Kendo traditions thrive at fabled Kyoto Hall

KYOTO, Japan (The Japan News/ANN) – People practicing Japanese martial arts anywhere in the world should visit the Kyu Butokuden building in Sakyo Ward, Kyoto.

It is a wooden single-storey building that is about 56 metres from east to west and about 27 metres from north to south. The building’s exterior has remained unchanged from the time of its construction in 1899.

Programmes to foster the young people who will carry on the future of Japanese martial arts are conducted in its Enbujo training hall, where history and tradition are palpable.

At Kyu Butokuden on an evening in early November, the cheerful voices of children shouting, “Yaaa!” and “Meen!” could be heard.

They were taking part in the kendo lessons that the Kyoto Kendo Federation has continued for more than 50 years in the famed martial arts building. That day, about 30 elementary and junior high school students were swinging shinai bamboo swords with serious expressions on their faces.

Instructors said that the policy of the lessons is to make sure children firmly acquire fundamental motions rather than acquiring skills for winning matches.

Seiko Tomiyama, 56, one of the instructors, had also learned kendo at the place in his childhood.

He said, “I have always been told by my friends living outside Kyoto Prefecture, ‘I’m jealous of you because you can practise in Kyu Butokuden.’”

Shu Negoro, 14, a second-year student of a junior high school affiliated with Kyoto Prefectural Rakuhoku High School, has been taking kendo lessons there since he was a third-year elementary school student.

He said with a smile, “The floorboards here are soft, so I can move smoothly. I’m proud that I can practice kendo in this place with history and tradition.”

Programmes to foster the young people who carry on the future of Japanese martial arts are conducted at Enbujo Training Hall. – The Japan News/ANN)

Originally, a building named Butokuden was built by Emperor Kanmu (737-806), who constructed the capital of Heian-kyo (now Kyoto). His Butokuden was northwest of the Daigokuden imperial palace. It is believed that mounted archery and other events were held on horse-riding tracks in the original Butokuden.

In the Meiji era (1868-1912), the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai organisation built the current building as part of projects to commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of the capital’s relocation to Heian-kyo.

The organisation aimed to revive traditional Japanese martial arts and thus built the new Butokuden in the northwest of the Heian Jingu shrine based on historical facts.

One characteristic of Kyu Butokuden is a seat for the emperor to watch martial arts matches. Takeharu Oda, 68, chief of the secretariat of the Kyoto Kendo Federation, said, “It is rare nationwide that a martial arts training hall has a seat exclusively for the emperor.”

In 1905, the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai opened a school to foster instructors of such martial arts as kenjutsu swordplay and jujutsu wrestling in the Butokuden building. The school later became Budo Senmon Gakko, which specialised in teaching Japanese martial arts.

A large number of young people trained at the school. The surface of a pillar in the training hall has chipped-off spots and many scratches, showing how hard training was in the past and how long the training hall has been in use.

After World War II, the building was impacted by the changing times. The General Headquarters of the Allied Powers regarded Japanese martial arts as militaristic, and ordered the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai to disband. Practicing kendo was prohibited and Budo Senmon Gakko was closed. The Enbujo training hall was confiscated by the occupation forces and then used as a dance hall.

After that period of hardship, the Kyoto city government purchased the training hall in 1951. The hall was used as a training facility of a police academy of the city and then as a facility for the Faculty of Music of Kyoto City University of Arts.

When there were plans to relocate the Faculty of Music, demolition of the Butokuden building was considered, as the building was getting old.

The All Japan Kendo Federation and others opposed the demolition plan, saying that the historical building must not be lost, and asked the city government to preserve it.

As a result of the persistent activities of concerned people, it was decided to preserve the building in 1980, and the crisis of imminent demolition was avoided.

Later, restoration work was done with money donated by kendo enthusiasts nationwide.

In 1983, the Butokuden building was designated by the Kyoto city government as a tangible cultural asset. At the time, the building was registered with the name Kyu Butokuden, because there is a custom that when facility owners change, the names are modified by adding “kyu” – meaning “former.”

Since then, the building has been called by its current name. In 1996, it was designated by the central government as a national important cultural asset.

Currently, major competition events of various Japanese martial arts, including aikido and judo, are held in Kyu Butokuden.

The most noteworthy is the All Japan Kendo Enbu Taikai – a demonstration championship event of kendo and similar sports – which is held in May every year.