Saturday, November 20, 2010

HKKA Visit, 13 & 14 November

Just a quick note here to remind me of the awesome that happened earlier.

During the weekend, a contingent of kendokas from the Hong Kong Kendo Association, accompanied by 8th dan Inoue sensei, came to visit for some joint keiko and friendly shiai. It was held in the Japanese School of Kuala Lumpur in Subang.

I managed to turn up for the Saturday session, from 10am to 4pm. Keiko was not as harsh as I'd expected. I remember the 1st ASEAN championship training* practically had me crawling, but this time round, the greater part of the morning was spent on bare bones basics, in the form of doing the bokuto kihon waza with shinais out and bogus on. This was a welcome relief, given that:

a) The Japanese School's halls are not air-conditioned, leaving us to the tender mercies of Malaysia's climate.
b) I'd been involved in a teacher training course for about a month, and had been slacking in my training. What precious little stamina I had was somewhat diminished.
c) Seriously, it was just too damn early on a Saturday morning... Bleargh.

But it was good stuff. It was nice to see the basic movements dissected in that fashion, then being able to cut loose, strike and be able to feel whether we were executing the techniques right. I for one relish any oppurtunity to practice tsuki attacks, seeing as how rarely we do it in our regular training.

Lunch came along quickly enough, with absurdly large bento filling most of us to bursting. As such, lunchtime was appropriately long (1.5 hours) because, believe me, you don't want to fight on an overly full stomach.

After lunch, shiai! Seeing as the Malaysians in attendance outnumbered the Hong Kong contingent by about 2 to 1, most of the Hong Kong kendokas had to fight twice. Didn't seem to be a problem for them, though, seeing as every one was at least a shodan. Long story short, Malaysia mostly got squished.

I got paired up to fight a 3rd dan myself, though I only found out after I got trounced by him. To my credit, I wasn't blatted in 15 seconds like at the HK Open. I had the chance to watch him fight earlier and thought out my opening moves. I'd anticipated he'd probe by first snapping out at my kote as fast as he could, so I was ready to cancel his point by catching his kote at the same time. I knew one of my weaknesses in shiai had always been a lack of aggression, so I did try to compensate for that, also trying out a very particular feint that I'd been working on, but to no avail. Over the course of the next 2 minutes or so, he caught my men (I was SO sure I cancelled it with aiuchi!), then my kote (ok, he totally deserved this point).

Frankly, my opponent was too fast for me. None of the cheeky tricks and feints that work so well for me in keiko had any effect here. So what grand lesson will I take with me from this shiai? Hehe... Nothing spectacular or profound, just this: Straight kendo. I need to work more on my straight kendo. Raw speed, getting from kamae to strike. I've decided this is what I'll be concentrating on in the time between now and my shodan grading in January.

After shiai, there was a little time for jikeiko, and I must confess, I was quite flattered to find myself invited to keiko with another of the HK members before I'd even got my helmet back on. However, what really sticks in my mind from the keiko after was a brief moment when I went for jigeiko against Inoue sensei.

Inoue sensei is in his 70s, but let me tell you, he has arms like tree trunks and if he so wished, I would be unable to touch him. I was quite knackered from the day's exertions, but since this was possibly the very last chance I'd get to jigeiko with him, I threw everything into it, paying attention to form and making sure I showed no signs of weakness. If there's anything I'd learnt about encounters with unfamiliar Japanese senseis it is this: Show any weakness in spirit, like an unsteady kamae, flinching, backing down or an overly rigid grip, and the sensei will show you no mercy. Before long, it was 4:05pm, time to go, and he lowered his sword, looking right at me. Every kendoka knows this gesture. It's the invitation to one final men cut. An unspoken command from sensei to student: Last cut. Give it everything. So I did. And it was perfect.

I'm not looking to blow my own trumpet or whatever, it's just that, for that split second, I forgot myself and my body lashed out, faster, smoother and sharper than I ever thought I was capable of. I couldn't see my own blade, but felt it whip out and bounce off the sensei's helmet, resounding with that very distinctive popping sound of a perfect cut. The sensei nodded his approval, and then the day caught up with me. Man, was I knackered...

