Direct Link: http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2008/nov/03/sword-play/
At Memphis Kendo Club classes, students get workout -- physical, mental and ethical
By Stacey Greenberg, Memphis Commercial Appeal
Monday, November 3, 2008
Ten-year-old Rowan Racine is dressed in a navy blue robe. In one hand he holds a long bamboo stick and in the other, a helmet, mask and chest plate.
Barefoot, he bows at the door of the Singleton Community Center gymnasium in Bartlett before quietly kneeling on the floor.
Roughly 20 people, men and women of various ages and ethnicities, have gathered to study this ancient Japanese martial art, which translates to "way of the sword," originally practiced by the samurai class in the twelfth century.
Kendo provides both aerobic and anaerobic exercise, nurtures discipline and stamina and promotes a strong moral code. In modern Japan, kendo is taught in middle schools and is actively practiced by people throughout their lives -- well into their twilight years. Kendo has been gaining popularity in the United States over the past 30 years, and clubs can be found across the country.
After the initial meditation and warm-up exercises, the kenshi, or swordsmen, pair off and begin screaming at each other while beating one another over the head with their bamboo swords, called shinai. Each wears protective armor -- bogu -- which protects the head, wrists, chest and groin.
To say it looks intense would be an understatement.
Jon Kahre and Rogers Gosset conducting "kakari geiko" or "attack practice" during a Memphis Kendo Club session.
Kendo uses the whole body. Even shouting (or "using voice"), which is vital to mastering the art, requires using the abdominal muscles. A two-hour practice involves a lot of sprinting and provides a great cardiovascular workout. However, physical prowess is less important than doing everything with full spirit and participation.
"Swing properly and the sword does all of the work," says Harry Dach, 58, owner of Dach Imports and lead instructor of the Memphis Kendo Club. He stresses that repetition leads to perfection in kendo, which he says can also be seen as boring or not exciting enough to some.
While stationed in Japan with the U.S. Marine Corps, Dach studied under Takaaki Nakahama, who gave him 32 complete sets of armor with an understanding that he would pass on his learning in the United States.
Dach has been teaching kendo in Memphis for more than 30 years without ever accepting a penny in payment. (Monthly fees for the use of practice space are paid directly to the Singleton Community Center.)
Rowan, who originally wanted to play soccer, started practicing kendo three years ago. His mother, who lacked the funds and transportation needed for the local soccer league, discovered kendo after flipping through the Singleton activity guide.
Rowan says he really likes the rules and etiquette of kendo and the physical activity it provides. He also admits it is fun to "hit people with big sticks."
Local artist Wayne Edge, 54, got interested in kendo nine years ago after taking his son to a class. "He didn't stick with it, but I did," he says. Edge has seen a lot of people come and go over the years and attributes the high attrition rate to the fact that not everyone likes yelling and getting hit.
"Once you get the bogu, kendo becomes much more physical," Edge explains, referring to the fact that beginners must master certain skills before being allowed to wear armor. The bogu can be uncomfortable and hot, making the sport even more physically demanding and mentally challenging.
At practices, beginners join the group for warm-up exercises and then work on the basics off to the side with one of the instructors.
Typically, a beginner spends three to six months learning proper kendo stance, shinai grip, swinging the shinai, foot movement, and eventually movement while swinging the shinai. Once he or she has mastered these skills, the student is loaned a set of bogu and invited to join the more advanced members of the club.
Once in the bogu, participants spend a good deal of class hitting and getting hit with the shinai while running back and forth. Although it may look intimidating, kendo is very safe.
Rogers Gossett, 36, who works for FedEx and has been studying kendo for 14 years, attests to the safety of the sport. "My only injury has been a strained muscle in my foot," he says, after listing a string of injuries he suffered while practicing taekwondo in college.
Blisters are actually the most common injury since kendo is practiced barefoot.
"I injure myself more doing carpentry," said Edge, who downplays the small bruises he sometimes gets when an opponent misses his armor, comparing them to hickeys.
They're nothing a modern-day samurai can't handle.
Memphis Kendo Club
The kendo club has open practices on Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Singleton Community Center, 7266 Third Road, in Bartlett.
New students, ages 8 and up, are welcome any time throughout the year.
Monthly dues are $20, payable directly to the Singleton Community Center for the use of practice space.
Beginners should dress in comfortable clothing and purchase a shinai (bamboo sword) and a bokken (wooden sword). Both are available at Dach Imports on Summer Avenue and online.
More information is available online at memphiskendo.org.