By Paul Martin, a Tokyo-based Japanese sword specialist.
KW would like to thank Kendo Nippon for some of the photos used in this article, originally in KW Issue 4.2, 2008.
Surrounded by 200-year-old cherry blossom trees behind the main Kōdansha building in Otowa, Bunkyō-ku, the old Noma Dōjō was a place of pilgrimage for the world’s kendo fencers. Founded in 1925 by the first president of Kōdansha Publishing Company, Noma Seiji, it had the spirit of generations of Japan’s finest kendo practitioners permeated into its vast pine wood floor. After the war, Noma Dōjō was referred to as one of the four great dōjō of the eastern capital (Tokyo), and until its recent destruction it was the only remaining one. The main structure of the building had been relocated from an older dōjō of the Edo period. The sliding doors that ran the full length of each side of the dōjō were opened every morning during practice regardless of the season. Experiencing practice so close to nature continually throughout the year is a very interesting journey. First, your kendo must adapt to each season; this makes you very sensitive to slight changes in the weather. Second, you are experiencing a practice as it would have been by swordsmen of the Edo period. In spring, when the cherry blossoms bloomed, the petals would be blown into the dōjō during practice, resonating in a poetic feeling of bushidō and its values. It was an experience that could not be obtained in any modern dōjō setting.
I remember the first time that I entered Noma, it was like stepping back in time. Even though the dōjō was situated in the middle of Tokyo, as I sat in seiza at the start of keiko facing the Japanese garden outside, the stillness was amazing until it was broken by the dulcet bass of the large taiko drum to signal keiko had begun. The reverberations filled my mind and body, before gently dispersing along with any thoughts of the outside world like circles on the surface of a pond. It gave me goose bumps then, and every time I thought about it thereafter. The experience was so strong that I felt compelled to return to Noma Dōjō at every opportunity until I eventually became a member upon moving to Japan. It broke my heart to see it torn down.
Some of the older members recount memories of what they saw when they were new to the dōjō. They give accounts of old men who came to the dōjō dressed in traditional Japanese hats and clothing. This means that these old men were alive and young during the late Edo period—men who had in some way experienced the turbulent times of the imperial restoration. Men who had lived and breathed the same air as Sakamoto Ryōma, Yamaoka Tesshū and so forth. In earlier days, the familiar main entrance was not used by anyone other than the sensei. Students would have to enter from the rear through what is basically a small hatch, much in the same manner that one would enter a tea-house.
The dōjō was not only famed for its architecture, but it was a living monument to the modern history of Japan. Noma Dōjō was the site of the last ever Tenran-jiai: a tournament with the Emperor in attendance. It was also the dōjō of the most famous kendo teacher of the 20th century—Mochida Moriji (1885-1974), whose armour peg remained empty with his name still written above it until the day the dōjō was torn down, some thirty years after his death.
When the news broke that the old Noma Dōjō was to be torn down, the vast majority of people were devastated. It seemed completely contradictory: a huge publishing company making millions of dollars out of books on Japanese culture, about to tear down what some regarded as a national treasure.
For the first time since the Second World War, Noma Dōjō was closed. Two days later was the first practice at the new venue. Kōdansha has spent a large amount of money and taken great pains to try to recreate the feeling of the old in the new. The original kamidana, photographs of the sensei and additional accoutrements were relocated. As a dōjō it is quite spectacular with bathing facilities that match those of a modern hotel. The floor is of the most modern sports technology, but it does not have the spring or years of wear and character of the old one. Despite being an excellent modern kendo facility, it lacks the intangible essence of the old dōjō, and the timbre of the taiko is not the same. The dōjō is now enclosed apart from a few windows, and instead of experiencing the elements the worst you can feel is a nasty draft. Shortly after, despite appeals to the local councils and other governing bodies, the destruction of the old dōjō commenced. Several members, under the guidance of Takasugi Yuichi, volunteered to help with taking down the dōjō in order to ensure the preservation of whatever we could salvage. The front entrance was preserved in its entirety and shipped to the Noma Seiji Kenshō Kai in his home prefecture. During the operation, we came up with the idea of collecting all of the old nails and bolts from the dōjō. These were sent to the forge of swordsmith Komiya Yasumitsu in Kyushu, where they were recycled into a katana. The inscription on the tang reads—Otowa no arashi (Otowa storm—the sound of shinai clashing at morning practice) Motte Noma Dōjō Kugi Miike Ju Yasumitsu Saku (Made from the nails of Noma Dōjō by Yasumitsu, resident of Miike). Once completed, the katana will sit in the new tokonoma carrying the tradition of the old dōjō into the new.
The real legacy of Noma Dōjō is in its intangible assets; the heart of the building and the people that reverently use it for transmitting the true values and customs of Japan and kendo. The value of the dōjō for the cultural enrichment of future generations is displayed in the altruistic attitude of Kōdansha publishing company and today’s top sensei who teach there, by welcoming kendo practitioners from all over the world. The atmosphere held at Noma Dōjō represents for many non-Japanese visitors (kendo practitioners and spectators alike) a real experience of Japanese culture at its best.