And that's it really. A (tiring!) weekend of great fun and good fights and me coming out of it with something to think about as I make my way to shodan and, maybe one day... two swords...

*Note: I didn't actually participate in said championship, just the training.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Gotta get organized!

MAY?! Has it really been that long since I blogged???

Ah, well, the timestamp tells no lies... It's been a busy few months, to be sure, with much drama and a drastic change of lifestyle which I won't go into in much detail. What I will say is that I'm presently the boyfriend to a lovely Japanese goddess, on my way to fulfilling an old dream of becoming a teacher and have finally fulfilled a significantly older childhood dream of actually playing a game of Warhammer 40k.

Oh, and I'm taking my grading for shodan in kendo in January. Shodan! The sexy rank! No moar kyu for me! Another step closer to my ambition of bearing 2 swords into battle! Well, if all goes well, at any rate.

Anyway, it's been way too long since I've blogged, and there is much to blog about. As such, I'm going to be splitting this blog from here onwards. This bit, Cheng's Mirror, will mostly be about me and my reflections on life, the universe and everything. Seeing how kendo has deeply affected my thinking and how I grow as a person, posts about kendo will be here, too.

In fact, this blog will mostly continue as it has since the start with only one major change: Anything to do with hobbygaming will go to a completely separate blog (will post the link on this blog shortly), seeing as it's a level of dorkiness that I feel a bit guilty about inflicting on my non-gamer readers, if there are indeed any of you left at this point. That having been said, I can't resist putting up this pic of the badass I painted up who leads my army into battle:

No, that's not an unfeasibly ornate shovel he's holding in his left hand, it's called a crozius. Bit of a long story, really...

And that's all I've got time for right now. More posts and a fresh new blog to follow shortly...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

It's not often these days that I could be bothered to pick up a book with the word "Jesus" in great big gold lettering plastered all over the cover but I found myself compelled to make an exception when I spied the name of the author, no less than one of my favourite heretics, Philip Pullman. Even more intriguing, perhaps, was the back of the book, on which was printed in large friendly letters:


And nothing else. No summary, no praise for His Dark Materials, just those words and the little publisher's logo and UPC bar code modestly tucked away at the bottom. That pretty much said it all, really. A retelling of the life of Jesus in a manner that will most undoubtedly draw a deluge of stiff letters from pious, God-fearing people who'd never actually consider reading this book, and who'd need to be told repeatedly to at the very least pay attention to the four little words on the back.

It's written in a very simple style, similar to the NIV Bible itself, with short, unembellished sentences collected in a series of bite-size chapters. For the most part, it adheres to the story as told in the New Testament, with a very significant difference, being that here Mary gave birth to twins, named Jesus and Christ.

The stark simplicity of the text leaves much room for the reader to colour it with his own interpretation. Being as atheist as I am, I see in this book the story of Jesus as an outspoken, simple man of lofty principles and good intentions and his brother Christ, timid, scholarly and full of love for his brother, and how the story of their lives were raised far beyond the reality by a mixture of the hopes of the people around them, Chinese whispers and careful manipulation of history.

Having witnessed any number of silver-tongued individuals attain positions of power with little more than the gift of the gab and a sufficiently ignorant, unquestioning audience, this book tells quite a lot of how gods, prophets and messiahs are constructed out of a dash of good intentions, a truckload of false hope and a pinch of deception. I read it and I see an old story repeated, one of good intentions, born of the noblest part of the human spirit, twisted and corrupted into something far beyond the expectations of the initiator, both in the best and worst possible ways. It is much akin to planting a mysterious seed in a garden in the hope it will bear fruit or flowers, then finding the garden overrun with vicious, thorny creepers punctuated with stunningly beautiful blossoms.

That aside, there is much food for thought to be found in certain chapters, such as Christ posing the questions (usually attributed to Satan in the New Testament) to Jesus in the wilderness, and Jesus' confrontation (With God? Or his own faith?) in the Garden of Gethsemane. Here's an excerpt from Jesus' time in the garden:

'You're not listening,' he whispered. 'I've been speaking to you all my life and all I've heard back is silence. Where are you? Are you busy making another world, perhaps, because you're sick of this one? You've gone away, haven't you, you've abandoned us.

