(new) Noma Dōjō (新) 野間道場

tokonoma of new Noma Dojo 新野間道場の床の間

Dojo Name: Noma Dojo 野間道場
Arts Practiced: Kendo (principally)
Location: Gokokuji, Bunkyo-ku, Tōkyō, Japan
Dojo Owner: Kodansha Publishers Ltd.
Summary: For kendoists, this dojo needs no introduction. For everyone else, Noma Dojo is a private dojo open to the public that continues the long legacy of the original much beloved hall in central Tokyo’s Bunkyo-ku.

In 2007, the year I started kendo, the original Noma Dojo, an unique traditionally constructed old kendo hall, was demolished. Many giants of kendo have stepped under the original hall’s wooden posts and onto its traditionally sprung floor boards, first erected in Taisho/大正14年 (1925). Because of its open door policy, Noma Dojo became a sort of nexus of the kendo world. The original hall, built on the slopes of Otowa Hill near the founder’s villa and Kodansha’s headquarters, survived the bombings of World War II and several decades further; becoming the last of its kind left in Tokyo. Alas, I started kendo too late to be aware of its existence in time to see this great hall for myself before it was replaced by the current structure located in an office block next door to where the original stood.

Noma Dojo on top floor 最上階に野間道場

Nevertheless, on a frosty mid-February morning, I cycled to the Gokokuji area from where I live. The journey only took 10 minutes but despite wearing two layers of gloves my fingers were stiff with cold by the time I met my host, Mr. Suzuki Chisato, a little after 6:00am in front of the Kodansha building where the new Noma Dojo is now located. I was introduced to Suzuki-san by our mutual kendo friend Noda Tomohiro (who I have thanked in a previous post for introducing me to Tokyo Gejutsu University’s OB practice) after Noda-san gave a gagaku (雅楽) concert. Since Suzuki-san is a fellow architect and kendoist, I told him about my blog. It was then that he told me that not only is he a member of Noma Dojo, he was also involved with the demolition survey of the original hall. I thought then it would be a great opportunity to find out more about both the new and old dojo.

For this post I will describe mainly the new Noma Dojo. I am now investigating the original hall for which I intend to post about in the future.

Noma Dojo is actually used by two different groups. It is owned by Japan’s largest publisher, Kodansha Publisher Ltd. (株式会社講談社). Naturally, the company’s kendo club uses the hall. There is also a morning practice that is opened to the public in principle, though due to security concerns as the dojo is now within a commercial building, preregistration through a standing member is required. It is this public morning practice, held every day of the week from 7:00am until 8:00am with an informal extended practice until 8:30am, that made Noma Dojo famous.

original signboard 旧道場の看板

original sign in desk 旧道場の受付机

When Noma Dojo was established, kendo as we know it today had not yet completely established itself separately from koryu kenjutsu (classical fencing). Standardized kendo was conceived for the national school curriculum only in 1912, just a little over a decade before Noma Dojo was first established. Often kendo was then still taught through some koryuha (classical schools), which were secretive and closed to the general public. Students from one school were not allowed into other schools to avoid school secrets being revealed. This practice, dating back centuries, has its roots in the fact that fighting techniques were a matter of life and death. Despite the fact that swords were no longer in use by the time Noma Dojo was founded, many of the kenjutsu/kendo sensei of the day were within living memory of the last battles in Japan where swords clashed (it should be noted that even in the late 19th Century guns were not as efficient and bullets do run out). Thus the closed school doors mentality was still very strong despite a nationalized version having already been created. In fact, many of these classical schools still exist today and continue to keep a tight grip on outflow of information though generally things are considerably more open now. It was under these conditions that when Noma Seiji (野間清治), the founder of both Kodansha and Noma Dojo, decided to open Noma Dojo’s doors to the public, he intended the dojo to be a meeting point for all swordsman no matter what their affiliation. From this point on, Noma Dojo attracted kenshi from all around Japan and eventually all around the world.

tokonoma (entrance to the right) 床の間 (右に入口)

New Noma Dojo
Today, those attending this public morning practice enter the building through the back door. On the way to this entrance we passed by the land where the original hall stood. One of Japan’s largest banks now has an office block on that ground. The new Noma Dojo is on the top/fifth floor of one of Kodansha’s secondary buildings. The building itself, completed in 2007, is an understated concrete and glass affair. Though well constructed, it hardly stands out in Tokyo where minimalist buildings like this are quite common.

