Kendo translates to "way of the sword."
All right, off to a badass start! In reality, though, your first encounter with kendo will probably leave you perplexed. "Why all the shouting?" "Why only hitting the head?" "I was promised swords, but I see only sticks."
Peace, grasshopper. With a little patience, you might find it's what you need to calm the inferno of trivialities and frustrations that besiege your soul. It might help you cultivate your martial spirit, and further your understanding of philosophy, history, etiquette and really, really gnarly-ass bruises.
Okay, So What's This Kendo Thing
In a sentence, it's a martial art/sport meant to simulate a sword duel, with bamboo sticks taking the place of the swords. As you'll quickly realize, though, it's more complicated than that. Get used to that phrase.
The martial art/sport's long history can be traced to 18th century Japan, with the introduction of bamboo training swords called shinai, which let samurai practice swordplay without killing each other. It was a pretty rough-and-tumble affair which included grappling and punching. It was banned following World War 2 until 1952, when it returned officially as an "educational sport," refocused on self-improvement and cultivating a healthy mind and body. Fast-forward past the establishment of the International Kendo Federation (FIK) in 1970, and modern kendo is now practiced by millions of people worldwide, as a sport, hobby, as a stress-reliever and for some, even, as a means of spiritual betterment. It's very young in China, but it's estimated there are around 2,000 practitioners just in Shanghai.
Wait, so is it a martial art or a sport?
Boy, there are incandescent differences in opinion on this one. If you believe martial arts must be applicable in real life, then kendo, like modern sport fencing, is perfect for getting yourself killed attempting something laughable. If you value the art in martial arts, you might find more joy. The technique involved in hitting someone on the head is specific, precise and deeply rooted in history. The higher level exams are graded by venerable stony-faced Japanese men, pondering answers to questions like "my sword is my mind, discuss." Learning the history, theory and philosophy behind kendo is a life-long pursuit that goes hand-in-hand with the hitting part.
Still, it might help you to approach it as (more than) a sport. A very physical, aggressive, violent, cathartic and deceptively nuanced sport, practiced with the philosophy and mentality of a martial art.
How Do You Do It
Much like fencing, the object in a kendo match is to land a valid strike on your opponent's target zones before they land one on you. Unlike fencing, the only strike zones are the head, the wrist, the stomach, and the throat-guard. Unlike fencing, it is not a matter of milliseconds measured by computers.
Instead, a trio of judges decide if a strike was valid by looking for three basic elements;
1) Ki or "spirit." Since "spirit" (or like "preparedness and intent," maybe?) is hard to see, it's expressed with a shout, calling out the name of the target as you hit it.
2) Ken or "sword." Striking with the correct part of the shinai, representing what would've been the "sweet spot" on a real sword.
3) Tai or "body." Posture has to be correct, and you stomp the floor as you strike, to indicate your commitment to the blow.
Odd, but simple. Nope! Even if you land a solid strike with all three elements, the judges might not award the point. You didn't maintain awareness. You didn't defeat the opponent's spirit sufficiently. The opponent landed a hit after yours that the judges liked better. Maybe your strike was too rude. Kendo. "It's more complicated than that."
Depending on which club you attend, practice might or not might not include matches. Often, the first half or more of the class is spent on solo or partner routines meant to train your distance, technique and accuracy. Repetition and muscle-memory plays an important part in kendo. Think Bruce Lee's "I do not hit, it hits all by itself." Think Last Samurai's "too many mind." That sort of thing.
Does It... Hurt?
Yeah, a bit. Sometimes a lot. Even with padded jackets, armor and whippet-light bamboo simulators, you're being hit with a stick. Expect a fair amount of bruises, especially on your arms. Really massive ones that change colors. Just go full Fight Club if anyone asks. "Yeah, I got these bruises in a duel."
What You Need
You need four things to practice kendo, and your club will help you get all of them. First is a wooden floor. Stomping concrete will destroy your leg, and mats are too grippy. A wooden basketball court is perfect. Second is a stick, or shinai, which costs around 150rmb. Third is a hakama. Composed of pleated pants (the dress) and a padded jacket (generic Japanese martial arts gi), this is your uniform. You wear it because samurai wore it. You are not a samurai, but this will help you get in the right mindset. They cost around 400rmb. And about 2,000rmb annually in laundry detergent. You sweat a lot in kendo.
Final thing is fitted armor or bogu. Nearly every teacher will insist you train without armor for at least a month, but without armor, you're just playing silly buggers with the air. That's called iaido. Armor consists of a facemask (men), a chestplate (do), thick gloves (kote), and a leather skirt to protect the family jewels (tare). The men especially needs to be custom-fitted, or you will get injured when someone smacks you with a stick. The most affordable ones can last for a decade+ if cared for, but even cheaper sets cost in the region of 1,500rmb.
So starting out, you're looking at an upfront commitment of around 2,000rmb before you even factor in club fees, which can be several hundred per month.
That's... Pricy. Is it worth it?
This is absolutely not for everyone. The weird rules, the equipment, the bruises, the sweating, the yelling–the things that make kendo a satisfying pursuit–are also the exact things that turn people off. Unlike a lot of martial arts/sports, you won't get a chance to engage in an actual match for weeks, if not months. Your trial-class will probably leave you frustrated and confused, and you might not even get a chance to hit anyone because you'd do it wrong and hurt them. It's not an easy thing to get into.
So, is it worth it? Will it help you? It helped me. If you can get past the initial obstacles, grasshopper, you'll find your time and investment pays off. It's mentally, physically and spiritually thrilling to grow as a kendo practitioner. The challenges seem physical, but as you progress, you'll find yourself shifting your attention to the mental element, the subtle struggles to conquer anger, fear and aggression. You know. The Dark Side. Part of the appeal is that you're doing it in the company of others who are pushing themselves past the same obstacles. In kendo, your opponent is not your enemy, they're your teacher. They teach you by hitting you, until you stop getting hit. In that way, it's a solo and communal journey towards being a better kendo practitioner, and a better person.
It's also a perfectly legitimate excuse to stamp, yell and hit someone with a stick. Really bean 'em in the old cogitator. It's an art.
Where To Do It
Shanghai's clubs all teach mainly in Chinese. Since all of them offer at least one free trial class, it's recommended you try a couple before settling in, as they can be a bit... weird. There was one club we contacted, and when we asked how people could join, they said "fate." Chill out, guys.
[Note: The China Kendo Organizations Union (CKOU) is the official International Kendo Federation (FIK) affiliate for China. We've made a note of which of these clubs belong to the CKOU.]
- Shanghai Hua Kendo Club (CKOU) is one of the larger Shanghai clubs, and is pretty well-established in the international kendo community. Led by a 4th-dan Shanghainese teacher, they train every day except Monday at various locations, including practices from Tuesday to Friday in Xuhui.
- Shanghai Qinglin Kendo Club (CKOU) has around 200 members, not counting the university students that often drop in. Led by a trio of Chinese 3rd-dans, they have trainings all week at 9 different locations in Putuo, Yangpu, Baoshan, Nanxiang and Jiading.
- Shanghai Shengxin Kendo Club (non-CKOU) is actually affiliated with the Shanghai Kendo Association, and trains once a week in Putuo, and several times at other locations. They have about 100 practitioners including children, and are led by a Shanghainese kendo teacher.
That's only a few, not including the ones at Japanese international schools in Gubei. You can check out some more kendo clubs listed in our directory, or check the CKOU's website for more info.
All photos taken by SmartShanghai during a practice at Shanghai Hua Kendo Club.