Friday, December 31, 2010

A Beginner's Point of View 230-231

Day 230:

Sensei didn’t show up today. I guess he got delayed at work. So, the class was the three of us Iaido students just practicing what we wish to practice. I’ve been studying my checklist of opening and closing rei steps and I think I’ve mostly got it down. All that’s left is the little touches to smooth it out, like the smoothing of the sageo at various points. By practice, it seems that sliding the saya in the ‘outer loop’ of the obi makes things easier than close to the body. I practiced the opening rei and torei once. Then, I practiced the first kata over and over more than a dozen times. I could tell what major mistakes I was making, so I would do the kata over and over to correct them. Like not bringing the toes up on my left foot soon enough and doing chiburi before switching which foot is forward. At the end of class, I practiced bowing out. I felt rushed, so I left my obi on for Kendo class. I think that may have been a mistake. I get conflicting information about whether or not to wear it, so I’ll keep wearing it. Besides, if I took it off, I’d have to re-tie the hakama.

One of the higher-ranking students took over teaching the class. I offered to warm up the class for him, and did so. I pulled a sneaky trick by doing twenty haya-suburi, and then breathing. Once the warm-ups were over, I asked if anyone was out of breath. When everyone said no, I commanded us to do thirty more haya-suburi. Sempai asked what was being done in previous classes. I told him about footwork, fumi-komi, and kiri-kaeshi. He invented drills to test our footwork and keeping of spacing. At one point, he had everybody starting to do kiri-kaeshi without men on. That made me nervous. After the first drill, I called him aside and made the suggestion. I made sure not to challenge him, but I really wasn’t comfortable letting many unranked people strike and be struck by the head without protection. Sempai thought it was a good idea. We put men on and the higher-ranking people, including myself, formed a line on one side. The others rotated through the other side while doing kiri-kaeshi, one-step men, and one-step kote.

In advanced class, I decided to stay even though I had skipped dinner previously and might lose some sleep. We did a lot of one-step men strikes at first. Sempai asked what was done for advanced class, so I told him about what we were doing, which was uchi-komi. So, he started us on one-step men drills, one-step kote drills, and one-step kote-men to set us up. Then we did uchi-komi over and over. There were only four of us, so we did each drill four times. It started with me opposite Sempai and finished with me opposite Sempai. Then he would not rotate at first but introduce the next drill. I helped demonstrate each new drill before we did it. After uchi-komi, I felt really run down. The obi was causing me discomfort. I stepped out and took off men. I very slowly got my breath back, but still felt badly. I stayed out of class for the remainder while Sempai was teaching the steps to lead up to nuki-men. He was clearly not comfortable teaching the class. So, I made sure to keep track of the time for him. At the end of class, I stayed to help close up. He thanked me for helping him and watching after the students on a personal level.

Day 231:

Sensei was back today. He taught me the next step in the first kata for Iaido. He also taught me a secret tip for preparation. When rising up on my knees before the horizontal strike, I should curl up my toes on both feet. After making both cuts, I swing the iaito around to my right as if pointing towards an opponent behind me, then curl my elbow towards my temple. When doing noto, when the sword is halfway inside I lower down onto my right knee to touch the floor at the same time.

In beginner Kendo, I warmed up the class again and then put on bogu. I received for the class during kiri-kaeshi, one-step men, and one-step kote drills.

In advanced Kendo, we had a surprise. Guest Sensei from Japan showed up! I didn’t expect him until next year. We did kiri-kaeshi and one-step men drills primarily. Guest Sensei didn’t make any comments when I did waza with him, so I guess I was doing it properly.

When it came to uchi-komi, Guest Sensei was giving out lots of advice, such as making sure to strike doh with enthusiasm instead of being timid. He also told me to hold my arms so that the inside edges of my elbows would point upwards instead of outwards. He explained that by doing this, I shall ‘make BIG universe’ and my strikes will be more natural. I tried it and it does seem to be more natural. It’s another way to say to hold your arms so that you could balance a beach ball while in chudan-no-kamae.