'You're making a liar out of me, you realise that. I don't want to tell lies. I try to tell the truth. But I tell them you're a loving father watching over them all, and you're not; you're blind as well as deaf, as far as I can tell. You can't see, or you just don't want to look? Which is it?'

And so on and so forth. Go on, guess who shows up after that... If the Dark Materials trilogy is any indication, Pullman also makes known his opinion of organized religion during the Gethsemane monologue.

Anyway, I won't spoil it for you. It is not a long book, easily wolfed down in a single sitting and it does what any good piece of writing should do, which is make the reader think. I sense it is as likely to offend as it is to enlighten, depending on the mind reading it, but whatever the case may be, perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind is what has been written on the back cover: This is a STORY.

Monday, May 10, 2010

HK Open revisited

I neglected to mention previously that we managed to record our performance in HK and that I've gotten my grubby paws on the DVDs of said recording last week. Having viewed my fights a few times, I was quite chuffed to observe that there were brief moments, barely lasting a few seconds, when I relaxed enough and actually struck with the snake-like speed and precision of a real kendoka.

As I mentioned before, as a 2nd kyu, I fully expected to bumble about looking like a right muppet for the first few times in an international tourney. That I managed to actually pull off something looking like serious kendo, even if only for a few fractions of seconds at a time, in such a prestigious tournament was quite a bit beyond my expectations and so, verily, I am chuffed.
Perhaps of greater importance, though, was how the video showed me very clearly what I was doing wrong, i.e. the tenseness, the sluggish footwork and the excessive use of the right arm in what I call (translated) "Destroy the Old World" attacks, named for the resemblance to this poster:

Yep, my hammer technique is excellent. Pity it isn't worth a damn in kendo...

Anyway, that's it for now. Maybe one of these days I'll figure out how to clip out my fights from the DVD and post vids...

Hong Kong Open, part 2 of 2

Day Two

Woke up this day with the aftermath of Day One etched in every muscle. Not good. Seeing as my one and only tournament legal shinai was ruined* I borrowed one from a teammate**. Poor devil broke a toenail rather painfully during goudo keiko...

Anyway, day two was dedicated completely to the men's 5-man team event. Now, the previous men's event was 3-dan and below. Today, no upper limit, so we'd be running with the big dogs. Well, eaten alive at any rate.

15 seconds. That is how long I lasted in my first fight of the day, against someone from the Beijing Japan Club. I think he may have been Japanese, because I couldn't make out his name on his zekken (name tag), which is quite normal for me when I'm wearing contacts, as Japanese names will often crowd the zekken just enough that I can't read it from across the shiaijou. One could argue that during the shiai, I'd be close enough to read it, but believe me, I hadn't a split second to waste staring at the other guy's groin. Anyway...

He took the first point within the first 5 seconds, from my right kote. From the moment we started, he quickly circled to my left. I'd never encountered such an opening before, so it took me completely by surprise when he darted forward, reach under my shinai and struck a perfect blow on my right kote with such precision it might have come out of a textbook. And he did this, from my left, from somewhere around my 11 o' clock.

The next point he took was also a kote, but for the life of me, I couldn't see how. You see, a kote strike targets only the area on the forearm closer to the wrist, a strike zone about 6 inches wide. When the arms are in the default stance, i.e. chuudan no kamae (middle stance), with the shinai pointed towards the opponent's throat (or eyes, depending on the sensei), the right kote is in front, and hence a valid target. The left kote is not. When the shinai is raised high to strike, say, in a large overhead cut, or jodan no kamae (high stance), the left kote will be in front of the right, and hence it becomes the valid target. Either way, on both kote one is meant to attack the wrists.

