Beginner's Guide to Kendo
Chapter 2: Equipment
The most basic piece of equipment is the shinai. Even though it is fairly inexpensive, from $25- $60, you must treat it with respect. Never lean on it, swing it around casually, or throw it down. When not engaged in practice hold it in your left hand, down by your side with your fingers on the string (tsuru). In this position, called sage-to, or hanging sword, the shinai should be held loosely allowing it to hang freely with the tip (sakigawa) just off the floor.
The shinai is constructed of four shafts of split bamboo (sake [A]), bound with a leather grip (tsukagawa [B]) and cap (sakigawa [C]), and leather thong (nakayui [D]) wound three times around the shafts, all tied together by a nylon chord (tsuru [E]) running from tip to hilt. Additionally, a round hand guard (tsuba [F]) is slipped over the tsuka and held in place by a rubber washer (tsubadome [G]). The tip of the shinai is referred to as the kensen. The striking surface of the shinai, called monouchi, is the first one third of the shinai visible from the tsuka to kensen. When striking a target you must strike with this portion of the shinai in order for the strike to be considered valid.
Proper care must be given the shinai to ensure the safety of your fellow kendoka. The tsuka should not be loose and sliding around. The nakayui, likewise, should not be loose and sliding up or down the shaft of the shinai. Make sure that the sakigawa is not torn or coming apart. The tsuru should be strung tight enough to play "Louie, Louie". Most importantly, make sure that there are no splinters or cracks in the bamboo. Large cracks or breaks will necessitate replacing the broken slat or replacing the shinai entirely. If there are splinters use a knife or some other flat metal tool to plane the splintered area smooth. Periodically disassemble your shinai and rub the bamboo slats with oil. There is special oil available from kendo equipment vendors, but a light vegetable oil will suffice. Do not use petroleum based oils. Once you have reassembled the shinai, pour hot water over the leather parts to shrink them to a snug fit.
The next basic piece of equipment is the wooden sword, or bokken, sometimes called bokuto. It is somewhat more expensive, depending upon the type of wood from which it is made, and can cost from $40 - $200. Like the shinai it should be treated with respect. In addition, because it is made of solid wood it can be dangerous if not handled properly. Never swing the bokken at another person for "fun".
Many samurai, most famously Miyamoto Musashi, used the bokken in combat to lethal effect.The tip of the bokken is also called kensen [A]. It has a tsuka[B], tsuba [C] and tsuba dome. The proper striking portion is also refered to as monouchi [D]. The ridge line running the length of the "blade" is called shinogi [E]. The bokken is used in prearranged forms practice (kendo kata) that employ parry and deflection techniques using the shinogi. In the above photgraph one and two are special types of bokken called suburito used primarily for suburi. They are straighter, heavier and lack a tsuba. Three and four are the standard set used in kendo kata and represent the long and short swords carried by samurai.
You will want to keep the bokken clean and rub oil on the "blade" (not the handle) from time to time.
Keiko-gi and Hakama
The clothing worn during kendo practice is referred to as do-gi. There is a heavy cotton jacket (keiko-gi) and a pleated, skirt-like trousers (hakama). While there are no specific requirements for color, most kendoka prefer deep indigo blue. These come in a variety of qualities and can cost anywhere from $150 - $300 for the set. The keiko-gi is comfortable, absorbs perspiration, and provides additional protection from inadvertant hits. The hakama allows excellent freedom of movement for the legs and disguises somewhat the footwork.The hakama has seven pleats, five in the front and two in the back. It is said that these pleats represent the seven virtues of kendo: Yuki - courage, valor, bravery; Jin - humanity, charity, benevolence; Gi - justice, righteousness, integrity; Rei - etiquette, courtesy, civility; Makoto - sincerity, honesty, reality; Chugi - loyalty, fidelity, devotion; and Meiyo - honor, dignity, prestige.
Of course the most dramatic of the kendo equipment is the armor (bogu) which consists of a face mask (men), a chest protector (do), a hip and waist protector (tare), and a pair of gloves (kote). The bogu is lightweight for mobility and comfort, yet affords maximum protection against the shinai. A reasonable quality set for beginners will cost anywhere from $500 - $800. One of the things to consider is the spacing of the stitching. Generally speaking, the narrower the distance between the stiching the more durable the bogu. Of course, that increases the price. Shop around and compare. See our links page for some on-line kendo equipment vendors.
The men, obviously, protects the head, ears, face, and throat. Although, everyone must take care that you do not use a cracked or splintered shinai, because it could get into the face or eyes. There are plexi-glass inserts to cover the eyes. I highly recommend them, and require them for children. The men is constructed of heavily quilted cotton pad (men buton) with a metal grill (men gane), usually aluminum or titanium, and leather flap () that covers the throat. It is secured to by means of two cords (men himo) that wrap around the head twice and tie in the rear. Two large flaps extend out over the shoulders to give some protection to the neck and shoulders. The men is surprisingly light and manoeverable, but it does limit your peripheral vision somewhat. Additional padding is available to slip into the men if desired for extra protection.
The do protects the chest and sides. Usually made from bamboo, it also is available in fiberglass or molded, high impact plastic. It is suspended by two cords crossed in the back and slung over the shoulders. A special slip knot secures it to two loops on each side of the do. Another pair of cords are looped around the waist and tied in the rear. It does not cover under the arms, so take care to be accurate when striking the do!
The tare is a type of apron that protects the hips, thighs, and groin from inadvertant strikes. It is not a target and you should always avoid hitting anyone on the tare. It is made entirely from heavily quilted cotton. Sometimes it is trimmed with leather. It consists of a waistband, three large panels, and two smaller panels. The tare is secured to the body by two cloth bands wrapped around the waist and tied in front under the center flap. It is extremely flexible and allows a great range of motion in the hips and legs. The center flap is usually covered by a cloth bag (zekken) that displays the dojo name, perhaps an insignia (Boston Kendo Kyokai uses a wheel), and the kendoka's family name.
The kote are a pair of padded gloves (mittens, really) that protect the fingers, hand, and wrist. They are made from leather and cotton, with a stiff, heavily quilted cotton cuff that covers the wrist.
Putting on the Bogu
The first piece of bogu that you put on is the tare. Begin by making sure that the large flaps (odare) are on top. Place the tare against your abdomen and wrap the cords around your waist. Bring the cords back to the front and tie them in a bow under the center flap. Tuck the strings up under the waist band. Pull the tare down onto your hips.
Next, place the do against your chest and bring the left himo across and around your back to the right. Fasten the himo to the leather loop using a special slip knot. Bring the right himo across to the left and fasten it to the other loop using the same knot. Tie the bottom himo behind your back in a bow. The do should fit loosely, allowing freedom of movement.
The men is next, but first you must place the tenogui on your head. There are two methods for tying the tenogui. The first is to hold the tenogui at the ends and slide it back over your head until it reaches the occipital bone. Bring the ends forward and across the forehead. Tuck the ends on each side and pull the flap back on top of your head. Make sure that the flap is tucked under so that it doesn't stick out the back of the men.
The other method is to hold the ends of the tenogui tight and grab the bottom center with your teeth. Wrap the two ends back and around your head and tie them in the front of your forehead. Pull the flap up and back on top of your head. Now you can put on the men.
Finally, you can put on the kote. Slip the left kote on first, then the right. Make sure the lacings of the kote are not hanging down, interfering with your grip.
Now you are ready to practice kendo.