What Challenges To Expect When Starting Kendo (Part 1)
In the last few months, the Rivonia Kendo Club has had a number of new members seeking to begin their journey of martial arts with us. Some have been diligent and have trained both at the “physical dojo” and via the online platform. Others, due to various logistical reasons, have only trained at one or the other. In an attempt to better understand and serve them, I asked: “As a beginner, what have been some of the challenges you are experiencing in Kendo so far?”. I will summarise and address these challenges as best as possible.
P.S. I was once told by my sensei to stop using the terms “beginner” and seniors” when referring to people doing kendo. The reality is, regardless or rank or grade, we are all still beginners and constantly learning new things about this wonderful martial art called Kendo. The only difference would be the time that one has been on this kendo journey. Some have just started, while other have a few years and even decades behind them. However, for the purpose of clarity in this blog, I will refer to “beginners” as those who are relatively new to Kendo and have just started their training, while “seniors” will be the term used to describe those who have been doing kendo for a bit longer than the beginners.
1. “Difficult Kendo terminology and strange rituals…”
Kendo is a traditional Japanese martial art and therefore implies that plenty of the terminology used will be in Japanese. By doing so, I feel it preserves the tradition and origins of Kendo. There have been many martial arts from around the world that were adopted by the West, and for the sake of simplification (amongst other reasons), the traditional terms were “westernised”. Furthermore, many of the “REIHO (etiquette and/or rituals), have been downplayed, ignored or eliminated entirely! Kendo is still a very traditional martial art with the terminology and REIHO intact. It can very very confusing and intricate at times, however, there is plenty that can be done to help a new kendo student learn this terminology. These include:
Reviewing the kendo terminology on a regular basis, and NOT only on the days of training;
Flashcards, or notes in places around your house – bathroom, bedside, fridge, etc;
The Japanese terminology, like any language, is best learnt through verbal practise. Therefore, practise saying these terms to your dojo classmates, your family members, and even some random strangers (just be prepared to run if he thinks you’re bad-mouthing him)!
REIHO, besides reading text about this, is best learnt by observing your seniors in the dojo and thereafter trying to mimic them. If you are unsure of some of the movements or the significance behind them, ask them to clarify and explain. This would be a good learning experience especially for the seniors, who tend to forget that a person new to Kendo can get very lost in the intricacies of the REIHO. By them (the senior) explaining it to the beginner, it will help re-enforce the lessons learnt previously from their seniors and the sensei's.
2. “Difficult Movement; Moves don’t come naturally …”
Yes, Kendo is strange. The stances are strange, the foot movements are strange and the way we use a “sword” is strange! There is no denying it. However, it is these very strange characteristics that define Kendo! As one of my one sensei wisely said before, “without these limiting movements, stances, footwork, weird clothing & armour and ritualised etiquette, Kendo would no longer be Kendo. It would be just be two people trying to bash each other with sticks!”
Essentially, learning Kendo has been compared to trying to learn to walk again. - Everything feels awkward, unbalanced and vulnerable. The Kendo-movements are very specific and “does not come naturally”, as one beginner pointed out. It can be frustrating and it can be demotivating. However, by persevering with your practise, it will get better. It should also be noted that the practise must also be the CORRECT type of practise.
Beginners in the past who have tried to move on to more advanced techniques without first mastering the fundamentals, either find themselves becoming bored and unfulfilled with kendo (and ultimately leave), or, form bad habits in their technique that will hamper their progress on their kendo journey at a later stage.
Therefore, to sum up this challenge: PERSEVERE with PRACTISING correct kendo and have PATIENCE!
3. “Unexpected injuries…”
Kendo involve some very specific movements, that if you are not accustomed to doing (repetitively), could cause injuries. Take for example a basic MEN (head) cut. This simple movement of raising the arms can cause a lot of strain in the shoulders, back, hips, calve muscles and Achilles tendon. This strain can be further compounded by doing these movements multiple times during a training session with varying speed and power.