What happened in this case was he struck me but I had moved forward quickly enough that his shinai didn't contact my wrists, but clearly went across my knuckles. I was all set to continue trying to take a point back, but I saw the flags raised in his favour! Most vexing, but there was nothing I could do. For the life of me, I do not know why he was given that point. Still, that first point gave me something to think about.

My 2nd fight of the day, I must confess, I feel a little guilty about. While my helmet was off, I could clearly see my opponent was a significantly older man, definitely over 50 and smaller and lighter than me. I had little doubt he was also many years my senior in kendo, and so concluded that there was no reason for me to hold anything back and my best bet would be to use my own physical advantages, that is, my bulk and brute strength.

This fight was possibly my most aggressive of the tourney. I charged and knocked him back, I hammered down blows on his head again and again with all the strength I could muster, not to score, mind you, but it was a calculated attempt to wear him down and keep an eye out for the first sign of weakness. Twice I dealt smashing attacks onto his men (head), each time 2 strikes in rapid succession. Then it appeared! And I wasted it... Once again I aimed a crushing blow on his head, knowing he'd block, and he staggered under the force of it. There was the opening! But in my excitement, I'd simply attacked his head again, and it was easily, if shakily, blocked. It was a split second later that I realised that what I should have done was follow up with a hit to the do (body) while his shinai was still up protecting his head. Ah, well, the moment was lost. I'd knackered the both of us, and neither of us could take a point until time ran out. And thus passed my first fight in an international tournament which I... uh... didn't lose!

And thus ended Day Two. There was goudo keiko after that, of course, but I'd reached my limit by then and just really wanted to have a shower and lie down for a bit. Oh, and have some beer...

On a side note, the friend I borrowed the shinai from and myself were pleasantly surprised to find the shinai I'd used during this fight was in remarkably good condition, barely even a splinter! Not sure about the other guy's shinai, though... I have since gotten my grubby paws on 3 Beesangs.


So what did I learn from all that? Well, apart from the vast gulf between 2nd kyu and 8th dan, of course...

My most glaring error in Day One was zanshin, or the sorry lack of it. Repeatedly I was able to set up clean killing blows, yet was denied ippon due to lack of zanshin. So what happened? Ideally, a blow with zanshin should strike the target clearly and sharply *then* follow through. Normally, this means hitting and running past the opponent, denying his chance to counterattack. Alternatively in a hikiwaza (an attack while pulling away from the opponent) one should back away quickly and smoothly after the strike.

I could not perceive it at the time but what I'd actually done was set up the blow (I'm quite chuffed that I had the presence of mind to do that), then hit and try to push my shinai as deep as possible into my opponent's skull. Now, while this would have made for quite a spectacular kill were I using a live blade, with a shinai it looks hopelessly ugly. It basically looks like I hit and then stop dead in my tracks. I essentially have the first half of ippon, but the remaining half is woefully absent. Suffice it to say, half an ippon is, for the purpose of shiai, as good as no ippon at all.

In Hong Kong, I witnessed a lot of solid kendokas applying many different approaches to taking ippon. I saw short little ones, bouncing around the shiaijou, darting in and striking before their opponent could react. I saw tall, strong ones stand still as statues, who'd quietly wait for their opponent to make the first move and counterattack in furious blur of motion. I even saw a few wielding 2 shinai, 1 long and 1 short, nito-ryu, quite a rare thing and fascinating to watch. I saw all these and realized how raw and unformed my own kendo is, and found myself looking on at these master swordsmen and wondering "Would that technique work in my hands?"

That having been said, apart from the 3-person Men's event, almost all the winners were Japanese. Many are in their 30s or 40s, and have been practising kendo 2 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week since middle school or, at a rough guesstimate, at least 7,500 hours. Compare this with my own time in the dojo, averaging twice a week over the last 3 and a half years for a total of about 700 hours. There is only so far one can bridge the gap in experience with strength, spirit and guile.

As such, since Hong Kong, I've thrown myself into training with much more enthusiasm, constantly analyzing myself for what I'm missing, my weakness, my strengths and training accordingly. There's only so much time available for the dojo each week, so in between, I concentrate on simple strength exercises because, yes, I do want to hit harder and faster. Hard and fast enough that, even if I miss, it will be highly intimidating for my opponent. For the moment, though, this is all pie in the sky. 2nd kyu is nothing to shout about. Until I drag my raggedy ass to shodan, I'll be paying extra attention to basics and form. Cunning tricks and the like can take a back seat until then.

