During June last year I was invited to join an open keiko session at the dojo which probably has oldest (kendo-related) tradition in the Kansai region. During the break between the kihon and jigeiko parts of the session I was wandering around the dojo looking at the various pieces of calligraphy and what not that were displayed on the walls. One in particular caught my attention: a metre long piece with five tegata, or hand-prints. Inspecting it I saw that it was some sort of commemorative piece with the hand-prints and signatures of the kendo giants Takano Sasaburo, Mochida Seiji, Ogawa Kinnosuke, Saimura Goro, and one other name I couldn’t exactly make out. I didn’t have longer to study it as keiko began again and I mostly forgot about it.
A few months later I was again snooping around a dojo – this time in Nagoya – when I noticed the exact same piece tucked in behind some trophies out of sight. I managed to have it brought out and myself and the Japanese sensei started discussing it. I confirmed my initial suspicion that it was a list of the sensei who took part in the 1940 tenranjiai, with the five tegata being the most senior sensei. The names below this were those that took part in the specialist competition section and the demonstration matches. I realised that not only had I seen the piece at the dojo a few months earlier, but perhaps in a couple of other dojo in the past. However, there was still one niggling puzzle: the name in between Takano and Mochida. The Japanese sensei and myself stood pondering over it for a few moments before keiko began.
Roll on January 2016 and a few days ago, to my surprise, I received a package in the post. Unboxing it I was absolutely delighted to discover it was the piece that I had been looking at in both dojo: one of the sensei in Nagoya managed to somehow source one and have it sent to me!!!! Unfurling it and having a close look I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that it must have been a piece that was on sale (or given away perhaps) around about the time of the 1940 tenranjiai. I’m not sure if the original had red hand-prints or not but I’ve yet to see one. Mine, and the others I’ve seen, are all reproductions in black.
There was still one nagging problem however: the mystery name. Sitting in my quiet living room by myself, it took me less than 3 minutes to work it out. In 1940 who were the top sensei? Who could possibly be above Mochida yet below Takano? Whose name stood out because of it’s absence?
I decided that it could only be Nakayama Hakudo. But what was written there was not anything close to “Nakayama” but something like “Arinobu.” Then it clicked. Nakayama Hakudo inherited the dojo Yushinkan from Negishi Shingoro. The kanji for YU-SHIN is 有信 which, as a name, is read ARI-NOBU. The first kanji of the signature was obvious the HAKU or Hakudo, and the last kanji, when I checked online (it was written in an unfamiliar style), was of-course michi, or DO in Hakudo. In other words, it is unmistakably Nakayama. There are a few reasons why he may have signed his name like this, but I suspect it was just artistic flourish!
Takano Hiromasa (1900-1987), kendo hanshi and headmaster of Itto-ryu*, was the the second son of kendo legend Takano Sasaburo.
A brief bio:
Hiromasa began studying the sword when he was 6 years old in his fathers dojo, Meishinkan. He graduated from Tokyo Shihan Gakko in 1923 and, in 1927, took over the day-to-day running of Meishinkan. At the same time he started teaching kendo at various universities (Waseda, Tokyo Institute of Technology, etc). Between 1936-41 he lived in America and taught kendo at California State University. After returning to Japan he started becoming involved in kendo publications, first by producing a magazine called “Shin-budo” before authoring his own titles. After the war he continued writing kendo books, eventually writing a kenshi-inspired novel. This led to him becoming a budo (swordsmanship) advisor for various plays and movies.
Today, similar to what I did in an earlier article of his fathers writings, I present a sort of mostly-translation plus semi-interpretation of a chapter from Hiromasa’s 1973 “Kendo Dokuhon” (Kendo Reader) entitled “Jotatsu no hiketsu” (the secret to improvement). I hope you enjoy it !
* Itto-ryu that was passed down through the Takano family is refereed to “Nakanishi-ha itto-ryu” nowadays, but it was never referred to this prior to the 1960s: it was always called “Ono-ha itto-ryu.” The change in nomenclature was done, presumably, to establish it as something different from the Ono-ha itto-ryu of Sasamori Junzo who, in 1960, copyrighted the name.
Key’s to improvement in kendo
1. Concentrate on developing willpower
The spiritual power of humans:
Horie Kenichi, a young 23 year old yachtsman, crossed the pacific on his own, from Nishinomiya to San Francisco, in 1963. It took him 94 days. Since his success there have been many other people attempting to copy him, however, it’s like tapping a stone bridge before crossing it (i.e. looking before leaping) their caution makes what they are doing valueless. Horie, on the other hand, dared to do what nobody had ever attempted before, and thus can be said to have great spiritual strength.
