A Pedacito Of Kendo in Harbin, China
Updated: Jan 9
Don’t get me wrong, the year that I lived in the Northeastern Chinese city of Harbin was one of the best years of my life. The people, the food, the Chinese culture, I loved it all. That being said, Harbin can be a difficult place to live during the winter months.
For one thing, it gets bitterly cold. With an average temperature of six degrees Fahrenheit during the winter, Harbin can begin to feel a little claustrophobic. The below-freezing temperatures make the possibility of outdoor exercise or meeting up with friends extremely difficult. Because of this, winter can often bring about a case of homesickness for many expats living in the region.
Such was the case for me in December 2018. I had spent an entire week stuck in my apartment. It was so cold outside, that the idea of putting on countless layers of clothing to go out to dinner or to a movie just didn’t seem worth it. So I spent the entire week in my apartment, eating microwave Ramen noodles and longing for the sunny beaches of my Florida home.
Finally, out of sheer desperation and loneliness, I reached out to my friends on WeChat. As Facebook is banned in China, WeChat is one of the preferred methods of social media in China. I asked a group of expats in Harbin if they could recommend any indoor exercise or activities that would be interesting enough to warrant leaving my apartment and braving the cold.
One of my friends suggested that I join him for a Kendo class. I had never heard of Kendo before. After doing some research, I discovered that Kendo is a Japanese martial art based on the traditional swordsmanship of Samurai warriors. The idea intrigued me, so I agreed to meet up with him the following Saturday and try it out.
That Saturday, I put on every piece of warm clothing I had and walked the three kilometers in the snow from my apartment to Bena International Fitness Club, where the Kendo class is held every Saturday and Sunday at 9:20 am.
Upon arriving, I paid the front desk the 200 rmb (about $2) to gain admission to the class. Walking downstairs, I entered a large space that looked like a ballet studio. My friend introduced me to some of the other students, as well as the Kendo Master who taught the class.
Next, my friend showed me the multiple parts of the Kendo uniform and padding. Most of the students had been practicing the sport for a while, so they had their own equipment. Since I was new, this was provided as part of the cost of the class.
The class itself was intense. As you may be aware, Samurai warriors were known for strict discipline and attention to detail in every aspect of their lives. This specificity is reflected in how the sport of Kendo is taught today.
The two-hour class was broken up into three parts. The first part, which lasted an entire hour, was all about form. The master explained to the class how to hold the sword and use it to strike, as well as the proper stance and posture when doing so. Myself and a few of the other new students were separated from the rest of the class and spent thirty minutes just learning how to properly hold the sword in our hands. Like I said, attention to detail is essential in the practice of Kendo.
Once the master felt comfortable with our progress, we moved on to the second part of the class. For the next thirty minutes, we repeated various strike poses and postures. The master also performed an intricate ceremony that led me to understand that Kendo is not just a means of exercise but also a spiritual practice.
My favorite part of the two hours happened at the end. For the last thirty minutes, the master took turns fighting with each of the new students. Being hit by the long bamboo sword (called a shinai) was not exactly painful. However, it did cause my ears to ring every time the master brought it down sharply onto my head.
At the risk of sounding like a complete nerd, I have never felt more like a Jedi knight than I did that day. The pursuit of perfection when holding the shinai, the spirituality of the practice, and the childlike satisfaction of sword fighting with a professional made this a truly memorable experience. If you’re ever in a foreign country and find yourself getting a bit homesick, I highly recommend finding an exciting sport or activity that you might not find in your home country. Kendo class took me out of my comfort zone and replaced my longing for sunny beaches with a desire to keep searching for my next adventure.
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