December is generally a relaxed time of year for me work-wise, but kendo – as usually – continues unabated right up until the end of the year (and re-starts again only after a short break). This gives me a little bit of extra time to reflect back over the last past 12 months and see to what extent I have achieved (or not) my kendo goals for the year. Although it might not be of interest to kenshi 24/7 readers, I’ve decided to this years reflecting out loud. I have many technical things that I am working on, of course, but what I’m going to talk about below is an experiment in the deliberate change in the mode of my kendo over the past year, not of execution.
Asageiko (morning practice)
I’ve been attending weekday asageiko sessions (100% kihon) on and off for about five or so years now. Before being invited to the sessions my asageiko happened only on the weekends, and then generally (not always!) at a civilised time (starting 9am). Until 2014 I attended the weekday sessions only when I had a bit of space work-wise, i.e. during the academic holiday season or during exam time, therefore my attendance was more off than on. Starting in January this year (2014) I decided, however, to make the effort to attend every practice even if I my work started at 830am. Since the dojo and my workplace are pretty close together I reasoned I could – if I prepared the next days’ work the evening before, and showered/changed after keiko quickly – manage to be in-time for work.
With this in mind I started in January quite positively. I think I managed to attend three weekday asageiko sessions starting at 7am (I’d crawl out of bed at 5am-ish, and leave the house at 550am) maybe over 95% of the time until July and my trip to Scotland. Re-booting after this break in rhythm, however, has been very hard, but I think I managed it semi-successfully until September, when my pace slowed down (it finally rebounded back during November).
The inspiration, btw, for the decision to focus on asageiko sessions this year was one of my sempai. As he works in the evenings he spent the last 10 years or so doing very little keiko, so he, starting a couple of years ago, begun attending asageiko session (at a different dojo from mine) three times a week. I was – and am still! – not only highly impressed by his continued dedication, but was also struck by what one of the sensei told him:
It requires a special strength of will to get up early and constantly do asageiko. Those that continue it become not only technically better, but mentally tougher.
Here’s what the last nearly-12 months of asageiko has taught me.
I hate mornings. I really can’t stand getting up early. However, if I manage to get up and drag myself to keiko, I often have a very satisfying session… sometimes the best of the day.
The more keiko you do, the better. I now do about (on a genki week) 10 practices/week from Mon-Fri (then more on the weekend). To truly understand what shugyo is you need to put yourself out of your comfort zone (see the first point above!) and do loads and loads of keiko. There is no alternative.
It’s healthy, the world looks better, and breakfast is tastier! There are fewer people on the trains or roads (I often travel by bicycle to the dojo) and mornings are more relaxed. The whole exercise-in-the-morning (before breakfast) sets the mood for the whole day. After asageiko I am blatantly in a happier mood that everyone at work or on the train!
Creates bonds with like-minded people. Most people won’t get up in the morning to do keiko, especially if it’s a hard kihon session before work. Those of us that attend the session regularly have, I think, a mutual respect based on the fact that we are aiming towards the same things. The particular session I attend is very high level – I sometimes feel out of my depth – yet there is little explicit teaching per se: we are there to work, and we respect each other for sacrificing sleep (and social life the evening before) to do so.
As a side-note, there are some people that I have been doing kihon with for a few years now that I have never done jigeiko with. We don’t judge the other on how good they can fight, but on their commitment to improving their kendo through kihon (i.e. discipline/shugyo).
There are other things I could’ve mentioned, but I’ll leave it here. I guess the point is that – for me – asageiko is now an essential part of my kendo. I can’t imagine my kendo life without it. The major problem I have is getting up!!! My sempai mentioned above said about this: “the first year is hell, but you’ll get used to it” ….. I hope so.
Degeiko (travelling to other dojo for practice)
For many years here in Osaka I’ve shied away from attending random degeiko sessions generally because – being the only non-Japanese person in most occasions – I was immediately a target for wide-eyed staring or overly-pushy instruction. I don’t like to stand out or enjoy being treated like a “gaijin” (some people seem to love it … not me), and there’s nothing I dislike more than people trying to teach me without respecting the fact that I do actually have my own sensei (if I go explicitly for instruction then thats another matter). Anyway, sensing the need to step out of my comfort zone for the benefit of my wider shugyo (as noted above) I decided to be brave and go to some open degeiko sessions during the year and see what happened.
Maybe it’s because having lived in Osaka for 10 years now people have become used to seeing me, or perhaps it’s because I’ve improved technically over the past few years – or more likely some sort of combination – it wasn’t as bad as I feared. And anyway, the kendo community being as small as it is, I soon realised that in any gathering there will always be somebody I know. It’s possible that maybe I just had some sort of complex!!!
At any rate, I attended some random keiko-kai’s over the past year and immediately the benefits were obvious:
A sense of nervousness/tension. Having attended the same dojo’s for years, it’s pretty easy to become used to the environment and the people. At a degeiko session however you may or may not know some or all of the people, so you have to not only be on your best behaviour but be ready to do your best kendo… all the while remembering your will be watched and judged.
Also, I found that I put more time into pre-planning when I attended sessions like these, for example checking shinai and cleaning my dogi, which can only be a good thing.
Degeiko as shiai. The kanji for shiai is 試合, the SHI (試) meaning to test, try, or experiment, and the AI (合) meaning to meet. Thus a “shiai” is simply a mutual trial of skill. In a degeiko situation you will face people who you have never done keiko with before. Not only that, you may have no idea who they are at all: their age, their grade, their background, etc. Thus, with the nervous tension described above, you meet them fair-and-squarely to see if your kendo works on them or not. You have to read people and their kendo style quickly and adapt strategy if you have to.
Unlike competition, this type of situation has no particular winner or loser, and you and your partner judge yourselves, so it’s a far freer, and perhaps more honest experience than competition (assuming, of course, that you are the type to admit defeat when struck and refuse to accept an ippon if you are not happy with it).
Meeting like-minded people. Again, like the point I mentioned above, I found that during open degeiko sessions it was possible to meet people who were there for the same reasons as I was. They believed that degeiko was essential to their development as kenshi, and weren’t scared about putting themselves out there.
Luckily I’ve even met one or two people who I immediately clicked with and whom I want to seriously study from. This was an unexpected, but greatly appreciated, bonus.
As in the above asageiko section, I could probably write more here, but I think I’ve covered the main bases.
Degeiko-wise, I think 2014 was a good year for me. I visited some new dojo, made some new friends, and managed to widen my kendo community considerably in a short time. Also, as I discovered, once you are connected to the right people then invites to other keiko-kai’s increase dramatically. Next year I intend to broaden even further, perhaps to other prefectures. I’m looking forward to it!
This post has been more of a personal type explaining a deliberate change in the mode of my kendo shugyo through 2014. Of course, the core of my kendo training still lies in kihon-heavy sessions at work, jigeiko with my sempai and sensei in the evenings, and constant study (reading) of kendo books, but after years of doing this I decided that I needed something new to stimulate technical improvement as well as deepen my shugyo. I hope the addition of constant asageiko with a sprinkling of degeiko can act as the catalyst for these changes.
A slightly different kind of post from my normal ones, I hope kenshi 24/7 readers can find something useful in this article or perhaps it will serve as some sort of mini-inspiration for a change in your own kendo mode next year… let me know!