Zachary Armine-Klein: Kendo

For my CIP I practiced Kendo four to six times a week at the Kyoto Butokuden (Martial Arts Center). Overall it was a fantastic experience. The practices themselves were always brilliant, even if I was not. The variety of lessons was so challenging because every night a different Hachidan Sensei (Highest rank attainable) would lead and each had their own styles of teaching and valued different skills. Nonetheless, each Hachidan Sensei maintained a heavy focus on keiko (sparring) at a level of rigor I found to be noticeably higher than in the U.S. I loved this intensity. Everyone at the practice was so focused on improving that the room almost always felt electrified. During matches each person’s desire to win was palpable. Although exciting, this energy was also rather intimidating. The “regulars”  had rivalries with other people around their level and had specific Sensei with whom they enjoyed practicing. Also, the established Kendo students more or less knew exactly who they were going to practice with and where to go within the Dojo (practice hall), before practice had even begun. As a new foreigner who knew nothing of the Butokuden etiquette I spent my first week being nicely turned down when I asked to spar someone, and also getting yelled at by sensei for being in the wrong space during basics and drills. Overall, I would describe myself as being rather flustered and confused and in culture shock. 

But disorientation slowly dissipated. I began to know which drills were done on which days, which Sensei’s were more open to practicing with newbies and became closer with some of the other foreigners in the community. Near the end of the first month some of the other young adult “regulars” began challenging me during free sparing and I slowly became friends with a couple of them. It was during this time that one of the more notable Nanadan Sensei (second highest rank attainable), Imada Sensei, started hovering around my sparring matches. Finally, after a couple of days of hovering around and silently judging me, he approached and asked (ordered) me to practice with him. Imada Sensei’s sparring session was brutal. He ran me ragged hitting the same basics over and over and every couple minutes asking if I wanted to give up? Every time I would tell him no and push further than I thought possible getting past my earlier urge to give up. He kept me going for a full hour until the final drum sounded signaling the end to the practice. He would  simply tell me it was a good practice, let’s spar again tomorrow. It continued like this for about a week where everyday he would run me ragged and just ask me to see him again tomorrow. Finally, at the end of the week he approached me and invited me to come to his personal Dojo (Yubukan) on Sundays. Of course I said yes and after being accepted by one of the most respected Sensei the community opened up. Sensei’s that previously wouldn’t give me the time of day started practicing with me and actually giving me advice. The other foreigners, who I learned a lot of went to Yubukan, began telling me about other Dojos where they practiced and offered to introduce me to their Senseis, so that their Sensei might invite me to practice with them as well. 

By the end of the second month of rigorous practice, I received a fantastic opportunity when my friend Yusuke invited me and Tamara, another foreigner I had become close with, to come practice at the Kyoto Police Headquarters with Ito Sensei, one of the few Kyudan Sensei still alive. This level of expertise is no longer available to be earned and after the last of the Kyudan Sensei pass over this level of expertise will enter history. This practice was a blast, but absolutely brutal. Ito Sensei spent a good thirty minutes breaking down Tamara and my basic strikes and having us repeat them over and over commenting on a new error each time and making us do it again. He finally left us and told us to start sparring with the other sensei at the Dojo. I was certain we had disappointed him or failed in some way, but at the end of practice he approached us and asked if he would see us next week at his practice so we could work more on our basics. I was ecstatic and of course said yes. Ito Sensei’s practices became a highlight of my week every week, albeit an often exhausting and painful part of my week as well. Sadly, after only a month of this extraordinary access to a Kyudan Sensei we had to return to America; however, I did get to have one final practice and a send-off party with the friends I made at Kendo. 

For any future students at KCJS who want to practice Kendo I have a few pieces of advice. First of all, whether you have practiced before or not, make sure you are really committed to this before you start. In order to be taken seriously and have doors open up for you in the community you really need to give 110%. I saw other foreigners only practice once or twice a week and even though they had been in Kyoto for months or even years longer than me, none of the sensei took them seriously or gave them their full attention. Secondly, if you already have experience, the best thing you can do is just start going to the Butokuden. It is a central space where all the different students at a variety of Dojo’s go in order to practice together. It  is a great place both to practice and meet different sensei and players. Finally, if you haven’t practiced Kendo and are starting fresh, it can be hard to find a way into the community. Most people in Japan start Kendo as children so there are few dojo’s that take young adults, let alone young foreigners, on as complete beginners. When I asked around for a friend who was interested in starting to learn Kendo, most sensei recommended my friend join the Doshisha Kendo Circle-which is Not the Kendo Club! The Doshisha Kendo Circle is welcoming to taking on beginners. Unfortunately, unless you are going to KCJS for the Fall semester or full year it could be harder to find a Dojo, since the Doshisha Circle is on break during the Spring semester until mid-March. If you are determined to learn Kendo I recommend you ask your host family or the KCJS office if they have any connections they can call on your behalf. In my opinion, it is worth persevering since once you have that connection and find a Dojo, the Kendo Community becomes a wonderful and welcoming place that will enhance your experience as an exchange student in Kyoto.

