I had my first Kendo session last night, and judging from the general atmosphere that the session was conducted in, I think I've found a burgeoning new obsession - I could very easily get into Kendo in a very major way.
I was very impressed with the sensei (or teacher), a kendōka who's been practising Kendo for over 30 years. Contrary to what you might expect, he was very down-to-earth, easy-going and realistic; willing to use industrial-strength language and keenly aware that of the dozen or so beginners starting the course, perhaps only one or two would still be there in a year's time. I, myself, can make no promises at to whether I will still be going to the club in a year's time, but I would certainly like to hope that I would be, and that other circumstances wouldn't intrude - after all, it is only one evening of the week, for a couple of hours.
Initially, as I'd hoped, we were given a lecture by the sensei as to the history of Kendo and the current structure of the martial art's hierarchy - which was very interesting stuff. As with most martial arts, there's a little bit of ceremony around honouring the sensei at the start and end of training sessions, but it wasn't particularly intrusive or overbearing, even for an intolerant heathen like me. In fact, as Kendo is heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism, spiritually speaking, it's quite close to my own natural instincts, so I doubt it will ever become an issue in itself - especially since the sensei seems very grounded and not up himself with an inflated sense of his own importance; he seems like the kind of man who can instantly command respect purely through finding common ground with people and demonstrating humility - even after just a couple of hours in his company, I know I'm going to like and get on with him immensely. The other dan kendōka are similarly personable, so I'm genuinely hopeful that this is going to go beyond a short-term interest and turn into one of my many long-term obsessional hobbies.
We were given our bokuto, which we will be using over the next few weeks to learn the kata - that is, the practice forms - before moving on to sparring in armour, using shinai, hopefully before the course finishes in about 10 weeks time.
I stayed behind after the beginner's session to observe the main sparring session, and it was genuinely fascinating. It's going to be hard to wait until I'm at the stage where I can don a Bōgu and get stuck into proper sparring, but you have to learn to walk before you can run, of course. I think I learnt quite a lot by just watching the sparring session last night: the club I've joined happens to be in the enviable position of being run by a 6th dan kendōka and also having a 7th dan kendōka who trains with the club. When both these high level kendōka sparred with each other (there are currently only 8 available dan levels in Kendo, as opposed to the 10 levels of other martial arts, such as karate) it was a truly intriguing thing to watch. Battles seem conducted mainly in the head, rather than martially: it's less a question of speed of hand than speed of thought and intuiting the intentions of your opponent. It was like watching two coiled cobras sizing each other up before striking. And Kendo is FAST... hopefully years of twitch gaming will hold me in good stead here, but to be fair, I doubt it will...