My First Class in the Way of the Sword

Following on from my last entry, I did indeed go back to the Shudokan dojo at Osaka-jo (castle). My plan was to arrive a little while before a class, introduce myself to the most teachery person I could find and ask if I could do kendo in my karate gi. If they said no, I would ask them if judo would be okay. I imagined I might not understand all of the instructions, but by watching carefully and listening attentively, I was sure I could pick up many pointers and learn many techniques.

Things did not go quite as planned. I did indeed arrive early for the first class of the evening and my heart soared as I removed my shoes and stepped inside. Half the floor was padded and empty (which later filled with judoka), and the other half was wooden with a handful of children practicing sword strikes against tyres and their teacher. I did not want to interrupt, so I waited until another adult in kendo gear appeared and asked (in horrendously simplified, broken Japanese) if it would be okay to do kendo. She took me to a woman whom I shall call Kensai-sensei and explained my wish. Kensai-sensei said it would be fine and told me to go to the reception and sign up for a class (or something to that effect). I stared at her blankly and apologised for my lack of understanding. She asked me many questions, and I answered very little of help until she (without frustration, just fluster) finally said “You don’t speak any Japanese at all?” and more or less gave up in using words to direct me. I wrote my name on a piece of paper and gave the 300¥ and ran around in the back of the dojo to find somewhere to change. As I put my gi on in a disabled toilet, I heard drums beating in the distance and my heart sank – was I missing the start of class?

When I found my way back to the main hall, the students were already running around, beginning the warm-up and Kensai-sensei was nowhere in sight. I approached an older man in armour and tried again to ask “Can I kendo?” He did not understand. I tried to explain my hope, that I had already paid, that someone had told me it was fine, but he just didn’t understand me, nor did I understand him. All I gathered was that he possibly disapproved of my karate gi, and with a heavy heart I realised it might be too late. Just as I was leaving to talk to the office girls in one final attempt at communication, Kensai-sensei caught up with me, grabbed a bokken (and later, a shinai when she found one that was appropriately sized) and invited me to the back of the class.

Through my embarrassment and stress I noticed two things. Firstly, the students seemed to be aged between 6 and 14. Secondly, hardly any of them said anything that the strange guy wearing a blue karate gi and a brown belt had just joined the class. Their politeness and their respect was humbling, though I think some of their parents might have spoken to each other in low voices about what I was doing there. We practiced basic suri ashi stepping exercises and I mimicked the stance I had seen the other students using before class: square shoulders, right foot forwards at all times, left foot raised onto the ball taking small, shuffling steps. All the students gathered in a big circle and the oldest/highest ranked boy began calling out the counts for sword cuts and I worked up quite a sweat moving backwards and forwards in small shuffles. Shinai are certainly very different to bokken- they do indeed bounce, and it is this bounce that you rely on to re-chamber between strikes. They also emphasise stamping the foot at the moment of impact, which was a little unusual for me.

Kensai-sensei called me over to her group of students who weren’t wearing any armour. I was grateful that she was taking me under her wing, and I was surprised at how good the children were. There was one little boy wearing glasses who seemed unfocussed, unenthused and generally not very passionate about being there. A six-year-old girl with a ponytail had reasonable technique and truly impressive spirit, charging quickly and yelling with all the strength of her lungs. I was also honoured to be training with two teenagers who were both very good, a boy who called out techniques and demonstrated with Sensei, and a girl who was not far behind in his skill level. It was she that I was first partnered with for basic shomen uchi drills, and although she seemed uncertain at first, I think she came to trust me not to hit her.

We went through partner drills, cutting high and low as Kensai-sensei donned her armour. We progressed to practicing basic strikes on her, and I started to gain confidence, calling “Yoooo!” before engaging, “Meeeeen!” when striking the head, “Koteeeeee!” when striking the wrist and “Dooooo!” when striking the body. By the end of the class we were doing semi-free form as Sensei exposed her wrist or head or body and we would attack, either getting pushed back for another strike or carrying through and shuffling past her. Her mastery was obvious to me in the way she hardly moved at all, or just enough to let us practice what she wanted us to learn.

In the last few minutes, the class came back together again for a few more drills, Kensai-sensei struck the drum in an amazing rhythm that chilled me to my bones, and then we settled for seated meditation. We bowed to the head teacher, then ran up to our various sensei and bowed again. Kensai-sensei turned and smiled at me, and I prostrated myself with another proclamation of “Arigatou gozaimashita!” I don’t think any words on earth could have conveyed how grateful I was for her allowing me to participate when I was so close to leaving. I also turned to my partner afterwards and told her “Anata wa jozu ni.” I think it means “You are skilled”, but I’m not entirely sure. She looked surprised and smiled, and I hope she understood.

As I was leaving, a large number of young men with weapon bags entered from the change rooms (which had once again eluded me). I wondered if they were about to start an advanced class, or maybe their naginata unscrewed into two pieces, but I didn’t dare push their hospitality by trying to stay. I left through the back door, realising I may have been very bold to enter through the front door on the way in, and made the long walk back to the train station. It was only after I got home that I realised I had misread the timetable and had attended the children’s class instead of the general/beginner’s class. I felt really ashamed about the mistake I had made, but in the end it turned out to be a wonderful experience. Although the miscommunication was very challenging, I learned a lot and had heaps of fun. Nevertheless I hope that my next martial arts class (possibly Wing Chun with our host in Tokyo) goes a little more smoothly! Until next time.

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One thought on “My First Class in the Way of the Sword

  1. Ernest says:

    Join us! The beginners’ class should be starting soon. Being motodachi (as Sensei did) isn’t easy. I’m still getting the hang of it.
    And congratulations to you and Beth on your engagement :)

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