It was with lots of anticipation and a certain amount of apprehension that I recently participated in the fifteen-day Osaka University of Health and Sports Sciences (aka Taidai) Kendo Club ‘kangeiko’ (midwinter training). The university is famous throughout Japan for its superb kendo teachers and skilled students. I’ve been teaching at the university for a year now, mainly for the self-interested purpose of joining in the kendo trainings at the end of the day.
The kendo club’s alumnus boasts such illustrious individuals as Ishida Toshiya and Seike Kōichi, both ex-members of the All-Japan team. The sensei include Sakudō Masao (H8-dan) and Kanzaki Hiroshi (K8-dan and current All-Japan women’s coach) and Kokubo Shōji (K8-dan). The university kendo club has won the student championships a number of times in the past, and they are always expected to finish in the top tier, even on a bad day. The level is high, as is the motivation of the students, teachers, and the alumni.
Apart from tournaments, there are a number of other important events on the club’s calendar throughout the year. Perhaps one of the most challenging is the notorious fifteen-day kangeiko—one of Taidai’s infamous (meibutsu) events. The whole point of kangeiko is to train intensively at the coldest time of the year. As with many grueling practice methods employed in kendo, there is method behind the madness. As it is so cold, you have to keep moving, and what better way to get warm than by engaging in copious amounts of kiri-kaeshi and kakari-geiko!
Thus, kangeiko is a time when kendoists run around with frenzied yells whacking and hacking with all their might to build up strength, stamina, fortitude, and that all-important ‘never-say-die’ attitude. This year, however, was apparently the warmest kangeiko on record… That just made the trainings harder.
Kangeiko started on January 28 at 5:30 am. Starting so early each morning, I was compelled to stay for the entire fifteen days at the university guesthouse. There were many visitors who came and went depending on their work obligations. Four French kenshi from Marseille and I were in for the long haul…
Each morning, I would rise at 4:30am and slowly crawl out of the warmth and comfort of my beloved futon. After putting on my gear and knocking back a sachet of multi-vitamins, I made my way to the campus gymnasium ready for the commencement of the morning session.
We would start by lining up and running fifteen times around the massive gym screaming “Wasshoi! Wasshoi!”—the yell used when carrying heavy portable shrines at festivals. I assume this was to accentuate the festive spirit of the kangeiko—or at least to encourage a cheerful attitude before the fray. As we ran around the gym in regimented style, the OUHS Kendo Club flag draped on the wall would bellow up with the breeze created as we ran past, as if it were applauding our efforts. We then did stretches, two-hundred suburi, bowed in, and got started proper at 5:30.
The morning trainings were divided into three forty-minute sections with no breaks in between. The first forty was spent doing kiri-kaeshi, followed by another forty minutes of kakari-geiko, and finally ji-geiko. The point is to push yourself beyond your usual physical and mental boundaries, and just let go as you threw yourself into the attacks.
Myself, alumni (of which there were so many), visiting sensei, and the fourth-year students usually served as motodachi for the rest of the students. This might sound easy, but believe me when I say it was backbreaking work! Sakudō sensei watched the motodachi carefully, and gave judicious advice on how to receive properly. As he said, “The role of motodachi is crucial. The motodachi is essentially offering his or her body to be carved up, skewered, beaten and hacked for the sake of the student’s development.” The attacking student is privileged for this opportunity to advance. But if the motodachi cannot do their job properly, the students stand to gain little benefit for their efforts.
Aware of the huge responsibility, each and every kiri-kaeshi and kakari-geiko was received with concentrated efforts of unrelenting intensity, carefully maintaining correct distance, applying suitable strength to receive and repel, and maneuvering assiduously while subtly indicating openings to strike.
In kiri-kaeshi, for example, I was instructed to keep my left hand firmly down by my navel and rhythmically absorb or deflect the strikes to encourage the student extend, advance, and retreat without awkwardness. I had to create a situation that felt completely natural to the student and made them want to keep going.
In fact, one of the most important lessons I learned over the course of the kangeiko was the significant function of motodachi’s rhythm. Motodachi has to be in control of the cadence in terms of strength and movement. I am sure that all of us have felt comfortable receiving some kakarite, and a certain amount of awkwardness with others. There is always a tendency to lay the blame on the attacker for any raggedy attacking and broken flow. After this kangeiko experience, I am now convinced that any clumsiness in the attacker is inextricably linked to the ineptness of the motodachi.
