike and word for hitting our opponent’s armored gloves, called kote (koh-tay).

Now Kendo was getting interesting. We learned a basic combination for striking our opponent. This was repetitive and difficult, but I was learning it quickly. Still, I had trouble keeping my shinai raised as I charged by sensei in bogu.

I also seemed to notice a problem with constantly twisting my left ankle like in a Foil Fencer’s stance. This was pointed out several times by my instructor and it frustrated me. My instructor was not embarrassing me, but I was still embarrassed. It just felt so natural to turn the heel slightly to coil the legs muscles for movement power. However, it’s not proper for Kendo. Maybe I’m just trying too hard. I’ll have to try to fix my footwork at home over the weekend, or at least try.

After drills, sensei told us to get our bokken for the next drill. The advanced students would drill with us using bokken in a two-person series of rehearsed movements, called kata (kah-tah). This was also a lot of fun. We would not strike each other, but we would come close. The point was to show the exchange of attacks and defenses between katana swordsmen. We learned an exchange demonstrating the men strike and another one demonstrating the kote strike. We would eventually need to memorize these kata for the tests to ascend in ranks.

Practice for us went much longer than usual and I had to leave before it was over. I had to eat dinner and get ready to go to sleep. Still, I left with mixed feelings. I enjoyed the camaraderie and the drills of Kendo. Still, I just couldn’t fix my footwork to something proper. I’m sure that’s why I have trouble moving and standing. I’ve been showed over and over how to stand, but I just keep drifting back into a Foil stance. Argh.

A Beginnner's Point of View 2

Day 2:
This time I showed up at the regular practice area. It was smaller, but there was still plenty of room for everyone. Once again, there were a couple of students practicing their stances and strikes with the sensei, but they were using a different kind of wooden sword. It was not a shinai. A shinai is made of four strips of bamboo fastened together. This new wooden sword looked like a single piece of a more common type of wood, carved to look like a katana sword, like samurai used. I learned later it was called a bokken (boh-ken) and it would be used for Kendo as well.

It turns out that this was the class for Iaido (ee-eye-do). The sensei was teaching these students about the proper postures and combinations of movements that actual samurai might have used in battle or daily life. It looked interesting.

I decided not to gawk too long and get ready. After changing into my athletic clothing, I decided not to wait for general Kendo stretching. I used my own stretches from my years playing ice hockey to warm up my muscles early. The sensei himself then took a break and then called for our class. There were a couple of other students there this time. One of them was practicing Iaido, the other was waiting for Kendo. I was wondering if they were new students like me. One of them was, since he had athletic clothing and awkward moves. The other had a special robe-like training uniform. Later, I would discover that he learned Kumdo, which is the Korean counterpart to Japanese Kendo. They joined us for Kendo once Iaido was finished. I was actually called to participate in an Iaido drill. The robed student and I stood in places to mimick guards at a gate while the sensei showed a new set of movements. He actually wielded a real, sharp, metal katana sword. He swung it with such ease close to our faces, but he was in complete control. Still, I edged back away since I’m not a complete fool. Eventually, Iaido finished. The new students both joined us for Kendo.

We started off differently this time. There were a few extra steps to the beginning of class. Before stretching exercises, we knelt down on the floor and keep our posture straight. Following the sensei’s direction, we faced the area where all of our personal possessions and equipment bags were set aside. Then, he called joseki (jo-seh-kee) and bowed deeply. His hands were flat on the floor in front of him and he bowed low enough to make his back horizontal to the floor. We all did the same, then sat up. He then called for the same thing to the sensei. We then performed the same deep bow to him while he bowed to us. The point of this was obvious. We each show respect to each other, like sportsmanship. We also did something called mokuso (mohk-suo), which was a kind of meditation just to clear the mind. The point was to think only about Kendo and not let stray thoughts distract us. It did at least calm me down, which was helpful.

Then, the class became more familiar. We performed the same routine for stretching exercises. Once that was over and we had re-claimed our shinai, our regular instructor showed up. After a quick break to allow her to change and stretch, we started in with new lessons.

This time, we combined the footwork and strikes to be performed at the same time. It was really tricky as you have to time everything properly. Each footwork has two parts, as each strike has two parts. You have to perform the first part of the footwork and strike together, then perform the second part of each together. You move like a machine. It’s awkward at first, but it affords you a lot of power when the shinai comes down.

