Kyoto Budogu Blog

Monday, August 25, 2014


This is going to be my last post on Kyoto Budogu Blog, because from September 3rd I will be back in Europe and someone else will take my place as blogger and store manager (who, you will find out soon! ).

This year in Japan has passed so quickly, that it even feels weird to think that I arrived in Kyoto in September 2013.
It has been a journey of discovery, although I hardly ever left Kyoto (apart from two quick trips to Europe at Christmas and for the European Kendo Championships). I learned a lot about bogu and shinai,  but also about Japanese work ethos, about life in the Old Capital and of course about people, being they colleagues or customers.

One additional, very precious knowledge I developed is a good (albeit surely partial) picture of the local Kendo scene.
I have been able to practice fairly regulary with four different groups: Yuubukan, Fucho, Fukei and the Wednesday keikokai at Butokuden. I occasionally practiced in Kumatori at Osaka Taiiku Daigaku and at Nichiyokai in Osaka. The Ladies Keikokai at the Butokuden takes place once a month and I managed to take part, too. Some occasional Taikai offered me the opportunity for shiai and for shinpanning, too. I also visited Myokaku-ji dojo.
It has been very interesting meeting the "normal" kenshi of Japan - meaning not only the professionals or the students. Ordinary people like me, who would train after work whenever they could (it has to be said, mainly one or two times per week, not four or five like me: clear sign of an obsessive personality), for the sheer pleasure of keiko.
I found a welcoming environment, although I am sure some must have been rather puzzled by my presence at the beginning (in spite of all the introductions!). I hope I managed to learn something from all the sensei I met - although the time devoted to kihon practice is always very limited in Japan, as I also discovered.

Some of you may already know that living (and working) in Japan does not automatically mean you can train with all the ease every day. If you end your working day at 18,00, like myself, you only have a hour to reach the dojo, wherever it may be, change and join keiko. For some strange reason, most evening trainings start at 19.00 and they are over by 20.00. Only the weekends are left to tread a bit further away - and that of course if there is some keiko on the weekend!
What I mean to say is that you really MUST WANT to have keiko and you will have a lot of rushing with your bogu on the shoulder to be able to do it. Nothing drops on your lap, to be clear. I considered this as part of the experience, too.

Of course I will be back in Kyoto again and again, so this does not feel so sad at all. I simply have many more places to visit and many more friends to meet.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Housen Step Two: Showing Off

I told you about the little expedition to visit our supplier Housen

Well, time has come for me to show off my 3-shinai bag (actually this is my second one by Housen, after a gray/black Ichimatsu one...) - I am so proud of it, that I am flaunting it without any shame.

The colour: GREEN

The fabrics pattern: MUJI

The main embroidery: the character DŌ (which, I shamelessly admit, stands for the initial of my name!) in Yuu no Sho calligraphy style.

The embroidered decoration: TONBO AND SAKURA in two different tones of green.

On the back: my name in katakana.

I simply love it!

Friday, August 1, 2014


I have dreams. Fantasies that become particularly insistent after training in high temperatures, as it happens now in Kyoto. Kyoto summer is renown for being fierce - and justly so.
I go for asa-geiko on my bike to the Prefecture Police at 7 o`clock, before work. It is already hot then, try to imagine after one hour of non-stop keiko.
Then is the time for me to dream: shape memory hakama - you take them off, you throw them in the air and the moment they touch the floor they are already perfectly folded. No more struggling with stubborn erratic creases, on floors on which some ugly guy has been dripping sweat like a stranded jellyfish: operation instantly completed in a neat and orderly fashion.
I dream of spray bogu. All in one bottle: you get into your (shape memory) hakama and kendogi and then you spray it onto yourself. It solidifies in a second - I still have to fantasise on how to remove it without too much hassle. Maybe it could melt in the shower?
Till I figure how to solve this little issue, I could be happy with mag-lev bogu bags, that follow you wherever you go.

None of this is going to happen soon, alas.

So we keep taking care of our hakama, folding them neatly, while spotting the cleanest section of the floor (I wear usually white or kinari). We remember the virtues of each fold and carry on. Far di necessita` virtu`, we say in Italy: make a virtue out of  necessity - very appropriately, we make seven, in fact.
Trolley bags have brought already a notable improvement in bogu-carrying - a bit late maybe for my right shoulder that has strangely retained the mark of all the bogu bags of my life - shape memory shoulder?

Nevertheless, it is right to think of innovation in Kendo equipment. Maybe without going to the extremes (it would not be tolerated anyway, both by the governing bodies of Kendo and by kenshi themselves - who are, let me say, a pretty conservative bunch, as far as tradition and Japanness are concerned (I am in that bunch myself) - a degree of innovation though is necessary and welcome, also to make equipment safer and more accessible.

