Things I have learnt in Kokushikan University – The way I was thinking 4 years ago

Instead of simply writing about my experiences I am trying to give a short description that covers the whole essence of kendo through the spirit of Kokushikan University. I would like to share the feeling which I felt throughout my trainings day by day, the feeling that helped me understanding the ’Orthodox’ kendo. I will be trying to give simple and clear explanations. In the professional descriptions I am using my notes that I wrote right after trainings and also, I will try to share the words of my masters without changing anything.

The Spirit of Kokushikan University

The spirit of Kokushikan University is really unique. If someone is lucky enough to be a part of it, then fight is waiting for him. Fighting equals to facing kendo with humility. This is a community that enchants, accepts and helps you if you are willing to fight and give your best.
The knowledge of kendo is passed along through practice, not through words, among university students first year by year then from generation to generation. I do not feel like sport science or theoretical examinations belong here. The theory that kendo can be understood only by the ones doing it is true. ’ Yaru shika nai!’ is usually being said which translates to: Just do it!
The concept of ’mushin’ (emptiness of mind) is regulary mentioned and well-known. It is extremely important in competitions and training as well. Reaching it during training is a kind of effort; for example, letting go of not caring about the daily keiko (practice) or how much we have to learn or the things that happen at our work, or within the family or if we are hurt. All in all, it means defeating the unappeasable ego, to be able to give our best with humility.
There are times when training is not that hard. Everybody likes these times and everybody is happy but learning is most effective during hard times, when there is a training in the morning, exams throughout the day and a lot of kakarigeiko in the afternoon. At times like this, we have to ask ourselves what we truly want. In the long run it is much easier to choose fighting with a smile on our faces rather than leaving everything behind. I believe that this is the attitude that fits champions, however, attitude alone is not enough at all, but it is definitely inevitable to step on the way of becoming a champion.
If one is able to get hold of this attitude, thus he is able to ’take it and do it’, then he will get green light and will fit in the community of Kokushikan University without any trouble and he will be getting all the knowledge he wants starting from the basics of kendo.

Ujiie sensei and the morning oikomi geiko

In Kokushikan University everybody gets the right kendo. The presence of Ujiie sensei pervades everything. No mistake can be done in front of his eyes. Fighting him cannot be snubbed, one must know his mistakes in his movement and energy. The time of oikomi geiko is 6:30 AM. His strict eyes watch every move even though it is early in the morning. This method of training is completely about the basics. Ujiie sensei’s principle of oikomi is not to do millions of hacks giving 90% but to do only a hundred or two hundred giving 120%. ’All hacks must be ippon!’
In the training session the pupils stand in five or six rows which is not a big load in terms of quantity. However, the fact that the training is at an early time and one must perform above perfection technically gives the intensity of the training. 

(In favor of the ones who prefer science: in the training theory it is well-known that intensity can be increased through various methods, not solely the increase in quantity). It is not uncommon that Ujiie sensei stops the training and day by day he repeats the important things in order to imprint it into the minds of the pupils.

About dynamism

Ujiie sensei constantly emphasized the importance of dynamism in kendo. He distinguished the dynamism of the body, the dynamism of performing the technique or the movement and the dynamism of the energy. He considered the latter one to be the most important. Approaching it from a more practical description: in oikomi, a long kiai is needed before every start. The intensity of kiai must be maximalised and in order to do this, the breathing technique (which will be explained later) must be done correctly. If one has this right, the movement will be naturally collected but effort must be done for achieving good kiai. „It’s not a problem if we the see stars!”

About the elements of the right technique

In the name of all three rights, with great movement, swiftly and strongly, although patience is necessary as well, next to which I would include the word ’endurance’ too. All this means that exactness must be kept throughout the whole training session. The body is able to keep the movement during strict training even though it cannot do it as fast. Training must be done with patience. Ujiie sensei tended to get very mad if patience was

The purpose of motodachi

According to Ujiie sensei, ’ teinei ni ukeru’ means suffering wisely, prudently and thoroughly. If motodachi is wrong, the training will be extremely grievous for the pupil. Thus, in this case instead of taking a break one must help his partner!

Ōta sensei and the Houjou – about the right way of breathing

Ōta sensei held my houjou kata classes and I have been fighting him the most during my time spent in Japan. (Ōta sensei leads the Kokushikan delegation that arrives on Wednesday). I do not want to give an explanation on the kata, I would prefer to share my feeelings that occured through practice. According to Ōta sensei, whoever practices will not miss the basics of kendo. The steps of one of the old ryuuhas (the Jikishinkage-ryuu) can be seen, although it can be useful in today’s kendo too. The aun no kokyuuhou, the diaphragm breathing is an important element of it.

