Kitano Butokuden 大日本武徳会京都支部武徳殿 (北野武徳殿)

Every practitioner of Japanese budo has heard about the legendary Butokuden. Completed in 1899, it served as the HQ dojo for the Dai-Nippon Butokukai from then until the end of World War 2, after which it changed hands a few times, finally coming under the safe ownership and protection of Kyoto city. Despite undergoing a slightly tumultuous ride for a number of years, it remained the venue for kendo’s most important yearly event: the Kyoto Taikai.

Prior to WW2 there were branch Butokuden’s built throughout the country (plus a dozen in Japanese occupied Taiwan and one in China), some of which not only still exist today but are even used for keiko. However, what many people – including Japanese kenshi – don’t know is that there were actually two Butokuden’s in Kyoto: the main one (nicknamed the “Okazaki Butokuden”) and a branch one (nicknamed the “Kitano Butokuden”).


Background

Originally built in 1914 in the precincts of Kyoto’s Kitano Tenmangu shrine, the the Kyoto branch Butokuden (thus the “Kitano” Butokuden) served as a dojo for Kyoto’s numerous kenshi. Luckily the building survived the war undamaged and was in continuous use (rebranded as “Heian dojo“) as a budojo until 2000 when – due to age related wear and tear – keiko was ceased. The then current owners of the building (Kyoto police department) decided the building was too old to repair and planned to knock it down.

tenmangu-butokuden02

Fight for survival

At this point interested individuals got involved and tried to somehow save the building from being destroyed. A petition was signed by over 7000 people and presented to the Kyoto prefectural office in hope that they would somehow help.

At the same time the city and prefectural kendo, aikido, judo, and sport federations were approached and asked to help, but in the end none but the aikido federation were interested in contributing. Reasons cited was that it was too costly a project, that it was too much of a hassle, and even “we already have one Butokuden in Kyoto, why do we need another?” It was at this time that they realised that trying to save the building as a budo-jo was difficult, and that a change in tack may be required.

Success was finally had when they promoted the project as one to save an historic building, one that could be used as an exceptional example of traditional Japanese wooden building technique. That is, the building itself was talked about as a “cultural” space rather than for simply budo.

Kitano Butokuden was finally bought sometime in the mid-late 2000’s by Shoren-in temple with the aim of moving the entire structure from inside Kitano Tenmangu Shrine to the top of a large hill in the north overlooking the city.

* Please note that if I am being rather vague about the details in this section it’s because I am not 100% certain of the exact motivations of the parties involved nor the actual flow of events – I have little resources to work with. I will update this article with more information when/if I discover it.

Dismantling and conservation

The entire dismantling, reconstruction, and moving took a staggering 5 years, with the new structure finally opening to the public in autumn 2014.

The specialist carpenter who did the job has pictures on his website here. He also has a blog with more info and pics but it doesn’t look like it’s up to date. The following couple of pics are taken from there.

Currently – Seiryuden (青龍殿)

The building itself was completely renewed (it looks great!), renamed (“Seiryuden”), and is set on a kind of platform looking down over Kyoto (see below). A brand new front section was added onto one side which now houses the painting of the “Blue Cetaka” (a demon-like guardian deity) national treasure. But, truth be told, I had little interest in the location or the national treasure – I was here to see the dojo.

The building has been beautifully restored and – apart from the ugly extra part tacked onto the front to house the painting above – looks fantastic! What a gorgeous building! Inside the structure is pretty much identical to the Okazaki Butokuden, only smaller and without a Gyokuza. I planted a few fumikomi’s on the floor (ignoring the surprised looks of others!) and can confirm that it feels great. On the whole I was highly impressed.