* The other two are these scruffy made-in-Taiwan things. Brand unknown. No markings other than a little "Made in Taiwan" sticker. Approx 540g (510g is tourney lower limit). Lousy balance. Dirt cheap. Great training fodder. Apparently they were too narrow at the tip for tournament use.

Beesang, from Kendoshop. Wonderfully light (a little over 510g) and tuff enuff to endure a day of my heaviest blows practically unscathed.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Stray thought

Today I found myself looking at stuff I found around the house and wondering how it would do as a target for practicing kendo strikes. My gaze lingered on my 2-year-old nephew perhaps a little longer than I'd care to admit.

Anyway, part 2 of the HK Open, coming soon, 'onest guv...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hong Kong Open, part 1 of 2

Oooh, this post is so overdue it's not funny... Ah, well, better late than never...

About the 10th Hong Kong Asian Open

This is an annual kendo tournament, organized by the currently 30 year old Hong Kong Kendo Association, with 3 main events, being:

Women's 3-person team - 27 teams competing
Men's 3-person team (3rd dan and below only) - 44 teams competing
Men's 5-person team - 51 teams competing

My dojo, the Japan Club of Kuala Lumpur, entered 1 team for the women's event, and 2 teams for each of the men's events.

The competition was held from 12th to 14th March in Tin Shui Wai Sports Centre, conveniently located 5 minutes walk away from Harbour Plaza Resort City, which housed, by my reckoning, about 300+ kendokas over that weekend.

While the purpose of this blog entry is primarily to cover my own performance to look back on and think about, it's worth noting that Malaysia's women's team performed exceedingly well, having won the women's event last year and this year coming 2nd only to these 3 tiny 18-year-old girls from Fukuoka, which just goes to show how seriously kendo is taken in Japan...

Quick intro to team shiai

Team shiai takes place between 2 teams of up to 5 members each. In order of who fights from first to last, their titles are:

- Senpo
- Jiho
- Chuken
- Fukusho
- Taishou

In the case of 3-man teams, the titles jiho and fukusho are dropped. The shiai-jou (court) is a square, about 10m a side, and each team member will fight once against his opposite in the opposing team, i.e. Senpo vs senpo, jiho vs jiho, etc.

There are 3 shinpan (judges) watching the combatants, and to take ippon, at least 2 out of 3 of them must raise their flags in your favour. If one raises a flag, but one or both of the other two wave their flags below their waists, some element of the cut must have been missing for the strike not to count. It is no exaggeration that judging a shiai is not a science, it's an art. In awarding ippon, the shinpan will consider a great many factors, for example:

- Was there sufficient seme (attacking spirit)?
- Does the kendoka display proper form and posture?
- Was the strike solid?
- Was there sufficient zanshin?

Between these questions and the blistering speed of competitive kendo, trusting a machine to award points as in fencing is impossible.

For this tournament, all rounds were 3 minutes long, with the winner decided by the best of 3 points, i.e. first to 2 points wins, with a point being ippon, as discussed in the previous post.

My performance - Day One

My first 2 fights were as taishou (team leader) of Malaysia's 3-man B team. Quite an honour, given that this is my first time in an international tourney. To be honest, I don't feel qualified to pass comment on the performance of my teammates, so I'll keep to discussing the experience from my own point of view.

My first fight was against a chap from Macao, slightly shorter than me, but stouter. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't quite relax. I couldn't perceive it from where I was, but I'm told by my seniors and teammates that I tend to tense up a lot when I'm nervous, slowing down and expending tremendous amounts of strength in huge, crushing blows which, while they look impressive, have absolutely no way of scoring ippon, even if they contacted a target.

