Japanese Swordsmanship: My First Memories of Kendo in Japan

Shihan Dana Abbott and Japanese Swordsmanship

At that point I look him in the eye and say…kendo.

My first memory of Japan was standing in front of the Budokan. It’s a fairly brisk spring morning and I can see my breath as it mixes with the crisp Tokyo air. But there I was…absorbing all these new sights and sounds. Their history and culture was now within my reach as I pressed my hand on the entry door. I hear a voice saying sumimasen (excuse me) to which I turn around and see my master for the first time. I respond saying I just moved to Japan and am here to study the way of the sword and learn your culture! He looks at me with a puzzled face as he did not speak English nor did I speak Japanese. I try again blurting out another English sentence with his same response. At that point I look him in the eye and say…kendo.

Kendo desu ka he asks? I nod and thus began my first steps on the path to perfection and the way of the sword. My future master, Abe Shinobu sensei, leads me to a room and motions for me to take off my shoes and sit on the floor covered with tatami mats. He leaves and after a few moments the door reopens admitting a young woman holding a tray of tea. She proceeds to set three cups down while Abe sensei and one of his students come in, sit down and bow. I join them and as we sip tea the student nervously tries to converse in his “pidgin English” as we familiarized ourselves with each other.

Looking back now I realize that just by dumb luck I entered the wrong end of the building as Abe Shinobu sensei was outside for a smoke. I don’t recall what was said over tea, but with a dictionary in my hand and friendly conversation I was invited to visit his school. He then gave me his business card and said, “from station…take taxi”. It’s meaning being give this card to the taxi driver when you get to Sakura Shimachi train station.

Not wanting to wait even a day, as he might forget me, the next morning I immediately go to the train station and jump into a taxi. I hand the driver the card and say, onegai shimasu and we are off on my new adventure. It takes only about ten minutes to arrive, look around and find that I am inside the gates of a university.

I look around and find an office, which looks like admissions, enter and hand them the card. The person, whom I presume is the administrator, points to a chair and in his best English says, “sit prease”. Within a few moments someone comes and takes me to Abe sensei’s office. I later found out I was really fortunate to encounter him due an unusual twist of fate. Little did I know that just the day before I was talking to this Ojii san (older gentleman) about wanting to learn kendo. To my surprise, he just happened to be the head master of kendo at Nihon Taiiku Daigaku one of Japan’s strongest kendo schools.

The aide motioned me to sit as he begins to serve me tea. Through these glass arena windows I could see nothing but a sea of blue clad kendoists with bamboo swords thrusting and parrying. I was absolutely awed observing the diligence and demeanor of all those blue clad practitioners. The strike of a drum stopped the training and what looked like chaos immediately became disciplined order. That’s when I recognized Abe Sensei bowing to the class and moments later in the viewing room/teachers lounge sitting next to me with a cup of tea in his hand.

Soon another person came into the room approached me and said, “Hello my name is Shizawa Kunio and I hear you want to learn kendo”? It appears that Shizawa sensei spent a few months in Australia the year before and he was happy to have an opportunity to use his English, as he was quite proud of his conversational accomplishments.

In a seiza (kneeling position) he leans forward, picks up the dainty tea cup and with massive forearms takes a sip, sighs and begins to ask me many questions. Questions like: Why do you want to practice kendo? Do I like sushi? What did I study at Arizona State University? How long did I plan to stay? What did your father do? As I look back now, I guess that was my interview to be admitted into Nihon Taiiku Daigaku where I began my real sword training.

My first day differed for me than it would have for a Japanese student. First of all, I was a foreigner. Second, since I was foreign everyone felt the need to accommodate my aspirations. Japan is so very different than where I was born and raised and their attitudes are completely opposite in many ways. The semester had just started as all freshman students were in new uniforms and upperclassmen were returning for the start of the new scholastic year in Japan. It was interesting for me to note that school terms began in March instead of September as is done in the USA.

Again, I was in the right place at the right time. Fortunately the angel on my shoulder had not flown away. As in everything money is the first subject that rears its ugly head. At this point I had to discover how these expenses were going to be figured into my budget.