However one thing was really annoying: in the literature they hand out (and online) there is almost nothing mentioned about the history of the building. By almost nothing, I mean it says “it was a dojo in the precincts of Kitano Tenmangu” and thats it. It doesn’t mention anything else. Sure the building itself has been preserved and kept for generations to visit, but I can’t help something has been lost at the same time. At any rate, please check out these iPhone snaps:


Getting there

The current structure was moved to an a part of the Shoren-in estate completely separate from the temple itself called “Shogun-zuka.” Due to the fact that the location is at the top of a hill the easiest way to get there is by taxi. From outside Heian-Jingu it probably takes 10-15 minutes and costs around 1,500 yen or a wee bit more/less.

Another alternative route is to walk up through Yasaka-jinja and Maruyama park but it’s very difficult for me to explain here. I suggest getting a taxi up to Shogun-zuka and then – after you’ve finished visiting Seiryuden – walking down through the woods into the park. The path isn’t great so it’s not suitable for fancy shoes and might be a bit treacherous in the rain.


Conclusion

For those budoka interested in the architecture of dojo I definitely recommend a visit to Seiryuden. Most of the other people visiting the structure will be doing so to see the painting mentioned above, to see any art instillations, and to check out the view down over the city – all of which you can enjoy too. As a kendoka, however, you know the real score!

Doing kendo in Japan (cheat sheet) 日本剣道修行

Recently – perhaps because of the impending world kendo championships – I’ve been receiving an increased amount of inquires about doing kendo over here in Japan. Some questions/requests are quite easily resolved, others not so. What I’ve decided to do here is to write a quick “cheat sheet” for people who are coming to Japan and want to study kendo or, indeed, for those in Japan who wish to start.

Please note that this is a general guide only, and I’m sure many readers have had many different experiences. YMMV.


A. “I already do kendo in my home country and I’m coming to Japan and wish to practise for a bit.”

Great! The easiest thing to do here is to use a connection with someone you already have to find a place to practise. Ask your sensei/sempai first and go that route. Sorted!

Failing that, you can always reach out to (friendly!) people in Japan and ask. I’m happy to help/advise people who come to Osaka for example.

A third route is to contact the ZNKR or regional federations and ask for help – they should be more than willing to do so (it’s their job). You should be able to email them in English at least.

Other points to note:

1. Equipment – bring your own equipment. Rolling up to Japan and expecting to borrow stuff (unless it’s from a friend and you’ve worked it out beforehand) is a bit rude. It also, I think, reveals the extent of your dedication to kendo (i.e. not much).

Shinai can be tricky to take over, so consider buying 2 or 3 when you are here (they are cheap – ask your contact about a bogu shop or buy them online and deliver them to your hotel). If you must borrow something, then let it only be shinai.

One place where many people make easy mistakes is with their zekken:

– Absolutely do not turn up without a zekken.

– Make sure the zekken is legible (i.e. unless you are Asian or of Asian descent do not use kanji but have your name printed in roman script or katakana – otherwise people will not know how to read your name, and you risk looking foolish). If people can’t read your zekken then it’s pointless to even wear one.

– Consider making a zekken with your country or city name (assuming it’s a large place like London or Paris) rather than your dojo name. This is simply so people can place you. You may think your dojo has a cool name or is well known, but it’s probably not. btw, when I go to degeiko in other prefectures I simply use an “Osaka” zekken for the same reason.

2. Gifts. If you are going to be at a single dojo and you know the teacher then sure, bring a gift if you want to (something cheap). If you are moving around dojo and perhaps don’t know the teachers, then I suggest NOT to bring any gifts at all – nobody expects presents from random people.

3. In Japan people freely hand out business cards to each other even in non-business situations. Pleasantries like “We must go out for a drink soon” or “Get in touch if you come to my prefecture” etc are common. However they are just that: pleasantries. Kendo teachers naturally do this abroad and may say “Come and visit me when you are in Japan” however, they sometimes don’t imagine you will actually get in touch. This seems to have been more trouble in the past than it is now, but calls/emails from random people abroad (whom they can’t remember) saying “I’m coming to Japan!” do happen. You may want to think about this before emailing every Japanese kendo person whose business card you happen to have.