I can surely mention the Tornado-stitch® Kote, which are the new thing of the moment: I love the sturdiness of the futon and I like the spiralling of the stitching.

Still, although really new, they are still made of cotton, with a recognisable traditional look. Then how far can we go with innovation, in Kendo equipment, with Kote, to start with? We asked a number of inspired and willing kenshi to put their experience and their creativity together and see what would emerge.
We loved the results:

THE TURTLE KOTE, by Nathalie, Jeroen and Oliver

Top focus on maximum protection and perfect fit: (Jeroen has very big hands, Nathalie very petite ones):

  • removable padding (in purpose built pockets) 
  • titanium thread hexagonal pattern stitches (hence, the Turtle)
  • Sorbothane padding in specific areas of the atama (Sorbothane is the brand name of a synthetic viscoelastic urethane polymer used as a shock absorber and vibration damper. It is manufactured by Sorbothane, Inc., based in Kent, Ohio.) See Wikipedia for further details

KOTETSU, by XiaoxuGhaïsYiwen

Innovation comes in a bit more timidly in this Kote: very high quality, but traditional materials (from 10000 thread cotton, to deer hair for padding)
  • anti bacterial treatment (Bioclean)
  • diagonal stitching pattern
  • striking contrast between indigo (in two tones) and yellow
  • improved shape of the futon for extra comfort and ease of movement
  • enhanced flexibility of the wrist joint
  • reinforcement in the palm leather, in the traditionally hole-prone spots
Possibly, apart from the look, which I find truly attractive, the real innovation is the combination of all the top quality features available today. Not exactly a cheap pair, this one.

WILD SPIRIT KOTE, by Maria, Giorgio, Jose and Tetsuro

Well, here we are treading on a completely new ground. That was the task of the Gone Wild Team, in fact.
Gone is the stitching.
Gone are the himo.
Gone is the traditional padding.
The purpose of this aggressive Kote is to be as unobtrusive as possible for hand movements, while being protective through completely innovative methods.
However, a longer futon seems to be a priority also in the 22nd century, where these Kote belong to.
The look is projected in the future, for authentic Bad Ass Kenshi - this is what your grandchildren will wear, put yourself at peace.

Wow, I cannot wait to see these beauties being made - the future has to start somewhere, and here we are.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Why Kendo?

Kendo people
Oh, the dreaded question! How many times I did hear this, of course immediately after something like: “Is Kendo the thing with the sticks?”, in the best of cases.
My answer changed several times, along the years, not surprisingly. I still prefer not be asked, because most of the times I know that who`s asking is not really interested in hearing the reason of a lifelong engagement, but just in exploring a bit of folklore.
Of course, answering the question 30 years ago was even more difficult – thank God for the internet and for the deluge of information that comes across, even if not 100 % pertinent: it helps filling the gaps and makes the process of crafting a suitable answer less painful.
My answer to that question - today - is: Because I like the people who are in our world. It is small (it is very likely I met personally at least one person from every Kendo Federation on earth – at least the more consolidated ones), but it is the quality of the human beings that makes it special.
The span of the motivation to enter our world can be very wide: there are kenshi who live Kendo as a pastime, for the beer after keiko, and others who made Kendo their philosophy (and wrote books about it), all equally delightful to practice (and spend time) with.
I am no Alice in Wonderland, I met also the “villains” in this story: I have come across shady characters who still believe that Kendo could be a business and, although lacking any technical – and human – quality, are trying to pass as Kendo Masters, for a price… if only they knew how to dress properly! they do not even have to open their mouth or swing their shinai to give themselves away.
I met the ones who want to be samurai warriors and never crack a smile (and, gosh, how they make sure that no one else does!), because the Way of the Warrior is Death.
I met those who take off their Men during keiko every time they feel like resting, drinking, stretching and talking with the occasional member of the audience (given our average following, more likely it`s the janitor of the gym…).
I met a lady who always “injured” herself during warming up and never made it to put the Men on – although a lot of people would have loved to have a good fight with her…
I am sure everyone met someone who made him/her doubt if the dojo was really such a safe/hospitable/joyous place to be.
Nevertheless, the core is good. Most people wants genuinely BECOME BETTER KENSHI, and in doing so, BETTER HUMAN BEINGS. Not everyone has this aim spelled clearly in his/her mind, but it is the passion and the seriousness of their practice that makes it clear. These are the people I wish to associate with, that make me overcome the occasional pain-in-the-neck individual who tries to trash Kendo to his/her purposes.
We should defend our Kendo, through our honest and sincere practice. Through the respect for senpai and sensei. Through modesty and open-heartedness. Through the steely determination to practice (and to pass it on) in the correct way – both in terms of waza and kokoro. The responsibility of this development does not sit only on the knees of the Japanese: WE are Kendo and the task is for all of us to carry on.

