Paper Tigers

By Toby Howden

Martial arts and misadventure in Japan

The dojo, despite its size was softly lit and stuffy. At the head of the hall hung a large draped banner bearing the calligraphy and emblem of the Yoshiwara Kendo School. The place was rapidly filling up with people now. Around the edge of the room along a thin marked off area spectators and parents were sitting chatting and directing children to get changed, whilst the majority of the adults were stretching, carefully checking equipment and warming up with slow purposeful sword swings.

As we walked through the sliding doorway I felt the eyes of the entire hall look me up and down. I tried to act casual yet respectful, which no doubt just came across as alarmingly confused and self-conscious. Suzukisan marched us resolutely towards the head teacher Takagi Sensei who was standing in the middle of the hall dressed in full battle gear. He was grey haired, stern yet serene and, as I had imagined, appeared to be the living embodiment of a powerful ancient samurai master.

As if to order, thunder rolled in the distance and for a split second I felt as if I was being led to my execution. We bowed in formation then Suzukisan introduced me. I re-bowed and prematurely blurted out my embarrassing half coughed attempt at “Onegai shimasu” (Please teach me). Takagi Sensei gave me a bemused look. He turned to Suzukisan and said a few words in a deep gravelly voice which I guessed were along the lines of “What the hell did he just say?” then motioned me to take a seat. Bryan escorted me to the edge of the class and explained that Takagi Sensei had said “I was welcome at the dojo and to please train hard.” He told me I should sit in seiza1 (formal kneeling position), then gave me an encouraging nod and disappeared to get changed.

I gazed around the hall quietly watching more people arriving and warming up. It was a big class; there must have been at least fifty or sixty people. Near the entrance beginners were being put through their paces with basic sword work and at the far end the senior teachers were starting to pair up and spar with each other. It was a noisy business, shouts of attack rang out and the wincing crack and thud of bamboo hitting body armour reverberated across the hall like martial music. The moist air seemed more oppressive than anything I had ever experienced and soon my knees felt as though they were on fire. Seiza isn’t a position most Westerners are comfortable with and although I was fairly supple, after about fifteen minutes I was struggling to maintain my posture and composure. Although no-one had mentioned it, and certainly nobody was checking, I sensed there was an expectation that I endure this one simple task without complaining. It was turning into a matter of pride and despite being an ignorant Westerner I was determined to prove myself worthy...well, at least worthy enough to watch. I sat quietly locked in a Herculean battle of self control attempting to mask my discomfort with an insane rigid expression of fake calm. A wave of panic rose as it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea how long the class would last and that even thirty minutes or so of kneeling on the rock hard floor meant I‘d probably never walk again.

Thunder boomed in the background whilst flashes of lightning illuminated the hall in flickering bursts of intensity. This was getting ridiculous. I felt delirious and the armpits of my shirt were embarrassingly soaked with dark patches of perspiration. I began to wonder if I would be the first person ever to collapse from the effort of simply watching a kendo class. My knees felt as if they were about to explode but although I started to fidget and wriggle with the pain, it was mildly distracting watching so many people sword-fighting. The senior instructors were giving captivating performances, but at the head of the hall Takagi Sensei stood out with a quality that clearly set him apart from everyone else. The way he moved had a relaxed, natural power which reminded me of the old woman in the paper factory. His techniques looked graceful and effortless. Although he was fighting people half his age he moved with a fast calculated pace, occasionally letting out deep shouts that resounded loudly round the hall. His style of teaching appeared to consist of randomly picking students of all ages and testing their mettle. Each time he sparred with them he seemed to be one step ahead clinically delivering blows, keeping the pressure on until the intimidated looking students transcended their fear and pain and were consumed by a bruised determination or perhaps a sense of revenge and finally stopped holding back. It was as if they were thinking “Right, that’s it old man, now I’m determined to hit you, just once.” Then Takagi Sensei would beam with encouragement, he seemed to be saying ‘Yes, that’s it. Never give up. Go further than you thought was possible; now you’re learning, this is it, this is kendo.’

Of course I was reading between the lines but I figured that it was either something like that or else the guy was actually a total sadist and really just enjoyed beating the hell out of his students, I couldn’t be sure.

Bryan suddenly appeared and knelt down next to me, he seemed to have turned a shocking shade of purple underneath his mask.

‘How... ya... holding... up...?’ He gasped in a muffled voice.

‘Oh, er, I think I might be getting heat stroke and my knees hurt so much I want to die...but on the plus side it’s really interesting and I can see that Takagi Sensei is indeed The Shogun; how about you?’

‘Yeah, well, you’ll get used to it, you want to try moving, this weather is ridiculous...even by Japanese standards. Glad you’re enjoying it though, see you in a bit.’

With that he disappeared back into the seething crowd of furious duelling kendoka and I resumed my painful position. A few people came over to say hi, giving me the thumbs up, nodding and patting me on the back with encouragement, but other than that, for the rest of the lesson I sat on my own watching, trying to take it all in.

