Kendō, a traditional samurai practice to shape body and mind

Very few people realise that matcha has a lot in common with samurai culture, and thus also with kendō. From around the 13th century, samurai used a matcha tea drink as a remedy for improved concentration and endurance, which, drunk before a duel, was supposed to have a positive impact on its outcome. What is more, an elaborate model for preparation and consumption of matcha, called wabi, was developed over centuries. This philosophy gave birth to the tea ceremony known to this day. According to some historical records, samurai would sip matcha from one cup during their meetings, which was considered a kind of ritual to solidify the godly will, trust and loyalty.

Kendō is a Japanese form of sports fencing which uses bamboo swords. It is one of the Japanese martial arts referred to collectively as budō, which include disciplines more recognisable and popular in Poland such as aikidō, judō or karate. Hardly anyone knows, however, that it is kendō that remains the most widely trained martial art in Japan, surpassing the other sports by hundreds of thousands of practitioners.

The main purpose of kendō practice is to shape body and mind and to achieve personal growth through physical exercise. Hence the ending dō, which means ‘path’ in Japanese. In Japan kendō is considered a ‘life-long martial art’ because it can be practiced at any age without the risk of injury, which affects mainly professional competitors. The best practitioners are the ones who start rigorous training as children and continue it throughout their education, often achieving championship already as policemen or teachers. Why? Kendō is widely practiced by among officers of uniformed service and that is why people who want to succeed in sport often choose these professions. In Japan it is impossible to find a person who has never had any contact with kendō, whether at school (where pupils can choose between kendō or judō for their PE classes), at university clubs or private dōjō, sport clubs.

Kendō stems directly from samurai combat fencing, which dates back to the 11th century. Its different schools had developed until the mid-19th century, when a ban on carrying swords by samurai was introduced. In the early 17th century protective armour and practice swords were gradually added to the training, which allowed to make full sword strikes in bloodless duels. The use of practice swords, at first made of wood and later of bamboo, as well as solid protective gear modelled on samurai armour, enabled a more dynamic practice and sparring fights. The rules of training introduced over time gradually limited the acceptable target area for strikes and eliminated dangerous techniques threating the fighters’ safety. These rules introduced in the past laid foundations for what we know today as kendō.

To this day kendō is appreciated not only because of its history and educational value, but also because of its injury-free character and clear combat rules. In kendō attacks are allowed only onto a specific target area of the opponent’s body, covered by protective gear, i.e. strikes against the head, forearms and torso and thrusts to the throat. For an attack to be valid (ippon), it has to meet certain criteria. It is part of the ki-ken-tai-ichi concept, meaning ‘the unity of mind, sword and body’, according to which a strike should be made with a specific part of the sword and with the right force, body movement and an accompanying shout. In addtion, after an action a competitor should stay alert and ready for further fight. Only then can an attack be considered effective. Accidental attacks are not treated as valid. That is why in kendō it is important to strive for perfection through exhausting training and arduous repetition of exercises aimed at correcting even the smallest mistakes. Discipline, stamina and effort put into the process contribute to personal growth and improved inner strength of practitioners.

Today kendō is a sport widely practiced on all continents, supervised by the International Kendō Federation and the relevant continental federations. In its homeland, Japan, there are approximately 2 million practitioners. In Poland the number of competitors is 500 registered in 26 clubs. Globally, there are ca. 5 million kendō practitioners. Thanks to the great popularity of Japanese culture and pop culture, the number of kendō enthusiasts is growing each year. Kendō is extremely popular all over the world because of its rich history and pedagogical value. Due to the growing popularity of Japanese culture, kendō is becoming more and more popular as well. Now we can only wait and see if the number of its enthusiasts will be higher than of other budō martial arts.

Moya Matcha partnered in European Kendo Women’s Cup on 15th of February in Warsaw. Article was written in the cooperation with Polish Kendo Organization, host of the tournament.

Matcha and yoga – a good match

Styles and customs of bygone times are constantly coming back. Desiring to return back to the roots, we are keen to reach for very old traditions and incorporate them into pop culture turn them into elements of pop culture. These traditions – deeply rooted in history and philosophy – are without a doubt still valid and their presence seems to be continually up to date and natural.

