Reflections on the Dan Shinsa and HK Taikai
Things were starting to look awry while I sat in the airplane bound for Hong Kong for two long hours, wherein people were fanning themselves in the heat because air-conditioning was not working, and so iced water were being distributed by the flight attendants because some engineering problem was being repaired.
Yes, over the previous weekend I was in Hong Kong to participate in the 16th Hong Kong Kendo Championships for the very first time. This is my second shiai (Vietnam being my first), and also my very first kendo exam. Prior to this, I am no kyu or dan–holder.
When the HK Taikai organizers released the application forms for the Taikai sometime late last year, I was contacted by the manager of Arena IGA Kendo Club, who notified me about it and inquired if Cambodia is sending a team, which unfortunately, after all these years, is still a resounding ‘NO.’ Since I am the only member from my club interested to take the exam, the aforementioned club and I made arrangements that I go with them as part of their delegation instead. This means I compete in the shiai for the Philippine team.
After finalizing arrangements and awaiting for D–day, it finally came just as swiftly and sure enough, just when I thought all was going well, I find myself stuck in the plane taxied at the Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport in HCMC, Vietnam for 2 heatstroke–causing hours.
Thankfully, nothing serious seems to be the matter with plane and so we flew smoothly to Hong Kong all 2 or so long hours, which I spent by watching “The Martian” in their in–flight entertainment there. But right before we landed, a nice lady seated on my left (a Hong Kong national) noticed my attire and remarked, “Don’t you have a jacket? It’s 14 degrees outside!”
I was flabbergasted!!! It’s cold in Hong Kong??? BUT WHYYYY??? (…Like there is ever a reason for that. It just is).
I arrived in Hong Kong –– body shocked from the cold embrace of the after–midnight Hong Kong air –– sometime around 1 A.M., and that presented a problem for me because the money changers were already closed at this hour and –– embarrassingly enough –– I had not enough cash in my Visa Debit account, so I couldn’t withdraw anything from the ATMs and all I had were US dollars, which the cab would most likely refuse as payment. So I was trying to brainstorm for solutions as calmly as I could while I awaited the arrival of my baggage. But lo and behold! –– as if God had heard my pleading cries within –– a bright ray of light shone forth from one quiet money changer booth still open at that hour just right outside the airport, right after you exit the customs/declaration checkpoint.
I exchanged currencies in gratefulness to the One above, and then went off to hail myself a cab –– the green one, which I was told was cheaper –– while fighting the freezing cold which had begun to numb my poor, unprotected toes. Thankfully, I had on a long–sleeved shirt, a shawl, jeans, and and – stupidly enough – sandals. My goodness, it was so cold! I brought no socks, or shoes, or jacket, or any other warm clothing except my keiko–gi. …and I had 2 more days to live through in Hong Kong.
“I am so screwed,” I thought.
THE EXAM DAY
I reached my hotel sometime after 2 A.M. …of the exam day!
Already, things were starting to look pretty bad for me. I had to get myself freshened up and settled in my room before finally getting some much–needed rest. That includes asking for a power adapter for my phone charger and keeping myself desperately warm because the room’s heater wasn’t working at all and I was freezing to death on my bed, even though the ventilation/air–conditioner was switched off. Worse, I only have less than 4 hours of sleep time –– breakfast was at 7 AM!!
After trying unsuccessfully to steal a bit more of sleep right after breakfast, I gave up trying and got myself ready and groggily headed down to the hotel lobby to meet the IGA Kendo Club delegation. It was really an awkward thing… to become part of a group that is not really your own group, but they were a very nice and fun bunch.
Anyway, we all went to the venue together and immediately, I felt the cold air cling upon me as I stepped out of the hotel’s doors. It was the kind of clinging you couldn’t shake off, obviously. My feet were so cold, I thought I could no longer feel them. We took about a 7 to 10–minute walk to the venue in our kendo–gi and with our equipment.
THE SHINSA (Exam)
We were advised that as soon as we enter the door, we should observe proper reiho. I kept this to heart. We were then advised to get geared–up for warm–ups, and I had the pleasure of doing some warm–ups with a 16–year–old shodan candidate, who managed to knock me down during our men–uchi practice with his very straight, bulldozer–like zanshin. I was okay, but my leg and knee were bruised from the fall (I later on found out). Thankfully, it was too cold for me to feel it so it was not a problem at that time. Anyway, he passed shodan.
