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Fear, Sweat and Tears: The Brave Road of the Kendoka

Journalist Claudia SIBUTHA writes about her first grading (or Shinsa) experience...

Thump, thump, thump … we’re called forward, in a single line we shuffle forward. Sweaty palms and roiling stomachs. Remember, remember, each step, each swing, each kiai, it’s all in your memories. Memories as fresh and as jumbled as tilled ground. Fragments in places they shouldn’t be. It’s all there; remember, execute.

It’s the final moments before I stand in front of my senseis and senpais, men and women I’ve known for a while now. Generally, each is formidable in their skill and confidence on the sword. But today, seated at the head of kendoka eagerly and nervously awaiting their turn to grade, they tower silently, offering none of the encouragement they dole out often during training. Today they are judges watching hawk-eyed as we demonstrate publicly our skill and commitment to kendo, the way of the sword.

A while ago, we each walked into the dojo, bowed to the shomen and to each other, the often lively atmosphere muted with buzzing nervousness. A grading is a big thing, a chance to show that your commitment to the martial art is true, that you carry the lessons in your being. Final preparations and encouraging thumbs-up to calm not only your fellow kendoka but yourself too, individuals committing to a lifetime of camaraderie.

And now as I am told to perform kamae and kata, I am too muddled up in the head to remember what is what. It’s all inside of me, the knowledge of what to do; it comes in pieces that don’t belong in their current spaces. Thump, thump, thump … Don’t peek at the person next to you, this is a personal journey. Thump, thump, thump … Eureka! One foot in front of the other, steady, proper zanshin, kiai, cut! One after the other, swish, swish, just like you’ve been learning. I hope the next person is doing fine. Focus! Swish, swish. Missed a step, but it’s over now. You did OK. There’s room for improvement. Lots of room. Lucky you have a lifetime to learn.

The RKC recently held a kendo kyu grade event at its Rivonia dojo. This nervous wreck of a writer and all her amazing fellow kendoka passed their respective grades. She highly recommends that you try kendo. If the armour, loud kiais and flurry of bamboo swords don’t inspire you to join a martial art that is steeped in history and inspires self-confidence, self-control and community, the license to whack people (in a safe and controlled environment) while you scream your lungs out may just be the appeal.

Written by Claudia SIBUTHA - Journalist. Kendoka.


The Ryū Ken Chi (RKC) Dojo train the traditional Japanese martial arts of Kendo and Iaido (sword-based martial arts), as well as Jodo (the art of the short staff), that encourages the cultivation of the human character.

Kendo Kid is also available for children aged 6-11 years old.

RKC DOJO has 2 training venues within Johannesburg - RIVONIA and OBSERVATORY. Online training is also available.

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