It was raining in Mito when my train pulled into the station. I got myself an umbrella from Family Mart and set out to find the place that I had came here for.
Ten minutes later I was standing before the front porch of Tobukan. The gate was open, but there didn’t seem to be anyone around, so I just sat outside of the dojo door and waited for three hours for someone to show up. Eventually, when I was about to leave to find myself a place to stay for the night, a gentleman arrived with a definite air of kendo sensei about him. I asked if he speaks any English and he said he didn’t, so I introduced myself in Japanese and asked if I could join their evening practice. The gentleman informed me that regrettably there was no evening practice that night, but if I wanted to I was very much welcome to the asa-geiko (morning practice) that starts at 5:30am the following day. He also told me, and this was the first thing said in English, that it will be a “special practice,” leaving me to wonder whatever that may mean. With this it was obvious that our conversation had come to a close, so we exchanged some more Japanese niceties and parted our ways.
Having been established in 1874, Tobukan is a legendary place. It is one of the two remaining famous private dojo (the other being Shubukan in Hyogo), being built thirty years before the original Noma dojo that was recently demolished to kendo community’s great dismay. In addition to kendo, Tobukan is also a hombu dojo for Hokushin itto-ryu kenjutsu, and in addition to that also naginata and iaido are practiced here. However, Tobukan is more than just a very old and traditional place. Along with those other two famous private dojos, Tobukan was the first place that opened its doors to all kenshis who wanted to come and practice. At the time, this was something rather unusual. At the times of Tokugawa period and before that, dojos had traditionally held their cards very close to their chests. In a way this is of course perfectly understandable, as different styles (ryu) had developed their own ideas and techniques that they of course thought to be superior to those of the others. However, after Tokugawa Ieyasu unified Japan, the warring ended and there was very little chance to put this conviction to a test. When Tobukan opened its doors to all comers, many strong kenshi from all of the Japan used the opportunity to come and cross swords with tough opponents – and as a consequence, the level of instruction as well as practice started to improve very fast. It became evident that the way to become strong was not secrecy, rather than being open.
And in a way, this was also the beginning of modern kendo. One of the beauties of kendo for me is precisely that there are no “schools” or “styles,” like there are in karate, aikido, iaido or ju-jitsu, where people are practising the same martial art, but as they belong to different ryu they sometimes refuse to talk to each other, not to mention actually training together or trying to learn from each other. To me, this seems a very sad and silly state of affairs, but apparently there is very little that can be done about it.
The next day I got up at 4:45am, and dressed into keikogi and hakama in my room. Stepping out of the hotel fifteen minutes later, I found Mito completely empty, apart from many children, some as young as five or six years, wearing hakama and traditional white-and-black patterned Musashi-gi and carrying shinai bags. As we stopped duly at traffic lights, our group got bigger with every street-crossing, and eventually we reached the dojo.
It looked completely different from the last night. The sliding doors and windows were open and the building was surrounded by Japanese mothers. Inside it was teeming with children, there must have been at least fifty or sixty of them. I was quickly ushered up the stairs to the second floor, where about a dozen senseis (including my acquintance from the last night) were sitting around the table, sipping some cold barley tea and getting ready for the keiko. My arrival caused a fair amount of stir. After the initial round of introductions, among them to an old man who clearly was in charge, and mandatory exchange of business cards I quickly put my equipment on and we all went downstairs, where we took a group photo and then it was time to line up.
As a guest I was asked to give a short speech and then it was a time to get started. It was two hours of keiko, and again as a guest I was on the sensei side of the hall. First we were acting as motodachi for children, then there was free keiko for children, after that a short break during which children and some senseis left, and then we concluded with free keiko among those who remained. My first two fights were with local hachidans, after which there was time for one more fight and then someone struck the big taiko, marking the end of the asa-geiko. We then proceeded to go back upstairs to drink lots of cold tea and chat. I was asked by several people if I will be coming to keiko the next day too – to which I could honestly respond that I would very much have liked to. Tobukan is hands down the most amazing place I have ever practiced kendo in, but I had already promised to be in Tokyo that night to catch up wityh Luis and go to a keiko with Ito sensei and Atari sensei, who both hail from Keisicho (ie. Tokyo Police).
And the next morning it was already time to head for Kitamoto, where we will be staying for a full week of kendo in the All Japan Kendo Federation’s annual summer seminar that has been running since 1976. But more about that next time.