The Niagara Kendo Club is looking for new members who want to master the art of Japanese fencing.
“We’re a pretty welcoming, friendly club,” says founder Mark Kawabe, while showing off his fighting skills to ThoroldToday. “Whether it’s your first time in the dojo, or you’ve been coming here for three years, you’re all doing the same thing. It’s just at different levels.”
Kendo — which is Japanese for “way of the sword” — is a traditional martial art form with bamboo swords.
“The energy is just amazing,” Kawabe says. “Trying to do proper technique while your opponent is trying to do something — It’s like moving chess. You’re always trying to figure out how to get them to do what you want to do. There’s a lot of problem solving and creativity involved.”
Kawabe has been practicing kendo since high school. After finishing up his studies at the University of Toronto, Kawabe moved to Japan for a couple of years, where he received authentic kendo training.
“I trained there in a completely different style of kendo,” says Kawabe. “This is all single sword but the style I learned in Japan was double sword so much more interesting, much more fun, very much more creative.”
Seeing how ingrained kendo is in Japan was fascinating, says Kawabe.
“They train them so young over there,” he says. “By the time someone is eighteen years old they’ve been doing kendo for at least ten years. It just gives them a completely different physiology. You see these four-year-olds at the dojo and think: ‘They’re so cute,’ and then they swing a sword at your head and take it off. ”
Japanese kendo training is physically much more demanding than in Canada.
“I wound up in the hospital twice,” says Kawabe. “It’s very hot and humid and there’s no air-conditioning, very traditional, so I passed out a few times during practice.”
Kendo has eight degrees of mastery. Kawabe has obtained a fifth degree and is working on getting his sixth.
“It sort of gets exponentially harder,” he says. “In Japan the eight degree exam pass rate is lower than the bar exam for lawyers. It’s not impossible but it’s very difficult. “
After concluding his training Kawabe moved back to Canada, and settled down in Thorold to start a family. He put kendo on the back burner for a number of years until he started training again at a kendo club in Burlington.
“It was getting expensive getting to Burlington all the time so my instructors said: ‘Why don’t you start a club?’” Kawabe remembers.
Kawabe founded the Niagara Kendo Club in 2004 at an existing dojo in Welland. When COVID closed down the building, Kawabe moved his club into a recreational room at St. John’s Church in Downtown Thorold.
Now, he hopes new people will come to experience the sport for themselves.
“You won’t know unless you come,” says Kawabe. “It’s a recreational activity for people and they can put in as much time as they’re able to. You’re doing things that you don’t get to do in modern society. You get to yell and scream and hit people. That’s exciting.”
The Niagara Kendo Club is holding trial sessions for newcomers on Tuesday, Jan. 24 and Thursday, Jan. 26, at 7 p.m. Participants have to be at least 12 years or up.
A short demonstration of what kendo looks like: