Tšiili nokturn

Kirjutasin paar kuud tagasi Ekspressile ühe nupu Loomingu Raamatukogus värskelt ilmunud Bolaño kohta. Tundub, et see siiski lehte ei jõudnud, nii et olgu siis siia üles riputatud.


Roberto Bolaño on ühes oma intervjuus öelnud, et romaan on olemuslikult ebatäiuslik žanr – ning mida pikem see on, seda suurem on ka võimalus neil vormile omastel puudustel ilmsiks tulla. Nii on Loomingu Raamatukogu sarjas värskelt eestikeelsena ilmunud “Tšiili nokturn” oma napilt alla saja leheküljega ideaalseks võimaluseks teha tutvust ühe tähtsaima kaasaegse romaanikirjanikuga, kes juba kümme aastat tagasi meie hulgast lahkus.

“Tšiili nokturn” on surmaga vastamisi seisva vana mehe tagasivaade elatud elule. Isa Urrutia elu on olnud väärikas ja mõistlik, ta on olnud jumalakartlik vaimulik, hinnatud intellektuaal ja luuletaja ning lugupeetud kriitik, teda tunti kui “suurepärast tšiillast”. Tema sõnad on alati olnud kaalutletud ja ta vaikimised laitmatud. Meenutades oma elu liigub isa Urrutia justkui läbi suure maja, avades järjest uksi, mis viivad aina uutesse tubadesse. Ta kulgeb läbi vaimulikeseminari, läbi sõpruse Tšiili kõige tuntuma kirjanduskriitiku Farewelliga, läbi tutvuse Pablo Neruda ja lugematu hulga väiksemate Tšiili kirjanike ja luuletajatega. Ta astub Opus Deisse, tema teele satuvad härrad Mrih ja Ahiv (vihjeks: neid nimesid tasub tagurpidi lugeda), kes lähetavad ta Euroopasse, uurima sealseid kirikute säilitamise meetodeid. Seejärel võidab Allende valimised ja Pinochet korraldab riigipöörde ning sealt edasi viib isa Urrutia eluteekond läbi Santiago sumedate ööde, Maria Canalese juurde äärelinna majja, kus Tšiili literaadid kogunevad ühiselt meeldiva vestluse saatel õhtuid ja öid veetma, ja kuhu vaatamata läbi komandanditunni kestvale melule kunagi politsei ei saabu.

Oma mälestuste lossis toast tuppa liikudes jõuab isa Urrutia lõpuks aga vääramatult trepile, mis viib alla pimedusse. Ja seal, keldri kõige kitsama koridori lõpus olevas viimases ruumis, kus valgust näitab vilets pirn ja kus keset tuba on raudvoodi, lebab kinniseotud silmadega isa Urritia südametunnistus.

Bolaño on lõpuks eesti keeles kohal. Oli ka aeg.

“Why you study kendo?”

Kyoto Butokuden

Last night after the keiko – my final one on this trip – Yamagami sensei and his students at Kagawa University threw me a sayonara party. There was some food, drink and entertainment, and then Yamagami sensei told students to ask me questions – anything they wanted to know. After a moment of uneasy silence, a girl put her hand up and asked me “why you study kendo?”

This must be the question that almost every western kendoka has had to respond to at some point when talking with their Japanese friends or acquaintances. Over the last four weeks I have heard it, in one form or another, at least a dozen times.

For Japanese this seems to be a perplexing issue on more than one account. For one thing, although kendo is a martial art, it has no apparent benefit of being somehow practically useful as a self defense, the way judo, karate or aikido could be. Also, kendo involves a lot of culturally specific aspects that are clearly rather alien to westerners – and it is hard, very hard practice.

In Japan, a vast majority of people start kendo in their childhood, through no decision of their own. Some of them enjoy it, but many do not – and often they quit as soon as they have a say about the matter. However, those who go on doing kendo in their adult years do so almost out of a habit – and when asked why they too would most likely be puzzled as how to answer that.

