Let’s face it: you’ve tried all the yogas, you’d bike but you don’t want to get hit by a cab, and you don’t know where the Dodge pool is. We have a solution for the most jaded of the athletically challenged. In our newest feature, Clubbin’, we send our troops to scope out the most unusual sports Columbia Club Sports has to offer. (Any member of the Columbia community can join! Just email firstname.lastname@example.org.) This week, Carolyn Ruvkun, Bwog’s Esoteric Sports Bureau Chief, travels to the depths of Dodge for a lesson in swordplay with the Kendo club.
If you’ve ever run around the Dodge track on Monday or Wednesday night, you might have heard clashing swords, cathartic cries, and startling stomps from inside the Aerobics room. Columbia University’s Kendo Club is responsible for these striking sounds of swordsmanship. Officially registered as a club sport in 2004, Columbia’s Kendo Club is a small but spirited bunch, representing a surprisingly varied assortment of Columbia associations. Kathy Zhang BC ’10, Bryan Turley CC ’10, and Mikhail Horne SEAS ’11 form the core undergraduate portion of the club. They’re joined by a talented SIPA student and a nephrologist from the Medical Center. Noboru Kataoka, an accomplished kendoka, serves as the club’s sensei—the Japanese title for a respected authority figure. Rooted in the traditional sword practices of samurai, kendo, literally meaning “the way of the sword,” is the modern Japanese martial art of sword fighting. When civil war wracked Japan during the Kamakura period (1185-1333), various schools of classical Japanese sword arts emerged. Ultimately peace prevailed and the samurai sport shifted toward spirituality, adopting philosophical qualities of Zen Buddhism.
While Japanese swordplay may conjure that scarring Kill Bill scene of Uma Thurman scalping Lucy Liu’s head, kendo itself emphasizes spiritual strength and mental discipline over the all-out aggression of cinematic stunt choreography. Using a bamboo staff called a shinai—the weapon of choice for kendoka—they methodically practiced the overhead swing and intricate footwork. Bryan compares the precise stroke to “physical meditation.” “Just swinging a stick—the idea itself isn’t that hard,” he explains, “but when you get into the technique and footwork, you appreciate how efficient it is. The movements come out of generations of practice.” Achieving this moderate but powerful stroke and the corresponding sharp shuffle (think Arthur in Monty Python’s coconuts scene) requires focus and force. “There are so many little details to remember, but it eventually locks together and becomes intuitive,” Bryan reflects. Given the rhythm and fluid motions of kendo, it’s not surprising that the sensei used to be a dancer. After warm-up, the advanced kendoka don frightening face-cages with metal grills and shoulder protectors with flaring flaps resembling The Flying Nun’s habit. The sparring opponents aim to hit three target areas: men (head), koti (wrist) and do (side). While technically throat thrusts are permitted, Kathy remembers that she heard of someone dying from an incorrectly performed hit to the neck, so competitions don’t usually include tsuki as a target area. “For the record,” Kathy stresses, “kendo is not a dangerous sport. Sometimes you’ll get a few bruises, but no one really gets hurt.”
With each thrust of the sword to a specific target area, the kendoka unleashes a chilling battle cry, naming the specific point of contact on the opponent’s body. The Japanese martial arts concept of kiai describes the fusing of an arresting exhalation and forward stomp into one deliberate action. Rituals like this are integral to kendo; kendoka especially value the relationship between teacher and student, reflecting the attention to hierarchy among Japanese samurai. Just as the few members of our kendo club represent the diversity of Columbia University, collegiate Kendo tournaments attract a variety of people. “Kendo comes from a specific cultural background, but now, so many people from different cultures are coming to this one sport centered in one culture,” Bryan reflects. “Kendo is becoming so multi-faceted. When I started kendo I had a firm idea about who does this sport, but something about kendo draws all different kinds of people.” Sensei provides a compelling explanation: friendship. “I enjoy kendo because I can hit people with force and then people appreciate it,” he explains, “You hit your opponent with nice force but it’s not painful. We fight with enemies, but in kendo the technique for hitting doesn’t lead to pain, so your opponent wants to play with you again. The opponent appreciates your force and after practice you become friends and we can go drink together. Kendo is for making friends.”
Sadly, CUKC’s membership is dwindling. With two seniors leaving next year, Mikhail Horne plans to take over as president but few advanced members remain. This year the team couldn’t meet the required 5-person minimum to compete in the Harvard tournament, though three members participated in the Rutgers tournament. But perhaps you’re interested in Japanese ritual, and in that case, the Kendo Club welcomes you to practice with them. CUKC meets on Monday and Wednesday 9:00–11:00 PM in the Dodge Gym Aerobics Room.
Next time… Bwog visits the Equestrian Club!