Tankendo Summer Seminar in Valence

I have been practising kendo for quite a few years and for as long as I can remember, my first memory of tankendo, as a kyusha, was an article I read in Kendo World in which there were pictures of what I mistakenly thought to be kenshi practising an unidentified martial art with unidentified rifle-shaped pieces of wood, and funny very small shinai. When I started asking questions around me, nobody in my dojo could tell me what it was! It took me years – Google, Facebook, and my recently ‘on-internet-met-friend’, Baptiste Tavernier – to discover what jukendo and tankendo were!

As I’ve been striving to start studying tankendo (Japanese sensei in Europe are as difficult to meet as European kendo hachidan nowadays!) for a very long time now, I jumped onto the opportunity offered by Baptiste to take part to a tankendo seminar led by himself this summer in France! It was to take place in Valence, on July 16-17 2016, hosted by the local Ken Shin Kan Dojo.

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A few weeks later, I was 800km away from Belgium and ready in Valence! On Saturday morning I arrived at the dojo and the atmosphere was tense (not really!) and full of concentration (absolutely true!). I would not say that we were overwhelmed by a huge number of participants, but the half-score of us (a few gentlemen and 2 or 3 ladies) were utterly motivated and focused on our matter of the day: to DISCOVER TANKENDO! The programme was simple and clear: Saturday, basic techniques all day long; Sunday, advanced techniques in the morning and kata in the afternoon.

There was a distribution of tanshinai and a few explanations by Baptiste while waiting for the latecomers arrive and that was it… we were starting! Baptiste looked around and asked for someone to take care of the warming up! “Well… Pascal… Can you do it for us, please?” Ouch! My goodness, it was up to me! I had to keep up the pace as I did not want to look ridiculous!

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Then it’s Baptiste’s turn to ‘warm us up’ with some typical tankendo ‘routine’: kamae, forward, backward, right, left, diagonally forward left, diagonally backward right, grab, and back to kamae, forward, backward, and on and on and on…

BAPTISTE: OK everybody? Warming up? Shall we go on? Now the same but 2 steps forward, 2 steps backward, 2 steps rightward, 2 steps leftward, 2 steps obliquely forward left, 2 steps obliquely backward right, grab, and back to kamae. And we can go on like this until we do 10 fast steps for each and even more!

OK! We were tuned up! I can see it in Baptiste’s eyes: it’s as if he wanted to let us understand that tankendo is no holiday! And that if we wanted to have a martial art week-end without sweating and suffering too much, we came to the wrong place! He did not mean that, of course, although the tone was set and clear: tankendo is a serious matter!

And the day goes on, learning do-tsuki, nodo-tsuki, men-uchi and the famous kihon dosa (more or less the tankendo exercise equivalent to kirikaeshi in kendo, although slower, yet probably more precise) and many new difficulties such as the permanent hanmi  stance, so hard to keep for kenshi who can’t help facing their opponent! Also, the left hand without kote protection that we have to keep stuck to our left hip and which seemed to be useless was difficult! Such a new and strange attitude we have to cope with.

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On all those reflections the first day of the seminar ended. It goes without saying that we could not attend a seminar in France without enjoying one of the other most refined activities in Voltaire’s country: tasting regional gastronomy and wines! There again we were cleverly guided by our French hosts from Ken Shin Kan: Lucile and Maxime Marconato, both naginataka from the local dojo, and Baptiste, who advised us on our wine choices! A nice evening and a great moment of budo solidarity and friendship!

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This is what happens when you drink too much “Rosé” wine…

Yet, all these energy-consuming activities (tankendo, not gastronomy!) required a well-deserved night of rest before attacking the final day! As the seminar goes by, Baptiste puts my friend Alexander (from Ukraine) and I aside, saying “ok, the big arms, you stay together and you keep working together” We were supposed to be the “advanced students” of the day… Well, not that advanced, but if the boss said so!  The others kept on working together on different exercises.

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And then came the moment we were all waiting for! “What? I’m going to use my left hand!?… Finally!?… To do what!?… Grabbing the opponent!?…” We were entering the fourth dimension! We tried the “close quarter fight”, which meant direct physical contact with the opponent, attacking, parrying, grabbing, controlling, arm-locking, counter-attacking! Such a new dimension for a humble kenshi! We learned the famous seitai-zuki, which means to “control your  opponent’s arm and stab at close quarter”. We practised it after performing a harai (among other techniques) to create an opportunity. We were slowly but surely reaching and touching the “essence” of tankendo, its very principle!

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I suddenly realized what I had been missing in modern kendo during all those years: all the one-on-one techniques, giving the opportunity to have real physical contact with my opponent. When you are even much closer than chika-ma, it feels great! Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying tankendo is better than kendo or naginata, for example, but this arm-locking thing is a big plus! Something so different from always keeping some distance between your opponent and yourself!

Still we had been tirelessly repeating and practising all those techniques and skills for about one and a half days when came the time for us to discover a new aspect of the art: the eight tanken vs. tanken, a.k.a. Tankendo-no-Kata, plus a glimpse of another set of kata: tanken vs. bokuto.

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It is never easy to learn new kata and even more difficult to learn a new kata from a new martial art you have just discovered. Although some of us had already worked on them before the seminar, we have slowly but surely come to a point when it was getting more and more difficult to focus and to remember all those new kata in the right order! But how thrilling it was! With a small touch of malice, I carefully observed how to parry and counter-attack on a kendo men-uchi! I will be glad to try it once back in Belgium!

Unfortunately, as all good things have to come to end, we bid farewell to each others as this seminar finsihed! We spent two great days in Valence where we discovered a real taste of tankendo, thanks to Baptiste’s seriousness, deep knowledge of the art, great temper and humour!

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I hope to soon have the opportunity to organize such a “discovery seminar” in Belgium (maybe next year?) with other Kendo World readers. Nothing could please me more than to be one of the happy few to have the honour to promote this noble Japanese martial art in Europe and more particularly in Belgium! This is the ‘way’ I decided to follow together with the one of kendo.

Tankendo is so new to us Europeans that it gives us an incredible  opportunity to rediscover the feelings our ancients experienced when they first discovered kendo more than 40 years ago, for example. Nothing compares to that feeling of being a pioneer, opening a new road somewhere towards an unknown destination! From now on, I can count on tankendo and tankendo can count on me!

Pascal LAM
Kendo 2-dan
SEN RI NO MICHI
KENDO/TANKENDO MONS (BELGIUM)

PS: Special thanks to Alexander, from Ukraine, who provided most of the pictures!