Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Beginner's Point of View 90-91

Day 90:

I went back to class today, fearful of my wrists. Today they are sore but not “hurting”, so I think it’s time to go to class. I have trouble sorting out the difference between “sprained and needs rest” and the condition of “healed and needs flexing”. Granted they both sting like crazy but the latter condition is the one we all hope for with good wishes. Today I was not wrong. It was the right time to go back to class.

At the beginning of class, I was the only advanced student present. After warm-ups, sensei asked me to put on men and kote. For the entire class, I was the training target. The students would line up and take turns practicing any drill sensei asked them. The students would strike men or kote, or maybe a kote-men and pass through multiple times before their turn was up. Occasionally, sensei would show us an advanced technique that he would perform. It showed us how well we could do if we kept practicing. He also gave me the occasional opportunity to practice the class’s drills on him so I would not feel left out. Sensei would also practice some incorrect strikes, including ones that were too hard. He made sure to let me prepare to receive those extra-hard strikes correctly to avoid getting hurt. The difference was obvious to the students, who tried to not hit too hard. I really like how sensei treats everyone with respect. It really keeps the attitude of the dojo light and positive.

Eventually, advanced students came filtering in one by one. They would naturally line up with the others. The difference between them and the beginner students was that many of the advanced students did not need me to give them an opening. They were also taller and I needed to keep my head up to avoid getting hit too hard. Once the beginner class was dismissed, we lined up and did the bowing out ceremony. I decided that was enough exercise to my wrists for one day. Perhaps if they get stronger quickly, I will show up at the advanced class sooner.

Day 91:

No class as I am working late at my job.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Beginner's Point of View 88-89

Day 88:

I chose not to go to class today since my wrists were sprained. Last class seems to have aggravated them. I’m going to rest and then get back to it after they heal.

Day 89:

No class as I am working late at my job.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Beginner's Point of View 86-87

Day 86:

Today was one of the hottest days of the year. Sensei decided to only have a little bit of full practice with shinai and bogu for fear that many would overheat. Instead, we did lots of kiri-kaeshi and then some one-step men strikes. After that, it was time for keiko. I started with my partner doing a few men strikes and kote strikes to try to get past his defenses. My partner is much better than me, so I was not completely successful. He did leave some openings for me to exploit, which I am grateful.

However, in my excitement, my Kendo footwork became sloppy. Somehow, some way I struck the fleshy part of my inside left ankle against a bony part of my right ankle. IT HURT! I thought I could go on, but I had to stop and bow out. My ankle was throbbing for several minutes and I feared I had sprained it. I took off my bogu and just flexed my ankle slowly to test it. By the time keiko was over, my ankle was much better. Sensei then called for kata. I love kata, even if it can be difficult at times. I partnered with two people who were testing for a Dan rank later this year. I actually learned the basics of kata 4 and kata 5, then we polished kata 3.

Kata 4 involves a flashy move to deflect a forward thrust while spinning the bokken around to strike shomen on your opponent. Sensei says that in this kata requires you to show “fire” in your eyes as you attempt to strike shomen. It is easy to see how this would work. It is a very impressive move. The shidachi also needs to assume the stance that requires you to hide your bokken behind your back. This requires awkward footwork and lots of space behind yourself or else you may strike something, like I kept striking a railing behind me. The blade of the bokken must dip lower than your waist, so it can be awkward.

Kata 5 is a refinement of kata 1. Instead of just stepping back, you swing your bokken up and lightly make contact with your partner’s bokken as his comes down. It shows the suriage technique, which in this case opens the men for attack. The tricky part is during the initial stance, the shidachi must angle their bokken not in a stance, but just to be ready to slice the exposed kote of the partner.

Refining kata 3 is all about the timing. The tricky part is to count out the footsteps 1-2, then 1-2-3. Counting five steps becomes confusing and will mess you up.

Day 87:

My wrists feel like they are mildly sprained, so I am not going to class. I am going to wear the braces for a bit and see if they heal faster. My wrists seem to sprain easy and heal slow.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Beginner's Point of View 84-85

Day 84:

Today I am very sore in the legs from the seminar. So instead of jumping right back in, I showed up to the beginner class to ease my way back into it. Today we incorporated that new suburi into the warm-up routine and it was a little bit easier this time. I still don’t know what it is called.

We went back to practicing the “one-step” strikes to get them down. In fact, we were trying to work on increasing the distance of our men strikes. It turns out that I do not even need the saki-gawa to cross the other saki-gawa in order to strike men. I can start moving from about half an inch or so distance between the saki-gawa and strike men. I still must move forward a large step in order to do this and reach to my maximum arm length.

I was very quick on my feet, which gratified me. I was worried that performing Kendo on the hard gymnasium floor would sprain my left ankle. I was a little winded by the end of practice, but not enough to bother me. Perhaps I am gaining a little more stamina as I keep training. My wrists were starting to get sore by the end of practice, so I decided not to stay for the advanced class. I will rest them during the week and see how they feel next week.

