When friends ask me about my Tokyo trip, kaleidoscope slides of orange fish, thick yakitori smoke, light-green tea and color-changing leaves rush through my brain. But then my mind usually stops on one moment in particular.
I’m wearing a royal-blue robe and kneeling on a wooden floor. The windowless room is stuffy but spacious, with shelves holding ribbons and trophies engraved with Japanese characters. I’m weighed down by a metal apron, a chest plate with leather pleats attached, that's tied to me in a way I’ll never be able to replicate. I feel a sense of what I think must be zen.
And then the murderous screams sound.
This it what the first minute of kendo class was like. I booked the Japanese martial arts lesson through Airbnb, an activity described online as something that’s “not for the tourists, but the for the real Samurai Kendo beginners.”
The sentiment is correct. And it made for one of my most memorable travel experiences to date.
So what is kendo?
Kendo is a fighting style derived from the methods of ancient Samurai. It's Japanese fencing with a two-handed sword. It's meditative. Until it's not.
The class went from a quiet space of soothing stretches, to resembling a battle arena with a soundtrack of blood-curdling yells. Experienced students (my boyfriend and I were the only tourists) brought their bamboo swords onto each other’s armor and roared with each blow. Completely out of my own comfort zone, where could I go? Maybe into the mindset of a warrior?
Why my kendo experience will stick with me
My sensei, a jovial middle-aged man who wore a puffer vest and Minion socks, became a gruff Kendo master once his white armor was laced up. He knew two English words well: “Very and "good.” He’d encourage me from behind a white gated mask when I did something right, like correctly yelling “Mem!” as I brought my bamboo sword straight down onto his helmeted head. Otherwise, he’d just motion for me to retry the move in order for me to figure out that, yes, he did want me to hit his wrist when he shouted “Co-tay!” And it took several attempts for me to comprehend that I should point my sword right at his neck after I struck him.
Eventually, we were doing combinations of body strikes, and I was developing my own aggressive (for me, but relatively puny for the room) scream. I felt as close as I’ll ever feel to being a swordsman, picking up my weapon again and again after putting on my own mask and getting whacked on the head.
Eventually, I partook in a battle (with Dan, who got many more "very good"s than I) as sweat partially blinded me and I developed a delayed skull-strike technique that served me well.
It was exhausting and invigorating. By the end of the two-hour session, I found myself standing straighter in my robe because that seemed the way it was supposed to be worn. I felt a visceral tie to martial artists today and Samurai masters of the past, if ever so small. My body ached so much I actually cried on the train ride home (though I think that was more due to my PMS).
And, hey, I also got touristy armor photos to show for it because that's an important part of traveling, too.