I had to step out for breath for a bit. Then people were lining up for keiko and eager to keiko with Guest Sensei. I put on men again and did keiko with an unranked student to warm up, then got in line with Guest Sensei. He made a comment that he was out of breath and I almost made a joke about planning it that way to be sneaky. I decided not to say it just to be safe. Still, even though he was out of breath, he was still better than me at keiko. I would try to make openings and make lightning strikes, but he would beat me at every opportunity. He was just so fast. He could circle his shinai around mine and strike kote before I could finish raising up for men strike. It’s hard to believe anyone could be that fast.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Beginner's Point of View 228-229

Day 228:

In Iaido, we practiced the proper way to bow in and out. There are a LOT of steps to bowing in and out. A lot of them involve the proper movement of the sageo, which apparently has a specific length for just such movements. Sensei demonstrated and the other students knew the procedure. However, I was overwhelmed with the sheer number of steps. Gently parting the hakama, sliding the left hand along the saya to grip the sageo at the proper distance at the end of the saya, pulling the sageo around the right thumb, putting the saya on the floor in front of the right knee, laying the sword down, left then right hand down to bow, bow to sword but head ‘up’ as to not show the neck, right then left hand to get up, sit up, then perform the steps in reverse for the ending bow, including a confusing transition to the off-hand to bow to the judges. I really did not know what I was doing, but I did my best.

Sensei asked us as a group to perform the bowing in and out with the first kata in between. Technically, I do not know the first kata. I have seen others do it so I know what he is talking about, but he has not trained me in it yet. I was so busy concentrating on rei-hou that I counted all of the skipped steps that I forgot and even forgot to do the first kata! I chose not to be upset and just finished as best as I could. Sensei admitted it was unfair to test me like that while the beginner Kendo class was watching, but he liked that I did not panic. He told me that he has some movies of Seitei-Gata to loan me. I think I’ll make a list of steps to perform and memorize. Unlike Kendo, I can practice at least some of Iaido at home, like opening and ending rei-hou.

In beginner Kendo, I led the class in warm-ups. The instructor for the day asked me to warm-up the class slower than usual to let them stretch out better. So, I did mostly my usual regimen and included a couple of seconds between each exercise. At the end of warm-ups, Sensei decided to do an extra round of the balloon Kendo for youth that some of the students missed. I helped by receiving strikes while wearing a balloon on my men. It’s feels just as silly this year as last year. We finished beginner class with some more fumi-komi drills. The instructor would call out 1-2-3. On 1, we move into yoi. On 2, we did a men strike with fumi-komi, and held that posture. On 3, we pulled our left foot up into Kendo stance. Very awkward, but good for us.

In advanced class, we did kiri-kaeshi and men strike. We did drills which paid attention to using fumi-komi in ji-geiko. After a while, I had to step out and catch my breath. I watched the others do more fumi-komi, and then some uchi-komi. I tried to put my men back on in time for at least one turn of uchi-komi, but I was too late. We did some men strikes with many repetitions to build up endurance and then some keiko. I just naturally would make slight openings and use oji-waza during keiko. I felt I was getting smoother doing it, much more fluid. I even did a nuki-men and practiced some of my anti-jodan techniques against a nidan. He was impressed that I would be eager to face jodan. We finished with a new drill. It’s kinda like ‘kenshi-in-the-middle’, but with only three people. The outside people always initiate attacks, but the inside person always tries to win. We started off with only men strikes, then moved into kote, and then eventually into either men or kote.

Day 229:

Today was concentrating on rei-hou. Opening rei to both shomen and the sword, followed by closing rei to the sword and then to shomen. I practiced as best as I could. I’m getting better. I remembered more steps this time, but I still get confused with all of the sageo movements. I do see a pattern. When you open, you bow to the shomen first, and then to the sword. When you close, you do it in reverse. When bowing to the sword, you keep the sword horizontal and push the sageo close to the saya. You bow left hand first, then right, then bow down, keeping the head kinda ‘up’ to avoid showing the neck. When you bow to shomen, you transfer the sword from your left hand to your right, turning the blade upside down so it points to the floor, then do it in reverse. I practiced it a few times, then Sensei asked a senior student to show me the first kata. I’ve seen this done lots of times when I started Kendo because Iaido class is right before beginner Kendo. Still, I did learn new things, like exactly how to do the chiburi in totality instead of the small flick of the wrist. You bring the sword around to your right widely, holding the sword at a right angle to your arm, then bend your elbow, bringing your fist to your head, then swing the blade in an arc above your head down to your right knee. The senior student did it twice, then I tried it. I did it, but forgot to curl my toes before I swung vertically. After I finished, the senior student commented, ‘Well, if you do it like that, you’ll get shodan’. I’m pretty sure he’s not literal, but it’s a nice compliment. There’s a lot more kata to know for shodan, but I need the encouragement. We bowed out to finish class. I’m shaping up my checklist with information I researched. It’ll take a bit to finish shaping up, but it’ll be helpful.

