December 16, 2010

Every year countless kendoka have to prepare for their shinsa and everyone begins their preparations at different times. Some start only a few months ahead while others start an entire year or more before. Beginning kendoka can afford to start this process a few months ahead but the higher up you go, the more time is needed, and this is reinforced by the waiting period required for each rank.

While preparations for each shinsa are arguably the primary focus of each kendoka when they become eligible for the next rank, there’s always that one persistent question: am I truly ready? Some say if their Sensei says they’re ready, then there’s nothing left to do but prepare and most are satisfied with that. Others have lingering doubts and/or questions all the way up to the day of the shinsa. This could be attributed to people being their own worst critic and for the most part, it is. As much as you may feel you aren’t ready, if your Sensei is willing to stake their reputation on you testing, then there’s no doubt in their mind that you are ready. After all, he/she has enough experience to see that in you. That being said, we are only human and it is only natural to have a little bit of concern whether or not you will pass. What separates those who pass and those who fail is, in my opinion, depends one’s ability to silence these doubts and enter the shinsa with a clear and calm mind.

Another aspect of shinsa that seems to not be discussed as much is the outcome. If you fail, most have one of two general reactions: they may become discouraged and feel they wasted their time or they look at it as a sign there was something they overlooked and will attack that area harder in preparing for the next shinsa. If you pass, some will say, “that’s great, ok, back to training,” whereas others may think, “wait, I passed? Am I really at that level?” Hopefully no one who passes will allow it to get to their heads and allow their ego to get huge but if it does, we can only hope they have a good Sensei and sempai to help shrink it down to size. For now, I will focus on the latter of the if-you-pass trains of thought.

We all know what is required to pass for a certain level but can we really perform at that level each and every day after passing? Is each rank a set bar that we must perform at and/or above each and every day thereafter? Some see passing each rank as a level that, though you may not be at that level everyday, the pressure of passing helps push you to that level and beyond. Still others see it as more of a cloud that shows a general approximation of where your skill level is at that moment; you will drift up and down from time to time but for the most part, that’s where you are.

No matter how you look at shinsa and passing/failing, what happens after tends to fall into one of two camps: if you pass, you will most definitely be performing at that level very soon (if not immediately) and if you fail, you will work harder to pass the next time around. Speaking from my own experience, there’s something about shinsa that brings out the best in a kendoka and they either feel that push and perform at their expected level or miss it entirely.


2009 SDK Seminar Reflections: Long Overdue

August 2, 2009

Back in May I attended the 2009 Sei Do Kai Iaido and Jodo seminar and promised to share my thoughts and things I learned over those three days. I now find myself in August and still have failed to do so. In short I will say that it was definitely a worth while experience and I wish I could have trained for longer. I learned so much from the sensei’s over those three days, so much that I couldn’t possibly hope to contain it all in my head so I will share the more important of notes soon when I have more time to write a more detailed post.

Sen No Sen

April 30, 2009

During the last month or so,  I’ve been going to practice without my contact lenses for two reasons.  First, my eyes were starting to get bothered by them and second, I ran out of fresh ones.  When I made the decision to stop wearing them for a while, I remembered something my sensei said during one of our practices some time ago.  When he was younger and competing in college with the kendo club, he didn’t have the option of contact lenses or glasses inside his men so he practiced much harder to compensate for his lack of sight.  He found he was able to not rely on visual cues from his aite but more from the feeling he got instead.  I believe this falls into the realm of 先, 先の先, and 先々の先 (sen, sen no sen, sen zen no sen), anticipation, knowing what your opponent will do an act first, and sensing what your opponent will do.

I started to think about this and tried to figure out which of the three terms my sensei’s case would fall under.  Since was not able to see his opponents, then it must be 先々の先 since he was able to react purely on something he felt from his opponent.  The more I thought about it however, the more I started to think that it might be closer to 先の先 because that would have been too early in his kendo career and he would still have been able to see the general shape of his opponent and general body movements.  This becomes all to clear whenever I have keiko with him as he is able to just pick up on every single little movement I make and strike me down every single time.  With this in mind, I decided to try to push myself (at the expense of my vision health probably), to try to better develop my 先の先.

