Teaching environments: summer gasshuku in Japan vs seminar in Europe 夏合宿・海外剣道セミナー

The summer holidays are over here in Japan, and it’s back to school for yours truly after a very busy few weeks of kendo. I am always running around doing kendo during this period, and so am quite used to it, but this year was slightly different in that I combined two events in to a single week… which normally wouldn’t be so bad except for the fact that the dojo were about 5,700 miles apart as the crow flies.

I’ll give a brief explanation about the two teaching environments I was in, and do a simple teaching-observation at the end to wrap-up.

I only came back to Osaka two days ago and I am still suffering from jet-lag as I type this now, so please excuse any spelling or grammar mistakes!

August 8th-9th: high school summer gasshuku in Nara, Japan.

Last year I wrote an article outlining my general approach to summer high school training camps. Here’s a quick quote from that prior article:

Through multiple challenging keiko sessions students will become motivated (even inspired) to work hard not only as individuals (which is important), but as part of a team. By battling through physically and mentally demanding keiko together the students can build stronger bonds of friendship which will, hopefully, last their entire lives. They should also learn that working to overcome difficulty (i.e. not quitting when things are hard) is not only worthwhile, but highly rewarding as well. The gasshuku experience is thus much more than kendo itself.

Whilst still keeping all this in mind, however, this year I decided to do things a little bit differently. Over the last couple of years some newly minted teachers have started working at my school that have kendo experience. Being far more experienced in kendo and in teaching kendo than they are, I have started to taken on a sort-of mentoring role for these guys. I encourage them to teach, to explain things in their way, and to help with the keiko menu. Sometimes I say “no, we aren’t doing that,” or “I’m not having that!” but more often than not I allow them to teach and to experiment with different teaching drills and ideas. At the appropriate time I step in and say “why don’t you try it this way?” or “next time, why don’t you try explaining it this way instead?” and so on. As part of this, I decided to hand the entire role of teaching the summer camp to two of the young kendo teachers. My role was to do all the bookings, handle the money, organise the paperwork, and to step back and allow them space to experiment. And yes, I do feel old!

Even though I only advised students on a one-to-one basis, and gave the younger teachers some input now and then, the general style was kept the way I like it, i.e. lots of physically demanding keiko rather than overly technical content. This basically meant almost entirely a diet of kirikashi, oikomi, uchikomi, and kakarigeiko. Before breakfast the students had to go jogging and do some core strength training as well.

This years gasshuku was in a valley in the mountains of Nara, not too far away from Osaka. We had planned to do a two-night-three-day camp, but a typhoon made us cut it down a day, leaving us only one night and two days. Things were a bit rushed due to this sudden shortening of time, but the students (and young teachers) managed to get through everything without much mishap.

Arriving home after the gasshuku on Wednesday night at 9pm, I realised that I had to fly out at 10am the next day, so I started packing my bags…

August 11th-13th: Kendo seminar in Edinburgh

Bleary eyed and tired, I got up on Thursday morning early, ate some toast, and headed out to Kansai international airport. One super-long journey later (14 or 15 hours, I forget) I found myself in the beautiful city of Edinburgh, Scotland. Not long after arriving I was sitting in a nice pub with a beer!!

I was here to teach a kendo seminar at the invite of Edinburgh Kendo Club, where I started kendo in the early 90s. This was the fourth such seminar that I have done for them (see 2010, 2012, and 2014).

Over the three days I taught a regular Edinburgh kendo club Friday night session, followed by two 5-hour days of seminar on Saturday and Sunday. In contrast with the summer gasshuku I had attended just prior, I took on all the teaching duties myself.

My focus for the three days was on, to put it simply: “hands and legs.” Tenouchi, grip, loosening of the wrists, followed by footwork and a focus on body movement. I didn’t explicitly state it like this to the participants, but I think most understood what the focus was without having to go in to my whole battle plan up-front.

The seminar this year, like the others I have done, was mainly invite-only, just friends and friends-of-friends, focusing mainly on the Scottish kendo clubs, so we had around 40-ish people turn up in different combinations over the three days. Some friends came over from Sweden, someone from Spain, and a few drove up from the middle and northern England as well. Next year, however, will be the 30th anniversary of kendo in Scotland, so I am planning to take a guest over with me and make it public. Given the busy summer kendo seminar schedule in Europe, I’ll let kenshi 24/7 readers know the details as soon as everything is organised, so hopefully we can meet and do kendo together next year in Edinburgh.

Different teaching environments, different approach?

As you may imagine, teaching high school students an intensive summer training camp in the middle of the melting hot Japanese heat and teaching a seminar in Europe to people of all ages and different backgrounds in a cool climate can seem like different beasts. They are in a way, but there is much more in common than you might imagine.

First, kendo is simple. It really is. Once the basic body mechanics (“hands and legs”) are acquired to a decent level, most people come to realise that almost all kendo techniques work the same way. For example, men, kote, kote-men, and tsuki basically become the same thing (which is why I make dou the last thing I teach beginners). So it follows that everyone’s keiko should be focused on acquiring good kendo mechanics, irrespective of environment, situation, or experience.

