Omotesando Dojo

A meet up for keiko was planned on the kendo world forums for the 26th at a dojo in Omotesando (I don't think I ever caught the name of the place). Two other people showed up, a friendly Swede who spoke fluent Japanese (I gather he practises regularly at this dojo), and a polite American who teaches kendo back in the states. They both had far more Japan experience than me, and were also far better at kendo, so I think I was lucky to meet them.

The dojo itself was rather tiny, but still very nice. There was lots of bogu stored in the wall (see photo), the floor was solid but still had some spring to it, the changing room set up was different (as I'm so used to just changing in the dojo), and there were minor differences in rei. We did some kihon and then keiko. I got beaten up as usual, but did one kaishi do that I'm really proud of. The sensei was really nice, he always smiled and laughed whenever I laughed when he got a hit on me (which was all the time, he was super fast!). I also met a Spaniard who works in Japan as a professional photographer, and Kotomi and me talked to him a bit after practise was over.

It was a nice experience and I had fun.



For Sensei sensei -

And the stack of tenagui Kotomi has yet to start on (which will be hard work for her) -


Ok, I passed Ikkyu. Should have done it ages ago. Thank god I finally got it over with.

So, story time.

A really nice woman at Shimpukan, Kimura San, said last week that she would drive us to the grading in Saitama (about 2 hours by train, ouch). She seems to get on really well with Kotomi, and they talk a lot about kendo and the dojo and so on. We were really grateful for her offer. So on Saturday I was to practice with Book-sensei (I don't want to use the real names of some of the teachers here), as he had set the whole thing up for me. He is 7th dan in kendo, 6th dan in Iaido and either 8th dan or 6th dan (can't remember) in Jodo. He used to be a police man and now trains the Metropolitan police force in arresting techniques, and is sent around the world by the AJKF to teach kendo.... wow, what a guy! Anyway, I practised with him for all of two minutes and he said "no problem, just do this tomorrow."

However. Here we go, you knew it was coming. Grumpy had somehow gotten word that I was going to a grading. Remember that he was the one that said grading was out-of-the-question. While we were sitting down talking to someone he told us to go over to Book-sensei and thank him, which we had already done before and which I was going to do again anyway (I like thanking people). So Grumpy pretty much forces us to go over and interrupt Book-sensei's conversation, he tells us to bow to Book-sensi and then bowed with us and said in very proper Japanese (all serious sounding) something like "thank you for giving Benji this opportunity." I was so utterly pissed off. I was being forced to do something which I wanted to do properly, in my own way, later on. And it was obvious that this was Grumpy's way of getting involved.

So anyway, it seems Grumpy told Book-sensei to drive me to the grading (even though Kimura san already said she would), and because, somehow, Grumpy is the leader of the dojo, Book-sensei said he would. To top it off, at the end of the practice Grumpy went up to Book sensei, and in a loud voice so that everyone could hear said "Benji is a vegetarian and doesn't drink alcohol." Thank you Grumpy. He also told Kotomi that we should have applied to the Noda kendo federation to see if I was even allowed to grade... You should have heard Kotomi swearing on the way back home.

Anyway. Turns out that Kimura san would come with us anyway, so she picked us up in the morning (6:45) and drove us out of Noda to where Book sensei was waiting with his wife (who was coming too), she is 6th dan in kendo. His car was like a brand new spaceship lol. He told us he can actually speak English but doesn't because he's Japanese. Utter coolness. We drove for perhaps an hour and a half, and thanks to the state-of-the-art navigation system that every Japanese car seems to have, we arrived at the dojo, which was huge and on the third floor of a sports complex. Kotomi told me that Book-sensei reminds her of a child who constantly has to remind himself that he is an adult and needs to act appropriately. I really like him, he acts very serious, but you can always catch him grinning when no one is watching.

The grading was for junior-highschool students. I think that's about 10-15 years old maybe. The only foreigner there, and obviously not in junior-high. Also by far the tallest, even among the parents watching on. Sigh.

