The School of Hard Knocks

kangeikBy Blake Bennett

Its over. Its finally bloody over!
By far the longest 15 days of my life and without a doubt, the hardest physical training I have ever been a part of, kangeiko (winter training) is over!

Characterized by rituals of colored men himo (helmet strings) depending on age, and tsubushi or 3 on 1 beatings, the training menu went as follows:

Morning training 
5:15am Running & warm up
5:35am Kirikaeshi (repeated striking drills) for 40 minutes
6:15am Kakarigeiko (attacking practice at 100%) for 40 minutes
6:45am Jigeiko (sparring practice) for 40 minutes

Afternoon training
2:00pm Warm up & stretching
2:15pm Zazen (seated meditation) for 30 minutes
2:45pm Jigeiko (sparring practice) for 45 minutes

Evening training
6:00pm Drinking & serving drinks to the sensei
9:30pm Drunk speeches & translating drunk speeches

Below is a day by day chronicle of the Osaka Taiiku Daigaku kangeiko as I experienced it.

The day before kick-off –
Out with guests for 4 hours, drinking and translating. Did my best to hide the fact that I wasn’t drinking much at all. Making this fact known could land me in hot water, as “it is all part of the hard yards”. A bit tired and cranky that I could not get to bed early before the big day.

Day 1 – 
Nervous as hell. Not being sure of the system or how to move around the dojo in between fatal beatings proved to be super draining. Had my butt kicked by M sensei…possibly as a “welcome to hell” initiation?! Not entirely sure, but I just hope there is no repeat any time soon!
Hurting under the left foot – actually, I’m hurting places that have never bothered me before!

No zazen today so I had time for a 2 and a half hour nap this morning…felt even sorer when I woke up! Felt great at training though… so very thirsty.

Day 2 – 
Not as nervous today, and had no trouble waking up at 4am (I am petrified that I will sleep in for training and pay the price upon a tardy arrival!)

Fought all the sensei again today for kirikaeshi and kakarigeiko…apparently most people avoid doing this everyday due to the pain they can inflict!

I saw some nasty stuff from the OB’s (old boys) today…just so very nasty. Talking to the lads afterwards though, it seems there are some tricks to the trade of shortening the beating. For example, the first taiatari (body collision) has to be bone shaking to show that you’re up for anything…and DEPENDING on the receiver, your ordeal may be slightly shorter. I guess this depends on whether the receiver is wrecked too…

I am compulsively watching the clock during trainings…but this only makes the time go slower.

I was happily surprised when the sensei stopped kirikaeshi after 30 min…but devastated to find out that 30 minutes of kirikaeshi = 50 minutes ofkakarigeiko! Sore right ankle today and oh so thirsty.

Had me a 30 minute nap this morning and felt great for the arvo training. I think I may have worked out the trick…short refreshing naps rather than long (well deserved) siestas!

Past the point of pins and needles, zazen did strange things to my feet today. It felt like when I stood up from the 30 minutes of crossed leg meditation, my right foot was a couple of meters in front of the rest of my body with every step.
I noticed that there is yellow electrical tape on the tare of the injured students… but talking with the some of them, it seems there are far more injuries out there than people are letting on…yet they are still training.

Day 3 – 
Its like a war zone out here. Its like there is a motodachi clan (the sensei/OBs/OGs) and the kakarite clan (the rest of us), and the harder the kakarite clan fights, the harder the motodachi fight back. There are usually 3 or more people on the floor at any given time and as every part of the shinai is used to inflict pain, there is no escaping this basketball gym battle field.
I have no more pain in my body anymore, I’m too wrecked to feel anything other than fear.

I couldn’t move my foot for 5 minutes after zazen today. Felt great in training though. Did well against the stronger students…

Day 4 – 
Hard fought bash with my older brother this morning – was pumped with adrenaline afterwards.
This place is madness. While the students are running about chasing their air bound shinai and helmets, the OBs are swapping opponents in mid fight! While one kid is a crumpled heap on the floor and the other is about to hurl, an exchange of glance between the OBs signals an opportunity to trade ragdolls and continue collecting different blood types…

Zazen – again found it hard to move feet, this is a weird feeling!
*Accidentally* slept for 2 hours instead of the self-recommended 30 minutes, so felt slow and sluggish at training.
Not so flash in keiko today, and was burnt out at the end of the day.
Sore left knee today.

Day 5 – 
Sluggish this morning. Its so cold I can’t sweat! Ravaged by K sensei with an extra long kakarigeiko. My big lesson here; stay off the wall – a certain recipe to be tsuki’d in the throat/shoulders/ribs etc. My knee is a little sorer today from a bad landing at one point with K sensei, although I did manage to pull off a cool dive roll on the next landing!
While I was lining up today, I saw one sensei’s shinai get stuck in somebody’s gear strings. And rather than trying to pull it out, the sensei snatched the opponents shinai and continued to belt the guy around while he tried to free the snagged shinai from his gear!

It was cold enough to see when the opponent was breathing in jigeiko this morning. And, it seems one kid has done a runner. Nothing new I’m told.

No zazen today. Body felt good in keiko.
I have noticed that I have a blood blister fossilized in a calus on me toe. Weird.

Spent 1 hour translating from English to Japanese and back. Managed to get away without having to drink too much. I think that keiko might be the easy part of kangeiko.

