A group of enterprising expats recently added the Japanese martial art of kendo to Phnom Penh’s portfolio of sporting activities – and is seeking new recruits
we're trying to attract cambodians and foreigners. everybody is welcome.
AN ancient samurai maxim holds that "the angry man will defeat himself in battle as well as in life". This wisdom is taken to heart at the newly established Phnom Penh Kendo Club, the swash-buckling Japanese martial art of swordsmanship.
Apart from skill, stamina and technique, qualities that reign at this club's dojo also include fun, friendship and mutual respect.
Kendo originally evolved from the fighting art of kenjutsu, which dates back to the 11th century and was a samurai's most important martial art.
Nowadays the practice has developed into an immensely popular sport in Japan, with an estimated 4 million practitioners nationwide and another 2 million outside the country, five of whom are now training in Cambodia.
"It's very informal," says Adam McNeil, one of the club's three founding members. "The idea of a kendo club was born over a sushi meal at the end of February. Regular training only started in May."
At the time of writing the club's kendoka, as practitioners of kendo are called, hailed from Japan, Australia and the Fiji islands. A new Cambodian member was expected to be joining their ranks.
"We're trying to attract both Cambodians and foreigners - everybody is welcome," says Kanako Kobayashi. She studied kendo for two years in Japan at middle school before she moved to Cambodia a year ago. Her personal motivations for practising the art are health and enjoyment.
But there's much more to kendo than just a fun workout. "To cultivate a vigorous spirit" and "to associate with others with sincerity" are just two of the seven purposes of kendo training that were published in 1975 by the All Japan Kendo Federation.
These spiritual elements are for Hiroyuki Takeuchi the main reasons for practising Kendo.
"When you train, you use what is called kia - the loud shouts that accompany attacks - thereby channeling ki. To me this has the effect of cleansing the mind," he says.
The ki he refers to is life energy, known by the Chinese as qi or chi.
Nowadays the samurai-era razor-sharp katana swords have mercifully been replaced by bamboo practice sticks called shinai. In modern kendo, strikes are made only to specific body parts - head, wrists and torso - and must be executed with a disciplined blend of precision and technique. For advanced kendoka, thrusts to the neck can be added to their arsenal.
If all this sounds intimidating, extensive body armour, which would make any Star Wars aficionado envious, reduces the risk of injury considerably. The impressive protective gear, or bogu, has been developed and fine-tuned over the decades, adding much to the traditional image of kendo. As if that weren't enough, beneath the bogu a special robe, or kendogi, is worn (usually black for men and white for women). Finally, to make the helmet with its distinctive metal grille fit more comfortably, a cotton towel is wrapped around the practitioner's head.
However, new students shouldn't worry about acquiring all the right gear.
"Initially they don't need to have equipment. We have extra shinai, and beginners won't need to wear the armour for a number of months, until they have learnt all the basics," reassures Adam Mcneil.
Moreover, for now, joining Phnom Penh's new kendo club is free. "Just come and train for a while, and if you want to stay longer, then we might ask something to share the costs," adds McNeil.
Training usually commences with a short warm-up session followed by practising basic cuts and footwork; these are universal skill sets shared by kendo schools worldwide. Then there's training of techniques before the group finishes with bouts of sparring.
A traditional ceremony, consisting of a formal bow and some brief meditation, opens and closes each session.
Thanks to the Cambodian-Japan Cooperation Center (CJCC), the club can make use of a modern, spacious gymnasium-style hall with a wooden floor, ideal for Kendo. As each strike is delivered with a simultaneous stamp of the front foot, the springy wood minimises jolting of the joints.
If you think kendo is only for men, think again. Three of the current five kendoka are women. Artiko Takeuchi, from Fiji, and Evelyn Dalley, from Australia, just had their first class. "As a female, the presence of another woman made it easier for me to join," says Artiko.
"It's so different from other sports. It requires a lot of concentration, but at the same time it's very physical. It's also a nice chance to socialise and engage in doing something collectively," she adds.
Training is every Tuesday, starting at 6:30-7pm and finishing around 8:30pm. The group plans twice-weekly classes when more students join.
Email [email protected] or contact the Cambodia-Japan Cooperation Center, School of Foreign Languages, Russian Boulevard, Tuol Kork.