Few would argue that—together with geisha, Mt. Fuji and cherry trees—samurai (well, and ninja) are the longest-lasting export of Japan. These members of the warrior (and then administrator) class that ran the country for about 800 years (from the early 12th century to the mid-1800s) are the stuff legends are made of, and the Japanese have done their best to promote these legends both for their sake and for their non-Japanese visitors. Of course samurai don’t exist anymore, but several times a year you can get a chance to see how they looked and fought: we are talking about various demonstrations of classic martial arts also known as “koryu budo”.
Loosely translated, “koryu budo” means “old school martial arts”—think of them as the ancestors of modern martial arts/fighting sports like judo, kendo, karate or aikido. These are traditions being passed from one generation to the other either within families or within schools in pretty much the same way the tea ceremony or the guilds of Kabuki actors are taught from teacher to disciple—the difference is that the koryu people are not professionals: they do it for the joy of training and keeping some-centuries-long traditions alive. And even though actually learning one of them will take well over a decade, you can get a glimpse of what they do in several events held all over the city.
Koryu Budo events in Tokyo
The three biggest such events are the one at the Riverside Sports Center in Asakusa every April (this year: April 11 at 10:00 am), the one at Meiji Jingu on November 3rd (Culture Day, a national holiday),and the one at the Nippon Budokan in the beginning of February. The events last for 3-4 hours, they are either free (Meiji Jingu) or with a small admission price (¥300-500) and the “program” consists of 10-minute sets where members from each school (usually the headmasters and a few advanced students) demonstrate representative forms from their arts’ curriculum. Depending on the school, these are either unarmed or using old weapons such as swords, halberds, spears and sticks and even more exotic weapons such as the kusarigama (sickle with a chain attached to it) or the jutte, a police baton from the Edo period (1603-1868).
Even though this is not stage fighting or cosplay (these people train for real and accidents do happen) these demonstrations can often be quite dramatic because of the clothing which as mentioned earlier often includes real armor, the weapons and the attitude of the demonstrators; especially in some schools the level of intensity is so high that you almost forget this is not a real fight. Sure if you are in Japan you’re bound to hit a samurai drama on TV even accidentally and maybe even a dress-up samurai parade (there are several held during the year, and we’ll come to that some other time) but if you want the closest you can get to the “real stuff” these events are it and it’s a shame they haven’t got enough publicity.
There are certain times in the year that can make your visit to Tokyo less than idea.