Swinging swords and drumsticks: Personal fitness draws on tradition

In an age when the next new thing always seems so much better than the current one, some sports administrators in Japan have started looking back to traditional Japanese activities and adapting and modernizing them into new fitness regimes. Discipline, often with religious undertones, is an integral aspect of many Japanese sports, but this supposedly outdated value is being replaced with a more bedazzling buzz word: “contemporary.”

A cut above

There are few personal fitness exercise regimes influenced by East Asian culture, something that personal trainer Kiyotaka Hanazawa realized when he created shindo — an aerobic routine with its roots in kendo. At his studio in Tokyo, Hanazawa points out that many personal training routines, like the recent weightlifting fad, have Western roots, but Japanese sports, he says, can be just as beneficial, popular and easy to learn.

Once it gains some global popularity, “shindo will become an element of personal training, not just a wow factor,” he says.

The objective of shindo, which takes its name from “shin” (“heart” or “body”) and “kendo,” is to improve endurance through repeated aerobic exercises. Though the sport targets most muscle groups, the focus is on the upper arms, through the swinging of a bokutō (wooden sword) in swift motions, and the legs, with lunges and squats.

Shindo primarily borrows movements from kendo and also respects some of the sport’s traditional underpinning. In kendo, the position of the bokutō is like that of a samurai’s sword — hung on the left side of the body to make it easier to draw with the right hand. In shindo, however, Hanazawa says that “to signify that you don’t intend to fight,” the bokutō is hung on the right.

“In shindo, you are focusing on your own movement, not your opponent’s,” explains Hanazawa, whose classes also begin and end with traditional mokusō(silent prayer) to provide students with spiritual calmness.

One of Hanazawa’s reasons for adapting kendo, other than his own 12 years of experience practicing the martial art, is that it already has a surprisingly large following in Japan.

“Most people think judo is the most popular sport among Japanese: It’s an Olympic sport, it’s on TV frequently and people all over the world practice it,” he says. “But if you look at the statistics, only 160,000 people practice judo in Japan, whereas 1.77 million people practice kendo.”

Rarely shown in the media — aired on TV just once a year during the All Japan Kendo Championship on Culture Day, Nov. 3 — kendo also suffers a lack of international attention, says Hanazawa. By modifying the sport, he seeks to encourage Japanese to try shindo, and then spread its techniques and background across the world.

Two years ago, Hanazawa flew to Shanghai to teach a shindo class at the gym of an affluent model, who had been impressed by a class she took with him at an Adidas and Stella McCartney collaboration at the Adidas Flagship store in Tokyo. When Hanazawa first presented shindo to Adidas, the company saw it as an opportunity to develop Japan’s sports industry. Now he frequently teaches classes for Adidas, which has made shindo one of its official Adidas Training Academy sports. This has allowed Hanazawa to use the brand name to reach a wider, more international audience.

Don’t drop that beat

Elsewhere in Tokyo, taikobics is taking a more musical approach to Japanese culture-inspired fitness. A blend of aerobics and taiko drumming, taikobics takes the auditory patterns of drumming — the classic reverberating “don” and “ka” — and accompanies it with jazzy aerobic footwork.

After a run-through of basic drumming techniques, taikobics instructors teach foot choreography, which is to be performed while simultaneously drumming. Swinging arms and tricky footwork proves to be a fair bit of mental as well as physical exercise, so it takes a few consecutive practice runs before students perform the sequence to a song chosen by the instructor, often pop or EDM.

Kenjiro Ishida, a performer and teacher at Taiko-Lab, points out that taikobics is unusual because there are two sources of music: the beating of the drum and the music from a speaker.

“We wanted to include more upbeat music, like the songs you hear at a gym, to invigorate our students,” he says. “It’s something new.”

Taikobics’ use of upbeat music and footwork choreography doesn’t take away from the wadaiko (Japanese-style drumming) basis of the exercise. Instructors emphasize traditional drumming techniques, from proper hand placement on the bachi (percussion mallet) to the importance of using the whole body to adjust sounds.

“Depending on the angle of the bachi, the sound produced differs. It (the changing of angles) also helps with katakori (shoulder pain), while the steps you learn gives your brain a workout,” says Ishida, who stresses that it’s important for students to understand how the slightest movement resonates differently on the drum.

Taikobics is currently available only at Taiko-Lab studios in Japan (aside from its Kobe location), but most of the teachers are also performers who frequently present the taiko art form overseas.

Recalling past performances in Italy and Slovakia, wadaiko coordinator and English interpreter Kazuki Ogi says, “The breathtaking infrastructure (there) creates a different atmosphere, which makes it enjoyable to perform. I also enjoy a foreign audience, because they’re easier to read and understand. If they don’t like your performance, they just walk away.”

Signing up

Most shindo and taikobics classes are taught in Japanese, but body language is universal and non-Japanese speakers should be able to follow by mirroring the instructors.

Given the influx of tourists, especially with the Olympics coming up, Hanazawa and Ogi are hoping to accommodate non-Japanese visitors on a larger scale.

“Right now, the only other language we teach in is English, but obviously there are many tourists who speak other language,” says Ogi. “We hope to provide for them as well.”

Hanazawa is focusing on popularizing shindo with a Japanese audience but, he says, his final goal is to make it possible for everyone, no matter the age, gender or nationality to enjoy the program.

“I believe there’s more to be done and having English translators for our classes would be a good first step. We’re working on catering to a more diverse audience,” he says, explaining that it’s important for students to understand the spirituality of shindo.

“There’s something called rajio taisō in Japan — it’s an exercise program that anyone, at any age can do. Everyone knows what it is, and it’s incorporated into a lot of people’s daily lives,” he says. “I’m hoping shindo becomes the next rajio taisō, but globally.”