Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Nightmare Kake

A kake (kah-kay) is the glove you use on your right hand in Kyudo.

There are a few variations, according to the number of fingers go into the kake, but generally a three-fingered kake is used (thumb and first two fingers.)

Since I started I have been using one of the dojo's, which is standard for beginners. But, I was planning on buying one a few weeks back when I went to get the arrows and a kyudogi (white under garment and black hakama).

I met Sensei at the dojo and from there he drove me to the kyudo store about 45 minutes away in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had him as personal escort through this unfamiliar territory. During the drive I asked him may questions about kyudo; this art I was just starting and he had been practicing for decades.

Concerning the kake, he said it is a very important part of kyudo and can greatly affect one's shooting. If you have a good kake but are bad at using it, you can deform the kake and make your shooting worse. Also, as one can imagine, a badly fit kake can also be detrimental to your shooting. As with most equipment in kyudo, there is a wide range of prices and qualities. The cheapest kake can be around $150, but you can also get custom-made ones for about $1,500 to $2,000. After about ten years of experience, Sensei decided he was going to get one of the really nice custom made kakes. He got it and it was perfectly snug ... but that was exactly the problem. The perfect form of the kake was too tight for his shooting and was horrible for his technique. In kyudo one uses the kake to sense what is happening. The kake teaches you how to shoot in a lot of ways. With the new tight kake, he couldn't feel anything. Now it sits in his house like a cursed treasure.

After Sensei's custom-kake experiment, he traveled around Japan for years looking for the perfect kake. He worked for a company which often sent him on business trips around the country. When given the chance he would drop by a new kyudo store and look through the kakes. Eventually he found the perfect one in the store closest to his hometown of Takaoka, Toyama in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, the very store we went for me to get my own kake.

He tried on a kake and said, "This is it, I'll take this kake!"

"But Sensei, I'm embarrassed to sell you such a cheap kake."


The kake that fulfilled my Sensei's dreams was about as cheap as they get, around $150.

So we got to the kyudo store that day and I started trying on kakes. The kyudo store owner looked at my hand for a whole two seconds and brought out a few kakes. I tried one on and began to wrap it when Sensei said, "No, no, no, not like that." So I did it differently and Sensei said, "What are you doing? Like this..." So I said OK and did like he said.

I requested to try on a bigger one, which the store owner seemed surprised about, but Sensei said go ahead. I came all the way and am about to drop a lot of money on this equipment, I should at least be able to sample all of the wares.

I tried the next size up and both Sensei and the owner watched me wrap it with silent dissatisfaction.

What the hell was I doing wrong!?

Sensei asked me how it felt and I said it was too big and tried the first one on again. Sensei said he thought this one looked best and I said it felt weird. Some silence followed and then some grunting. Finally he said, "You suck at this. You shouldn't buy a kake today."

I was a bit disappointed, but something wasn't right. In the end I'm glad I didn't buy one of those kakes that day. The time will come when it does.

Sensei thought about the day's happenings and decided to give me one of his old kakes instead of having me return empty handed.

It certainly had a worn-in feeling to the soft parts, but the harder ones were harder than usual and restricting to certain movements. A kake isn't just one piece of material, but many different materials sown together in particular sections, each with their own qualities.

One thing Sensei warned me about the kake is that the string will slip out easier than the last kake I was using. This is a very serious issue that I didn't fully understand before using this kake.

In kyudo, the string is held by a very small notch in the kake. When you release, you are letting the string slip through that notch and fly forward. On this old kake of Sensei's, that notch is incredibly small, hence the easy release.

One you "knock" the arrow (attach it to the string), you turn the kake inwards so that you can feel contact with part of the string. As you raise the bow up, the back of your kake hand should be flat with the ceiling, all the way until your release. This contorts the string. I'm not sure to what purpose exactly, but it certainly puts additional pressure on the string.

Anyway, I don't remember exactly what the first few shots were like with the kake, but they couldn't have been too bad. Soon after though, I experienced my first premature release of the string with this kake. ... And I thought the string slapping your forearm was painful, just imagine that string hitting you just behind the ear or on the cheek instead. The shock might distract you from the pain, but only ice will keep the black welt from rising on the impact point. If you were lucky, it happened early and the arrow would just fly out early, which is definitely not a good thing in any aspect, except maybe that it hurt a lot less than when the string slips out when you're at your maximum pull of the string.

So this happened a few times, and I just hid the pain to see if the problem would fix itself after a few more tries. Sensei would watch and see, giving me corrections and advice. I basically understood what he said, but putting that into physical practice was something I couldn't do successfully at the time. He didn't seem shocked or have me stop using this new kake after the initial impacts, he wanted to see more just as I did.

There were some amazing effects from using the kake though. As I've mentioned before, what seems to be my greatest fault in shooting so far has been my tenouchi (left-hand grip on the bow). The flaws in my tenouchi resulted in the string slapping my forearm and of course, my arrow missing the target. For some reason, the problems concerning my tenouchi immediately fixed themselves upon donning the new kake. My arm wasn't getting slapped, and the bow was rotating much more than usual in my hand after the release, a sign of good shooting which takes a while to develop.

