2016 Pacific Northwest Kendo Federation (PNKF) Women's Kendo Seminar and Tournament : Notes
Some observations and comments, sorted by date but otherwise presented in no particular order. I will add more notes as I'm able to remember more items. ~ jks
2016 July 8 Friday night practice at Bellvue
• I was very happy to see an entire room full of women - approximately 20-25 - practicing kendo together. I am grateful that the PNKF takes women's kendo seriously enough to create this kind of programming. More than half of the women were from Seattle-area dojos, but there were also quite a few from out-of-state. Murayama sensei (renshi, 7dan) led practice, spending 100% of the instruction time covering fundamentals of correct movement and the logic of effective practice. Murayama sensei spoke in Japanese and the excellent English translation was provided by seminar participant Nakagawa (PNKF).
• The last part of practice was jigeiko. While I thought Hayashi's practice was very good for the kihon portion, I didn't think the jigeiko part wasgood. Instead of continuing to focus on doing the fundamentals that Murayama sensei had just covered, Hayashi spent much time trying to 'outsmart' her much more experienced practice partners (feinting, attempting waza that she is not proficient at, etc.) or trying to avoid getting hit (excessive retreating, blocking, etc.) - neither of which produced good results.
• After practice I discussed with Hayashi the importance of practicing with the intention of being 'good' instead of 'successful.' I want all of us at Meikyokan to be focused on understanding the reasoning and logic of our various routines and practices, and to approach everything with the attitude of trying to do each one as perfectly as possible. Sometimes it will take a long time before our practicing will result in 'success' (yuko datotsu, winning a match, advancing in rank, and so on), but I hope we will all be patient and keep trying to do everything according to our best intentions, no matter how difficult it is or how slowly we seem to progress.
• Murayama sensei sometimes gave instructions that were contrary to what the seminar attendees may be used to practicing at their home dojo. Although everyone would reply with an enthusiastic "hai!" to everything Murayama sensei said, they often would not do what she had asked them to do. This seems like a common occurrence in kendo teaching and learning.
2016 July 9 all day Saturday practice at Sno-King
• Paraphrasing Murayama sensei: When practicing suburi, do everything as correctly as possible even if it means that you have to do everything slowly. Go as slowly as necessary in order to be relaxed, balanced, coordinated.
• Paraphrasing Murayama sensei: Suburi is not "exercise"; treat it as an essential part of kendo training. Pay attention to the ending - each cut should be clean and disciplined. Extend hands, wrists, and elbows on each cut, otherwise the kensen will not reach forward. Doing suburi slowly is fine.
• Paraphrasing Murayama sensei: Keep the plams of both hands in contact with the tsukagawa of the shinai from start to finish of the swing - be especially careful to not let the palm of your left hand separate from the tsuka when you swing the shinai up/back. Do not open and close either of your hands as you strike, otherwise you are essentially re-gripping your shinai every time you execute a strike.
• Paraphrasing Murayama sensei: A "jumping" or "hopping" motion is not appropriate for hayasuburi. Slide your feet on the floor.
• Instructions for striking men from Murayama sensei: When raising the shinai up above your head from chudan no kamae, keep the relative position of the elbows/wrists/hands consistent; rotate at the shoulders with a relaxed, natural feeling; slightly tighten the grip only for the fraction of a second in which you are striking men and then immediately release all tension in the hands/writst/arms; allow the shinai to naturally recoil from the impact of the strike. Do not artificially raise the shinai high over your head after striking men; just let the kensen naturally spring up after impact and then maintain that position as you follow through with forward movement of your entire body. When you move forward to strike, push your entire body forward with your left foot/leg; do not "reach forward" with the right side of your body. The front half of your left foot should remain on the floor so that you can use your left leg to push your body forward through the impact of striking men; immediately after striking sharply pull your left foot forward and smoothly do okuriashi in order to move your whole body forward. The strength of the entire movement and forward-pushing feeling should come from the pit of your stomach (hara) and the small of your back (koshi). Be very relaxed on the follow through; there should be no tention in the body during zanshin. After striking, quickly pass your opponent and turn around to face them as soon as you've created enough "safety" distance - make sure you return to chudan no kamae immediately as you turn around, with your weight equally distributed on both feet, just like the "ready to attack" feeling you had when you started from chudan no kamae. You must have body, mind, and spirit all ready for attacking, otherwise it is not actually zanshin.
• Paraphrasing Murayama sensei: As with practicing suburi, practice striking men slowly - very slowly - being careful to maintaining a relaxed, natural feeling, in addition to correct mechanics and coordination. Gradually increase speed and strength of the striking over time.
