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The Way of the Sword: Getting Started with Kendo in Japan




People start kendo for many different reasons. Maybe they have an interest in Japanese history, a passion for martial arts, want to get in shape, or simply think it looks cool.


No reason is any more valid than another, but those who stick with it often develop an appreciation for kendo as a lifestyle. It becomes a way of thinking and living that embraces mental as well as physical challenges.


Yet while kendo is sure to push you to your limits, it is also an activity that you can expect to continue into your 60s, 70s, and beyond.



While I have only been doing kendo for a few years, those who have been doing it much longer than I say that their understanding of both the physical and mental aspects of kendo has continued to evolve and develop constantly.


The bad news is it never gets easy. The good news is it is never boring!



Finding a Dojo


If you have decided perhaps to give kendo a try, here is what you need to know.



First, you must find the right dojo for you. This may be a famous dojo with a lot of students, or maybe it is a smaller dojo with more individualized teaching and less pressure to compete. It depends completely on what you are looking for in a dojo.


As in picking a university program or a job, fit is everything. In Japan, there are kendo dojos on practically every street corner — though you might not always realize it.


To find a class, you can try searching online (though many dojo don’t have websites) or search for something nearby on Google Maps. You can also look on information boards at your local ward office or community center.


When I was getting started, I found the site kendojinko.com to be useful. You can search for dojos by prefecture and city. The site is mainly in Japanese, but it will tell you if the dojo in question will take foreign students or short-term exchange students.



Because kendo teachers often work as volunteers with little or no remuneration, some are reluctant to invest time in short-term students. However, others are happy to spread their love for kendo wherever they can. (If you are living in Japan long-term and have good Japanese, this will be less relevant, of course.)


Once you have found a dojo or two that you are interested in, try contacting them and ask if you can visit during practice for kengaku. This means you will come to practice and watch to see if you think it is the right fit.


When you are ready, ask how to join, how much the monthly fee is, and if there is a nyuukaikin (entrance fee).


The Language Barrier


“But what if I don’t speak Japanese?” you may be asking at this point.



To be honest, it helps — a lot — if you are proficient in Japanese. Most sensei do not speak English, but some will be willing to work with you even if you don’t speak Japanese.


If this is the case, try to learn some kendo terms before your first class (as well as basic Japanese like directions and counting to 10). You can also try to bring along a friend who speaks better Japanese.


The silver lining is that most kendo dojo around the world use the original Japanese terminology, meaning once you have done kendo in Japan, you can probably do it anywhere!


The First Class



In some ways, a kendo class resembles many other sports or martial arts classes. It generally starts with a warm-up, progresses to drills, and ends with practicing what you have learned in jigeiko (free practice).


In other ways, kendo is unique. In particular, kendo puts a great emphasis on the “correct” way of doing things, such as entering the dojo, putting on and taking off your uniform, and bowing.


This is all part of reihou — a code of respect for your sensei, yourself, your opponents, and your dojo. Indeed, reihou is so important in kendo that there is a common expression, “Kendo begins and ends with rei.”


There is a lot to remember, and your first class may feel slightly overwhelming.



Sometimes there may not be a chance to ask questions during class. Do your best to follow the example of your senpai and sensei. After class, you can ask your sensei for feedback. You can also always ask for tips from your senpai.


One of the best parts of my experience with kendo has been how generous my senpai and sensei have been with their willingness to share their experience and time.


In kendo there is a strong mentality of community and giving back. This is part of the reason why most kendo teachers work essentially as volunteers. I cannot count the number of times the kendo community has gone out of their way to help me in and out of the dojo.


The Kendo Journey


Kendo is not for everyone.



Above all, kendo demands constant reflection and revision. It requires you to face yourself, your weaknesses, and your fears with honesty and humility. At the same time, it helps you develop the mental and physical strength to overcome these challenges.


Kendo is more than a sport, or even a martial art. It is a commitment to improving yourself. It is also a community of like-minded people, eager to help you reach your potential.


And finally, it is, if you want it to be, a lifelong journey.






Author: Alexandra De Leon