Well, it’s been roughly 3 months since I’ve started doing Jodan, and I have to say, I’ve surprised both myself and my sensei with how fast I’ve been progressing with the kamae. He was initially… skeptical, seeing as I was always more of a defensive and reactive, right hand dominant chudan kendoist (which is a bad thing. This is a habit that came from doing too much competitions in high school…), and naturally, he felt that these qualities would be reflected in this stance as well (not the right hand part, but the defensive and reactive part). But as I initially hypothesized, taking up jodan has had a trickle-down effect on my chudan, imbuing it with a little more aggression and, more importantly, more seme (I will go more into what exactly was wrong and what is changing with my chudan later on). Recently, as I’ve been praticing ~3-4 times a week, progress has been at a pretty solid pace, but I’m calling it what it is – noobie gains. Anyways… first, I want to take note of some of the most important things I have noticed in my (very) short time with the jodan stance.
First off, the easiest way to improve technique for me is when I don’t have to worry about physicality. [Skip this part if you’re not interested in nutrition and physical training] What has this meant in terms of my nutrition and training? Well, as far as diet goes, there’s the common saying of “eat big to lift big,” tailoring the nutrients to one’s particular goals, of course. Because I went through a long 8 month diet phase (with a month of maintenance/bulk in the middle during December) where I cut from 235 to 215, back up to 225, then from 225 to 195, initially using a keto approach then an easier and slower calories in vs out approach, the dietary regimen that I had was not suitable for a 4x a week weights, 3-4x a week kendo, and a 0.5-2x a week tennis schedule, on top of teaching classes where I would be standing up the entire time. Nowadays, I’ve gone from a purely bodybuilding and powerlifting oriented goal to more of a general fitness goal for a variety of reasons, and in order to accommodate that, I’ve gone from a very high protein-based diet to one that focuses more on carbohydrates, in order to maximize performance. I eat ~0.6-1 g/lb of bodyweight, roughly 200-500g of carbs, depending on how much I am doing that day, and try to get enough healthy fats in the form of fats found within my foods (ex would be nuts and avocados, but I am also including animal fats – beef, pork, poultry, and fish – as I’ve found that my energy levels are best with these sources of fats included in reasonable amounts), as well as the oils used in the cooking process, such as avocado oil, coconut oil, and olive oil. For training, I’m still sticking to what I know works best for me – high intensity, high frequency, and relatively low volume per session. Naturally, the optimal way for me to do this was through Fortitude Training by Dr. Scott Stevenson. I did remove benching… it doesn’t seem to be agreeing too much with my body at all and I see no need to be flat barbell benching. Instead, I’ve added in close grip incline presses. Now, this is something that every sports and conditioning coach knows – sports are played CLOSE, and by that I mean that the position of the hands are closer together than they are further apart. This means that you need to move your hands from a wide grip bench to something roughly shoulder width. Think about the shinai – the hands are close together. Of course, lats, upper back work, rear delts, traps (middle and lower especially), quads, hammies, and calves are getting a LOT of attention from me. Doing quite a bit of curls for elbow health as well. Results have been really good. With all the cardio I’m doing, my work capacity is ridiculously high right now, despite all the cigarettes. So now, a training session that lasted 2 hours is over in less than an hour, with minimal rest periods and no drop in performance (perhaps even an increase)
[Section about training and diet over] So yes, when your level of physical strength, stamina, speed, etc are at an optimal level, you can focus entirely upon technique.
One of the areas in which I have changed completely is the concept of swinging in an arc. Of course, in reality, the shinai travels in an arc, but if you think about the concept of “cutting from above” with jodan, you will end up with a VERY slow swing. In chudan, perhaps you can indeed score ippon with a slow swing – there are renzoku, harai, suriage, and kaeshi waza, there is the ability to physically influence the opponent’s shinai, and, bad kendo coming here, you can block the bloody thing coming at you. So naturally, a slower swing is less detrimental (and I do think that if I were to pursue pure kendo, where the shinai is indeed a sword, then I would be doing primarily large strikes and swinging in an arc, as that is how you cut). But in jodan, you’re very limited in targets – katate men, katate kote, use of seme, and morote strikes (seme to men-morote kote, seme to men – morote men, seme to men-gyaku do). And in the case of katate strikes, it is most likely a one hit thing. I have found that katate renzoku waza is great for throwing off the rhythm of lower dans, but when my sensei saw it, he literally caught the blade in a roll and flung it out of my hands (maki-waza? That just reminds me of sushi…). In Jodan, the ultimate defense is a reactive waza – debana or ai men. And this is the case no matter WHAT they throw at you.