Then, we added a new drill. This one added side-to-side motion into a series of four steps. Instead of just forward and backwards, we would move forward-backward-right-left. When we stepped left, we would actually switch to opposite stance. That was tricky, but enjoyable. I also bought

After the class was over, the advanced students would gather together in their armor, called bogu (boh-goo) and practice their own drills. Unlike us in the beginner class, the advanced students moved seemingly in perfect unison. Their footwork was nearly flawless, and their strikes were easy and quick. Over and over they would practice their footwork/strike drills with ease, each shouting out the count of repetitions in Japanese over and over. Once a person finishing counting to eight, the next person in line would pick up in perfect harmony, like they were all singing the same song memorized by heart. Each shouted proudly, unafraid of anything while they had their teammates by their side. It was mesmerizing.

After several more drills, they began sparring with each other. It was very late and I had to leave. After all, 5:30 A.M. blares the alarm whether or not you’re rested.

A Beginnner's Point of View 1

Day 1:
I showed up to practice early to make a good impression. I had my athletic clothes in a sports bag slung over my shoulder and walked into the building described by the directions I received. Upon entering the building, I was confused that a bunch of people were chatting to each other while munching on snacks. It took a moment to summon the courage to ask about Kendo. The group kindly pointed me to a different building, just for that night.

I walked into the much larger gymnasium and instantly found what I was looking for. There were several people, all dressed in dark blue uniforms and wielding wooden swords. Some were standing in the center of the gym and taking instruction on sword movements from a teacher.

Others were strapping on body armor and stretching off to the side. I decided to break the ice before inertia caused me to chicken out. I greeted the nearest person and asked what I should be doing.

The girl responded with some instructions about getting changed and buying swords. I changed out of my street clothes and into my athletic suit. I wondered if it was necessary to buy one of the uniforms right away, but it seemed that one of the other students already taking instruction wasn’t in uniform, either.

It was weird not wearing any shoes or socks for athletic activity, but it seemed reasonable to try. Soon enough, the other students’ lessons were over and it was our turn to take the center of the room. I saw as people walked into and out of the gym that they would stop and bow while facing into the gym. I wondered if this was some kind of code or something, but paid it no mind.

As we assembled, the girl walked to the center of the room and began talking to us like a coach. I felt really ridiculous for admitting total ignorance to my future instructor and looked around. Everyone else seemed to be confident in what they were doing. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time I was least in a group and I don’t have anything to prove to the others, so I just followed along.

First was stretches, which were easy. My muscles had been conditioned from French Foil Fencing, so these exercises were nothing special. Our instructor would constantly speak loudly in Japanese, and then explain in English. I idly wondered how much time per week I’d have to devote to learning Japanese as a language.

Next was learning footwork. Kendo is practiced entirely on the front half of the foot. Ideally, the heels of your feet would never touch the ground. Now this was different! By the time our footwork drills were over, my feet were burning. After that, we were taught elementary strikes while shouting a certain word. Since everyone said it a split-second differently than the others, it came out a mush. I couldn’t even tell if I was saying the right word, so I concentrated on the strikes.

After a while, some people would ask questions casually, but politely, and our instructor would answer them, explaining the WHY as well as the HOW. The atmosphere was still intense, but it no longer felt hostile. We were simply here to absorb information and practice, not be judged. I took my instructor’s criticism of my footwork easily, just as if she were any other athletic coach.

At the end of practice, the main teacher dressed up in full armor and we took turns using our strikes against him. That was fun. Maybe we should hit him more often.

Afterwards, the instructor took us unto the hallway to show us the basics of how and when to take apart the wooden sword, called a shinai (shin-eye). It was very informal and completely relaxed. Questions and answers flowed easily.

Once the day’s practice was over the main teacher, called sensei (sen-say), accepted my membership dues and sold me my own shinai. (This had been agreed to before I showed up at practice, so no surprises.)

I left that day tired, but happy. I found a group that could accept me as a beginner with no rank and be okay with that. I was not holding them back. Instead, they were helping me up.

I also learned that my Foil training gives me lousy footwork for Kendo. I need to work on that.