On January the 24th 1972 Yokoi Shoichi was captured on the island of Guam after spending 24 years living in a cave. People were struck with admiration at his will power.
Both of these people are good examples of humans spiritual capability.
The first and most essential thing you must develop to improve your kendo is your emotional strength, that is, to have an indomitable spirit.
If the first most important thing for improving your kendo is development of the spirit, then the second is to continually endure the hardships of repeated keiko sessions day-in-and-day-out in the dojo. This of course not limited to kendo, but various things in life: without practise you cannot improve.
As kendo is a physical art, simply thinking about it doesn’t help much – you can only learn by doing. It’s best to do this without debating this and that and chatting endlessly on kendo topics, but by getting your head down and working hard.
Adapt to the location:
In a large dojo you should spar from a far distance. In a small dojo you should spar from a close distance. In kendo we must learn to fight from both far and close distances, so practising in different dojo and learning to adapt to any dojo size constraints is essential.
In other words, don’t let yourself be constrained to a single distance, but practise in and acquire techniques to use in various situations.
Practise with difficult or awkward opponents:
It’s only natural that everybody has opponents that they find more or less easier or difficult than others. If you think “this guy is really awkward to fight with” and avoid him, it’s the same as choosing only those you can beat. Obviously, this is a sad state of affairs, and you will never truly grasp the essence of kendo.
You have to be able to face squarely and respond to (defeat) a variety or different types of opponent. Everybody has their own shape, style, and thinking. Learn from them to improve your kendo.
3. Don’t put too much importance on winning or losing
The main point of beginners shugyo (pursuit of kendo):
It’s important that beginners throw out any thoughts about winning and losing. They should simply aim to execute the basic shape of kendo as they have been taught it.
For example during uchikomi-geiko, if a beginners partner opens up his or her men to be struck, rather than attempting to hit it as fast as possible without concern for form, the beginner should take their time and aim to strike as correct as they can. This is important. Through practising this way repeatedly, even if the beginner still uses too much power, their form will improve.
Be struck to develop:
Even though in kendo we often say “Don’t worry about being struck” everybody does. Although it’s almost impossible to not worry about it, it’s important to try not to worry about it as much as you can. Like the well known phrase “turn a failure into a success” suggests, being struck is a chance to learn: “why was I strike then?”
In this way you can not only learn your own weaknesses and work on improving them, but you can also learn new techniques from your opponent.
4. Study under a teacher
Practise with your teacher and seniors:
It’s important that you learn under a good teacher(s) and good sempai. By practising hard with them and listening to their advice and direction, you cannot fail to improve. If you cannot patiently listen to their advice or endure hard keiko with them, then you will simply stop progressing.
This is all well and fine assuming that the the people you are studying under are actually good, however. If you are not lucky enough to have access to good teachers you will develop bad habits that are difficult to fix: “It’s faster to knock down and old house and rebuild than reform one that has been built slipshod.”
An old kendo saying goes: “rather than start three years earlier, it’s better to wait three years until you find a good teacher.” In other words, because a bad teacher can potentially – and irreparably – damage your kendo, you are better doing nothing than wasting your time studying under one.
There are different opinions as to how to study kendo in the beginning. Some people believe it’s important to learn the theory first, whilst other believe physical practise is more important. Either way, both have the aim of Jiri-itchi (the unison of physical practise and theory, a term popularised by the famous kenshi Yamaoka Tesshu).
Like I mentioned before, I believe that discussion about theory is useless unless you have advanced technically enough to put words into practise. Therefore it is essential that a decent amount of technical ability is acquired before research into the theoretical aspects of kendo should begin.
Research like “if I seme like this and my opponent does that, then I’ll strike there” or “when I am in this distance if step in like this and move my shinai like that then I can get into striking distance” etc. etc., can be very productive.
However, this unison of physical practise and theory is not the end state of kendo, but a beginning one. The final state of kendo is one where, without forethought or realisation of any kind, the body moves naturally in response to an opponents opening and a strike is made. Achieving this ultimate state is, indeed, a difficult path.
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It was a relaxing Sunday autumn morning in Kyoto when the school dormitory’s door was flung open:
“Everyone! Nakayama Hakudo and Kawasaki Zenzaburo are practising at the Gojo police station!!!!”
