Friday, 13Nov09, myself and four other members of the Kansas City Kendo Club piled into a minivan and set out for Chicago to participate in our regional kendo federation’s tournament and grade examinations. Two other members of the club took flights to Chicago and met us there, so KC Kendo was represented by a total of seven kendoka. Six of the seven of us were testing for higher ranks, and all of us were participating in the competition. I’ve been out of the dojo before, but this was my first major event. I was very excited to be able to compete, and very excited to be testing for my first rank.
I hadn’t gone to sleep the night before and couldn’t really sleep in the van, so I was crazy tired by the time we got there. This picture of my weekend room-mate illustrates pretty well how everyone felt upon checking in at the Courtyard Marriot, our base of operations for the event. But there was still a lot to do, so we set out for some dinner. One of our members nearly got run over in a cross walk on the way to that dinner, but other than that Chicago was good to us. I stayed up even later making sure my uniform was clean and my shinai were shaved and oiled.
The tournament started pretty early, so we had the alarms set for just before 0600hrs. Somehow or another I woke up before even 0500, and laid in bed staring at the ceiling until the alarm went off. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and was doing my best not to be stressed out and nervous. I have to admit that school had so pre-occupied my mind these last few weeks that I hadn’t had much time to prepare or worry about this event, which turned out to be a blessing later on. Showing up and seeing the place, and all the other kendoka there, would have been much more intimidating had I not known several of them on account of my two trips to Saint Louis. Getting out of the dojo is important.
And this is the dojo the tournament was held in, photographed before the doors were open to us. This is a community center in one of the suburbs of Chicago, and a decent facility. Later on, when it was brimming with kendoka tired and excited after a day of competition, I saw two locals standing at the door holding a basketball staring at the chaos in amazement.
I didn’t get out of the first round in the individuals competition. A fellow from the Grand Rapids Kendo Club knocked me out with a men and a kote. Receiving the first strike was a shock to me. Not because I didn’t expect to get hit or thought I was too good to, but because until then I just wasn’t in the right state of mind. I wasn’t “in the moment”, the whole situation being so new to me. I woke up at that point and started to do better kendo, and managed to pull off a kote strike. I was concentrating pretty hard at that point, maybe too hard, and didn’t even realize when he scored the second point on me and ended the match. Apparently he hit me on the kote, though I remember his kiai but not the actual hit. Adrenaline is like that. Afterward I was pretty jazzed about having scored my first official point in taikai.
After lunch there was a team competition. There are five kendoka to a team, and our club brought seven members, so two of us had to report to the front table for the forming of ad hoc teams. My other club mate filled a spot on the Detroit c-side, while I formed a team with a kendoka from Saint Louis. Our team eventually came to be known as the Michagan State University b-side, though only our taisho was from MSU. I was the second fighter for our team, and we drew Bloomington K.C. for the first round. I was much more relaxed, more in a “budo state of mind”, and really felt at home on the court for this match. I scored the first point with a strike to the kote, and was a bit beside myself. I kept at it hard, not playing defense, and though I made contact several more times, apparently none of them were good enough for a point. We were well matched, and I can confidently say this was my favorite part of the day, it being a hard fought bout. I gave up a shomen strike and our very physical match ended in a tie, and even though I didn’t win I was completely over the moon with how much I enjoyed it. Our team ended up losing and not moving on to the next round, but after when we came together to shake hands with the other team my opponent pulled me in for a hug. I talked with him later, and he expressed much the same feeling about the match as I did.
After the tournament we all piled back into the van and headed back to the hotel. A quick shower later myself and two of my club-mates drove out to find some decent food. After all that hard work I wasn’t willing to put anything less than a steak into my body. We woke up the next morning and drove out to the grade examinations, which were held at the same park but in a different, smaller facility. I hadn’t really practiced my kata more than fifteen minutes in the last two months or so, so I was kind of concerned about the test. Two of us were testing for ikkyu, while everyone else testing was going for a dan grade. It was good that there were two of us going for the same rank, because the different levels were divided up and I would have been all alone for the whole test otherwise. It helped me to mentally prepare and be calm to have a friend with me. The fellow from Bloomington I had faced the previous day during the team competition was testing for ikkyu as well, and numbered next to me, so that was kind of cool too. My testing number was thirteen, and the day before I had purchased a new tenugui with thirteen different buddhas on it. I thought this was auspicious and wore it for the test. During the competition I focused on the fury of Odin, but during the exam I meditated on the Buddha and tried for a zen approach rather than wod. There were about twenty-three people going for ikkyu, with varying levels of confidence and ability demonstrated. The testing was over before I knew it, and I can’t really say much about it other than that. It was all a blur, and at the end the judges called us to the table and we got a lecture on how much practice it was obvious we needed. I was sure that there would be mass failings based on that stern talking to, but when I was standing out in the lobby afterward an official taped up the results, and my number, and those of the two people I knew, were up there. Only a couple people didn’t pass, though I don’t know the exact number. I was well excited, and still am, to finally have a rank.
The weekend was exhausting. The tension and the pressure was a lot more exhausting than the fighting, by any stretch. It was with a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that we piled back into the van for the long drive home. The ride home was jovial, an extended bonding session. We listened to each other’s iPods and exchanged jokes, and had fun all the way back to Kansas City. The whole event has recharged my love of kendo, and made me feel even better about my club. It was, however, with great relief when I walked in my own front door. Weekends like this one are fun, but an awful lot of hard work. I look forward to both the next thing we do as a club, as well as the next big event where I get to mix with other kendoka from outside my home dojo. I hope that I made some friends and will see friendly, familiar faces the next time I venture forth. I’m sure I will.
And something I feel should be mentioned is how much I owe my sensei. I’ve been known to tease him a little, and grouse about some of the training we do, but I have a great deal of respect for the man. I’ve made great effort in the past year with my kendo, but it would have been directionless and most probably pointless if he were not there as a solid leader and teacher. He continued to demonstrate his worth as a teacher during the tournament, taking responsibility for his students the whole time. I wasn’t really nervous so much about fighting and winning, or even passing the entire grade examination, as I was about not being in the right place at the right time or doing something stupid or rude. When it was my turn to go up during the individual competitions he stood with me and made sure that the officials knew where I was and that I got what I needed. He provided me with encouragement the whole time, and consolation and even more encouragement when I came off the court with a loss. Before the team competition he made sure I knew what to do and where to go to get on an ad hoc team, too. He checked everyone in for the competition and testing, made sure we got our bento lunches from the organizers and provided advice before testing. And during the testing I never had to think about what I was doing, because I’ve had months of disciplined drills from him. There have been times when I have become angry and frustrated during his practice sessions, but it is because of them that I was able to put my mind on cruise control and let my body do all the kendo I needed with confidence. That is no small thing, and the rank I earned this weekend is a direct result of not just my efforts, but my sensei’s efforts as well.
More pictures of the event can be found here.