Traversing back in the direction Gion district, moseying around immaculate temples, shrines, and gardens, I encountered the Kyoto City Budo Center. Part of the city’s Amateur Sports Association, the facility is the oldest martial arts competition hall in Japan. Several buildings in the compound host a range of Japanese martial arts, including sumo, kyudo (archery), aikido, and judo. At the time of my visit, a youth Kendo class was underway in the main hall. A group of fifteen to twenty 12-17 year olds donned traditional Kendo equipment underneath the high arched ceilings and the towering wooden pillars. Tatami mats line the viewing area on all four sides, except for the enclosed section designated as the imperial seat.
Kendo is a martial descending from Kenjutsu (Technique of the Sword), which developed among samurai communities in medieval times. (Source: Budokan Brochure) After the opening bow, the students put on their head gear, and paired up. The rest of the class was spent traversing the space doing sword drills. Instead of the slightly arched Japanese swords, the students train using straight bamboo swords, or shinai.
To my surprise, the students’ drills comprised whacking each other with the sword. The more experiences sword wielders made veracious continuous strikes. Facing each other, the partners took turns striking, changing roles only after the pair travelled the futsal-turf-sized length of the space. Here is a video from one of the later drills. One partner remains stationary while the other advances and does a single strike to the head on the first go, then the torso. They end the set with a close range set of strikes.
At the end of World War II, Kendo and other Japanese martial arts were suspended under the occupation of the Allied forces. It was only after 1950 that Kendo was taught again. No longer required for combat purposes, Kendo, like other Japanese martial art forms, changed to be practiced for gracefulness and technical accuracy of motion. The technique of the sword is now a series of sheathing and unsheathing movements, starting and stopping motions, done in order to defeat an imaginary opponent. It may be expensive to partake in Kendo classes, but the students who do are trained to be calm under pressure and confident in the face of risk.