I lost one point early on, getting struck on the right kote (the gauntlet, on the wrist), if I recall correctly. I would find out later that because of my height and build (6', broad shoulders), that would tend to be the target of choice for most of my opponents. Unfortunately, my ability to counter such attacks was, at the time, sorely wanting, as I found out the next day...

In any case, having lost the first point, I was galvanized to do whatever I could to equalize and, in a series of clashes quite akin to jousting, with charges and near-simultaneous attacks, I managed to come out on top and took my first ippon in an international tourney. Yay, me! I was so excited the rest of the fight was absolutely frenzied, but alas, in kendo, brute strength and sheer aggression aren't quite enough; my opponent patiently waited for the inevitable opening and bopped me again.

This first fight was hell of an experience, to say the least, and I can safely say nothing will quite compare to the sheer rush I experienced that day. My vision narrowed, my hearing dulled, my heart and lungs went into overdrive... Months of training crumbled and gave way to instinct. My teammates' shouts for me to relax sounded like distant whispers then, and I spent every ounce of strength in that fight. Quite literally, too. After we'd bowed to our opponents my fingers were still numb and my teammates had to help me remove my helmet (as taishou, I keep my helmet on during the last bow). The memories of this fight won't leave me in a hurry.

The upshot to wearing myself out so thoroughly in that first fight was I was significantly more relaxed for my next fight, and I was in fact able to my some of my training to good use. My second and last fight of the day was against a chap from one of Hong Kong's many teams, shorter and lighter than me, and noting this, I took care to defend my right kote. It was during this fight that I learnt most about what is possibly my biggest weakness in shiai, which I have endeavoured to correct ever since - no zanshin.

This being only my 2nd fight ever in such a big tourney, I was still nervous, and struck with brutality far better suited to baseball bats and sledgehammers than a shinai. Still, I had the presence of mind to create an opening and land a vicious blow to my opponent's head, but from the corner of my eye, I saw flags being waved; no ippon. Naturally, this was quite frustrating, but I continued, wondering what was missing. I surmised, rather stupidly, in retrospect, that I wasn't hitting hard enough*. So I hit harder. No ippon. So I hit even harder. Still no ippon. 3 monstrously hard blows to the guy's head and still nothing?! What was I not doing? I managed to land one more crushing blow to his head. I was too close for it to score, but it still raised some eyebrows because of the sheer brutality of it. In the end, I faltered, and lost a point in the final seconds.

I would find out later that night that this fight left such great big cracks in my shinai that another fight would most certainly break it, at which point I felt really, really guilty at what the poor devil must have endured. I'm told my strikes hurt in basic training when I'm concentrating on form and precision rather than force. One can only imagine what blows that would ruin my shinai felt like...

After the 3-person tournaments were over and prizes where given out (M'sia's women's team brought back lotsa shiny medals and trophies, congrats if you're reading), came goudo keiko. Basically, everyone gets to train together for a bit. There were 8th dan senseis present and, rare as they are, huge queues formed for a chance to train with them.

I waited about 40 minutes to train with Fukumoto sensei, an imposing hulk of a kendoka, standing as tall as me and easily broader. 8th dan is the highest rank attainable in kendo, and I quickly learnt why. In this sort of informal training, the student faces off against the sensei, and in the first few seconds, it starts off like a shiai, during which the sensei assesses the student's level of skill. He'll cast an expert eye over you, checking form, spirit, technique and then decide how best to spend your brief encounter with him. If he's particularly impressed, he will invite you to fight him for ippon.

I can tell you I tried my level best, spending the time waiting for him by watching him and thinking how I will get past his guard. By the time my turn came, I had nothing on him. I stood before him and found no gaps to exploit. Fine, I thought, that's simply characteristic of good kamae (stance), so I will poke around, probe a bit and attempt to make a gap. No such luck. There's nothing quite as humbling as fighting someone who knows what you're going to do before you do it. It was like being hopelessly outclassed in chess, I simply couldn't see as far into the future as he could. I go for his head, his shinai blurs, my shinai bounces harmlessly away, a sharp blow smacks into my do (body, about gut-level) and he's standing behind me. I feint for the head and go for his do and my shinai bounces off his, he stands, unmoved, shouting inches from my face, "What are you doing?! Go STRAIGHT!" I might as well have been a mosquito trying to bite a rhinoceros...

