I picked up my first nama-kiji dou in 2015, as a sort of present to myself. Up until that time – unbelievably – I’d never had a bamboo dou. There were a couple of reasons why I didn’t get one: the main one being economic, and the second that I thought that (somehow) a bamboo dou would be really heavy (not necessarily true).
With these reasons in mind I never really thought about buying one until one day I walked into my local kendo shop and – boom – there was a beautiful bamboo dou-dai sitting on top of the counter. Within about 3 minutes I said “I’ll take it!” It was pure impulse buy.
So, even relatively new kenshi 24/7 readers probably realise that I’m a bit old-fashioned when it comes to kendo/budo things, perhaps you could even call me a bit of an antiquarian (though kendo stuff isn’t really that ancient!). My passion for old kendo things falls mainly in four areas: books, equipment, dojo, and people. A fifth area – my classical swordsmanship background – I have yet to discuss in detail on kenshi 24/7. Maybe in the future.
Anyway, today’s post is an introduction/review of two pieces of kendo equipment that were 100% custom made for me with my penchant for the old-fashioned in mind.
I’m not sure how many years ago it started – seven or eight maybe? – but mendare started to get shorter. Nowadays I see even highly experienced people having the mendare of their old men cut down… and it drives me crazy! Why do they do this? I think longer mendare look cool. I have a couple of newer men that have super short mendare and, sure, while they may be easier to use, I’m really not a fan. Although the men themselves might be fine, the short mendare bother me!
The final picture shows a comparison between the new men (at the front) with the practise bogu set I got from KendoStar last year with the shorter mendare. The length difference is quite noticeable – don’t you think longer mendare look better?
Note that the practise set is absolutely fine for keiko (I use it regularly), I just prefer the aesthetic of the new one.
I’ve been using the men daily now for about two weeks (for basics and jigeiko) and, although it took a keiko or so to sit right on my head, I am now using it without any problems whatsoever. Not only does it look cool, but it’s light, durable, and – especially important for me as a kendo teacher – protective. A visiting sensei from another school said the men had a “subtle design” and looked “dignified” which I thought was a great complement.
BTW, because they are light and flexible, the longer mendare do not interfere with my keiko at all, even when I do jodan.
After two weeks of heavy usage at work I have now taken the men home and will use it as my main men for special occasions, the first of which will be a special Kyoto-Osaka keikokai tomorrow in the Butokuden, and the next my tachiai at this years Kyoto Taikai.
Kote (old style navy and white)
Before reading anything, feast your eyes on these beauties:
This is a 100% fully custom design of KendoStar’s Ousei model. This is the second kote I’ve had custom made, the first was this pair:
Looking at both sets of kote you are probably thinking I have some desire to stick out or be different from the people around me, but this is far from the truth. In Japan I often find myself as the only non-Japanese person in the dojo – in fact it’s been this way for over a decade; and as the only non-Japanese high school teacher in Japan, I am routinely in a position where I noticeably stick out… which, honestly speaking, I don’t care for. The rationale for having both designs of kote made was inspired simply by my passion for kendo history. If you look back a few decades in kendo’s history you’d see that both of these styles used to be normal.
I bought these kote primarilly for use in my work dojo, so although the colour/design of the kote provided inspiration, they still have to be useable in my daily hard keiko sessions. This meant they had to survive being repetitively struck firmly on a day-to-day basis as well as allow a good range of motion to execute a variety of attacks. The result after two full weeks of usage: Awesome.
I originally planned this post to be a discussion on bogu style, but somehow it’s become a bogu review piece! Anyway, to summarise…
The primary job of bogu is simple: protection. It’s secondary job is to allow freedom of movement. Only once these two are balanced out does the style element come into play. A lot of newer bogu nowadays seem to be designed in reverse order: looks -> flexibility/lightness -> protection. Over the last few years I’ve used some pretty terrible men, ones that were so light I basically couldn’t use them for kihon practise, and receiving uchikomi or kakarigeiko (a daily event for a school kendo teacher) was recipe for bruising at best and concussion at worst. Luckily neither of the bogu parts I introduced today has these problem: both pieces are protective, durable, and I foresee using them for years to come.
The style of the kote that I introduced here (like my prior beige ones) were completely normal for most of kendo’s history, and it’s a shame that you barely seem them anymore except for use by kids. I personally think they are cool. The only downside is that they will inevitably get smudged, but that’s cool too!
The men shown here isn’t particularly “old-style” I think, mainly because I’m not yet brave enough to get a lighter coloured stripe around the front of the men (like you can see in the Takano Sasaburo picture at the top of the article). The only thing it does really is buck the short mendare trend. Next time you buy a men, get a long mendare please, I promise you that you will look cooler!!
KendoStar discount for kenshi 24/7 readers!!
After telling Andy at KendoStar that I wrote this post he kindly gave a discount code for kenshi 24/7 readers to use, which is nice for you guys because I payed full price for the custom men and kote!
Discount code: KENSHI247
Discount: 10% off any order of anythingfrom the KAISEI Series (set and separate parts), as well as the KAISEI Wraith series (set and separate parts), plus the OUSEI Kote
Update: the above discount code can now be used for anything KendoStar product!
Please visit KendoStar.com to see the separate parts as well as the other products they have on sale.
Recently, I custom ordered another smaller-sized tsuba (I prefer using super small tsuba) and, as a bonus, I received another gorgeous wave decorated one as well. Looking at the pictures below, I’m sure you’ll agree they really are works of art.
The following is a slightly revised and renewed essay from kenshi 24/7’s now unavailable mini-publication “Kenkyu and Kufu” originally published in 2014. Current publications can be viewed at kendo-book.com.