If one does it correctly then he barely breaths and in the meantime one must pay attention to the right implementation too along with the hard bokuto: the strong grip of the left hand, mestsuke, the exactness of the unpo step, the strength of slash – moroude, atobaya concept, the timing of uchidachi shidachi in the aiuchi, ki no okori wo yomu, thus feeling when the other one will move…
Acquiring this knowledge is really important according to Ōta sensei. Once someone had fought with him and got used to his style he will know that it feels like not being able to breathe from the first moment. I have been suffering a lot with him in the first time period too but the houjou classes had helped me understanding why.

One cannot breathe at any time throughout fencing. It is not advisable to stop the pressure (kihaku). Turning is a sensitive part of fighting and many people stop their kiai throughout even practice too (by the way kiai is not taken seriously by many people in Europe).
In order to maximize our kiai in every slash and not losing thread meanwhile one is not given the opportunity to breathe many times. Enhancement is a great example. After examining others from this perspective I have started to practice this way consciously. When I went to foght against Ōta sensei, I always did big kiai and then I gave everything I could and I tried to keep the kiai in the turns after each slash and then keep on going. If one does this well, the enemy can be broken and space can be found for another slash. People say for a reason that one must slash after breaking the enemy: aite no kamae wo kuzushitekara utsu.
My personal opinion is that on a higher level we need techniques with which the enemy can be confused and broken. After this is done, the debana men or kaeshi do will come out accordingly to the situation…
On the website of the kendo club in last year’s calendar the following sentence can be found: ’ Kiai de aite wo yobidashi, ken no saki de ayatsuru’. It basically means confusing the enemy with the kiai and we handle it with the tip of the sword. I believe that this sounds odd in translation but I think the essence can be understood.
One more story came to my mind: I got scolded by Ujiie sensei for not taking kiai seriously. He said that in jigeiko I should be doing kiai for much longer. I believe that doing so, I do not know why, but one will have a much greater control over his body.

Kubo sensei and the perfect men uchi

When Andou senpai arrived at the university with his injury he had to skip the first few months. After healing he started training and stayed even for the trainings in the afternoon in order to catch up with what he had missed. Not much time later everyone followed his example. It had become a tradition. It is called Inokori renshuu and it means to stay and practice. In my first few trainings I did not know exactly what they were doing. I thought that only those ones can stay who are competitors or who are preparing for an exam. Kubo sensei invited me to join. Him and Watanabe Ryuujirou, who was in Hungary with the delegation of 2013, always practiced together but then they took me in and this habit had stayed for each day for the rest of my year.

At the end of each training we always went out to drink and talk which lasted for about 10 minuted then we slowly started to get dressed again. We were usually practicing like this only the slash of men and kote and then we ended this 40 minutes extra training with kakarigeiko.
Practice consisted of great kiai and slash. We had to collect ourselves before each one and Kubo sensei always found a mistake in each one that had to be corrected. For motivation, he wrote a quote or a sentence on a board with a marker – which was quite necessary.
I felt like my movement was torn apart through practice. I wanted to pay attention to all my body parts. I wanted to do everything correctly but it did not go easily.

Kubo sensei was explaining kiai like this ’It must come from deep and upwards! Kiai never can be dropped nor before nor after each slash. The leg must be moving through kiai, your own movement and balance must be found in order to be able to start from the left leg.’ (Never with stepping in, we were practicing motodachira from stadning still which helped doing things correctly.)

Kamae: the ring finger on our left hand must be squeezed and the position of the left hand must be really stabile. Kamae will be regularized through kiai and an ideal basic state will come to existence. Good posture is acquired if you have a stabile core.
Movement must be started from the left leg and the hip and right leg moves forward (not upwards!). Leg and arm must move simultaneously. The sword should be ’swinged’ like a lash (little finger squeezes, the tip of the sword is the fastest), this is the way to make your slash strong. Starting the slash your hand must move forward, not towards ourselves. The movement must be lead with our left hand and the position of the hands mustn’t differ from the state of kamae. This is how it is going to be the most stabile. On the other hand, the right hand must be grabbing too and the place of holding does not change, it helps a lot with tenouchi. After slashing the sword obviously stays. It shoud not move down or up. When slashing, the left leg must close quickly, this is how turning and zanshin is done.

These are the thoughts that we were keeping in mind while practicing the basics. Once you have this, everything will go smoothly.
In summary, two sentenses from Kubo sensei:
’ Ganbatteokeba, yokattadake ha ienai.’ If you are a true fighter, good will not be good enough for you. (free translation)
’ Gakusei ni kansha. Kyou mo taisetsu ni.’ Thanks to the pupils, this day did not go wasted either.

Thank you for the French translation:

Written by: Tóth Balázs

Translated by: Tóth Fanni