Experience an array of martial arts in Japan
Traditional Japanese martial arts or budo include judo, kendo, kyudo, iaido, karate, naginata, and sumo. They all start and end with a bow, embodying the spirit of respect and courtesy towards the opponent. Martial arts are a distinct feature of Japanese culture, and they’re even incorporated into school life. Japanese people continue to have a strong bond with these traditional arts, and there are plenty of karate, kendo, and judo schools all around the country.
Practicing martial arts can help foster graceful form, and improve both mental and physical health. Experience a martial art and learn traditional techniques firsthand at a sacred dojo during your visit to Japan.
The word budo is derived from the Japanese phrase meaning “the path that needs to be protected by the samurai.” These ancient crafts have origins in the battlefield—they were tools of warfare and self-defense for the samurai. The role of martial arts have evolved and today, they are a means of developing the mind and body.
Try your hand at martial arts during your stay in Japan. You can put on a traditional uniform and take a lesson covering techniques as well as the etiquette, culture, and spiritual aspects. There are basic and observation classes available for beginners, while experienced practitioners can train with a high-grade holder or receive private instruction at a dojo. Most dojos rent out clothes and equipment, so you can visit empty-handed.
There are several theories about the origins of karate, but it’s generally believed that it was born in Okinawa as a fusion of the traditional Okinawan martial art of ti with Chinese martial art forms. Since then, the sport has spread to mainland Japan as well as overseas, and there are currently about 130 million karate enthusiasts around the world.
Karate is done empty-handed, and the basic moves include punches, kicks, and blocks. However, traditional forms of Okinawan karate also incorporate hand-weapons like staffs, prongs, or nunchucks. Karate focuses on self-defense techniques that train the mind and body. Peace and respect make up the essence of this martial art.
There are four main types of Okinawan karate (Shorin-ryu, Goju-ryu, Uechi-ryu, and Kobudo), and about 400 dojos throughout the prefecture. Depending on your level of proficiency, you can try a full-fledged training or take part in a introductory session. At the Shuri Kannon-do Temple in Naha City, you can join a morning training session or combine your karate practice with zen meditation. At spots like the Okinawa Karate Kaikan, newbies and novices can try a plan taught by the Okinawa Dento Karatedo Shinkokai (traditional karate promotion association) or observe a demonstration by high-grade karate masters.
Iaido is based on a sword technique in which the practitioner instantly draws a sword in its scabbard while seated and strikes the opponent. It was a technique used by the samurai.
The discipline originated about 450 years ago in Oshu (present-day Murayama City, Yamagata Prefecture) Since then, the essence of iaido has been practiced using techniques handed down from generation to generation. Now, it involves fighting against an imaginary enemy. This martial art puts an emphasis on the formation of character through mental training rather than swordsmanship, and is ultimately about the pursuit of harmony.
Hayashizaki Iai Shrine, located in Murayama City, the birthplace of iaido, offers a variety of programs. You’ll have a chance to don an iaido uniform, learn about the spirit and etiquette of the martial art, and practice correct forms and how to handle a Japanese sword. Depending on the program, participants may also be able to try their hand at cutting with a sword. These programs put a special focus on mental training, and they are taught by a high-ranking iaido master. You’ll also be able to observe demonstrations.
Take the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Murayama Station (about three hours). From there, the shrine is about a 10-minute drive.
Ninjas were covert agents who used unconventional techniques (ninjutsu) to conduct espionage. They were active since the latter half of the 15th century and also served the Tokugawa shogunate in the Edo period (1603-1868).
The ninja’s primary mission was to gather information. For this reason, it’s believed that ninjutsu focused on covert techniques and self-defense rather than attacking. The ninja lived in farming villages. They trained themselves in military arts and mental prowess while engaging in family businesses such as farming and lumberjacking during peacetime.
The Iga area, located halfway between Nagoya and Osaka, is dotted with places with connections to ninja history. Ninjas often trained at the Akame 48 Waterfalls —a beautiful forest at the foot of a ravine. At this spot, you can put on ninja costumes and choose from about 20 different types of ninja techniques to try out, like using shuriken weapons, water spider techniques, or hiding from enemies.
