Last week I published a loose translation about tenouchi which was quite popular. However, when I was reading the original piece, and again whilst I was translating it, I was struck by the sheer detail of description and it made me uneasy. Now, I know that many people like to read quite detailed descriptions about techniques and what not (and I’ve translated my fair share of them for kenshi 24/7), but I am generally not one of them. In fact, when it comes to things such as tenouchi and fumikomi (for example) I think that overly detailed descriptions are almost useless (for the majority of practitioners that is).
As someone who coaches students on a day to day basis, how then do I teach something like tenouchi?
It’s simple: I don’t… (at least, not in the manner of the last article).
The first thing I do is to show students how to hold the bokuto/shinai in their hands. I basically say:
“Hold your hands in this way . Grip tightly with the bottom fingers and leave the others loose.” And that’s it.
From then on I’ll just ensure that they aren’t pinching with their thumb+forefinger and that there is some looseness around that area. Making unnatural shapes with their hands is also a no-no (people coming from an iaido background will often make affected shapes with their hands): “hold the shinai naturally.”
The next step for beginners is lots of suburi. I focus almost on extending the arms (more so the left) and cutting down to around chin level (on men strikes). I emphasis a sharp downward strike with hikitsuke.
That’s it. I don’t teach any squeezing of anything: “just swing up and down naturally” I say, “don’t think too much.”
The next step is to actually hit something. Usually this is a partners shinai, but it could be a tyre or some sort of uchikomidai. Here the emphasis is almost completely on relaxing the hands after striking: “after the cut relax the tension in your shoulders and hands.”
Kirikaeshi: the secret ingredient
What I do now is simple: have the students do loads of receiving-on-the-men-kirikaeshi everyday for the first few months. In the beginning this can simply be shomen (cut 1 shomen, then do 4 shomen forward, 5 back, repeat) and/or yokomen type (cut 1 shomen, then do 9 yokomen, repeat).
“Slowly and carefully cut large, cut round, and cut strongly” is the mantra I use. The only thing I warn students about here is rebounding up after a strike: “after hitting relax and leave the shinai where it is.”
Now all I do is step back, keep quiet, and let kirikaeshi do it’s job: the students will work it out for themselves naturally without prompting.
The next step
After this the next step is doing the normal type of kirikaeshi plus moving onto normal kihon practice. By this stage many of my beginner students will have pretty good tenouchi and I don’t need to interfere much at all. Great! It is now their responsibility to ensure that they are using their hands correctly across multiple different kinds of techniques (tsuki being the one where many struggle).
Note that I always start every session with multiple receiving-on-the-men-kirikaeshi, partly as a way of checking tenouchi before moving on to other techniques.
The instructors main role: striking and being struck
The best way to teach a student about tenouchi, however, is to strike them correctly. In the same vein, the only way to get feedback on a students tenouchi is to be struck by them. If their tenouchi doesn’t “feel right” I tell them so and tell them to work more on it (I don’t bother going into minute analysis).
As far as I am concerned, then, striking and being struck is the most important way to develop tenouchi, if not the only way (obviously repetition and time is required). It’s also faster than overly verbose instruction.
… and that’s my secret to developing good tenouchi in a nutshell (assuming you were actually interested in the first place!!).
8 replies on “Tenouchi (revisited)”
You mentioned “Making unnatural shapes with their hands is also a no-no (people coming from an iaido background will often make affected shapes with their hands): “hold the shinai naturally.”
Being an Iaido student myself, i was wondering if you could explain that in a little more detail.
I don’t want to change the focus of this article away from what I intended, but basically people who never hit anything often hold their swords or bokuto in a way that might not be very useful when striking things (or rather, since they have no or little actual feedback it’s easier to fall into that trap). That’s it.
Luckily my students don’t come to me with preconceptions, so it’s relatively easy to teach them (or let them work out for themselves) how to strike. Obviously ‘teach’ isn’t the right word – what I really mean is that the goal is to have them strike in a natural, unaffected manner, and that this goal is often achieved easily when they work out how to relax. This is partly why I wrote this in response to the last kenshi 24/7 translation.
As I noted above, detailed descriptive analysis of techniques is – for me at least – mostly useless. I hope that this comment doesn’t answer your question but leads you to more !!!!
Ahhh. I’ve done some tameshigiri and make it a habit to beat the heck out of old tires or trees on occasion for that exact reason.
Of course the flip side of the coin is to not hold the sword in a death grip…
Good article George thanks. On a separate note, have you ever addressed the question ‘what moves first, feet or hands?’.
I have my opinion on the matter and specific things I aim to do, but like many things in kendo there are differences in execution depending on style. I have thought over it a lot.
What I am confident of mentioning here is that the results of at least one scientific study of elite competitors show that – for small men – most move their right foot out first before the striking mechanism of the hands start.
I suspected as much – thank you George – such a simple question that has plagued me for over 25 years.
Thank you for the article! On a minor side note, the title of this article is missing a letter! The “Revisited” is instead spelled as “Revisted” in both the Title as well as the permalink URL.
Thats for the kind words and the spelling check… cheers !!!