DIY#6: Heel supporter

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted any DIY articles, so I thought it was high time I made the effort. This quick post is to help you to easily and quickly save some money (at least those of us that use heel supporters).

For most of my kendo career I never used a heel supporter during keiko. Maybe it was due to ramping up my kendo schedule, but about 4 years ago the heel of my right foot started to become painful during practise. Not a little bit, but a lot… so much so that I couldn’t fumikomi. Some people say that this happens because you don’t stamp properly, but I tend to think its more likely simply a matter of wear and tear just taking its toll (at least in my case). At any rate, since that time I’ve been unable to go back to not using a heel supporter (I tried unsuccessfully).

Due to my keiko schedule I find that a usual kendo heel supporter has a maybe 3 month lifespan before the bottom spongy portion gets so flat that it affords no protection. For a long time I’d simply throw away the supporter and buy another one. Eventually I realised that this was costing me a lot of money, so I started doubling up on supporters, which allowed older supporters to be used for a much longer duration. Eventually, however, they too inevitably had to be discarded.

At some point I realised that all the old supporters were weakening at the same point – a hole would open up at the same place on every one (pictured). Once I discovered this I mulled over a couple of solutions before hitting on a very simple and cost effective one: heel cushions.

What you need

– an old heel supporter
– a heel cushion (I can buy 2 for 100 yen)
– glue
– scissors

What to do

1. Turn the heel supporter inside out.
2. Cut an opening big enough to insert the heel cushion at the worn part.
3. Apply glue to the edges of the heel supporter.
4. Insert and leave to dry.

Thats it!! There are a few different types of heel cushions available, please experiment until you find one that’s comfortable for you.

I hope this short post was useful!!


Update July 2014

Here are another 2 experimental versions of the above. The one on the left glues a heel cushion straight onto the inside of the worn supporter, whereas the one on the right was created by inserting a heel cushion from the outside. Giving them both a try this week.

heel-experiment

Shinai grip 竹刀の握り

Yesterday I popped into my sempai’s kendo shop in central Osaka to buy a shinai. Almost all my shinai have round handles, but sometimes I do use koban (oval-handled) shinai, so I picked one up. I took a snap and posted it on facebook to quickly see if kenshi247 readers also try koban shinai. Of course the answer was in the affermative.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am really picky about shinai. This has led me, over the years, to experiment with different types of shinai, be that lengths, weights, brands, balance, handle length, and even handle shapes. I think only the last one will raise an experienced kenshi’s eyebrows. Even then, for most people a change in handle shape means the decision to use a normal round handled shinai, or the oval, more sword-like, koban handled shinai. Thats it. But the reality is that there are various types of shinai handle shapes out there. Although rare, I’ve tried SQUARE and OCTAGONAL handles, and I’ve heard of triangular and hexagonal.

As a quick comparison, please take a look at these snaps of square, octagonal, and oval handles on these shinai that I own:

But why bother with using a non-round handled shinai anyway? Here are a selection of comments from the original image I posted on facebook:

“I use one pretty regularly. What I like about it (aside from how it fits in the hands) is that it is a more realistic representation of how an actual sword would feel when gripping.”
– Scott

“I use koban only. I feel my grip is more over the top of the Shinai. It helps my seme, tenuchi and feels more like a katana.”
– Simon

“My definitive preference is koban shinais. Considering the shape of a half-closed human hand is that of an oval, I would consider koban to be more anatomically correct, comfortable, and a better representation of a katana grip.”
– Leo

“I did for a while when I had a lot of trouble keeping my hasuji accurate. It also helped strengthen my tenouchi.”
– David

“It helps me with Do(u).”
– Israel

“I love the oval grip. I do notice it tends to make me lazy when using a normal shinai and tend to let the shinai drift from left to right in my grip.”
– Wes

“I prefer koban… I think they’re easier to use than the round grips.”
– Joe

“I started Iaido and Kendo at the same time it only felt natural to have a koban styled shinai.”
– Lance

“After many years of battodo, iaido and taijutsu I couldn’t get used to a standard tsuka, koban gata feels more natural for me and helps with correct hasuji.”
– Graeme

“I started kendo after several years of iaido practice. Koban tsuka was a natural choice.”
– Raymond

I don’t really have too much to add on top of what everyone wrote, but if I try to summarise everything it would go something like this: basically, koban are easier to use because they fit into the hand better, they promote a better awareness of the ‘blade’ part of the shinai (thus leading to better, more correct hasuji), and they fit more into the shinai-as-a-sword part of kendo’s culture. I think the other handle shapes also promote the same things to a degree (though the square shaped handle can bite into the hands a bit).