The Butokukai’s bujutsu kyoin yoseijo (martial arts training school) was established in 1905 and was the direct forerunner to the legendary Busen. All five of the future kendo 10th dans came from the initial bunch of students who trained here directly under the father of modern kendo, the very strict but gentlemanly Naito Takaharu sensei. In these early days there was no keiko on Sundays, so the students had free time.
Hearing the news, a young 19 year old student immediately sprung to his feet. Quickly changing into his keikogi and hakama, he stuffed his bogu into a bag and grabbed a shinai:
“I’m off!” he declared.
Nakayama needs no introduction here. Kawasaki, however, is less well known in kendo circles today. Born to a kenjutsu instructor of the Tosa domain in 1860, Kawasaki was a highly skilled swordsman 12 years senior to Nakayama (slightly older than both Naito Takaharu and Takano Sasaburo).
When the out of breath student arrived at the dojo he was out of luck: keiko was already over. Both sensei had removed their bogu and were sitting down relaxing with a cup of tea. This didn’t stop the zealous young man! Sitting in seiza in front of Nakayama he bowed deeply:
Nakayama eyed the youngster carefully.
“Keiko is already finished. Maybe some other time.”
“Sensei! My name is Oshima Jikita and I’m a kendo student at the bujutsu kyoin yoseijo. I heard that you were here and came running. Please, even if it’s only for one ippon, please, keiko onegaishimasu!”
Oshima’s ardour was apparent on his face.
“Ha ha ha, ok! Your youthful zeal has beaten me! C’mon then, let’s do 5-hon shobu!”
The year was Meiji 41 (1908), and the 36 year old Nakayama was at his physical peak.
Both kenshi put their bogu on, picked up their shinai and faced each other in the middle of the dojo. The people that participated in the earlier keiko session sat down in a line and watched with anticipation.
Standing up from sonkyo both kenshi immediately let out a loud kiai. Slowly and carefully the distance was closed. Ai-seigan. Nakayama’s kensaki moved just a little and suddenly Oshima flew in…
“Oh!” said one of the spectators, “Nakayama sensei has been struck!”
Everyone was surprised. In the earlier keiko session nobody had managed to strike Nakayama anywhere, and yet here was this young lad who managed to do so without much fuss. And it didn’t stop there: Oshima next delivered a strong thrust and then a kote. Oshima beat Nakayama 3-0.
“Eh…. ?!?! Nobody can hit Nakayama sensei three times!?”
“It’s a miracle!”
The spectators were shocked.
Kawasaki stood up from where he had been watching the bout, and moved towards where his bogu was lying. Starting to put on his tare and dou he suddenly said:
“How about me next then? 3-bon shobu.”
“Sensei, onegaishimasu!” replied Oshima.
The result was the same: Oshima struck men, then delivered another thrust to win the bout.
Taking off his men, Kawasaki turned to Nakayama:
“This one has got something.”
Even if it’s highly probable that both sensei were humouring the enthusiastic youngster by only lightly sparring with him, the fact is that Oshima was skilled enough to land strikes and thrusts on them, a difficult task for even the most seasoned of kenshi. A month earlier, in what was one of the first country-wide competitions for youths (under 25s / kachinuki style), Oshima defeated 23 people in a row taking his team to victory. He was still only 19 years old at the time.
A brief bio
Oshima Jikita (kendo hanshi, iaijutsu and jukenjutsu kyoshi) is one of the early giants of the kendo community. His untimely death at the early age of 51 is probably why he is mostly forgotten today. Had he lived through the war, however, it is probably that he would have been awarded 10th dan at the same time as his long-time kendo friends and fellow bujutsu kyoin yoseijo students: Saimura, Mochida, Nakano, and Ogawa (and later, Oasa).
Along with his teaching duties at bujutsu kyoin yoseijo/Busen he also taught kendo at various places around the country, e.g. Kokushikan, Keishicho, the imperial guards, Toyama military school, etc etc.
He practised keiko right up until the day of his untimely death.
1889: Born in Saga prefecture.
1906: Graduated school.
1907: Attends the bujutsu kyoin yoseijo and studies directly under Naito Takaharu. Other students there at the time include Saimura Goro, Mochida Moriji, Nakano Sosuke, Hori Shohei, Miyazaki Mosaburo and Ogawa Kinnosuke.
1908: Graduates bujutsu kyoin yoseijo (November).
1909: Appointed an assistant at the bujutsu kyoin yoseijo.
1913: Awarded seirensho
1916: Becomes an assistant instructor at the bujutsu kyoin yoseijo.
1919: Awarded kendo kyoshi and becomes a full instructor at the bujutsu kyoin yoseijo.
