I grew up in a quiet suburb of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. In a house next to us lived Kristjan Palusalu – the only wrestler in history to win Olympic gold in the same event both in the Greco-Roman and freestyle. By early 1980s his health was already ailing, but his fame and reputation were strong as ever. Every spring, at the time of his birthday, many stocky men with thick necks and cauliflower ears gathered to his house, to pay their respects and talk about bygone times. One of those perennial guests was Andres Lutsar, a kind of Estonian version of Jigoro Kano, who never missed the opportunity to talk to us boys (Palusalu had two grandsons about my age whom Lutsar clearly regarded as heirs apparent to the grand man) about judo.
And this is how I got into martial arts. Although my career in judo ended pretty much as soon as it got started, I was hooked, and for the better part of the next thirty years I have been practising some kind of fighting sport or martial art. For the last dozen it has been kendo.
It is strange, but I honestly cannot recall when and how I first heard about kendo. It may have been Sean Connery’s movie Rising Sun, but I cannot be sure. In any case, when I moved back to Tallinn after graduation I remember asking around if anyone is teaching it in Estonia. As it turned out, no-one was. But then in 2001, when I was practising aikido and regularly went to Finland for training camps, I once googled “kendo camp finland,” and found out that there is indeed a seminar coming up in Helsinki, led by someone called Takeda-sensei. I sent organisers an e-mail, asking if they would welcome a few beginners from Estonia, and the reply was “come on over.” I invited some of my aikido-buddies along and so we did.
It was a bewildering experience. For most of the people, when they first see it, kendo appears nothing like what they have imagined the Japanese sword-fighting to be. To put it shortly: it is incredibly loud and aggressive, looking like a bunch of Darth Vaders yelling at the top of their voices while randomly whacking away at each other with bamboo sticks. Strangely though, there was a kind of serene dignity in all this, something quite unlike that I had seen or experienced in any other martial art so far. It was also unmistakably real, a true fight between opponents going at each other full throttle – something that I had missed when doing aikido back then.
So we decided to give it a go. Back in Tallinn we rented a hall and started practising suburi (a basic exercise of swinging the sword without an opponent), trying to carefully follow the instructions that we were given in Helsinki. Since we did not have swords, we used simple wooden sticks at first. It was only after a month or so that we ordered first batch of shinai (bamboo swords) from Japan over the internet. It was a hard going, to learn something without anyone around who could actually teach you – but in a strange way this slow start seems to have paid off in some rather unexpected ways.
Along with ikebana, origami, manga, haiku and sushi, martial arts must be among Japan’s most successful cultural exports – in fact it is probably the most well-known aspect of Japanese culture for outsiders. Interestingly, the Western world discovered them only about sixty years ago, after the American occupation of Japan post WW2. Since these early days, a lot has changed. Martial arts are ubiquitous throughout the West, and indeed the whole world. Judo has been an Olympic sport since 1964, karate is being practiced and taught everywhere, and in recent years, jiu-jitsu (in its new, Brazilian guise) has been all the craze thanks to the success of MMA. Unlike in the early days when properly studying a martial art meant finding a master willing to teach it (and often this was a difficult proposition outside Japan), today it is relatively easy to come across highly competent teachers as well as fighters of the main Japanese martial arts everywhere in the world.
However, as far as kendo goes, Japan is still the definite place to go – it is there that you will find the toughest opposition as well as the highest quality instruction by far. And this is exactly what I intend to do – in a week from now I pack my bogu and board the flight to Tokyo, to spend the next four weeks in Japan, traveling from dojo to dojo, trying to get as many hours of kendo under my obi as I can. Right now it seems that there will be a lot of it. In addition to Kitamoto seminar (an annual week-long international kendo camp, organised by All Japan Kendo Federation) I will be going to Tokyo, Yamagata, Sendai, Chiba, Shizuoka, Osaka, Kyoto, Kagawa and probably a few other places, and everywhere there are people waiting for me to show up for some keiko. It is going to be no walk in a park.
Apart from all that keiko I intend to use this trip as an excuse to reflect upon some things that I have wanted to write about already for a long while. So I will be keeping a diary, and although there is certainly going to be a lot of kendo-talk, I aim to branch out into many different topics, some of which will not necessarily be related with kendo or martial arts at all. I will also try my best to keep the inevitable kendo-talk general enough, so that everything can in principle be followed also by those who have not elected to dedicate a big part of their lives to something as strange and obscure as fighting other people with bamboo swords.