 

 

TRENDS IN NO DANGER OF PASSING

There is no question that matcha becomes very fashionable – it attracts interest among various circles, quickly spreading across cafes and stores. We import gaudy matcha flavoured sweets from Japan, we add matcha to our superfood cocktails, and we use a cup of it to enhance our image in social media. Although matcha tea has conquered the modern world, it still remains a part of the archaic culture of Far East.

Yoga is undergoing a similar process. There are more and more schools, courses, field workshops and weekend outdoor classes in public parks. You can buy mats and clothes in every imaginable colour and attend a class of a celebrity yoga instructor. But despite the modern 21st century context, yoga remains a spiritual just as it has been functioning for millennia.

Trends like this are in no danger of passing. They trigger changes we don’t reject as out-of-date trends. Moreover they work together surprisingly well! Even though yoga and matcha don’t share the same roots historically and geographically, they complement each other in an exceptional way.

 

 

HISTORY

Green tea appeared in Japan at the end of the 12th century. It came from China along with Buddhist monks for whom it has been an inseparable part of Zen. At one point it began to be used in powdered form and that’s when the tea ceremony – chadō (meaning ‘the way of tea’) was born. Matcha helped monks to be more alert and enabled them to find peace of mind – those elements are crucial when it comes both to meditation and to its unusual form: the tea ceremony.

The term ‘yoga’ relates to the whole system of Indian philosophy dealing with the mind-body connection. Its oldest traces have been found in the Indus Valley and are dated 2300-1500 B.C. Types of yoga, based on body positions (asanas), breath control and cleansing techniques, like hatha, vinyasa or ashtanga, are popular these days in the West, but they got here only ‘a moment ago’ – they started gaining attention as late as in the mid 19th century.

 

 

MATCHA AND YOGA – A GOOD MATCH

Matcha is made from the youngest tea leaves in which the vital energy is stored. Few weeks before the harvest, the tea bushes are covered to prevent direct sunlight – that helps them to protect valuable substances. Whenever we drink a bowl of matcha we consume the whole powdered leaves, therefore we assimilate a lot more nutrients and benefits than from a regular tea – this means a higher concentration of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibers. We should remember, however, not to add water that is higher than 80 Celsius degrees – the excessive heat kills valuable substances and destroys the taste.

The caffeine content for a teaspoon of matcha is 2 grams. Unlike caffeine in coffee, caffeine in matcha is slowly absorbed and has a lasting energy boost for the body. Amino acids (especially L-theanine) present in matcha tea bind to the caffeine and slow down its absorption into the bloodstream. As a result, there’s no rapid cortisol delivery or adrenaline spike that leaves the body craving for more caffeine. Compared to coffee, matcha, which needs up to six hours to get absorbed, offers some calm sense of awareness and alertness and charges our stamina.

This combination makes matcha an ideal partner for yoga. On the one hand yoga is a sport that requires physical fitness, on the other it is a practice of meditation in which concentration and mindfulness are essential. Yoga and matcha are a perfect match – they complement each other and reinforce their own unique effects. A pot of matcha makes perfecting the yoga practice easier and practicing yoga helps us to become an expert in celebrating the matcha tea ceremony.

 

Making Japan’s finest chasens

Today is one of the most exciting days I have been looking forward to in my journey across Japan. I have been driving for more than thirty minutes now, leaving the city far behind. According to the map, I should be reaching my destination very soon. After a few minutes of wandering between the households of the neighbourhood, I recognize a complicated kanji character on one fence – it’s the family name I’ve been trying to memorize last night. The owner welcomes me and invites me to the house. We pass by a pile of cut bamboo trees in the garden. Behind the house I see a tiny private tea field. Before we proceed with the purpose of our meeting, I’m giving my host omiyage, a travel souvenir that’s almost a must-do in Japan. Among other things, I obviously brought our matcha from Poland.

I sit down on the tatami mat, unable to stop admiring everything that surrounds me in the interior of this house. He joins me after a while, carrying a box of cookies, over which we will discuss what we have planned for today. There’s tea, as well. Smelling so good that I almost cannot focus. It’s early May, could it be fresh, this year’s harvest? I ask if he used his home-grown tea that I spotted behind the house.

– I’m happy to hear you enjoy it! And I have great news. This cup of tea is made with matcha that you brought for us as a gift. You know its taste already, and I wanted to see you catch the difference. Now you understand the purpose of my work, and we haven’t even started yet!
We are sitting in the living room of Mr. Jun Tanimura, representative of the 20th generation in the family of the oldest chasen makers in Japan. For five hundred years they have been running their shop in Takayama area in Nara prefecture. These days, this is where all the hand-carved chasens in the country come from. I am here to learn how they are brought into existence.