1925: Awarded jukendo kyoshi.
1929: Takes part in the first of the Showa tenran-jiai. He was defeated by Mochida in the preliminary matches. Mochida goes on to win the competition. Awarded iaijutsu kyoshi.
1932: Awarded kendo hanshi.
1934: Faced Ueda Heitaro at a demonstration match of the tenran budo taikai (pictured above).
1939: Died of a cerebral apoplexy (51 years old).
One of my main sensei is in his mid 70s. During keiko I attack him as best as I can but he still hits me and pushes me back. My heart rate rises quickly and I feel myself on the back foot at all times. He just keeps coming… like a Terminator! He’s in the dojo almost every time and he pushes everyone to do their best kendo. He has my utmost respect. Recently, however, during post-keiko beers, some of my sempai have been wondering exactly how long he has left at this pace. I had never thought about that until it was mentioned.
A man of little words, the sensei in question above quietly stopped coming to the dojo sometime in 2014. It happened without any notice – he simply didn’t show up. After a week or so my sempai contacted his house to inquire after him only to find out he was diagnosed with cancer and had already been operated on. Not wanting to intrude, we left him to his privacy. Hopefully he’d come to the dojo when he was feeling better.
Earlier this year he had seemingly recovered enough to pop in to the dojo and watch a godogeiko. I couldn’t attend that particular keiko due to a work kendo event, and only found out later that he had come to watch. “I should call him” I thought, but I never did. Last Saturday morning I heard that he had passed away five days earlier on the 3rd of November.
When I first landed in Osaka in 2005 I had been through a torturous two years in Hiroshima. My work experience there was a truly miserable one which was only magnified by the difficulties I faced kendo-wise. I practised at a central police station with police teachers and people from the nearby naval base. I think in those two years nobody allowed me to strike their men, they just beat me up constantly. Unbelievably, I remember standing in the dojo sniffling in my men with sheer frustration (at least twice). I made no kendo friends, mainly because I couldn’t speak Japanese, but also because there was nobody of my age in the dojo. Many times I thought about quitting and going home but, somehow (I still don’t know how I managed it), I scrambled through and escaped to civilisation: Osaka! There my kendo life was about to start proper, partly due to the efforts of one man.
Before arriving in Osaka I had already managed to get an introduction to Yoseikai, a dojo in the city centre. The shihan of Yoseikai was hanshi hachidan and Busen graduate Furuya Fukunosuke sensei. Below him was club president and a long time member of the dojo and student of Ikeda Yuju sensei: T-sensei.
(I haven’t mentioned his name here because he very much kept to himself. If you can read Japanese or have visited the dojo in the last few years I’m sure you can work out who I am talking about.)
I don’t know what it was about T-sensei and me, but somehow he started looking after my kendo relatively soon after I arrived. I think it may have been because I did something that people in Japan don’t bother with nowadays: I asked him for permission to take my next grading. Shaking his head and waving his hand, his answer was pretty curt:
“You can if you want, but you’ll fail.”
And fail I did.
For the next nine years I’d put my men on quickly and line up to do kirikaeshi with him at the start of practise. At the end of keiko, even if I’d already done a final kirikaeshi with someone else, I’d go up to him again and do one more kirikaeshi. During jigeiko it was no holds barred. I think I was the only person who even attempted to tsuki him, which he seemed to enjoy! On the very rare occasion that we managed to socialise together I’d pour his beers. After a few his taciturn nature disappeared and he’d say what he thought about people’s kendo or their attitude in the dojo… being a strict man, his opinion was often strongly put, much to the chagrin of those listening! Luckily I always got a pat on the back and a beer refill. Randomly, he once gave me some razors because he thought I needed a shave, and on another occasion some cabbage that he’d grown in his garden because he knew I was vegetarian. Due partly to T-sensei’s tutelage, I pretty much forgot my first horrible two years in Hiroshima.
Despite all this, sadly, I’m not sure that I can say that I actually knew him as a person. Kendo-wise there was some sort of unstated and mutual understanding between us… when and why it started I’m not sure, but whatever it was that initiated it, and why it continued is a mystery to me still. This seemingly vague relationship has, however, affected my outlook in kendo in many areas, for example: I can’t stand overly verbose instruction; I respect hard workers; and I try not to shy away from telling people things (in the dojo) that they don’t like to hear.
T-sensei never became hachidan. He never, at least to my knowledge, won any shiai, major or minor. You won’t see any documentaries about his kendo life on YouTube or read any books filled with his pithy kendo sayings. He was just a normal kendo person like the rest of us… except, for me at least, he wasn’t.
