You’ve been to the local dojo for a look. You liked what you saw. Throngs of frenzied jedis duelling with bamboo sabres. Could this be the martial art that will change your life? There is only one way to find out. You join the local dojo
Progress in kendo is typically not that fast. It takes a long time to get used to the Japanese words, master the awkward fighting stance, and swing the shinai in unison with body and spirit. Depending on the dojo, the first few months will be spent learning footwork and suburi. Gradually you will move on to striking practice, and then the moment of truth. Kendo-gu time!
This is exciting and daunting at the same time. Apart from the fact that you will be entering a merciless world of hit-or-be-hit, purchasing your first set of armour is a big financial investment, especially as you still don’t know that much about kendo. You might just find out later on that is not for you after all.
With this possibility in the back of the mind, the beginner tends to opt for the cheapest set of armour available. There are numerous retailers online who compete to offer ridiculously low-priced sets. Compared to when I first started kendo, the cost of a full set of kendo gear has gone through the floor.
You don’t have to look very far to find deals as low as $250.00 a set. On the surface, the gear looks perfectly good. As long as it soaks up the sting of the shinai it’ll be okay, right? Why pay $2500.00 when $250.00 will get you a functional set of armour?
It’s true that the market flood of cheap bogu has made kendo accessible to more people. For somebody starting out a cheap set is a logical choice. A beginner doesn’t need a pristine lacquered bamboo do, or exquisite hand-stitched kote and tare. Cheap is fine.
However… there is a big however. The men is another story. Your choice of men will dictate the course your kendo will take. If money should be spent on anything, it’s ensuring that you have a men that fits you like a glove. An off the rack men might look good but it won’t do your kendo any favours at all.
There is a very practical reason for this. Around half way down the protective metal grill is a section in which the bars are slightly further apart than the rest. This is called the mono-mi, and should be exactly the same level as your eyes. This will give you an undisturbed view of your opponent. If it is too high or low, even by a few millimetres, you will unconsciously crook your head to compensate. This means that your kamae will be slightly stilted. This then leads on to flawed technique, muscle pain, and even a higher risk of injury.
It will be very uncomfortable and unnatural, but you won’t know this because it’s your first. Furthermore, even if a cheap men does fit well and the mono-mi is in the right place, there is a high chance that poor craftsmanship will result in movement of the inner face brace (uchiwa). This will cause the men to move out of position through use.
So, when you buy your first set of armour, don’t worry so much about the do, tare, or kote. Cheap will suffice. But certainly splash out on a decent men made to your measurements. Get it made to fit. It’ll be your new best friend and will make the kendo experience so much better.
by Alex Bennett, Kendo Kyoshi 7-dan