Obviously there may be many different responses. One could practice kendo in order to stay fit, or perhaps because their friends are doing it. However, when asked “why do you practice kendo,” the stress (at least mentally) seems to be on the final word. There are many things one could do to stay fit and social, and most of them would seem to make much more sense for a westerner to take up than kendo.

In order to begin to answer that “why” question I believe it is first necessary to look a bit closer at what exactly it is we study when we practice kendo. The most obvious reply would seem to be “to fight with a sword.” However, this won’t take us very far. To begin with, kendo is not a very good way to become an expert swordfighter, as we do not actually use real swords in sparring, rather than shinai (bamboo swords that are straight and considerably lighter than katana). Also, kendo fight is decidedly “unrealistic,” as the aim is to score an ippon (a perfect strike, worthy of a full point), and this means that most of the hits that land, and would certainly end the fight with real swords, go unregarded. And finally, even if it was the case that doing kendo could teach one how to fight with a katana, there remains a question why would anyone need a skill like that in today’s world?

It would seem that the answer must lie somewhere else.

When talking about education and learning in general, Aristotle distinguished several different aims (or forms of “knowledge”). On the most basic level, when we learn something we do so in order to acquire a certain skill. This is what ancient Greeks called technê (τέχνη), which is of course the same root that the word “technology” stems from. Technê alone and in itself is neutral, it could be used to many different ends and purposes, both good and bad, beautiful and ugly, wise and not so. It is simply, as Aristotle put it in Nicomachean Ethics, “the art of realising possibilities,” but it does not tell one anything about which possibilities are worth pursuing. In order for the skill to be used properly, it needs to be informed by aretê (which is commonly, if somewhat misleadingly, translated into English as “virtue”). Virtue, however – and this is a point that is stressed both by Aristotle and Plato – cannot be taught, as it is not a matter of rational judgement or calculation. A virtuous person chooses the right action “naturally,” without hesitation or contemplation, and needs no other reason for choosing it apart from it being a right thing to do. Acquiring virtue is thus a matter of cultivation, that of engraining the good qualities into the very character of a person through ceaseless practice – up to the point when they indeed become natural.

In budo there are five fundamental virtues: jin (benevolence), gi (honour), rei (courtesy), chi (wisdom), and shin (sincerity). Sometimes those five are complemented by a few additional ones, such as courage, loyalty and piety. It is evident that kendo does indeed promote those qualities throughout the daily practice. In kendo one is also taught the importance of acting instinctively and immediately, without any reflective thought, uninhibited by fear, confusion or doubt. This way it becomes apparent that learning to fight with a shinai is actually a means and not and end in itself.

This all comes down to the famous distinction between -do and -jutsu (such as in kendo vs. kenjutsu – if the latter is predominantly about acquiring a practical skill or craft, the former aims at shaping one’s character through constant and rigorous practice. This is also the reason why many parents in Japan put their children into kendo classes – so that they would grow up as “good persons,” with right values and proper attitude.

In 1975, the All Japan Kendo Federation published a short document titled “The Concept of Kendo” that every kendoka has seen and read. It says that “the concept of kendo is to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the katana” and goes on to specify that the way to do it is:

To mold the mind and body,
To cultivate a vigorous spirit,
And through correct and rigid training,
To strive for improvement in the art of Kendo,
To hold in esteem human courtesy and honor,
To associate with others with sincerity,
And to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.

Doing kendo is not going to turn anyone into a saint, just as studying is not going to automatically make anyone wise. I do not know if practicing kendo has made me a better person – this is for others to judge. I do know, however, that there definitely are some things that have, over those years, become something akin to a second nature to me. When entering big rooms with people in them (like, for instance, cinema halls or conference rooms), I cannot help but instinctively take a small bow at the door. I am unconsciously mindful of passing in front of the people, in particular when they are seated, I tend to place certain objects in a particular way – and so on. I trust that anyone who has done kendo for some time has similar experiences. And this would lead me to believe that there must be also other, perhaps less tangible things that have become a part of my character.

