All in all it was a superb weekend that was totally different to my expectations. Meeting and being trained by O’Sullivan Sensei and Howell Sensei was an amazing experience and gives you some very fundamental understandings of some very small concepts that have big implications. I wish I could remember it all but there was so much imparted to us in such a short space of time that I couldn’t possibly remember everything.
One of the main points I’ll take away is about some of the fundamental aspects of kirikaiesh. Many of us will already know that kirikaiesh is meant to encapsulate pretty much everything to do with kendo, it is not just a warm up exercise but what I didn’t appreciate before was the additional aspects around what you are doing as motodachi. We were told as an exercise, to appreciate that the blocking performed by motodachi is not just about blocking. The point of the exercise is to use this as an opportunity to experience what a genuine block is like and where your counter attack would come from. It comes from the centre. It is hammered into us that we should control the centre and part of creating an opportunity is breaking your opponents centre. So why as motodachi would you not hold centre while blocking?
Holding the centre means that you are still in your kamae, giving kakarite a realistic view of what an opponent would do when you attempt to cut them. As kakarite does perform their cuts, using tenuchi, motodachi can control how much the shinai hits their men. This helps motodachi to understand what receiving cuts would be like is a more realistic fashion. You receive a sayomen cut and because of your shinai position, could counter if you block properly.
So, don’t block fully as this give an unrealistic idea to kakarite as to when to strike and can end up with them hitting the shinai and not actually being close enough to hit men. Not blocking at all gives kakarite a good idea of correct men cuts, but gives nothing to motodachi and if kakarite hits hard, then motodachi has the tendency to return to blocking.
The central, half block gives something to both. I’m not sure how much you should use this and how much it would be recognised by most kendoka but it was an interesting point. It all linked in with what was being taught about maintaining the centre, regardless of which kamae you are in, blocking, striking and body position. Your left hand stays in the centre.
I will also take away the thought that I must relax. At one point O’Sulivan sensei grabbed be by the upper arms, shaking them shouting ‘Relax Beaumont San’. Every sensei I go near tells me this and I think it’s the part I will concentrate on more from now on.
In addition to all this I take away the amazing sense of camaraderie I began to feel over the weekend, not just with my dojo mate but with everyone, student and sensei alike. The ones going for ikkyu who were a hotbed of nervousness. The ones going for sandan that took on a kind of detached seriousness that disappeared right after they had passed. The guy who finally passes his shodan after 7 previous attempts. The student who just seemed to have trouble with all things kata and then did it flawlessly during the grading.
Interesting conversations with the sensei during and after training. The Russian guy (who’s name i forget) who I’ve seen at both of my external gradings now and have done kata with at both.
The list of things like this go on and on.
It’s interesting to reflect on the fact that there are only 900 paying kendo practitioners in the country, only 300 more than there are members of parliament and as such, this feeling of camaraderie is not unusual. We will mix with the same bunch of people at pretty much every event we go to. Mumeshi this year had say 250-300 attendees. That’s a third.
The stoke seminar had about 40 attendees, that’s about 4%. We’re a very small association and the thing I find particularly interesting is that it’s bound together by people. There’s nothing tangible to the BKA really. A website and a lot of little blue books.
I went into the weekend feeling pretty confident and by the time I got to the grading, my confidence was shot. I felt my kirikaiesh was sloppy on the first part so I tried to tighten it up on the second. I’ve done it many times before, much better. My first bout of jigeko was okay. I think I got one decent men cut in. Receiving kirikaiesh I tried to do what Howell sensei had said about the central blocking and it worked pretty well. My second jigeko was again with my Russian friend was okay and I thought it was going badly. I kept being aware of the panel and pushed on. Then, I landed, what I thought was a pretty good kote, men and they called yame.
I don’t know what it is, but I swear I expend more energy in that few minutes than I do doing an entire weekends training.
The results get posted, only one number is missing and he’s gone in a flash. We watch some of the others going for nidan and sandan but we go off for some last minute kata practice. My Russian friend comes to practice with me and we go through all if them, with me messing them up all the way.
Back into the main hall we watch all only the sandan graders which isn’t many and then it’s done. The numbers are posted for all 4 groups and there isn’t many missing.
After the fairly long first part of the grading, the kata sections are over in a flash. The ikkyu graders line up and are done in a flash. All good, no one messes up and no one gets asked to do it again. Then we’re up. I’m opposite my Russian friend, I’m motodachi we’re done in a flash and I hear O’Sullivan sensei say ‘Very nice’ and its finished.
Watching the nidan graders they all do fine. One of the ikkyu graders is sat on the floor next to me with blood coming out of his foot but he wajts to watch everything. Then the sandan graders are on. There’s only 5 of them and they are nervous as hell, probably not helped by the fact that were all watching them now. There a couple of mess ups from one pair but try go again and it’s okay.
Turning round I see the words ‘All Pass’ on the ikkyu sheet. Then in seconds the same is posted on the shodan sheet, swiftly followed by the next 2 sheets.
We’re all fine then, all of us who got to kata passed. This mass sense if relief permeates the room. The only disappointments are the few that didn’t pass, even then O’Sullivan offers feedback as to why. I remember from our ikkyu grading that he said, ‘Don’t worry about it. If you don’t pass, it doesn’t mean your not good enough, it just means you’re not ready.’ He totally put us all at ease and I remember what he has said at both gradings. ‘We’re not here to look for reasons to fail you. We want to hand out a 100% pass rate.’
Now after this little roller coaster ride was over, we’d passed, we’d taken our pictures, we’d packed up and at that point all I wanted to do was to go home. Then as we stopped for some dinner on our way home it finally hit me what I’d done that weekend.
For Japanese students, shodan is not a massive thing. I’ve heard it said that in Japan, if you do kendo, you will most likely be Sandan by the time you leave high school. Makes it seem a little insignificant but for members of my dojo that started less than 2 years ago, it’s a big deal. I was stood in a motorway service station and suddenly felt quite emotional about whole affair. I’d been so preoccupied with the thought of grading that I had not really fully thought about what I was about to put myself through. Now I’m passed I know it was pretty big. I feel proud of myself for actually sticking at something for long enough to pass something like this.
I think it’s a great thing for our club that from nothing, we’re climbing the ladder as students. We are totally a product of Meirinkan, our sensei’s dedication and good training regime.
There are now 3 regular shodans training and another 3 ikkyus with many others not far behind. We’re building our core in the club and it shows every night of training.
So what now?
For myself I’m going to go back to basics. Concentrate on what I know already, refine it and try to relax. I’ve managed to relax during suburi but I still notice my shoulders tensing while doing strikes in kata.
I’ve got a years worth of work and refinement of practice ahead of me till I can think about taking my nidan. The thing is though I want to make sure I’m not concentrating on that as a goal.
There is no goal, only the way.