As far I think, with all the glitches that are the burden of the human nature, it is the closest thing to an ideal world that I know of : and you can be bloody sure, I will fight till my last breath to keep it so.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

I dislike laziness

I love facts.
I am an engineer, so I have been educated to look at hard numbers and to find explanations to event in a matter-of-fact way. I am no scientist: meaning that I look at the practical answers to the problem at hand, instead of investigating it just for the pure pleasure of knowledge.
Having said so, let`s talk shinai.

Shinai are fascinating objects, because they offer so many interpretations of themselves.
They are complex devices, they require excellent craftsmanship to be fit for use. At the same time, they are the consumables of Kendo. I cannot count how many shinai I used in my career. Judging only by the splintered staves scattered in my garden  (recycled to support plants), I must have gone well beyond several hundreds. I have bunches of shinai in Italy, Holland and Japan - I still keep buying shinai, to test the different types and discover my own. I love the beauty of the bamboo, the different colours available and the ingenuity of the different shapes available.
At the beginning of my career, shinai would go incredibly fast. I guess it is a common phenomenon: beginners hit too hard and they pay for this. Nevertheless, my senpai spent time to teach me how to take care of my shinai - it was for practical purposes (scarcity is the mother of invention... and of sandpaper), but all this care also had a strong symbolical meaning. The shinai is your sword - your life depends on it, respect it as if it had been handed to you by generations of ancestors.
This teaching is so ingrained in me that even nowadays I cringe whenever I see a shinai leaning aganist a wall with the tip on the floor, or I see someone who steps across one, as if he/she was happily dancing in the Highlands:
or. even worse, lean on it as if he/she was a Corazziere in high uniform.
I love the Corazzieri from the bottom of my heart, but this pose does not belong to the dojo.

Corazziere della Repubblica Italiana

Years ago shinai always needed to be tended even when they were new. We would take them apart (a very scary process, when you were not really sure you would be able to assemble them right again...), smooth with sandpaper the sharp edges of the staves, then oil them with linseed oil. We would have intense debates about the different merits of crude and boiled linseed oil: endless talks during the post-keiko drinks.
Nowadays, none of this is necessary anymore. I find out that some friends still go through the process anyway, because... no real reason, but they do it anyway. Old habits are hard to die.
Then one ugly day, came the end to all the linseed oil  - related conversations. Columbus`s egg: the shinai that did not need any of the care that bamboo needed, because it was not made of bamboo.
Not only ugly as hell, but also the triumph of all lazy kenshi: why spending useless hours shaving your splintered shinai, when you could have a shinai that does not splinter at all? Little mattered that it would hit harder on your mates heads, as long as it would not break.
We can still have the little consolation that the different elastic response is hard not only on the heads of the victims, but also on the shoulder ligaments of the holder. Pity it takes too long to make them reconsider out of sheer physical damage: laziness is a powerful lever.
Once the fascination of the new could have been understandable - nowadays, not anymore.

And since I love facts, let`s stick to the facts.
How many hachidan sensei or high level Japanese kenshi have you ever seen using a non-bamboo shinai?
I think this is the only answer that counts.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Hand-stitched Art

I really like hand-stitched Bogu. Actually, I get fixed in admiration every time I see one. From 3.00 Bu, to 0.8 Bu, the craftsmanship always leaves me amazed. It could be that I have never been able to sew anything myself (the good housewife is not exactly my call), but the sheer beauty of the indigo fabrics, stitched so precisely and neatly makes me wish to own a new set every time. 

We can discuss the merits of each type of hand stitch: actually, it would not be fair saying that the hard-working craftsman worked wonders completely different from happens with the mm-equivalent machine-stitched futon.
The tighter the stitch lines, the more compressed the padding, the stiffer the futon: this is true both for hand-stitched and machine-stitched Bogu. Nevertheless, hand-stitch futon retains a higher level of suppleness, that makes the Bogu faster to conform to the body of the wearer. I guess no one who experienced keiko with both could argue that.

I still have a beautiful 2mm. machine-stitched Bogu that is as hard as the day I bought it - when I find myself forced to use it, I try to make it more reasonable by placing my Chesterfield armchair on the top of the Mengane. Once I left it like that for three months - still, it did not really improve. From then on, only hand-stitch existed for me.
The problem is that I am spoiled. The Men I wear more often are either hand-stitched or fit-stitched (although I did not know what fit-stitched was when I bought it - I simply needed a new Men, I was in Japan and the top of my Mengane had broken - very intense training at the Summer Leaders` Seminar in Kitamoto , that year). I love hand-stitch Kote and I think they are not only more beautiful, but also more protective and supple.