• Paraphrasing Murayama sensei: Practice kirikaeshi with extreme attention to spacing and striking distance. Make each strike to men "individually" at the correct angle and distance. Make the correct distance by combining proper footwork with good posture; not by leaning the upper body forward or backwards. Go slowly and do everything correctly. Breathe naturally and use strong kiai. If you cannot do everything in one breath, take two or even several breaths - the priority is to do kirikaeshi correctly - very slowly if necessary. Increase speed until you can do each sequence of sayumen plus shomen "in one breath".
• Sequential practices of different ways of striking men and kote. For example: 1) Starting at tohma, step into your striking distance (men-uchi) and then come to a complete stop; without moving your feet, raise the shinai over your head and stop; from this position push your body forward using the left foot/left leg/koshi and strike men sharply using fumikomi ashi. 2) Do the same thing as (1), only this time do not stop the motion of the shinai at the top of the swing. 3) Do the same thing as (2), only this time use a small swing instead of a large one. Be sure to match the strength of the small motion striking to the strength of the large motion striking you used in (1) and (2). To do the small motion striking, initiate the motion of the shinai by pushing down and forward with the left hand while keeping the right hand mostly motionless (the kensen is raised when you push down/forward with the left hand); from this position use both wrists and hands to bring the shinai sharply down onto your opponent's men or kote. This motion tends to make it harder for your opponent to do debana-kote, as the right wrist is not as exposed during the beginning stages of your attack.
• Paraphrasing Murayama sensei: When attacking kote, the datotsu-bui is closer than men. Attack from the same starting distance as when you attack men, only take a smaller (shorter) step in order to allow yourself to fully extend your arms and hands as you strike kote. If you take the same-size step as when you attack men, you will not have enough room to extend your arms/hands and the striking will be weak.
• Fumikomi ashi: the vending machine analogy. Paraphrasing Murayama sensei: When you are using a vending machine, how do you stop a coin from rolling away when you accidentally drop it on the floor? You use a sharp, quick stomping motion. Use the same feeling when you are doing fumikomi ashi.
• Okuri ashi: Paraphrasing Murayama sensei: Make your legs muscles loose and relaxed feeling. Don't bounce up and down as you move across the floor. It's okay for the left foot to go in front of the right foot on follow through but be clear about the differences between ayumi ashi and okuri ashi.
2016 July 10 Sunday practice at Sno-King
• Seme practice attacking men. 1) from toh-ma, step into your striking distance by making a subtle diaganol-right. It should not be obvious to your opponent that you are not stepping straight in. This is useful against people who have a very strong control of the center-line. 2) From toh-ma, drop your kensen low as you step straight in. Attack men as your opponent drops their kensen or leaves the center-line.
• Seme practice attacking kote. 1) Same as above (2), but attack their kote as your opponent raises their shinai in anticipation of protecting their men. 2) Press opponent's kensen to your left once and let them press back; Press your opponent's kensen to the left a second time, only this time as s/he attempts to press back, sharply raise your kensen, which exposes their kote. The raising of your kensen should be used as the beginning of the motion to attack their kote.
• Ojiwaza practice in groups of 6 or 7, with one person (kakarite) in the center. Everyone attacks the kakarite from both sides, alternating, in quick sucession. Kakarite quickly changes direction to face each attacker but otherwise remains in the same spot rendering waza. First do ojiwaza against men attacks. Then after everyone has had a chance to be in the center, do ojiwaza against kote attacks.
2016 July 11 Monday evening practice at Sno-King
• More fundamentals practice. Paraphrasing Murayama sensei: When doing the various suburi, the correct ending position (striking men) is with the left hand at the level of the solar plexus and the right hand slightly lower than the shoulder. The right arm is not level with the floor. Practice using big (wide) steps.
2016 July 12 Tuesday: no practice. Meikyokan people jump into the car and go on a "field trip" to Olympic National Park. Although it was a very long (and tiring!) day - we started driving at 8am in the morning and returned at 2:30am in the morning - I think seeing the glaciers, rain forests, lakes, trees and ocean helps keep things in perspective.
2016 July 13 Wednesday evening practice at Sno-King
I have a long conversation with former PNKF and USKF President Marsten sensei about the various challenges we face in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii.
