Off to a half-decent start! My first keiko of the year was actually pretty terrible. It had been about 2 weeks since I practiced, which is neither here nor there, but for whatever reason things just weren't working in unison. Instead of trying to relax, I tried to make it come together with force, tired myself out, and generally had a bunk practice. That was Saturday.

On Monday morning, through the bright idea of a dojo mate and the kindness of one of our sensei, I had a chance to attend morning practice at Kodansha Publishing's famous Noma Dojo. I've been to the old Noma dojo for shiai, but I have never attended a practice, or been to the new dojo at all. So, up at 5am for a breakfast of champions: 2 bananas, 1 kiwi, some yogurt to activate the vitamin C in the kiwi (good lookin' out Hamish), and and egg sandwich. Then off to the station. Brick freezing!

Just today I happened to check the weather in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada where my sister lives. -26 degrees. Egads, I thought, that's brutal. But I'll tell you, I will take -5 in Canada before I'll take +2 degrees in Japan. Something about the wet air really makes it cut to the bone. A brisk walk through that brought me the the station, and a few transfers later I met my companions from my home dojo in Nakano.

Walking from Gokokuji station to Noma dojo, our sensei threw out some pointers. "This is a very traditional and strict dojo. Mind your manners. If you're doing ippon shobu with someone and they act like they've won, give it to them. No arguing."

I was curious to see how much the new dojo resembled the old one. We went past the main Kodansha building to a larger one behind it and elevated to the 5th floor. It still smells immediately of old wood, and I think the sliding doors in the entrance hallways must be from the old dojo.

After signing in and getting changed in a very hushed change room, we found a place to get ready at the far end of the dojo. I have no doubt that there were many people of note there, although one that stood out to my eyes right away was Uchimura, a past All-Japan champion. That fellow may just be as wide as he is tall. I had a chance to watch his keiko while I was in line, and the word for it is 'tenacious'.

Keiko itself was of course straight forward, nothing but ji-geiko. My first bout was sub-par but helped to warm me up. I think I had 5 in all, the last three feeling quite good and on point.

We were lucky enough to get a kind of 1 month pass to practice there, so I'll absolutely be going back.

Tonight's practice was also good, but all of my most glaring problems were on full display. First, the bad. One source of many minor problems is stiffness and excess tension, especially in my shoulders and arms. This has always been a problem for me, and at the suggestion of a sensei from my dojo I'm trying to pay attention to the level of tension in my shoulders all the time, meaning while I'm at work or walking around. I think he's right - I think I'm a bit numb to just how much tension I have there, as a matter of habit. Every time I remember to check, lo and behold, I'm tense. If I can manage to cool out my shoulders a bit, I think it will follow down to my elbows and forearms and produce a much more natural, longer strike and finish.

On the mental side, I've picked up the bad habit of stopping my ji-keiko and breaking zanshin WAY too much. When I began kendo, my dojo had a great atmosphere of concentration, and we were always paying attention while the fight was on. After coming to Japan and practicing in a few different places, I saw some people who at times would be working on some technical aspect of their kendo. They would engage, have an exchange, and then sort of turn off and re-set their position. This is all right now and again, I think, but somewhere along the line I began doing it too much. So that's another goal, to have more consistent focus and to start taking zanshin more seriously.

On the positive side, my kamae has been praised a bit lately for being very straight, but I'm not so sure this isn't connected to my shoulder tension problem. I definitely make an effort to make a beautiful kamae, but I may be straining a bit to achieve the form. It looks all right, but it's too static, and I don't respond well to people who knock my shinai around.

That's all there is at this point. I'm glad to be back in the swing of things and looking forward to next practice when I can try to address some of these points. In my ongoing effort to include a song in every post, I offer you this. Not for the faint of heart.