Yoko Takeuchi, wife of Lt. Cmdr. Robert Shu, practices kendo, a modern Japanese martial art of sword-fighting based on traditional Japanese swordsmanship, at Capitol Area Budokai in Alexandria, Va. (Sheila Vemmer / Staff)
Kendo students practice at Capitol Area Budokai. (Sheila Vemmer / Staff)
Forget the rear naked chokes, arm bars or flying knees of mixed martial arts. If you're looking for a new warrior-infused workout to jumpstart your fitness plan, it's time to unleash your inner samurai.
Kendo, the modern Japanese art of sword-fighting, may just be your ticket.
With its dual emphasis on traditional martial discipline as well as sport-fighting, kendo is ideally suited to competitive-minded students and those who want a touch of classical martial-arts training.
Call it fencing with a warrior's sensibility.
"There's definitely the samurai tradition. The warriorhood, discipline, training and courage," says former Army National Guardsman Brian Sherry, a kendo instructor and third-degree black belt who teaches in suburban Washington, D.C. "But it's also competitive. You certainly get the opportunity to test yourself."
And you get a great workout. Not only do you launch sword strikes and thrusts in practice and competition — all while wearing samurai-like protection — but you've also got to avoid your opponent's blade.
"It's a very serious cardio exercise. You'll sweat heavily during a two-hour practice," says Sherry, a practicing attorney. He's also a former Army firefighter and radar operator who deployed to Bosnia in 1998.
"I would equate it to boxing. There are short, sharp, full-contact engagements, and we train to the point of exhaustion."
Translation: intense, direct one-on-one competition that also fires up your fat-burning furnace.
What it is
The first thing you notice is the menacing-looking gear wielded and worn by the "kendoka," as kendo students are called.
There's the "shinai," a representation of the traditional Japanese sword, made of four bamboo slats bound with leather straps.
The protective armor includes a metal-grilled "men" (helmet) with leather and fabric flaps to protect the neck, shoulders and throat. There's also a "do" (pronounced DOH) or breastplate to protect the torso and a "tare" to shield the waist and groin. Finally, long and heavily padded gloves called "kote" protect forearms, wrists and hands.
Together, the ensemble resembles a slightly less scary version of a full-blown samurai warrior. The armor is paired with "bogu," a familiar martial arts jacket, and "hakama," the traditional flowing, ankle-length divided skirt worn by many Japanese men and women.
While martial decorum reigns, a kendo dojo can quickly become a loud, chaotic place. With traditional loud shouts ("kiai") and barefoot stomps from the kendoka as they "express" their fighting spirits, kendo practice and competition are vocal, visceral experiences. Speed and ferocity are relished, and self-improvement is lauded.
Still, the aspects of personal development, discipline and respect for the art itself are paramount.
"It's not about winning and losing," Sherry says. "There's always the balance between the sport and the martial-arts aspect of kendo. And as we say, when two people meet with a sword in hand, it's the rare individual who will always walk away the victor."
What you're made of
Yoko Takeuchi is the wife of Lt. Cmdr. Robert Shu, a surface warfare officer with 2nd Fleet, based in Norfolk, Va. While her husband drives warships for a living and does distance running, Yoko racks up martial-arts black belts in addition to commanding the family's home front.
Like Sherry, Takeuchi is a third-degree kendo black belt. She's also a second-degree karate black belt. She began studying martial arts in her native Japan when she was 10 and began her kendo studies in 2004 because her son, now 9, wanted to do so.
"I figured that since we move around a lot as a military family, it would be something we could do together and I could help him out," she says.
She quickly became a passionate follower. "I'm in love with it," she says — so much so that she drives nearly 200 miles one way once a month from Norfolk to Alexandria, Va., to practice in Sherry's D.C.-area dojo.
"The intensity of the training is one of a kind," she says. "You learn so much about yourself, and overcome fears and doubt. You see how you'll respond under pressure. Am I brave, scared, confused or what? It all comes through the sword."
In kendo, students are allowed aggressive, albeit limited, contact when sparring.
"There are rules and limited targeted areas," Sherry says. "Still, we strike the targets with full force."
That sort of personal engagement is what draws and drives many students — civilian and military alike, Sherry says.
That, and the fascination with the warrior ethos.
"In the Army, you get the opportunity to be a warrior, but you're still a soldier," he says. "You are part of a unit, and you perform as a unit. In combat there is unit vs. unit. Individual kendo is very personal. You have your sword, and they have their sword. It's a safe, terrific place to test your ability as a warrior."
Military sensibilities of determination, aggressiveness, mastery of technique and mastery of yourself translate well to this sport.
"Kendo will test all of those things in a very pure and individual way," Sherry says. "It's personal combat. At the same time, it's a great way to engage without risking injury."
Unlike MMA, there are few injuries in this sport. "We don't have too many medical bills," Sherry said.
Kendo on the Web
• http://www.kendo-usa.org">Kendo America
• http://www.auskf.info">All United States Kendo Federation
• http://www.kendo-fik.org">International Kendo Federation
• http://www.capitalareabudokai.org/kendo.html">Capital Area Budokai