Rhythm and movement are not the only considerations. The motodachi also has to get inside the psyche of the attacker. Only then can you put their minds at ease, develop a bond of trust, and make the required alterations to draw all the spirit and skill they’ve got out of them.
Such is the weight of responsibility on motodachi’s shoulders. I immediately thought of how so how people in countries outside Japan are so disadvantaged in this respect. The motodachi can essentially make or break a student’s potential to improve. This is a crucial but often overlooked fact.
Of course, it wasn’t all one way. Depending on the student, the encounter sometimes turned into ai-kakari-geiko where we would both attack in frenzied desperation until one of us buckled. Then it would usually turn into a grappling match against the wall or on the floor. It was the motodachi who decided when each kiri-kaeshi or kakari-geiko would stop, and the next person in line would start.
Sometimes the motodachi would become so engrossed that one bout could go on for ten minutes, or even longer. This was exhausting for both sides, but you didn’t feel the pain, just the urge to go on… You completely lose all sense of time as you become totally absorbed in each individual encounter.
The afternoon sessions in the dōjō started with stretching, 40-minutes of Zazen, followed by 40-minutes of ji-geiko. Zazen actually took a bit of getting used to. It is very difficult to empty your mind of all superfluous thoughts when your legs are aching, and basketball practice is going on in the gym above the dōjō. After I cottoned on to imagining a big black ball rising and falling in sync with my breathing, I found that time passed very quickly. By the last day I didn’t even feel any pain in my legs. My French friends who also participated may disagree.
The students had a few passionate traditions that they engaged in during the course of the kangeiko. For example, “tsubushi”‒ where juniors would gang up on their fourth year sempai and keep attacking vigorously in quick succession, until the senior folded through exhaustion from soaking up the unremitting barrage of tai-atari. Then the juniors would jump on him (or her) and remove his men to a raucous cacophony of triumphant whoops. This is a way of saying “thank you” to the sempai for all of his benevolent guidance over the years, and a way of bidding him or her farewell before graduating. It was sort of well-intentioned ‘death-by-motodachi’ before the fourth-years leave school and make their way in the real world. In this sense, kangeiko is a very sentimental milestone for the students.
It was also the final event of the year that completes the first-year student’s initiation as a fully-fledged member of the kendo club. There is a party the night before the last day in the dōjō. Students get understandably intoxicated (only on a can of beer), and are presented their official name-plates by Sakudō sensei to hang on the wall in the dōjō. With this ritual, the end of kangeiko is but one training away, and their membership to Taidai’s kendo family is ensured forever.
Another great tradition is the “gonin-gumi” which is customarily done as the very last episode, on the very last day of kangeiko. Students break up into groups of five and do enjin-ai-kakari-geiko— that is one person does ai-kakari (mutual attacking) until the drum goes, and then moves to the next person, going through the entire group. Then the second person starts… Everybody is a wreck by the end of it, but as it is the final hoorah, all are in tremendously high spirits. More than a few tears are shed at the end of the gonin-gumi.
I have participated in many hard training camps in my kendo career. However, this one was special for a number of reasons. Few gasshuku last longer than seven days. This was for two weeks. The ups and downs I experienced in physical and mental condition was extreme. It became quite clear that the difference between a good session and a bad one depended on my frame of mind. I found that even in the last stretch of kangeiko when fatigue was peaking, a positive attitude made the difference between a vibrant training and a sluggish one. That was the simple difference between “I want to be here”, and “I have to be here”.
Another fantastic characteristic of Taidai’s kangeiko are the people who attend. The numbers were incredible. In the two weeks, the grand-total of people at all the sessions amounted to over 4,000. On one day there were over 350 people cramming the gym. The youngest were a couple of kindergarten kids whose parents brought them every single morning without fail. That probably meant getting up at 3:30am, and then taking them to kindergarten afterwards. That’s what I call dedicated parenting. There were also hundreds of junior and senior high schools students in the mix, and the ‘Who’s Who’ of the kendo world with far too many stars to mention. The students kept detailed records of attendants every day.
The things I learned are as numerous as the hundreds of people I was able to train with over the two weeks. There are too many things to process at once, and I suspect I will still be working through them until the day next year’s kangeiko starts. That is a day I wait for now with nothing but anticipation.