What I do want to add is this: I think its worth exploring different handle shapes in order to explore how you use your hands, not only in the action of striking, but how the shinai sits in your hands in static kamae, and how this changes during the actions of osae, harai, etc. For me personally it took a long time (over 15 years?) to begin to become aware the subtleties of finger use and to wake up to the fact that my grip was constantly changing during an encounter (and that this is normal). Also – and this is an important point for me in particular – deeper understanding of shinogi use and concomitant change in how the wrists work – is very hard if not impossible to come by while using only a round handle.

At any rate, although you can do all this with a normal, round-handled shinai anyway, I do think its a good exercise to use an oval (or whatever) handled shinai now and then in order to explore what your hands and fingers are doing during keiko. Try it!

I’m super busy at the moment, so this article was a little bit rushed… I hope it actually makes sense! Feel free to comment on facebook or below. Cheers!

Men no tsukekata

In the kendo that we do nowadays there are two styles of tying the men: the ‘Kansai’ or the ‘Kanto’ style. The second of the two tends to be the most common. The difference in attaching the chichi-gawa (leather straps) to the men, and tying the men is as follows:

‘Kanto’ (pictured below) – both chichi-gawa are attached to the fourth bar from the bottom of the men, on the left and right sides. You then tie the men to your head by winding the the himo (strings) around your head once and threading through the top of the grill before taking around to the back of your head and tying. This style is the easiest of the two and it takes little time for the experienced kenshi to get their men on and be ready for action.

‘Kansai’ (pictured in the title) – a single long chichi-gawa is threaded through the top of the men grill and attached securely. To tie the men to your head you then wind the himo around your head and cross over in front of the tsukidare before winding back up and through the top grill. You then finish by winding to your back of the head and tying. This is the more complicated style and as such it often takes longer to tie your men, though once done its a lot more secure than the first method mentioned above.

Both styles are equally as orthodox and each is as correct as the other (at least nowadays).

Of course, all this is commonly known to kenshi, even relatively inexperienced ones, so why bother mentioning it now? Naturally sceptical by nature, I’ve always been bothered by the ‘Kansai’ and ‘Kanto’ appellations. They just don’t make sense (I’ll explain my rationale below). Why are they actually called this? What are the origins of these naming conventions?

Apart from a small piece of first hand information from Nakayama Hakudo, I’ll admit that I don’t know precisely. I’ve kept an eye out for more information regarding this, but I’ve never (yet) found anything even semi-conclusive (save Nakayama’s words). I suspect there may be some Butokukai manuals somewhere with more information, or some early ZNKR rules detailing whats ok and whats not, but I’ve yet to see them. At any rate, here is my conclusions on the matter (at this point of time. If any kenshi247 reader has more information, please get it to me!).

Please note that this is highly speculative and hardly a scientific study. I have more of a ‘gut’ feeling on the topic more than anything academically convincing!

What Nakayama said

A couple of years ago when I was researching a different matter (see The white hakama of Yushinkan) I stumbled upon the only real information I’ve seen on the matter: in the text referenced in the above article Nakayama clearly states that using shorter men-himo and tying from the bottom-up (i.e. the ‘Kanto’ style) was his invention. He says that he made all his students tie their men like this but when they visited other dojo they’d stop using it (replaced with what he doesn’t mention). He goes as far as to mention that there was a time where the Butokukai took up this style as their official method, but that they too eventually stopped using it (no reason was given).

Please note that I have no date for what was said above.

Evidence in media

We basically have three areas that we can look at: film, photography, and books.

Looking at pre-WWII film and photography (on the net or ZNKR videos for film and in books for photos) we can easily see that there was a wide variation in men tying styles, enough to seem random at times. This suggests a lack of standardisation or, perhaps, no application of any standards that might have existed (at least, for those who weren’t professional kenshi). Written description in a number of older books, however, tend to have (the ones I own at least) descriptions of the top-down style.

You can easily find pre-WWII film and photos on the net.

