Steps North of Yonge Dundas square at Ryerson University and underground in a small gym you can find the Ryerson Kendo club, carrying on the art of the sword.
The class has grown since being founded five years ago by former Ryerson student Omer Hussain, who begged and pleaded to the Toronto Kendo Club to sponsor the club. It has gone from three members in its inception to over 30.
To enter the gym that has transformed into a dojo, you must remove your shoes and socks and leave them at the door.
Next, as each class member enters the front door, all members bow to show their respect and appreciation for the space and those who are passing their knowledge down to them.
Moments before the class can begin, students and the class’ instructor, Mike McCulloch use a bucket filled with water and rags to clean the hardwood floor, bending over with the rag in hand as their legs sprinted to the other end of the gym, cleaning the dirt off the floor.
As the class began, the students and teachers, wearing the traditional keikogi and hakama uniforms drop their swords and the class begins jumping in unison while counting in Japanese, almost hypnotically stretching.
After the stretching, they practice footwork, striking the air. Taking a step forward while sliding their back foot towards where the body takes them.
With every strike, their feet get dirtier as they let out a shout called kiai that illuminates the gym with intensity.
McCulloch said that while practicing footwork may not be the most exhilarating aspect of Kendo, it’s necessary to get the footwork down before learning more advances moves and competing.
His sensei once told him, “Kendo is like a phone book, you have to keep turning the thin pages, but if you keep on training, eventually, you will see a difference.”
McCulloch said that many people’s initial reaction to kendo, when they hear the shouts is to laugh; but the first lesson to learn for beginners in the class is to get over the fear of using your voice.
“You have to learn to use your voice to its full effect,” he said.
The next exercise, they do just that.
The class is split into pairs and are put into a one on one “kiai-off” with the two yelling at the top of their lungs as long as possible, trying to outlast the competition.
Faces get red, voices get loud and for almost a minute, they go at it until one has not a gasp of breath left to spare.
“Wow,” Wryan Jeony, as he watched his classmates last over 40 seconds in the duel, said.
Next, the class sat down in a line and without saying a word put on their bogu (equipment). They put on their kote, do, tare and finally their helmet.
The sparring begins.
If someone was walking outside of the gym and didn’t know any better, they’d think a bloodbath was ensuing inside with the loud shrieks and simultaneous sword strikes.
“Obviously, we don’t use metal swords and try to kill each other, but we take it with that level of seriousness it deserves,” McCulloch said.
To be a valid hit the ki-ken-tai (spirit soul and body) must be one. Matches are played with the best out of three points. To earn points, when you strike the opponent, it has to be within the tip of the sword and the leather tie 25 centimeter’s down, you must call out loud where you’re striking while also following through correctly and stomping your foot as the body’s momentum has landed.
Head instructor, Eric CharlesChiu, who’s been a student of the sport since 1995 said, “What I see within Kendo is personal and character development, it’s not about self defense or fighting, it’s founded in Japanese culture, so in its basics, it is Japanese culture.”
CharlesChiu said he loves that in kendo, unlike some martial arts, there is no ranking system by belts and you judge someone not by the colour of the belt they wear, but rather how they carry themselves and fight.
“You learn a lot of humility through kendo,” he said.
As the class ended, the group silently sits down, removes their equipment and comes together to talk about their most recent competition and about how it went.
Everyone leaves with his or her feet blackened with the dirt of the gym floor, but the mind cleansed.
Photos by Luke Galati