Monday, April 20, 2009

A Beginner's Point of View 53.5

Day 53.5:

Today was the friendly invitational tournament. “Friendly” was a word used to explain that there was no cost to join. The only limitation was that there was no opportunity for testing afterwards. I still need more time to train before I can test again, but anyone else was would have been ready couldn’t test there. The whole point was to bring many different schools together and have fun competing.

Before the tournament started, there was a line to check your shinai to make sure it was safe enough to use. I had splinters that I never knew I had. When I reached into my bag, I found that I had forgot to bring the sandpaper that I planned on bringing. I nearly had to give up my shinai and borrow one from Sensei to compete! That would have really made me disappointed in myself. I was very lucky that someone else had brought along a metal tool to scrape off splinters. I thanked him very much because he did not have to loan it to me. I still had to go back in line multiple times to get all of the splinters out, but I finally got my shinai to pass. They also had these huge stickers with a unique serial code them to tell different kendoka apart. We wrapped them around our side tare flaps. At the end of the day, it felt torn paper and lots of gunk on my tare. I tried using a wet toothbrush and my thumbs to get the gunk off. I only mostly succeeded. I think I’ll need to try over and over to get it all off. I hope I don’t have to resrt to using chemicals to get the gunk off, that might remove the dark-colored dye.

This tournament was a lot of fun. Since there was no testing afterwards, then there was no real pressure. This led to a more relaxed attitude for everyone. What was different in this tournament was that there were two Mudansha divisions. There was a “3-Kyu and Below” division and a separate “1-Kyu to 2-Kyu” division. This is not what happened at the previous tournament, but this new way does seem to make the matches advance much faster.

My first opponent had a skill level equal to my own. He was also very good at hiki-men. He would often wait for me to attack, then he would perform hiki-men very fast and hit me. However, I noticed that he would not hit me with the monouchi, which is the length of the sword from saki-gawa to the naka-yui. Instead, he would hit me with the middle of the shinai, where the bamboo forms the thick knot. That is not a point, so the match would continue. In order to win, I tried using a technique that I did not do very well in class. I would start back from a step before issoku-no-maai and then step a big step forward with my right foot. I raise my shinai up and step fast with my left foot. Then I swing down while stepping with my right foot. Then I follow through with normal Kendo ashi steps while passing by. It took me three times before I landed it well enough for the judges, but when it worked it was what won the match.

My second opponent was much bigger than I was, both in height and build. He was the first opponent I’ve faced that was actually stronger than I was. I tried using the same technique, only it almost was good enough. His Kendo technique was flawless, constantly performing suriage-men and hiki-men perfect every time, except for when I would move just out of his monouchi range unexpectedly. I tried my best, but I was outfought by a much better opponent. It was like sparring with sempai. Later, I learned from his classmates that he had been studying Kumdo for 4 years and entered into this Kendo tournament without a ranking. I do not want to sound like I’m complaining, but it seems to me that he should have been put into a higher bracket, like perhaps the Shodan-Nidan division. However, he did win fair and square. He went on to win the “3-Kyu and Below” division.

Later, the last competition of the day was the Team Division. We had originally planned to have Sensei, myself, and 3 other classmates show up, which would make a full team. However, one of us had a last-minute obligation and another of us had to leave early. This left only 3 of us total for the team match. I took the 2nd position, Sensei took the 5th position of Taisho, and the remaining classmate took the 1st position. This would require us to all win our matches to continue to the next round. However, not all of us won. I won my match. My opponent was shorter and smaller than I was. My opponent’s teammates must have told him to stall for time, because he would do the same thing over and over. He would wait for me to attack, then come to tai-atari. Once I tried to step back, he would follow me everywhere. It took a combination of pushing and stepping back to gain any space. Over and over I stepped back, then charged forward to strike. Over and over my opponent would follow me to tai-atari. I used my technique of charging from long distance to move past his defenses. I eventually scored two points and won, but it was a tough fight anyway. After we lost the team match, I complimented my opponent on his defense, it really was very good.

After the divisions were done, all the schools lined up for the awards ceremony. My classmate that stayed with us took 3rd Place in the “3-Kyu and Below” Division. She got a certificate and a tenugui for a prize. Perhaps it was the size of the gym, but I was not sweating as much as I did at the previous tournament. This gym was twice as big and not quite as many participants.

I think I’m going to take a break from Kendo for a short time. I partially re-sprained my wrists again even though I was pacing myself. I’m going to give them a proper long time to heal before going back to it. I sincerely hope it will be less than 2 weeks. I don’t like missing class, but I don’t like constantly re-spraining myself because I’m in a hurry to improve my form.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Beginner's Point of View 52-53

Day 52:

Today we started off without warm-ups. It’s a good thing I warm myself up automatically after putting on doh and tare before class. My wrists were hurting badly and to top it off, my right leg had a twinge of pain occasionally. I had no idea what was wrong and it worried me. However, after stretching and lining up, the pain went away. Maybe the pain was simply my muscles being stiff. If my muscles feel stiff again, I should probably try just doing stretches at home to see if that works relieving the pain.