Regional evidence – Kansai viewpoint

I live in Kansai. I can honestly say that the ‘Kansai’ style is the minority method nowadays. I suspect its the same in Kanto as well. So why may the style have been called ‘Kansai’? Thinking about this, the only rational explanation I can come up with is because the Butokukai’s HQ was in Kyoto, which is in Kansai. It makes perfect sense to me that the Budo Senmon Gakko (Busen, the Butokukai’s school for teaching kendo instructors) would have a set method for tying the men. Even though students would come from all over the country (and most go back to teach in their respective areas), I’d assume that they’d be drilled with the ‘correct’ way of tying the men, as they would have been with men-cutting, kirikaeshi, etc.

But then I got to thinking – who were some of the main teachers at Busen, and where did they come from? Of course, the name that pops up first is Naito Takaharu… a Mito Tobukan kenshi (Ibaraki prefecture – Kanto) who spent time at Keishicho (Tokyo – Kanto). One of his senior aids was of course Mona Tadashi, who also went the Tobukan-Keishicho route. I suspect that they would have taught the men-tying techniques they were schooled in (i.e. Tobukan).

Why the popularity of ‘Kanto’ over ‘Kansai’ in modern times?

Again, I have no academic answer to this, only speculation, but I suspect it was something that happened as a result of the de-militarisation of kendo after the WWII, in particular its promotion as something that was neither violent nor nationalistic, and its new ‘sport-like’ veneer. The largest impact of this was the opening up of kendo to participation of women and children.

Two points:

1. The addition of women and children to kendo meant that some of the rough and tumble moves were eliminated.
2. The top-down ‘Kansai’ method is much more difficult to learn, thus the ‘Kanto’ style became the favoured/defacto tying method to teach children (though perhaps not explicitly stated). Its future popularity was a by-product of this.

Personally, I think point 2 is more important than point 1 when it comes to men tying methods. Point 1 is sometimes mentioned in reference to this by assuming that people stopped doing the top-down ‘Kansai’ method when pulling-men-of rules were stopped… but I’m not so sure that explains it fully. Point 2, for me, explains easier the natural and steady displacement of one over the other (with the other, or variations of it, almost certainly being the common of the two pre-war).

FYI, Japanese kenshi themselves call these tying styles ‘Kansai’ and ‘Kanto’ yet almost no one can give an informed (i.e. researched) answer other than ‘Kanto style was popular in Kanto and Kansai style in Kansai’… even some 8dans (yes, I’ve asked… but only after a few beers). I think this is evidence of point 2 above.

Example of men tying styles from 1925

Its all getting confusing!

Yes it is, very much so… but that won’t stop me from making an educated (if speculative!) wild stab:

– In the early days of kendo there were no set-in-stone men tying styles;
– The ‘Kansai’ appellation perhaps derives from what was taught at Busen (HQ’ed in Kansai);
– However, the term ‘Kansai’ is a misnomer because it was the style promulgated by people from Kanto (i.e. the Busen teachers);
– This top-down ‘Kansai’ method was probably the most popular style pre-war;
– The ‘Kanto’ method likely derives originally from Nakama Hakudo, though he never called it this;
– The bottom-up ‘Kanto’ method slowly displaced the other post-war as it was taught to the next generation and is now the defacto standard.

As far as all this wild supposition goes, and if I were to rename these tying styles to something more appropriate, then I’d do something like this:

‘Kansai’ should be renamed the ‘Busen’ or perhaps the ‘traditional’ style;
‘Kanto’ should be renamed the ‘Nakayama’ or ‘modern’ style.

Alternatively – like some bogu manufacturers do – we could just call them style A and B…. problem solved!!!

Shinai Kyogi

しない競技は、終戦後の廃墟と混迷の中から生い立った新しい競技である。
Shinai kyogi was a new sport that sprung up In the ruin and confusion of the post war period.”

… is the first line of the chapter on Shinai-kyogi in the book “How to study kendo” that was published in 1965. It goes on to explain in a bit more detail:

To say it another way: a modern and democratic sport was born out of the older kendo. At the end of the war, when both the outside pressure (GHQ) and self-reproach from inside kendo circles caused the breakup/dissolution of kendo (i.e. the Butokukai) the discipline was at a crossroads; it was at this time a chance was taken and the new sport was created.

