If you’ve ever been stopped at the light on the corner of Scenic Highway and Dogwood or Ronald Reagan, you’ve probably seen small signs advertising Japanese sword lessons. It’s a bit of an unusual thing to see advertised in Snellville, so of course I had to find out what this was all about.
I first saw one of their shows at the Snellville International Festival and was struck by the grace and strength of this martial art form known as Shinkendo. Shinkendo teaches students "classical Japanese customs, etiquette, strategy and the Japanese Language to enhance technical and cultural understanding," according to the school's website.
Under the direction of branch manager Nayef Smith, around twenty or so students learn an art form that was at one point lost to Japanese culture.
“During and after World War II,” explained Smith, “there was a complete cultural reformation; different rules and mandates were placed on the Japanese people concerning the use of swords.”
A lot of tradition was lost. When that period ended and the restrictions on sword use were relaxed, not many people were left who were qualified to teach it.
“That’s what happens when a culture is completely demilitarized,” Smith added.
Smith trained under master Toshishiro Obata, who was a master student in Japan. Shinkendo was “invented” by Obata in 1990 and is a comprehensive form of swordsmanship. It’s derived from multiple forms of Japanese martial arts and taught in a way that is safe and effective. (The school also teaches Aikibujutsu, Toyama-Ryu, and Bojutsu.)
Smith has been involve in martial arts for most of his life. He practiced many different forms from the time he was 13 and has a black belt in Taekwondo, Kung Fu and other forms of swordsmanship. His passion, however, is Shinkendo. In 2002 he received a high enough ranking to open up his own branch.
“I got to a point of competency that I knew it was time for me to teach,” he said.
Getting a great workout is just one of the many benefits students of Shinkendo receive, according to Smith. Physical fitness makes you better at martial arts, and Shinkendo will make you stronger and healthier.
“You burn around 1200 calories from heart rate alone, aside from the strength training,” he said. “You’re going to get a very thorough high calorie workout just from swinging that sword around you one or two thousand times.”
Lessons are personally tailored to each student. Smith matches each student with others of similar skill. It takes around six months to become competent at Shinkendo, at which point you would have “the background and motor skills” to compete with students of any level.
“Your body has to learn certain habits,” he said. “People have to learn the requisite body control so they don’t harm themselves or others.”
Smith does have a day job; he works for Hewlett Packard, but does this “mainly as a personal passion.”
“I believe in it as total personal training,” he said. “You learn balance, leveling, grounding – it’s a way for you to become spiritually and mentally stronger.”