Long time readers of this blog know I love learning about other martial arts. Through one-off introductory workshops I’ve sampled Capoeira, Tai Chi, and Judo. I also attended several self defense workshops led by instructors from varying backgrounds, trained under students earning their personal fitness trainer credentials, and attended an online seminar that wasn’t so much about Kung Fu as it was about body dynamics. So when a friend invited me to the bi-monthly Kendo (Japanese sword) classes he hosts at his dojo I jumped at the chance.
These bi-monthly Kendo classes will be ongoing and I plan on making as many as I can. That said, I honestly don’t think I can get serious about kendo – as in seeking any sort of rank or certification. Bi-monthly Kendo classes mostly fit my schedule. I have a good bit of karate material to keep fresh and I need to fix some foundational things. I don’t have much time to devote to new material. That said, now that my karate belt tests will be few and far between I have the luxury of taking a good long time to learn any given Kendo technique, stance, form, etc. Casual dabbling is not something I’m used to but I’m going to do my best to juggle this new endeavour with my main art. Sometimes I will have schedule conflicts, and that’s OK.
I missed the first Kendo class due to an important karate event. No big deal, this is a casual gathering for the purpose of learning. I had to catch up, but at least I’m used to following along, to being at least few steps behind everyone else. In other words I know how to be a white belt (no rank, new beginner). I know how to learn and I know my own learning style. I know how to manage my practice time. And of course I had a blast learning something completely new. This beginner’s mindset is called “Shoshin” in Japanese. I try to keep my shoshin fresh in karate because, after all, Shodan (1st degree black belt) means “first level.” I’m still a beginner in my primary art (yes, after nearly 10 years).
My primary art is of course empty hand. Weapons aren’t part of the rank tests in the karate organization I belong to. To me dabbling in weapons is a nice little “extracurricular activity,” although I have recently started thinking about the benefits to my empty-hand game. I have started to understand this quote:
”Karate and Kobudo are like brother and sister. They should stay together.”Nakamoto Mashiro
Studying weapons gives one the chance to compare and contrast, to think about how and why body dynamics change (or don’t change) when one is wielding a weapon. During the pandemic lockdowns I learned bo (Japanese long staff) over Zoom from one of my sensei (instructors). Bo feels natural because it involves push-pull dynamics similar to karate. A bokken (training sword) is another animal altogether. About the only thing I knew going in to my first Kendo class was you use two hands to wield the weapon. The bokken feels very different from my bo, from Filipino Martial Arts canes (in one or both hands) and is totally and completely different from fencing foils. Yes, I took a semester of fencing in college. And yet…
Like many other times when I’ve cross-trained, I heard the late Professor Remy Presas whispering, “It’s all de same…”
Blogger and Arnisadora Jackie Bradbury explains,
“The meaning of this is that what we do and learn in my style isn’t actually terribly unique in the martial arts world. Much of what we do can be seen in other seemingly unrelated styles like taekwondo, karate, and kung fu.”Jackie Bradbury, The Stick Chick Blog
With the bokken I learned angles of attack just like in Filipino Martial Arts. These angles of attack are based on human anatomy in order to cause the most damage and hopefully not catch your weapon on bone and lose your grip on it. This is serious stuff, but so is shattering joints and there’s plenty of that in the empty hand arts. Speaking of the empty hand arts, there is a relationship between Kendo and the style of Karate I study.
Konishi Yasuhiro Sensei founded Shindo Jinen-ryu karate. But before that he was a Kendoka (one who studies Kendo). Konishi Sensei coached the University of Keio’s Kendo club. Just a few months short of 100 years ago (at the time of this writing) Konishi Sensei met two karate luminaries after one of his classes. They asked if they could use the Kendo training hall for their karate classes. The rest was history. A karate exercise I practice frequently, “Te Gatana,” echoes Konishi Sensei’s Kendo and always reminds me of Filipino Martial Arts angles of attack. In 1927 and 1928 Konishi Sensei hosted a guest in his home for ten months: Mabuni Kenwa Sensei who founded the style of karate my friend teaches at his dojo. Talk about echoes of the past!
Kendo and Karate weren’t the end-all-and-be-all of Konishi Sensei’s martial arts life. In addition to Kendo and Karate, Konishi Sensei also studied Jujutsu, Judo, and Aikido. Within the Karate world Konishi Sensei trained with whoever he could. This garnered some criticism but Konishi Sensei held fast to his belief in the value of cross training. I’ve seen its value myself. That and it’s just plain fun to learn something new and different.
In karate I thoroughly enjoy exploring bunkai (interpretation of forms). Imagine my delight when I was taught that Kendo kata (forms) require two people. Instant bunkai! On the other hand, what I like about karate kata bunkai is there can be multiple bunkai for any given movement and/or sequence. Still, there’s something appealing about having obvious and set bunkai. Like anything else, there are advantages and disadvantages either way. I’m stoked I get to explore these modes of learning.
In a way attending a Kendo class felt like coming home. When I was a girl I was fascinated by sword-and-sorcery novels. At Renaissance faires I was more than a little jealous of those who owned real blades. I took fencing in college but the restriction of activity to a narrow lane drove me a little nuts. I was used to having free range due to my study of karate when I was a teenager. Years later I learned the history of the style of karate I now study. Entering the Kendo world just feels like a natural step for me. The cherry on top? A few years ago a co-worker gifted me with a polypropylene bokken at an office Christmas party. He uses his for cosplay. I used mine as a wall decoration. So is this fate? Time will tell. What I do know is this. My first Kendo class was fun and I’m looking forward to the next one.