At that time the (kendo equipment) manufacturers and kendo exponents wanted to somehow (in any way possible) keep at least the essence of kendo alive but, because of the severity of the situation (the current state of destitution and poverty in post-war Japan combined with the strict law of occupied rule), kendo wasn’t allowed to continue as it was (i.e. it was banned by GHQ).

Despite this situation, the involved parties continued to work ceaselessly in negotiations with the the occupied authority, gathering as much information and working with their total energy and concentration to leave the purity of kendo intact, the result of which was a version of kendo with modern elements added that we call shinai kyogi.”

What follows is a 80 page plus manual of shinai kyogi instruction (the first 230 pages are about kendo).

What was this ‘shinai kyogi,’ where did it spring from, and what happened to it? This article will look very briefly at this often ignored yet important aspect of kendo’s history.

Background

It’s almost certainly probable that kendo only started to become widely practised after its introduction into schools in 1911, and especially once it was made a mandatory part of the education system in the 1930s. Japan at that point was becoming increasingly militaristic and kendo was co-opted as part of the war effort, primarily as a way of ‘spiritual and physical training’ of male youths (girls were eventually made to practise ‘naginata,’ created as a form of calisthenics and thinly disguised budo).

Changes in the development of kendo during the 15 year war period (brief explanation)

Starting from the invasion of Manchuria in 1931, Japan was constantly at a state of war until 1945, a period of over 15 years. As the tension in Japan escalated the younger the age for mandatory kendo training became, and the emphasis on group drills and practise (rather than a person-to-person training) increased. Eventually training took place outside, shinai become shorter and heavier, and even hakama and keikogi were abandoned in favour of trousers and shirts. Rules in kendo competition changed to reflect a more ‘real-life’ situation: ippon-shobu, no katate-waza, no jodan, no nito, and all cuts must be big.

This was the situation of kendo at the time of the end of the war and was the kendo that the American occupation forces banned (the war-cabinet controlled Butokukai dissolved itself under pressure soon after the war ended).

The aftermath of the war

Kendo was banned but – obviously due the sheer number of people who had experience in it – not forgotten. During the banned period various groups continued to practise in secret anyway. A public effort was made to promote kendo at higher diplomatic levels. Often cited at this point is Sasamori Junzo sensei’s (Ono-ha itto-ryu soke) influence: educated in America (PhD from Denver University) and a fluent English speaker (and Christian priest) he worked with GHQ during the occupation period, and supported the re-introduction of kendo in educational circles (he was headmaster of various universities and eventually worked in the Education Ministry. He emerged in the post-war kendo community as the head of the Shinai Kyogi association, then eventually the university kendo association).

Obviously wary about the militarism that was inherent in the immediate pre-war country controlled Butokukai, GHQ was seemingly very reticent to allow its restart. To battle this, the pro-kendo lobby introduced not ‘kendo’ but a new kendo-inspired sport called ‘shinai kyogi.’ Renamed, and without some of the more nationalist attributes, it wasn’t ‘kendo’ per-se, but it was to have a long lasting on the art.


What follows here is some information about the sport itself.

Name and term changes

It is important to note that the ‘shinai’ portion of shinai-kyogi is written in hiragana and not kanji (though there is kanji for it), much like the change that was done for naginata. This might not seem particularly important to non-Japanese speakers, but it had 2 effects:

1. It explicitly removed the ‘weapon’ aspect of the arts name, thus giving it a “softer, less violent feeling”;

2. It gave the sense that something new was being made. In the naginata community they actually named it ‘atarashii (new) naginata’ to reflect this. The new sport created from kendo was called ‘shinai KYOGI,’ a term that refers to pure sport.

Not only this, but many long-used words were changed to make shinai-kyogi more sporty for example ‘nafuda’ (name tag) was changed to ‘zekken’ (a term of German origin that refers in Japan to names/numbers on athletes), ‘ippon’ was changed to ‘tokuten’ (points), and tasuki to ‘hyoshiki’ (flag). The white line from where participants start a match was called the ‘shuppatsusen’ or ‘starting line.’

The parts of the bogu were also renamed (see below).