As such, I was deemed worthy for a short stretch of kakarigeiko, in which he would deliberately leave gaps for me to attack, and I was to strike the targets as quickly as possible. All the while enduring his deluge of verbal abuse and the occasional whack over the head if I didn't move fast enough. This is normal in kendo. Juliette, if you're reading this, don't worry, they're generally gentler with girls. Guys my size, however, get no mercy. After about a minute or so of this, we made our bows and I staggered off and called it a day...

Coming next, Day Two (mercifully short) and my reflections on what transpired that weekend.

* Those who have trained with me will know that hitting hard enough has never been an issue for me. Good form, however, is another matter entirely...

Monday, March 22, 2010

Big Pond...

Note: This post was first drafted about 2 weeks ago, and since the events of the Hong Kong Open, my understanding of kendo has since been subtly altered. I'm putting this up on the blog anyway to track the progression of my understanding of kendo.

This blog has, of late, been woefully neglected. Apologies to those who've actually been waiting for a new post. There are any number of reasons for this, not least of them being training for a big kendo tournament in Hong Kong later this week. It's the first time I'll be participating in any sort of serious international tournament (the friendly tourney with Singapore last year doesn't count) so I'm feeling a bit like a wee minnow chucked in a big, big pond. So, I figured now's a good time to take stock of where it feels like I presently stand in kendo for future reference. Something to look back on and laugh over far in the future when the glorious day comes that I (successfully) bear two swords in tournament...

Fighting in the tournament arena (shiaijou, 試合場) is an extremely different experience from the brief, fleeting duels in a crowded dojo. Granted, the objective (i.e. take ippon) is the same, but the criterion are far, far more stringent. I know for a fact, I've taken ippon many times in the dojo, but every one of them would have been worthless in a tournament. So what does ippon in a tournament take?

Well, as I understand it, a valid strike in kendo, known as yuuko datotsu (有効打突), comprises three main elements:

1. Seme (攻め) - This literally translates as attack, but in the context of kendo, 'approach' is possibly a better word. Broadly speaking, this describes how one moves from outside of striking distance to within striking distance. There are any number of ways to achieve this, e.g. pushing into the centre line, slapping the opponent's sword aside, slipping under the opponent's sword, charging and knocking the opponent off balance, to name a few. Seme is also a spiritual assault, breaking your opponent's spirit with such things as kiai, the resoluteness of your stance, and the constant application of pressure.

2. Ki, ken, tai ichi (気剣体一) - This translates roughly as striking with your spirit, your sword and your body as one. Practically, by spirit we mean shouting out the name of your target (i.e. men (面) for head, kote (小手) for glove, and so on*.). The sword should strike the named target sharply with the top quarter or so of the "blade", being the side of the shinai on the opposite end of the string that holds it together. And at the same time as the shout and the strike, the right foot should stamp solidly on the floor. The foot-stamping might sound a bit odd, but when you think about it, to give a good, loud stomp, one needs to have a reasonably solid posture, and the whole body must be carefully coordinated with the strike of the shinai. If the timing of any of these elements is off, the strike simply does not count.

3. Zanshin (残心) - This could be translated literally as "remaining heart/mind", and truth be told, I consider this to be the hard bit. Zanshin, in the context of kendo, probably translates better as 'vigilance'. It begins immediately after the killing blow makes contact, from which point one's heart/mind remains firmly fixed on your opponent/victim, watchful for any further resistance or attempt to counterattack. So, even after you strike a blow where you think you've scored, you remain ready and alert for a few seconds, even if you know you've scored. On landing the cut, you most certainly do NOT make any celebratory gestures, no fistpumps, no jumping up and down, no hoots or hollers, you just level your blade against your opponent, quick as you can and be ready to strike again if the need arises. Innumerable points in kendo tournaments have been cancelled, regardless of how perfectly the cut was executed, simply because of a lack of zanshin.

