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June 17, 2006

Samurais of New York


For 25 years The New York City Kendo Club, under the direction of sensei Noburo Kataoka, has made its home in a small gym (above) on the top floor of Jan Hus Church on East 74th Street.

Corey Kilgannon wrote a feature story for the May 28 New York Times about this haven of ancient Japanese tradition, where the screams and commotion in the early days sometimes brought the NYPD to the door to investigate.

Here's the article.

    Swords and Shouts Next Door, but Don't Call 911

    ''You're looking for the samurais?'' said the girl sitting in the hallway. ''They're up there.''

    She pointed up a staircase to a small gym on the top floor of Jan Hus Church on East 74th Street. Inside was a startlingly surreal scene, especially to someone stepping off the streets of the Upper East Side, where people were picking up dry cleaning and lounging at sidewalk cafes on a Saturday evening.

    Upstairs, the old church gym resembled an ancient Japanese battleground. Some 50 people in Japanese warrior dress -- dark robes, heavy chest armor and helmets with fearsome face-cages -- hurled bloodcurdling screams as they beat one another over the head with poles.

    The gym's door, though closed, hardly stifled the screams or contained the thunderous stomping that rumbled the building itself. Even residents of neighboring high-rises have grown accustomed to the boisterous practices held three evenings a week by the New York City Kendo Club, a tight-knit group of urban samurais who have made this gym their home dojo for a quarter-century.

    The club was founded in 1976 by Noboru Kataoka, a world-renowned kendo sensei. To honor its 30th anniversary, the club is holding a kendo tournament today at John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the West Side, where kendo practitioners from around the world will compete.

    Mr. Kataoka's students tend to follow his teachings religiously. Whatever their profession -- sanitation men battle architects, lawyers fight film producers and teachers face off with editors -- they say the ancient principles of the samurai warrior help them cut through the complexities of the modern urban environment.

    There is the money manager who credits kendo with keeping him sharp when making crucial investment decisions. There is the architect who says kendo enables him to handle high-pressure projects and harrowing deadlines. There is the Brooklyn woman who sleeps with her kendo sword next to her bed for security.

    ''From the moment you set foot in this dojo, you are a New York samurai,'' said Jose Pena, 51, who has been studying with Mr. Kataoka three days a week for the past 27 years. ''It may be 2006, but we still follow the way of the warrior.''

    Mr. Pena studies Japanese culture and travels regularly to Japan to take advancement tests in the kendo rankings known as dans. He is currently in the sixth dan and is already looking forward to returning in 2011 for the test to enter the seventh dan, the second-highest rank.

    The money manager, Raymond Stewart, said he started learning kendo 25 years ago to help him handle his stressful finance job on Wall Street.

    ''I manage more than $200 million and have to make the right decision about what to do with it,'' he said. ''Kendo teaches you to wait for the right moment and then strike with total conviction.''

    The club's members competing today are entered under smaller teams with names such as the Spare Ribs, the Wild Bunch and Cutie Honey.

    One member of Cutie Honey is Kyung Kim, 33, a teacher from Elmhurst who joined the club three years ago after seeing kendo only occasionally on television.

    ''I'm very sensitive emotionally, and I needed mental discipline in my life,'' she said at David Copperfield's, a pub at York Avenue and 74th Street, where the club gathers with Mr. Kataoka for drinks after class.

    When Mr. Kataoka first came to New York from Japan, he began renting teaching space in various dance studios downtown, but found them too flimsy for kendo practice. Three broken wooden floors and one shattered wall mirror later, he found Jan Hus Church. Its floor was strong, but its neighbors were unaccustomed to the screaming and commotion of kendo. Several times, police officers were called to the gym.

    ''They would come busting in the door, and then stop and look and say, 'Oh, kendo,' '' he said. Yelling is a crucial part of kendo, he explained, a sign that the stomach and chest muscles are joining in the power of the strike.

    ''This where the strength comes from,'' he said, holding his belly. ''We yell to bring the power up from here. The more years you train, the better you can yell. It's like an opera singer.''

    At practice last week, each newcomer suited up methodically in dark robes. Each donned a chest plate and wrapped his head in a bandanna emblazoned with Japanese characters depicting various aspects of kendo. Then the helmet, its wire face mask menacing and its epaulet flaps flaring out like the Flying Nun's habit, to protect the shoulders.

    Kendo is done in bare feet and the footwork is short, choppy and quick. Each student uses a bamboo-slatted staff known as a shinai. The students line up to spar with the senior members of the class. The players meet and cautiously cross the tips of their swords and begin parrying for the smallest of openings through which to strike. Then they rush at each other with a powerful gallop, holding their swords above their head with both hands and striking down.

    Mr. Kataoka demonstrated how to push the opponent's sword, causing the opponent to push back and thus create an imbalance: an opening.

    ''If you don't have technique, all you have left is power, muscle,'' said Mr. Kataoka, 57, who teaches with grace and an economy of words and movement. He also gets occasional work as an actor under the name Ken Kensei, including a part in an upcoming film directed by Clint Eastwood, ''Red Sun, Black Sand.''

    His wife, Mami Kataoka, 42, was also at practice. She has been practicing kendo since age 11 and has reached the fourth dan. She had just flown in from Japan, and after weeks of separation, the spouses reunited not by embracing, but by exchanging blows to the head and shoulders.

    After practice, Mr. Kataoka [below] took out a steel sword and knelt down next to it, to demonstrate a 400-year-old art of drawing the sword, known as iaido. Mr. Kataoka is a 20th-generation master of the form, having studied it since childhood with a premier sensei in Japan.

    His eyes almost closed, he went through a routine of highly stylized movements, repeatedly sheathing and unsheathing the sword. It whistled through air as it sliced through imaginary opponents in some ancient battle.

    Then he put on his Los Angeles Angels jacket and walked out into the quiet night of East 74th Street.



There's a link on this page to a video shot at the kendo club.

June 17, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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