We started off doing kiri-kaeshi with rotating partners. A good drill to work out the stiff muscles, too. We continued to do kote strikes and men strikes. By the time we were doing kote-men strikes and doh strikes, the pain was completely gone.

After that, we did keiko with rotating partners. My partners were all higher-ranking than me, so they took it easy on me. It can be a little annoying to receive that, but I can see why they do it. If they fought at their best level, they would completely frustrate me and that’s not what they’re there for. After three keiko in a row, I was out of breath. I had to stop and breathe for a few minutes. I look at the others and see how they seem to go on and on without stopping for breath and I remember how they’ve been doing this for more than one year. I’m only at about half a year of experience, so maybe I’ll gain more endurance as I practice.

During another keiko, it looked as if my nakayui was coming undone. I called a halt and inspected it. Sempai happened to be the one I was practicing with, and she inspected it also. She said that as long as it stayed kinda tied and did not overtly unravel, then I could continue. It still made me nervous. What if it unraveled during a strike and bamboo began to flex too much? Well, I decided to just pay attention to it and continue. It did not seem to unravel anymore, so I would re-tie it back home. Sempai also showed me that when I start to get out of breath, I also let my chudan drift off to the side so I am not pointed down the center line vertically like I should. I didn’t even know I was doing it. That was good to know.

We did a drill where Sensei would stand in the center and strike as Sensei declared, pass through, strike as Sensei declared, pass through, then stop. It was a fun drill. I tried to make sure that I would show ‘one Kendo’ and not vary too much. After everyone performed the drill a few times, Sensei said to keep going, but to choose our own strikes and try to succeed as he would defend and counterattack. That was also fun. Then, Sensei would rotate us to be the one in the middle receiving strikes to practice defending and counterattacking. This was the highlight of the practice. I like facing off against several different kendoka in a drill. This is what seems to really make me try to use what I’ve practiced.

There was more keiko again and only after halfway through the next one I was out of breath again. I noticed that this time, I would regain breath much more slowly than earlier. My heart was also pounding very fast. I took this as a sign to stop. I called an end to keiko and bowed out. I spent the rest of class resting and watching the others. This time, there were actually two of them practicing nito style, which is using two swords. Fighting nito is very different than fighting itto style, which is one sword. Nito has you gripping a sword in each hand and forcing you to move them together to fight and block at the same time.

At the end of class, we must all have been exhausted. We did not perform the bow out ceremony, but instead just put the dojo back in order and changed into our street clothes. Too bad, I like the bowing out ceremony.

Day 53:

I’m taking the day off to rest my wrists. They’ve been sore for a while and I want them healed before another tournament.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Beginner's Point of View 50-51

Day 50:

Tonight was a lot of work. We started off doing a lot of new things. We learned a new waza that involved parrying your opponent’s shinai off to the side, then striking their men. It was called suriage waza. It’s used to deflect an enemy attack and force a suki open to attack. I did not do well at all. It seemed that every time I parried the shinai, my opponent was even with me and I could not reach out to strike. If I would reach, then I would be too close for a proper strike. Over and over I tried, but I couldn’t even hit one. When it was my turn to allow others to hit me, I did average. I needed to be told to actually try to strike men in order to let the others learn to parry me. We would change partners in accordance to our normal rotation. In rotating, we would normally rotate each position counter-clockwise, except for the sensei, who would keep his position. The one rotating next to him would walk behind Sensei to the next position.

We also added in a simple stepping maneuver to this waza. We would practice simply stepping to the left, right, or even backwards to remove ourselves from our opponent’s strike while counterattacking. I was so confused by the last waza that I kept trying to complete it during the new waza practice. It was after we rotated partners again that I saw that no one was doing the previous one. I felt foolish and changed what I was doing.

There was a drill that was new tonight. The class splits into two groups. Each group stands in a line on opposite sides of the dojo. One member stands in the middle. First one person from one side would semin, then strike men. The person in the middle would try to strike men back, then turn around to face the opposite way. One person from the new line would perform the same drill. The person in the middle would try to strike back and then turn around. Over and over, alternating lines each time, the person in the middle would maintain their composure while fending off the entire class. Both lines would speed up their attacks so the person in the middle would not get a break, thus pushing them to the limits of their endurance. We would all rotate being the one in the middle and fending off the class. When it came my turn, I was struck every time and failed to hit back most every time. My arms were just not fast. I was wondering if it was because I was slow or if I was getting tired.