It is paramount then that you adequately warm up the various body parts before attempting this cut with power or speed. In the dojo, we start off with a warmup routine to prepare the body, mind and spirit for the forthcoming kendo "keiko" (traditional way of training). Hopefully the warmup routine is adequate enough to get your body warmed up without causing any injuries. If not, then it is advisable to get to class earlier and warm your self up sufficiently. This is true also for solo training at home.
The sad reality is, as one sensei pointed out, “the older you get, the longer it will take to warm up, while your actual practise time will lessen.”.
Some other common injuries with beginners are also that they get blisters on their hands and feet. It will take a bit of time for the body to adapt and grow callouses in the relevant areas to become less prone to blisters. Other minor injuries such as joint stiffness and muscle fatigue are common, and a beginners should take adequate measures to prevent or manage their injuries with plasters, bandages, ointments, etc. Injuries such as these can seen as their “initiation fees” into the kendo fraternity. Very soon thr beginners will find themselves comparing battles wounds with their fellow kendoka (the term used for people practising Kendo).
With regular practise, the body will become more accustomed to the Kendo movements and hopefully, less injuries should occur. It is also prudent that the students listens to their body and know the difference of when there is genuine pain or fatigue in their body, versus just being lazy and not wanting to do a specific exercise or movement. It is during these key moments that will determine whether you will sustain a minor injury, or a more serious, kendo-training-suspension-inducing injury.
The golden rule is therefore just to listen to what your body tells you.
4. “Kendo equipment is costly….”
Kendo equipment, uniform and armour can be expensive. Very expensive. But so is equipment for more mainstream sports such as golf, cycling and tennis! It is no more expensive than any other sport that requires specialised equipment. Some cheaper options are to also source 2nd hand equipment. It’s cheaper, but can still be expensive and limited in supply and only be of a specific size. It is worthwhile to keep an eye out for specials offered by the suppliers of kendo equipment. These special can range from discounts, free shipping, or even a 2 for 1 deal.
At the moment there is no local, South African manufacturers of Kendo equipment as it is very specialised, and I doubt there ever will be. To see what goes into putting a kendo bodu together, take a look at these following YouTube videos. Perhaps after doing so, you will gain a greater appreciation of the artistry that goes into your equipment and understand why it costs what it does.
Lastly, see your kendo costs as an investment in yourself. There are kendoka who still actively practising kendo well into their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s! It is not a bad investment to maintain your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.
https://youtu.be/l0UF332lfK4 🡨 How to make bogu
https://youtu.be/Onvr1kqrkkE 🡨 Kendo Shinai manufacturing (part 1)
https://youtu.be/V3E0hWlW66M 🡨 Kendo Shinai manufacturing (part 2)
https://youtu.be/a8tM7q2tnB8 🡨 Made in Japan Bogu Factory!!
https://youtu.be/JQW0_jG0FpI 🡨 Interview with Kendo Bogu Craftsman - Bogu Repair - New Bogu Tokuren Z - Tozando Inside News #10
https://youtu.be/QOp1B906Hbk 🡨 What Goes Into Kendo Bogu Design?
5. “Training consistently is difficult…”
Kendo, and kendo training in particular, is hard. Consistent training is hard. Therefore, coming to training, or doing some training by yourself or via the online platform, can very often require a tremendous amount of effort on your behalf. Consistent training requires you to rearrange your diary and make certain sacrifices. This hold true for in-dojo session where one might have to drive to the venue, wait in traffic and put up with road-raged drivers; as well as training at home either by oneself, or joining in an online session via the virtual dojo.
It all boils down to what are your priorities, and what are your Kendo goals. The answers to these questions are interlinked and require thoughtful consideration before answering. Yes, there is that whole romantic appeal of Kendo being a derivative from the age of the samurai (queue music of Tom Cruise’s “The Last Samurai”). However, once this initial infatuation passes and the hard work kicks in, those elusive questions of what are your priorities and what are your kendo goals become uncomfortably relevant.
