'Fulfilling a dream' - my first visit to Kobukan
Written by Daniel Laverick to commemorate the anniversary of the Kobukan dojo, Tokyo.
In February 2020, I travelled to Japan for the first time with a good friend and fellow kendoka, Mark Thacker. The trip had been planned for well over a year, but it was a trip I had wanted to take for well over a decade.
I have been a member of Kashi No Ki Kenyu Kai for approximately 15 years, a dojo founded by the late Trevor Chapman, 6th Dan Renshi. Trevor was very much a student of Ozawa Hiroshi, 8th Dan Kyoshi, having first met him and studied kendo under him during Ozawa sensei’s extended stay in the UK in 1990. Since their first meeting, they stayed in touch and became firm friends over the next three decades.
Trevor founded Kashi No Ki as a first Dan, teaching the principles of kendo as taught by Ozawa sensei from day one. His annual pilgrimage to Japan always included a stay at Kobukan, sleeping on the floor of the dojo. He would take what he learned at Kobukan and bring it back to Kashi No Ki, ensuring that the members also benefited from his stay and the kendo he was taught.
Throughout my time at Kashi No Ki, Trevor would always refer to how kendo is practised at Kobukan, telling us that by aiming to replicate what Ozawa sensei taught, would ensure that we were performing kendo in the right way. This meant straight and ‘honest’ kendo; we never practised shiai kendo.
As I gradually worked my way through the lower Dan grades my interest in kendo turned from that of a hobby to something of an obsession. Kendo changed from being an activity I turned up to enjoy every Thursday night and Sunday morning, to something that I thought about daily, read about, applied to other aspects of my life and strived to improve. Kobukan is the spiritual home of Kashi No Ki Kenyu Kai – everything we learn and apply to our kendo practice is taken from Kobukan, and I longed to visit the dojo and practice there at some point in the future.
Through the annual Ozawa Seminars, held in the UK at Kashi No Ki, I’d had the opportunity to meet and practice with Ozawa sensei and Ninomiya sensei on a number of occasions. I always enjoyed these seminars, and learned a great deal from them. When I reached 3 Dan, Trevor advised me that I should think about visiting Japan one day and to visit Kobukan and experience a kendo practice there. I kept this in my mind, but with a young family and work commitments, and the expense of going, it wasn’t something I felt I could do in the short term.
Travelling to Japan
I passed 4 Dan in 2017, with Trevor watching from the side suffering from the effects of cancer and the treatment he was receiving. A few months later he passed away. I made a promise to myself that I would visit Japan, and Kobukan, as he advised. In 2019, I booked my plane ticket and started the process of arranging the visit, ensuring that Kobukan was the main priority. Through Ninomiya sensei, I arranged my first visit to Kobukan with my travelling partner Mark Thacker.
When we arrived in Tokyo we checked the schedule of practices held at Kobukan and found that a session was being held that very day. Despite being extremely jet lagged and not really knowing where to go, we set off with bogu and shinai bags in hand to find Kobukan. We must have walked for about an hour through the cold but finally found it….closed. We got it wrong, there was no practice that night, it was the next day!
We tried again the next day, and turned up to the dojo hearing the unmistakable sound of kendo drifting from the building. As we walked in I felt overwhelmed. I can only compare it to a kid walking into Disneyland for the first time – I was in a place I had thought about visiting for over 10 years. I nervously changed into my kendo armour and joined in with practice. I was for too stiff and nervous to do anything resembling my best kendo, but the experience of just being there, of walking on that 100 year-old wooden floor, was one I’ll never forget.
Unfortunately, we had arrived just when the Coronavirus pandemic was taking root, so regular practice at Kobukan for the rest of our stay had been cancelled. Fortunately, Ozawa sensei organised an additional session of Mizo-guchi Ha Itto Ryu, a form of Kenjutsu that he had practised with Kashi No Ki members on previous trips to the UK, and something that I had practised with some regularity when the chance arose.
We went through the first three Mizo-guchi forms. At the end of the practice, we were asked to perform the three forms in front of the Kobukan dojo members – very nerve-wrecking but a great honour as well – an experience I’ll never forget.
I was extremely grateful for Ozawa sensei, Ninomiya sensei and all of the Kobukan members for welcoming us to their practice and allowing us to take part. I fulfilled a dream that day, and it exceeded all expectations. As I write this, I should be undertaking the final preparations for the annual Ozawa seminar, which usually takes place at the end of March. Due to the pandemic, we haven’t been able to practice for almost a year. I hope that when normality returns, we will be able to have another seminar to allow the beginners in the dojo to benefit from the same teachings that have aided me on my kendo journey.