Osaka heat

Last night the heat finally got me.

It was supposed to be an easy one hour keiko at Osaka Shudokan. Having gone through Kitamoto and some other pretty rough practices over the last week I had clearly grown a bit cocky. Of course, doing uchikomi in the heat and humidity of Japanese summer is never going to be a pleasant thing, but I figured that by now I am pretty much fully acclimatised.

However, yesterday we had been walking around in Osaka with Maeno sensei in scorching heat, and my fluid intake throughout the whole day consisted on a small beer and a glass of water. By the time of keiko, there was still 34 degrees outside. Dojo doors and windows were wide open, so I was drenched in sweat already before we got started. After kihon (basic techniques) practice my mouth felt like a Gobi desert. We had a small break during which I tried to gulp down as much water as I could, but this was obviously to no avail, as it all came gushing out through my pores as soon as I put my men back on.

Things weren’t helped by nice people at Shudokan who thought that they were doing me a favor by keeping me spots in the line to senseis, so that I could move from one to another without having to wait. By the fourth match I was utterly and completely exhausted. And then the sensei I was practicing with thought that my men strike could use some improvement and had me do uchikomi. At that moment there was, according to the clock hanging on the dojo wall, less than five minutes left, but at this point I finally had to throw in the towel. There was no breath left and I could literally feel my vision beginning to fade – I was quite probably one or two more attacks away from simply collapsing to the floor. I excused myself to the sensei and was given a permission to go and take off the men. For a while I felt like throwing up. I must have looked pretty awful, as several people came to inquire if I needed any help.

After the keiko I was given some salt tablets (the same that Suzuki sensei had kindly provided before the practice at Shofukan) by Maeno sensei and I must have drank a couple of liters of water in shower. However, it wasn’t until perhaps an hour later that the feverish chills and the feeling of dry mouth subsided.

So today we are off to Kyoto, to have a keiko at Butokuden. It is going to be even hotter day, with temperature reaching 38 degrees Celsius, so I will make it a point to drink aplenty before the evening and this time take the salt well in advance. It is three more keiko to go, and then I’m done.



Among the great many smart and interesting people that I met over the fifteen years of being an investment banker was Edward. At the time when we met we were doing a deal together in Lithuania, Edward was the Head of Equity Sales in a well-known international investment bank. He was perhaps some fifteen years my senior, meaning that he had probably worked as an equity salesman for about three decades. One night when we were relaxing in a restaurant somewhere in the old town of Vilnius, Edward told me a story.

When we come out of the business school, said Edward to me, we all think we are kings of the world. We’ve got all that knowledge and training, often the best that the money can buy, meant to prepare us for everything and anything that might come our way – and the world is our oyster. Everything is really simple to us. And so we roll up our sleeves and get into the business.

However, pretty soon we will discover that everything is nowhere near as simple as we thought – in fact it seems that world is quite complex. Nonetheless, we have this expensive MBA under our belt, so we figure that we can manage. A couple of years forward it dawns upon us that the world is really incredibly complex and there is no way that we could possibly manage it all. We realize that any success we’ve had is probably due to simple luck rather than us having been any good. In fact we then often feel that we can barely keep our noses above the water. Having no way out, we just carry on, fully knowing that we are at the whim of the fate.

But then eventually, beaten, broken and battered by years of experience, we slowly come to realize that the world is, after all, really quite simple.

I remembered this story today when Haga sensei (who has been taking care of me for the last couple of days) took me to a small private dojo here in Mishima. My arrival was apparently announced well ahead, as everyone already knew to expect me – and this was probably also the reason why we had today four hachidan senseis in attendence. One of them, Koyama sensei, was very young for hachidan, being just 51 years old, but other three were in their seventies. I had keiko with all of them and, as could be expected, was soundly beaten. This in itself is of course nothing surprising. However, what is interesting and important is the way how they beat me. They did not do it with tricks or sophisticated technique, they beat me with the most basic fundamentals.