The main difference between the two groups is simply one of keiko volume. My high school kendo students do keiko on average 6 days a week, whereas for the vast majority of seminar participants that is an impossibility (of course, the students have the added bonus of being young as well, which doesn’t hurt!). So, I basically taught the same things at the Edinburgh seminar that I teach my kendo students in Osaka. However, whereas I generally drill points relentlessly into my students through daily repetition, I have no such option when it comes to a weekend seminar. Necessarily, in order for seminar participants to understand the goal of the drills or activities I was doing I had to break down and explain things in a little more detail than I usually would do. This meant that I did more chatting than hard physical repetitive work which I prefer doing with my students (i.e. kirikaeshi, oikomi, uchikomi, etc.). Still, I kept chat to as little as possible which allowed participants to explore and experiment as they saw fit (which is something I allow students to do as well, but usually only after months of drilling).

To sum up quickly, although both environments were on the face of it completely different, I generally treat instruction goals and methods the same, whatever the level and experience of kenshi. Pretty obvious really!

The jet-lag is wearing me down, so I’ll wrap things up here for now. I hope I will have the chance to meet some kenshi 24/7 readers next year in Scotland, cheers!

Eikenkai (May 2017) 英剣会

After the flurry of kendo activity that was the Kyoto Taikai, it was nice to have a relaxed keiko with a bunch of friends. Whereas the last session was jam-packed, today’s was a more reasonably sized group of 15 people. Still, we had six countries represented (Scotland, England, Italy, France, America, and Japan), and people from grades nidan to nanadan.

The keiko menu was slightly different than usual, but still compromised mostly of kihon (kirikaeshi, basic cutting practise, uchikomigeiko), followed by a free waza practise, and a long jigeiko. A nice three hours!

My kendo and work life are quite chaotic at the moment (i.e. too busy) so it’s kind of been difficult for me to update kenshi 24/7 as much as I’d like to …. so apologies to all my readers. Please don’t mistake lack of updates for lack of keiko: I did five sessions over Friday, Saturday, and Sunday alone!

The next session will be held at the end of July. If you are interested in joining, please visit the Eikenkai page for more information. Cheers!

Eikenkai (Feb. 2017) 英剣会

Yesterday was the first kenshi 24/7 run Eikenkai session of the new year, and it was a packed one! 34 kenshi from six prefectures (Okayama, Hyogo, Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, Mie… plus Rhett from America) squeezed into the kendojo at Sumiyoshi Budokan, which is located in the precincts of the beautiful Sumiyoshi shrine.

Although there was a cold breeze outside, the dojo was boiling. We did about 40 minutes of kihon (including uchikomi and kakarigeiko), 20 minutes of waza practise, and about 45 minutes of jigeiko before heading to the nearby local restaurant for okonomiyaki and a couple of refreshing beers.

With work and other dojo commitments increasing exponentially over the last year I’ve decided to reduce the number of sessions we will hold this year, probably only hosting three or maybe four rather than our usual six. Anyway, the next session will be in mid-May, so if you are in the Kansai area at the time please feel free to get in touch. Cheers!

Eikenkai June 2016 英剣会

It’s been raining relentlessly over the last while here in Osaka, and there is more forecast this coming week, but today – and only for today – the weather was absolutely beautiful!!! Obviously the kendo gods smile on Eikenkai!!

Today’s session was held at my (George’s) work dojo and as such was deliberately a bit smaller than usual. Still, the makeup of the kenshi was between 2nd and 7dan representing five countries and a variety of professions. Before and after our usual 40-30-40 session (kihon/waza/jigeiko) some people practised kendo-no-kata as well as some koryu (the benefit of using my own dojo is we have no time limit).

Before keiko there was some discussion about the result of the historic U.K. referendum and what it means in general. Since the “EI” of “Eikenkai” represents the fact that I am British, and the real possibility of Scotland becoming independent of the union, we had a lively chat as to what we should name our keikokai in the future! Watch this space….

Our next session will be held at the beautiful budojo at Ishikiri-jinja on September the 11th. If you are interested, please get in touch. Cheers!

Eikenkai April 2016 英剣会

Today’s Eikenkai session was held in what is almost certainly the oldest kendo related dojo by tradition in the Kansai area: Shubukan (older buildings include both the Nara and Kyoto Butokuden). The dojo started birth in 1786 as a place for studying kenjutsu and has been through a couple of name changes and rebuilds over the years since, the last being in 1962. Throughout this time it has always been owned by the same family/company. It was known for being once of the top three “civilian dojo” since the 1860s, the other two being Noma dojo and Tobukan. The dojo is nice and wide, beautiful inside, and has an amazingly soft and springy floor. I love the place!

About 35 people turned up for today’s keiko, mostly from around about the Kansai area, but also a couple of guests that came all the way from Kanto. After the usual 40 minutes of kihon and 30 minutes of waza practise, we did tachi-ai keiko for people sitting their 6th, 7th, and 8th dans in Kyoto at the end of the month, before moving on to about 45 minutes of jigeiko. I think everyone had a great time !!!

For more information about the kenshi 24/7 led Eikenkai sessions, please go here.

Shubukan today

Kendo, iaido, and naginata are still taught at Shubukan during weekdays to a very high level. Since changing it’s status to a not-for-profit foundation last year it has become available for hire to the public at large, which is why we decided to use it for today’s session.

For more information please check out their website (in Japanese) here: http://syubukan.info/