Kyoto Taikai (2012)
The passing away of the person who I considered my main teacher at relatively young age of 75 has caused me to stop and think. The first and most obvious thing is, of course, that I should be especially thankful for (and respectful to) the older kendoka that I practise with. The most senior (grade-wise) teacher I study under is about 63. Another teacher that looks after me turned 74 recently. The oldest, however, will be 90 in December (as a very young soldier at the end of WW2 based in Hiroshima prefecture he saw the mushroom plume of Little Boy). Also, as you can imagine living at the opposite end of the earth from my own family, I started thinking about my own parents as well.
The second thing is something I believe to be absolutely fundamental (but not limited) to kendo, is that I have an obligation to pass on what was taught to me. Exactly how I do this I’m not yet sure, but whatever shape it takes you can bet T-sensei’s teachings are to be found, somewhere, therein.
At the very end of July this year I took some time out of my normal schedule and headed to Tokyo for a Musha Shugyo, that is, I went on a “warriors pilgrimage,” with the aim of polishing my kendo.
In the short time I was there (I stayed five nights in Tokyo) I visited five different dojo, practised eight times, fought six hachidans, and visited the graves of four famous swordsmen (and a monument of another), as well as meeting some old friends and having the odd beer. It was a jam-packed few days!! There were many more places I wanted to practise at and more historical locations I wanted to visit, but I just didn’t have the time (or energy!) to arrange everything. Despite that, I think I spent my time in Tokyo quite fruitfully!
In this post I will briefly introduce the dojo to kenshi 24/7 readers (some of which you may have visited) and give contact information – where possible – so that you yourself can go sometime in the future. Dojo will be listed not in order visited, but in length of tradition.
Below that I will also introduce the famous swordsmen’s graves that I went to visit and pay my respects to. Although none of them are major tourist attractions they evoke – for me anyway – a much more… what’s the word… emotional response and cause me to reflect more about my own shugyo, none of which the usual tourist-traps offer.
I hope that this post will inspire your own Musha-Shugyo in the future!
Saineikan : budojo of the Japanese imperial guards
Emperor Showa watching the shiai
The original Saineikan was built in the grounds of the Imperial Palace in 1883 by order of the Emperor Meiji. The name “sainei” comes from a phrase in the Classic of Poetry traditionally ascribed to Confucius and refers to someone who is of fine and noble character (“kan” of course just means “hall”):
They shall be illustrious from age to age,
Zealously and reverently pursuing their plans.
Admirable are the many officers,
Born in this royal kingdom.
The royal kingdom is able to produce them, –
The supporters of [the House of] Zhou.
Numerous is the array of officers,
And by them king Wen enjoys his repose.
Over the years the building was subject to reconstruction and renewal, most significantly it suffered massive damage during the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake causing a temporary dojo to be built in 1924. This temporary building was used for the first of the Showa tenran-jiai in 1929 (a competition in front of the Emperor himself) and a tairan-jiai in 1930 (a competition in front of an imperial family member). The building was completely reconstructed in 1933 and used for a tenran-jiai held in honour of the birth of an imperial son (the current Emperor) in 1934. This is the building that still stands today and that I visited last week.
Although I could have probably visited Saineikan anytime in the last few years I waited patiently for a gap in my schedule to appear where I could take part in keiko at this highly prestigious dojo. After suppling information about myself and going through a connection, I rolled up on the promised Monday morning and was checked into the imperial grounds (you cannot enter without permission – they were expecting me). I took part in a 40 minute keiko session with two of the current sensei and a bunch of the tokuren (full-time kendo professional imperial guards). Needless to say it was an awesome experience, and one of the highlights of my kendo career to-date.
Some of you might wonder why I didn’t add newer photos to this post… basically I was allowed to take pictures for private purposes but was asked not to share them online (for security purposes I assume).
Eishinjuku Kobukan : kendojo run by Ozawa Hiroshi sensei
Eishinjuku Kobukan is a dojo in Nakano-ku led by Ozawa Hiroshi sensei, and is a dojo that I think many non-Japanese people have visited. However, few know much about its origins, or about the Hiroshi sensei’s grandfather (Aijiro) or father (Takashi). It’s not for me to expand on that fully, so I’ll just be brief here.