- Tuski coming? Ai men means you knock the shinai tip out of the way and get ippon at the same time. (This is also why kendoists of the highest caliber will generally not do tsuki until the flow of the match is completely under their control against a jodan player because of the ease with which a semi-decent jodan will score against a tsuki, particularly a katate tsuki).
- Men coming (probably not… but still.)? Ai or debana men.
- Either kote coming? Men gets both your kotes out of their target ranges.
- Gyaku do? Men gets you close and they won’t get ippon (while you probably will get ippon if it’s a good hit. Even if not, the closing in of the distance makes it a great target)
So it makes sense – you want your men strike to be up to par. And I’ve found that instead of thinking about the concept of “cutting”, it helps to think about “launching”. What do I mean by this? There are several components of hitting a good jodan men.
Let’s start with the concept of the kinetic chain. The kinetic chain is basically the transfer of power through a sequence of interconnected movements – in short, it is a series of moving parts. The easiest way to understand this concept is to visualize a tennis serve, a baseball pitch, or a kendo morote tsuki. The power starts at the toes as you launch yourself off, travels through the ankles, up the legs, through the hips, extending the shoulders, the elbows, and the wrists, ending up at the point of the shinai, at which point the right foot will land at the same time as the shinai point tsuki’s the target. The forward momentum of this chain is delivered into the point of the shinai and through to the opponent. One must think “transfer of force” when thinking about the kinetic chain. Smoothness of the moving components allows for maximum transfer of force – this means that one must not only be powerful, one must also be limber and unencumbered by stiffness (thus, the loose shoulders/arms/hands part of a good chudan stance). Here is a good discussion of the kinetic chain on the tennis serve (http://tt.tennis-warehouse.com/index.php?threads/kinetic-chain-what-do-we-know-on-the-serve.491718/). Having established the kinetic chain, we can now go on to the components of the chain.
The basic of all basics is footwork, more particularly is fumikomi – the attacking step. This lunging/stomping/jumping-in (all poor word associations, in my opinion…), is both the genesis and termination of our kinetic chain, much like in a baseball pitch, where the back foot is the start of the production of torque that results in a blazing fast ball, along with which our front foot plants into the ground. The issue that I knew I would run into with jodan was the offset footwork – where the left foot is the leading foot and the right foot is the launch foot. Thus, I practiced a particular drill that I had done when I was just starting kendo – 24 steps, 12 steps, and continuous fumikomi sprints. Merely becoming comfortable with the footwork became noticeable with a much quicker response, as well as faster strikes. One aspect of having done kendo since I was 9 was the difference in hip stiffness. I squat on a more than regular basis, so it did not present as large of a problem as I had thought. With weights on my back, such as in squats, and in a less dynamic fashion, such as with static stretching, I had no problems, but when it came to elastic power generation, such as in kendo, there was a bit of an issue. Over time, this problem went away, as I started to incorporate bodyweight lunges in order to dynamically stretch the lower body hip, quad, hams, and calf muscles.
The upper body of the jodan men strike took me a long time to understand, relative to the lower body. Until I started thinking about the kinetic chain, I thought of the strike as a “cut down in an arc”. But that could not be further from the truth. As previously stated, I began thinking of the strike as a “launch”. Before I go more in-depth on the topic, the general process of the men strike, for me, is the following – squeeze the tsuka to the center and down, spring forward from a loaded right leg while simultaneously launching the shinai by snapping with BOTH my hands, after which I will power through as if punching the opponent’s face with my left fist while sharply pulling back my right elbow, as if I am performing a dumbbell row.
Why down and center? The katate men is more of a forward motion than an up and down motion. Look at the following video:
He starts off with a typical jodan stance that is slanted to the right at a 10-60º angle off from perfectly vertical. Then he lowers it, squeezing down and forward at an angle roughly approximate to that of his shinai, as if he means to plant the butt end of his shinai into the ground. From here, he is in PRIME position to take advantage of the kinetic chain, as the forward momentum from his lower body can now travel through to his shoulders FORWARD (instead of down) and through both of his wrists, which he snaps forward. This is a perfect utilization of body mechanics to maximize the speed of the shinai tip. And this all starts with him lowering and centering the tsuka. From here, we can compound this speed with the addition of slightly more torque, via the forceful rowing of the right elbow back and down in an arc. This rotation of the upper body not only aids in the force development of the shinai, it allows for slightly more reach, smooth avoidance of oji waza, and most importantly, it allows for the alignment of the shoulder, elbow, and wrist, which translates to, again, more speed. As is commonly said in barbell sports… speed kills.