4 thoughts on “Zachary Armine-Klein: Kendo

  1. Hey Zak! I really enjoyed reading about your CIP. I was able to really imagine what it was like to practice at the Butokuden and your other dojo from your vivid descriptions. It was particularly interesting to read about how you noticed a shift in the way you were perceived by the senseis and other students, as you continued to prove yourself and demonstrate your commitment to the sport. I also think it’s amazing that you had the opportunity to practice under a kyudan sensei. I don’t know much about the intricacies of kendo, but it’s clear that this was a very big deal. I think it’s great that you were able to combine exercise, Japanese language practice, and socializing with local people in your CIP, and I can see that this was a very valuable experience!

    How do you think the lessons you learned through your CIP will translate to your kendo practice back at home?

    • Hey Mira, yeah it was definitely nice to be able to wrap so much up into one CIP, although I have now promised to show a lot of people around NYC if they visit. As for how my experiance will transfer to my practice back home there are a couple things. First off I have a much deeper understanding of how to teach beginners. Helping Senseis in Japan with the Friday children’s class taught me a lot of drills and a lot about how to make learning the basics fun and less intimidating than the way we currently do it at Columbia. Although I would be fool hardy to think I can do as good a job as any of our Sensei at Columbia, as one of our officers I do have to lead practice from time to time so this new skill set in teaching will be invaluable. Second my own thought process on practice has changed a lot. Before coming to Japan I was hyper focused on practicing skills that would help me win tournaments or were “strong” and often times this meant rushing through basics or not taking things like the basic Men (head strike) too seriously, in Japan (especially practicing with Ito sensei), I learned that really mastering the basics and putting 110% into every single swing of your sword is much more meaningful (not to mention stronger) than cutting corners or practicing tricky/sneaky strikes/attacks that in the short term can score points against other low ranking college players, but in the longterm won’t increase my skills or strength. Finally it really clicked for me that practicing Kendo is not a straight path, I often would get frustrated if I was practicing hard but didn’t feel like I was getting stronger or felt that the Waza (technique) I was working on wasn’t useful, but over these couple months it really started clicking that Kendo is a winding path and as long as you are serious and reflect on every practice, every match, and every technique you learn, even if you completely fail, or the technique you learn doesn’t seems useful or you don’t understand it in the moment all these experiences add up and will eventually come together to form your own style and your own Kendo. That being said I am no where near finding my style, but at least now I know what I am working towards!

  2. That CIP sounds super scary wow. But you definitely sound like you enjoyed it! I’ve never participated in anything quite like before, so I would probably be very intimidated. I don’t even think my varsity volleyball team was quite that intense, to be honest. However, it does sound like a place where there is always room and encouragement to grow and to always put all your effort in. It actually reminds me of all the manga that has that character that is always working working working with that scary sensei in the back screaming, but who actually has the best intentions and only wants you to reach your potential. Were there any sayings or advice that you were given by your senseis that really stood out to you?

    • Hey Alexis, yeah it was a little terrifying at times, especially playing some of the higher ranked sensei who, once they get serious, tend to give of a terrifyingly murderous aura! That being said the three pieces of ‘sage wisdom’ that really stuck with me from Japan were:

      1. No matter how much stronger your opponent seems or how famous they are don’t think about what they will do our their Kendo, only focus on your own Kendo. If you worry about their strength instead of focusing on your own you have already lost. I thought this was valuable since sometimes, especially in competition, people can get in their own heads and fail to take obvious oppurtunities to attack or hesitate since they are too worried that it is a trap or that it can’t actually be an opening because their opponent is “too strong” to be that exposed, I have lost a couple matches that I may have won (or at least done better in) due to this fear. I also think it is useful advice for life, it is better to focus on your own abilities and improving yourself before worrying how others may react or their comparative strength.

      2. Practicing Kendo is a winding path. Like what I said in my response to Mira, just because you lost a match, a practice went poorly, or you can’t perform or understand a Waza (technique) you are practicing doesn’t mean that time spent isn’t valuable! Ultimately both your failures and triumphs add to your overall experience and as long as you are always serious about your practice and reflecting on your practice it all adds up and eventual both the good and the bad will become parts of your own style/way of doing Kendo. I think this applies to any skill set you are trying to build!

      3. The final bit of advice that really stuck with me was it seemed almost every sensei kept repeating the old Zen saying, “there are many paths up the mountain” or in other words there is no one right way to practice or approach the ultimate goal of ‘enlightenment’ (in Zen this is extinction in Kendo there is a similar philosophy of being able to extinguish all thoughts and reach a state of Mushin, but it also just means getting good at Kendo lol). In more layman terms just because one method of practice or one way of striking works for one person or one Sensei doesn’t mean it will work for you. Although you need to respect your head Sensei and their teachings, if another teacher shows you something that works better for you, or (once you are stronger) you find a technique or way of moving that works better for you it is okay to pursue that form of action. Sometimes what works for you will change and you will have to make adjustments and that is okay! There are many ways to improve and it is better to focus on your own path than try to follow someone else’s, even if it seems like they are getting stronger or ‘climbing the mountain’ faster than you. The journey is just as important as finally reaching the summit.

      Those are the three pieces of advice that really stuck with me, and although they are all decently generic and things I think are said pretty often, even in the states, they clicked in a whole other way for me during this experience. If I remember anything else I will definitely let you know, and if you have any other questions feel free to ask!