The grading went fine. I was nervous as hell, but more about falling over in sankyo than about my kendo. Once the keiko started I just went at it. I fought against two pretty tall kids, but it was obvious they were scared of me. Then kata afterwards. And 20 minutes of standing listening to the grading panel talk about kendo. In Japanese. But it was pretty cool seeing an old guy in a suit get up and grab a shinai and do a perfect men cut so that the hall shook. When they told us we could leave you could hear the kids swearing under their breath (making kids stand and listen to lectures isn't going to keep them interested in kendo). They posted the numbers of those who had passed on the wall (very traditional in Japan), and it was hilarious to see the little kids run up and scream and cheer. They seemed really happy. I was handed my certificate (which usually takes 2 weeks) because they knew I was leaving soon. The Japanese certificates are far nicer than the New Zealand ones... something should be done about that. I also went up to the two kids who had done keiko with me and apologised. They thought it was pretty funny. I hope I didn't hit them to hard.

I packed up and we left. Sensei said we should eat to celebrate, so we went and had some pasts and pizza. He rang Grumpy from his phone to tell him I had passed, and said "thanks to your amazing teaching Benji has passed Ikkyu" with a grin, and Kotomi and Kimura san could hardly contain their laughter. It turn out everyone thinks Grumpy is a little strange, but everyone has to stay on his good side because he sort of controls the dojo. I don't quite get all of it. Sensei and his wife refused our money when we tried to pay for the food. Then Sensei gave me a shinai, which he had set up himself, and which was like the ones he always uses (probably super expensive). Then his wife gave me a traditional piece of cloth used to wrap gi and hakama in, and two tenagui. I was bowing and saying arigato over and over. I should be the one giving presents >.> When they dropped us off we gave them money for the petrol, which they at first refused, but took when we insisted quite strongly.

And then we drove home with Kimura san, talking about all sorts of stuff. A good day I think.

Here are the videos. I did almost everything wrong, but oh well. Learn from your mistakes, and from slow motion frame-by-frame replays lol.


The other day on our way to the dojo we were about to cross a road when we saw a man lying on his side next to an overturned bicycle a few meters down the footpath. A woman had stopped her car and was getting out, so it looked like she had hit him. We went over to see if we could help (and because of the underlying inquisitive nature all humans seem to posses). The man was very old, and was bleeding from his head. He was talking in Japanese, but it sounded pretty incoherent, and was making strange movements. The woman was trying to console him, while I took off my hoody and put it under his head, and Kotomi called an ambulance. Several other people stopped their cars and came over, some got towels and other got umbrellas to hold over the man, as it was raining. Another woman spoke to me in pretty good English, she sounded a bit panicky, so I told her to keep the old man awake until the ambulance arrived and to talk softly so not to scare him.

Kotomi told me to go to kendo, as I was supposed to come early to meet with a sensei. So I left. She came to the dojo about 15 minutes after me. Apparently the old man had been drunk and had tried to ride his bicycle home. He had fallen off about 20 meters from his house and knocked his head pretty hard. He wasn't aware that he was bleeding, and didn't know why there were people crowding around him. When someone told him an ambulance was coming he got scared and said he didn't want that in case his son found out. Maybe he wasn't supposed to be drinking?

Anyway. I've heard that rubbernecking, the act of crowding around accidents, is quite common in Japan. If there's a crash on the motorway, people will slow down and take photos as they pass. And even Kotomi's dad, when he heard there had been a house fire in Noda, walked to the site just to have a look.

But in this one incident I saw a lot of very kind and helpful Japanese people who's intentions were to help someone in need. I wonder if people would act this way in New Zealand?

