Last Sunday, I actively participated in a regional Kendo tournament. It was my first Kendo tournament since I started ‘the way of the sword’ back in October and it was a steep learning curve in many ways. Here’s how it panned out:
I woke up at 7am and swiftly got ready. I waited for Mr Kim and his son, Blare, to pick me up in the parking lot outside my apartment block. Scenes of glorious victory were wafting through my mind as I practised a few strokes.
We got to the place itself at about 8.30, customarily early. It was a beautiful sunny day: the weather in Korea at the moment is approaching a tipping point, where the previously very hot and dry days turn into hideously hot and humid days. I am currently dreading that point, as it is already preeeeetty hot.
As in the previous tournament that I had attended, The Master had brought several disciples: 3 young padawans (2 boys and a girl), Mr Kim, Blare, Mr Che (a new and experienced addition to the club, a 2nd Dan) and myself. There was also an entourage of parents; and in Mr Che’s case, a wife.
The venue was much like the previous one – a large sports hall, converted for kendo purposes. The hall had been divided into 4 sections, each section set out for kendo battles. This basically means that white tape had been laid down to mark out the ‘ring’. There was also a large banner adorning the front of the hall, and tables laid out for judges and kendoists of repute.
I noticed several familiar faces: Kim, who had come to teach us earlier in the year was there, as was the smoking buddhist (who was wearing a ridiculous hat and looked as though he had been fishing). Also in attendance was the supreme master of the area, who I trained with a couple of months ago. He is a highly genial man, with a demeanour that suggests peace and wisdom: although I was comprehensively slapped about by this genial man when I trained with him. His own disciples (who were equally adept in slapping me about) were also there.
The first thing we had to do was find out when we were all competing, and in what category. The padawans were on first and were duly prepared by their parents and the Master, who by this point had donned the official red tie that belongs to those who judge the kendo matches and award the points. Mr Kim was in the 40-55 year old category and would be competing later. Mr Che was in the 30-40 year old category and would also be competing later. I was in the 20-30 category and would also be competing later. Here is what my draw looked like:
At the point when I recognised my name, a young-ish lad nearby said “Daniel?” I turned around to him and said “Ne”, which means yes. He couldn’t speak any English, but he was essentially telling me that I was his first-round opponent. He was about 2 inches shorter than me and looked in good shape: his hair was quite sensible. We shook hands and his handshake was limp; but that didn’t mean anything, as handshakes in Korea tend to be limper than the stern British equivalent.
From this point on I was permanently scanning the room to see what he was doing, and to see how good he might be. From a very early point on I could see that he was good. His movements were graceful, deliberate and as they ought to be. I began to entertain the idea that my superior reach and height (which The Master had been bigging up in the week before the tournament) might not be the secret weapon that I had hoped it would be when faced with an opponent of his skill.
At THIS point Mr Kim informed me that the categories were solely organised by age: that is to say, someone who has been practising since, say, October last year, could be pitted against someone that has been practising since they could stand, as long as they were the same age. Mr Kim found this amusing, and I shared in his amusement, but I also began to feel less confident than I had done at 7.45am when I was waving a stick around in a car-park.
So I chewed all this pre-fight information over and settled down to watch some of the action that was going on around me. Here is a video of two young pups slugging it out, as judged by The Master (the judge to the left of the screen):
As the morning ebbed away, I began to grow more impatient at not knowing when I would be competing. All three padawans had succeeded and would compete again after lunch. Mr Che had, disconcertingly, been eliminated already. This was disconcerting because Mr Che is about 5 times better than I am at kendo. Lunch loomed large and the hall as a whole took a breather.
We went outside and sat in a circle on the pavement. The parents had brought assorted foods, as had Mr Kim, and we sat and shared it all out. Someone offered me a donut right off the bat, as obviously that was the only thing amongst all that Korean nosh that could possibly appeal to my delicate English palate. I ate it politely and continued to eat the other stuff anyway, which was almost all more delicious than the sorry donut.
I was feeling pretty annoyed at this point. I hadn’t really wanted to be eating so soon before a competition, and I was feeling tired anyway (recent increase in social activity/boozing has resulted in Sundays being a fairly flat sort of day for me). The time was approaching for me to fight, and I warmed up after the lunch, feeling tenser and tenser.
I was sitting down in the hall, wondering when I might be competing, when Mr Che came over to me and in virtually no English, indicated that I was on NOW. I hastily got my stuff together and legged it over with him to the corner of the room where I would be fighting. At this point it was a full on panic: I was convinced that I was actually late and that everyone was waiting for me. Someone calmed Mr Che down and told him that I had time to get ready. This ‘time’ turned out to be about 30 seconds. Mr Che basically grabbed me and pushed me through a crowd of people. By this point, I had my helmet on, and my peripheral vision, and 20% of my ability to hear things, had gone. It was all very disconcerting.
Mr Che pushed me to the front, where I was waiting for the previous match to finish. It finished. I stepped up to the plate and faced my nemesis.
We got underway. I can’t really remember much of what happened exactly. He was very fast. I ploughed forward doggedly, but his ability to evade anything that I threw at him was apparent. When we did clash, we clashed in a hearty manner, like 2 pints of beer at a wedding. At some moment, he won the first point. I don’t really know how: I think he possibly hit me on the wrist. This meant that he needed one more point to win the match, and eliminate me. Kendo, when practised competitively, is a best of three sport: cruelly short some might say.
Here’s what happened. There is no video of the first point, which is perhaps not a bad thing, because I’m fairly sure this, the second point, went better for me:
So, he totally won: I’m the one with the white ribbon on my back, he’s got the blue ribbon, so when those blue flags go up, that’s a point to him. When I look at this video, I don’t feel too bad about it really. He was very good and very fast – his winning strike was well struck and he basically deserved it. His footwork was far better than mine and that’s pretty much the main thing that I think I need to work on. My goal of trying to hit him on the head and making sure that I went for that in an unequivocal manner was achieved – I just couldn’t actually hit him, but in terms of my own technique, I was going about things correctly; just not quickly enough.
It was pretty disappointing, but I got over that fairly quickly: Mr Kim had lost too, and although Blare managed a maiden tournament victory (after 4 previous attempts), he too was eliminated in the next round. The girl padawan managed to win her entire category and although this was largely due to the fact that there were only three competitors, it was still something to celebrate.
We received a cool Kendo t-shirt for our troubles (something I had wanted for a while) and we also received a foldable, portable, foam seat – so it wasn’t all a waste of time. There was time for one more ceremonial picture of the gang of losers, and then we packed it in and went home. I have another tournament next month: I will be playing the theme from Rocky on repeat in preparation until then.