Yesterday, I learnt that zanshin is where I fall short. The execution of zanshin, as I found out, demands that there isn't a shadow of doubt on the part of the kendoka. I now know that, though I am capable of landing a clean cut on my opponents, from the perspective of the judges, I'm not following through enough, i.e. not enough zanshin. I find it's not an easy thing to show zanshin, at least not to the exacting standards of kendo, not while the rush of executing a good cut is addling my mind, and especially when, from the corner of my eye, I see one judges hand go up, then another judge cancel the point.

Well, now I'm aware of the problem, there's only one thing for it: Fight MORE... There will definitely be a blog post reflecting on what happens in Hong Kong this weekend... Before then, I suppose it can't hurt to do a little studying on what passes for zanshin in Japan:

Holy hell, that speed...

* The actual name of your target doesn't count, i.e. You can't whack me over the head and shout at the top of your lungs: "CHEEEEEENG!"

Friday, March 19, 2010

I aten't dead

No, really. I know I've been tres slow updating this blog of late, but I've some great big posts in the pipeline, mostly kendo-related, seeing as I just got back from a tournament in HK (in which I was thoroughly murdered. More on that later.) But yah, do bear with me a little longer, I'll see what I can throw together...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Blacklining ftw!

Alrighty then, I'm making a good start on that Space Marine army. Thanks to the large-ish contingent of Blood Angel Terminators that came with Space Hulk, the rest of the army will be painted in Blood Angel colours to match, though played as standard Codex marines (at least until Codex: Blood Angels turns up). Apart from the Space Hulk marines, I have at my disposal:

1 Captain
2 full Tactical Squads*
1 full Devastator Squad*
1 full Assault Squad
2 Rhinos
1 Land Raider Crusader

Fans of 40k may notice from the above that if it ain't plastic, I'm not interested. Of the above, the LR Crusader and about 12 bolter-armed marines were hand-me-downs from nephews too young to even assemble a mini**. Hurray for Xmas and misinformed aunts, eh? So, easily a good 1000pts there, with room for tweaking, though I'd like to have a couple of Landspeeders. Up til today, I've been slipping in a little painting time mostly getting through the tedious bit: Coating the little devils with Blood Red. It takes about 5 coats of decently thinned Blood Red to get a nice finish to work with. And up til today, I've been using a hideously tedious method to shade. See previous posts on painting Space Hulk for details. Thing about that method is, owing to my current ineptness, it's a bit hit and miss. Sometimes I can get the wash to behave and slip happily where I want it to with minimal fuss, the rest of the time the surrounding area gets horribly stained and several more coats of very carefully applied Blood Red are needed to correct the error. For example:

This is after MUCH time and effort spent cleaning up, mind you...

So, today I tried blacklining for the first time. Joy, joy! I luv marines! Their shape lends itself so well to blackliney goodness! Citadel fine detail brush is now my very good friend...

Unfortunately, in my enthusiasm, the first marine I'd picked to experiment with (centre) didn't quite have enough coats of Blood Red on him yet. Silly me. The other two aren't quite done yet, but there's no denying how wonderfully sharply the shading makes the armour plates stand out. Only downside is I'm worried I won't quite be able to do this too soon after the morning coffee.

Having assembled the Captain, I couldn't resist going a little further painting him, and he's almost complete now. Thing is, those Space Hulk minis are a bit too nice. It ain't easy to look like a Captain when you're standing next to Sgt Lorenzo...

"Could I trouble you to, um, stand somewhere else, brother Sergeant?"

And that's all there is for now. Nothing completed yet, what with there being a total of about 40+ marines to cover in Blood Red. That comes to about ~200 coats. The next time I start a new army, I'm definitely getting me a spray gun...

* Heavy weapons yet to be decided, but among those minis there are 6 plasma pistols, 1 plasmagun and 2 plasmacannons. It's a horrible game-turning accident waiting to happen, I know... I love it! Gotta make me one of these one day...

** So they'll be with me for, uh, safekeeping until my nephews are old enough to figure out the rules of 40k and appreciate a good paintjob, which I estimate will be in 2018.