Kendo is probably as simple as a martial art can be – in fact I personally find it difficult to concieve how it could be any simpler than that. When I am teaching beginners course (which usually takes place over the weekend), I tell people that by Sunday afternoon they know all about kendo, from that point on there is nothing new. Of course, one could argue about that and point out that there are in fact different so-called “applied techniques” with all sorts of complications and subtleties, but fundamentally those are too just a way to execute one of the four basic waza of kendo: men, kote, do or tsuki. And this is it, beyond those four there is nothing else, and even those four fundamentally come down to a single principle of kiri-otoshi (i.e. a “downward cut”) that modern kendo has inherited from Itto-ryu school of swordmanship. This is always the first thing that a beginners learn in kendo as soon as they have a sword in their hand – and as I was reminded today, this is the only thing you ever need to know to beat someone.

In this way, the aim of training kendo is to get back to where we started – simplicity. This is the beauty of hachidan kendo: there is nothing superfluous, nothing unnecessary. Only the determination and solid fundamentals.

Tomorrow will be my last day here in Mishima, and the second day of no kendo in the last three weeks. I must say that I am quite happy about the latter – it is nice to get a day of rest, both physically as well as mentally. On Thursday I will be leaving for Osaka and Kyoto, and then there is only Kagawa left before it is time to head back to Tokyo and then Europe.

Noma dojo

noma dojo

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.

Halfway through


Hour by hour, minute by minute we were etching closer to the end of the camp, and then suddenly it was over. We lined up for the last time, there were many speeches and lots of bowing, many thanks and good wishes, and then it was time to pack our equipment and leave the dojo. Despite of having lived for that moment for the last few days, it felt strangely sad.

Today morning at 10am, Tanaka sensei was waiting me outside the Gedatsukai. I bid farewell with all the friends, old and new, loaded my bags to the car and off we went. Tanaka sensei is nanadan (7. dan) and lives halfway between Kitamoto and Tokyo. I will be staying at his place for the next two nights, and he will take me to the legendary Noma dojo tomorrow morning for the asageiko.

When having a dinner tonight, Tanaka sensei asked how many times a day did we practice in Kitamoto. So I told him a bit about Funatsu sensei and our daily routine in general, and then showed him this video of the last minute (out of the total three) of uchikomi and kakarigeiko that one of our Australian guys had with Fukumoto sensei, basically the same routine that I too had gone through a couple of days before:

Tanaka sensei was first sure that he must have misundestood the “three minutes” part. Once we established that I had really meant three minutes, he saw the video once more and then asked his daughter for a translation of a japanese word. “This is CRAZY” pronounced Tanaka sensei very carefully, shaking his gray head. “Even in police don’t people train like that, it is only the tokuren are given three minutes of uchikomi.”

This is of course a relieving thing to hear, as it would seem that the worst must be over by now. I have still got ten days to go, many places to visit and many people to fight – and some of them are certainly going to give me hard time. But then I can think back to Kitamoto and reassure myself that it could be a whole lot worse 🙂

Funatsu Fight Club

It would seem that I was a bit hasty with my announcement that Kitamoto camp has become all soft and cuddly lately. I have now spoken to several people who have been to Kitamoto earlier (and in different years), and they all have confirmed that if it wasn’t for one thing it would be a pretty normal Kitamoto camp.

This one thing is Funatsu sensei.

Funatsu sensei seems to have made up his mind to do his best to turn this useless bunch of civilians that we are into ninjas within a single week, or apparently have us die trying. We had a small taste of what was to come in the first day, when we did some eight hundred suburi and then lots of kirikaeshi and oikomi across the hall lengthwise. It was hard, but there were pauses to stretch and catch one’s breath a bit – and as we are all at least 3. dan level here, it was nothing that any of us hadn’t been through before.

Yesterday, in the second part of the morning session, Funatsu sensei gave us 800 suburi again, done by sets of hundred each, and again we went through it without too much of a problem. As my shoulder is aching quite a bit, Funatsu sensei had excused me of doing them along, but I have in fact been trying to keep up at the back of the hall, doing it one-handed with my good left arm.

