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.
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.