Equipment

Clothing:

– clothes should be made of strong cloth, a tracksuit top and trousers should be worn;
– girls may wear a skirt instead of trousers;
– shiai held outdoors generally require the use of footwear. If the ground is safe then you can use socks or go barefoot;
– any colour may be freely worn but black doesn’t fit with the bogu well, so its banned;
– clothing should be a little bit loose, not tight fitting;

Shinai:

– shinai should be wrapped on the outside with leather (i.e. a fukuro-shinai);
– shinai must be split in either 4, 8, 16, or more pieces;
– shinai must be equal to or less than 3.8 in length and weights where set based on age/gender;
– the kote-dome (i.e. tsuba) must be smaller than 3-sun and made of leather or rubber. It can be of any shape.

Bogu:

– bogu consists of a men, doate, and tebukuro (‘gloves’)*
– names were also given in hiragana MASUKU (‘mask’ i.e. men), PROTEKUTA (‘protector’ i.e. dou), and GURABU (‘glove’ i.e. kote);

* Note that the ‘tsuba’ has been renamed ‘kote dome,’ the kote ‘tebukuro’ (gloves), and other pieces given English-sounding alternatives in order to de-swordify the art and make it seem more sporty, much like the use of the name ‘shinai kyogi’ itself (see above). We could also surmise that this was done to placate GHQ as well.

Rules

Shiaijo:

– usually matches occur indoors, but outside is ok too;
– whether held inside or out the area must be flat and have no obstructions;
– the shiaijo is to be 6×7 meters and have a space of 1.5m between the middle and each player;
– if you are outside you can mark the shiaijo boundaries with stones or paint;
– if the shiaijo is raised it would be preferably if the boundaries were roped (like boxing)*;

* early all Japan championships also seem to have this feature

shiai:

– at the start of the match shinai must not be touching (a change from pre-war);
– shiai were 3 points (pre-war this varied);
– there will be 3 shinpan (apart from tenran shiai, there was almost only ever 1 shinpan, sometimes 2);
– time limits and the use of encho (and hantei) were defined.

hansoku:

– violent behaviour (e.g. taiatari or leg sweeping);
– use of shouts (i.e. kiai);
– going out of bounds.


Impact on kendo

If you look at the history of kendo as told by the ZNKR (All Japan kendo federation) you would be mistaken in thinking that shinai-kyogi had a short life-span and was irrelevant to kendo in the long run. This isn’t true. Although the shinai-kyogi association was created in 1950 and merged with the new ZNKR in 1954, books continued to be written and shiai run for quite some time it seems. The book mentioned in the opening was published in 1965, showing that a full 11 years after the dissolution of the shinai-kyogi association there was still a market for manuals. More than that, just this last weekend (end of January 2012) I found reference to shinai-kyogi shiai results from 1975 in a shiai brochure… a full 21 years after the merge.

So we have shown that shinai-kyogi outlasted its original remit, but what lasting impact – if any – did it have on kendo?

I don’t want to go into the complete ins and outs of this topic as it would require some very detailed research and presentation (maybe in the future). In brief, here are some of the far-reaching impacts of shinai-kyogi. Those in bold are fundamental changes to kendo as it existed prior to or during the war:

– fixing shiaijo sizes;
fixing of shinai weights and lengths;
– definition of time limits;
– creation of a more democracy i.e. males and females could practise and compete equally;
establishing 3 shinpan for all shiai;
disallowing violent actions, specifically foot sweeps;
creation of a ‘sporty’ image.

There are of course more things we can add to this list, for example how a yuko-datotsu was defined, but I will leave it here today.


Shinai-kyogi gallery


Summary

This has only been a very brief look into shinai-kyogi and its impact on modern kendo. We do know it had a massive impact on the kendo community as the sportive element of kendo (introduced by shinai-kyogi) went in a direction and at a speed no-one seemed to predict. Proof of this can be seen in the writing of various senior sensei in the 50s and 60s lamenting over the state of kendo at the time. Their unifying cries ended up with the ZNKR getting together a group of its most senior people; the publication of ‘Concept of Kendo’ was the result.

Unfortunately, the Concept of Kendo didn’t really work out to be the call to rally as expected, and kendos sportive elements have continued to evolve, sometimes seemingly in opposition to its stated goals. The ‘Mindset of Kendo Instruction’ (published 2007) has been a newer initiative to address the situation but its end point may potentially be that as the earlier Concept Of Kendo. Inclusion of kendo as an eveny in the Olympic/GAISF ‘Combat Games’ in 2010 is yet more evidence of the continued sportification of kendo, a process that has its roots in shinai-kyogi. Some people may argue that kendo was heading in this way anyway, but a closer inspection of kendo in the 1930s and during the war suggests that kendo was getting very much back to its roots. That story, however, is for another time.

