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:
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...