Aijiro sensei (1863-1950) was an accomplished swordsman who attained the highest levels of Ono-ha itto-ryu, Kyoshin-meichi-ryu, and Jikishinkage-ryu. He studied under such famous kenshi as Yamaoka Tesshu, Watanabe Noboru, and Sakakibara Kenkichi. He originally founded Kobukan in Saitama prefecture in 1891. He was also a successful politician, and was involved in ensuring kendo’s addition to the school system.
Aijiro sensei’s son, Takashi sensei (later hanshi kyudan), began to learn kendo whilst still a child, but it wasn’t until he went to study under Takano Sasaburo at Koto-shihan-gakko his serious study of kendo began. Takashi sensei would go on to have a long career as a kendo teacher at the high school and university level (and eventually in the police), and published many books related to kendo instruction in the education system.
In 1977, due to the wear-and-tear of the original dojo, Takashi sensei tore it down and rebuilt a new dojo in Tokyo, renaming it “Eishinjuku Kobukan.” This is the dojo that stands today and that I visited last week.
Pretty much the most famous dojo in the history of kendo, Noma dojo was built in 1925 by Noma Seiji, the founder of Japan’s biggest publishing company Kodansha. The dojo served as a hub for kendo in Tokyo, especially from the 1930s when Mochida Seiji was appointed the head kendo teacher. Another of its famed kenshi was Seiji’s son, Noma Hisashi.
Mochida sensei defeated Takano Shigeyoshi (below) to win the 1929 Tenran-jiai held in (the temporary) Saineikan and was recruited by Noma a couple of years later in 1931. Mochida sensei was renowned not only for his kendo, but his demeanour, and as such many people from different dojo flocked to Noma dojo to receive instruction (at that time it was common for people to practise only in their own dojo). After the war it continued its job as one of the country’s kendo centres.
Despite this – and against the voices of many kendoka (not to mention the spirit of Noma Seiji) – the dojo was unilaterally knocked down by Kodansha in 2007, ostensibly to build a tower block on the site. After the dojo was destroyed the surveyors found that the ground wasn’t strong enough for the original plan, and now a small 3-storey bank sits in the space the old dojo used to sit. This is – to my knowledge – one of the worst disasters in the history of modern kendo. Luckily, I visited the old dojo before it was destroyed (picture above).
In 2007 a new dojo was built on the 5th floor of a nearby building, and it’s this that continues the tradition of Noma and Mochida to this day. Although the original dojo is gone, the new one is quite impressive for a modern build. Still, it doesn’t match the original dojo at all in grandiose or tradition.
To my knowledge the dojo requires an introduction before you can attend. However, after keiko on the first day I attended, myself and a long-time member had coffee together: casually, during conversation, it was mentioned that if you wanted to attend all you need to do was email the website (i.e. you don’t need a personal introduction anymore). If this is true – even though the current dojo is a shadow of the former one – I highly recommend that you go.
Please note that although I suggested that the current physical dojo itself is a shadow of the former one, the membership includes some very accomplished people.
Shinjuku Dojo : a public dojo in the centre of Tokyo
To tell you the truth I don’t know much about this dojo at all other than what’s written on the homepage: the group started in 1952. The dojo itself is in a public city ward facility and keiko sessions are available Tuesday through Saturday (evenings are Tue, Thu, Sat, and mornings are Wed and Fri).
I attended a morning session on Wednesday at the invite of an old kendo friend. Due to the time, most of the members were housewives, retirees, or people on shift work. Still, the warmup and kihon-geiko session in the stifling heat nearly killed me!!! A very friendly and open dojo worth a visit.
This is a completely privately owned dojo built in the basement of a private residence in 1993. Although lacking in tradition compared to the dojo mentioned above, it does have as it’s shihan a three-time All Japan Champion, which is something. Although small (similar in floor space to Kobukan above) the level of the members is very high. The post-keiko beer session in the dojo was great as well! After beating me down without breaking sweat, the sensei kept pouring beer into my glass and smiling.
Ono Jiroemon Tadaaki (1569-1628) and Tadatsune (1608-1666)
The story goes that when the famed swordsman Itto Ittosai, progenitor of the Itto-ryu style of kenjutsu and student of Chujo-ryu under Kanemaki Jisai, came to pass on his sword-style he had his two top students battle for the honour: Mikogami Tenzen and Zenki. Tenzen won, eventually changing his name to Ono Jiroemon Tadaaki, and becoming kenjutsu instructor to the Tokugakwa Shogunate. Tadaaki’s line of itto-ryu would pass to his third son Tadatsune, and eventually (due to it being passed through the Ono family) become to be known as Ono-ha Itto-ryu.
The picture above are the graves of Tadaaki (on the right) and Tadatsune (on the left).
