Sunday, August 23, 2009

Tournament Preparations

Well, now that the Fall season is coming, certain things happen. Schools sessions begin (for those that have it anyways), the weather begins to cool down and, most importantly, the Kendo tournaments in the area tend to occur around this time as well.

During the Fall/Winter season, there are tournaments held by the Midwestern Federation, Southeastern Federation and East Central Federation. At this time, I don't know which ones I will go to, since it's dependant on my ability to travel there and the desires of the Cincinnati team, but it's good to know that there are some available tournaments going on.

No matter how many I ultimately go to, there is one thing that is for sure. This will be my second time in the shodan/nidan (1st dan/2nd dan) division. Back at the Cleveland tournament, I honestly didn't know what to expect as far as what I needed to do to do well. It's one thing seeing what is going on through other people's matches, but it's another thing to actually participate in it. I've spent the better part of five years in the mudansha division, so this is a pretty big change for me, regardless of how I, or others, see my ability.

After really paying attention to some of the early and late matches in the division, I think I have an idea on what needs to be done to feel better about my performance. Don't get me wrong, I have been spending a lot of time improving myself since the Cleveland tournament this past April, but I feel that I wouldn't be completely ready if the hypothetical tournament were to happen tomorrow.

So how will I be able to gauge whether or not I feel ready enough to perform as desired in the tournament? That can only be truly answered on the day of the tournament due to all the independent variables going around on tournament day. But, based on what I learned then and throughout my training, I do have some ideas on what I could do to prepare myself.

First of all, I need to put more emphasis on the basics. I could throw out as many tsuki-mens as I would like, but it all means nothing if there's no foundation to build them on. I can build a house on land but, if it's not firmly planted in the ground, something as simple as the occasional heavy rain could send it sliding down the hill with occupants in tow, leading to disastrous results. What I really need to be doing is taking the next month or so asking myself many questions like:
  • Am I keeping my balance at all times when I move?
  • Are my hand positioned correctly to take advantage of physical leverage?
  • Is my body stiff or loose?
The list isn't exhaustive, but the overall point is there. I need to try to look at everything I do in terms of the fundamentals I learned when I first started. Then the more advanced stuff should fall into place until I have to revisit the basics again.

I have also had thoughts on incorporating Iaido into the mix to help with concentration. Will this work, or is this just an excuse to practice more Iaido? That is something that I will only find out for myself in time. The reasoning behind this is that, in a Kendo match, I can sometimes get flustered with thinking way too much about the many outcomes of my actions which, in turn, slows me down and end up losing. So why do I think that Iaido will help? In Iaido, I am supposed to dispatch imaginary oppenents which can take a lot of concentration to really think about where I am cutting on the person, how the opponent is supposed to react and how I am supposed to conduct myself through the whole kata. If I can at least begin to have an idea on what it takes to stay aware of the imaginary opponents, I think there may be SOME benefit when I am against a real opponent.

Then there is the value of watching high-level tournament videos. This is more for entertainment/inspirational purposes than looking for something to emulate. Emulating from a video would be a waste of time, in my opinion, because what they are doing is of a much higher level than what I am at and these sorts of things work for their situations. If I were to just pick something up while watching, then I certainly won't avoid it, but it's not my main focus. Seeing these videos sometimes provides me with inspiration to what is possible in a match and sort of gives me something to work towards. It is also nice to be able to compare my own abilities to theirs in a fun way and to try my best to find where the point was scored for the times when the movements are hectic and fast as well as see what passes and fails in various judges eyes.

One more thing I could probably do is retreat to the Kentucky mountains, pitch a tent, live off the land and come back all scruffy and philosophical about seeing the light in Kendo. But given today's hectic world that requires me to work and pay bills, that seems like something that would be impossible, or would have to be cut drastically short. It does seem kind of fun to do though...

The most important thing that I should remember from all of this is that it is necessary for me to have fun with all of this. I need to have fun with the training and I need to have fun at the tournament. If I can't do any of that, then I believe that everything will be all for naught because my spirit would be in the wrong place despite my body being there. To be honest, I don't really have much to worry about in this department since I tend to take stuff in a light-hearted manner. And, even if I don't do as well as I would like at the tournament, it's not like it will all be a waste. I will undoubtedly learn lots of things along the way that will carry me into the future.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Iaido Training 2.0

There's nothing like being able to see yourself on camera to knock your pride down a few pegs.

