It seems like half the current and recent former members of the British Kendo Squad are either in, planning to be, or have just returned from Japan. Cheap air travel and more frequent chances to make friends with Japanese kendoka before you go, make training in Japan an easier option than it used to be, but you still have to be resourceful enough to arrange a job or scholarship, or simply stash the funds to facilitate an extended stay.
Having done it in the past, I am frequently asked for advice, although things move on and kendoka currently in Japan can give a much more up to the minute picture than I can. Nevertheless here are some general thoughts on kendo training in Japan, (I assume you have already worked out how you are going to live whilst you are there.)
Firstly find a dojo where the training is in line with your kendo objectives. There is no point in training with elite police tokuren, (even if they would let you), if you are a middle aged beginner. Equally it would be a waste of opportunity for a high potential, national team member to train exclusively in a local kinpen dojo. Think about how hard you are prepared to train and how far you have to progress to be able to train on an equal footing to other members. The options are:
- High school / Junior high school dojo – fine if you are a pupil or teacher, but adults need to get some senior practice as well, or you become a professional motodachi.
- Local police station dojo – good place for beginners to practice from scratch with the kids. Do not get confused with other big police dojo like Sonezaki in Osaka.
- Local area kinpen dojo – Again often good for beginners, but all depends on the sensei who can range from 4th dan to hachidan.
- University dojo – Vary in kendo reputation, but most have strong sensei and are very good places to develop good kihon habits and stamina, ideal if you are in roughly the same age bracket as the student population. Also a good place for senior OBs to practice oji waza.
- Company dojo – there are some really strong company dojo like Mitsubishi, Hankyu etc. and some that are more like social clubs.
- Private dojo – No two are alike and again the level of instruction varies enormously, but be ready for some serious one-on-one obligation with the shihan. Amongst these private dojo you sometimes come across those that have a particular interest in teaching kendo to non-japanese and go as far as actively recruiting gaijin from other dojo. I see the advantage for people for whom the language is still a mystery, but they do not always have the highest level of instruction. Personally I take a “Groucho Club”, (would not join any club that wants me as a member), attitude to these establishments.
- Machi dojo – my favourite! Normally public financed central town dojo. Usually they have a good mix of grades and depending on your level, you can normally find someone to take you under their wing. I spent three happy years in Osaka Shudokan.
- Central Police Dojo, like Keshicho or Osaka Fukei – Great if you are advanced, young, fit and capable, or like me, old enough to be allowed to sit with a cold drink and watch the tokuren sweat for the first two hours and join in at the end for a leisurely keiko.
This is a not exhaustive but fairly daunting list of options. In my view the best way to select a dojo is to get in touch either directly, or through introduction, to any senior sensei you know in the area and trust their judgement in helping you find the right dojo. Once you are known, all sorts of other practice opportunities will present themselves.
Although the days of sitting on the dojo steps for three days before they let you in have passed. It is still not advisable to walk in off the street just because you hear kiai.
Here is the exterior of Osaka Shudokan which its in the shadow of Osaka Castle