However, at the start of the evening session, when everybody lined up with their men and kote for some more kirikaeshi and oikomi, Funatsu sensei asked with a sly smile “why do you have all those things in front of you? You won’t be needing them.”

This didn’t sound good.

As we took out gear out of the way, Funatsu sensei announced that someone had asked him if we are going to do a thousand suburi some day, and a kind person as he is he could not possibly refuse – and so we were about to do senbon-suburi. Now, senbon-suburi is not simply a thousand suburi, it is thousand hayasuburi that is done in succession, without a single break. Those who have practised kendo will have a very good idea what this means, but for those who have not, here is a video that should give you an idea what exactly is hayasuburi. Going through a thousand of them takes about twenty minutes, by the way.

And so we had two leaders at the front to keep the count and off we went. At around the 500 mark, people started to have cramps. Some of them were taken away from the floor, while others were stretching and trying to get back to it. When we finally counted the last suburi out of the thousand, we were given a hearty applause by senseis who had been cheering us along all the way. Sato sensei then informed us that this was the first time ever that senbon suburi was done in Kitamoto camp, and added that it may in fact become a tradition from now on. So be warned if you consider coming ;).

It was hard, very hard, and I doubt if there were many among us who could have made it through alone. However, it was precisely doing it together that made it possible. A guy from Luxembourg that I know from several years ago came to me later and said that at one point he was about to give up – and then looked over his shoulder and saw me sweating and suffering at the back of the hall, despite of having been given a permission to just sit and watch, and then decided to go on.

This is actually a very good reflection on a broader point that relates well to all the martial arts, and to many different kinds of endurance sports in general, I suppose. I have never ran a marathon myself (and I doubt if I ever will), but I imagine that there must be something similar going on there. When you are completely exchausted, when every cell of your body tells you that there is nothing left, then it is seeing those other people around you in precisely the same state of desperate exhaustion that will keep you going. It is also related to another question that I have had many people ask me over the years – “why do people willingly subject themselves to such pain and suffering that is involved with doing full contact martial arts.” The answer is of course that the pain will fade and go away, but what you gain by having gone through it doesn’t. In the famous words from a Hollywood movie: “Pain is your friend, your ally” – and while we often inflict it to each other when training martial arts, there is a genuine sense of gratitude after the practice is over. You can often see boxers or MMA fighters hugging each other after the fight, and this is not just a token gesture. It is the same reason why in Japanese martial arts people bow to each other before and after a fight or practice. Pain is not simply an unfortunate aspect of doing martial arts, it is an essential ingredient.

Now everyone is in a survival mode here in Kitamoto, counting remaining hours of practice and simply trying to hang on. When in first two nights there was a lot of talking and beer-drinking late into the night, now everybody is trying to squeeze out every minute of sleep from the short pauses after breakfast and lunch. People wake up with heavy groans and limp along the corridors. The huge first aid box in the reception has become very popular. I have been taping several people’s shoulders and Achilles’ tendons myself. The hell that Funatsu sensei has been putting us through has had an interesting side-effect though. It has really welded us all together. People constantly inquire “how’s your leg doing” or “is your shoulder any better” and we all nod to each other with a knowing expression when meeting on stairs. And I am sure that when we meet ten or twenty years from now, we will remember at least the senbon suburi that we endured together.

There is just one more day to go, and I will try to make it through without wrecking my shoulder. However, the shoulder not withstanding I am getting into a pretty good shape here.


It would seem that anyone who does kendo seriously and for a long enough time is bound to end up in Kitamoto. Kitamoto Gedatsukai, where the camp has been held since the second time, is actually a kind of church or monastery of a syncretic shinto- and buddhism based religious movement. Every year (with a few gaps due to different reasons) All Japan Kendo Federation invites kendoka from all over the world, about sixty people at a time for a very intensive week of kendo here. Many people actually end up coming again and again – and I know someone who has been here for six times.