We then stopped and then began lining up to practice keiko. The dojo was separated into two imaginary ‘courts’ and each one was hosted by a different instructor. My first keiko did not go well at all. I tried to use the new waza we were just practicing, but I could not land a single strike. So, after a couple of minutes, I just decided to go for quick, simple strikes. Even those did not land at all, much less properly. My opponent even lessened his Kendo to try to allow me to feel better about fighting him. Once, he even totally dropped his shinai to his side and said, “Attack me!” Immediately, my brain retorted, “It’s a trap! Don’t attack his men!” So, I tried to attack his kote and missed. At the end of keiko, he came over to tell me to be more assertive in my Kendo. I let him know that I was overanalyzing and hesitating.

My next opponent was much closer to my own level of Kendo. It was fairly even although his strikes were clearly more accurate. This was because I was out of breath while he was pacing himself. Over and over we sparred for minutes until I raised my right hand, calling for a stop. After breathing deeply a couple of times, we returned to keiko. After a couple of more minutes, I raised it again and said I had to stop. My opponent graciously accepted. When we rotated, I stepped out of both courts and just stood as straight as I could and breathed. Sensei was concerned enough to ask if I was all right. I said I was and it was only a few more minutes until the end of keiko. We had a couple of minutes to wait as we got ready for kata practice.

I like kata practice. It’s just as intense as keiko, but not taxing to the body. We practiced kata 1 and 2 over and over. My partner for kata was the same as my partner for my first keiko. He’s a tall guy with power. This time I was shidachi first, then uchidachi. The first time we did kata 1, I led with the wrong foot. When we finished, Sensei asked us how we think we did. When I mentioned my error, he was surprised that he did not see it. He gave us all pointers and then told us to rotate. This time, I did both kata much better. I still think I look awkward doing it, but that comes from being new. I will get better in time.

Sensei also said something profound tonight. He was trying to explain that we should approach tournament, testing, and keiko with the same attitude. We should not save our best Kendo for special occasions and then do something different other times. To paraphrase Sensei, “The Kendo you do at the tournament should not be different than the Kendo that you do at testing or anything else. You do not use big strikes for one and little strikes for the other. You always do the same for everything. Tournament, testing, and keiko are three different activities, but you do the same Kendo for all of them. There is only ‘one Kendo’.”

After class, I was driving back home when it occurred to me that sempai was not present in class. I was thinking about how smoothly class went and whether or not I preferred Sempai to be present in class. I then realized that most of the advice Sempai gives me is criticism while Sensei gives me mostly compliments. I decided that it was foolish to take Sempai’s comments too personally and it would have been better had been present. I need to hear both compliments and criticism or else I miss something. I should know when I do something right so I know to keep doing it that way. I also need to know when I am not doing something right so I know to correct it. I’m not sure if anyone else would understand the reference, but Sensei and Sempai are like my own Euripides and Voltaire. Euripides was a Greek playwright while Voltaire was a French philosopher. Euripides would write sympathetic comedies that attempt to reconcile human flaws. Voltaire was known for sharp criticism about controversial subjects that needed just debate. Without both, something is not said and that is tragedy. So, I will try not to let Sensei’s praise go to my head and I will try to look forward to Sempai’s comments as things that will make me better.

Day 51:

Today was a much better day for instruction. When I arrived, the beginner class was winding up. I changed into my uniform and then stretched out carefully. No sense re-pulling old wounds back open, right? After suiting up in doh and tare, I took my shinai and joined the end of the beginner class. Sensei and Sempai were forming two lines and each was teaching the class in how to strike basic strikes. There were some men and kote done, however the focus was on kote-men and doh strikes. We took turns practicing normal doh strikes and same-side-doh strikes. The proper way to strike doh is to start off exactly like a men strike, raising the shinai straight up. Then you bring the shinai down tracing like a half-heart shape to strike the side of the doh armor kinda diagonally, then holding the shinai horizontal as you pass on through.

After a while doing that, Sensei did a new drill. He stood in the center and took one student at a time. He would call out a target, and the student would strike and pass on through. Then he would turn to the same student and call out another target. The student would strike that target and pass on through. Over and over he would call out targets. Students were expected to semin, strike, pass, zanshin, and start all over with no breaks. Afterwards, Sensei revealed that he wanted to see if we were still acting under ‘one Kendo’. If we were approaching all targets in the exact same technique at the start and then finish with good form, then we had ‘one Kendo’. In other words, a men strike, a kote strike, a doh strike, and a kote-men strike should all start off looking identical.

