Monday, March 17, 2008

Benjamin's experience with first dojo in Japan


I've been in Japan for a few days now, and have gotten settled in well enough. It always takes some time to get accustomed to a different culture. My girlfriend helped me make up a list of possible dojos to visit in the hope that I can do kendo at one of them for the next 6 months. Today we went to the first one on the list, and the experience dramatically changed my view of kendo.

When we arrived we were welcomed by the sensei (we called before we went there) and he talked to us about the dojo. This was when we learnt that they did not practice the modern form of kendo, but the old, pre-war kendo. I believe it is called Itto-ryu. Well, I thought it would be interesting. The sensei emphasised that they practice for "real combat" in the sense that they could pick up a real katana and win. I thought this was interesting because just minutes before that he said they do not hold competitions. He also pointed out that they use shorter shinai than mine (39), because it represents a real katana... I don't know if I believe this, because I'm sure I can get a katana that's almost as long as my shinai....

We started with warm up. They all counted together, and I thought it was really fast. I think they spent about half the time we do on warm up. Then they started practice (I don't know how to spell in Japanese, jogeburi? so I'll just use the English terms). This too, I thought, was
really fast. They did a few, like 5, footwork movements, then a few men cuts, then kote, and then footwork again. The funny thing was that they did a lot of zuki cuts, even the really young children.

Then we all lined up for kirikashi. They do side men cuts for as long as they can, and not the nine that we do. Here is where it got really strange. I did it as best I could, keeping in mind all the points that Marleen and Sam emphasised in class. But watching the others I noticed that they do everything the opposite. They have feet not parallel, they kick their front foot out before they strike down (sort of like leaping at the opponent from far away), they step over their right foot with their left foot (really far too), and they extended both arms fully when they cut (both straight). I did them how I was taught, and they said I did many of the things wrong. I just nodded and said "hai", but was thinking this was all a bit weird.

Then they started free sparring. I respectfully declined to join in, and got to watch everything. One thing I can say is that they have intense fighting spirit, I mean, they just threw themselves on the opponents (I have some videos here which I will upload later). They threw each other on the ground, and pushed each other into corners, and just did not give up. And the zuki cuts were really frightening, like running at each other and thrusting their shinai at each others throats (often going underneath the men). They just kept on hitting each other.

I did some kata with them too, but I didn't know any of them (they have 100 kata!!!) They did stamping in the kata, and no kiai. They also hit their bokken really hard.

In the end some of the people came and talked to me for a bit. They all seemed really proud of their type of kendo, and were trying to tell me how normal kendo is just a sport, and it's not real. I didn't say anything, but I wonder how Inoue sensei (or any high grade kendoka) would feel if they were told that after devoting their entire lives to kendo that it was "only a sport".

They said that in their school they treat the shinai as if they were real swords, and that practice is like real combat. Again I didn't say anything (just nodding) but here are some points: they leant their shinai against the wall with the tip down, so if they were real katana they would become dull and the tip might break, they also stepped over their shina, and swung them round a lot, so I did not see much of this "real sword" thing they were talking about. Also: if there were a real fight, what use would it be to be able to constantly attack an opponent again and again (while receiving blows again and again) without any real skill? You'd be dead. I much prefer the ideal in kendo where every cut must be perfect, and the aim is to strike perfectly, and not see who can hit the other person more or harder.

Someone said that in normal kendo they don't treat shinai like real katana, and this time I said that my senseis in New Zealand always emphasised to do this, and that the Japanese kendo sensei I had met through the club had also emphasised this. I don't think they believed me though.

They also said that in their school they move backward after sankou, and that in normal kendo we move forward to attack. They thought it was funny because apparently if it was a real fight people would not want to go forward to attack. I pointed out that that is precisely the aim of kendo, to teach us to attack forward and straight, without hesitation or fear, and that we learn this by doing it constantly, and that this attitude is what would win a fight (and was a samurai ideal). I don't think they cared much though.

After we left my girlfriend (who had been watching) said that they seemed almost like a cult, and that they really seemed to hate normal kendo, and love themselves. I'd have to agree.

So, even though there were many good points about the club (it was very beautiful), the experience made me respect normal kendo even more, and made me appreciate even more all the teaching that Marleen and Sam (and sempais) have done.

I won't be going back to that dojo in a hurry haha. Let's hope the next dojo on the list is a bit more "normal".

Anyway, I'm sorry about writing so much >.>

I'll let you know what happens in the next dojo I go to (in less words I hope).

There are some photos attached too.

See ya

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