In addition, holding the shinai primarily with the ring and pinky fingers of the left hand have added a lot more snap and whip to the men strike. Not that I let go of the other fingers… it is merely that these two fingers take the role of “dragging” the shinai down and then through to the strike.
With the katate kote, I’ve been finding that it is a bit more of a natural strike for me in that I can see opportunities for it really well, but my execution lacks in both confidence and speed. I get tense and feel really bad about hitting wrong and potentially hurting the opponent. As with the men strike, it’s going to be a squeeze down and forward, and launching the shinai through to the kote. According to Chiba sensei’s writings, it should be like shoving the thumb into the kote of the opponent.
On taking tsuki and general thoughts about jodan
Learning how to receive tsuki has been a tough and painful road. My initial response was to lean back and up, but this lead to my men lifting, allowing for the shinai tip to slide up the chest and through to either side of the throat and, on painful occasion, to the base of the neck, right between the collar bones, or the Adam’s apple. The title picture above shows how to correctly receive tsuki – chin tucked and neck packed back. Ideally the throat guard and the chest guard should be overlapping or at least touching, which should minimize the sliding of the shinai tip (hopefully, with new bogu coming, this will no longer be a problem… goddamn bruises all over my chest from missed tsukis to the chest). There’s also the fact that a morote tsuki, ideally, would only be given ippon if the receiver stumbles back a step or two because of the force (which constitutes a “killing” blow), while a katate tuski would only be given ippon if the reciever’s body is forced back (not necessarily taking steps back). A tucked chin and a packed neck allows for much of the force to be dissipated evenly and one might be able to be unmoved by the tsuki (of course, a tsuki to the chest/mune used to be considered ippon against jodan, but nowadays, is not. It’s still a good move if done correctly because it could knock the breath out, and from there a hiki men or gyaku do would theoretically be good. You would need to be fast though… very very fast).
Mixing up morote strikes has been a great strategic addition to my jodan. Particularly, the seme to men, then moving forward with the right foot to morote kote has been highly rewarding. Because I am technically “walking” forward by switching to the right foot to fumikomi, I can cover a large distance, allowing for me to seme with my body and taking the opponent by surprise. I do need to work on moving forward from this, however, instead of stepping backwards.
Another great addition has been the morote men from tsuba-zeriai (tz). Tz is where two opponents are close together, with either their kotes or the tsubas crossed. It’s a bit controversial, as the WKC has lead to a lot of team matches where as soon as a team gets a lead, they will spend hours and hours in tz in the hopes of holding onto their lead. Bad kendo? Yes. Strategic? Uhm… hell yeah. [Note: This is a topic for another post, but listen, if you think people are doing WKC for the sake of their kendo, you’re in the minority. At the WKC, particularly for the Koreans, Japanese, and Americans, you’re fighting for your country. Best believe there’s unbelievable pressure to take that fucking gold.] Anyways, from this position, kendoists typically lay the blade of the shinai on the neck or shoulder of the other, indicating an agreement to go back to center, which has recently been changed to merely a step back (it doesn’t seem to be against the rules to not agree to this. However, if you do this to a sensei/sabumnim, you WILL get a smack on the side of the head for bad manners… this is ONLY for shiai/tournament purposes). Immediately after this step back, the best possible attack is a VERY fast small men FORWARDS, not a hiki men. Why? First, hiki men allows for the opponent to close in on the distance quickly, and if your hiki men was not ippon, you’re fucked. A competent kendoist will do a kote men, kaeshi do, kote on your left kote (since it’ll be raised up from the hiki men), tsuki, or any other strike. Second, bad kendo. Go forwards. Going forwards offers the best risk-to-reward ratio. By going forwards, you maximize forward momentum, resulting in a faster strike. By going forwards, you ALSO close in the distance, removing most of the threat from the opponent. By going forwards, you take advantage of an opponent’s open stance. This is great for both jodan and chudan players. Because they expect for me to move back into jodan, the opponents tend to be more lax after tz… which allows for me to take this strike. Here’s J.Jo from Team Korea in the 16th WKC showing how efficient this is:
One of the best possible rewards of jodan has been the learning of seme without the shinai. Using the body to seme, using positioning to seme… this has been an eye-opener. Without having to worry about taking my center with the chudan stance, I can seme entirely with the body, including my elbows, and it really makes for some funny spasm defenses from the opponent. I think that I will devote an entire post to seme in jodan later on, but for now, this seems enough.