I hope you found this brief introduction interesting!!!

Check out Morishima Tateo sensei’s ‘Pursuing the spirit of modern kendo‘ for a further insight into the comments above.


Sources

剣道とシナイ競技。小西康裕。1952発行。
剣道の学び方。柏木賢。1965発行。
剣道に内在する武道・スポーツ性について:しない競技規程と剣道試合・審判規則の比較から。国分 国友。鹿屋体育大学。1990発行。
大阪新人大会2012年度BROCHURE。

DIY#5: Take Dou – A Labor of Love

When I heard that my friend Eric Aerts had actually hand made a dou from nothing I had to get an article out of him! He kindly wrote the following and supplied pictures. Check out the link at the end of the article to see more pictures of the various steps. Enjoy!


I can recall my father waking me on Saturday mornings to do maintenance work on his old wooden sailboat and how I would groan and roll my eyes at the prospect of a day spent (wasted) sanding and varnishing in what is the on-going battle for all wooden boat owners against time and the elements. Although it was a truly beautiful vessel, and this a labor of love for my father, it is difficult to explain how much I hated the seemingly endless hours of detailed woodworking and finishing. Despite my childhood aversion to this type of chore, those force-fed lessons would eventually serve me well as I came to relish working and creating with my own hands – certainly, there are few tasks more gratifying. Eventually, I began to combine my love of craftsmanship with another passion – kendo.

Initially, I started by making shinai tsuba – hand-carved from exotic hardwoods to resemble the iron designs of nihonto tsuba. These broke too easily so I made them for bokuto (kendo no kata) instead. Next, I designed and made daisho stands using sambar dear antlers (the first of these as a gift for my sensei).

What I really wanted to tackle, but was honestly a bit intimidated to take-on, was a true take (bamboo) dou; produced using all the traditional techniques. I also knew that I wanted it to have a same (shark) skin finish, which I’ve always been partial to.

Where to start? As you might imagine, there are no (to my knowledge) manuals on how to construct your own bamboo dou and, short of an apprenticeship in Japan, the best I could come up with was a video on Youtube with a 5 minute section on dou manufacturing. I watched this many times – pausing and actually trying to take measurements off my computer screen – and even though it left me with a lot of questions, I at least had a fundamental sense of the construction techniques.

My first challenge was to source the materials – quality bamboo in a 3 ½ – 4 inch diameter and large, tanned shark pelts are not exactly standard New Jersey Home Depot fare. I was extremely lucky in that not far from my home is a family-run company that has been importing bamboo and rattan from around the globe for 130 years. They allowed me roam their enormous warehouse and pick what I wanted – a real treat. When the time came, I also found a very accommodating exotic-pelt importer/distributor who was able to supply me with the same (pronounced “samei”) skin to my exact specifications.

Next, there were a number of tools which I would either need to fabricate entirely, or at least modify from existing tools. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this project was conceiving of ways to resolve the many novel technical challenges – either with the dou itself, or the tools needed to produce it. I must have passed as many hours daydreaming about how to create a certain tool, or to hold something in place, etc., as I did at the worktable actually putting my ideas into play. Although there were times that I ended up having to scrap what I initially thought were genius breakthroughs, I am certain that all that pondering saved me many painful mistakes. Remember, it’s always harder to go backwards.

Bamboo is an amazing material to work with and my appreciation for it grows the more time I spend with it in my hands (both in the dojo and in my workshop). In certain aspects it resembles wood (a species that would have to be extremely dense, long-grained, and impossibly light-weight); however, it reacts differently in different situations and there are important tricks to working with it. It also produces the most horrific splinters you will ever suffer. The best thing to remember when working with bamboo is to soak it thoroughly before splitting, shaving, sawing, or bending/shaping; this will produce better results, more easily, and will save your tools. I learned this lesson the hard way and it was my Japanese wife (with the carpentry skills of a kindergartner), who saw me straining to force a strip of bamboo through a die and said “why don’t you soak it first? That will make it easy – everybody knows that.” Yeah, well, not “everybody” in Jersey.

