Archive for the ‘Kendo Equipment’ Category

477-mennaris-2tFriends from a nearby dojo have developed an addiction to doing suburi with a device that looks like a bicycle pump. When recently asked for my opinion of such a thing, I took the view that if the ZNKR had thought it a good idea, they would have issued a book on “kendo kihon practise with a bicycle pump” or “jitensha no kūki-ire ni yoru kendo keikoho”.

Apparently the device in question is supposed to slide open if you make a correct swing and stay closed if you don’t. I think it might be improved if it rang a bell or made a honking noise for each successful yuko datotsu. It may be that my view is coloured by the intransigence of old age, or the fact that on the one occasion I tried one out, it stubbornly refused to slide open for me, but the use of this piece of paraphernalia smacks of what my less charitable golfing or skiing friends would refer to as “all the gear and no idea”.

To be fair, I am not totally against new developments in kendo, but this joins the carbon fibre shinai and the men with a Perspex face panel in my list of unloved kit, particularly as the aforementioned men had a tsukidare which was fixed solidly to the mengane. In the event of the wearer receiving a tsuki the whole men tilted forward, either pushing the men towel over his or her eyes or falling off completely. I am also not a lover of cameras mounted on the men or shinai, that is unless you are trying to make a kendo equivalent of The Blair Witch Project.

More traditional items also go on my list. I have never understood the value of suburi with heavy suburi bokken. These invariably cause the user to engage too much arm and shoulder power to avoid cutting down too far, in effect making tenouchi before striking the men.

The ideal suburi aid should help us closely replicate the action of striking the men sharply and firmly in an “up, down” timing of one. It should allow us to focus on hitting the top of the men whilst cutting through to the opponent’s chin level. It should encourage us to use shoulders elbows and wrists on a relaxed and flexible way to transmit the power from our core. I know of the ideal tool to use for this. It is called a shinai.

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Kawato san at work

Kawato san at work

My Osaka bogu craftsman friend Shinji Kawato told me many years ago that one of his ambitions was to find Mussolini’s armour. Apparently back in the time when Il Duce still enjoyed popularity and power, he was presented with a set of bogu, which apparently epitomized the bogu maker’s art. We do not have any evidence as to whether he ever used it, or indeed tried it on, but Kawato san believes that it was as good as bogu got and his aim still is to find it, reverse engineer it and make bogu of the same quality.

I shared this story some time ago with Dany Delepierre, President of the Belgian Kendo Federation . Whenever we meet our conversation turns to the likely whereabouts of the bogu. The most recent theory is that it is in use in a Neapolitan pizzeria with the tare worn as a baker’ s apron and the kote as pizza oven gloves, we could not come up with a logical use for the dou, but the men would make a good salad strainer.

Joking aside, it is interesting to reflect on whether it is possible for today’s bogu craftsmen to make equipment of the same quality as that produced by earlier generations of bogu makers.  There are new materials and manufacturing techniques available that give today’s kenshi a wide choice of bogu styles at reasonable prices, but high quality kendo armour continues to be made by hand, sometimes in Japan and sometimes in other Asian countries and assembled in Japan. In the case of the totally home-made product, buyers can expect to pay a hefty bill and to wait a considerable amount of time for their kit.

There are numerous stories about the length of time people had to wait for their bogu to be manufactured.  A friend in Osaka was treated to a new set by his father in congratulation on his passing 5th dan.  Unfortunately he got the call to say that it was ready 3 years after it was ordered and six months after his dad died, so he paid for his own present.

Bogu is certainly subject to fashion. There is a retro move away from the tight 1bu stitching of the 70s and 80s back to the softer thicker style with more widely spaced stitches common before the war. I have a feeling that if Mussolini’s is found it would make an ideal template. Let’s just hope that it is not covered in tomato paste.


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gin_tsukagawaI bought two new shinai during my recent trip to Tokyo. Those of you, who are used to buying shinai in bogu shops in Japan, know that you typically choose the naked bamboo take and then ask for the fittings to be put on (shikunde).  As well as being asked about the quality of the tsukagawa (gin or toko), most bogu shops will enquire about the required length 38 or 39 (san ku or san pachi).