Last night, I took my video camera to the racquetball court at my apartment complex to record myself doing the seitei kata to see how I look with a different set of "eyes." Needless to say, there are a lot of things I need to work on, but for the sake of sanity, I'll only concentrate on a few of the things I saw for now:
  • I noticed that my back wasn't straight for a lot of the kata. There were times when I could feel it, but there were a lot of times when I did it unconsiously as a function of the various stances I would take that I haven't quite gotten use to (tate-hiza, I'm lookin' at you!) and trying to look down at the dead opponent to make sure he or she is dead.
  • There were a lot of involuntary movements that I was making while swinging. Maybe it's because my movements were counter-balancing the swings during kirioroshi or moving the saya back during noto. For the noto, I had my obi and hakama on a little tight so it was a little difficult to move, so there's still some need for me to find that happy medium to make sure my hakama stays on, but the iaito is secure enough
I am a huge supporter for using video to help with fixing your Kendo and Iaido technique. There have been many times where I would be told to fix something, but seeing it on video really made me realize the extent of the problem. Recently, I have been able to use it to show to Takano sensei before tournaments where she would look at it and then pull us aside during one of the practices to show us what needs to be fixed.

The former case is probably one of the best tools that you could have to supplement your training. Note that I said supplement because there needs to be some actual face-to-face training in order to get correct reference material to see what is wrong. It should NOT be used as a replacement for instruction as there are some things that can really only be best corrected when someone can walk around you and see how to use your body type to improve your abilities. The latter case is great as well, but it depends on who you show it to. Showing the video directly to your sensei or senpai can be a great tool for whenever you can't interact directly from time to time. There is also the option to post your videos on Youtube, but the caution there is that there are a lot of ninja and samurai people who think they know what they are doing, but have no clue since their perception is only what was seen in historical and instructional books and movies. Then there are those that may have formal instruction, but give suggestions from only training for a few weeks or months with little perspective for what is going on. For the most part, it can be used to just show off your skills and have people remark on how you did or ask questions, but shouldn't really be used too much as an instructional tool.

I have used video cameras before as a self-instructional tool, and plan on using them in the future. While it can be a little embarrassing to see yourself, that small ego downer is small potatoes to the potential benefit you can get from actually seeing those errors that people talk about. If you have the ability to film yourself and haven't done so yet, I really encourage you to do so. And it doesn't really require fancy equipment to take advantage of that either. With cameras coming on point-and-shoots, laptops and cell phones, most already have the ability, but might have an issue of setting the camera right to film yourself. Then, with the ease of transferring data with the use of memory cards or just connecting it by USB to a computer or TV, it's a lot easier to see it in multiple spots on larger screens to make the watchers more comfortable. It's definitely a far cry from 20 years ago with the camera my parents had where everything was recorded directly to VHS tape. Being the young kid I was, that thing was HEAVY.

If you can't use a camera for whatever reason, then there's no reason to fret much about it. Using the camera is just a tool to use, but has very little bearing on how good one can become. There are many people that have some of the most respectable Kendo and Iaido skills and got them just by spending time in the dojo and feeling things out with a back-and-forth dialogue between you and the sensei. The only thing that matters is one's dedication to improve with the tools that are laid out for them.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

六三四の剣 (Musashi No Ken)

This was an anime series that I have wanted to see for quite some time. After being barred from purchasing it due to it's prohibitively expensive $500 price tag for the whole series for several years, I finally was giving the opportunity to get it at 6% of the previous price at $30 for the entire series. Well, was it worth the wait? Should I have paid the original $500 for the series? Read below to find out.

For the uninitiated, Musashi no Ken is a Kendo-themed anime about a boy, named Musashi (a play on kanji for his birthday of June, 3rd at 4pm), who is involved with Kendo from birth to adolescence. The series is divided into two parts, the first being from birth to the end of elementary school and the second being his high school years. In each part, Musashi is faced with the ordinary challenges of school life, as well as the challenges brought forth by the martial art of Kendo.

I believe the first part was the best part. There was a lot of character development involved with the main character as he grows from an arrogant kid and learns what Kendo really is about. It really kept the story moving along nicely for the 43 episodes or so that the series lasts. The second part gets a bit more philosophical and outlandish at the same time. While kenshi (people who practice Kendo) might get some appreciation out of this aspect, at the same time, some of the outlandish practices kind of ruin the feeling at times (training on cliffs, for example).

The animation is your standard 80s anime fare, which most definately improved from the first few episodes. But if you're expecting very crisp animation ala the Gundam series that was out at about the same time, you will be dissappointed. It's not terrible, but it does its job.
Overall, this is pretty much as true of a representation of Kendo that one can get in an anime. There is a lot of the philosophy behing kendo in here along with the action sequences with the shiai (fights) and drama between the characters and what they believe Kendo should be.

So who is this anime for? Well, the most important thing to say is that it's only available in Japanese. At most, you can get Chinese subtitles, but if you know neither language, then you are out of luck. I would say that it's worth a look if you practice Kendo or are interested in it, since these kinds of people would be the ones that understand the most out of it. One thing to note is that the anime follows very closely to the manga, so if you already read it (which I believe is the better version), then you are only missing the motions that are going on in between the slides. I believe that just about anyone can enjoy the series, whether or not you know about Kendo. Despite how in depth the series goes with it, there is some interesting human interaction going on between the characters and the character development of Musashi from childhood to adolescence is pretty interesting. Though, if you are into Kendo, it's pretty much a requirement if you're also into anime.

