The Kendo Adventure: Part 4
Fatal Attraction to a ‘Black-belt’!
I was still quite keen to join the soccer club at my new high school, but succumbed to the pressure to go “Japanese”. Kendo club it was to be, for a whole year. I meandered tentatively through the dingy school corridors for my induction after school, and arrived when the training was already in full swing. “Training starts at 16:00!”
With my first visit to see what kendo was all about a few days before, Sano-sensei suggested that I aim for the lofty heights of shodan. He reckoned with a bit of hard work, this coveted rank was perfectly achievable within a year, before I returned to New Zealand. He had my attention. Just imagining the kudos I would get with shodan as a souvenir of my time in Japan was enough to get me through the dojo doors again. Thanks to the countless martial arts movies in circulation in the mid-1980s, the mysterious power and respect demanded by the ‘Black-belt’ was a distant but desirable dream for many a young lad, especially small ones like me. I wanted that trophy, and wasted no time getting into gear, apart from being two minutes late on my first day. I put that down to jet-lag.
First, I was taught how to do suburi, over and over, and over. I remember being quite embarrassed about screaming “men!” with each swing. I also found it exceedingly difficult to coordinate my feet and hands. The whole kamae thing, and movements felt very unnatural. “Why can’t I hold the bamboo thing with my right hand at the bottom?” “Why do my feet have to be like this?” Why the hell to I have to say ‘men’ anyway?” I was a difficult beginner…
After an hour of suburi-ing, I managed to get the hang of it, but my arms felt like lead, and my throat was dry. It was, I thought, high time I had a much deserved break. Ten seconds into my self-imposed breather, Sano-sensei’s voice boomed across the dojo. “Get your arse back into it!” Dripping buckets, I resumed the oh-so-tedious routine of fly swatting. I watched the clock on the wall wondering when it would all end. I worked out pretty quickly that clock-gazing made time pass considerably slower, and the agony of tedium was intensified as a result.
Sano-sensei would cruise over every so often to fix my deteriorating, lethargic form. “Oh, okay. Yup. Uh huh…” “Answer HAI!” he ordered. “Oh, okay.”
At 18:00, the long awaited order to cease and desist resounded across the dojo. “Yaaaameeeee!” Music to my ears. I wasn’t sure where to line up, so somebody grabbed my sleeve and inserted me somewhere between the girls and the boys. We sat down, and those around me took off their masks. Steam rose from their drenched faces, and the stench of fresh perspiration mixed with countless hours’ worth of stale sweat caked into the equipment permeated my nostrils. It wasn’t pleasant.
The incessant screaming and clashing of bamboo against body parts had stopped, and all that remained was the oddly shrill sound of silence. The unexpected tranquility was suddenly broken as everybody started chanting the words emblazoned on the scroll hanging on the wall. “It takes 1,000 days of sweat to forge the spirit, and 10,000 days of sweat to polish it. But a bout is decided in a second…” I was informed later that these were words adapted from Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings. “Miyamoto who?” We recited it religiously every day after training. I have only really begun to get what it means.
In any case, we were instructed by the captain to bow, and bow, and bow again at the end. I tried to follow the ceremonial procedure as closely as I could, but lowered my head after everybody else, and kept it down not knowing when to come up for air. Somebody had to tap me on the leg. Sano-sensei then started to deliver a rather solemn sounding spiel. Of course, I had no idea what he was saying, but he sounded angry. Kneeling in seiza for the first time, it didn’t take long for my legs to go to sleep. Actually, they cramped up and then died on me. I was nearing the end of my tether – all of these strange rituals, after two hours of swinging a stick aimlessly, capped off by a sermon of unknown relevance to my life at the time.
“Arekku, stop fidgeting. Silly boy!” “Oh, yeah. Shit. I mean, hai.” “Be here on time tomorrow. You ONLY have one year of this to get ready for shodan.” My first day, and all I got was scowled at. One more bow, and it was all over.
After falling out of the line, and Sano-sensei had left the building, the girls turned giggly again, and the boys puerile. “Arekku, you raiku kendo?” “Dunno. Sano-sensei scares the hell out me though. I know that for sure.” “Faito faito, Arekku.”
I went to the boys’ changing room. I figured now would be a good time to try and learn all of their names. There were only five boys in the club at the time. The one who kept telling us to bow, and led the chant was called “Senpai”. I actually thought that was his name and called him Senpai-san. His name, it turns out, was actually Kizu, and he was a senior. I managed to remember the other boys: Atobe, Ōno, Takahashi, and Satō. There were too many girls to remember in one go.
For good or for bad, it was these lads who were given the retrospectively unenviable challenge of showing me the ropes. More accurately, controlling my wayward NZ tendencies and bringing me into line with Japanese protocol. For the rest of the year, they went out of their way to teach me kendo, which I discovered very quickly was also very much learning about Japan as a whole—something I will discuss in later articles.
By the time I got back to my host family’s home, it was close on 21:00. That was my bedtime in NZ! Host-mum was waiting for me, host-dad was still at work, host-sister was at cram school. “How was kendo?” “Tsukareta yo…” I was sore all over, with cramped muscles I didn’t even know existed before, the soles of my feet and hands were covered in blisters, and I just wanted to pass out. Still, the thought of getting shodan before going back to NZ burned away deep inside. It would all be worth it for a black-belt I thought, but it still hadn’t occurred to me that nobody actually wore belts in kendo.