Whilst conventional wisdom states that 39 is the standard length for shinai used by adult males, many Japanese kendoka prefer 38 because it allows a more natural grip. Having had this ingrained in me by my sempai and sensei during my time in Japan, I have always gone for the 38 option.

Most of you also know that the way to measure the correct position of your shinai grip is to place the butt of the shinai in the crook of your right arm and extend your hand to a natural position along the shinai. The position of the forefinger of your loosely closed hand should touch or be just below the tsuba.

Rather than make my usual request for a 38 tsukagawa I took the time to measure the grip position and realised that I needed a 39 for both shinai. What I had not taken into accounts is whilst I am no taller than most of my Japanese contemporaries, my arms are positively ape-like by comparison. When I lived in Japan, I had to have long-sleeve shirts either made to measure or imported.  It can be argued that once the tsukagawa stretches, a 39 can become too long, but to be frank, I invariably break the shinai before it gets to that stage.

I also bought some new men himo and asked for short ones, meaning the 7 shaku variety as opposed to 8 shaku kansai himo. To my surprise the lady behind the counter produced some 6 shaku himo. This was a revelation! Normal bottom tying 7 shaku himo are just a bit longer than the required maximum 40cm of descending loops and ends demanded by ZNKR shiai regulations. Although very few people bother, you actually need to cut and re-tie their ends. 6 shaku himo come within the regulation length and eventually stretch to a perfect 30cm drop.

I felt that overall this was a pretty successful shopping trip, until got to the BA check-in at Narita Airport. I felt lucky so as per the recent post on shipping shinai, took my brightly coloured shinai bag to the desk and asked nonchalantly if it was OK to take as hand luggage. After the agent checked with her supervisor’s supervisor, I was told no and asked for an excess baggage charge of 14,300 Yen. Just 1000 Yen more than it cost to buy the shinai in the first place. The good news however was that I got to include my Y200 convenience store umbrella for free.

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BogumountainWe are redecorating one of our bedrooms and in the process we have had to remove an enormous amount of clutter before we could start. My wife was quick to point out that most of the junk that we had to shift was kendo related.

Unfortunately my kendo stash is not just limited to the one room. I have bogu, dogi and kendo memorabilia evenly distributed throughout the house. Bogu takes up a lot of space, but the biggest space invaders are shinai. I have dozens dotted around the place, including those that I am looking after for sensei who would prefer not to bring them every time they visit. Naturally I also have a collection of left over take which I keep just-in-case I ever get round to building Frankenshinai.

I have donated old and unused bogu to various dojo, but still have a tendency to hang on to things “just in case”. I have three pairs of kote that I use and another 4 sets that are not good enough to give to anyone, but still seem too good to throw away. Along with the men I wear regularly, I keep a lovely old 2 bu hand-stitched men that I had made about 20 years ago. There is nothing wrong with it, but I don’t use it because it doesn’t fit. It is enormous. If the elephant man ever takes up kendo, this is the men for him.

My preference is for take-dou, but I have a yamato dou to save weight on flights. I invariably forget to take it and use one of my old favourites instead. At the same time I keep an old take-dou that has obviously become broken inside. I can never work out how it can wobble as much as it does without the laquer cracking. Perhaps that’s the reason that I can’t bear to part with it.

I am to kendo equipment what Imelda Marcos was to shoes. Although I have enough kit to last for the rest of my kendo career, I am still irresistibly drawn to bogu catalogues and start to drool over new breakthroughs in bogu stitching.

A re-occurring nightmare is that when they eventually ship me off to Sunny-view Retirement home, there won’t be enough room for me and my kit. Still I suppose I could always try hiding it under the bed.


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I have been asked for advice on a number of occasions about the best way to wash hakama and keikogi.

If you wash them too often they lose colour, if you don’t wash them often enough they become smelly and crusty. Putting both kendogi and bogu out to dry in the sunshine has a deodorising effect, but as we have had so little summer sun in the UK this year, washing has become a necessity.