The first night I went without my contacts was an odd feeling.  I had always thought that sweat in the eyes was no big deal but that was because my contacts had always protected my eyes.  Stinging eyes, check.  Lining up for uchikomi geiko was interesting because my astigmatism made it harder to approximate the exact location of my partner from across the floor.  Blurry blue blobs, check.  The rest of practice went without incident but then sensei decided it was time for us to have some kakarigeiko.  Incidentally this was also when his wife was at the dojo armed with a video camera.  Long story short, I was surprised I didn’t miss more often and that my only major screw up was a botched final strike due to exhaustion and crappy fumikomi.  If you’re interested in seeing the results of this, send me an email and I’ll provide a link.

As the weeks went by I got more and more used to not being able to see as clearly and it has made me realize a few things.  First, I don’t need to see my aite clearly in order to read their body language and anticipate what they are going to do.  I had become so fixated on trying to maintain proper enzan no metsuke that I had not been paying nearly as much attention to my aite’s body language. Second, I can land a strike with yukodatotsu from father away than I thought I could.  Third, my eyes wander far too much and it’s no wonder that in every single taikai I’ve been to I’ve been knocked out in either the first or second round.  Despite my efforts to focus on my aite’s eyes, I still fall into that old beginners habit of looking everywhere else. Was I able to improve in terms of 先の先?  Maybe but it’s hard to say for sure since I’ve only been able to see the results with my dojo-mates, I haven’t had the chance to test these results on someone new from a different dojo, and I haven’t been able to have jigeiko with a few of my sempai in recent weeks.

Up till now I haven’t really given this concept much thought even though I was practicing it ever since I earned shodan.  I get the feeling I’m just on the tip of the iceberg and that if I want to be ready to attempt sandan next year I need to get cracking.  There’s still so much I have yet to even realize about this and I’m certain that I’ll be working on this for as long as I practice kendo.


March 16, 2009

On Sunday, March 8, I participated in the 16 Annual Shidogakuin Tournament held at Rutgers University.  The morning primarily consisted of kyu through nidan shinsa so I spent most of it trying to relax and loosen up a little bit before the floor opened up for larger warm-ups.  Just as other tournaments I’ve been in, kids, mudansha, and women’s divisions went first, resulting in everybody from shodan and up waiting until early afternoon.  By then my legs felt like lead weights and my knees felt very stiff.  Leading up to my bracket, I tried to limber up again as best I could and when my match came up, I stepped in, and wasn’t prepared for what i was about to face.

The first thing I noticed about my aite was how he gave absolutely nothing away.  There was nothing I could pick up on at all.  His eyes were unwavering, his posture and shoulders barely changed when he moved, his shinai held chushin extremely well, and something else that I couldn’t identify.  Needless to say, the match was over in less than a minute (I checked) from two solid men uchi.  I could do nothing.

I spoke with my sensei afterwords and we both watched his succeeding matches and we both saw why he beat me so easily: he was completely relaxed.  No tension whatsoever in his shoulders, arms, or hands.  His face betrayed nothing and his entire kamae looked so effortless and allowed him to just flow seamlessly from standing in chudan to landing a solid strike.  Watching him, my sensei said that my speed probably is on par with him but his ability to relax is what beat me.  The rest of the day I replayed that match in my head and I tried to figure out where all my tension was coming from.  What was keeping me wound up and holding me back?

My first practice after the tournament I focused primarily on addressing this problem.  My first step was loosening my grip on my shinai which resulted in a significant reduction in tension in my arms and shoulders.  This combined with pushing forward with a stronger seme as I moved in to strike allowed me to land more successful strikes.  On top of that, I started to receive fewer wayward strikes on my arms and knuckles.  I continued this through all of this last week and when I visited Kyu Do Kan in Scarsdale, New York, I got much of that same feeling.  All of my keiko that day was with 7th dan, 6th dan, and 5th dan sensei’s and I definitely felt much better about my keiko than I have in a long time.  My seme, ashi sabaki, zanshin, and timing all seemed much sharper.  I also felt more patient and was able to gauge my opponent more acurately.

I think I’ve just found the tip of the iceberg here and now I can’t wait for the next practice so I can further experiment with my newfound relaxed state.