Kendo Places #3: Disposable – The End of Noma

“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!


Showa no kensei (昭和の剣聖)

This small article intriduces the “Showa no kensei (昭和の剣聖)” or “The Sword Saints of the Showa period.” All of these kenshi are widely known within the Japanese kendo community, and abroad as well, but I thought a quick article in here would serve as a useful reference.

I hope to expand on this and write longer and more in-depth articles about various kenshi from by-gone years (and not limited to just kendo or renowned personages).

In particular, I feel that Takano Sasaburo’s impact on kendo is not fully understood by many modern practitioners, myself included. Doing research for these articles gives me the chance to learn more and clarify my own thoughts and ideas about kendo, which can only be a good thing!

Takano Sasaburo (高野佐三郎)
1862 or 3 – 1950. Ono-ha itto-ryu, kendo hanshi.

Notable events in his career:

1879 – Entered Yamaoka Tesshu’s Yubukan
1986 – On Yamaoka’s recommendation he was appointed as a kendo instructor at Keichicho.
1888 – Became a police instructor at Saitama prefectures Police HQ and built a new house and dojo (named Urawa Meishinkan) in Urawa City (now Saitama City).
1896 – Became a chief bujutsu instructor at Saitama Police Academy.
1899 – Established Tokyo Meishinkan (at this time there were 41 sub-branches of Meishinkan around the Kanto area, and he was said to be teaching around 10,000 people, including police and students).
1907+ – Took the lead in teaching kendo at various specialist institutes and universities: Tokyo Koto Shihan Gakko Gekkiken Koshi, Tokyo Koto Kogyo Kendo Shihan, Waseda Daigaku Kendobu Koshi, etc
1911-1917 – Was entrusted by the Butokukai as one of the people to help create/establish kendo no kata.
1913 – Awarded hanshi.

Continue reading Showa no kensei (昭和の剣聖)

Kamidana Statistics

Kenpō Nagasaki is a bimonthly kendo publication available to subscribers in Nagasaki prefecture. Each issue features shiai and seminar reports and articles by sensei on various topics.

Recently the magazine featured statistics about dojo in Nagasaki prefecture, including a survey on how many dojo have kamidana or Japanese flags at their shōmen. I have translated the statistics from this section of the survey here:

Area No. of dojo Kamidana only National Flag only Neither Both No Answer
Nagasaki City 34 4 10 16 4 0
Seihi Area 4 0 3 1 0 0
Isahaya City 17 2 13 1 1 0
Unzen City 5 3 1 1 0 0
Minami Shimabara City 9 2 2 1 1 3
Ōmura City 15 4 7 3 1 0
Higashi Sonogi Area 9 1 1 5 2 0
Saikai City 8 0 1 5 0 2
Sasebo City 20 5 1 11 3 0
Kitamatsu area 2 1 0 0 1 0
Hirado Area 13 1 5 5 0 2
Gotō City 8 5 2 1 0 0
Shin-Kamigotō City 10 2 1 5 0 2
Iki City 9 0 0 9 0 0
Tsushima City 18 2 0 15 0 1
Shimabara City 5 1 0 2 2 0
Matsuura City 9 4 1 3 1 0
Total 195 37 48 84 16 10

It is interesting to note that 43% of dojo have neither a flag nor a kamidana, and only 8% have both. This is in contrast not only to the western image of Japanese dojo, but the to general Japanese image of dojo as well. Continue reading Kamidana Statistics

The Student-Teacher Relationship, Seitei and "Traditional" Iai

Like many, my first step into the world of iai and traditional Japanese sword arts was through the Zen Ken seitei-gata and for several years my experiences there strongly colored how I viewed iai, koryu arts and budo in general. Now anyone who has spent any amount of time on online forums or interacting with senior practitioners in various iai and sword related arts, both in Japan and abroad, will know that the seitei-gata “system” (for lack of a better word) can be and is controversial in some circles. The usual arguments typically being along the lines of the kata, being assembled from bits and pieces of various traditional ryuha lack something in technical coherency and depth, or that the technical fundamentals taught by the seitei have a strong tendency to “pollute” whatever koryu the practitioner happens to also practice. In either case, the seitei “system” is seen as being not “traditional” and having some sort of negative influence on more traditional iai arts and people’s views of budo.

Continue reading The Student-Teacher Relationship, Seitei and "Traditional" Iai

Womens kendo in Japan: a survey

The following is a very brief synopsis of questionnaire results that were featured in an article by Kendo Nippon (Dec 2008) entitled “女性剣士の現状と「これから」” (The present condition of womens kendo and its future). I will list the questions and there results but will leave you to draw your own conclusions from there or to discuss in the comments. If you want to find out more then please buy the magazine!


Q1. Do you feel its necessary to have a “female quality” in kendo? (剣道において、「女性らしさ」の必要性を感じるか?)

Feel that it is: 66%
Feel that it isn’t: 22%
Other: 12%

Q2. Are there times when you feel that practising kendo as a woman is inconvenient? (女性は剣道を行なう上で、どのような時に不便を感じるか?)

12 respondents – Family doesn’t support me
9 respondents – Can’t ensure the Keiko time/place
7 respondents – No or few keiko partners
6 respondents – In the evening/holidays I can’t go to keiko
6 respondents – Its incompatible with my job
5 respondents – Feel a difference between the level of the mens keiko
4 respondents – Easily get sick
4 respondents – Period / period pains
3 respondents – Can’t take part in a shiai (can’t make a team)
2 respondents – I have other things that are more important
8 respondents – Others

Continue reading Womens kendo in Japan: a survey