Monday, May 10, 2010

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.

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