Day 85:

No class as I am working late at my job.

A Beginner's Point of View 74-83.5

Day 72-83:

These weeks went by fairly quickly. We were training extra hard to get ready for the seminar that we will be hosting soon. There will be sensei from all over our division coming to our dojo to teach a seminar on proper Kendo form and how to pass a promotional exam.

The most important thing we trained on was the “one-step men”, with some practice for “one-step kote” and “one-step doh”. The idea of “one-step” is just what the name suggests. We must establish our maai not only for the shinai, but for our footwork. We must be able to judge how far we must step to set ourselves up for a perfect strike. If we don’t step properly first, then no amount of swinging will compensate for that.

If you imagine the position of the saki-gawa if it were to drop straight onto the floor, then that would be the “one-step” position for men strike. About half of that would be the “one-step” position for a kote strike. The “one-step” position for a doh strike is more nebulous than this measurement. It is something you will have to judge for yourself and practice.

Throughout every practice, I would train hard. Still, around halfway through each practice, I would get very tired and start to lose my breath. I would try to pace myself and push my endurance. Still, I cannot make it all the way through class without stopping to rest. I’m sure others must get as breathless as myself, but I cannot keep the energy to stay working. Sometimes if I push myself so hard that my heart pounds painfully in my chest. I don’t have a heart condition, it’s just that I’m working too hard.

I feel bad when I have to stop and rest for the rest of class. Some dark part of my mind feels ashamed that the others are still working hard while I must rest. Still another part of my mind feels it is right to stop working and rest. I will not improve my Kendo if bring on a heart attack.

Even though we practiced mostly on “one-step” maai, we also practiced running a tournament match. This was good exposure for the students to know how to enter and exit the court, fight, obey shinpan, and experience real fighting as opposed to the drills. It was also very good practice for future shinpan as well.

Day 83.5:

Today was my first seminar. I remember people telling me that it’s a lot like an extra-long class. I was part of the group that showed up the previous day to lay out the gymnasium to be ready for the seminar. We spent a lot of time laying out the courts with colored tape that would be easy to pull up again when we are finished. We also set up the tables and arranged the flags and papers needed to run a tournament. Lastly, we hung up the American and Japanese flags to have a shomen.

On the day of the seminar, I showed up early and changed quickly. Last-minute details were taken care of and then people started to show up. There were five sensei from different dojos all around our division of the Kendo Federation. Some of them have traveled a very long way just to instruct us. We all started with a nice speech by the highest-ranking sensei. He was greeting us and encouraging us to show good spirit and good form. Even the other invited sensei seemed to defer to him.

Next, we all got together in a big circle and performed warm-ups. We stretched our muscles and flexed our joints for a while, all counting in unison in Japanese. You could feel the camaraderie in the air as more than just a figment of your imagination. We also did the type of stance when we would shinai-ote where instead of sonkyo we would kneel down with the left knee touching. This act shows respect for the shinai because it is our sword. I remember reading an article online about how the kenshi’s sword is treated like a modern soldier treats his rifle. It is more than just a weapon, it is “yourself”. How you treat it is how you treat yourself and your group of fellow soldiers. In fact, the article said that the kenshi’s sword is the kenshi’s “soul”. This is where most of our manners come from and it is a good lesson to learn.

Then we performed suburi. We started off doing okii-suburi and then moved into shomen suburi. While we were doing shomen suburi, the various sensei who were not leading us would walk around and correct us if we did not have perfect form. I was once told that sometimes in seminars that one sensei would move my shinai a little bit one way and then another sensei would step in and move it back. I thought that was an exaggeration, but it actually happened to me! It was really confusing until I decided to just do the suburi the way that the last sensei told me and keep doing it until I was corrected again.

We added a new suburi which I have only seen in pictures. It was one whose name I did not learn. You stand with your feet directly under your shoulders and then turn your feet outward at approximately 45 degrees. You turn your feet to whatever angle is most comfortable if you need to change then. You then hold your shinai in Jodan and then you perform two actions at once. The first action is a shomen cut straight downward until the blade is horizontal at the waist. The second action is that you crouch downward (with straight vertical backbone) until your hips are at the same level as your knees. At the end of the dual actions, you shout “MEN”! We did this many times over and over. It seemed like the group must have done 50 of them. I had to stop in the middle and rest my knees as they become a little wobbly from effort. That was a very good, yet very tough, exercise.

After some more suburi, it was time to line up. We all lined up in front of the invited sensei. Even my own sensei lined up in front of them in the student line. This day he was a student, too. We performed the opening ceremony and heard some more kind words from the highest-ranking sensei. We then put on our bogu and lined up in two very long lines. We would take turns performing various drills. Once we had finished, we would rotate. Since each line rotated, this means we would practice with every other person. Eventually, we would practice simple standing men strikes and then add in one-step drills. Eventually we worked up to performing kiri-kaeshi in full.

