I've just got back from my first Kendo session in a few weeks, as I've been pretty knackered lately, and since the Beginner's course finished a few weeks ago, I only really wanted to go again when I had my own set of armour. I'm glad I decided to get off my arse and go tonight, because I really had a great time, even if I did come home absolutely exhausted and covered in blue dye which leached off my gi, because I'd sweat so much.
We did most of the two hour session in armour, making me feel much better that I finally had my own set to wear, but crikey, does it get toasty in there. After half an hour in armour, things get a little claustrophobic and a smidgen too warm for comfort. After an hour and a half, especially when you've been doing ji-geiko (freeform sparring) for 45 minutes, you've lost any sense of coordination and you're struggling to remember how you move your arms and legs. It's doubly disorienting, because you've completely lost all peripheral vision, and I had the sense that I was flailing about like a badly programmed war robot. At the end of the session I was utterly wasted and I reckon I've probably lost a kilo in sweat alone. If nothing else, it's certainly great exercise.
Thankfully, I'm not the only survivor from the beginner's course - five out of the fifteen or so of us that started the course back in March are still coming regularly - so at least I wasn't alone in looking like a numpty in front of our 6th Dan sensei (and also the 7th Dan "guest" sensei who also comes to our dojo). It's quite amazing what a huge difference wearing armour makes to your technique. Suddenly things that seemed natural in the non-contact practice sessions become a dozen times harder when you've got all the gear on. It's not that it limits your mobility as such, more that because you can't see what you're doing quite as easily, your coordination goes to hell. You forget which order you have to move your hands and feet in when making a cut, and rather than making a proper cut, flexing your wrists, you're bludgeoning instead, which is not only crude and poor technique, but it's SLOW. And being slow is bad, because if you ever want to score points in a competition, you've got to be as fast as a mongoose.
It's going to be months yet before I learn how to keep a proper form when making a cut in armour, while making it fast. At the moment I'm at the two extremes: either my cuts are way too big (moving my hands back too far behind my head) or too small (that is, not following the proper motion the shinai should be making and just striking as fast as possible). Being honest, I don't think I'll ever make competition standard. Not unless I suddenly have one of those "But... it's so simple!" moments where you're struck by a ray of sunlight and everything starts making sense, anyway.
Fortunately, the other people in the club are universally brilliant for giving you tips and advice about improving your technique, while not completely getting on your case and shouting at you about it. I think a lot of it is definitely repetition and practice. There's no comparison to anything else that I've done which requires quick speed of thought to Kendo. I might be able to nail quarter-second headshots with a sniper rifle in Unreal Tournament or Team Fortress 2, and make split-second management decisions in RTS games, but that doesn't build nearly the same kind of neural pathways required for a martial art. I simply haven't practiced enough, as I can see myself that opening for cuts a more experienced practitioner would go for in the blink of an eye pass me by before I've reacted to them and made the conscious decision to go for a strike. That's the problem, I think. At the moment, it's too deliberated and awkward. I'm not making natural, unconscious decisions about what I want to do with my hands, feet or which target I want to hit. By the time I've seen that I've been given a opening for men or kote and thought, 'okay, strike men, come in to distance... cut!' the chance has already gone and my wrist is aching because I've been hit on my kote.
So yeah, the learning curve is pretty steep. But still, at least we're using bamboo swords and not ones made out of carbon steel...