“The night bus to Tokyo: a nine hour hell ride in a muggy sardine can, with an interior that is all too reminiscent of a cheap airport hotel, and a smell to match. This is the chariot of thrifty foreign travelers, poor university students, and gassy old men who snore throughout the night. After an evening of being folded up in a tiny bus seat, breathing in re-circulated air you emerge from the bus greasy and disorientated. You are displaced. It feels like have you just stepped out of the bar to be greeted by the morning sun coming up over the horizon (in this case it will be streaming in between the buildings in Shinjuku) after a long night of drinking. In short I hate the night bus and while I am at it I might as well note that I’m also not particularly keen on Tokyo either. Never-the-less here I am on my way from Osaka to Tokyo. If I am going to subject myself to this kind of abuse then there must be a damn good reason. I’m a man with a mission; I am going to catch wreck at Noma.”
I scratched the above into my journal in the black interior of the night(mare) bus somewhere around 3 AM on May 14th, 2007 on my way to Tokyo. Every serious kenshi knows (hopefully!) about Noma dojo. For many years it was a sort of Mecca for people coming to Japan to train. Flipping through the guestbook one could find signatures from people not only from all over Japan but worldwide. In fact during my first day there, there was also one fellow visiting from Turkey and another from the U.K. Living in Japan it seemed that it would always be accessible, I always said to myself “Someday I am going to take my bogu to Tokyo and train there”, so there was no rush. Then I heard the unbelievable news; Kodansha ltd., a publishing company whose books (on Japanese culture no less!) make up good quarter of my library, was planning to tear down this historic building. I was angry with myself for dragging my heels and never actually making the trip. So with less than a year to go and fire burning bright under my ass I made my pilgrimage to Noma. It would be my first and my last visit.
I stepped off the bus bugged-eyed in Shinjuku. From there I eventually made my way through Ikebukuro and to Gokokuji where I met up with Paul Martin at the nearby subway station. Paul was gracious enough to show me the ropes the first day. I would have been totally lost without his help (Cheers Paul!). We wormed our way through and around the back of the Kodansha corporate head quarters, up some stairs and under a construction site, all the while up a steep hill (the only hill I think I’ve ever encountered in Tokyo). And there it was; I could hear screaming and the crashing sound of bamboo. If practice was not in session one could easily walk by the dojo without ever taking notice. Although its location was not one that people were likely to go wandering by. It was a very rustic building surrounded by corporate storage and shipping facilities (likely that of Kodansha ltd.), hidden by cherry blossom trees and shrubs. All about trucks were coming and going, while just a few meters down hill the noise of jackhammers and all sort of equipment was coming from the construction site of a new office building. This unrefined building with its weather-beaten exterior and surrounding greenery, was very much out of place in the tangled urban mess that is Tokyo.
Before entering, one was supposed to bow to Gokoku-shrine, which was located directly to the right of the dojo entrance (the shrine which was built by Noma Seiji had already been relocated once for the construction of a highway), and once again to the building itself. The interior was dark and dank; it had familiar mildew smell that would have been identical to that of my grandmother’s home if she had kept numerous sets of bogu hanging here and there. Despite all the windows, skylights, and fluorescent lights the training hall it was very dark inside. Participants entered just to the left of the shomen and followed an open corridor that runs the length of the west side of the hall, with sliding glass doors on the right looking out over the garden, and the training hall floor was on the left. Many of the window panes on the doors are cracked and broken, from what I can only imagine were flying shinai as there were many flying about. Hanging all the along this corridor near the ceiling were countless sets of crusty old bogu.
In the back was more bogu hanging and on racks, stands overflowing with shinai and a massive taiko drum. On the opposite side (east side) of the hall were some open rooms, raised about 35 centimeters above the dojo floor. Half the rooms were matted with tatami, and the other half was hard wood floors. The sliding doors that divided these rooms from each other and the hall were removed to provide maximum airflow. This also revealed decorative calligraphy from men like Mochida Moriji hung inside. The shomen was a very large but simple. On the north wall directly in the center a kamidana was fixed above a small room (also raised above the floor). Inside a single scroll hung in the center with another small taiko drum to the left and an offering of sake placed in front of it. Around the inside of this room, on either side of the scroll, magnificent old photographs of Noma Hisashi (author of the Kendo Reader), his father and founder Noma Seiji, Mochida Moriji (10-dan; one of the most famous kenshi of the 20th century), Masuda Shinsuke, and Mochizuki Masafusa (*listed in order from left to right) lined the walls. Under the watchful eyes of the men who made a name out of Noma Dojo, the room was exploding with men and women pouring their hearts into morning practice.
At the end of practice the hall was empty and quiet, quite a contrast to chaos that I originally entered. Standing there silently in the hall, exhausted from practice, under the dull glow coming from the skylights it was hard for me to believe that I was actually on the floor of the dojo built by Noma Seiji with the help of the famed Nakayama Hiromichi (or Hakudo). This building housed many of the most influential kenshi of the 20th century. Men like Mori Torao, nephew of Noma Seiji, who met up with Nakamura Tokichi (who already had over 5,000 pupils) in the United States to help spread kendo. Despite bad relations between the U.S. and Japan leading up to war, he continued his work, helped found the U.S. kendo federation, and became its first chairman. Noma dojo was also the location of the last ever Tenran-jiai (competition in the presence of the Emperor). The building itself stood as a symbol of strength and perseverance. Noma Dojo, which was built only two years after the Great Kanto Earthquake (and the firestorms that followed) had leveled most of Tokyo and the surrounding area, survived the bombing campaign of the Pacific war, and even more miraculously survived the ever-expanding urban sprawl of modern Tokyo up until 2007.
Those few days in Tokyo, practicing at Noma Dojo, is an experience I am not likely to forget. To set foot on the dojo floor, cross swords with many distinguished kenshi, and mix your spirit with all of those who have come before is something that is indescribable. I left the dojo the following Tuesday morning feeling melancholy; I was grateful that I would be welcomed back, however heartbroken knowing that the dojo would no longer be there. Many members, fellow kenshi, and other sympathizers protested its demolition hoping Kodansha would preserve the building their founder loved so much, but in October of 2007, eighty-three years after its initial construction, Noma Dojo was closed and then decisively wiped out. Along with it a substantial piece of Kendo history was demolished.
Visitors are still welcome at the new Noma dojo but now because it is located inside one of Kodansha’s office building visitors must apply for security clearance in advance. Bits and pieces of the old dojo were preserved and decorate the inside of the new dojo. Although the building is no longer exists, the members carry on the history and tradition everyday by putting on their bogu and practicing. Anything less would be an insult to the men of Noma who were such an important part in the development of kendo.
Please check out the kenshi247 moderated flickr group NOMA DOJO!