4. Be polite. This is a no-brainer… or should be. You’d be amazed how many people (often unintentionally) end up doing something silly that is easily avoidable:

– Reply to emails. You’d be surprised how many people don’t send a reply (even saying “thanks”) when you answer their questions.

– Don’t be late. If keiko starts at 7pm, don’t turn up at 6:50pm. Be at the dojo (at least for your first time) about 30 minutes before class starts.

– Research the route before you go. Large cities especially can be confusing for first time visitors. An easy example of a screw up is when multiple train lines from different companies have similar names: e.g. there are 4 “Namba” stations here in central Osaka: Namba, Nankai Namba, Osaka Namba, JR Namba.

– Introduce yourself to the main teacher(s) before class, and be sure to practise with at least 1 or 2 of them first during keiko.

– No matter what your grade is, sit at the bottom of the line unless moved by members of the dojo.

– Don’t randomly tsuki people you don’t know, and be carefully when doing keiko with older people and children.

B. “I live in Japan and wish to start kendo.”

Good for you! The easiest thing to do here is ask a Japanese friend to help you find a dojo (if you speak/read Japanese you can do it yourself of course). The quickest route to success is to ask your local prefectural kendo association directly. After that, it should be plain sailing.

Note that depending on where you are they may not be used to teaching adult beginners, and you may be taught with children at least initially. Just be patient.

Personally, I ask that adults who wish to start from scratch at my dojo here in Osaka to be willing to commit for at least 2 years. If you plan to leave Japan in 6 months time please consider that someone else has to sacrifice their time to teach you (possibly man-to-man).

C. “I love kendo and want to seriously study it in Japan.”

Well, you sound like me all those years ago! First of all, most people say they want to seriously study kendo, but few are willing to give up much to do so. When I hear “seriously study” I imagine 10 years plus or maybe, minimally, 5 years. Pretty much nobody is willing to sacrifice the time but if you are, please consider the following:

1. You need a job. Unless you are independently wealthy, you will need to work. First, find a job in Japan and then work on kendo from there.

2. Unless you are extremely lucky, most working people don’t practise more than 3 or 4 times/week… often less. i.e. you’ll be at work more than you will be the dojo. This might not be the fantastic-life-of-kendo you imagine. Combining work and kendo is possible, but rare.

3. Kendo is hard and takes a long time. 5 years is not enough for your average person to get good, neither is 10. You may find yourself getting physically and mentally beaten down a lot. You will almost also certainly be at the very bottom of the pile with little or no chance to make it to the top. You may think you can handle all this, but can you really? Also, the kendo social scene is not as friendly as it is in many places abroad, so it’s easy for people to feel lonely and isolated at times.

4. One serious option is the International Budo University’s special one year course for non-Japanese students (they do both a kendo and judo course). I’ve heard more horror stories than good about the place and was actually talked out of going myself by a graduate a few years ago. However it does – to those with the Japanese skills – offer something rare to non-Japanese people: the potential to move onto the full-time course after the one-year course is completed. In reality, almost nobody does this, but if you want to study sport or budo at a Japanese university, this is basically your only option. Note that Japanese university system is different from many countries, including the method of entrance and the qualification received.

A note here for people trying to get cultural visa’s to study kendo: it almost certainly won’t happen. Especially if you have very little kendo experience. Get a job.

D. “I’m visiting Japan and would like to try kendo (individual or group).”

Get in touch with the All Japan Kendo Federation or your own country’s federation.

E. “I’m going to do a school exchange / study in Japan and I’d love to start kendo.”

I’m jealous!! I’ve heard of many many (high school and university aged) students who started kendo on a school exchange or study-year, so you are in a great situation.

If you are going to attend a Japanese high school then (assuming the kendo teacher is good) it’s like hitting the kendo lottery: get in there! It may be physically intense and you may have little time left for other pursuits, but it will be a year worth spent. In fact, I’ve personally taught 4 high school exchange students before (3 from China, 1 from Europe).