Priorities will change as we step into the different phases of our lives, from being a school-goer, university student; corporate worker; home-makers and family-person. Your goals in kendo will also change as these priorities change. It is important then to keep your kendo goals realistic.
Kendo should be enjoyable and manageable at each of these life-stages.
The key is to keep it in perspective, keep it real, but try and keep doing kendo to the best of your ability.
In the words of IRRI sensei, hachidan (8th dan), once said to me, "Never stop training. Do what you can, but never stop!"
6. “Reaching the level such as sensei’s seems impossible…”
As a beginner, it’s tempting to compare your Kendo ability with that of the sensei’s. However, keep in mind that the sensei merely has been doing Kendo “a bit longer” than you, and is at a different stage on their kendo journey. Because of this, the sensei could sometimes be out of touch as to what are some of the challenges that a beginner might experience. It would be better to look towards those who started a few months or only a few years before you. Technically, anyone who started before you would be your “sempai” (senior), and anyone starting after you would be your “kohai” (junior).
Recently, I heard of an analogy of describing the sensei and their students: The sensei is a needle to which the thread (his students) will follow. Looking deeper into this analogy, it would be the sensei who pierces the holes into the cloak of Kendo, and with each stitch, the thread (student) must follow. The thread closest to the needle will be close behind the sensei and will follow him through each stitch as they pass through it. However, the thread furthest away from the needle will be the new beginners starting their kendo journey and will have to pass through each stitch that the sensei and all the other students had previously created. It is therefore natural that the last segment of thread follows the previous segment of thread before it, and so on.
7. “Minimal focus on the beginners…”
Knowledge, like water, can be both a live-giving and a life-taking element. Feeding a plant with too much or too little water can kill the plant. It has to be just right for the various stages of its development. Kendo is exactly the same. Beginners are given enough material to grow, but it also requires the beginners to work hard in mastering that knowledge through consistent and repetitive practise. It is also important to oversee a beginner’s practise to ensure that it is done correctly. With this in mind, I will ensure that there are adequate sempai’s overseeing the beginners during the initial part of our in-dojo training session. The emphasis is on QUALITY instruction from the instructors that is re-enforced by plenty (QUANTITY) of correct practise by the students. This practise, should be done both in the dojo, as well as solo-training outside the dojo.
This brings up another important point, namely that Kendo extends beyond the four-walls of a dojo. There has to be a certain amount of commitment that a student must make to themselves and to their kendo studies. This includes self-training outside the dojo. Again, this boil does to priorities and goals (see this concern addressed earlier).
8. “Feeling intimidated to ask questions…”
It is cliched, but there are no such things as “silly questions”. Perhaps the only thing to keep in mind is WHEN to ask the question. The questions asked during an in-dojo session should be asked in context of the material being taught at that time. Any other kendo-related questions can always be asked to the sensei or seniors before or after a class.
Lastly, we recently introduced a WhatsApp group that is dedicated to the beginners. The aim of this group is to stimulate discussion amongst the members and discuss what challenges they are facing in their kendo practise. This is also an excellent plateform to ask those question that another beginner might also be thinking, but felt too intimidated to ask in class.
These have been the questions asked by our “beginners” so far. I am sure there will be many more questions, but we will address them as they come up. A final message for the beginners: Try your best when doing your kendo training; be gentle on yourself to avoid injuries and demotivating yourself; turn to your fellow classmates, seniors and senseis when you need some assistance; and most importantly have fun and enjoy the kendo journey! It only gets better from here!
"GAMBATTE", which translates to, "try your BEST'"!
Warren HO (5th Dan Kendo)
Current Head Sensei of the Rivonia Kendo Club (RKC)
6 November 2020
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The Rivonia Kendo Club (RKC) trains Kendo and Iaido, Japanese sword-based martial arts that encourages the cultivation of the human character.
The RKC also now offers, Jodo, the art of the short staff, which is the third martial arts under the auspices of the International Kendo Federation (FIK).
The RKC is a Johannesburg-based dojo in South Africa, and offers both online classes to local and international students, as well as physical / "at the dojo" classes!
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