As a former distance runner in high school and university, I have always been more than ready to sweat like a pig from rigorous exercise. But running wasn’t just an exercise of the body but also of the mind as it was always a great way to deal with stress – that was, until I came to Japan.
Living in central Tokyo, it was always dangerous trying to run as I was forced to dodge cars, cyclists and pedestrians. I would get my workout, but I’d be even more stressed than when I started my run. Having married my wife, a trained psychologist who I’d met in university in the United States, she could see that I needed some form of exercise to deal with the stress of everyday life. She then recommended, one day out of the blue, that I try kendo.
Having seen it on TV in Japan, I was a little familiar with it, but didn’t really have an opinion one way or the other about it. So, with an open mind, I called the local city hall and was sent an information pack with a list of dojos and contact info. After calling around, I decided to go and watch a practice. My wife accompanied me and what I saw resonated deeply in me. The teacher was easily in his 70s and there was a small group of 5-year-olds all new to kendo. He was teaching them the very basics: how to bow, to use a loud voice at all times when saying their greetings in Japanese, how to carry the "shinai" in a proper manner, etc.
As I had already been in Japan for six years, my Japanese was good enough to follow what was being said. And it was love at first sight! And yet not for any reason you may have in mind. I loved the fact that he was sincerely teaching the children. He was showing them that the "shinai" is to be treated as a katana would be and thus you need to carry it respectfully and hold it a certain way. He wasn’t just ordering the kids to do what he told them to do; he was also telling them why.
It was great and to this day I still consider Tsukamoto-sensei, who was teaching the 5-year-olds, a role model for me as I have now started teaching kendo. After they finished the one-hour lesson, I introduced myself and everyone was relieved that my Japanese was quite good, but I now know it wouldn’t have mattered. In the 14 years I have been practicing kendo, I have seen non-Japanese from all walks of life and all parts of the world take a stab at kendo (sorry for the pun) and regardless of language stills, teachers in Japan still do their best to teach.
Anyway, after the introductions, I said that I loved what I saw and Tsukamoto-sensei said the next practice would be the following Saturday and I was more than welcome to join the dojo. So I showed up the following Saturday and joined the kids in learning the basics of kendo. Being 187 centimeters tall and 27 years old at the time, joining the ranks of preschoolers may have been embarrassing for some, but I didn’t care one whit. With three little boys to my right and two little girls to my left, I am sure it was quite a sight to parents and anyone entering the dojo. I also learned that doing "seiza" was not as easy at it first looked – even with my flexibility from all the stretching I had done for years as a runner! There were a few sniggers at first, but I didn’t mind and always did my best. The following week I was measured for my hakama and gi and the week after that I was taught how to put them on properly.
Speaking of “properly,” that is a word that I just personally like and that may explain some of the attraction I have to kendo. It is also most likely why my wife recommended the art to me in the first place – she knows me very well, indeed! While kendo is a great way to exercise the body, it is also a great way to exercise the mind. But to do both, there is a proper way to do everything. While some may find that constricting, I like the order and the focus on limiting distractions or wasted movement. Kendo at its best is surprisingly simplistic – and yet it isn’t. Know what I mean? Probably not, but that is fine.
In short, I thought I would share my experience of taking up the martial art of kendo with the readership of JapanToday to possibly inspire others to follow in my footsteps. If you are looking for a “road” to follow, I think you could do a lot worse than take up a martial art. For me, I am still on the straight and narrow, and every once in a while, my teachers and I reminisce about my start way back when. And everyone says they are impressed that I am still at it. Of course, that is puzzling to me as these are men and women who have been practicing kendo for 40, 50, even 60 plus years. After 14 years, I am still a novice and I like that I still have a long way to go and still much to learn. For me, I have found a great way to exercise both my body and mind and of course the cold beer after practice never tasted better!
In the future, I hope to share more of what I have learned about life in Japan from a kendo practitioner’s point of view.© Japan Today