It came to the point where I was sent to the Registrar to pay for my enrollment into the school. To my huge surprise it was only a couple hundred dollars. With my new school ID in hand I was ready and eager to go. I enquired as to why it was such as small amount in a place where most everything is tremendously expensive. They replied, “Oh it is not about the money…you will pay with your sweat and long hours of training”.

The next morning I eagerly jumped on the train and by coincidence, who do I meet a few miles down the track…but, Shizawa sensei on the 7:AM train from Yokohama to Tokyo, a distance of 16 miles and 34 minutes. Through the sea of commuter bodies we managed to have a gesturing conversation in route. Shizawa sensei asks what station did you board at? I said Fujigaoka is where I live. Immediately we discovered that we lived just around the corner from each other. What a coincidence that in a city of 16 million people we crossed paths again. Again my angel was still on my shoulder.

When we detrain and leave the station Shizawa sensei offers to share a taxi with me, which took about 15 minutes. Upon arrival at the university Shizawa sensei leads me through the back entrance into the dojo. The students have already started to gather for the morning session. At this point I am not quite sure what to do or where to go. There I am all dressed up and no place to go! Shizawa sensei noticed that I was wearing inappropriate attire for kendo and I guess he felt sorry for me as I stuck out like a sore thumb.

I guess he did feel sorry for me as he mentioned that there was an old kendogi (kendo uniform) from a student who had left it behind years ago. He said that I was welcome to use it until I could obtain my own. Fortunately these are “one size fits all” for the most part. It took quite a while for me to adjust my new/old uniform. Walking down to the dojo floor I’m picking and pulling at this new mode of dress reminding myself of some kid being dressed in a Lord Fauntleroy suit. I continue walking down the stairs to the entrance of the dojo. I stop and I bow imitating the students I am following. What a different view from the dojo floor compared to the sensei’s viewing area.

On the floor everyone looks so much taller and tougher and it just surprised the hell outta me as I always thought they were a height challenged nation.

I was then motioned to go to the opposite corner of the dojo where Abe and Shizawa Sensei were sparring and teaching their senior students. I am instructed to wait in line with other senior students as they prepare to cross swords with their head master.

I’m almost at the front of the line when I begin to ask myself “what do I do now”? The student in front of me does this, this and this and I ask myself what exactly is this, this and this. To save face, which is very Japanese, I do exactly what the student in front of me says and does.

This is my first moment of truth! I am now standing face to face with Abe sensei. I get down to my knees in a seiza position place my shinai at my side placing both hands in front of me on the floor and bow. “Onegai shimasu” is what I blurted out of my mouth because the student before me did as he bowed. To this day I still don’t know what I sounded like to them but they must have gone along with me.

Needless to say, one of the hardest things for me to do was to get down on my knees and say, “Onegai shimasu”. Without hesitation, mimicking my fellow students I bow but it did not come natural to me. Being from Arizona I had never had the occasion to throw myself down on my knees to ask for permission for anything. First of all, the down side of this kneeling would probably scuff up my cowboy boots and second, how and when do I rise. I’m on my knees with my nose pushed to the floor thinking, “This is humiliating”. I must look inane groveling like a dog. I also feel I stick out like a sore thumb and I probably do. But to my surprise everyone in the dojo was doing the same thing. This is when I began to really learn the meaning of…showing respect.

Thinking respect is one thing but showing it is an entirely different matter. With my head still close to the floor I continue to hear many individual voices as each student asks for permission to spar with the instructors. Rising from my bow on the wooden floor of the Dojo I continue on with my practicing.

Days passed into weeks and the weeks changed into seasons as I slowly become accustomed and comfortable in my surroundings. Now, to my surprise, I was changing as rapidly as the seasons and becoming more ingrained with each passing day.

During the course of my studies at Nihon Taiiku Daikgaku I discovered I had become a productive member of their society based on their standards. Not because I worked or paid taxes. It was because I was learning kendo. In Japanese culture anyone who learns and performs kendo keeps the spirit of the samurai alive and is a very positive role model for generations to come.

At Ni Tai Dai the students who majored in kendo and graduate with a Bachelors Degree in Physical Education are most likely to fall into the following groups. The largest group is a PE teacher/kendo coach at a Junior or Senior High School. Many other graduates go on to serve society such as, policemen, military and firemen where they continue to practice and hone their kendo skills daily to enhance their career choice. They also compete between the various precincts and prefectures throughout Japan.