Upon exiting the lift, one is in a hallway with a threshold marked by the original Noma Dojo kanban (看板) or signboard. Conceptually this threshold is the entrance into the “grounds” of the dojo so most practitioners will bow to the grounds at this point. Past the threshold, a hallway takes one to nearly the other end of the building where all attendees must sign in on the desk that once sat just within the original hall’s genkan. Now the desk is situated just before the raised step that marks the genkan to the new dojo. This is where shoes are removed.

view to shimoseki end 下席に向かって

In addition to the kanban and desk, the hallways of the dojo are decorated with other framed items from the original dojo. There is also a watercolor by Inoue Takehiko (井上雄彦) of his rendition of Miyamoto Musashi from his Vagabond series (published of course by Kodansha). Support facilities are very modern and well maintained, which means by kendo standards quite luxurious. These include toilet facilities, changing rooms for both men and women, Japanese style showers and baths and ample storage rooms for armor, shinai and training wear. Within the men’s changing room is a tea room with photographs of the Noma Seiji as well as Noma Dojo’s first shihan (head instructor) the legendary Mochida Moriji-sensei (持田 盛二), the last person to ever be awarded kendo 10-dan1. Many of Noma Dojo’s members will pay their respects to these two figures on their way in and out of practice.

view to tokonoma 床の間に向かって

Like the old dojo, the new training hall is orientated with the kamiza on the west side, the shimoza on the east side and the tokonoma and kamidana on the north end. Also like the old dojo, the support facilities are to the north of the tokonoma resulting in the entrance to the training hall being located adjacent to the tokonoma on the north end. However, this time the entrance is to the right/east of the tokonoma instead of on the left/west as seen facing the tokonoma. The new dojo’s initial architectural proposals put the toilets directly behind the tokonoma but this was noted as an awkward and poor arrangement from the point of view of the tokonoma being the place of respect in the dojo. So like the original hall, there is instead a hallway behind the tokonoma.

view to kamiza & tokonoma 上座と床の間に向かって

This relationship between the hall, entrance into the hall and support spaces is very similar to the original hall. However, it is worth noting that entering a dojo from an entrance next to the tokonoma would traditionally be reserved only for sensei and VIP guests. Other practitioners would be expected to enter from the shimoseki “low” end of the hall opposite the shomen. There is a theory as to why this is with the old hall but that is something I will save for the planned subsequent post. So like the old hall, the new hall shares this rather unconventional relationship. When stepping into the dojo, one bows straight ahead to the shimoseki end as it is appropriate to do so upon first stepping into a dojo and then turn slightly more than 90 degree to the right to bow again in the direction of the tokonoma and kamidana. In effect, for the purposes of entering the dojo there are two shomen. I noted however that upon exiting the dojo members only bow to the end of the hall opposite the entrance.

view to shimoza & shimoseki 下座と下席に向かって

Considering that the elevators are located closer to the shimoseki end, at first I wondered if this unconventional entrance relationship was not done out of sentiment for keeping as much of the feeling of the original dojo as possible, even if it meant keeping some eccentricities. However, the building actually tapers at the north end, so much so that the training hall, measuring approximately 12m wide by 25m long, would only fit if situated on the south end. Therefore the original eccentric arrangement turned out to be sensible given the constraints imposed by the site and the rest of the building.

Within the tokonoma hang frame portraits of Noma Seiji, Mochida Moriji and other past shihan. There is also a mirror and a hanging scroll. These along with the kamidana, two taiko drums (the smaller placed in the tokonoma, the larger situated at the other end) and works of calligraphy with inspirational words were also moved from the old hall. These items were all moved from the old hall on the only day Noma Dojo was not opened for practice according to schedule in recent memory.

Aside from these furnishing and the unconventional entrance arrangement, the new hall also has skylights like the original hall, made possible by being on the top floor. Shelves at the shimoseki end and armor pegs along the shimoza wall provide additional storage and evokes the original hall’s furnishings. Along the kamiza side are takamado (高窓) or clerestory windows. Daylight passing through these clerestory windows are filtered through interior kōshi (格子) or wooden lattice screening. Wood panels line the kamiza walls while on the shimoza side has subdivided wooden screens called fusumabone (襖骨) separating the hall from the genkan. The ceiling is also lined with wood panels recalling traditional ceilings.

view to kamiza & shimoseki 上座と下席に向かって

large taiko, bogu shelves, kōshi 大太鼓、防具棚、格子

Protruding past these walls are exposed concrete columns and beams, casted together for structural continuity and placed at 3.60m center to center. Continuous “post and lintel” would provide lateral stability against wind and earthquake forces as the joint between the two are “stiff”. The lower part of the columns are padded. The concrete makes use of the wood form work or shuttering to leave a wood grain impression in the concrete. This method, which usually requires extra effort in the layout of the form work boards to control the effect, is often desired by architects to give the concrete a texture.

The floor is made of untreated red pine (赤松-akamatsu) from Kirishima City, Kagoshima-ken (鹿児島県霧島市) in Kyushu (九州). Since the new dojo was opened for practice, the floor changed from its original blond color to the streaky gray brown that it is today from extensive use. This floor gets its spring from a rubber based system, the thickness of which would probably be about 10cm, corresponding approximately to the height of the step up at the genkan.

