Kendo-Kyoju Yushinkan 剣道教授 宥辰館
Arts Practiced: Kendo
Location: Kami-Ikebukuro, Tokyo, Japan
Dojo Leader: Takahashi Yoko 高橋 洋子
Architect/Builder: Koyama 小山一級建築士事務所/株式会社小山エ務所
Summary: A family run dojo with a traditional interior including a traditionally constructed sprung floor.
In the first of what I hope to be an interesting series, I am pleased to present Kendo-Kyoju Yushinkan, a family run, purpose built kendojo in the Kami-Ikebukuro (上池袋) neighborhood of Tokyo. Currently, I regularly practice kendo here. The dojo was built in March, Heisei/平成5年 (1993) under the direction of Takahashi Kiyoshi (高橋清司), a kyoshi 7-dan in kendo. In addition to kendo, Takahashi-sensei also practiced iaido and Ono-ha Itto-ryu kenjutsu (小野派一刀流剣術). Sadly, Takahashi-sensei passed away a couple of years ago. Today the dojo is run by his wife Takahashi Yoko (高橋洋子), 5-dan kendo, who I have to thank for allowing me to present this dojo and for giving me much assistance in gathering information.
The dojo occupies the second floor (in Japan 2F is one floor above ground) of a three story building. The first or ground floor (1F) is mostly open as part of a car park. Over the dojo, on the third floor is the family residences of the late sensei’s surviving family. The building has a reinforced concrete frame structure covered in gray tiles. Aside from a small sign in the corner of the site and the sounds of kiai (気合い) and fumikomi (踏み込み) when practice is in session, there is little from the outside to indicate that a kendojo exists at all in this rather typical looking Tokyo low-rise box.
Only once through the entrance on the short side of the edifice and up the stairs to the second floor does one find a charming training hall that seems to have been transported from an older time. The dojo is remarkable for its mainly traditional character and features. The late founding sensei based Yushinkan on the dojo he trained in, the Shodokan (尚道館) in Tokyo’s Setagaya (世田谷), of which the original dojo was unfortunately demolished. The interior makes extensive use of sugi (杉) or Japanese cedar. The late sensei was very fond of wood and sugi was chosen because the cost was reasonable. Sugi covers the lower three quarters of the walls and is used for the floor and purpose built furnishings. The practice floor measures 7.2m (23ft. 7in.) by 12.6m (41ft. 4in.). This is bordered by preparation/seating areas on two adjacent sides (e.g. in a ‘L’ shape) and by shelves for the armor on the other long side. A small raised Japanese or “Washitsu” (和室) style administration area is on the short side adjacent to the entrance.At about 7.2m wide, the active training area is a bit on the narrow side so practitioners do tend to spill into the preparation area or run up against the shelving. Regular trainees do have a sense of where the boundaries are so crashing is not really the case. My guess is that the overall width of the building was driven by the module of car parking on 1F as it is neatly 3 parking spaces wide. From this the balance between training area and support areas were carved out. Nevertheless, the narrowness does mean that in a free practice situation, one can easily get pushed to the edge so there’s a strong incentive to hold one’s ground or to attack rather than retreat.
The training floor is of a traditional sprung construction with the entire floor build up sitting on large springs. The floor boards are grade B sugi, which has knots. This grade performs well while not being as expensive as top grade A wood, which has no knots. The boards are 200mm wide, 50mm thick and span the entire width of the floor. The wood was dried for one and a half years in order to be dimensionally stable enough to be used in this way. The material actually comes from Sendai and was a gift from Takahashi Yoko’s father to Takahashi Kiyoshi.No visible nails or screws are used to fix the boards down, instead hidden straps hold the floor boards down on the batons. Although this detail is cleverly hidden, this does not constitute sashimono (指し物), which is the kind of traditional Japanese joinery that uses interlocking geometry to secure joints. The floor boards in fact do not employ any joinery (e.g. tongue and groove). Dowels are used to provide stability. The batons rest on wood beams that are supported by large springs that sit on the building’s concrete floor slab. The floor boards are also pressed up from the ends and so has a slight camber and a natural shock absorbent characteristic. The middle of the training floor is a little higher than at the edges. This system seems to make the floor easier on the knees than most floors I’ve practiced on (no scientific evidence for this, just a feeling). In addition, when fumikomi is performed reasonably well, a very satisfying sound results. It is also worth pointing out that the floor boards are untreated. This makes it feel slippery in comparison to a sports gym floor, which will usually have a coating that gives it grip. My suspicion that this is intentional was confirmed when Takahashi Yoko-sensei said this is how a kendojo floor should be as only having a good center and footwork will give the practitioner enough traction on this kind of flooring. This encourages maintaining proper posture during training.
When the dojo was initially constructed, the floor was washed zōkingake (ぞうきんがけ) style with komenuka (米ぬか), which is the water left over from rinsing rice before it is cooked. This gives the wood a nice deep color. This is no longer practiced. Instead a dry towel is now used to wiped down the floor. While the floor boards have never been replaced, over time the top surface of the floor had become soft and prone to splinters. In Heisei/平成 21 (2009), the entire floor was re-planed by hand by a carpenter. The wood now has a lighter complexion than before this work was undertaken.These days, one would be hard pressed to find anyone willing to go to the trouble of constructing a floor in this manner. It is now far easier and cheaper to construct “sprung” floors using several homogenous shock absorbent layers of under flooring. This also tends to save space as the build up premium for Yushinkan is 40cm (15.75inches). Anyone under commercial pressure to cut costs would likely opt for the much thinner modern version.
The furnishings include kendo armor shelving along one of the long sides of the hall, seating along the preparation area, a mirror behind protective bi-fold doors and a kamidana (神棚). There is also other furniture and cabinetry that seems to have accumulated over the years. The ceiling, at 3.5m (11ft. 6in.) above the floor, consists of modern acoustic ceiling tiles of the kind typically found in office buildings. Fluorescent tube lights provide artificial illumination when needed.
Off the training hall is a small kitchenette mainly for washing cups after post-training tea is served, a shower room that doubles as the men’s changing room, a training wear storage room that doubles as the women’s changing room and toilets.
The dojo’s name, Yushinkan (宥辰館), shares the same pronunciation as the famous but now non-existant Yushinkan (有信館) of Nakayama Hakudo (中山博道). An excellent article on this predecessor can be found on the kenshi247 blog. I asked Takahashi Yoko-sensei for the meaning of her dojo’s name. Unfortunately, as I am told, the explanation is already difficult for a Japanese speaker to understand and did not manage to cross over to English. I apologize to my readers for this.
Takahashi Yoko-sensei did explain however, that Takahashi Kiyoshi-sensei’s vision for the dojo was one in which kendo would be approached as a beautiful art that transcends thoughts of winning or losing. The dojo emphasizes instruction to children. According to the sensei, Japan today has a declining birth rate and children increasingly live isolated lifestyles in which they spend much of their free time watching TV or playing electronic games. The dojo seeks to provide a resource for children to socialize and interact with one another. In fact, they spend a bit of time playing and mucking around in the dojo before and after practice. Yushinkan also aims to develop children for the long term. However, compared to investing in cram school, for example, the results are not always immediate or obvious to parents today.
NB: Any inaccuracies in this post are most likely the result of my misunderstanding of the explanations provided to me. My Japanese language ability is not so great right now. Also, I intend to provide glossaries on terminology from architecture, budo and Japanese in the near future.
Illustrative Architectural Drawings