If you watched the final of the All Japan Kendo Championships last November (2013) you might have watched the two finalists put on their bogu and stand up prior to the match. Did you notice that – soon to be 3rd time winner – Uchimura Ryoichi picked up his shinai with his right hand first before switching it to his left as he stood? Years ago I was told that the Tokyo Metropolitan (Keishicho) police kendo squad did this to deliberately differentiate themselves from others, sort of like saying “we are special, better than you.” Of course, this is not the reason at all.
In almost every kendo club you attend, whether that be here in Japan or abroad, everyone places their men and kote on their right hand side when sitting in seiza, and their shinai on the left. The direction the kote point differ depending on the dojo, but in general things are orientated in this manner. There is nothing explicitly said about which way the tsuru on the shinai should be facing, but most people tend to point it down.
As some may have already realised, this is completely different to the way we are taught to handle bokuto (or kata-yo katana) in kata training: in seiza, bokuto are placed on our right hand side with the blade facing inwards. The reason often given for this is that it’s a non-threatening posture and, indeed, seemingly it was common that samurai did this with their weapons when sitting.
If the shinai is meant to represent a conceptual sword, why then do the majority of kendo practitioners sit in the way they do? Why don’t we place the shinai on the right (with the tsuru facing outwards) and our bogu on the left?
I’ve read two anecdotes about how this situation occurred. The first is that the Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei (ZNKR) first made it standard to place the shinai on the left hand side and the bogu on the right after World War 2. It was deemed less difficult for young kids to master, which of course may be true (confusingly, the child-orientated Bokuto Ni Yoru Kihon Keiko-ho that was introduced in the 2000s uses the standard bokuto-on-the-right arrangement). Another story is that it became an issue during the 3rd World Kendo Championships. When the Japanese team lined up 2 members were from Keishicho, the other 3 were teachers. Naturally the 2 Keishicho kenshi placed their shinai on the right whereas the teachers placed it on their left. “Shouldn’t we all be doing it the same way?” one Japanese competitor asked the manager. “Well, just for now place the shinai on your left.” After the competition was over the issue was raised back home and the ZNKR sensei took a vote. It was decided – by a margin of a single vote – that the shinai should be placed on the left.
I’m not sure of the extent of the truth behind either anecdote, but the fact of the matter is that we seem to have different reigi depending if you are holding a shinai or a bokuto. I think it would not only be less confusing (for all involved) but also in line with the shinai-as-a-sword concept if we handled our shinai as we do our bokuto, assuming of course that this concept is indeed important.
Earlier this year I was delighted (jealous!) when my friend Andy decided to break free of the shackles of Japanese company life and go independent. Out of his new projects, his new online bogu company with a super cute name – KendoStar – is what interests me the most. The idea behind KendoStar is to provide Japanese-made bogu tailored specifically for the international kendo community (rather than for the domestic Japanese market).
KendoStar’s flagship Kaisei model looks delicious but, since I don’t reaaaaaally need something of this quality at this time, I couldn’t justify picking up a set (maybe later!). The more reasonably priced Shinsei model, however, I could.
As the website description stated that it is designed “to be a functional and practical armour set… with a simple, yet elegant design” and “a fantastic option for experienced Kendoka, who need a second set for travel, or as a good-value main set to replace a borrowed, or worn-out armour” I had a couple of jobs perfect for the Shinsei model:
1. to act as a rotation-set for my work keiko sessions;
2. to use sometimes when I travel directly from work to a degeiko session.
I used to keep two full sets of bogu at work for these reasons, but I was forced to retire one after it fell apart after 10 years of abuse (that men was also very heavy and not conducive to lugging around). So with these two excuses in mind I ordered myself a set.
After using the set for the past two weeks here are my thoughts.
(Note that I got the men, kote, tare value set, no dou)
I had two immediate impressions of the men when I unboxed it at first, first that it looked really nice (as you can see on the picture above), and second that it was super light. Putting it on that first day it basically felt like I wasn’t actually wearing anything it was that light. At first this was quite disconcerting, but eventually I forgot about it and got on with keiko.
Despite being so light the men stood up to getting struck repeatedly during hard kihon sessions over the past two weeks easily. I think this is the 6mm tighter stitching working it’s protective magic. Off-target strikes on the mendare also benefited from extra protection/durability due to the use of gunome-zashi (check the description on the website).
I do have one aesthetic caveat about the men, which is complete personal preference – I prefer longer mendare. It is the fashion here in Japan nowadays to have shorter mendare, and I do know many people that have taken their old men and cut them down, but I personally prefer them long. YMMV.
The kote are excellent: the wrist area is super flexible, they felt comfortable from the get-go (they fitted snuggly into my hand after about 10-15 minutes of practice), and the 6mm tighter stitching and extra padding/cushioning protect you from overly heavy strikes.
But what I actually like best about the kote was the shape when holding a shinai. Some kote are kind of inflexible around the wrist area which leads to an uncomfortable or compromised grip position, these kote didn’t have that problem. Happy George!
The tare is basically a tare. It does it’s job! One thing of note is that the obi is of a less thicker material than normal, making it easier to tie and to tuck-in in front of your abdomen.
A nice, no-frills set that does exactly what it sets out to do: offer a reasonably priced yet good quality (and nice looking) bogu that either beginners or advanced people will be happy to use. I plan to use this bogu mainly at my work dojo over the next few years (where I do my most intensive keiko sessions) but I can also see myself using it when I travel due to it’s lightness.
In the future (as soon as I can justify it!) I’m looking forward to picking up one of the more fully customisable sets from KendoStar, but at the moment I’m happy with this one!