Posted by: Richard Frost | 5 Apr 2020

Sports feature: Durham University Kendo Club

Logo for Durham University's student newspaper PalatinateOriginal publication date: November 2004
Outlet: Palatinate

Ken you kick it? Of course you ken…

‘To you guys it’s a stick, in the kendo world it’s a shinai.’ And so our sensei Graham Dockwray initiates the lesson on basic swordsmanship crucial to the ancient Japanese martial art of kendo, or ‘the way of the sword’.

Like many martial arts, kendo is extremely proud of its origins and, in fact, the Japanese language is crucial to the sport. The sensei is our teacher who practices in the dojo or arena (which to you and me is better known as Bede Gym in Hild & Bede College), but it goes much deeper than this as you are also expected to shout the Japanese term for each body part struck.

The club is keen to encourage new members though and so fluent Japanese is not a starting requirement – and thankfully neither is owning your own shinai! While dedicated kendokas can find the expenses accumulate rapidly – upgrading from the traditional £25 bamboo sword to a carbon-fibre version can cost around £150 – kendo freshers at Durham University Kendo Club will be loaned a shinai in the first week and gain access to all the basic equipment upon joining.

So as I practise head strikes with my borrowed shinai alongside a class of over 20 students, I can’t help but feel that this is a truly unique way to spend a Friday night. Escaping the college bar for an hour could be the start of some amazing experiences: our sensei proudly recalls that two of his students are currently kendo-fencing for Great Britain over in Sweden, whilst he competes throughout the country as a recognised 4th Dan.

Kendo practice with shinai and body armour at Durham University Kendo Club

Not the movies
However, the sport won’t be to everybody’s taste – banish any idea of kendo as The Karate Kid with sticks! It’s actually a rigidly formalised sport which only allows strikes on certain parts of the body – the head, the wrist, around the body armour and later the throat – with the very tip of the shinai. Also, the fact that in Japan kendokas don’t actually fight for three years emphasises that kendo itself is focused less around creating a practical, competitive sport than emphasising the spiritual disciplining of the mind.

As one onlooker noted, ‘if you’re caught in a fight, chances are they’re not going to let you find a stick and then only hit your wrists.’ So avoid it if you’re looking for a real-life martial art to beat the school bullies like Daniel-san!

Still, it’s a fun and singular niche sport in Durham and, when you do graduate to live fighting after a few weeks, promises to be a great way to release some post-lecture stress at the end of each week. And as long as you can cope with noise from the ear-splitting shinai clashes and the guttural screams of psyched-up warriors, kendo really is open to everybody. You try not to smile as you watch our sensei’s 3-foot son in combat, whilst his father recounts how some Geordie bouncers recently slinked off home early, unable to cope with the mask vibrations from a well-aimed head shot!

If you fancy an unusual night out and kendo sounds tempting, then why not visit Bede Gym for the beginner’s session at 8pm every Friday? You can try the first couple of sessions for free and, if you do decide to pay the £25 membership fee, you’ll have access to all the basic equipment as well as your very own shinai.

For more details, contact Acting President Michael Brown or visit the kendo club’s official page on the Durham University website.


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