Beginner’s Guide To Learning Kendo

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Anyone can start with Kendo, success in this sport is not deemed through ability. It is measured through your commitment, compassion, humility and self-control. The best part? Every human being can develop these traits with a little practice.

Have you ever heard about Miyamoto Musashi? A warrior hailed as the greatest Samurai swordsman? His legend inspires thousands if not millions around the world to practice the art of Samurai Swordsmanship, now widely practiced as Kendo.

Do you want to embark on this journey of self-discovery like he did? Do you want to master the art of controlling your mind and body like he did?

If yes, then this guide will help you get hands-on knowledge about the sport. Don’t worry, even if you are hearing the word ‘Kendo’ for the first time, you will drive home with some valuable lessons by the end of this article. Let us begin by understanding the art of Kendo.

What is Kendo

Descended from Samurai swordsmanship, Kendo uses Shinai (a bamboo sword), Bogu (a protective armour) as main contesting elements. People who practice Kendo are often referred to as Kendoists and are ranked by time they have dedicated to the sport. 

A martial art form which requires great skill, tenacity and sharpness is only valuable if you have proper etiquettes. The basics of Kendo practice revolves around respecting your opponent and not making any remark or negative gesture.

How to get started with Kendo?

As a beginner, sure you will have a lot of enthusiasm but you need to be patient. One of the very first things you need to develop is an open mind followed by sheer determination. The more you practice the better you become at the art. Having talked about it, let us begin by understanding the basic terminologies in Kendo:

Before you start watching or practicing Kendo, here are some terms you need to be well-versed with:

Gear:

kendo gear bogu shonai hakama

1. Bogu: A term used to define armour – consisting of men, kote, do and tare
2. Men: Head guard or mask also known as kiai
3. Kote: Gloves to protect from a wrist strike
4. Do: Torso protector
5. Shinai: Bamboo foil/stick
6. Tsuba: Hand guard on a bokuto, shinai or sword
7. Tenugui: A towel worn underneath a head guard
8. Hakama: Loose trousers of traditional Japanese origin

Decoding the basic concepts in Kendo

Stance  (Kamae)

A Kendo contest starts with bowing to your opponents as a sign of respect. It is followed by crouching at the start line. When the referee tells you to go, the contest starts. Basic ruling involves you requiring a straight body posture with both hands on the sword when attacking. Being off-balance isn’t counted even if you hit the opponent correctly. Finally, your physical and mental alertness should be continuous also known as Zanshin. Duration of a Kendo contest is 10 minutes, and Zanshin requires you to stay alert throughout the period. Any break in concentration may not convert or score or maybe penalized. 

Footwork (Ashi Sabaki)

Primarily there are five footworks (ashi-sabaki) in Kendo. These are suri-ashi, okuri-ashi, tsugi-ashi, ayumi-ashi and hiraki-ashi.

Suri-Ashi: A sliding movement 

Okuri-Ashi: Most important foot work which requires moving your front foot first. In this state, the back foot never passes the front one

Tsugi-Ashi: Tsugi-Ashi is the similar to Okuri-Ashi except that the back foot moves first and stops before it passes the front one. Even in this stance, the back foot never passes the front one 

Ayumi Ashi: This foot work is the opposite of both Okuri-Ashi & Tsugi-Ashi wherein the back foot moves ahead of the front foot. 

Hiraki Ashi: A diagonal movement into the right where the front foot is followed by the back foot. 

There you go, these were some basic footwork involved in Kendo and must be well practiced for better understanding. 

Counters

To understanding the counters in Kendo, let us start by understanding the techniques in Kendo. These can be briefly divided into two parts: 

Oji Waza – Countering against the technique used by your opponents
Shikake Wazar – Technique initiated by you

Now that we know that Oji Waza is what we are looking for, here are four techniques which you need to keep in mind: 

Nuki Waza – Avoiding a cut to your head guard or the gloves by lifting your arms
Suriage Waza – Suriage is done with the left side of shinai (omote) or the right side of shinai (ura)
Kaeshi Waza – Rotation of wrists to strike a target

Uchiotoshi Waza – Uchiotoshi refers to knock down. A rare technique in modern kendo where attack and knock the shinai of your opponent down

How to score a point in Kendo?