Day 6 – 
Getting harder to get up out of bed.
Short practice today…hallelujah! Did kirikaeshi and kakarigeiko with the sensei who I got drunk with last night.
Learned some good stuff in jigeiko this morning that I am looking forwards to trying out.
I have started a routine after every morning training of a long shower and stretches, followed by omuraisu (rice omelet). I look forward to this so much, that it is sometimes the only thing that gets me through the middle of training!

No training!

Day 7 –
Caught a damn cold. Just can’t find my mojo today. Very lethargic and simply couldn’t do my best…

Not my best performance. Was beaten by high school student! Arghhh! Need to get over this hump and find a motivation to keep going hard.

Drinking party at dormitory.
I sat with M sensei and learned heaps of great stuff thanks to his nice, easy explanations…and wouldn’t you know it… I just happened to have note paper and a working pen on me too!

Day 8 –
Fought all the sensei, especially M sensei re all the help he gave me the night before. The mood in the dojo has changed overnight as we are over the halfway point. Each year group selects one representative to do a quick (10 second) improv skit. The idea is to get everyone’s mood elevated and whether the sketch is funny or not, we have no problem laughing at you!
So very very cold.

Working on seme so much that I am getting hit a lot. Just need to swallow pride and keep at it. Why can old sensei read everything so well!?

Day 9 –
So cold I still can’t sweat.
I’ve noticed that whilst lining up to do kakarigeiko, watching the guy/girl in front of you getting his/her butt kicked can be very bitter sweet…you want it to keep going so you can recover from your last bash, but the longer they go, the more likely it is that you will be made to go for a long time. This whole thing just messes with your mind!

Still working hard on seme. Didn’t get hit much today…well, not as much as yesterday anyways…but am learning that I need to move so not to get tsuki’d so much!

Day 10 –
These mornings are so cold that the feet initially go numb…but because of all the movement it is enough to warm them up enough to start feeling the pain of the cold!

Zazen today, and an average performance in training. My older brother once again reminding me that the difference between our grades of one dan level, is like “the difference between one million dollars and two million dollars!”
I’ll get ‘cha one day bro…!

OB drinks tonight…I went along but within 1 hour of being there I got the tummy bug that everyone else has. Tonight was a loooong night!

Day 11 –
Very crook. Was up all night. Still went to training, did the warm up and nearly fell over, so I watched and did mitori geiko. Most kids were sent home to lie down, but I was stubborn and sat on the floor watching. I noticed that the swimming pool next to the dojo was frozen over.

Called off due to some big meeting. Yay for sleep!

Day 12 –
Feeling better, but still not 100%. Exhausted after 5 seconds of kakarigeiko, but have to keep going. My mind is writing cheques that my body can’t cash at the moment. I still have a wee diesel engine running in my guts, making some weird noises and all the other things diesel engines are renowned for! Gross.

Not working well. Still feeling very run down. So close, just gotta keep going…

Day 13 –
Still going. Will this ever end?!

Couldn’t make training today as I had a scholarship interview in the city…just as scary as the training I missed out on!

Day 14 –
Even though there is only 2 days to go I still don’t feel like there is an end in sight. This thing plays serious tricks on your mind.

I have begun to notice one aspect of kakarigeiko that, being on the receiving end, can be very draining… it is not hooking the shinai around your neck, or hitting you in the back off the head (although these things are particularly draining), its when the motodachi gives you a little push to the side of your shoulder as you run through. Not only does it put you slightly off balance as you struggle to stay stable on your jelly legs (don’t get caught on the floor! It is the same as being caught against the wall!), but it indicates the start of some horrible kakarigeiko ass wooping…but just how long and how horrible you don’t know!

Off due to prep for the party tonight. Nearly there!

As this hell on earth comes to an end, it marks an important mile stone for many of the students. For the 4th years, it is their graduation – all they have known, their dearest friends, and all the memories from the last 4 years of “all you can kendo” is coming to an end. They are no longer students here anymore, and have realized that there stint as big fish in a small pond is all but over. And for the 1st years, it is the end of the initiation process. They are becoming bigger fishy’s, meaning that the constant late nights of cleaning and cooking for their sempai is no longer their responsibility.
Drinking, crying and the stench of vomit.

Final Day 15 –
its all over! My body is really starting to hurt now that my mind will let it. I could sleep for another 15 days. But alas, I have a pile of paper work to get through! Hello real world, I’m back!

Reading back over this diary is scary. I am glad that I kept a log on a daily basis as the only thing I really remember about any particular day is that 2 hours of hard yakka training from 5am is a long time! Every training runs into the other, and I would be struggling to tell you what I did in between trainings on any given day.

The effects of this training camp are felt by every participant and are similar to the things I have documented above – that of fear, de-motivation, illness and pain coupled with good days, good fights, and now that its all over, some good memories.

The point of all this? At the coldest time of year and then again in the summer season, training camps of the hardest kind are held for one important reason; to develop the right attitude for the “easy seasons” of spring and autumn. When trainings begin again in March and the weather warms, the environment for training can easily be considered pleasant in comparison. This, we are told, is a crucial turning point in our kendo training – as participating in kangeiko is a way to build confidence in one’s ability and staying power that will see us through the “easy” trainings in the warmer months.

And this is the best time of all…the longest time before more kangeiko!

I saw some pretty horrendous things out on that cold polyurethane floor over the past fortnight, but also some pretty amazing responses. This is certainly the school of hard knocks, where limits are pushed, smacked, tripped, kicked, punched and tsuki’d but spirits are seldom broken. Good effort Taidai!

Right then, back to bed.