A modern pushed air climate control system, used to provide heating, cooling and fresh air, provides a stark contrast from the old dojo in which the walls were not even insulated in the modern sense. I am told that in the old dojo seasonal elements like snow, rain and even cherry blossom petals often came directly into the hall. More on this below.

Like many recent purpose built kendojo, the new Noma Dojo has a contemporary shell with interiors evoking traditional elements. Architecturally, this works well due to modernist architecture sharing many of the aesthetic sensibilities of traditional architecture such as an appreciation of simplicity. It is indeed a beautiful dojo in absolute terms but that only made me wonder even more what the old hall was like.

Legacy and Continuity
Those who remember the old hall may very well lament that the new hall does not come close to evoking the architectural feelings of the old hall. While I did not learn of the existence of the old dojo until it was too late, I greatly sympathize with this sentiment.

inspirational words from the original dojo 旧道場から心に強く訴える言葉

inspirational words from the original dojo 旧道場から心に強く訴える言葉

I wanted to hear the other side of the story so when I sat down to post-keiko practice with Manou Kazuhiko-sensei (真能和彦), kendo kyoshi 7-dan and vice-president of Noma Dojo Dokokai (the public practice arm of Noma Dojo), the first question I asked was why the old hall could not at least have been moved. I mooted financial pressures considering the value of the land the old hall sat on as one answer since this was perhaps the most popular hypothesis circulating internet discussions. He said besides this the original building was becoming prohibitively expensive to repair. The skills required to maintain and renovate the original hall is now lost to all but a few craftsmen. A proposal from a Finnish group to move the building to Finland turned out to be too expensive. As mentioned before, the elements often entered the building, so much so that reportedly it often felt like practicing outdoors. While cherry blossom petals blowing into the dojo may have been poetic, a leaky roof was not. These conditions pointed towards the deterioration of the building, which called into question not only financial concerns but also occupant safety. It was difficult to tell how well it would continue to stand up against future earthquakes and typhoons given that renovation was impractical. Some elements did indeed find new life, but this is a story that will be saved for the later post.

Manou-sensei wanted to stress that Kodansha has been and continues to be very generous in allowing on-going public use of Noma Dojo all these years and in providing a top rate facility to replace to historic structure that everyone loved. The company does this both out of respect for the legacy of the founder and out of a sense of corporate social responsibility. The Japanese term for this is kigyō-mesena/企業メセナ, which draws from the French word mécénat meaning patronage.

The early morning practice before most people go to work also serves an important social function according to Manou-sensei. Undoubtedly influenced by the famous Shakespeare quote, Manou-sensei said that if the social world of work is a theater stage, then the dojo is the dressing room2. In the dressing room, not only do people get ready to go on stage, just as one gets ready for work with keiko, it is also the place where there is a different kind of social interaction free of the costumes, masks and roles. He also said that diversity within the Noma Dojo kendo community is very important. In the spirit of Noma Seiji’s original vision to bring fencers from many different rival “styles” together in one place, Noma Dojo today welcomes kendoist from all around the world and all walks of life. The members consist of a wide variety of professions and both men and women.

skylights 天窓

In speaking to many kendoist throughout Tokyo, despite the loss of the old hall, Noma Dojo still draws top respect from everyone. This is because it was always more than the original structure itself. The practice is still packed with top kendo sensei and very dedicated members. As of the writing of this post I have so far made two visits and on both occasions the atmosphere was thick with enthusiasm to practice kendo.

One of the strongest impression from Noma Dojo I took away for my kendo is seeing a former men’s All Japan Kendo multiple-champion (I won’t mention the name) sit on the shimoza side as if he were just anyone else. He eagerly queued up to train with as many sensei as he could and was not treated any differently from anyone else. Despite achieving remarkable success in competition, this champion still shows great humility in his practice. This reminded me how much depth there is to kendo beyond winning or losing even the most prestigious shiai.

Stay Tuned…
In the future I intend to post about the old Noma Dojo. Since I was never able to visit it for myself, I have to rely on information gathered from different sources. Nevertheless, I believe I will be able to make a reasonable enough mental reconstruction of the old dojo that it will be of interest to share. This may take some time so your patience will be greatly appreciated.

My thanks goes to:
Manou Kazuhiko-sensei, for his generous and warm hospitality, keiko and fascinating explanations
Suzuki Chisato-san of Chisato Suzuki Design Studio, for generously providing invaluable information and for the introduction to Noma Dojo
Noda Tomohiro-san, for introducing me to Suzuki-san

1Today 8-dan is the highest grade a kendoist can test for, though even that only has a 1% pass rate.
2Theatrical performers actually move from the dressing room to the “green room” prior to going on stage. This doesn’t necessarily contradict the metaphor since at the green room a performer is already in costume and perhaps in character as well.

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