Dojo Drama

So I mentioned that Grumpy seems to hate the Shinmeikan dojo. A little light has been shed onto why that is. Apparently quite some time ago there were 4 leaders of Shimpukan, but they were getting on in their years, so someone (perhaps Grumpy) relived them of their leadership roles. They weren't kicked out of the dojo, but 3 of them, apparently to keep their pride, refused to come back. These three are now teaching at Shinmeikan. I don't know if they started the dojo, or if they just joined up. The fourth one still comes to Shimpukan, but I've heard several people say that he does "funny" kendo, which is a mixture of old age and the "traditional" kendo which he was taught when he was young.


No idea why I'm building this shinai. It's the one I wrote about a while ago, the one I got for half-price. Bought a nice tsuba for it today. Don't think I'll ever use it for keiko though... would almost be a shame.

Also bought two more shinai to take back to New Zealand, super big grip. I've always had a bad feeling about the shop we go to: they never seem to care for their customers, and when we ask questions (like 'which shinai has the biggest grip?' or 'do you have this shinai bag in a green colour?') they don't seem to know the answer and look around stupidly.

I only found out at home that they had put a 38" tsukagawa (grip) on one of them (a 39" shinai). We rang them up and asked them to send us a proper grip. They agreed but said they always put those grips on the larger shinai... yea right, not on any of the 5 shinai I've bought there so far. I'm happy that I won't be going back to that shop any more.


Grading and Kendo Attitude

Firstly, it seems I will be attending a grading in Japan. In two days in fact. I'm nervous.

I initially asked some teachers at the dojo if I could attend a grading somewhere, because, well, I have to get ikkyu some day anyway, and I might as well get it over with. They all said they did not know of any dojos that were grading in August, and Grumpy, of course, flat out said that I can't grade in Japan.

However, Kotomi found a dojo in a neighbouring prefecture which was holding an ikkyu grading, but for children. She mentioned this to one of the nice sensei at shimpukan, and he said he knew the dojo leader and would talk to him. Apparently he convinced him to let me attend. So on Sunday it's grading time. I'm scared.

I have only ever attended one grading before, and it was a disaster. I was pretty much a complete beginner. I didn't have my shinai, so I had to borrow someone else's, which felt really tiny in my hands. They asked us to do stuff I had never done before, and I got 6th kyu, the grade everyone starts on any way.

Oh well, I'll just think of Michael Phelps. What would Michael Phelps do? He wouldn't be this nervous, right?


A female member of shimpukan told Kotomi (they talk a lot in the changing rooms) that Grumpy got drunk one night and started talking about us. He said "who the fuck took them to shinmeikan?!?" (The Sunday dojo). Apparently he really hates the dojo. Also he complained about the fact that we are going to both dojos, and that this is not acceptable. It seems people should only attend one dojo, and have one sensei, and going to two or more at the same time is rude or disrespectful. Well, no one ever told us. And Hirai sensei teaches at both. And even if someone had told us, I would have pointed out to them that I'm just visiting, and that I just want to do kendo, and that they can stick their tradition wherever they want. If there is no class on Sunday, or any other day, then I'll bloody well go practice kendo somewhere else. Oh, and Grumpy is pissed of that Kotomi's name bag says 'Noda' instead of 'Shinpukan'.

Even worse, he has been getting on Kotomi's nerves lately. First he wanted to give her all the bogu he had lent her, which is strange. Then he said he would get better bogu for her soon, which she never asked for. When she said she was going to buy her own he offered to take her to a certain shop where he could get her big discounts. Normally this sort of thing would be great coming from a nice sensei, but somehow coming from him it is unnerving. Sometimes he makes inappropriate comments, like saying "I missed you" when Kotomi didn't show up to practice. And when she practices with other teachers (which she enjoys) he always manages to criticize something, sometimes even saying "your kendo was horrible today."

Yesterday, after mokuso, he suddenly told some young kid (about 16) sitting next to me to go to the end of the line, so he had to pick up his shinai and bogu, get up, walk all the way to the end past the beginners and sit down again. And why? Well, we have no idea. He only comes every now and then, so perhaps because he is a visitor? But other visitors are not forced to sit behind the beginners (he was pretty good too). I think it was just because Grumpy just wanted to assert some authority, because no one else seems to recognise it.

