You might hear kendo before you see it.
But first, the traditional Japanese martial art begins with a bow.
Early on a Tuesday night, each member of the nonprofit, fee-based Colorado Springs Kendo Kai, the city’s only kendo group, bows as they enter the gym at Meadows Park Community Center. Men, women and children are welcome here at the Tuesday and Thursday sessions.
“Kendo begins with etiquette and ends with etiquette,” says Tim Splinter, who ranks as a sandan. “This is a place of learning, a dojo. This is a place of respect.”
Between that initial bow and the bow out at the end of practice, appears to the casual observer as a mix of sword fighting and fencing, though it’s less the former and more the latter.
“It’s not sword fighting, because there are limited targets,” says Splinter. “If it were true sword fighting, you would hit wherever you can.”
Seven men, one woman and a 10-year-old spread out across the gym floor on this Tuesday night. Almost everyone wears a dark blue kendo uniform. All of the men wear bogu (the Japanese word for the protective armor that goes around the midsection), tare (hip and groin protection), kote (tough, protective gloves) and a men (helmet) that brings to mind Sally Field’s habit from the long-ago TV show “The Flying Nun.”
The pièce de résistance is the shinai, the bamboo sword each participant holds. Made of four staves lashed together with leather and string, its bark is louder than its bite, as demonstrated by Splinter, who thwacks it roughly against the side of his calf and doesn’t flinch.
Kendo is two opponents attempting to strike specific areas on each other’s bodies with their sword: the top of the helmet, the wrists and the sides of the torso. Advanced practitioners are allowed to go for the throat, but only three of tonight’s participants are considered advanced enough, so that tender spot is off the market.
Before ceremoniously affixing their helmets, the group warms up in a circle, going through arm and hamstring stretches, sword strikes and small, repetitive jumps, all to prepare for the cardio-intensive martial art. And then it’s off to practice the fundamentals, led by Robert Boman, the dojo’s sensei and highest ranked of the Springs’ kendoka, or those who practice kendo.
Boman’s Japanese mother is the reason he started doing kendo almost 30 years ago.
“She wanted me to stay out of trouble,” he says. “I got good fast.”
What follows is an intense and surprisingly vociferous 45 minutes. The gym echoes with loud whacks of bamboo sword on armor and helmets and the resounding primal sounds of practitioners yelling “kiai,” not from their throats, but from their bellies. It’s what Boman translates as “your spirit” and a “spirited shout.” It’s a way to try and scare your opponent, and “almost a conversation,” he says. It’s a “battle cry,” adds Splinter.
Indeed, it is loud and guttural and accompanies kendoka as they attack and defend. It can also be one’s downfall during battle, leaving the competitor open to attack as they work to find the proper timing of their breath.
The intention of kendo, which means the way of the sword, is a simple one.
“To better yourself as a human being,” says Boman. “It’s why manners are very important. It’s respecting elders, your opponent, other people, more than other martial arts.”
The earliest kendo school on record was founded in 1350, according to the website kendo.com. Modern kendo began during the late 18th century, and by 1912, the name kendo was in use. More than two decades later, most kendo schools were teaching a version of the martial art, says historyoffighting.com.
Following World War II, however, the martial art was deemed too militaristic and was banned. It was resurrected in the early ‘50s, when All Japan Kendo Federation was founded. Today, the practice is studied by millions around the world, and it is still used by Japan’s military. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department also is famous for its kendo.
Back in the gym, pairs of practitioners work together through several exercises. They couple the specialized footwork, called suri-ashi (sliding feet), with helmet strikes, wrist strikes, a one-two punch of wrist and helmet strikes, and strikes to the sides of the torso. Only then, with pumping hearts and audible heavy breathing, does the free fighting begin.
To the novice eye, it’s difficult to tell who wins the short battles, as partners dance toward each other, strike quickly, and retreat. Intimidation seems an important skill to have. In competition, winners are deemed not only for hitting targets, but for proper technique, which includes a strong kiai, and excellent sportsmanship.
“It’s like a meditation,” says Manny Flores, who taught kendo in Las Vegas, and recently started back up at Kendo Kai. He’s also father to Dylan Flores, the youngest practitioner in the room. “It gets me away from everything and helps me relax.”
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