There are tourists that come to Japan for the food or the anime and then there are tourists that come to Japan with a specific purpose in mind. Japanese martial arts are experiencing a surge in popularity around the world. There are tourists who travel to Japan (or want to travel to Japan) specifically to practice and deepen their knowledge of the arts.
Firstly, I have to say that no martial arts vacation in Japan would be complete without a visit to Katori Jingu (香取神宮) in Chiba Prefecture (千葉県). This shrine houses, Futsunushi, the God of Warriors. Katori Jingu is one of the most important shrines in Japan due to its age (it is one of three Jingu shrines to exist before the Meiji (明治) period of Japan) and its legend. Martial artists from around the country come to pray to the God of Warriors for good luck in tournaments and for safe training.
Martial arts have the power to transcend language and cultural differences; the only thing stopping you from making your martial arts based vacation a reality is knowing exactly where to go. So, here are my recommendations on where to go to put your arts to the test with help from the pros.
1. Kodokan (講道館) Judo Institute
As an active judoist myself, I am proud to introduce Kodokan Judo. This is an international organization that is very supportive of international judoists. The website is clearly written in English and lays out the rules for foreign practitioners.
The Kodokan is open to any judoist at any time of the year. They offer a hostel for anyone wishing to practice judo where you can stay for up to three months at a reasonable rate. The hostel is kitted out with modest facilities and daily classes are available for 800 yen for anyone who wishes to come along. The charge is 800 yen per class. Although it is unlikely that the teachers will be able to speak any other extra languages than English, they are all patient and happy to teach anyone that is willing to learn.
2. Kodokan Judo Museum
On the second floor of the Kodokan building is the Judo Museum. The quiet, pool-sized room can hardly be called a museum, but its many glass cases and no-photography plaque were enough to convince me. After signing a guest book, visitors are free to wander around the room and marvel at black and white pictures of the late Jigoro Kano (嘉納治五郎), the father of Judo, and his tattered, shrunken Judo uniform.
Next to the museum, there is a small library that holds a variety of books about Judo, not all of which are in Japanese. Unfortunately, the books cannot be loaned out so any light reading you want to do will have to be done in the library’s small-but-cozy reading room.
Japan might be the only country where carrying a sword around in a bag doesn’t worry everyone in the immediate vicinity. So fear not and bring your beloved bo-ken (棒剣) with you to Japan. Finding a place to practice Kendo (剣道) has one obvious logistical obstacle: bogu (防具). Bogu is the heavy armor that kendoists wear during practice so they can hit each other with force without injuring their partner.
Even if you have invested hundreds of dollars in bogu, the chances are you won’t want to lug it all the way to Japan. For the seasoned practitioner looking for a challenge, it seems that many Kendo practice halls in Tokyo are very open to having foreign practitioners visit. You can also find places that offer the Kendo Experience, where a practice session, equipment rental and a variety of fun activities are included. This is great for anyone who would like try it out.
3. International Batto-do Shizan Association: Ryuseiken (国際抜刀道試斬連盟：龍星剣)
Kendo usually involves hitting your sword, but what if you actually want to come to Japan to cut something with a sword? This is Iai-do. Iai-do focuses on drawing, attacking and cutting with your sword. One derivative of Iai-do is called Batto-do (抜刀道) which focuses on the way of drawing the sword. (If you have ever seen or read Ruroni Kenshin (るろうに剣心), this should ring a bell.) Ryuseiken Batto-do’s main training hall is located in Osaka (大阪), but they have branch schools throughout Japan, one of which is conveniently located in Tokyo. The headmaster of the Osaka school is the former Guinness Book of World Records holder for Senbongiri (千本切り; 1000 perfect cuts) and frequently travels the world teaching foreigners how to use a sword. The English website is difficult to use so I would recommend contacting them directly on the Ryuseiken website.
4. Japanese Sword Museum (刀剣博物館)
After a satisfying beating, sword lovers can stop by the Japanese Sword Museum to drool over swords made back when sword-making was cool (so the 12th to 18th centuries). Foreign sword lovers can join the museum’s Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (美術刀剣保存協会) and get the latest information about displays, publishings and lectures being held in English.
Karate (空手) is indisputably the most popular martial art I’ve listed here today. Given that there are so many different styles of karate, it would be impossible to find dojos (martial arts training places) in every style that will accept foreign visitors. I’ve, therefore, decided to focus on several mainstream styles.
5. Kyokushin (極真) Training Hall in Ginza (銀座)
This Kyokushin training hall in Ginza is conducted in English especially for foreign tourists. If you think you want something more hardcore, take a look at the Ginza Kyokushin website. The instructor has held the title of Kyokushin Karate National Champion for the last three years in a row.
6. Japan Karate Association (日本空手協会)
For even more of a challenge, you can try talking to a school that is part of the Japan Karate Association. While none of these schools are specifically geared towards visitors, most will happily offer a trial lesson and let you obverse the class. The schools are run independently so rules and fees vary from school to school.
7. Tokyo Budokan (武道館)
My last suggestion would be to try the Budokan in Tokyo. They offer free trial lessons and there are ongoing karate classes for adults weekly. The one catch is that you need to have sports insurance. If you have coverage, the Budokan is your best bet for some solid practice time. Plus, as the martial arts capital of Japan, there are many other cool sports going on in the same building.
Coming to Japan to study martial arts is an admirable cause and one that many Japanese martial artists would be willing to support. Training halls of any martial art are friendly and open. The best way to find out whether you can practice there is simply by contacting them beforehand and asking. There are a plethora of training options for beginners and I would imagine that many dojos would be open to the idea of having an experienced martial artist come for a class or two. Training in Japan doesn’t have to just be a “someday” trip. Start planning your martial arts vacation today!
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