Over the next few hours the training continued with unrelenting intensity. My mind drifted into a barely conscious stupor and my legs went terrifyingly numb. Time condensed into a single point of never-ending discomfort. After what seemed like several lifetimes, very abruptly, a different shout rang out. Everyone immediately stopped what they were doing and hurriedly joined me in seiza in long neat rows then laid their swords down and removed their helmets. Takagi sensei and a couple of the most senior teachers including Suzukisan sat commandingly to attention at the front. Their expressions were serious and focused like ancient carved stone Buddhas. It was certainly a side of Suzukisan I had never witnessed before. The joking easygoing person I knew was gone. Now he was a serious and powerful sensei who had spent his whole life in the dojo cultivating his skills. They examined everyone in the room, slowly, carefully, sizing usup like an old fashioned military inspection. A minute later another fierce instruction was barked “Zazen” (lit ‘seated meditation’). Before the echo had faded the entire hall became deafeningly quiet and still. The sudden contrast with the previous few hours of chaotic noise and violence was astonishing. Everyone looked serene, eyes closed, utterly motionless, as if they had become permanent fixtures of the hall. I could feel the blood pounding in my ears and my nervous fidgeting seemed amplified to an embarrassing level. Although the idea of “Zen2” in The West has come to represent the proverbial term for an experiential state of enlightenment, the actual discipline and practice of Zen meditation is far less well-known. Luckily, having once skimmed through a battered old copy of Paul Reps’ classic Zen Flesh Zen Bones3 I figured I knew exactly what to do. I strained to empty my mind, count my breaths, contemplate the sound of one hand clapping, step though the gateless gate, and awaken to the “moment.”

As I tried in vain to experience the amazing interconnected oneness of everything, a more commanding mental image of my knees bursting into flames rudely crept in. My spiritual aspirations began to crumble before the growing and disappointing realisation that despite my finest intentions, I couldn’t wait for Zazen to end and be free to wiggle my toes once again.

Obviously spontaneous Zen awakenings required practice. I tried shifting my attention to something else. Outside, the first droplets of rain were almost imperceptibly beginning to fall. I opened my eyes and cautiously peered around. The entire class was still and calm, bolt upright, hands clasped serenely in their laps. The rain increased, beating down on the roof as the heavy pitter-patter sound developed into a roaring deluge. Very gradually it felt as if the paralysing humidity was beginning to ease and I almost dared imagine it was growing ever so slightly cooler. I shut my eyes again and resumed my efforts at meditating. Anyone who tells you that sitting quietly is easy and relaxing has never tried it for three hours. Eventually I gave up. I figured total enlightenment could probably wait ‘till my second class and instead, tuned my attention back to its default setting of “randomly distracted” and lost myself to the soothing pounding of the rain.

After an indefinable period of time another sharp cry rang out and Zazen came to an end as abruptly as it began. The hall was gradually re-animated, throats were cleared and brows mopped. A few groups of students went to kneel in front of the teachers and were given individual feedback and instructions. Takagi Sensei gestured in my direction and said a few words - the whole room turned to stare; a few children giggled and poked each other. I nodded, smiled and felt acutely on show and out of place. Suzukisan also spoke for a few minutes and although I couldn’t understand a word, his tone sounded encouraging and profound. With that, we all did a formal kneeling bow and the class was over. Everybody stood up and began chatting, bowing to each other and getting changed. I leaned back on the floor and very, very slowly attempted to un-bend my legs. The flow of blood back into my feet was startlingly painful, the endorphin rush made me giddy and it took a full five minutes before I could speak, let alone move. People around me laughed and consoled me with the now familiar word “Atsui” (it’s hot), I guessed they’d all been in my position once and knew how it felt. Bryan appeared again having got changed. He still looked rather purple and was flecked in sweat and trembling with exhaustion.

‘Right let’s get out of here’, he announced ‘we’re going to a bar just round the corner from our place; we’re going to meet the teachers there.’

‘Ok, slowly’ I whimpered feebly pulling myself up by holding onto his legs. ‘Hey, what did Takagi Sensei say to me at the end of the class?’

‘Oh, he asked everyone to make you welcome, and he said that if Westerners like us have the dedication to travel all the way to Japan to study kendo then they should all be inspired and train even harder.’

‘Ah... right,’ I said half to myself quietly chewing the words over with wonder and disbelief, “train... harder?”

We staggered out of the dojo straight into a pitch black, mercifully cool downpour. It immediately soaked us to the skin but I could have collapsed with relief and cried. I held my arms melodramatically wide open to the rumbling, cracking sky. I could feel my toes, I could breathe again, and I had survived my first ever kendo class.

1 Seiza, literally - proper sitting.

2 Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese character ‘Chan’ (禅) which is in turn, a translation of the Pali word ‘Jhāna’ meaning ‘concentrated meditation’ or ‘meditative stability.’

3 Reps, P. Senzaki, N. (1957) Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, The Charles E. Tuttle Co, Inc.

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