Saturday, November 22, 2008


Whoever invented bogu / armor for kendo did something great. Back in the 1700s in Japan, people practiced kenjutsu – old style/ koryu which was done with wooden swords called bokuto or bokken. This was great, because practicing with live blades is nice and realistic and all, but one slip and you are injured or dead.
But practice with wooden swords can also result in injury and occasional death if gone at full force. So you sacrifice some realism to enhance safety, pull the blows just short of contact…but again, one slip and you have severe pain or injury.
There is a lot to be said for the realism which comes with such practice, though I have not experienced it first hand. Nope, in our relatively peaceful world, I welcome the trade-offs that come with increased safety. Using bamboo swords, for example, is a marked departure in shape (straight vs. curved), cutting style, and the awareness brought about by being in proximity of a live blade. Their use also allows us to practice kendo with virtually no fear of injury, meaning that we can lead work and family lives.
Back in the 1700s, people began to wear armor designed not for the battlefield but for the blows of bamboo swords called shinai. Hence the beginnings of kendo as we know it today. The number of areas to strike with the shinai is quite limited and it corresponds to those places where bogu is worn: the head (men), wrists (kote), side of torso (doh), and throat (the sole legitimate target for a thrust or tsuki).
While having bogu is a great thing – there is one great drawback.

The smell. The armor is not washable. Nor does it dry quickly when soaked with sweat, especially in the humid summers of Japan. Let’s see…practice a couple or few times a week for just a year and the accumulated sweat stink is abominable. It comes with the practice and you get used to it, though those around you cannot be expected to do the same.
Anyhow, I bought a new pair of kote the week before last week’s kendo grading. My prior best pair was getting a bit frayed along one edge and I didn’t want to risk being failed due to the external appearance of my equipment (which is a very real fear). Also, the leather lining of the palm had just begun to tear.
And I was quite happy to have a pair of kote which didn’t stink with the accumulation of years of sweat. But the leather lining of the new pair has a peculiar odor all its own, one that may not be gone until it has been overcome by the stench of sweat.
I failed the exam anyway, due to my performance and technique rather than to my equipment. And I remain quite happy with my new kote, despite their unusual scent. Some kind of protection, old and stinky or new and smelly, is necessary. We must vie with unknown opponents and wrestle with stink. Truly, the world of kendo is not for the timid.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Shinsa 1: The Losers' Train

It is a train full of people hauling their kendo equipment home, none of them looking very happy. We carefully avoid eye contact with each other, even though we are spread noticeably through the train with conspicuous bags full of bogu (armor worn in kendo) and bags full of bamboo and wooden swords.

We are the losers, the people who didn’t pass the 4th or 5th dan (level) exam in kendo, offered three times a year here in Tokyo. About 1000 people come to each test, so they need to weed people out quickly. The first part of the test is jitsugi, the actual contest on the floor with two opponents.

The three-digit numbers of those with that special something are posted on a board after a long wait. They are the people taking pictures of the board. Everyone else turns around and slinks out quietly. We don’t even get to show our stuff in the kata (forms) portion of the exam. Nor do we get to hand in the written tests after slaving over them for hours (at least of us who are not native Japanese speakers).

With such a low pass rate and so many people gathered for the test, every train moving out in the early afternoon is full of those who didn’t make the grade. The number of bogu-bearers is diminished slowly, a few at each stop. I live on the other edge of town, so I witness the slow exodus and am among the last off the train.

Today was my 12th or 13th or somethingth try. The 4th dan exam is notoriously difficult, with a pass rate hovering around 15% or so. Unlike most countries in the world, in Japan the idea is to let people run up through the ranks (shodan, 2dan, 3dan) pretty quickly and easily – then things suddenly get tough at 4dan.

There are a few non-mortals among us who do the much-hallowed ippatsu – taking 4dan in one try. But they are few and far between. And you won’t find them on the losers’ train.

In my defense I will note that I took iaido 4dan in one shot, but that is not much consolation (nor is it much-hallowed) on a cold and rainy Sunday in Tokyo, moving across town on that slow, silent train.

Friday, November 7, 2008


someone in the neighborhood just fired up a power tool. Other peoples’ noise means one thing…I can make noise without fear of disturbing Harmony in the neighborhood.

There are two kinds of noise I like to make. If the miscreant power tool is disturbing the peace only briefly, I go to the makiwara striking post and fire off some one-twos, thwack thwack, thwack thwack. Nothing like punching an unmoving opponent to make me feel accomplished.

If someone is working on a big project and making lots of noise, it is time to get out the spear.

I got the wooden shaft from a friend on one of his trips to Taiwan, later got the metal tip on one of his later trips (both to see his Sifu). It is not so common here in Japan, but since I have been working on one of his spear forms, I did it the Taiwanese (really old mainland style, since his teacher’s branch of the line fled to Taiwan after the excitement in 1949) way, and put little metal balls in the tip to rattle with each focused motion of the spear.

My noise-making was brief today, and was followed by explorations in nature, all one meter of the ground surrounding my little house here in Tokyo. Perfect twilight moment, the setting sun and the rising moon both visible. Above me one of the autumn spiders had been wrapping some fresh prey in a web which vibrated with each thwack of mine. The spider kept on undisturbed, in fact stopping its motions only after I stopped my punches. In the other corner, I spooked a frog who had come out from the jungle of ivy just before I passed.

