Mioko is a 5ft 3in, softly spoken Japanese girl. But cut her loose with a shinai (a bamboo representation of a sword) and she becomes a compact fighting machine with all the moves of her Samurai overlord forefathers. Mioko's male classmates may tower above her and think themselves stronger but, as she shouts the blood-curdling attack cry, the ki ai, and charges forward, sword aloft, grown men are left visibly quaking.
Mioko is one of a group of 30-odd regulars (one third Japanese, one third women, the rest a mix of ages and nationalities) who attend a Camden sports centre every Thursday evening in North London. They come to study the Japanese martial art of Kendo, "the way of the sword", under the tutelage of Jeff Humm, the British Kendo Association's national team coach and chief instructor at one of Britain's leading Kendo establishments, the Hizen dojo (training school).
Hizen, which has produced eight national team members since its 1983 inception, focuses on the practice of Kendo in a traditional manner, with an emphasis on formal teaching methods. As such, it adheres to rules established in feudal Japan, when the dojo was part of a shrine or an annexe to the house of the guiding teacher.
"I think of Kendo as a physical person's game of chess. There are a whole set of rules and an etiquette that make it unique among martial arts," explains Jeff as students arrive, leaving their shoes in a neat row by the door to the dojo and bowing to Jeff, the sensei (master), as they enter.
"Kendo is not about physical strength," he adds. "It's about mental agility and facing up to what we call the four sicknesses: fear, doubt, surprise and perplexity. This aspect of self-development is integral and requires a huge commitment from the individual." In Japan's Edo period (1603-1867), the shoguns, or military rulers, encouraged Samurai to study martial arts for combat. Under the influence of Buddhism and Confucianism, however, the goal of study shifted from preparing the body for the battlefield to cultivating mental discipline.
The modern sport takes the martial art of feudal Japan and gives it a contemporary twist, while retaining the Japanese spiritual tradition. Kendo came to the UK in earnest from the 1960s onwards and, although a growing sport, it remains a niche activity, with only 40 active UK clubs and fewer than 1,000 practitioners, compared to seven million in Japan, where it once formed a compulsory part of the school curriculum.
Dressed in trademark heavy blue cotton robes, the Hizen group perform their junbi-taiso (warm-up exercises) with a few basic moves, shouting the ki ai to psyche themselves up, while Jeff casts a watchful eye over proceedings. The full Kendo outfit is made up of three components: the top (dougi), the bottom (hakama) and the armour (bougu). The latter is heavy – it feels like you're walking around in a Darth Vader suit, with the head protector restricting your field of vision. The loose-fitting top and bottom worn for training are similar in style to judo and karate suits, but when you don the armour and start to fight, you quickly begin to sweat like a pig. Several of Hizen's Thursday night group will compete at the end of this month in the National Kendo Championships in Birmingham, and Jeff expects medal places.
To score a point in Kendo, you have to achieve ki-ken-tai no ichi (total unity of mind, sword and body). That is, you vocalise the name of the body part you are targeting – either men (head), kote (side) or do (wrist) – strike it with your shinai and simultaneously move forward to stamp your foot on the floor. All this to the satisfaction of three referees who also judge whether the attack has been executed properly (imagine scoring a hole-in-one and having it disallowed because your swing wasn't quite right).
Over in the corner, away from the cut and thrust of the main action, Carol and Adam, two beginners, are getting to grips with this concept while learning the basic moves. Carol blushes as Jeff urges her to charge forward shouting "Men!" at the top of her voice. "Go on," he encourages her, "just think of someone who really pissed you off at work today..."
"I'd always wanted to try a martial art," says Carol, sweating, afterwards. "I chose Kendo as it was graceful yet physically demanding."
As the evening moves on in a flash of blue robes to an accompanying soundtrack of bamboo sword striking armour, Mioko takes her turn to fight an opponent. The rest of the dojo sit on their knees to watch, their legs tucked under them in typical Japanese – not to mention limb-achingly painful – style.
The opponents bow to each other and then Mioko charges, vocal chords in full flow, sword poised, in a flash planting a striking blow on her opponent's helmet, the short, sharp crack of which echoes around the respectful silence of the dojo. "Don't worry," one student smiles at a flushed Carol, "it sounds like it hurts, but at worst you'll get a few bruises." Throughout the evening Jeff peppers the practice with advice, barking commands in Japanese one minute, gently offering pearls of wisdom the next. "Try to think about the beauty of the movement, not rely on physical action alone," he says. "Physical strength will slow the momentum. Focus on the cut." At the end of the two-hour practice, Jeff delivers a Jerry Springer-style pep talk about taking the direction of life in the dojo and transferring it to your daily life. They have a moment's meditation, then he claps his hands and it's time to bow and leave. As the students regroup later for a late supper of decidedly non-Japanese lager and chips in a local Camden boozer, his words of encouragement to continue the Samurai tradition are still ringing in their ears: "Come to know yourself through hard work and diligent practice. And remember, it's better to be humble and correct than gaudy and brash."
Beaming after yet another successful evening at the dojo, Mioko finishes her drink and slips inconspicuously into the night.Reuse content