I hear that in 70s and 80s the camp was actually running for two weeks and was really hard. The seminar always takes place from late July to early August, which is the hottest and most humid time of the year here in Japan – which is supposedly an intentional choice, meant to build the character as well as stamina. Apparently they used to have police sensei around to give foreigners a taste of the way how kendo is trained at the highest level in Japan, and at that time it was not unusual to have people simply collapse mid-keiko due to exhaustion. Compared to those times, nowadays they have relaxed it quite a bit. First of all, the camp only runs for a week and while there still are some moments when senseis delight in making gaijin suffer, it is nothing unbearable. In fact, today was the first time that I was outside of my comfort zone when given a full three minutes of uchikomi and kakarigeiko (an exercise where you are supposed to be constantly hitting and attacking, kind of like working a bag in boxing) by a visiting Fukumoto sensei.

The bad news is that my old shoulder injury is starting to give me a trouble again. After we did thousand suburi with Funatsu sensei during the day session, there was this familiar gnawing pain in my shoulder. It is not too bad at the moment, but I know that it will be if I keep on pushing it. It doesn’t help that we sleep on a very thin mattresses that are laid on a hard floor. I will have to see how it feels tomorrow, and if the pain persists then it will probably be wise to avoid those suburi marathons from that point forward, as I will have two more weeks to go after we finish here.

AJKF clearly puts a lot of effort into this event, and the sensei line-up here is truly impressive. The main teacher of the camp is traditionally Sato sensei, and he is assisted by three more hachidan senseis who stay with participants for the full week. In addition to that there are several visiting senseis, both 8. and 7. dan who both teach and have a ji-geiko (free practice, consisting of one on one fights) at the end of the day. This year, one of the assistant teachers is Funatsu sensei, who is famous for having won the invitational All Japan 8. dan Championship for two times. He is also very young for hachidan, which means that he is incredibly fast, sharp and explosive. When he comes for the men (i.e. head strike) it truly feels like being hit by a shinkansen. For his daily job he teaches at Osaka police, where he trains a substantial part of the Japanese national team, and we are truly privileged to have him here teaching us. Tens of thousands of Japanese kendoka would give a lot for a chance to have a keiko with him, and most of them never will. So it is kind of a big deal, really.

dojo at 5am

The daily routine here is almost military. Officially the day starts with asa-geiko at 6:30am, but diehards can go to dojo and start training already at 5am. Then there is breakfast at 8:00, after which the first main session of the day will begin at 9:30, running until 11:30am. After that there is some time to shower and have a lunch. At 2pm, the afternoon session will start that goes on for three hours, concluding with free keiko with senseis. Daily sessions are split between kata, kihon (basics, that includes a lot of kirikaeshi and oikomi), and refereeing practice (where we take turns refereeing and fighting).

After 5pm, the practice is officially over, but some people stay at the dojo to practise whatever they feel like and perhaps have some free keiko amongst themselves. At around 7pm the dinner is served and then at 10pm it is lights out.

Yesterday we were taken to Tokyo Budokan for the first part of the day, to see the All Japan kids kendo championship. It was a pretty amazing experience. First of all, Budokan is to Japanese martial arts kinds of what Mecca is for muslims. It was built for the 1964 Olympic Games as a venue for judo competition, but has been since used for all kinds of martial arts events and championships (as well as a concert hall). The kids championship was running over two subsequent days, with two thousand participants each day. The video of a warm-up session below should give an idea what was going on there (and do have a sound on when you watch this):

As the guests of the AJKF we were given the best seats in the house, directly behind the lines of officials. We were even given a shoutout during the opening proceedings, as “foreign kendo leaders” visiting the event. I had several happy meetings in Budokan, among them with Iwatate sensei, whose dojo I will be visiting the next week.

