I never had a chance to go to the old Noma dojo that many kendo people speak in hushed tones. It was originally established in 1925 and demolished six years ago in 2007. Just like Tobukan had done before, Noma dojo also held its doors open to all kenshi who wanted to come and practice, and this tradition went on all the way until 2007. If the old dojo was located in a separate building and one simply had to show up for practice in order to take part, nowadays Noma dojo is located on the top floor of the Kodansha offices, so officially a pre-registration though a standing member is required in order to enter the premises
We were picked up at the nearby metro station by Tanaka sensei’s old friend who is a long-standing member of Noma, and then taken through a labyrinth of office buildings to reach the dojo. I was asked to sign in and change into keikogi quickly, and at 6:30 we started with practice.
I can of course understand the nostalgia that many people have for the old dojo, but I must say that the new one is likewise a very impressive place. It has clearly been designed with a lot of care and attention to detail, with many of the original features (such as the basic layout of the training hall, skylights and even ofuro) being retained in the new dojo. Also, the same people continue practicing in the new dojo and this is obviously, from the kendo point of view, what matters the most. Noma dojo has an incredibly strong line-up of kenshis. The asageiko that I attended was led by two hachidan senseis who were the only ones sitting at the kamiza side, and on the shimoza side there was a loooong line of nanadans and rokudans. Among them was a somewhat younger man who looked strangely familiar, but I couldn’t figure out where could I possibly have met him. I realised the reason after the keiko in the locker room, when he changed into the tracksuit of the Japanese national team.
Since I am trying to spare my right shoulder, I have been fighting a lot from jodan lately. While in classical schools of kenjutsu there are many different positions that one can fight from, in modern kendo (with an exception of kata) basically just two are used – chudan and jodan. Chudan no kamae is by far the more popular one, being the most basic stance that everyone begins with when starting to learn kendo. In chudan, a person is squarely facing his or her opponent, right foot slightly forward while holding a sword straight in front of one’s body, the tip of the sword at about chest height. The main difference in jodan is that the sword is held above one’s head. There are many other minor differences and details, but those need not concern us at the moment.
In modern kendo there are four legitimate targets for an attack: men (the top of the head), kote (wrist), do (sides of the body), and tsuki (throat, that is attacked by a thrust rather than strike). In chudan no kamae, all these targets are reasonably well guarded. In jodan, however, pretty much everything is wide open. This was apparently a thing that puzzled many early portuguese in Japan who compared the Japanese approach to sword-fighting to the European one. In European fencing, be it in French, Spanish or Italian school, one of the most basic principles of a fighting stance is to minimise the body area that is reachable and visible to the opponent. From this “safety-first” point of view the Japanese way – to face an opponent squarely with everything open, as if inviting an attack – must have seemed a pure madness. However, what many of those early observers must not have realised was that Japanese warrior culture was based on somewhat different premises. Samurai were taught to not fear the death, they were taught to embrace it. It thus mattered little if they set their lives at risk in a fight – indeed, this was the very thing they were supposed to do. What mattered was to overcome the opponent, and if one had to trade his own life for achieving this, then so be it. It probably also helps to appreciate this point if one realises that in buddhism there are many lives for a person to look forward to, and the choices that we make in this particular one will have an impact on the subsequent ones. It was thus no good to cling to one’s life at the expense of making cowardly decisions – it was always the best to take a decisive route and not worry about impermanent things such as earthly existence.
Jodan no kamae is perhaps the best approximation of this attitude in modern kendo. It is impossible to effectively fight defensively from jodan, and in order to have a chance to strike your opponent you will have to be willing to let yourself be struck. It is thus necessary to adopt a very aggressive approach, to try and put as much pressure on your opponent as you can, to force him or her to react – and then decisevely strike yourself. At the same time there are also a lot more technical particularities involved (subtle differences in terms of distance, timing, angles of attack, and so on) which can make fighting from jodan a very complex affair, especially against a strong and competent opponent. For those (plus a few more, mostly etiquette-related) reasons I usually do not take jodan against senseis that I am not already familiar with.
However, in Noma dojo I didn’t have to worry about this. I had my second match with Tanaka sensei and since we knew each other previously, I took jodan. Apparently others noticed this (which wasn’t hard, as I was the only person that morning who was fighting from jodan), and in every subsequent match, when I started from chudan, a sensei would tell me soon to take jodan against them. At one point when I was fighting some lower ranked member, a sensei in all whites who had been carefully watching us for a while suddenly stepped in, simply waving my opponent away and taking his place mid-fight – the first time I have seen anything like this happen in my kendo career.
It was a very useful practice, and I was given a lot of small tips and good advice. I did in fact get seriously started with fighting from jodan precisely because of my shoulder problem (as I can rely more on my left arm this way, without having to extend the right hand too much), but now I am really getting to like it. And even if I will not make a full switch (which is unlikely), jodan is a great way to learn and practice things that I can incorporate to my chudan kendo.
Today I will be heading on from Tokyo, to another famous (if not very old) dojo that Iwatate sensei keeps in Chiba. Iwatate sensei himself is unfortunately away from Japan, on a kendo trip to Brazil, but tonight Kon sensei should be leading the practice in his stead in Shofukan. I had a chance to practice with Kon sensei (who is very very famous and important here in Japan) a day before we headed to Kitamoto, and based on that experience I have a reason to believe that I am looking forward to another hard keiko.