Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What Jayson learnt in Japan about Kendo

I recently went on a backpacking tour through Asia for three months and some great life experiences. The greatest benefit of travelling by yourself and having no real plans is that you learn more about yourself. But enough of the philosophy I’m here to talk about Kendo.

I was very fortunate and managed to spend a month living, drinking and playing Kendo in Japan. I would like to share a few of the insights I gained over there.

George McCall was my guide and friend for the whole month while I was in Osaka and on my second day in Japan I was lucky enough to watch the Osaka prefecture trails for the 2008 All Japan Championships. It was held at the Shudokan next to the Osaka castle and started early in the morning. George pointed out all the famous Kendoka there but I was ignorant to the Kendo hall of fame. The tournament started off with the normal folks and salary men. Their kendo is crisp and clean but nothing amazing. But when the police boys come on it’s a different ball game. They are all big guys over six foot. They play strong simple kendo, but their timing and presence is incredible. Teramoto (2007 All Japan Championship winner) plays and his kendo style is truly unique. He is calculating with subtle wrists and seems to vary the size and speed of his cuts more than anyone else. I think this is the secret to his success. He does not drop a point and secures his position in the Osaka team.

Early in the month I get some useful advise. I’m told I’m fast and my timing is good but I’m tapping more than I’m cutting. Also told I’m not cutting straight. I’m told that my spirit should feel like it’s at the tip of my shinai when I cut. Basically translate it to mean I need to lift my spirit in my cuts a lot more.

More advice, the tone and the pitch of my Kiai is wrong. I have a Kiai yelling session with one of the Sensei and eventually it improves. In hindsight a good kiai should sound like an optimistic battle cry during the cut and continue on like you have a smile on your face afterwards. In other words you feel great during and after the cut and should sound like it in your kiai. Interestingly my Kendo improved as my Kiai improved because I felt positive before I even cut.

A revelation comes to me when I’m playing in Japan. If I think about cutting from my hips and let muscle memory do the rest with my arms, my cuts become stronger and straighter. It works by concentrating on the trunk of your body when cutting and imagining it being perfectly straight, linear and super robust when cutting. The tangible result is that when you cut men at the same time with someone else, you are so balanced and strong, the split second after the simultaneous cut your opponent will just bounce off you. It’s a fantastic feeling as there is physical evidence you have totally dominated your opponent.

During my training at Yoseikai (George's club) I did extra Kiri-kaeshi training after normal training (Note: In addition to the 6 sets at the start of training). You would not believe how much my kendo improved learning how to do Kiri-kaeshi properly. 1st point is that you need to lift your left hand well above your head to really work out your shoulders. 2nd point is that you must endeavour to raise and lower your arms and wrists through the centre of your body and let your wrists do the work to hit the side of your opponents men, 3rd point is to not bob your body up and down when you cut, try and stay linear and straight. I think it all adds up to learning how to cut straight and using your wrists to cut at angles rather than your arms. From a physical point of the exercise itself increases your cutting power ten fold. No other training exercise compares in my mind.

As a side note, the floors in Japan are very springy. Nothing new. But what we are not told is how slippery and smooth they are! Basically you could almost ice skate on a great dojo floor. The purpose of the smooth floor is to ensure you are very upright and move in a linear fashion, otherwise you will simply slip all over place. Our floors in Australia are sticky and hard, which means we can’t move as smoothly and as linear as a Japanese player who has been playing on these specially designed floors all their life. I think this is ok, it just means we will always bob when we follow through, but as long as our cutting action is linear I cannot see a disadvantage.

The last insight I will add here is from Shimakawa Sensei (7th Dan at Yoseikai). On my departing night he mentioned how he felt about Kendo. These are not his words exactly, but paraphrasing is better than nothing. Basically the ultimate aim of Kendo is to be able to stand toe to toe with an opponent with real swords ready to die. This is a pretty hard core concept. But if you were able to imagine what it would be like playing with real swords, you would not go through the motions like many of us do in Jigeiko, you would not say ‘he is just a beginner I will take it easy on him’ or ‘he is too good I will never win’. No! If you faced off against anybody with a real sword trying to kill you, you would do you best to kill them 1st. Its this feeling of kill or be killed that makes kendo so wonderful, because we can experience the rush and excitement of a life and death battle without ever actually ever being killed or injured. My thought is that by imagining a life and death situation in Jigeiko our senses will naturally heighten, we become more alert and excited…and in the end all come away with a more rewarding kendo experience.