My First Kyoto Taikai

photo-4By Axel Wilhite

When Baptiste of Kendo World asked us over lunch in the IBU cafeteria if we planned to go to the Zen Nippon Kendo Embu Taikai during Golden Week, all he got was blank faces: The Zen Nippon Kendo what?

Our ignorance seemed almost flippant. The Kyoto Taikai is the oldest, biggest, and most important meet in the All Japan Kendo Federation’s schedule. It occurs each year (as it has for over one hundred years) at the beginning of May, bringing together thousands of the world’s strongest kendoists to Kyoto for four days of keiko, competition, and demonstrations. “You’ll be kicking yourself all year if you come all the way to Japan to practice kendo and miss out on the Kyoto Taikai.”

That’s all the convincing it took. A few weeks later, we were inside Kyoto’s Butokuden, a beautiful Meiji-era demonstration hall on the grounds of the Heian-Jingu shrine, the historical site of the taikai. The Butokuden’s wooden practice floor was divided into two shiai-jo. We had all seen matches here before, in videos and in magazines, but experiencing the space firsthand was something else entirely––the dark rafters; the bonsai tree presiding on its altar behind the judges table; the smell of sweat, smoke, and rain––and burgers on the breath of the guy next to you. The place was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, but except for the sounds of the two simultaneous bouts—kiai, fumikomi, and the smack of shinai—the spectating crowd was anxious and silent at the wings, waiting for a dazzling ippon to release the tension and send a wave of murmuring and applause through the room.

I spent a lot of my time observing seme and posture. That is, at the highest levels of kendo, how do players maintain their composure and their initiative under physical and psychological attack? At a few moments during the competition I felt I could glean some sense of what it meant to “win and then strike”—in a bold step forward, in the flash of a shinai.

Every once in a while, I had to take a step away from the shiai to clear my head and grab another can of coffee, but that proved to be a somewhat dizzying prospect too: it was impossible to walk five steps without encountering another one of your kendo heroes, meandering around the pop-up shops surrounding the Butokuden. There was the legendary Miyazaki Masahiro sensei, for example, sitting in a folding chair and melting in the heat, flanked by Shodai, Takanabe, and the entire Japanese national kendo team. Makita sensei was standing there perusing piles of shinai. There was Chiba sensei, and there was Toda sensei, and on and on. Sensei and famous kendoists from all over Japan and the world could be found smoking and drinking tea together—even considering a new set of “cheap” kote.

On the third day, we were allowed the rare and exciting opportunity of watching hachidan hanshi fight in the shiai-jo. In fact, I got the same sense of calm I get when watching kata. Not like a fight at all, but a conversation, an exchange of knowledge. About aesthetics of movement. About resiliency. About awareness and vigilance. About efficacy. About nobility and courtesy and respect. What a dream it was to see the center of the kendo world! To be just a few feet away from such luminous talent. To have it illustrated to you so clearly how beautiful and essential kendo can be.

In the weeks since the Zen Nippon Kendo Embu Taikai, there have been other high-profile tournaments (such as the World Kendo Championships in Italy) but the impressions left on me by the Kyoto Taikai have only grown in my esteem; I can say that the kendo I saw there was kendo at its most inspiring and beautiful. It is that kind of kendo I endeavor to cultivate for myself.