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When friends ask me about my recent trip to Tokyo, kaleidoscope slides of orange fish, thick yakitori smoke, light-green tea and color-changing leaves rush through my brain. But then my mind usually stops on one moment in particular.
I’m wearing a royal-blue robe and kneeling on a wooden floor. The windowless room is stuffy but spacious, with shelves holding ribbons and trophies engraved with Japanese characters. I’m weighed down by a metal apron, a chest plate with leather pleats attached, that's tied to me in a way I’ll never be able to replicate. I feel a sense of what I think must be zen.
And then the murderous screams sound.
This it what the first minute of kendo class was like. I booked the Japanese martial arts lesson through Airbnb, an activity described online as something that’s “not for the tourists, but the for the real Samurai Kendo beginners.”
The sentiment is correct. And it made for one of my most memorable travel experiences to date.© Courtesy of Carly Mallenbaum Our sensei snapped this picture, before the helmets went on and the sweat started dripping.
So what is kendo?
Kendo is a fighting style derived from the methods of ancient Samurai. It's Japanese fencing with a two-handed sword. It's meditative. Until it's not.
The class went from a quiet space of soothing stretches, to resembling a battle arena with a soundtrack of blood-curdling yells. Experienced students (my boyfriend and I were the only tourists) brought their bamboo swords onto each other’s armor and roared with each blow. Completely out of my own comfort zone, where could I go? Maybe into the mindset of a warrior?
Creating lasting travel memories
Visiting a new place means experiencing that region’s culture. Sure, restaurants and museums and bike tours offer plenty of tastes and tidbits about a city. But trying a sport, where you move the way that locals have for years, and you experience natives’ pain in your own sore muscles, leaves an indelible impression.
Fortunately, Airbnb’s Experiences tab and TripAdvisor's “things to do” button, among other travel resources, have made finding immersive activities in new cities easier than ever.
I added “try new sport” to my travel checklist last year after I went on a vacation to Venice, Italy, and, on a whim, took a Venetian voga lesson from Row Venice. Instead of going on the traditional touristy gondola ride, where my cultural diet would've been limited to selfies of my boyfriend and me drinking wine in the back of the boat, I became a gondolier myself. I learned how to row in a traditional loop motion, to yell “Oi!” in order to alert fellow boaters of my presence and to not fall as I bent my front knee with proper form.© Courtesy of Carly Mallenbaum I don't quite have the right gondolier outfit, but I did learn how to row like a Venetian.
I accessed parts of Venice that weren’t congested with tourists and came to appreciate the tranquility of the lagoon that supports the city while also threatening to flood it. I took it as a personal offense when tourists treated Venice as if it owed them something. I vowed to return and someday compete in the race known as the Regatta of the Century. I felt a connection.
Why my kendo experience will stick with me
My sensei, a jovial middle-aged man who wore a puffer vest and Minion socks, became a gruff Kendo master once his white armor was laced up. He knew two English words well: “Vvery" and "good.” He’d encourage me from behind a white gated mask when I did something right, like correctly yelling “Mem!” as I brought my bamboo sword straight down onto his helmeted head. Otherwise, he’d just motion for me to retry the move in order for me to figure out that, yes, he did want me to hit his wrist when he shouted “Co-tay!” And it took several attempts for me to comprehend that I should point my sword right at his neck after I struck him.
Eventually, we were doing combinations of body strikes, and I was developing my own aggressive (for me, but relatively puny for the room) scream. I felt as close as I’ll ever feel to being a swordsman, picking up my weapon again and again after putting on my own mask and getting whacked on the head. My body ached for days afterward.
Eventually, I partook in a battle (with my boyfriend, who got many more "very good"s than I) as sweat partially blinded me and I developed a delayed skull-strike technique that served me well.
It was exhausting and invigorating. By the end of the two-hour session, I found myself standing straighter in my robe because that seemed the way it was supposed to be worn. I felt a visceral tie to martial artists today and Samurai masters of the past, if ever so small.
And, hey, I also got touristy armor photos to show for it because that's an important part of traveling, too.
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