In the light of the original curiosity about my early kendo experiences and the subsequent comments on my last post, I thought that I should complete the story with a brief account of my time in Japan.
After arriving it became apparent that my ability to improve at work and in the dojo was being severely handicapped by my lack of Japanese language skill. As a remedy, my evenings were divided between the Shudokan dojo in Osaka and the Kobe YMCA language school. I was spending my days with Japanese colleagues and clients and 3 evenings a week in an all-Japanese kendo environment, so I started to reach a get-by level, quite quickly. I benefited (or suffered), from being one of very few foreigners practising kendo at the time in Osaka. There was an Iranian kendoka named Sadat who I infrequently met at practice and Mark Grivas from the US was also around at the time. Mark however did the day-shift with Osaka fukei and I did nights at the Shudokan, so we only met occasionally.
Keiko in the Shudokan attracted most of the senior sensei in the region and took the form of an hour’s session based on one-on-one motodachi geiko. For some reason, the rule of thumb seemed to be, that in an hour you could practise with 4 hanshi or 6 kyoshi, or you could settle for eight to ten lower level partners. I invariably went for the former. This meant queuing for ten minutes or so for Nishi sensei or Ikeda sensei and other high ranking teachers. Keiko was always stretching, to put it mildly and consisted of sensei taking shodachi followed by me doing kakarigeiko for what seemed like an eternity.
The younger seventh dan professionals such as Onno and Ohta sensei were a little more inclined to give advice and encouragement and some of the 5th dans took me under their wing, (and to various drinking establishments for a post training debrief). Feeling mildly encouraged at my progress, I passed the Osaka 3rd dan grading at first try.
Shortly after this, I was invited to stay in Kyoto for the duration of the Kyoto Taikai. I was so impressed by the atmosphere and the quality of the kendo, that I made myself a promise that I would take part as soon as I got renshi. I managed to keep that promise and have now participated in the tachiai on four occasions.
I was visiting some other clubs on an infrequent basis and was occasionally invited to the dojo of the Hankyu department store company. On one notable occasion I waited for 45 minutes to practice with their then ninth dan president, only to be told that he reserved keiko for 7th dan and above. I was however, invited to bow to his departing limousine. I also started to add regular Sunday visits to Kobe’s Oji dojo to my schedule. Keiko was held in an old wooden building (now replaced) that overlooked Oji zoo. There was no inside changing facility, so we got ready outside, under the watchful eye of the giraffe.
Whilst training here I made friends with some of the senior members of Nishinomiya Kendo Renmei, who invited me to join the monthly keiko kai at which Matsumoto Toshio sensei, hanshi, 9th dan regularly taught. This was probably the most important development in my kendo career, as unusually for the time, Matsumoto sensei would explain the technical aspects and riai of each waza in detail. A typical practice would entail him spending 3 or 4 minutes physically shaping me like a bendy toy before inviting me to strike men. This was the one real “deshi” relationship I formed during my stay in Japan and I took my turn carrying his bogu, and as backwasher in the dojo ofuro.
As I lived outside of the UK I was not available for selection for the 1979 4WKC in Sapporo, but I was fortunate enough to join the scratch team of ten put together by Oji dojo for a friendly match against the visiting French national squad. I am relieved to say that we won all ten matches.
Just before the end of my stay, I had the opportunity to take 4th dan in Kobe. All went well until the “paper test” exam. Being incapable of making any written sense in Japanese, I was offered the opportunity to be grilled by the ferocious Murayama Keisuke sensei who headed the grading panel. This was less intimidating than I expected, as he simply asked me why I did kendo. For some reason, I blurted out “because I like it”, at which he grunted assent and signed the pass slip.
Although I moved back to the UK shortly after, I have continued to stay close to Japan, returning regularly for seminars, grading exams, the Kyoto Taikai and on several occasions just for keiko with old friends.