I think Grumpy's kendo attitude is bad. And I think it shows in his kendo. He seems arrogant, and bent over and twitchy like an old wrinkly man. When I compare him to Hirai sensei, the calm and polite teacher, it is obvious who is the greater person. His kendo is also not very good: he has no ki-ken-tai ichi, he leans to his left all the time, his kirikashi looks like he's butchering something. He thinks of himself as the best, and is blind to his own mistakes. And no one would ever dare to tell him otherwise. A few days ago Tough sensei beat the shit out of him, and god did he look angry afterwards (but I think Tough sensei was being a bit arrogant, he wasn't even trying very hard haha).

I think all this is a good experience, it shows me how not to act and how not to treat people. But I do wish Kotomi had started at another dojo, or at least with another teacher.


Books and Photos

While sitting down drinking tea after kendo last Sunday, I came across a collection of old books. They appear to be an encyclopaedia on Japanese martial arts, such as Kyudo, Ninjitsu (lol), Judo, Karate and so on. Most of each book consists of writing (in Japanese) and some black and white newsprint type photos.

But at the start of each book there are several pages of glossy full-page photography. Absolutely beautiful photography.

I asked Sensei sensei if I could borrow some of them, and he happily let me. I have tried to scan as best I can some of the kendo related photos, below. Click on the images to enlarge them. Enjoy. (Also, if anyone knows how to get rid of the light patches everywhere, please let me know.)



I was sick since last Monday. It's always Monday night that gets me sick. Might have something to do with the way grumpy (it obviously makes him happy tat he's the only teacher for once) always explains things so tediously, while everyone else is standing there in the cold draft, saying hai. After he's finished we get to practice something, maybe 5 hits, then he starts talking again. I really don't think kendo should be taught like this.

Anyway. Come Sunday I felt well enough to go to kendo again. We did like 20 laps of the dojo to start with, then sensei sensei's gruelling exercise regime which involves push-ups, sit-ups, tonnes of squats and so on. And I had just gotten out of the house for the first time in a week; I was dead tired and we hadn't even started kendo yet :(

Still, after practice I felt pain in all the right places, which I guess means I've been using the right muscles.

Some photos. Kotomi and sensei sensei:

Me hitting men on Happy guy:


Sodo Yokoyama and Keikoen Park

Sodo Yokoyama was a Zen monk who lived in Komoro, Nagano. Every day of the year he would come to Kaikoen park to sit zazen, serve people tea, write calligraphy and play the leaf flute. I first read about him in Arthur Braverman's book Living and Dying in Zazen. I have uploaded the first few pages on Yokoyama below. After you have read them you will probably understand why I felt an instant affection for this childish and playful monk (or Zen master). He reminded me of a passage in Shunryu Suzuki's book Not Always So which I have always held close to me:

"Whatever happens, whether you think it is good or bad, study closely and see what you can find out. This is the fundamental attitude. Sometimes you will do things without much reason, like a child who draws pictures whether they are good or bad. If that is difficult for you, you are not actually ready to practise zazen."

Sadly Yokoyama died in 1980. Braverman recently wrote a short article about visiting the park again, and talking to Yokoyama's only deciple. After reading it I decided that I had to visit the park myself, and I was overjoyed to find that it was only 2 hours drive from where I live.

The park itself is very beautiful. Below is a video I made with photos of the park and a recording of Yokoyama's leaf music which played from a small electronic box where he used to sit (something which he would probably find very amusing). Go to the youtube site to see it in better quality.

The only sad thing about the park was a horrible animal zoo adjoined to it. The zoo was in a devastated condition, it smelt like shit because the cages had not been cleaned for a while (there was shit in some of the animal's drinking water, and it's summer now in Japan), the cages themselves were far too small and completely bare. I decided not to take any photos. Kotomi and I released a small squirrel that was locked up in a 30cm square cage out in the sun with no shade. I hope it survives. I felt really depressed after leaving that place.