Such excitement and wonder. I have been cooped up in the house too long.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


tuo is one of the twelve animal forms in xing yi quan. I am not sure what it is exactly – various translations refer to alligators, water lizards, water striders, and so on. It is one of the simpler animal forms, essentially one motion repeated side to side while advancing with a zig-zag step.
For the past five years, we have been working on one version of the twelve animal forms and several of them are essentially a single motion, repeated over and over (tiger, horse [single- and double-fist versions], snake, tai {another strange creature, some kind of bird], the eagle-and-bear combination) – just over half, now that I think about it.
The other five (swallow, sparrow-hawk, chicken, monkey, dragon) are more complicated, with much greater variety of motion.
We had a hint of things to come two years back when Liu Laoshi came to Tokyo and briefly taught a special, more complicated version of the horse form. This year, he brought over “new” versions of a few other animal forms, all far more complicated. Mr. T has been leading us in review of the “new” tiger and it is truly a new beast altogether. We just started reviewing the “new” monkey this week, which is not so much more complicated than the prior one.
The picture above shows two different ways to write the character “tuo”. When I asked him this summer in Beijing, Liu Laoshi cast about, picked up a rock and scratched out the two versions on the pavement.
You don’t have to look far in Chinese parks to find someone “painting” Chinese characters on the pavement with a brush dipped in water. There is something beautiful in watching the character be drawn, and something mysterious in watching it slowly fade to dryness before your eyes.
Characters scratched with rocks may last a bit longer but are similarly impermanent. Despite the hardness of the rock, the characters drawn possess a similar beauty to those done with water and brush.
I had asked how to write the character, and nodded with understanding and satisfaction when he finished the first version. Then he went on with the second. I wonder how many ways that character can be written. And I also wonder how many more versions of the twelve animals he has up his sleeve.

Monday, November 3, 2008


It’s been a busy budo weekend: Zaimusho kendo Friday night, Chinese stuff Saturday and Sunday, Meiji Jingu demos today (see prior post). And somewhere in there was a long-overdue first visit to the famed Koubukan Dojo in Nakano, Tokyo.

One dojo member – whom I met a couple weeks prior at a kendo tournament – had put together a sort of gaijin kendo bash, drawing 40 foreigners from around Japan (two from Singapore, in town for today’s all-Japan kendo championships) as well as a couple Japanese who had lived abroad for some time.

He had hoped for 20 and gotten 40, not bad at all. Ozawa Sensei watched while the show was run by and for we gaijins. The format was unusual and good – three separate 30-minute sessions of practice or keiko, each punctuated by a 10-minute break to rest and, more importantly, to commiserate.

Everything was quite free (choosing your own practice partner, feedback if appropriate, “lining up” in a circle) but all the necessary decorum was also observed – a nice respite from the sometimes overformal martial arts world in Japan. Really, everything was done exceptionally well and I look forward to the next time.

Kind of a funny feeling – at most practices in this country I am the only foreigner present. At most big events like gradings and tournaments, there is usually a handful of foreigners who already know each other or who get to know each other quickly. Yet here we were, basically a dojo full of foreigners in Japan blasting away on each other and doing it the right way, good kendo.

New friends made, old friends seen again after many years – cheers to all.


Today (Nov. 3) was Culture Day in Japan, as good enough an excuse for a national holiday as any. Because there is so much culture in Japan, I am annually the victim of double booking. You’ve got the all-Japan kendo tournament over here, and the Meiji Jingu Koryu whatever-kai over there. Know lots of people at both, need to go to both. And the winner is….

Meiji Jingu, a shrine in the heart of a mini-forest in the heart of Tokyo which hosts an annual demo of various koryu or traditional martial arts, some with histories/ lineages stretching back centuries, the oldest more than twice as old as the US.

I used to go and religiously videotape all the koryu for “preservation” purposes, certain that each performance I witnessed was a jewel to be treasured and, with the magic of video, saved for posterity. The number of videotapes piled up and the time to actually watch them shrank.

Today I spent more time playing with four kids than watching the demos, and didn’t do any taping, despite having taken my videocamera. It was good. An afternoon of wrestling and playing Frisbee and arbitrating disputes among four kids is also a treasure, one that cannot be captured on video.

Met friends and seniors from years back, regular acquaintances, and some surprise visitors. Even strangers have become familiar faces who demo year after year. There are enough groups involved to run two demos simultaneously, side by side. We are really spoiled, such a concentration of great martial arts action just a train ride away.

But some of the magic has worn off. Over the years I have become too aware of the political infighting and bullshit in and among many of the groups demonstrating. It has become harder to separate great technique from not-so-great personality. There is also a tendency toward insularity within some of the groups, one which prevents true appreciation of other groups.

Even so, it is still a great experience every year. And one thing never changes – they finish with a demo by one of the groups preserving the centuries-old style of firing guns. It is always a crowd favorite, with participants in age-old armor, the packing of powder, the roar of the guns – and the hundreds of giant blackbirds startled from their roosts who go circling over the park while cawing in dismay, disrupted once each year by the die-hards trying desperately to preserve a small piece of traditional Japanese culture.

(photos from yabusame exhibition, in which mounted riders fire arrows from galloping horses, also an annual crowd favorite)