Samurai almost seem like mythical figures today, but they were as real as any of us. Men that lived their entire lives by the sword, who passed on their experiences through martial arts schools, word-of-mouth, writings and so on. Though the samurai have long since died out, their traditions never have. Everything they taught and trained in are still widely practiced in kendo.
Kendo is a Japanese sport/martial art that involves two people in armor trying to hit each other with bamboo swords, somewhat similar to fencing. There’s a great deal of technique and precision involved since you can only strike specific areas of the body to score, and these techniques derive from traditional Japanese swordsmanship. That’s what got me into it in the first place. I was getting pretty into this manga about samurai at the time and managed to find a place relatively close to me that was offering free classes for beginners.
It was at an international school for Japanese students. More specifically, it was a dojo in the school’s basement, for some reason. There were just a few people there for the beginner’s class when I went. We didn’t bring any fancy armor or equipment or anything—we all just showed up on the day that the website told us to.
There were some other people practicing, though we had no idea what they were doing or what we were supposed to be doing. Eventually a woman showed up to introduce herself as our sensei and let us borrow some wooden swords to train with. They were the same kind that samurai started using when they realized that training with actual, sharpened swords might not be the best idea.
She taught us the basics: how to stand, how to move, how to swing. Everything was particular and felt unnatural at first. So for a while, we just practiced with those wooden swords, learning proper footwork and striking. Even back then when I actually worked out and was decently fit, swinging that thing around for an hour could get pretty tiring. And you had to yell something in Japanese every time to channel your “fighting spirit” or something like that. A few months in, and we were putting on armor and switched to bamboo swords that we used to whack each other instead of just swinging at the air.
But despite how loud it was—on account of all the yelling and the sounds of bamboo hitting armor—there was a certain sense of peace to it all. Every class began and ended with a brief meditation to empty your mind. The place was full of people from all walks of life with all kinds of troubles.
The student dealing with relationships and the ever-increasing pile of work. The office worker with an uncaring and incompetent manager. The old man with a terminal diagnosis. There was something purifying about being able to shout at the top of your lungs while swinging around a sword, knowing that you’re experiencing part of a rich history and tradition that others in centuries past lived through. It required focus, and demanded that you think about nothing but the present moment. In a time where we’re saddled with so much all at once, all the time, kendo was freeing. It was a place where you could leave your worries at the door, or just work out all your frustrations.
If you’re interested in trying kendo, then get ready for some disappointment. The only place I could find in the state for it is the New Orleans Kendo Club, though after doing some digging I’m not even sure if they’ve opened up since the start of the pandemic yet. So if you were looking for another reason to move out of the state, there it is. Nothing’s stopping you from finding a nice stick and swinging it around on your own though. Just don’t do it in public.