Well, seems like I won't be getting to a grading in Japan. Kotomi has been ringing all the neighbouring prefectures asking if they will have a grading in August. Most won't be, some are only for children, and some insist that the person grading has to actually live in the prefecture. And this is even before we tell them that I'm a foreigner who understands very little Japanese, who can't write Japanese, and who's probably going to make grading difficult for any opponent (because of hight, although I'm sure people won't care much).

Kotomi is still waiting on a few replies, and the teachers at my dojo have said they will make inquiries, but it doesn't seem likely.

I've been told that the grading system has changed. It used to be that if you had enough high level sensei at a dojo you could set up grading at any time. If they said you were shodan, you were shodan. But now (although I probably misunderstood) there are very strict rules about grading, and everything has to be organised through the federations.

Hirai sensei said to me, "If I could give you shodan I would, but I can't." He also said that grading is not important, that I should practice more instead. Perhaps some day I will be able to share this sentiment... when I am 7th dan too ^^


Shinmeikan (Sunday Dojo) Leaving Dinner

I should write about this while it's still fresh in my head.

Today we had a leaving dinner. Most of the people from the Sunday dojo came.

So. Happy guy is standing in the blue t-shirt on the left. Sensei sensei is at the back with a red shirt. I'm the obvious gajin. I'm sorry for not being photogenic. Not my fault :( Kotomi is behind me. Totoro sensei is the big guy. Hits-too-hard guy is in the white shirt in front of him. Hirai sensei is the guy with the glasses. The others I have hardly met as they don't come often.

Sensei sensei and Totoro sensei (he just got 6th dan).

Happy guy and Musasi (because his last name is Miyamoto. He's not in the first picture for some reason) talk about footwork.

Sensei sensei and me.

Everyone again. Me trying to be short.

Anyway. The food was not so nice, but it didn't matter because everyone got drunk and we all talked about lost of stuff. Kotomi got really confused sometimes because she had to translate everything (she even started talking to me in Japanese once or twice). I had in-depth kendo discussions with Hirai sensei (7th dan koshi). He also teaches at Shimpukan (my other dojo) and teaches little kids 3 times a week AND practices with a hachidan twice a month. He was on the cover of a Japan kendo magazine this year, so I'll try and find it. He said he would really like to come to New Zealand (and he actually meant it, not just drunk talk). We talked about the difference between sport kendo and "correct" kendo, and he made me promise to always practice correct kendo. I said I fully agree with what he says, but then he said to me, and this is important, "that might be so, but I see that when you actually practice kendo you forget this." He is so right.

Sensei sensei got really really drunk and started hugging everyone. He actually cried and said he was worried I would forget him. I had to reassure him like 10 times that I wouldn't. He said I should take what I have learnt in Japan and spread Japanese kendo in New Zealand (actually, I think my NZ senseis already do really good Japanese kendo??). I mentioned that I want to build a dojo one day (wood and land is cheap in NZ) and mentioned that if he ever rips the floor out of his dojo (which he is planning to do) that he should send me some of it. He said it was an awesome idea haha.

Ummm. Everyone made little speeches. I said thank you for letting me hit you. Thank you for teaching me. And please stop crying sensei I'm still here for another month :(

Kotomi and me also came up with a good idea for presents. For Sensei sensei I'll give him one of the photos in a frame, and also a tenagui with Kotomi's calligraphy on it. Just one kanji: teaching (or something like that) because he likes to teach so much. So we'll do this for all my sensei, give them tenagui with a kanji related to their nicknames or personalities. Hirai sensei will have "noble", Yamazaki sensei will have "spirit", Tough sensei will have "strength" and so on. But for Grumpy sensei... well, perhaps we could write "happiness" and hope he wears it?

Anyway. I had a great time today, and I know I will seriously miss everyone here.


Fixed Kote

He did a pretty good job of it. Hope it lasts.