Chasen 茶筌 is a matcha tea whisk made from a single piece of bamboo tree, which is used in Japanese tea ceremony. Obviously, if you’re using low quality matcha, the result will not be great, even if you mix it with an expensive, handmade chasen. Today I’m about to learn that it works both ways, though. You can use the best, most premium tea in Japan; without an equally excellent bamboo whisk, you won’t be able to bring out its entire richness of taste.
An experienced craftsman needs around three hours to bring one chasen to life. An average workday at the Tanimura workshop yields around thirty whisks. The demand is high, even though they don’t work with ordinary shops. They only produce chasens for institutions associated with tea ceremony, as well as for special individual orders.

We are heading to the workshop, passing by the pile of trees again. The first and most important step in the chasen manufacturing process is the material – a healthy bamboo tree of a suitable diameter. Various species can be used, depending on the type of the whisk (which, in turn, depends on the school of tea ceremony). Dark chasens, which are made of coloured wood today, are not different from regular ones in terms of price and quality. Interestingly enough, they were once a very luxurious product. The dark colour was only a quality of the wood ‘smoked’ above irori (a traditional, interior hearth present in old Japanese houses) for around a hundred years. But the development of technology and new architecture reduced the supplies of this (once originating incidentally) material.

To obtain wood suitable for making chasens, trees should be cut around the age of three years. After cutting they are simmered in order to get rid of dirt and oil. Then, around January and February, they are spread on the rice fields (not used in this time of year), where the icy winds toughen them and turn their colour from natural green to white. Then they are left to mature for two or three years. That’s when the wood dries and gets its light amber shade.

Although around 15 cm of bamboo is all that’s required to create each chasen, one tree will only provide three or four suitable pieces. That’s because the placement of joints (called nodes) on the culm is crucial. But the rest does not go to waste – Mr. Tanimura uses it to make other tea ceremony utensils (i.e. chashaku, the teaspoon, and hishaku, the water ladle), as well as wooden containers and decorations.
A piece of bamboo prepared for a chasen is gently shaved in its upper half with a side of a knife. It softens the surface and makes the work easier. Next, it is vertically cut in half (only on the level of the shaved upper part), then cut in four, eight and at last sixteen 4-mm-thick sections. They are carefully, but firmly bent to the outside.

Every branch needs to be divided to skin and flesh now. The border between them is distinctly visible on the photograph. The inner bright part is the flesh, which is easy to remove once it’s separated. What remains is the thin strip of darker skin, which is now cut crosswise very thinly into tines called ho. Usually there is around one hundred of them (depending on the type of whisk, from 16 up to 160). Bamboo is a fibrous wood that easily divides into individual threads, nevertheless this step requires time and precision.
The carved section is left to soak in hot water to make it more flexible. After one hour, ho are put on the wooden matrix and shaved with a small knife until very thin, especially on the tips. Then, using the same knife, the craftsman curves them slightly to the inside.
This step is a true test for skills in the craftsman’s hands. The bristles have to be really thin to be elastic, but thick enough to remain strong. Their size is determined by feeling and intuition of the craftsman, resulting from many years of practice and experience passed on from past generations.


The sides of each tine (ho) are rounded to prevent fine tea powder from sticking to their sharp edges. The process of manufacturing is slowly coming to an end. Chasen is still missing the thread. It will divide the tines in half, creating an outer and an inner row. The outer bristles are carved to form the final shape of a chasen. The inner ho are grabbed by hand and twisted a few times to create a coiled cusp that, with time and use, will open like a flower. The chasen is ready, it’s time to start heating water for the tea.

For better understanding of the entire process, we encourage you to watch this film from the Tanimura workshop.
I ask about the lifespan of a chasen, but Mr. Tanimura’s answer is vague. There are numerous theories; I once heard about a man who only uses each chasen three times. I found that unreasonable, quite rightly, as it turns out. The expert sitting next to me says that in his hands each chasen works flawlessly for around six months of everyday use. – But there’s no rule – he adds. – You simply need to observe the situation and let your chasen go once it stops giving you satisfying results.
Your hand-whisked cup of matcha will taste much better today than it has before, won’t it?

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