Last year I decided that I needed some form of regular exercise. My reflection was getting to be a little more pear-shaped than I liked, and before that happened to me I figured I better start working out. I have tried the local 24 hour gym, and that was a bore. Bowling doesn't qualify, which is about as close as I have gotten to exercise lately.
So I thought "I need something with a high fun factor, something I could really geek out on." As a long time card-carrying nerd, I love fantasy and have always wanted to learn to use a real sword. So I started looking for something I could do daily that involved sword training. Kendo came to mind first and I had my eye on a couple of dojos when I stumbled on a website for something called Shinkendo. It had a cool mpg of a japanese guy that looked really familiar (later found out I saw him on Teenage Mutent Ninja Turtles the Movie, and a couple cable documentaries). I gave the dojo a call talked with someone who said to come in and watch a session. I did, and from that moment on I was hooked.
The dojo happened to be the world headquarters for the Shinkendo Federation--the Honbu dojo-- and my "sensei" was actually the Kaiso of the artform: Obata Toshishiro, and that someone I talked to on the phone was his Mrs. Obata.
For those that don't know, Shinkendo is a martial art that teaches practical fighting techniques using a katana. We don't use shinai (bamboo wrapped in leather used in Kendo) but wooden practice swords called bokken or bokuto. We also do not use armor; just a judo gi and hakama (looks a lot like a skirt). And here was the deal clincher for me: we progress to using a shinken (live "sharp" blade).
Training under Obata Kaiso has been a life-changing experience for me. I attend about 4 times a week and work out on my own at home each day I don't attend practice. For a time I also tried Aikido, which Obata Sensei also teaches, but my 40-year-old back hasn't taken kindly to being tossed around, so I am taking a month break while I try and strengthen it.
Even though I have only been a shinkendoka for less than a year, I already plan on opening my own dojo sometime in the distant future. My wife has already been informed that we cannot move out of range of Kaiso until I am that level, and if I have my way I'll still be close enough to attend the Honbu at least once a week.
I could go on about the spiritual and philosophical affect is had had on me, but I'll let that be a future article. After nine months I am Jiho rank (second), have begun training with iaito (unsharpened metal sword) and have performed tamashigiri (test cutting tatami omote mats using a live blade) once a couple weeks ago. John Lui made us DVDs of that event, and once I can figure out how I'll post my first baby steps into the worlds of real swords.
Every practice I feel I am walking the first mile of a very long, steep, beautiful mountain trail. So much to see and experience and I don't really know what is in store down the road. My goal is to feel this way every day from now on, even after I am "Jim Sensei."