For a more in-depth look at ninjutsu, pay a visit to the Ninja Museum of Igaryu. You can explore a ninja house with surprising tricks and traps, or try throwing shuriken. It also puts on ninja shows. Located nearby is the Iga Ueno Castle, the setting for the Akira Kurosawa movie Kagemusha. The town is also dotted with several “Ninja Transformation Spots”, where you can rent ninja costumes.
Through martial arts, the samurai trained their minds and bodies, and acquired the morals, norms, and etiquette needed to be a true warrior. Tea ceremony and flower arrangement were also included as part of their spiritual training and there are still many places in the Kyushu area where you can experience the spirit of samurai culture.
You can try martial arts such as kendo, kyudo, and iaido. In kendo, practitioners use bamboo swords to strike each other’s heads and other designated body parts. The sport is particularly popular in Kyushu.
Kendo emphasizes on civility and the unification of mind and body with the sword. Similarly, kyudo trains the mind and body through a series of movements, from holding the bow to hitting the target with the arrow. It pursues beauty and perfection in form. These martial arts require practitioners to face themselves and stay perpetually calm.
There are a number of places in Kyushu you can experience samurai culture, tea ceremony, or flower arrangement. Head to Ozu Town, located between Kumamoto City and Aso, or explore Akizuki (Asakura City, Fukuoka Prefecture), which still retains the atmosphere of an ancient castle town. In the former trade base of Hirado Island (Nagasaki Prefecture), you can even stay overnight in the Hirado Castle.
Kodokan in Tokyo is the headquarters of Judo. It was founded in 1882 by Kano Jigoro Shihan, who had trained in the traditional Japanese martial art of Jujutsu. He studied various styles of Jujutsu and integrated the positive points of each style with his own ideas to create Judo. His system was not just about mastering skills, but to achieve the three purposes of physical training, martial art, and moral education.
The current Kodokan has six dojos (training hall), large and small, with a total of 1,300 tatami mats, and more than 150 instructors. Judo training is held every day except Sundays and national holidays. In addition to the technical aspects of the martial art, there’s also an emphasis on moral education and the practice of courtesy since the vision of Kano Shihan was to perfect oneself and benefit the society through Judo.
Visitors with experience can participate in randori (one-on-one sparring) practice. Beginners staying in Japan long-term can learn from the basics at the class that aims to acquire the black belt in a minimum of one year. It is, of course, possible to observe the sessions at the auditorium without participating in the practice. It is also possible to visit the attached Judo museum displaying the history of Judo.
Time travel back to the days of the samurai as you’re traveling around Japan. You’ll find the ruins of samurai residences and ancient townscapes in various parts of the country.
For example, Kanazawa was the castle town of the Maeda clan. In the Nagamachi Samurai District, you’ll find preserved ancient stone pavements and earthen walls, as well as residences that belonged to warriors of the Kaga Domain.
At Kakunodate Samurai District in Senboku City in Akita, you can take in the scenic beauty of a castle town that was built according to the unique topography of a delta where two rivers meet—the townscape still remains as it was in the Edo period.
Aizu-Wakamatsu in Fukushima Prefecture was once one of the most prosperous castle towns in eastern Japan. The samurai in the clan were known for their excellence and you can get a glimpse of that at the Aizu Samurai Mansion.
Samurai are warriors who carried swords, practiced martial arts using swords, spears, bows, horses, and other techniques, and fought to protect their leaders. The era of the samurai lasted for about 700 years, starting around the end of the 12th century.
A number of qualities defined the samurai: dedication to their leaders, compassion towards their subordinates, as well as loyalty, civility, bravery, sacrifice, honor, simplicity, and affection. During the Edo period (1603-1868), the samurai spirit seeped into the general public. The popular 1642 work Kashoki (amusing notes) was written by a samurai and detailed important aspects of the samurai spirit such as “Never lie” or “Keep your promises.” In addition, it also describes a number of ethical concepts, like being polite, acting with integrity, and being merciful and righteous. These teachings are believed to have greatly influenced the general way of life in Japan up to the present day.