We took a break and then high-ranking people lined up to perform ji-geiko. Lots of people lined up to spar with the invited sensei, eager for the opportunity to test against them in this rare event. The lines were very long and I was starting to feel a tad winded. I took a short break and then lined up in short lines. I sparred with a couple of people, learning about my shortcomings. I even sparred with a younger kendoka, who was very ferocious against me. When she was frustrated, she would start swinging wildly, wasting her energy. I tried to show her some good form and she got a few good doh strikes on me. (She also deeply bruised my elbow, but that is another story.) I also sparred with my own Head Sensei, who taught me to use a better kiai. I sparred with a person I had met at my first tournament but have never fought. She is the first teacher who has ever told me to wait and study my opponent before attacking. Making an opening is good but you should never fight on your opponent’s terms. Wait until they have lapsed in their defenses and then make an opening.

We took an hour-long lunch break, which turned out to be sports drinks and sandwiches. I felt somewhat weak while eating. I felt very run down and my mood began to sink while digesting. I did not think much of it at first. After lunch it was back to ji-geiko. I felt very exhausted and was worrying about the promotional test later in the day. I knew that I was always easily winded and low in energy in class, so I did not want to appear to be weak for the test. After several minutes of being indecisive, I decided to ji-geiko at least once with a high-ranking sensei. I did not recognize half of them when they were in bogu, so I found a new line that opened and waited patiently. After the end of a long sparring match, both fighters left! This was embarrassing, so I found another line to stand in. After an extra-long sparring match, both fighters left again! My mood began to crash.

I know that negative thoughts are poison to a kenshi’s mind, but I could not help it. I felt overheated, tired, winded, and alone. I will even admit to entertaining thoughts of quitting Kendo all together. I felt very badly in general and about everything. Suddenly, I saw a line that only had one other person standing in it and a person I recognized. I decided to take the chance and waited. I did get to spar and even learned a few things about reaching for men strikes. Afterwards, I did not feel quite as bad. I decided to sit down and rest to gather energy for later. One of my classmates told me to drink some sports drink. Suddenly, I recognized how thirsty I was. So, I picked one that looked good and drank it. I drank the entire bottle in a few seconds and still felt a little bit thirsty. I didn’t want to make myself sick, so I decided to wait a bit until it was absorbed fully.

The highest-ranking sensei called an end to ji-geiko. Everyone began milling around and talking to each other. The highest-ranking sensei then called out, “It is the end of class, what are you doing?” Suddenly, everyone realized that we forgot to line up. So everyone lined up and we performed the ending ceremony. Afterwards, the various sensei would give speeches about all of the components of good Kendo. We then set up for the shinpan training. A mock tournament was started up with a few fighters on each court. The invited sensei would sometimes call a stop wherever the fighters happened to be and give the shinpan instructions. The on my court, seven fighters were chosen with myself being the seventh. This was a mistake as only six fighters would make three pairs. However, the officials at my court found a way to rotate me in.

Once the shinpan were trained, we actually put on a real mini-tournament to show how well the shinpan had learned. There was a court for the lower-ranking people and one for the higher-ranking people. In my court, we each fought in two matches against different opponents. I won my first match 2-1 by stepping in quick and striking shomen. I lost my second match 2-1 because I tried to do the same thing. My opponent saw what I was doing and laid a trap by doing men-suriage-men. My second opponent went on to win our mini-tournament. All the time, I tried to control the match. I would step quickly, tap the opposing shinai aside, and charge in. I would pass through, show zanshin, and turn around before my opponent could counterattack with my side exposed. It was a lot of fun.

Afterwards, I decided to drink another sports drink. I gulped it down in seconds again, but longer than the previous one. I felt my mood very much improved afterwards and not just due to the matches. I think that when I am too dehydrated I begin to lose a lot of my focus and positive attitude. I should try to remember to drink fluids when practicing. Still, that won’t help much if I work hard enough to make my heart pound painfully hard. Fortunately that did not happen at all today.

The final part of the seminar was the testing. We went over our normal time limit for use of the gymnasium, so we had to speed up the testing. Each kendoka would fight in keiko against two different people in their testing bracket. I was #2, so I got all of my testing out of the way early. I feel lucky about that. After my testing, I felt a little winded again so I just stood by and rested. After the test, the results were posted. I had passed! I asked for 3-Kyu and had received it. Afterwards, I was encouraged to ask the highest-ranking sensei for his impression of my performance. He said that he enjoyed my efforts very much and there was very little I did wrong. He suggested that I keep doing what I did in the test and I would do well. He also said that my coordination between my footwork and swinging needed to be a little more synchronized and that I should take one less step when passing through after a strike. I think I will try to do as he says.