The practice of kendo is very a serious business within the police departments, in so much as; it becomes a prime importance to the job. As a matter of fact, it is well known that many join the police force primarily to do kendo extensively. The strongest kendoka are employed in some branch of law enforcement.

Even though it has been over 30 years since I took my first bow on that wooden floor I have fond memories, adventures and interesting thoughts and stories of the time I spent there. One of my first memories is when I purchased my bogu (kendo armor). At first, I was lent a bogu and kendogi from Sensei, which was greatly needed. Over the following days I donned it on and off dozens of times and I was starting to think I looked good.

Later, Shizawa sensei handed me a kendo apparel and equipment catalogue and said, “pick one”…and pick one I did! There were dozens of variations, models and colors to choose from. Over the course of the day, I thumbed through that catalogue until all pages started to run together. I finally decided on a nice well-built bogu and kendogi at a price my pocketbook would allow.

As I had become accustomed to having tea with Abe sensei and the instructors after the classes, I pointed out to Shizawa sensei the bogu I liked best. He takes the catalogue, stretches his arms out in front of him, looks at the circled picture and says, “Good”. Hands the catalogue back to me, takes another sip of his tea and says, “We go today”.

Later that afternoon, I find myself standing on a wooden block in front of the mirror like a businessman being tailored for a suit. Looking at all the possibilities that one can choose from is mindboggling. I held steadfast on my choice as Shizawa sensei nods in agreement with his arms folded, smiling and says….”handsome boy” as the tailor makes his final adjustments.

Little did I know that these brand new items are extremely stiff, uncomfortable and takes time to break them in. Plus, adding to the fact that I was very comfortable in my previously borrowed gear. My new outfit is dyed a deep purple/blue color called kon, which takes about 20 hand washings before the color stops staining your skin and everything around you. Just imagine you are wearing a brand new pair of classic 501 Levis jeans and jacket on bare skin. Now, imagine having to run ten miles a day in those. Believe me, it was no picnic since the blue (kon) stained my skin making even the rashes purple. I looked like Papa Smurf for almost a whole season.

The dojo at Ni Tai Dai where I was learning the trade of the swordsman was built decades earlier at a time when craftsmanship was premier and everything was built to last. The architecture was quite unique to me but most particularly interesting was the way the rows of windows were positioned. They ran the length of the building on both sides. Both sets ran horizontally across. One row in an attic position and the lower in a basement position. When opened they created a very pleasant breeze…. or a sobering cold cross blast of Arctic air during those winter mornings. No wonder I expelled so much energy, I was just trying to keep my teeth from chattering.

Many times I arrived early to warm up a bit before other students began their morning practice. I stood in the middle of the dojo with no one in sight as I executed a vertical “men” strike simultaneously stomping my foot. This was one of the first kendo techniques I learned. It sure looked easy enough and was the basis of everything yet to come and as I continued my training I realized that simplicity is not simple. Looks and feelings can be deceptive. From that single blow and the strike of my foot on the wooden floor a low vibration reverberated throughout the dojo. The interesting part about this dojo was the fact that it was all made of wood material in tongue and grove style with no nails. Everything fit perfectly together like a puzzle.

Underclassmen were always the first students to arrive for their daily training. Their job was to do all the grunt work like a plebe at West Point Academy. With time and experience they eventually would work their way up the ladder or maybe down depending upon their skill.

The middle classmen would arrive next and just when class began to start the senior students sauntered in and took their place in the pecking order on the dojo floor.

When class begins you can certainly size up the crowd by just observing. You can tell which ones are not with it due to illness, no sleep and my favorite…too much partying. After all, students will be students. In the front of the group this particular morning were the caffeine-enhanced go-getters. Looking to the middle of the crowd you see strong focus and determination and waaay at the back are the students, who for some reason or another, can’t get with it and are even having trouble going through the motions. But, even at their worst…they are still the best of the best.

Interestingly enough the top high school graduates who majored in kendo are comprised of 80 percent men and 20 percent women who were the best kendoists in their local school system. They came to Ni Tai Dai to perfect their technique and represent their prefectures throughout Japan.