After that, we began the registration process, handing over our zekkens along with our exam answers, and putting on a numbered zekken on our tare. We all then lined up and awaited our turn for the tachiai . The tachiai is a 45–second demonstration of our kendo, which we have to do twice with different partners. What many candidates do is just hit ‘ai–men,’ but what happened to me was different.
The lady seated behind me is a Chinese national named Wang from Beijing. When we saw how messy the tachiai was of the first candidate, I whispered to her if we could do just ‘ai–men‘ together. She agreed and expressed her anxiety over a similar tachiai performance. But when it was finally our turn to do it, I was shocked that she didn’t comply. She went for my kote, so I hit her men quickly and deliciously. She tried to hit my dou, and I just hit men anyway, going straight through for zanshin.
At the back of my mind, I was partially glad I did not just hit ‘ai–men’ only in both my tachiais, because the contrast between the tachiais is that it demonstrated the following:
A) That I am capable of hitting a tall person’s men and hit it first before I got hit myself (my 1st tachiai), and…
B) I can also hit nice, big, straight men still even if my partner was doing other cuts (2nd tachiai). Furthermore, Ms. Wang was a really good kenshi at the level we were trying for. Our tachiai, in my opinion, did not look at all crazy or messy like the others. We both seme’d a lot before hitting (which allowed me to steal some moments to catch my breath. I think she knew about it well enough) and I think there was a level of aiki between us.
I thought my demonstration went quite well, although I was not at all certain how well the judges deemed my performance. That itself was very anxiety–causing!
Finally, they released the results of the first stage of the exam. They wrote down the numbers of those who passed on a white board. My number –– 134 –– was listed there.
I then approached the Ms. Wang afterwards and asked her:
“I thought we were just going to do men. What happened?”
“I don’t know≈!!” she answered in a cute voice expressing perplexity.
Nerves. She caught the shinsa nerves.
My partner and I then got ready to practice the first 3 parts of the Nippon Kata, which is the next and final stage of the exam. Now what’s nerve–racking about this part of the exam is that –– personally –– how I was taught to do kata was very different from everybody else’s kata. Everyone’s kata, in my observation, was very mechanical. It was robotic and lacked that murderous feeling Y–sensei always demonstrates (and had nearly done my thumb and index finger away with); as if they were just going through the motions and displayed no awareness of the significance and meaning of each movements. This was heavily evident on my partner, who –– with me as uchidachi (the teacher) –– didn’t know how to wait for cues and has the habit of getting ahead, which is not okay because I should be the one setting the pace, not the other way around. In J–sensei’s words, “That’s suicide for shichidachi (the student).”
Anyway, that’s exactly how our tachiai went: I was assigned uchidachi, while my partner was shidachi. I was rather pleased, because I’ve been practicing uchidachi only for nearly 4 straight months for a dojomate’s sake. I can tell my partner was doing her best – I acknowledge that – but I wish she knew she should follow the uchidachi’s pace, because she was erroneously initiating the movements when that’s supposed to be my job and hers to follow me. Anyway, I did my best not to make that error too obvious to the judges by making our movements as synchronized as possible. We were, after all, partners and I want both of us to pass. …but with that rather difficult challenge set before me, I started to get really nervous!!!
Did the judges notice? I wondered. I hope this doesn’t cost me.
Sitting in seiza, without any lunch, for what seems like an eternity of torture, I could no longer figure out how to sit comfortably. Seated Japanese style, my back ached; seated cross–legged, my repeating leg pains returned. I sat Khmer style, but it made me feel like I’m developing sclerosis. Sitting in seiza while awaiting exam results is like brewing in a witch’s cauldron and dying a slow, painful death.
At last, after a long lecture from the head judge –– Kato–sensei (H8–dan) –– about how kata should have kimochi (feelings) and how there should be a kobo–ichi (the unity of attack and defense) in our kendo, the results were listed on the white board:
I am now shodan!