Kendo clothing should ideally be washed by hand in cold water without soap powder , so to do this to  best effect and to find my grandson a useful occupation in the school holidays, I have developed the” Small-boy Kendo Washing Machine” or “Shonen Kendo Sentakuki”. The key components are a small boy, a bucket and a hosepipe.

To avoid blue dye in the house and the resultant discussions with non-kendoka partners or housemates, the garments to be washed, the boy, bucket and hosepipe should be taken somewhere in the garden where they can be hung out to dry (the keikogi that is, not the boy).

The keikogi and boy are placed in the bucket and he is given the hosepipe and instructions to half fill the bucket whilst jogging on the spot and to keep going for 20 minutes and a number of water changes. He may need some help on this one and have to be lifted out at each water change.

Once the boy has done his bit, you need to ensure that you rinse the blue dye off his feet before you hand him back. To dry hakama it is best to use a clip type hanger and turn the koshiita down in line with the front waistband. You can then pull the pleats in place before it dries, minimising or avoiding the need for ironing. Keikogi should be turned inside out and dried on a pole that passes through both sleeves. Special keikogi hangers that extend to the correct shape are available from most budo stores. My favourite method is to take a slat from a carbon fibre shinai, drill two holes in the centre and attach a hook through a string. Come to think of it this is to my mind, the best use of a carbon fibre shinai.

I am sure that these revelations will cause concern amongst right thinking people who shun the exploitation of minors, but rest assured I make the task less intimidating with a plentiful supply of ice lollies, Jaffa Cakes and Fizzy Fangs. 

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Fancy Dou

I have always been fascinated by the variety of doudai available and have spent hours in Japanese bogu shops staring at the selection. For some reason the more outlandish models are kept on the top shelf, (rather like magazines in the newspaper shop). I have seen dou covered in deerskin, wild boar skin and even bear skin –all of these with the hair on.  I can clearly see the advantage of these in shiai. If your opponent hits dou, the shinpan would not be able to hear it. However in the forty plus years that I have been doing and watching kendo, I have never seen anyone wear one.

Only slightly more common, are the dou with lacquered designs, showing scenes and animals in glorious colour. One of the few people I have seen wear one was a gentleman who regularly turned up at shiai during my time in Kansai wearing a glorious confection of gold tigers and dragons chasing around on a vermillion background. After making a startling first impression with this piece of kit, he invariably got beaten two nil, packed his dou and returned on the next occasion to display it again.

More recently there has been a trend back to the old style take-dou where the original bamboo slats are visible in their naked form. Then you have the new style car paint shop and iridescent moulded finishes and the choice goes on.

I have had two non plain black versions during my longish kendo career. One had a slightly cracked baka-urushi finish and a blue suede mune. The other was a vermillion dou, now faded to a tasteful brown, which I received as a present from my sensei. Both have mysteriously become too small for me, so I passed them on to Alan Thompson and Max Davies, both British Squad members. It was actually quite a buzz to see two medal winners at the recent Mumeishi taikai wearing my old bogu.

There really seems to be no rule about which colours can be worn at which grade and it remains a matter of personal taste and confidence as to what can be worn. I notice however at occasions like the Kyoto Taikai, the majority of Kodansha (6th 7th and 8th dans) go for a plain black dou dai. It was once explained to me by a teacher who had begun his career pre-war, that black was the senior colour as in black belt, (yes!  I know there are belt colours above for kodansha). In his view black had been borrowed by folk lower down the grade scale until it became the norm.

Personally, I have always fancied a ray skin same dou, but not having the impudence to outshine the  hanshi or a spare 500,000+ Yen, I think I will stick to black.

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My 60th birthday is looming. On Christmas day I achieve kanreki or “return to the calendar”. This effectively means that the clock goes back to zero and you become a baby again. Should you speak to my long-suffering wife, she would tell you “what’s new”.

Traditionally in Japan, 60th birthday celebrants receive a red top or hood to identify with the red clothes of newborn “akachan”  babies.  Apparently my celebrations are going to be slightly different.