After that, we lined up with partners to practice good basic strikes. Tonight, the advanced class was an extension of the beginner class, which is good for me. We practiced giving and receiving men strikes and kote strikes. After that, we did some keiko. My first keiko was against Sensei. I gave it my all. I tried to establish suki and then take the suki. I tried to control the match. I made sure to keep my energy up by using kiai more often. At the end of the keiko, I was out of breath and had to raise my hand. Each week, I get a little bit better with my breathing and endurance, but I still need to take the occasional break for hard practice, especially keiko. I wonder if it would be worthwhile to buy a treadmill and practice walking and running for long periods of time at home on days when I’m not going to the dojo.

When keiko was finished, it was time for more kata. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Kata is fun. All the intensity of keiko without the lack of oxygen. We practiced kata 1 over and over, trying to perfect it. I learned a few things that I was doing wrong. When you are uchidachi, you must do almost all of the movements first. The shidachi must react to you, except when they are driving you back. I also must learn to be more smooth with my movements. I have a tendency to have staccato, jerky movements. I must also learn to swing down the center all the time. If my partner appears to be too close, I sometimes tend to swing downward off to the side. I look forward to more kata practice. I could use the refining, and it’s just as fun as keiko.

For me, class ends late. So late that I seem to need to go to bed right after walking in the door. However, my body is too awake right after class. I tried something different. I took two different 30-minute naps before class to push back my body’s needed amount of sleep before work. It seems to have worked this time, so maybe I’ll make that a habit before going to class. 05:30 comes really early, you know.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Beginner's Point of View 48-49

Day 48:

I did not go to Kendo practice today because my left wrist and left ankle were still hurting from the tournament and testing. I took the day off to relax and heal.

Day 49:

Today is my first day of advanced class. I’ve seen the advanced classes before and I think I’ll enjoy them. The advanced class deals more with waza and ‘fluidity’ than the basics. Today, the head sensei was here, teaching us about stepping into our opponent to make our waza more fluid. At shodan and above levels, your Kendo is expected to be fluid as well as crisp.

The lesson was to take a single large step with the right foot to instantly bring your body to close range, while striking. Next, your left foot comes forward, followed by your right foot as you pass on through. You then use the typical suri-ashi for the act of passing on through. This is a LOT harder than it sounds. My training has always been to use suri-ashi for the entire time. Using this new footwork does make closing distance much faster, but it can lead to collision or tripping if not done right.

I was not very good at it, but I tried my best. At first, it seemed as if I was heading right for a collision head-on with my partner, only to turn slightly at the last moment. We lined up to practice one at a time, then afterwards the head sensei would have us drill in the same technique with kote-men waza. This was to push us to a higher level. The entire practice I was stumbling and trying to remember the footwork. I don’t think I did very well.

Also, sempai seemed to be either sick or in pain of some kind. She stuck it out because she wanted to learn, but we could all hear in her voice how badly off she was. Head sensei honored her wishes to stay in, but I was afraid of causing her more pain. I think in my caution conflicting with my wish to learn, I may have struck her men too hard. She bopped me on the men with her fist to demonstrate how hard I was hitting. I wasn’t even concerned about how embarrassing it looked for me. I was feeling bad for her and what she has to endure from me when she’s not well. Needless to say, I lightened my strikes for the rest of class.

It was frustrating to try this new waza. Sempai told me after class that I should continue to come to the beginner class in addition to the advanced class. I’ve already told her before that I can only come to one class per day. My job has the highest priority in my life, followed by sleeping so I can do my job. Whatever is left is devoted to Kendo. Kendo is a lot of fun, but it does not pay my mortgage. So, when there are odd days in my working schedule that grant me freedom to attend both classes in a day, I’ll do that. In the meantime, I’ll continue to come to the advanced class. Maybe I do need to sharpen a few basics, but I won’t be pushed to become better overall if I only attend the basic class.

Sensei and I had a nice, long talk after class about planning out the next segment of my Kendo journey. Technically, one is supposed to wait 90 days between testings, but we like to take a little extra time to be sure. He feels that my next testing should be in October and then apply for ni-kyu. Since I would be asking for something less than ik-kyu, the judges would be more flexible. If they felt I was not ni-kyu material, they would still promote me to san-kyu. According to sensei, the panel of judges thought that I was in the grey area between yan-kyu and san-kyu. The day of testing, I was not quite perfect, so they gave me yan-kyu. If this is true, then taking the extra time until October sounds like a good time to ask for ni-kyu. Even if I don’t get that, I should be san-kyu by then.

I’m no stranger to travelling, but the testing in October is to be in Washington D.C. I’m not so comfortable going into the big city and staying there. I’m a nervous sort, so I’m always upset at the news reports of crime. It’s still a long ways off, so I’ll deal with it when it comes. It’s not too far from my house, so maybe I can just drive there and then drive back to sleep at home. As soon as I learn exactly where it is, I’ll make more plans. Sensei says he’s planning his next testing next year, so maybe we’ll all go and cheer him on wherever that is.