I got my obi in the mail today. Sensei told me off-handedly how to tie it under the hakama. It felt weird and awkward, not to mention it didn’t make sense. The hakama’s back plate still gets in the way of the saya when you pull it to the side. I thought the obi would be on the outside to allow more freedom of swing, but I guess not. Sensei said the obi is to make sure the saya stays firm against the body, not to increase range of movement. I’ll have to practice tying it more.

I really didn’t feel up to a full day of Kendo today. My hips are sore for some reason and my arm still has that soreness from striking doh too hard for the old injury. I stayed for beginner class only. Today was all about kiai coupled with footwork. We did fumi-komi and suri-ashi, both forwards/backwards and sideways with a partner. Long kiai makes the pressure in my head skyrocket and I got a wicked headache quickly. I was also short of breath for over half of the class. When class was over, I just left to go home and recover.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Beginner's Point of View 226-227

Day 226:

In Iaido, I practiced the same movement over and over all class. Left foot, draw horizontal, swing up and around to over the head, cut vertical, right leg back, sheathe sword, stand up, step forward. Sensei was not there as he was on travel. However, one of his students is a nidan so he instructed. There was another student who is also unranked, so the instructor split his time between the two of us. He gave me the advice to remember to keep pulling the saya backwards to correct the shoulder stopping point, although he admitted that since I do not have a proper obi it will be difficult. I put in an order for a proper obi through Sensei. When he gets back from travel he will give me the club price.

In Kendo, it was more footwork practice. I’m glad to see the footwork practice. Everyone, including me, could use more suri-ashi polishing. We did more suri-ashi, including a strange fumi-komi drill. You stay standing, swing up, then you swing down and follow the shinai into fumi-komi. You hold for a moment, then bring your left foot up to meet the right. This goes against every footwork drill with a shinai that I’ve ever done. I did not do so well with this. We also paired with a partner and forced them backwards holding chudan, then allowed them to drive us the other way. We finished with a group serpentine to tie it all together.

In advanced class, we had a guest student. He was a former classmate from one of the instructor’s college. I think they said he was ikkyu, but I’m not sure. We did lots of kiri-kaeshi, one-step men, and one-step kote. The lecture today was about momentum. Striking kote and then moving the saki aside to pass by. Bumping your opponent back to take his space. Making sure to pass by and the turn around and take chudan immediately.

I had to step out because of my lack of breath. They did a full rotation of ichi-komi while I rested. I sat out for a long time, until the group itself called for a rest. I came back in for some keiko. I did fairly well, all the time trying to remember ‘eggshells’. I’m starting to think if I use my left hand to move the shinai while using the right hand only to guide it downwards, maybe I’ll do better. I even did a keiko with the new student. I think I did much better than he did because of spirit and momentum. He was no slouch for counter-attacks, but it seemed to me that he was doing the same things over and over by rote rather than improvising. He would rarely try different things, although he did trick me with a quick doh strike once. Then again, maybe I’m wrong. I’m only ikkyu after all.

Day 227:

Today was our annual Balloon Kendo tournament and potluck dinner. There was only a very abbreviated Iaido class, which I skipped. Instead, I suited up in bogu and made ready for the tournament. Both Sensei and Head Sensei were present for the occasion. Also my old Sempai and another of our former students arrived. They never miss the Balloon Tournament and potluck. We did rei-hou and then Head Sensei wanted us to put on men right away with no stretching. I was one of the first out in full bogu, so Sensei asked me to receive kiri-kaeshi from beginner students. I did this for more than half a dozen people before Sensei replaced me and told me to get in line with Head Sensei. After waiting in line, Head Sensei did keiko with me. He did not tone it down much. I was thinking and striking and passing through and baiting and trying oji-waza just to hit him. Practically nothing worked but they were close. I get the feeling that he saw it all coming but did not discourage me. Eventually, he declared ippon and we went at it. I tried fast, simple strikes, but all I could accomplish was aiouchi-men or aiouchi-kote. After a few strikes, he left himself open and I struck shomen and passed through with enthusiasm. I did a couple of kiri-kaeshi, including one with Sempai. She was saying something as I would finish each section, but there was so much noise in the dojo I couldn’t head her.

