I practiced Kendo 3 years ago in Taiwan. For two months I practiced at a university Kendo Club before leaving with my class for Thailand. I had been enamored with the traditional Japanese sport after watching anime and a few tournaments on YouTube. I got my chance to practice when my professor issued a cross-cultural communications assignment in Taiwan. What was only suppose to be a few observations turned into a 3 times a week commitment with 3 hour practices. I was just a beginner and I was leaving in two months. I wore no kendogi and hakama (a uniform of traditional pants and shirt) and I only dreamed of wearing the bogu (armor).
3 years later I decided to throw myself into the deep end when I mentioned to my vice-principle that I wanted to practice Kendo while I was in Karatsu. It turns out that he is a rokudan or level 6 in Kendo. He offered to take me to practice at his dojo. Needless to say I said yes.
There were some hiccups in the plan though. I thought I had conveyed to him that I was a beginner but the day before the practice he asked what level/dan I was at. Oops, no level. He knew I didn’t have armor but he thought I had the uniform. Luckily I am able to borrow both from him until I buy my own.
After changing into the uwagi I had to swallow my pride and ask my vice-principal to show me how to tie the hakama – and the bottom guard, the chest plate, and the helmet. But before that I had to meet the sensei.
Despite being nervous I was familiar with this routine of formal respect – I had gotten in trouble during my first week of practice in Taiwan for not show the proper respect to my teacher. The first sensei was a stout man who spoke Karatsu-ben ( Karatsu dialect) which I could barely understand. The second – and highest ranked – sensei was an older man about 70 years old with the presence and stature of a seasoned king. I was intimidated. It got worse when he spoke near perfect English. There went my ‘dumb foreigner’ card.
After formally introducing myself and greeting the sensei I put on my armor. As I put on the helmet my world tunneled down to a single oval crossed with a metal face guard. In that moment I realized I had no idea what I was suppose to do next. What have you gotten yourself into, I thought.
Despite feeling lost, the dojo and the routine of practice was familiar the difference now is that I am in the “advanced” group. Instead of watching the practice matches – as I did in Taiwan – I was taking part. The majority of my practice was with my vice-principal. He showed me what was expected of me and what practice routines I should be using. It was good but also brutal.
The one thing I love about Kendo is that you speak with your presence and actions. I say more when I lift my shinai (bamboo sword) one more time.
The practice usually functions as a rotation. The two sensei with face off with almost every student. Once in a while practitioners with challenge each other. After I warmed up with my vice-principal I was guided into the practice match line for the main sensei. Needless to say I got my butt kicked by a 70 year old man.
Half way through the overall practice I had to rest. I was drenched with sweat and was starting to get dehydrated. I didn’t realize I was over heated until I took my helmet off. My body was out of shape and struggled to recall the proper and precise movements for striking. I spent the rest of practice watching the matches. I was starting to hurt.
The practice ended the same way it began – bowing to the sensei and bowing to the dojo. I changed out of my armor and uniform and learned how to properly fold the clothing.
The next day my whole body hurt but my heart has never been happier.