In Kendo, you can only score by attacking one of four areas: Men (head), Kote (Gloves or wrists), Do (Torso) and Suki (thrusting to the throat of your opponent). If a player manages to attack any one of these four areas faster than his opponent, he scores a point also known as ippon. Kendo is contested in one period of 10 minutes and consists of a best-of-three format. There are two ways to win a contest in Kendo:
1. If any player manages to score two ippons over his opponent, he wins the contest.
2. Leading till the 10-minute mark.

What is Ki-Ken-Tai?

Ki-Ken-Tai is a coalescence of spirit, sword and body.


Ki: When the contest begins, you must show ‘Ki’ – the fighting spirit or attack, it’s a verbal indication signalling your intent to attack. Shouting ‘Ki’ is crucial when scoring ‘Ippon’, if a player scores an Ippon without shouting Ki, his efforts are rendered ineffective.


Ken: Refers to the sword element, also has certain requirements. If you perceive the Sword ‘Shinai’ closely, it has a 25 cm front end – from the tip of shinai, this string must be on the top when you attack and opponent. It is an indicator that you have cut your opponent in the right manner.


Tai: Refers to the body as described earlier should be in the correct position. It’s important to maintain an upright body posture when attacking the opponent.

Now that you have understood the basic terminologies and rulings around Kendo, let us move towards the next step.

Some practical tips to help you get started:


1. Learning Kendo: You can learn Kendo either through online tutorials or by attending Kendo classes. Regardless of what you choose, dedication is quintessential in success. There’s no magic theory of mastering the art in 3 months. Thus, be patient, take it easy and follow the drill.


2. Time Allotment: Maximize the time you have allotted to practicing kendo (Thrice a week for a total of six hours is good enough)


3. Active Training: Focus on quick movements during practice (Training is where the hard work lies. Be quick and leave it all on the line during the practice. Capture the essence of moving quickly yet diligently. Whether you’re practicing Shikake Waza or Oji Waza, you have to be super quick.


4. Steer clear of confusion: Do not rush (While quickness is everything in Kendo, rushing isn’t. If your strength is Oji Waza, you’re more calculative in nature. Contrastingly, if it’s Shikake Waza, it’s more attacking in nature and that is where beginners tend to rush a lot. Don’t confuse quickness with rushing movements.


5. Do not bypass instructions: Actively seek out the laid out instruction. Be proactive, get the hang the basics first and stay vigilant throughout the practice. There’s so much so learn during every stage especially when starting out.

How is Kendo different from fencing?

Kendo as a martial art form draws great amount of similarity to fencing but is very different from it. Kendo involves stick whereas fencing does not. While Kendo and fencing do require the practitioners & participants to be lightning fast with the majority of the attacks taking less than 0.10 seconds, they are very different from each other with regards to rules.

Kendo is budo, a martial art which helps you to improve whereas fencing or Olympic fencing uses metal weapon rather than a kendo stick.

 Even the rulings of both sports are different. Kendo comprises of a split bamboo weapon whereas fencing has three categories of blades – Foil, Sabre and Epee.

Kendo has limited targets and techniques as compared to fencing. For example, Kendo emphasizes on four parts of the body whereas fencing has different rules for different blades. 

Epee is allowed to cut through the entire body whereas, sabre is for thrusts. There are many other technical aspects which separate the two sports, such as:

Nature of Contest – Kendo is violent in nature, not literally but in terms of attack whereas Fencing is based on electronic system

Scoring a point – Kendo is usually refereed by 3 people whereas fencing involves electronic point criteria

Size of Contest area – Kendo is contested in a 10m squared area whereas fencing is more rectangular and horizontal in nature.

Nature of the Sport – A lower ranked Kendo player can sometimes defeat a higher ranked player however similar situations do not occur in fencing.

Kendo focuses on developing a fighting spirit with moral integrity. Even in such a quick paced battle competition, there are rules and regulations which give us a fair reflection about the sport. 

While understanding the basics of Kendo does not take much effort, mastering them does take much time.

Through Kendo, a practitioner aims at hammering the body and mind into shape with the help of rigid and endless training efforts. If you haven’t started with Kendo, you should and don’t forget “You Ken Do It”  when you’re committed, consistent and hardworking.