EDIT: I recently found a DVD set that was released which has English subtitles. They do get the job done, but the quality leaves much to be desired. You can tell that the people that subtitled this didn't know English because it has the quality of someone with a Japanese -> English (or Chinese -> English) dictionary and did a word-for-word translation. Even the names aren't translated right. They are either over-translated (Musashi becomes 6-3-4 or Ooishi becomes "big-stone"), used the Chinese readings or just completely uses the wrong name. If you don't believe me, the clip below shows just how bad they can get.

Really?!? Really?!?

If you want to watch a preview of the anime, I have uploaded episodes one and fifty.
Episode 1 -
Episode 50 - first episode in the second season

Here are some places you can buy it as well as preview the manga.
E-Book Japan - a site where you can buy the manga and view them on your computer. The catch is that you need to know Japanese or be patient enough to navigate the site.
- If you aren't able to navigate the previous site, you can come here to read the first chapter.
Amazon Japan - This one seems to have a version with the whole series in one book
Anime Collector - This is the only place that I know of that sells the version I bought with the English subtitles.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

今朝は居合道の授業は何人いましたか? (How many people were at Iaido class this morning?)

I only ask that question because today's class was larger than normal for a Sunday morning practice (Iaido starts at 8 AM). Usually, we have about three people show up for the Iaido portion on Sundays with another one that only shows up for Kendo at 9:30. But this time there was eight including two new people and three others that don't show up on a regular basis. It's really unusual to have this many, especially for an iaido practice. But hey, I can only sing praises for it as it really allowed for quite a different atmosphere as opposed to a normal day.

Anywho, for today's class, one of the instructors took the two beginners to one side to work with them, and the other instructor took three others and me to work on shi-ho giri, or the four-directional cut. This was kind of convenient because I was sort of working on this kata a little bit before practice began. What I was working with at that time was the fact that I could hear the iaito cutting inside the saya just before I pull the iaito out to stab the person who is behind me. During the instruction period, we were told that we should make sure the iaito is pulled out of the saya up to about the tip, which is when the rotation of the body takes over to pull the saya the rest of the way. I tried chewing on that for the many repititions we did with one successful attempt out of the five to ten that we did that session.

I have no complaints of the Kendo portion either. There was just as many people that showed up for that half of the class as did the iaido portion. Despite two people having to leave early, they were replaced by one of the regulars and a visiting go-dan (fifth dan) from Louisville who recently got back from Brazil. Since it was the first practice of the month, we started off with Kata. There was an issue that we all had with the seventh kendo kata at that last step. We really weren't entirely sure if the uchidachi needs to take an additional suriashi step back or if it's not necessary. This was cleared up thanks to the visiting sensei as he was telling us that all we needed to do was step back with the left to get in the correct position before we begin the motion to reset. I'm not really sure why, but I have heard multiple versions of this particular kata. My main goal is to know the version that is most accepted and allows me to pass the exam whenever the time comes.

We didn't have as much time left for general practice due to the kata portion but, per the instruction of the visiting sensei, we certainly made the best of it. It also helped a little that we were able to stay a little later than the posted time. We are in a dance studio where they may or may not hold classes immediately afterwards which, in this case, they didn't come in. This extra time gave us the opportunity for everyone to fight with everyone.

There are two things that I wanted to accomplish here. First, I wanted to stop with the hesitating. There is this concept called sutemi that I have written about before that I would like to employ a bit better. The few times that I have been able to do it, I've been faster and more accurate since my attention is on the strike itself and not the many things that could go wrong. Second, I wanted to keep control of myself in a match. There are times where I can easily modify my fighting to keep the tempo up with the person I'm fighting against, or I might get overly excited and attack. What I want to do is be the one to set the pace of the match so I can do what I want to do and do it well. I wasn't all that successful in it, as I eventually reverted to my old ways. Speed, dexterity and strength are great things to have in a Kendo match, but they can only get me so far. When I feel I can impose my presense on the opponent and truely gain control of the situation, then I think I can gain the kind of victory that I am seeking.

There have been times when the attendance of Kendo and Iaido have been larger than usual, but these are usually anomalies due to a number or circumstances instead of being the norm. Despite that, it's very refreshing to know that there is a market for Kendo and Iaido for it to continue growing over the years in Cincinnati. Was Sunday's attendance a sign of Jim's hard work paying off or is it just the planets lining up? Only time will tell over the next few weeks, but I really hope the former scenario is the case.
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