Since I first spent time in Japan I have enjoyed or been the butt of jokes about  fundoshi , (traditional Japanese loincloths). One of my seniors in Osaka Shudokan, presented me with a few of these at the start of my time in Osaka ,and whilst I found them comfortable to  wear under my hakama, most of my Japanese dojo mates thought it hilarious that a gaijin should wear traditional Japanese underwear.

I was later taken to rural Kagoshima by a teacher friend and without my own swimming trunks, wore fundoshi to swim and fish for ayu in the local mountain streams. Later, the same teacher became a lecturer at a prestigious Japanese religious university and was referred to as becoming an “akafun” or red fundoshi.

So to return to the plot.- I received a phone call from a friend in Nara, saying that she had today sent me a parcel containing 7 red fundoshi.-  one for keiko every day of the week.  So British kendoka, be warned. If you notice anything weird in the changing room, it is just me, dressing my age.

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Hotaru Bogu

Hotaru bogu

Hotaru bogu

An old kendo friend, Tashiro sensei, is currently in the UK on a business visit. Tashiro sensei is one of the few non-professional kendoka to have passed 8th dan at the first attempt. He runs a bogu business in Saga-ken called Tenpudo and is in Europe to introduce a new range of bogu called Hotaru “Firefly”.

Similar to Chiba Bogu’s Mine range, Hotaru is machine made bogu that embodies the suppleness and absorbency of 2 bu hand stitched equipment. It is particularly light and easy to wear and incorpoarates various options, such as extra padding on the right kote and porous kote palms.

A lot of thought has gone into the design, and features such as shorter men flaps and diagonal stitching ensure that the bogu allows freedom of movement for the user. It comes in three different quality and price ranges with a choice of titanium or duralumin mengane. There are four standard sizes and a made to measure service.

Dou are not included in the Hotaru set, but Tenpudo can add these to the package. They feature some extremely good same dou lookalikes. Their web site is at http://ww4.et.tiki.ne.jp/~tenpudo7. The site is currently in Japanese, but an Enlish version will follow soon.

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Kawato sanI often get asked for advice on the best choice of equipment and find it difficult to give a simple answer. Thanks to the proliferation of e-commerce sites trading in budo equipment, you now have a choice, wherever you live. This is good news and a vast improvement on the days when everything had to be personally imported. Choice however can lead to confusion.

Bogu ranges from inexpensive machine stitched with 6mm stitching to hand stitched 1 bu equipment. What’s right for you depends on your budget, your frequency of practice and the level of likelihood that you will keep training long enough to get a return on an expensive bogu investment. Even if you decide on hand made bogu the level of choice is frightening. You can buy hand stitched bogu which is stitched and assembled in Japan or Korea. You can buy bogu that is stitched and assembled in China. Cushions can be stitched in China and assembled in Japan or Korea. You can even buy machine, hand stitched armour, (sewn by machine to look like hand-stiching). Then you have the choice of bamboo or composite dou, iron, titanium or duralumin mengane. It all gets a bit complicated.

Believe it or not, there is also an element of fashion in hakama, keikogi and kendogu. Kanji on hakama alternates through yellow, white and blue and on bogu, dou mune patterns have become plainer. There is also a move away from denser, stiffer 1bu stitching to lighter more flexible 2 bu equipment, so it pays to know what you want and exactly what you are getting. I even heard a well known supplier being accused of selling foreigners styles that where no longer in demand by domestic customers.

Keikogi come in varying grades – single, double, natural or synthetic dye and machine and hand made. I finally invested in my first hand made keikogi this year and although it feels great to wear, a friend made the observation that it is “like having a fight in an Armani suit”.

I assume that if you read this for advice, then I have confused you even more. The only thing I can tell you is do not buy just on price. I have seen bogu that has been made with insufficient padding that has caused painful injuries. If you are a newbie take advice from seniors or sensei and get referred to recommended outlets. Bricks and mortar or online, any good bogu supplier will take the time to understand what you need and to suggest equipment that is right for you. The longer they know you the better their understanding of your needs become.

I have been buying bogu from the same maker in Osaka, Kawato Budogu, for longer than I care to remeber. Kawato san tells me what I need rather than vice versa and he will always repair old favourite equipment. Which reminds me, he still has my kote for repair, I ought to give him a call.

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