One other benefit to the kake was also responsible for it's negative qualities. As I mentioned before, one is supposed to turn the wrist so the top of one's hand is facing up. One must do this sufficiently, but not too much. With this kake, the string was slipping out of my grip because I wasn't turning my wrist enough. When I tried to fix it, I was slightly adjusting my wrist, but those intermittent slight movements also made the string slip. Then I tried again, turning my wrist as much as possible, but of course that made it slip while adding more uneccessary tension. It seemed no matter what I did, I couldn't keep the string from slipping out of this kake and slapping me in the face.

I then thought maybe there was a problem in the placement of my first two fingers on the thumb. Since the string was slipping out, I thought that I should place the fingers further up on my thumb, which put more uneccessary tension on both the string and my hand. This really made things worse for my shooting and my hand.

When I pulled the bow, I was putting an extreme amount of pressure on the string due to the that tension, and my shoulders flexed making me very top heavy and very uncomfortable. From the moment I would start drawing the bow, my mind was consumed with fear. Every milimeter I pulled the string I anticipated the vicious whip of the string. The fear on my face, the tension in my body, and the weakness in my draw; all effects of this nightmare kake. The fear kept me from drawing the bow as far as I should. Sensei told me I needed to draw it further, but I was too scared. Another Sensei who is always around came up to me and told me that I needed to relax, but I couldn't relax any further if I was to protect the shape of my form from letting the string pre-release.

The worst time I had with it was when I was aiming at the target while an older woman of a high rank was shooting behind me. I drew the bow almost to the full extent, and microseconds before I planned to release, the string sprung forward slapping my face and sending the arrow prematurely forward into the field not far in front of me. I dropped the bow in shock and the woman behind me shrieked. It was the most unpleasnat feeling followed by the most unpleasant sound. I looked at her and she had this speechless look of horror. Had she not noticed this happening to me before? In her long years of experience had she never seen this happen before? Had she never felt this pain before. The pain was less than some unexplainable disappointment I had in that woman at that moment. Sensei saw the whole thing completely unfazed. I appreciated this. In such a situation, the reassurance that everything is OK is paramount. In a look, Sensei told me everything was OK. The woman told me that something horrible had happened. I found some strange realization of budo in this moment.

I tried this kake for two days. Towards the very end, the Sensei who mentioned I should relax informed me that I need to place my first two fingers on the kake hand further down the thumb, releasing some of the excess tension in my shooting. Things instantly got a little better, but I was still terrified of completing a full draw, and the arrow still prematurely flew out far too often. Early that morning, Sensei saw me faltering and said, "Alright, you should go back to the old kake."

I was a little disappointed because I felt like I was just starting to get a hold on the new kake, but I was much more relieved that I wouldn't have to live with the fear of being slapped in the face while doing kyudo again.

When I returned to the old kake, it was very strange.

First, the fear generated by the last kake was so ingrained in me that whenever I pulled the bow, waves of terror filled my head and my body tensed as I expected to be slapped at any moment. I've never really felt this kind of fear before. Sensei assured me the string wouldn't slip out like that last kake. I knew he was right and told myself over and over again, but that fear was too strong. It wasn't for another two days with the safe kake that I finally could shoot without that fear again.

The other thing I realized was all the strange movements I was doing with my wrist on the kake hand. Thought I coudln't get it perfect on the last kake, the wrist piece was so stiff that it prevented me from making a lot of strange unecessary movements with my wrist. The kake I returned too was so loose that my hand was free to move however it wanted. When I pulled the bow, I could feel these mistakes, but physically being able to fix them is still something that escapes me. This is a big part of my focus now in shooting.

Also, all those tenouchi problems that fixed themself with the nightmare kake, returned with my old kake and the string was slapping my arm again; but that's nothing compared to the face, plus I wear a guard on my forearm to shield the pain. I have no idea why the kake affected that part of my shooting, but I'm aware of the problems in my tenouchi and I know how to fix them. Again, it's just putting it into physical action.

This seems to be a common thing, if not the life of a practitioner of kyudo: being able to see our mistakes cloud the ideal way of shooting, but not physically being able to put it into practice, and striving every day to bring the two together. It's a connection between body and mind. It's a focusing of our limited attention on the parts that matter. I'ts about having the spirit to maintain a positive attitude and the confidence that you will succeed. It's about having the discipline to go everyday, though some days you may not want to.

But above all, it's about having fun. Nobody has to do kyudo. We don't need kyudo in our lives. We do it because we want to. If you have this feeling of fun, then the rest will follow. If not, you are in some strange form of budo hell. I pity those people most of all.


  1. Getting hit behind the ear with the string is sheer agony.

  2. Very interesting!
    Arrows, kake, can we learn somthing on Kyudo's bows?

  3. Definitely! As you progress in kyudo it's normal to move on to stronger bows. Each time you advance, you get a whole new kyudo to work with. Fun/frustrating stuff :)