This is the fourth edition of an epic five-part series that details the beginning of world-renowned swordsman Dana Abbott's training.
Over the course of my daily studies I was already warmed up and feeling pretty good about myself with a good mindset. Kinda like a cat waiting to pounce on a mouse. As I slowly step inwards, I eye my adversary. I seek an opening and begin my frontal attack. Then "crack" I get whacked with a deafening blow to the top of my head from my opponent's bamboo shinai, which really promoted my awareness. As Shizawa sensei repeatedly said, "don't blink your eyes...because it does not hurt any less".
In real life, a strike to the head would be normally called an "attitude adjustment". In kendo a strike to the head promotes one's focus thus creating a unique mindset not ordinarily seen in other competitive sports. Unfortunately, the second your mind wanders your opponent can take advantage of that small window of opportunity and deliver another shot to the head, hand or body. The more I focused the more consistent I became. Consequently, through continuous practice of hours, days, weeks and months I found the more I got struck… the less I got struck. This was due to my learning how to focus my advantage. I slowly began to understand the old saying that "more is less" certainly is true.
In the heat of battle the surrounding cacophony in the air of the dojo is resounding with cracks, whacks and robust voices. These sounds spur me and my opponent to, "give it hell". When you are practicing side by side with some of the best kendoists in the nation you can get into some in depth volleys which really makes kendo exciting to the soul. Interestingly enough the smell of burnt bamboo caused by the friction of striking the shinai together always seemed to linger in the air.
Many students at Ni Tai Dai were from small towns and cities. Some had never seen a foreigner in person let alone practice kendo against one. I soon discovered that I reluctantly was always going to be in the spotlight and because of that I realized they would be very critical of my efforts. Since it was evident that I was a subject of interest, I decided to be a positive representative/ role model for my country. I never, at any time, experienced any real animosity towards me. On the contrary, I was befriended by all which opened up a lot of doors for me plus giving me complete access of the Teacher's Faculty room.
That Teacher's Faculty room almost became my second home during my tenure at Ni Tai Dai, which is where I met many of the strongest kendo players of the Showa Post-War era who frequented this room. Also, it was there that I was fortunate enough to be introduced to those kendo masters. After all these years have passed, I don't recall all their names, but I surely will never forget their strength, demeanor and passion.
On any given day, some older gentleman wearing a business suit would stop on by for a splash of tea and to cross swords with any and all opponents. Within fifteen minutes of arrival they were dressed out and ready to…kendo. What I thought was interesting was that many older kendo masters wrapped long rectangular shaped pieces of rubber automobile tubing around their knees and elbows. They were certainly no one's fool and merely wanted to protect those areas given their advanced age.
It was during this time I had the privilege to witness the unbelievable. After they were clad into their kendo attire and walked over the threshold into the dojo the transformation was astounding. These kendo masters, many with obvious disabilities, drooped shoulders and a bit of a shuffle to their walk would morph into "preverbal dragon slayers from hell". Watching them execute their techniques you would think they were in the prime of their life. Their timing, power and speed were honed to perfection. Even after 75 plus years of age they were totally on their mark. After sparring when they removed their helmets and you were again able to view their aged faces it brought you back to the realization that if you can wield a sword well…you will wield it well for life.
Spending six days a week practicing your heart out one would think it's time to grab some much-needed R&R. But no...the seventh day was created by the masters for kendo tournaments. I had already attended many home games and was now starting to make a name for myself. Perhaps not yet for my kendo abilities, but as a dedicated team player. Faculty had designated me as their newfound second school mascot and dubbed me "peto gaijin"or in English, "pet foreigner". The rival school's mascot was a goat. Needless to say this took my ego down a peg or two.
I had been doing very well and even starting to become skilled in my kendo studies. I was accomplishing this at college level but nevertheless during the upcoming tournament I would undoubtedly be warming the bench along with the mascot. The nice thing about college kendo is the fact that it teaches you to fight with dignity, fairness and in a gentlemanly manner.
I remember my first road trip. There I was riding in a school bus while we wind our way through century's skinny old back streets of Tokyo in a southerly direction. This trip took a couple of hours to get to the tournament site. We drove into the parking lot around sunrise, unpacked, walked up to and entered through the side doors of this ancient dojo. The dojo at Ni Tai Dai was constructed in a more contemporary post-war style but this dojo was built in a time where the western culture had no influence. Consequently it looked like a huge barn and temple had rammed into each other.
Since we arrived a bit early, we took advantage and worked on a few of our techniques preparing ourselves for the tournament. As it had been a long dry trip, I needed a drink and the water fountain was the closest place to get one. I took a big gulp and then another and another. "Wow, this water is good" I remarked to my training partner. He responds, "It's because it comes from Mt. Fuji. He then motions me to follow him to the double doors. He flings them open revealing my first bigger than life view of Mt Fuji. We spent the rest of the morning and into the early afternoon competing for the point, the shot and the kill at the base of Japan's most revered image…Mt. Fuji in all its glory.
There is an ole' saying; "if you can't speak the lingo…you can't stay in the loop". For that reason, I aggressively learned the Japanese language. At the beginning, I never knew what was on the agenda because the Japanese culture is not known to be communicative...it's not their style. You are supposed to innately know what's going on...which was not my style. It was literally fly by the seat of one's pants.
We had just finished a tournament in the old dojo at the base of Mt. Fuji. I'm packed and ready for the trip home waiting by the bus when Shizawa Sensei says, "You stay here!" as he and most of the group board the bus for their return to Tokyo. As the bus leaves and the dust settles, I see there are half a dozen of us remaining. We are then transported to a dormitory where we spend the night.
The next morning I awaken to a crisp beautiful morning and begin to gear up for kendo. One senior classmate states, "no kendo…today running" as he points to his running shoes. Within minutes we are herded into a van and spend about 15 minutes traveling on local roads. We stop and de-van. I stretch a bit, look around and find myself at a trail entrance to Mt. Fuji. What a surprise I am thinking...since I had no idea, I was going to climb Mt. Fuji. There is a vendor in this wooden shack selling walking sticks and I am handed one. It is about a 6-foot length of hardwood, over an inch in diameter with smooth beveled sides. Commercialism is everywhere...even Mt Fuji.
We began our ascent and over the next 5 hours switched back and forth on those trails that have been used for centuries even probably by samurai. At each tier on my upward climb a branding iron was used to mark my walking stick, which denoted the tiers I had accomplished.
When I stopped at different tiers to have my stick branded, I noticed that some of the structures were just lean-tos but on the next tier could be a very nice structure where one could find food and lodging. By the time you crest Mt Fuji your stick has been branded from bottom to the top showing your completion of all stages.
Finally, as I crested the top overwhelmed with excitement, I come to the realization that if I walk another 50 feet, I can have my pick of restaurants. I can have fast food, gourmet or box lunch. Another 50-feet I can have sake and beer. Instead, I pulled out several 10-yen coins using them to call Mariko…a girl who liked my accent'. As I tell her of the wonders, I have experienced I'm gazing out across the horizon and see, feel and experience the splendor of Japan and just a bit…dreading the climb down to reality.
When you're hot…you're hot and when it gets hot in Japan you literally drip from the humidity. If you drink one cup of tea, you undoubtedly will sweat two and coupled with the torrential downpours from Japan's natural rice growing climate means…I never saw the sunshine. One season there was only 68 hours of real sunshine recorded. Apparently, a joke was played on me when I was told that Japan was known as the "Land of the Rising Sun" which I hardly ever saw.