University clubs tend to be a lot different and – I hear – can be very unfriendly at times. You should realise that most universities have a “main” club and a less-formal “kendo circle” club. The latter is often less strict and less competition orientated, so it might be better for the adult beginner or those with less experience. Good luck!


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Comment

Like I said at the top of this piece: the advice here is general. For the most part it’s also self-explanatory… or you would think so!!!

Over the last 10 years or so I’ve had people roll up here in Osaka wanting to borrow a hakama, without a zekken (or with illegible kanji), people obviously not reading the explicit directions I’ve given them and going to the wrong station, turn up late, turn up on time but fence only the shodans and 2dans, etc etc etc. I’ve also seen an increase in the number of adult beginners who wish to start (although no non-Japanese person has ever stayed more than a year or so…) and – surprisingly – random requests like “My son and I study karate and will be in Osaka for a day, can we try kendo?” or “I’ve done kendo for 4 months and love it. I need your help getting a cultural visa to study kendo. Can you ask your sensei to be my teacher and sign the immigration form for me?”… [ bury face into kote ] … etc etc.

At any rate, this was a light-hearted advice article – feel free to add any more advice or personal anecdotes you have in the comments below. Cheers!

Towards true internationalisation of kendo (1989) 剣道国際化

After the popularity of the last post I’ve decided to translate something else along the same theme. It comes from around the same time frame and is the work of another academic, though this time a sort of – whats the right word? – maverick of the Japanese kendo community: Baba Kinji sensei (kyoshi nanadan, Kokushikan university professor and kendo teacher of the Tsurugawa campus kendo club). I don’t mean “maverick” in a bad sense, rather, he’s someone who likes to speak his mind even if his opinion is different from others, and isn’t afraid to openly criticise. Needless to say these traits are not the norm in Japanese kendo circles and it makes for some interesting reading. At any rate, today’s translation is more inwardly looking, one that looks hard at kendo in Japan and finds fault.
Continue reading Towards true internationalisation of kendo (1989) 剣道国際化

Eikenkai February 2015 英剣会

Today’s Eikenkai practise – the first of 2015 – was absolutely packed. 40 kenshi from shodan to nanadan representing five prefectures (Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Mie, Nagoya) and five countries (Japan, the UK, Spain, Thailand, America) got together for over two hours of intense keiko.

In amongst the participants there those that have competed at the highest level, namely the All Japan Championships, the Todofuken Championships, the Kokutai national championships, and past and present European and World Championships. The mix of professions represented was also very rich: teachers, scientists, politicians, journalists, radio DJs, cooks… as well as high school and university students.

In other-words, a quite eclectic bunch!!!

The session today consisted of about one hour of kihon practise (kirikaeshi, men, kote, kote-men, tsuki, oji waza, and uchikomi) followed – after a short break – by over an hour of jigeiko. As you can imagine, with such a wide-range of ages, grades, and experience, it made for an excellent bash.

For more information about Eikenkai, including this years schedule, please visit the page on this site.

Cheers!

Thoughts on the internationalisation of kendo (1992) 剣道国際化

The following is a highly abridged and loosely translated excerpt from a book entitled Gendai Kendo (“Modern kendo”) published in 1992. The book consists of articles (based on lectures) by academics discussing kendo in it’s then current situation and was sponsored by the Ministry of Education, All Japan Kendo Association (ZNKR), and the All Japan Sport Universities Association.

Going through the book one chapter that I found of particular interest was that concerning the state of kendo outside of Japan. I found it of interest because – perhaps unusually for a Japanese kendo book – it looks at the issue relatively objectively. What piqued my interest in particular was:

  1. It gives us a view to how international kendo was viewed from a Japanese perspective 20+ years ago (which isn’t so long ago).
  2. It gives us a chance to consider what has or hasn’t improved since then – in both kendo outside of Japan and attitudes towards non-Japanese kenshi by Japanese practitioners.
    Continue reading Thoughts on the internationalisation of kendo (1992) 剣道国際化