Martial arts have been a part of Japanese and East Asian culture for a long time, and its popularity soared with actors such as Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee starring in Hollywood. The dedication, training, and the undeniable coolness made martial arts a well-known and well-loved endeavour. Most people have heard of karate and judo, and there are many people who, even outside of Asia, routinely practice it for self-defense, fitness, or just as a hobby.
There are tourists that come to Japan for the delicious food, the fascinating tourist spots, or the video games and anime. Then there are tourists that come to Japan for the historical sites and the culture. Others come with a specific purpose in mind, a purpose they believe they can only fulfill in Japan. Japanese martial arts are continuing to experience a surge in popularity around the world, inspiring thousands to visit to get a taste of “true” culture. There are people who travel to Japan (or want to travel to Japan) specifically to practice and deepen their knowledge of martial arts.
Firstly, I have to say that no martial arts vacation in Japan would be complete without a visit to Katori Jingu in Chiba Prefecture. This shrine houses the great 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 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. If you are a martial arts enthusiast, be sure to visit Katori Jingu.
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. You will be pleased to know that there are many places you can visit all over the country to satisfy your martial arts-themed trip. So, here are my recommendations on where to go to put your arts to the test with help from the pros.
1. Kodokan Judo Institute
As an active judoist myself, I am proud to introduce the first place on this list, 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. It’s a great place to start with.
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 affordable classes are available 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. Head here with an open mind and enjoy affordable classes with like-minded individuals.
2. Kodokan Judo Museum
On the second floor of the Kodokan building is the Judo Museum. This 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, the father of Judo, and his tattered, shrunken Judo uniform.
If you have an interest in Judo and its origins, the Kodokan Judo Museum is a great choice.
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. If you enjoy one in particular, you can always take note of the title and author and then search for it somewhere else such as on Amazon.
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 with you to Japan! Finding a place to practice Kendo has one obvious logistical obstacle: bogu. 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 a 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
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 which focuses on the way of drawing the sword. If you have ever seen or read Ruroni Kenshin, this should ring a bell.
Ryuseiken Batto-do’s main training hall is located in Osaka, 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” (1000 perfect cuts) and frequently travels the world teaching foreigners how to use a Japanese sword. The English website is difficult to use ,so I would recommend contacting them directly on the Ryuseiken website.
4. Japanese Sword Museum
After a satisfying training session, 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 and get the latest information about displays, publishings and lectures being held in English. Lovers of beautiful Japanese swords definitely cannot miss this place.
Karate is indisputably the most popular martial art I’ve listed here today and is generally the first that people think of when someone mentions martial arts. 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 of the mainstream styles. Training karate in Tokyo and beyond is perfectly possible.
5. Kyokushin Training Hall in Ginza
This Kyokushin training hall in Ginza is conducted in English, a feature that is 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
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
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 as long as you show an enthusiasm to learn! The best way to find out whether you can practice there is simply by contacting them beforehand and asking. It would also be helpful to provide your country of origin, any languages you can speak, and previous experience in your desired martial art. There is 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 as well. Training in Japan doesn’t have to just be a “someday” trip. Start planning your martial arts vacation today!