Over the course of my daily studies I was already warmed up and feeling pretty good about myself with a good mindset. Kinda like a cat waiting to pounce on a mouse. As I slowly step inwards I eye my adversary. I seek an opening and begin my frontal attack. Then “crack” I get whacked with a deafening blow to the top of my head from my opponent’s bamboo shinai, which really promoted my awareness. As Shizawa sensei repeatedly said, “don’t blink your eyes…because it does not hurt any less”.

In real life, a strike to the head would be normally called an “attitude adjustment”. In kendo a strike to the head promotes one’s focus thus creating a unique mindset not ordinarily seen in other competitive sports. Unfortunately, the second your mind wanders your opponent can take advantage of that small window of opportunity and deliver another shot to the head, hand or body. The more I focused the more consistent I became. Consequently through continuous practice of hours, days, weeks and months I found the more I got struck… the less I got struck. This was due to my learning how to focus my advantage. I slowly began to understand the old saying that “more is less” certainly is true.

In the heat of battle the surrounding cacophony in the air of the dojo is resounding with cracks, whacks and robust voices. These sounds spur me and my opponent to, “give it hell”. When you are practicing side by side with some of the best kendoists in the nation you can get into some in depth volleys which really makes kendo exciting to the soul. Interestingly enough the smell of burnt bamboo caused by the friction of striking the shinai together always seemed to linger in the air.

Many students at Ni Tai Dai were from small towns and cities. Some had never seen a foreigner in person let alone practice kendo against one. I soon discovered that I reluctantly was always going to be in the spot light and because of that I realized they would be very critical of my efforts. Since it was evident that I was a subject of interest, I decided to be a positive representative/ role model for my country. I never, at any time, experienced any real animosity towards me. On the contrary, I was befriended by all which opened up a lot of doors for me plus giving me complete access of the Teacher’s Faculty room.

That Teacher’s Faculty room almost became my second home during my tenure at Ni Tai Dai, which is where I met many of the strongest kendo players of the Showa Post-War era who frequented this room. Also, it was there that I was fortunate enough to be introduced to those kendo masters. After all these years have passed I don’t recall all their names but I surely will never forget their strength, demeanor and passion.

On any given day, some older gentleman wearing a business suit would stop on by for a splash of tea and to cross swords with any and all opponents. Within fifteen minutes of arrival they were dressed out and ready to…kendo. What I thought was interesting was that many older kendo masters wrapped long rectangular shaped pieces of rubber automobile tubing around their knees and elbows. They were certainly no one’s fool and merely wanted to protect those areas given their advanced age.

It was during this time I had the privilege to witness the unbelievable. After they were clad into their kendo attire and walked over the threshold into the dojo the transformation was astounding. These kendo masters, many with obvious disabilities, drooped shoulders and a bit of a shuffle to their walk would morph into “preverbal dragon slayers from hell”. Watching them execute their techniques you would think they were in the prime of their life. Their timing, power and speed were honed to perfection. Even after 75 plus years of age they were totally on their mark. After sparring when they removed their helmets and you were again able to view their aged faces it brought you back to the realization that if you can wield a sword well…you will wield it well for life.

Spending six days a week practicing your heart out one would think it’s time to grab some much needed R&R. But no…the seventh day was created by the masters for kendo tournaments. I had already attended many home games and was now starting to make a name for myself. Perhaps not yet for my kendo abilities, but as a dedicated team player. Faculty had designated me as their newfound second school mascot and dubbed me “peto gaijin”or in English, “pet foreigner”. The rival school’s mascot was a goat. Needless to say this took my ego down a peg or two.

I had been doing very well and even starting to become skilled in my kendo studies. I was accomplishing this at college level but nevertheless during the upcoming tournament I would undoubtedly be warming the bench along with the mascot. The nice thing about college kendo is the fact that it teaches you to fight with dignity, fairness and in a gentlemanly manner.