Fit-stitch is a logical improvement, in terms of suppleness: it is still applied with a machine, but the stitches are longer: again, the padding is less compressed than in the corresponding "traditional" machine-stitched futon, hence the futon is easier to adapt, being "puffier" and softer. My personal opinion? It is certainly an improvement (I think of my Chesterfield armchair finally at peace), but to my eye it looks a bit untidy, if compared to the beauty of the cross-stitches applied manually.

Of course, it is still a matter of personal tastes. The only thing that really counts is that the Bogu fits your size and it is safe and tidy.
Old Bogu can be fascinating, when they discolour nicely - stained Bogu or Bogu going to pieces are a complete no-no (of course you KNOW how to remove sweat/salt stains, don`t you?)
Ageing gracefully (with proper, continuing maintenance) is exactly what life-long Kendo is all about.
Looking like tramps in the dojo, not so.
A Chesterfield armchair - a necessary piece of furniture for each kenshi.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Fashion victims

I will spare you the old story I told before, about how difficult it was, back in the 80`s, to purchase a decent bogu. We all managed to survive those days and here we are, in the time of internet abundance.
Just by chance, I happen to work for a bogu maker and retailer, so I spend my days surrounded by bogu sets and loose parts. Just turning around my head, while I sit at the desk in the office, I can see two Do and two Men and I know that, just close to my keyboard, just under a pile of Kendogi and Hakama there are at least three pairs of Kote. The land of plenty indeed.
Without mentioning the ocean of bogu I saw in our warehouse and shipping centre, I would like to concentrate on the showroom that happens to be just a floor up from where I sit.

It is a beautiful display: all the best models of the collection (Korin, Koetsu, Tokuren, Samurai...) are lined up in the glass cases on both sides... The more I admire them, the more I realise there is a glitch somewhere. I have been scratching my head for a while, but now I definitely have the issue pinned down. What do all these bogu have in common? and what makes them so similar (from a distance) to the fit-stitched models, like Fujin, Rajin or Yoroi? The answer is easy: they are ALL BLACK.

When I finally had the money and a nice excuse (I just passed Godan) to purchase a brand new bogu, all in one go (not bit by bit, maybe recycling some wrongly sized purchase of some dojo mate), the first thing I thought of was: "WHICH COLOUR?", meaning the Mune and Ago embroidery and the shade of the Do Dai. I chose a subtle red theme, nothing too visible, but for sure NOT BLACK.
When I purchased my first hand-stitch set of Men and Do (in the days in which the yen was very high, not like today...), the first decision was again: "WHICH COLOUR?". This time I went for blue: two threads in two tones for Ago and Mune and, a Do Dai in a dark shade of blue. most importantly, I finally realised my kendo-career-long dream of having a BAMBOO DO.
A bamboo do! what a wonderful item! the craftsmanship! the quality of the lacquer! the matching embroidery! the beautiful inside, with my name written in golden ink... the long wait was over: I finally made the grade.

Definitely, I am a dinosaur. Japanese kenshi are well beyond coloured embroidery and bamboo Do.

There is a sort of unwritten rule that makes BLACK the only acceptable colour for a Do in official AJKF competitions. It has to be said, though, that in Student Championships teams tend to have matching bogu, sometimes very colourful and recognisable. However, adults seem to stick to the unwritten black rule (on the other hand, it also states that the urushi around the Mengane must be red:  all black Menbuchi is not allowed, in official AJKF competitions!).
A coloured, two- or three-tone embroidered Mune is definitely musty and terribly fané.
Regarding the Bamboo Do, well, I had some raised eyebrows when I stated quite candidly that it is the ultimate (equipment) goal for a kenshi to possess a beautiful, traditional, all natural Bamboo Do. The comment was: "Oh really?" which in Japanese terms is the equivalent of a "WTF are you saying?" kind of reaction.
Bamboo is considered too heavy or too old fashioned. Bamboo Do is an item for celebrations or special occasions (Taikai? Examinations? Red Weddings?), surely not for daily practice. This was a discovery, too.

Are all these considerations meant for fashion victims only? Does it feel a bit like Giorgio Armani haute couture vs. Missoni knitwear ? Are we maybe forgetting that a bogu, for a kenshi, is much more than equipment, but that acquiring one is a significant (and emotional) step along the Way?
I leave it to my readers to decide. Comments are very welcome.
For sure, we are assisting to a very important shift in the Japanese market: Inner Beauty overpowers Flashy Outlook. There will a be lot more to write!