Now, looking at a doudai (the shell), one might think that this is not such a technical marvel, and certainly, pressing fiberglass resin into a bowl-shaped mold (as with a factory-produced dou) is not. However, try to take a 6-foot section of bamboo and turn it into 60 half-inch curved and hand-tapered strips (that are themselves convex and concave on 2 sides) that fit together in a seamless, symmetrical shape, devoid of a single straight line and that is expected to weather a lifetime of bashing and perspiration, and you will begin to understand why a quality hand-made bamboo dou can run thousands of dollars. Think Swiss watch meets Sherman tank.

This is not meant to be a tutorial on how to make your own dou – that would easily fill a book and to be honest, as I am now beginning to produce my dou for others, there are a few hard-fought proprietary methods I’d like to hold onto (not to worry, if you’re committed, you’ll conquer your own hurdles), but here are the basics:

– You will need roughly 6 feet of 3.5 to 4 inches-in-diameter, good-quality bamboo (get more the 1st time – you will make mistakes); there should be 12 to 14 inches between the nodules and it should not be scarred or too green.
– Remove the skin by sanding or planing (if dry, only sanding will work) and cut just inside the nodules to approximately 11-inch cylinders.
– At this point, you have to make a decision on how to proceed; the raw strips, which must be an exact width and depth, can be produced in one of two ways (both requiring customized tools). In short, you can either use a piston-driven die to split the strips, or a double-bladed saw to cut them.
– Once you have the raw strips, you will need to file and sand the adjoining sides to be sure they fit together without gaps. Then, the ends must be tapered so that when the strips are pulled together, the thinner tops and bottoms will draw together into a convex shape. This will require practice and is part of the art.
– Lay the strips out in the order you plan to use them (I numbered them to keep track) and draw the eventual pattern you will use for your doudai (keeping room on top and bottom for the eventual trimming. The strips will be laced together with 3 nylon strings (2 of these run the full length and one holds the center 20 or so strips at the top portion); draw the lines where these will be placed.
– Soak the strips overnight.
– You are going to be heating and bending the strips into the proper curve, so you will need to construct a frame to hold the bent strips in place as they dry. Heat the strips over an open flame (I used an old BBQ grill) until pliable, bend the strips (I made a half-moon shaped wooden form for this) and place them in the frame. Obviously, you want the outside (or convex side) of the bamboo to be on the inside (or concave) of the curve – this is what gives the inside of the doudai the scalloped lines.
– Once the strips have dried, use the lines you previously drew to drill holes in order to thread the nylon strings as well as the bamboo pins that will hold the strings in place. These will all have to be at exactly the same depth, or the strips will not line up properly.
– Thread all three of the strings; however, you have to tighten, clamp, and pin the center 20 strips with the uppermost string first, as these pins will be covered by the other strips (you will have to recess these strings so the strips on either side can lay flat against each other). Then, clamp all 60 strips as tightly as possible and pin the other two strings.
– Place the doudai over a form with the curve/diameter you want for your finished shape and sand the outside as smooth as possible.
– Now you will need to adhere to the outside of the doudai, an adhesive and cloth combination. Some takezo dou makers use bondo (as in auto body repair bondo) and a type of canvas. Personally, I think this is too brittle and would recommend some type of 2-part marine epoxy and medium weight fiberglass cloth (better strength and flexibility). Only use one cloth layer and one finishing layer – remember, you want this to be as lightweight as possible. Sand smooth.
– I finish my dou with sharkskin, which must be soaked, stretched, dried and glued to the doudai (using the correct glue will be crucial for longevity). Then, I lacquer the inside with a tough marine varnish (why cover that beautiful bamboo with black or red?).
– Cut to pattern, and add the mune, border, and himo loops.

The finished dou. Click to enlarge:

Keep in mind that the above is an extremely paired-down explanation of what is involved in producing a quality bamboo dou and should you wish to finish yours in the traditional urushi lacquer, this is itself an entirely separate art form. That being said, as a fan of things of beauty, which combine form and function, it is a very rewarding craft and one that you will appreciate every time you enter the dojo. For me, the perfect exclamation point on this project was seeing my sensei showing off my dou to another visiting sensei – a better testimonial, I couldn’t have asked for.

If you have any questions, please leave them on the comment section below, or, if you wish to see pictures of my dou and the process of making them, please visit the following Picasa photo album.