Location: Yokoji temple (allegedly!)
Address: 286-0022, Chiba-ken, Narita-shi, Teradai 574
Nearest station(s): Narita-shi or Keisei-Narita
How to get there: Yokoji temple is a short 20 minute walk from the station area. However, don’t do what I did and go to the temple itself… the graves are not located in the temple per-se or its immediate precincts. Rather, when you walk past the high school take an immediate left turn and walk up the steep hill at the side of the school. About 1/2 way up you’ll see a narrow set of stairs heading up to a wooded hill. The graves are up the stairs on the top of the hill.
Chiba Shusaku (1793-1856)
Chiba Shusaku is a legendary figure in the annals of kendo history. He studied Ono-ha Itto-ryu at the Nakanishi dojo, a dojo which at the time was at the forefront of the new shinai-centric (rather than kata-centric) “shinai-uchikomi” revolution. Other students of that dojo included Terada Muneari, Shirai Toru, and Takano Mitsumasa (Takano Sasaburo’s grandfather). Eventually Chiba went his own separate way and created his own style called Hokushin Itto-ryu. In 1822 he built and started teaching his style at what was to become one of the most popular dojo in Edo: Genbukan.
Reasons that Genbukan was so popular include: 1) it focussed mainly on the more exciting shinai-uchikomi rather than the slower paced kata-centric keiko; 2) it was much easier and faster to progress to the top levels than in a more traditional dojo (remember also that it was a business); 3) Seemingly Chiba taught shinai-uchikomi in more logical manner than some other places. On point number 3, Chiba made what was maybe the first list of shinai-kendo techniques known, and a modified sub-set of these were later used by Takano Sasaburo when he published what was to be (and remains today) one of the most important references in early modern kendo’s history.
Check out Hokushin Itto-ryu as passed directly by Shusaku and his sons to swordsmen in Mito-han at Kodokan and then down through Tobukan where it is still taught today. Tobukan is of course the home dojo of that giant of kendo history, Naito Takaharu.
Location: Honmyoji temple
Address: Sugamo-ku, Tokyo
Nearest station(s): Shin-koshinzuka (tram)
How to get there: Basically a 20 minute walk from the tram station. It’s a bit awkward to find so you’ll probably need to use google maps. Once you get to the temple there will be no instructions in English at all… so good luck!
Yamaoka Tesshu (1836-1888)
There’s a vast amount that could be said about Yamaoka Tesshu. Here I’ll just briefly mention his budo background and skip his political life.
Yamaoka Tesshu, born Ono Tetsutaro, was born into a Samurai family in Edo in 1836. He studied swordsmanship from a young age (Jikishinkage-ryu and Ono-ha itto-ryu), and was recognised as having a precocious talent (at calligraphy too). In 1855 (at 19 years old) he entered the Kobusho, a government-run military training facility for the sons and dependants of senior samurai. There he studied many types of weapons including, it is said, kenjutsu under Chiba Shusaku (i.e. shinai-uchikomi rather than kata based practise). He became a junior helper at the facility before moving on and taking up a role as a direct Shogunate retainer.
In the early 1860s his swordsmanship shugyo took a sharp turn after meeting the renowned Itto-ryu kenshi Asari Matashiro. Accepting the young Yamaoka’s request for a match Asari went into gedan no kamae and Yamaoka took jodan. Asari’s strong pressure pushed Yamaoka back and back, eventually to the wall of the dojo (other sources say that he was pushed out of the dojo and Asari shut the door on him!). Defeated, Yamaoka became Asari’s student.
Probably the most pivotal point for Yamaoka was in around 1881 when, suddenly during meditation, Yamaoka had a spiritual awakening. Heading to the dojo he asked his sensei, Asari, for a match. Taking up kamae Asari immediately sensed something different: “You are enlightened.”
In 1883 he founded a temple to honour those that had sacrificed themselves during the Meiji restoration. This temple – Zenshoan – is the one where Yamaoka is buried and that I visited. It was in this year that he started teaching kenjutsu from his own dojo, Shumpukan. Many famous swordsmen would practise here including Takano Sasaburo (though it’s unknown to what extent Takano learned directly from Yamaoka). Also in 1883 Yamaoka was amongst the first ten martial arts instructors appointed to the newly built Saineikan.
In 1885 he inherited Ono-ha itto-ryu with which he combined his knowledge and experience of the other branches of swordsmanship he had mastered (not forgetting his enlightened state), and created something he believed closer to the original essence of the art: Itto-shoden Muto-ryu.