THE TAIKAI (Tournament)
As if a tsunami of relief finally washed over me, I felt free of the shackling weight of worries the dan shinsa had loaded on me these past several months, and I finally slept soundly. I woke up around 5 AM the next day to get ready for our 6:30 AM breakfast. By 7:15 AM, we should already be at the venue for asa–geiko (morning practice). I usually don’t have breakfast this close to practice hour, but we had no choice. We need the energy we can get from food and start warm–ups immediately for the 3–women team tournament. The tournament began sometime after 9 AM, I think.
By this time, my recurring leg pains returned. I got very nervous again. I hope I don’t tear a tendon or something during shiai, I thought. I limped quietly across courts hoping the pain would eventually go away. But truth be told, it no longer mattered to me how our shiai will go. I am shodan!! I passed!! The most difficult part of being in Hong Kong was finally over!!! Whatever the results of the shiai may be was nothing compared to the psychological torment the dan shinsa brought.
Our first match was up against Thailand Kendo Club (or the national team of Thailand). I played chuken (middle player) against one of the twin players. I noticed this player kept smiling in embarrassment through her mengane and I could not understand why, but she can’t seem to keep a straight face. Anyway, we tied (the player and I, and the team as well)! I was so surprised and happy about it! I wasn’t all expecting to score an ippon, least of all against Thailand’s national team player, so scoring a tie with them was just beyond my expectations.
For our second match, we lost. The national team of Indonesia slayed us… way too quickly, in the case of my match (although they lost to Thailand, haha!).
Watching my matches on video later with IGA Kendo Club, I was completely taken aback by how my kendo had once again been transformed. It looks so different now and my mouth hung open in disbelief. I did, however, stepped back a lot (as pointed out to me previously earlier that day) and I see it now. But my stepping back wasn’t out of fear at all, but was my way of enticing my opponent to enter within my hitting range, while frustrating her attempts to get into her range (a challenge set before me by Y–sensei, although I haven’t truly figured out yet how to do exactly that). Unfortunately, the video showed that I overdid the stepping back a bit too much. No, waaaay too much!!! I’ll have to figure out how to maintain my distance or develop a sense of timing for when they’re within my reach. Study, study, study some more!
As for my match against Indonesia, I knew why I lost quickly: my mind was disturbed. I was disturbed by someone’s advice to step in some more and avoid stepping back. Although what that person said was true, but J–sensei later on told me that that’s the whole downside about dispensing advice to people during shiai. He remarked that it would be best if people just left people alone and let them do what they do best, especially since I did pretty well against my first match for my part. Would I have done equally well or perhaps even better if that advice wasn’t given to me? Oh well, what’s done’s been done. I’ve learned my lesson: stick to what I know and what I do best.
[For the record, I don’t make a habit of stepping back during jigeiko, it’s a no–no for me. But this was a shiai, and a little part of me wanted to win through timing and maai (distance), and that was exactly what I was going for.]
I was told that this year’s taikai (and the previous year) had become a lot stricter. First of all, we have a new FIK representative overseeing the event (Kato–sensei), who deemed everyone’s kata as no–good and had a long lecture and demonstration about it.
Second, the exam this year is a lot more difficult! There were only 2 people who passed 4–dan this year and a whopping 0 (zero) for 5–dan. My Spanish friend amusingly remarked, “That is bullshit! That’s worse than the passing rate for hachi–dan (8–dan)!”
Third, the shinpans were very sparing about dispensing ippons, especially for kote strikes. I was told that before, ippons were given easily. Well, not this year, my friend. Not anymore.
Fourth, not only was Hong Kong effin’ cold (the coldest winter they had, a local informs me), it is also flippin’ expensive there, man! Even Wi–Fi isn’t free! In the words of my Spanish friend, “This is bullshit! No [free] Wi–fi????”
Anyway, I was just happy to meet all my friends there from Vietnam, especially those whom I’ve met initially on Instagram hailing from Spain, Shanghai, and Indonesia. I finally met them in person and I was thrilled about it, at the same time bummed out about missing the chance to meet other people from Instagram whom I didn’t know were there too.
I hope I get a chance to meet them again soon. After this special experience in Hong Kong, I am now considering taking my next dan exam in another country. That way, I get to travel and meet my friends and make new ones as well.