I remember my first road trip. There I was riding in a school bus while we wind our way through century’s skinny old back streets of Tokyo in a southerly direction. This trip took a couple of hours to get to the tournament site. We drove into the parking lot around sunrise, unpacked, walked up to and entered through the side doors of this ancient dojo. The dojo at Ni Tai Dai was constructed in a more contemporary post-war style but this dojo was built in a time where the western culture had no influence. Consequently it looked like a huge barn and temple had rammed into each other.

Since we arrived a bit early we took advantage and worked on a few of our techniques preparing ourselves for the tournament. As it had been a long dry trip I needed a drink and the water fountain was the closest place to get one. I, took a big gulp and then another and another. “Wow, this water is good” I remarked to my training partner. He responds, “It’s because it comes from Mt. Fuji. He then motions me to follow him to the double doors. He flings them open revealing my first bigger than life view of Mt Fuji. We spent the rest of the morning and into the early afternoon competing for the point, the shot and the kill at the base of Japan’s most revered image…Mt. Fuji in all its glory.

There is an olde’ saying; “if you can’t speak the lingo…you can’t stay in the loop”. For that reason, I aggressively learned the Japanese language. At the beginning, I never knew what was on the agenda because the Japanese culture is not known to be communicative…it’s not their style. You are supposed to innately know what’s going on…which was not my style. It was literally fly by the seat of ones pants.

We had just finished a tournament in the old dojo at the base of Mt. Fuji. I’m packed and ready for the trip home waiting by the bus when Shizawa Sensei says, “You stay here!” as he and most of the group board the bus for their return to Tokyo. As the bus leaves and the dust settles I see there are half a dozen of us remaining. We are then transported to a dormitory where we spend the night.

The next morning I awaken to a crisp beautiful morning and begin to gear up for kendo. One senior classmate states, “no kendo…today running” as he points to his running shoes. Within minutes we are herded into a van and spend about 15 minutes traveling on local roads. We stop and de-van. I stretch a bit, look around and find myself at a trail entrance to Mt. Fuji. What a surprise I am thinking…since I had no idea I was going to climb Mt. Fuji. There is a vendor in this wooden shack selling walking sticks and I am handed one. It is about a 6-foot length of hardwood, over an inch in diameter with smooth beveled sides. Commercialism is everywhere…even Mt Fuji.

We began our ascent and over the next 5 hours switched back and forth on those trails that have been used for centuries even probably by samurai. At each tier on my upward climb a branding iron was used to mark my walking stick, which denoted the tiers I had accomplished.

When I stopped at different tiers to have my stick branded I noticed that some of the structures were just lean-tos but on the next tier could be a very nice structure where one could find food and lodging. By the time you crest Mt Fuji your stick has been branded from bottom to the top showing your completion of all stages.

Finally, as I crested the top overwhelmed with excitement I come to the realization that if I walk another 50 feet I can have my pick of restaurants. I can have fast food, gourmet or box lunch. Another 50-feet I can have sake and beer. Instead, I pulled out several 10 yen coins using them to call Mariko…a girl who liked my accent’. As I tell her of the wonders I have experienced I’m gazing out across the horizon and see, feel and experience the splendor of Japan and just a bit…dreading the climb down to reality.

When you’re hot…you’re hot and when it gets hot in Japan you literally drip from the humidity. If you drink one cup of tea, you undoubtedly will sweat two and coupled with the torrential downpours from Japan’s natural rice growing climate means…I never saw the sun shine. One season there was only 68 hours of real sunshine recorded. Apparently a joke was played on me when I was told that Japan was known as the “Land of the Rising Sun” which I hardly ever saw.

The everyday practice and study of kendo in a climate where the temperature reaches and exceeds 90 degrees plus applicable humidity is stifling. Japanese call this “mushi atsui“, but in New York City it is just known as “muggy”. Hot thick air makes the practice of any sport difficult and energy zapping. Just imagine you are in heavy cumbersome kendo gear combined with this weather. After a few hundred strikes into a workout one’s lethargic body becomes immune to its surroundings and that “can’t get started” feeling is diminished. Soaking wet kendo gear combined with the stench of hundreds of students doing the same thing creates a thick pungent layer of air that you could literally cut with a sword.

When kendo practice ceased the undergraduates would then go to the locker room, which was below in the basement. Going down the narrow stairs you began to inhale testosterone at its peak. Those smells would rival any odors that gladiators in the coliseum exuded.

