Sunday, April 13, 2008

My jodan journey - so far...

Well, it's been a while since I wrote on this blog - so much so that I forgot my log-in details!

My apologies but I thought it was too depressing to write about injuries again!

Anyway, I thought I'd write about how my jodan experiences have been going so far, and most especially, to thank everyone for their support. As most of you would know, the initial inspiration for practicing jodan-no-kamae was because of an injured right shoulder that put me out of kendo for almost a year. Being naturally left-handed I thought jodan might be a good way to get back in the dojo while my right shoulder continued to heal. More than this, I also really had a desire to try jodan-no-kamae and decided that I would dedicate myself seriously to its practice.

The first stumbling block I thought I would face would come in the form of being a "kyu grader who hasn't yet mastered chudan getting ahead of himself." However, contrary to my expectations of a lot of flack coming my way, instead, everyone was really supportive. Sure I got a few digs, but overall, I've had so much support from people at every level, offering helpful advice and genuine concern for my recovery. It has come as a welcome surprise and given me great motivation and joy at returning to the club and training with you all. Thank you my friends!

Jodan - the first few months...

1. Swapping sides - The first challenge was flipping the footwork to left foot forward. While I always felt my comfortable in this stance just trying it out at home once I actually started to train this way it proved to be much more difficult than it looks! Interestingly, the most difficult thing was convincing my body that I wanted it to flip the movements from the traditional right foot forward. Each time I moved it was like my body wanted to correct it and twist assume the position it was used to when playing chudan-no-kamae. In fact, I developed a lot of pain in my lower back and had to get an osteopath to fix it. It feels fine now but was surprising how much my body rebelled against my wishes!

2. Katate men - part 1 - As you can imagine, just holding the shinai over your head for so long is really tiring at first let alone swinging it down one handed with accuracy and strength of cut. I got some good pointers from Toshio about punching my left fist to the opponents throat, pulling my right hand into my side, and pressuring with the end of the tsukagawa but I was still lacking the arm and wrist strength to do this with much conviction and was still struggling with finding the kamae. I was leaning back and putting far too much weight on my back foot and then went from that to putting far too much weight on my front foot!

3. An amazing turn of fate - the Chiba Sensei visit - I don't know if many of you believe in fate but I really felt after my meeting with Chiba Sensei that it was a very eventful and fateful time for me. The first night of training with him was so fantastic and I left feeling truly inspired and motivated with my kendo practice. His chudan posture and cuts were so solid yet fluid, strong yet delicate in action and obviously the result of mastering his craft and technique over a lifetime.
That evening a bunch of us went out to dinner and - as fate would have it - I found myself sitting opposite Chiba Sensei. Now I want to take this opportunity to thank Matt Fisher because he not only got stuck being translator for the night but also happened to mention to Chiba Sensei that I was practicing jodan-no-kamae after injuring my shoulder. His response was immediate, "See me before training tomorrow night and I will give you some personal training." I was flabbergasted and somewhat embarrassed about the prospects but also super excited!
Sure enough and true to his word Chiba Sensei took me aside with the help of Vivian Yung and proceeded to give me my own personal jodan lesson! If only I could fully understand what he said on that fateful night but the gist of it was this:

  • the action of the left and right hands are like pulling back a bow-and-arrow;
  • the left fist aims for the opponents throat;
  • the left fist goes forward like you are throwing it away;
  • keep the fist centred;
  • keep a loose grip and allow the shinai to flick from the wrist.
  • (If I've left anything out Viv please let me know!)
Probably the one controversial thing here is that I asked Sensei "don't you flick the shinai with your right thumb?", and he said, "No. The action is like a bow-and-arrow." and he proceeded to do the motion several times until I understood.

I was on second heaven after this experience and it has been my motivator ever since.

One happy guy with his hero!

4. "Feeling Jodan" - Since Chiba Sensei's visit I have been trying to follow his guidance and the advice of others. I'm especially grateful to Toshio Nishimoto who has been very generous with his knowledge and also taken the time to watch me play and offer suggestions to correct my mistakes. While my mind takes on this advice it is often difficult to get my body to obey it!
I have since discovered that the jodan-no-kamae has a way of dictating to you how it wants you to approach the stance. Certainly for me, this is much more so than chudan. When I look at other jodan players I also see strong variations in their styles and approaches while still fulfilling the general ideas and concepts behind the jodan-no-kamae style.
In my own practice this has manifest itself in a few observations and approaches:
  • I initially started holding my shinai in quite a straight line to the centre because I wanted my cuts to be straight and felt that this would be easier if I wasn't having to bring the shinai into the centreline during the cut if I held the more traditional angled stance. I'm now experimenting more with my hand positions as I gain more control of the shinai and am starting to try different positions to see how they affect the cut;
  • at first I had a much tighter grip on the shinai using the bottom 3 fingers of my left hand affraid that the shinai would fly out if I didn't. As I gained confidence I now have almost dropped my little finger from the grip letting it sit below the curve of the tsukagawa as a support and barely grip the shinai with my ring finger. This has made the cuts far more fluid, accurate and faster without fear of losing the shinai. I still have a mountain to climb with cutting but this has made a huge difference;
  • as I mentioned, I started out leaning too far back and then overcompensated by putting too much weight on the front foot and standing too tall. This meant that every time I went to cut I had to bend my front knee to spring off the back leg, thus telegraphing the cut. As soon as I simply put a slight bend in the front leg it changed everything. I could now spring off directly (minus dip) and by lifting the front heel slightly the movement was much more in a forward thrust rather than an up-and-down arc. I'm sure this reads like common sense but it's taken me a while to get to this point!
  • As for seme, I tried standing tall (thus started the dipping), then moving around to try to take an 'active' stance (this only made it easier for my opponent than me!) and now I am trying to hold my ground while moving forward from a position of strength and alertness to seize any fleeting suki while feeling a spirit of "throw your best at me, I am ready." Of course, many are 'throwing their best at me' and I'm not always ready but the intention is there!
Well, this brings me up to date and as any of you who have played me recently know, I still have a long way to go but am happy with my progress and believe that most of it is due to the help and encouragement of you all. So please let me take one more opportunity to say "thank you all" and I hope you will maintain your patience with me as I progress slowly along this unique and exciting journey.



Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Australian Kendo Championship Photos