He passed away in 1888 of stomach cancer whilst, it is said, sitting either in seiza or the lotus position (depending on the source), facing the direction of the imperial palace.
Location: Zenshoan temple
Address: 5 Chome-4-7 Yanaka, Taito, Tokyo 110-0001
Nearest station(s): Sendagi or Nippori stations
How to get there: An easy 7 minute walk from Sendagi station. Zenshoan is signposted in English, as is information about Yakamoka Tesshu.
Takano Shigeyoshi (1877-1957)
Takano Shigeyoshi was born in Mito in 1877 (family name Chigusa). When he was 14 he enrolled in Tobukan and began to study kendo under Ozawa Torakichi. His father, himself a renowned swordsman, died the same year and Shigeyoshi ended up being looked after by the dojo. Eventually he was given some money and, with a pat on the back, told to go to Tokyo to continue his pursuit of kendo. This led him to Takano Sasaburo whose student he became in 1895.
In 1900 Shigeyoshi was adopted by Sasaburo and took over the teaching and running duties of Urawa Meishinkan. In 1914 he accepted a kendo teaching position in Manchuria where he remained until after WW2. He took part in the 1929 and 1934 Tenran shiai, as a competitor in the kendo specialists section of the former (he lost the final to Mochida Seiji), and shinpan and special-shiai embusha in the latter (his partner was Nakayama Hakudo). He died in 1957.
What I visited last week is not Shigeyoshi’s grave, but a eulogy monument erected near the graves of Ono Jiroemon Tadaaki and Tadatsune.
It’s in the same location as Ono Jiroemon Tadaaki and Tadatsune’s graves above.
No Musha-Shugyo would be complete without making an effort to read and study about kendo as well. This time I brought Alex Bennet’s new book “Kendo: Culture of the Sword” with me, and picked up a couple of super old Kendo Jidai magazines from a second-hand book shop in Jimbocho.
I devoured Alex’s book pretty quickly because a lot of the information I knew and many of the conclusions reached were similar to mine, so it was a sort of affirmation in a way for me if you will. There were, however, parts of the book that tackled areas that I’m only very vaguely familiar with (in particular the workings of and connections between the government and the Butokukai during the war and the machinations of SCAP in regards to budo after the war) which was an eye-opener.
The best part of this book for me is that Alex puts kendo in its wider cultural context, something that is missing in most people’s comprehension of how modern kendo formed, what it is today, and where it might possibly go. A close second is that he dares to condemn (although gently) the accepted idea that kendo is some sort of ancient tradition that is possessed – and can only be understood by – Japanese people. This thorny subject is something I’ve touched on lightly here before (and in my publications) and everyone who lives and practises in Japan for a long time realises. Needless to say the book is highly recommended, so please check it out.
The two old kendo-jidai magazines were picked from a pile basically at random, and are awesome! I will probably translate something from them, or post pictures from them in the near future.
Whew, what a long post… I think it took me almost as long to write as I spent in Tokyo!
Although seemingly random, a lot of the places I visited are in some way or another connected: Saineikan (Yamaoka and Mochida) and the tenran-jiai (Mochida, Takano), Kobukan (Ozawa Aijiro and Takano), Noma dojo (Mochida and everyone!), Ono Tadaaki and Tadatsune (Itto-ryu: Chiba, Yamaoka, Ozawa Aijiro, Takano), Chiba and Yamaoka, Yamaoka and Takano, Takano and Mochida… etc. etc. There are in fact too many connections to mention! I was actually planning to go to two other dojo as well, which would’ve made the already complex web of connections even more spaghetti-like. I’m pretty sure that if we trace our kendo roots back far enough, most of us will find that we are in fact connected to some of the same teachers and even some of the same dojo. Isn’t that a nice image!
For me, this Musha-shugyo was partly about visiting some places I’ve wanted to go to for a long time, but it was also partly about going out and facing random people in an unfamiliar environment. I guess it was an extension of my change in kendo mode I discussed a few months ago. You know, mixing things up.
I think that doing a Musha-shugyo in the same style as I did is probably unrealistic for many kenshi 24/7 readers (I live in Japan after all), but I do think that most people will in fact come to Japan for that purpose at some point in their kendo careers. But saying that, I don’t believe you have to come to Japan to change your kendo mode or to mix things up.
Anyway, I hope that this post can, in some way at least, inspire people to embark on their own Musha-shugyo (whether in Japan or not), and perhaps even gave some suggestions as to what dojo to visit and historical swordsmen to meet. Cheers!