Then we did the tournament. Instead of a mock shiai, we did competitions such as having the nidans wear a balloon on their men and having students in a line try to be the first one to pop the balloon. The youth division went swiftly. The first three of the four got a prize. There were two brackets of mudansha. I was in the first. I was the second to pop the balloon so myself and another advanced. The same happened in the second bracket. The finals were four of us and I was the second done. The first mudansha popped his balloon a split second before me. We got some kind of brainteaser puzzle as a prize. Not bad. The nidans resident in the dojo had a best-of-three points shiai between the two of them. They chose not to have balloons. So, the four remaining fighters had two keikos simultaneously. It was wonderful to see. After the keikos, which lasted for two minutes, we changed out of uniform and had dinner together. I brought an entrée and a dessert. Apparently, people liked the entrée but not the dessert. Oh well.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Beginner's Point of View 224-225

Day 224:

In Iaido, Sensei demonstrated for us the proper horizontal cut. We practiced the cut several times. Sensei said that the cut is for a kata where you start kneeling. If you stand, then you must slide your left foot forward first, apparently to stabilize yourself. After the cut, you swing the sword wide right and then up over your head. Grip with both hands as you bring your left foot up to your right into Kendo stance. Then cut downward to the waist while stepping forward. Sensei showed with my help that the cutting choices were based in logic. If you were kneeling with someone and needed to defend yourself, you would cut across the temples and eyes. If you missed, then you cut overhead and split the head. Also, there is a ‘path’ the blade takes when being drawn. You start by drawing the blade while it is horizontal. Half-way through, you twist the sword so it is horizontal by the time it is drawn. Sensei tells me that I am ready for an iaito instead of a bokken. Normally you wait until you are ready, but my time with Kendo gives me a boost. He has graciously offered to loan me an iaito to get used to it.

I was asked to warm up the beginner Kendo class again. I followed through with my normal routine, but at the end when we finished the breathing cooldown, I ordered the class to sonkyo. Instead of osame-to, I ordered ten more shomen suburi while in sonkyo, just like it was done back when sempai was at our dojo. When she pulled that surprise for the first time, I wondered if she was crazy. However, after getting used to it, I realized that it was a good tool for maintaining good posture in any situation. I was complimented on the choice by the head instructor.

I didn’t have time to get into bogu before class, so I participated in class without it. Today we put our shinais away and did footwork. The head instructor had us practice suri-ashi as well as fumi-komi-ashi. You lean a little more forward and stomp your right foot down onto the floor. You use your right foot to pull your left foot up, kinda like a reverse step. We did a few of these drills and then added the shinai to make the fumi-komi the same timing as a men strike. We finished beginner class with making a long, serpentine line that went through three students holding their shinais for us to hit men and pass through.

I was going to stop for the night and go home, but Head Sensei showed up! It’s a rare night he has time to show up, so I stayed. We started off doing kiri-kaeshi over and over. Head Sensei loves to lecture and demonstrate. He showed us that it was incorrect to strike the initial men, then stop and push with the hands. He said, “That’s not Kendo, that’s hockey!” Well, no wonder it seemed natural for me. Still, we learned to use our bodies to correctly push our opponents back by slamming our bodies into them, then giving the gentle push with the hands for spacing. We must make sure not to stop ourselves too close to them, or our feet will collide. It takes one small step after a men strike. After a kote strike, you angle our sword off to the left to avoid spearing your opponent. Not only is it rude because it might injure them, but you are also trapped and unable to further respond. I stayed in as long as I could. My heart was racing and my breath was getting shorter and shorter. I drilled with Head Sensei a few times, then I had to stop. I went back in and learned a new drill.

He called it ichi-komi, meaning a pre-coordinated series of drills to execute in sequence with enthusiasm. The one he chose is a popular one. It is men-hiki-men-men-hiki-kote-men-hiki-doh-oh-men. It seems like a lot to remember, but if you break it up into pieces, then it’s simple to remember. The men-men part, the men-kote part, the men-doh part, and then big finish. I did this several times with others after Head Sensei, then I had to stop again. While I was resting, I missed on a chance to keiko with Head Sensei, but I wasn’t upset. I wouldn’t last ten seconds without any breath at all. After a few minutes, I noticed an unranked student missing out on keiko because he was in the rotator position. I had recovered some of my breath, so I put on men and did keiko with him. I toned down my level just a little to leave him openings and he took the ones he was confident in taking. I returned the favor by attacking him some, but not to dominate. It went on a long time, longer than a usual keiko. At the end, we tried doing ippon. After four or five aiouchi strikes, I called an end to it. We finished by doing rei-hou and I thanked Head Sensei for making the time to come.