Anyway, now that the fourth day of the camp is over, we’re more than halfway through – and the end of the camp also marks the midway point of my own trip. On Friday, Tanaka sensei will pick me up here at Kitamoto for some more kendo in Tokyo, so I really hope that I will make it without hurting myself too much.

Mito Tobukan


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.

Divine moments

Saito sensei is a hachidan. In kendo terms this basically means a god.

In his earthly guise he is the dean of the Modern Martial Arts Department at Sendai University. He is also teaching kendo there, both as a general course as well as to students who learn it as their main subject. However, what matters is that he is a hachidan.

Kendo, like other modern martial arts (i.e. gendai budō, such as karate, judo, seitei iaido, aikido etc.), uses the so-called kyū/dan (級/段) ranking system, as opposed to menkyo ranking, used in many traditional koryū styles. A beginner starts as mudansha and works his or her way up the kyū grades in a descending order (in kendo from 6 to 1) and then enters yūdansha upon successfully passing the shodan (the lowest of dan ranks) exam. Kendo actually doesn’t use any manifest indication of a person’s rank, but in styles that do, dan ranks wear the (in)famous “black belt.” Somewhat contrary to the popular perception of a “black belt” as an expert in possession of superhuman martial skills and prowess, in most styles shodan simply means that the person in question has acquired a basic competence of the mechanics and technique of a particular style or art in question.

From there on ranks start to increase and currently go up to hachidan (i.e. 8. dan) in kendo, but this again may vary in different schools and styles of other martial arts. As could be expected, the further one progresses the harder it becomes to achieve a subsequent rank. In Japanese martial arts there is usually a strict time limit between different dan ranks – generally the same number of years of continuous practice prior to the grading attempt as the grade that is aimed for. In kendo, the grading exam itself remains exactly the same throughout dan ranks – there are two matches (with an exception of hachidan, more about that below), and kata. However, the requirements for passing get stricter with every grade – a typical pass rate for 5. dan exam that I will be shooting for later this year seems to hover around 20% recently. However, hachidan exam is the real deal. With its average pass rate of about 1%, it is the ultimate eye of the needle that only the select few are ever able to pass. And mind you, those 99% that fail are not average joes from the street, rather than people who have typically practiced for at least 30 years to have reached the 7. dan through increasingly stringent selection. Also, hachidan exam has two rounds of matches instead of the usual one – in the first one 90% of candidates get eliminated, which means that to pass the second round one has to demonstrate his best kendo against the opponents who are already best among the best. There is not a single soft spot among those who make it there, and yet nine out of ten of them will fail.

Saito sensei had cleared it to the second round five times before he finally got his hachidan, and it is not unheard of for people to go on trying the exam for decades. Given what it takes to succeed, the level of respect paid to those who have made it is hardly surprising. Every year about 10 new people pass the exam, which apparently keeps the number of hachidan more or less stable at around 500 persons. Those five hundred are there at the absolute pinnacle of the art, and each and every one of them has earned it with a lifetime of hard work and dedication.

Crossing swords with a hachidan is therefore always an honour. It can also be a pretty terrifying experience. It feels like facing a stone wall – there is nothing to do and nowhere to go. All the things that are easy when fighting against lower ranks or even your equals are suddenly incredibly difficult. There is a tangible threat and menace radiating from a hachidan sensei that will make you waver, and of course this is exactly what they dine on. As soon as you flinch, let your guard down, or simply try to catch your breath or regain your posture, they will take a step forward and strike. I once saw a video on youtube of Shoji Teramoto, a 2009 world champion and several times Japan champion, being run into wall by Ishizuka sensei (here, look at around 9:20 mark), and then realised that it will quite simply never end, no matter how good you are.

If you want to see me mowed down by Saito sensei, the video is below.

However, at the same time it is incredibly useful to practice with a hachidan. It is the ultimate test of your kendo and all your weaknesses will be mercilessly laid bare. Of course, no hachidan can alone improve your kendo – this is for you yourself to do. But they can certainly tell and show you what you need to work on. I take a long list of remarks along with me as I leave Sendai tomorrow.