Packed in the locker room like sardines and all changing kendo gear at the same time with one goal in mind…and that is to rush across campus to their next class. When an underclassman passes an upperclassman…the lesser must recognize the senior’s rank and status. This is accomplished with a bow and greeting known as “Aisatsu”. “IT’S GOOD TO BE KING”, say the senior students. The underclassmen are almost dancing from class to class given the footwork and respect they are required to extend to each upperclassman they encounter. Needles to say there were a lot of underclassmen late to class each day.

Aisatsu is a greeting of respect and is accompanied by a crisp “ohaiyo gozaimasu” good morning.

I was very happy and relieved not to have had to experience the hazing that freshmen student’s encounter. Since this was still in the “Showa Era” which did not end until the death of Emperor Hirohito, the old school way was still in effect and hazing was just a way of life and tradition. Some of the hazing could be brutal. Sparring until you drop…and then spar again. The haze mongers would often make the plebes drink until they would pass out. They also would draw mustaches and weird things with permanent markers on their faces. Sometimes many ended up looking like a member of the rock band KISS!!

Yes sir, you could always spot the underclassmen. As an American, I would look at this hazing at times and think, “Is this really necessary”. I soon discovered when looking at kendo philosophy from the Japanese perspective…life is not fair and the strong will graduate to teach kendo and the “spirit of the thing”. Meanwhile the weak will become shoe salesmen.

Actually, being underclassmen was really not all that bad but, on the other hand, being an underclasswoman was brutal. You would think women students were disciplined like Marines on Paris Island because many looked the part. For example the pecking order of the upper class women was very overbearing. They would cut the plebe’s hair so short one could not tell if the student was a male or female… WOW…mean and brutal.

There was a different brutality for the men. I mentioned before that you spar until you drop. There is a general rule of thumb in kendo and that is…when it comes to training and you have expended all your energy and are coughing out your lungs is when your rote muscle memory sets in best.

Also, at this point, one might experience euphoria as when running a long distance marathon including crystal clear mindsets and fine focusing no matter what situation you may encounter. This exertion of energy consumes a lot of one’s power but over time your body will begin to run much more efficiently and without expelling as much energy…sort of like putting a car in overdrive. Coupled with strong breathing techniques called kiai allows you to continue and excel where others have failed. Even though the brow beating of underclassmen is horrendous few drop out. They do not want to lose face.

When the “dog days” of summer begin your sweat is profuse. You start losing vast amounts of water and that’s when I discovered “mugicha” (wheat tea) which is the summer sports drink of old Japan. For our consumption student aides would bring in large brass kettles of room temperature cooled down mugicha which tastes like the old breakfast puffed wheat cereal called, Sugar Pops.

After long hard laborious workouts and practice you feel as if you have walked through the parched desert and just arrived at a watering hole. Upon arrival of the wheat tea all one could hear were grunts, slurps and gulps. Just to let you know how intense the trainings were we immediately were told…move it, move it, move it. No one could hang around the “water cooler” for long. As an aside, if I did not urinate blood or brown at least a few times a month I was not putting forth enough effort. I never was sure if it was the tea or the sword strikes sustained.

My first summer gasshuku in Chiba just outside Tokyo was extremely mentally and physically enlightening. This is where many of the university kendo teams would come together and train. There were many practice sessions covering everything from basic kendo warm up exercises to tournaments. I managed to hold my own during the exercises but these tournaments were especially challenging. Of course, needless to say, I would be eliminated within the first few seconds…but believe me it was a long few seconds and felt more like hours!

During these tournaments I was introduced to many esteemed kendo teachers who came from the four corners of Japan just for the gasshuku. My fellow students poked me, pointed and whispered in my ear, “Oh this sensei or that sensei…is “berry berry famous”. There is only one word I could use describing these teachers and that would be formidable. They had such a presence!

I wish I could remember all those teachers’ names and faces but alas I didn’t bring a camera to document my training. But then again, if I would of come to a sword fight with a camera…things could have been vastly different.

To find out more about Shihan Dana Abbott and the study of the Japanese sword on LearnTheSword.com visit his listing on the Martial Arts Schools & Businesses Directory by clicking on the image on the left.