Kendo is a dynamic sport. When watching, it’s hard to take your eyes off of the lightning bolt sword strikes or the faces of the competitors as they pierce each other with intensity. If you’ve never seen a kendo match (or even if you have), check out the following video for a great example:
The zanshin of a good kendo match is always very high. It is a fine balance between keeping energies and emotions perfectly in check while still transmitting full spirit into your opponent in the hopes of intimidating or disrupting him/her.
However, even with all of that going on, the real core fundamental that every great kendo player requires, the engine that powers each thunder clap movement, is Okuri Ashi.
When first learning kendo one of my biggest problems was that I had already been a karate and kobudo student for about a decade. That means certain stancing and body movements were very ingrained into me. This was compounded by the fact that I had studied karate in my formative years and thus had it as part of my developed “self”.
As opposed to karate where most stances are optimally used to involve the whole body (especially the hips) in a variety of techniques and to weight the body down when appropriate, most of kendo’s footwork is light and crisp. Shizen tai is a very popular term in kendo and means “natural body”. Okuri ashi takes a shizen tai upright body and manipulates the footwork to allow for extremely quick forward and backward movement with minimal “dead spaces” in between each movement.
The execution of Okuri Ashi is as such:
The feet start about shoulder width apart, the ball of the left foot lining up across from the right heel. The right foot moves first, sliding forward about a half pace. The left foot then slides up to meet it, the heel lifting just a bit off the floor. Exactly how much lift you are instructed to get during this movement will vary from school to school.
Okuri ashi can be used with smooth, half pace strides to cover distance or it can be abbreviated to possess extremely short motions (while still maintaining that sliding characteristic). The benefit of moving like this is that your weight is underside almost at all times. This allows you to make quick directional changes and leap into attacks at the moment you feel them appear.
When Okuri ashi is done in multiple successions, it takes on a slight hopping quality even though the body and feet never leave the ground. To understand what I mean, observe this video of a basic drill known as Kirikaeshi:
You might take note that when moving forward the lead right foot moves first, and when moving backward the rear left foot moves first. During Okuri ashi they do not switch.
It can take years to make this motion feel natural, but it’s worth the effort. Okuri ashi has a lot to teach about keeping body weight centered and available for explosive movement. Give it a shot sometime, and don’t worry if you feel a bit awkward at first.
I’d like to share a video exploring the basic ensnaring tactics of the nunti. Within Okinawan kobudo the nunti (or nunte) is a lesser known weapon, but extremely effective. It was the best alternative to a classic spear (which would have raised eyebrows under the weapons bans) and had the added benefits of two manji yoko, which I will explain in the video.
Check out some manipulations that you can use against both long and short range weapons:
You’ll notice in the video that I emphasize the dual functionality of both lethal attacks and non-lethal controls. The length of the weapon would have kept kobudoka (especially peacekeepers) far away from the dangerous hands and weapons of troublemakers while allowing them to increase control and damage according to their need.
Along with combat effectiveness the nunti comes with relatively heavy weight, which means it cannot be spun or swung with the same quickness as a bo. Because of that, the initial action with the nunti is critical.
A short range weapon like a knife can be brutal once the maai (distance) is closed, which is why my first movements in the video either break the hand or at least damage and numb the arm enough to render it momentarily useless. A proper initial movement with skilled control of distance and timing can allow for control in subsequent moves.
How do you go about exploring an art fully without getting lost in it?
One of the most important elements of any martial art is being able to use it effectively at a moment’s notice. The techniques and methods of the art must be simple enough to ingrain in muscle memory for use when adrenaline pumps and mental decision making could be costly and difficult.
With that being the case it might seem like a mistake to dig deeply into an art or to allow for creative exploration. After all, you’re probably just obfuscating a technique that did what it needed to do in the first place. However, I have found that there is an important difference between simple techniques and techniques with deep simplicity.
Starting with Simplicity
Properly programming the body to maximum efficiency is a process that takes a lifetime. However, when a student first joins a school they really need to focus on the basics of how to move. It’s almost like learning how to walk again. The hands move in such a way, the legs in another way, the body weight shifts here and there…half the time the end goal for each class is to not trip over yourself.
Launching into the full complexity of an art right away is neither effective nor productive.
Drills like yakusoku kumite are often valuable to teach a person what it’s like to get “attacked” (even if it’s under strict controls) and how to program the body to respond.
Kata, sparring, and base level bunkai all help introduce the student to the ways in which they might defend themselves should trouble arrive.
The Fog of Complexity
As the years go by and students get exposed to the arts, they realize there might be more going on than previously suspected. Real altercations are rarely so organized as dojo drills, nor do they end as neatly as we might hope. Grappling, joint locking, pressure points, internal blending, dynamic striking, etc etc start to blip onto the radar as ways to improve overall skillset.
With so much out there it’s easy to get lost completely in the fog of technique collection and creative brainstorming.
Moving from simplicity to complexity is something that often inspires trepidation and hesitation (with very legitimate cause). Nobody wants to become the armchair Sensei who can spout off 20 different vital point techniques but couldn’t actually defend him/herself against Glass Joe from Punchout.
Furthermore, simple techniques with no particularly enhanced explanations still work. A kick to the groin and jab to the eyes requires very little tweaking. Why muck things up?
For me personally, deciding to jump into complexity came when I saw the depth of knowledge possessed by my instructors and how they translated it into their art. Instead of blocking an arm just to keep it from hitting me, I realized I could be activating a vital point for a devastating follow-up technique. Or I could be applying kuzushi at the same moment to off balance my attacker. Or perhaps I could be moving his centerline to make his next attack more predictable and therefore manageable, reducing (albeit never eliminating) the chaos of real combat.
Complexity invites you to explore the possibilities of human interaction.
The Depth of Simplicity
I wish I could tell you I’ve got everything figured out and the fog is gone, but that is woefully untrue. I keep my many limitations close in mind to make sure I don’t get lazy.
However, there are certain things I have been able to bring back to simplicity through depth of study. The amazing thing is that my muscle memory has not gone away, nor has my ability utilize mushin (no mind) in unpredictable situations. Instead I have been able to better understand how to improve the simplicity of my techniques and utilize complex ideas like pressure points, tuite, etc within the same movement that would have been a simple block or punch previously.
The point of breaking down bunkai (kata applications) into minute pieces is not to impress others with your 10,000 ideas, but to get a little taste of why all those possibilities work or don’t work. I have found many situations where I’ve said to myself “I better not do that again”, which is extremely valuable to discover in the safety of a dojo environment.
With deep simplicity the body learns how to improve height, distance, angle, stance, and timing in conjunction with a continuum of strikes, grabs, and manipulations. All of that sounds complex unless you’ve thoroughly explored it and reapplied it to habitual acts of physical violence, such as common pushes, punches, and grabs.
All of this amounts to not needing the construction of yakusoku kumite or kata or even padded sparring when you arrive in a moment of conflict, but being able to effectively handle live situations at any range and with little warning.
The following is a short clip taken from our IKKF Annual Training (2000) featuring Bill Hayes Sensei discussing a technique that starts out simple, but can be enhanced with depth of study and training. The technique is simple throughout but hardly the same from the beginning of the clip to the end.
(available here – http://fileserver.uechi-ryu.com/videos/hayes.wmv)