2016 July 14 Thursday evening practice at Sno-King
• More fundamentals practice. Paraphrasing Murayama sensei: When doing seme, use your entire body, supported by your left foot and hara/koshi. Use the ball (fleshy part on the front half) of the foot to push your body forward, not just the toes and area immediately behind the toes. It is the same part that we use to support our bodies when we casually jump (bounce) up and down. (To do this correctly, bounce up and down with your knees relaxed and flexible - you'll notice that it's much more difficult and unnatural feeling if you try to bounce with your knees rigid and locked; therefore do kendo without locking your knees.) Plant this part of the foot on the floor and leave it there as long as possible while aggressively pushing your entire body forward during attacks.
2016 July 15 Friday evening practice at Bellvue
• Short kihon and mawari keiko for the women seminar participants, then gogaku-geiko with "everyone" for about 45 minutes. Murayama sensei practices with many people, this time including boys, men, and senior PNKF sensei. She dominates everyone with a very narrow range of waza - almost exclusively men, kote, kote-men, dekote, debana-men. Her practice is incredibly disciplined - she seems to never miss an opportunity to attack, and she maintains a relentless control of the center with her kensen that just does not waver. At all. Many people end up with her kensen somewhere on the front of their body as they try to attack her. It is an almost unbelievably disciplined practice, very beautiful.
• Murayama sensei made a comment earlier in the week, something to the effect that she is trying to prove (to herself, at least) that speed and physical strength is not important in kendo. I admire how far she has gone so far. Somehow she has made herself into a very public example of her ideas and beliefs; the result is already remarkable and inspiring, and she is only 42 years old.
2016 July 16 Saturday: PNKF Women's Tournament
• The tournament was very well organized. There were three courts and each court had its own digital projector - fed by a laptop - displaying the current and upcoming competition brackets for everyone to see - the competitors, the audience, the volunteers working the courts. The volunteers were properly trained and they remained at their stations, performing their assigned tasks, for the duration of the entire tournament.
• Each scorer's table had a score-keeping contraption that displays via colored flip-cards how many points have been scored by each competitor (0, 1, or 2 large red and white cards) and how many hansoku (0 or 1 smaller yellow cards) have been given. The cards are large enough to be visible from a distance, so that the shushin (or even the competitors and audience members, for that matter) can quickly glance at the scorer's table without leaving the shiaijo, and immediately know the current state of the match in terms of scoring. I imagine this contraption reduces the amount of confusion or errors that sometimes occur during matches.
• On the average, the competitors from the continental U.S. and Canada are significantly quicker, more intense, aggressive, and spirited than our competitors here in Hawaii. This is a reflection of their approach to everyday practice, which tends to be done at a faster pace, with more intensity, and are more physically demanding than our practices in Hawaii. I think the differences are not small; it would be a good idea to carefully consider the implications and meanings of these differences and to chart paths that are consistent with what we would like to become in the future.
• I felt that all three of us from Meikyokan - Reiko Hayashi, Gayle Komata, and myself - were welcomed and treated with a nice, open feeling throughout the programming.
• I was very happy to see Mark Verrey and James Okada again.
• Traveling can be expensive. Just for reference, I want to mention approximate costs associated with this trip, for the sake of future planning:
round-trip airplane ticket (Honolulu > Seattle > Honolulu): ~$875 per person
hotel room (9 days, shared): ~$570 per person
rental car, gas, insurance: ~$900 split three ways, or ~$300 per person
week-long seminar fee: $50 per person
tournament entry fee: $50 per person
after-tournament banquet: $30 per person
food, omiyage, and presents for myself: ???
• This event has been held every three years and according to the organizers they intend to hold the event & seminar again in 2019. I hope to bring a group of 5 Meikyokan students - enough to make a team - to participate. I doubt the students will have enough experience by then to be competitive, but it would still be a very good learning experience.
• We should think carefully about what kind of programming we can do in Hawaii, especially to support women's kendo. Since we are located in the middle of the North Pacific, maybe it would be a nice idea to bring women from Japan together with women from the continental U.S., Mexico, and Canada, to meet and do something (?) here in Hawaii. This kind of programming doesn't need to be large or complex affairs. Sometimes the most meaningful relationships are created during small or intimate encounters.
I wish to extend my sincere gratitude to all of the organizers of this remarkable seminar and tournament, and of course to Murayama sensei.
Also, a special thank you to Sato sensei for giving us a gentle push to attend this seminar and taikai. His decades-long participation and relationship building with other federations is tremendously important to the HKF, and I hope more of us will continue to do more traveling, hosting, and other friendly activities in the future.
Notes recorded August 4, 2016 (Thursday) by J.K. Shishido of Meikyokan Dojo.