Day 225:

Today Sensei showed up with his iaito that he talked about. It was different from the one he let me borrow previously. This one was made of steel instead of zinc-aluminum and it had a brown-colored wrap to the handle. It was noticeably heavier than the other one. The cord around the saya, called the sageo, was also much longer. Sensei says that different iaito are different lengths and weights. It’s important to train with all of them so you will not be too dependent on any one style of iaito. I practiced tying the knot on my hakama and had a little trouble. I should buy a real obi soon.

I practiced the same motions over and over for this class. It was the standing drill where I draw horizontally, then raise up over my head and cut down vertically. Sensei and another student who is a nidan in Iaido. They both advised me to stop being so timid when drawing. I need to pull the saya back farther and pull it around my back to draw properly. In fact, if I look over my right shoulder, I should see the end of the saya in my field of vision. This act really does make things easier. It allows me to draw sooner and it balances my shoulders when extending the swing. It also helps stop the motion of the sword so the saki is in line with my right shoulder.

Now I just need to practice keeping the saki pointed even, maybe just a little bit down. I’m getting more practiced at putting the sword back into the saya. Still need some practice to find the ‘sweet spot’ of approach, but I’ll get there. Also, I need to start getting used to the idea of rotating the saya as I draw to make it horizontal to help in drawing.

In beginner Kendo, we did more suri-ashi practice. We would hold the shinai behind our back and slide across the floor, screaming ‘MEEEEEEEEEEN’ I none long breath as far as we could go. We also did more fumi-komi, only this time I finally got an explanation of what it is. It’s actually not an intentional stomp. It’s leaping over a distance and you bring your weight down de facto. There was a square in the middle of the floor and the instructor showed us the idea of ‘leaping over a puddle’. That made sense. I did it much better this time. There were three lines of students doing this and everyone wanted to go at once. I had to organize people into fixed lines so there wouldn’t be too many people crossing at once and bumping into one another.

We even did a drill where we would hold itto-no-maai with a partner and take turns driving them back and forth across the floor. I think I held my kiai for too long throughout class. I developed a headache from all the pressure built up in my head from shouting.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Beginner's Point of View 222-223

Today Sensei brought one of his spare iaito for me to use. He said it was the one he took to a championship and won third place. I felt very honored. It was heavier than a bokken since it was made of metal. We did the brief rei-hou to start, where you hold the sword in the saya at eye-level with the cutting edge facing you. You give a full bow to the sword to respect your sword. Sensei showed me how to tie the special knot with the cord on the saya. The saya goes on the left side of the body, but the chord is wrapped around the right side of the belt. You start with the chord under the belt, then push a loop up through the top. You put the trailing end of the chordlike a loop into the first loop and pull the first loop tight. This way, you can pull the trailing end and undo the entire knot one-handed. Eventually, I’ll gain a real obi to make it easier. The saya really slides a lot when you just tuck it into your hakama without an obi. I practiced kata 12 for the entire class. Drawing the sword vertically can get challenging with a real saya. Still, Sensei made sure to remind me that my right hand should be over the center of my face, not to either side. He also gave a tip that after the cut, not to raise the saki up when performing chiburi, simply cut downward and to the side. It also helps to move your right foot first, and then the sword afterwards. Putting the sword back in the saya is very challenging. The sword seems very long to me and that makes it awkward to slide back into place. Sensei says that when you slide the blunt edge across your hand, it will just fall into the saya. You simply need to make sure to pull the saya back with your left hand to give you the last inches necessary to clear the opening of the saya. The sword I used was considered 2.35 units of length, called shaku. 1 shaku is approximately 11.9 inches of blade length. I saw some charts where a person who is six feet tall should use a blade of 2.45 shaku. That seems long to me. I think I will take Sensei’s advice and use a shorter blade for practice. Perhaps in the future I might get a longer sword, but for now I need to practice getting my form down and a shorter blade will help.

In Kendo class, we did stretches and suburi before dedicating an entire class to just kiri-kaeshi. I was asked to receive and did so for the entire class. I made sure to keep my comments short and quick to keep the students moving to the next line. They are improving, but they need to kiai louder. They are just scared of sounding too impolite. The instructor made a demonstration that a 10-year old boy in the class was the loudest one and that everyone else should be even louder than him. The boy was very proud because he was praised. My chest felt better this time. Maybe next week I should stay for advanced class if I feel better. I should keep up with my exercise. My arm is still a little stiff, but getting better.