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Kendo Club practices the way of the sword

Members of the Kendo Club stretch before a recent workout in the dance studio in Alumni Arena. Photo: Ryan McCarthy

By RYAN MCCARTHY

Published October 2, 2014

Take a stroll through the labyrinth-like hallway on the ground floor of Alumni Arena Tuesday and Thursday evenings. The shouting of unfamiliar phrases followed by clashing wood reverberates down the corridors. Through one door is the brightly lit, mirror-lined hardwood floor of the dance hall. Inside stands Sensei Sam Cappiello and members of his university-level Kendo Club, their swords at a ready pose.

The bamboo swords, called “shinai,” slam against sparring couples. The fighters’ nimble footwork shifts them from one side of the room to the other in the blink of an eye. Humming fans in all corners work at the highest setting to cool the Kendo fighters, all sweating from their bulky, traditional-style Japanese armor. The atmosphere is exhilarating, worthy of anyone’s attention. This is not the average school club.

A member of the Kendo Club wears traditional-style Japanese armor. Photo: Ryan McCarthy

Do not be intimidated.  Have a seat inside. Cappiello humbly encourages and welcomes all observers at club practices. In fact, observing one full class is the only step necessary to actually join the Kendo Club; no prior knowledge or skill in Kendo is required.

Not that this is a club for the casual. “Kendo,” Cappiello says, “is a way of life.”

Back in January 2004, Cappiello formed the University at Buffalo Kendo Club. Even with a busy day job as a financial adviser for Merrill Lynch, Cappiello has spent the past 10 years growing Kendo, not only at UB, but in the broader Western New York community as well.

“Kendo — ‘ken’ meaning ‘sword’ and ‘do’ meaning ‘way’ — is the literal translation of the word,” says Cappiello. “So if you know a little bit about Japanese, you flip the two and it means ‘the way of the sword.’”

Club president and UB student Brandon Lee Chin has grown familiar with the fundamental ideologies behind Kendo. For Chin, simply wielding the shinai has been but a small fraction of the greater wisdom Kendo has taught him.

“Kendo has affected my life personally,” says Chin. “It has made me more confident. In Kendo you must commit to your techniques and ‘kiai,’ or yell. It has helped me overcome my shyness and indecisiveness.”

“Kendo,” says club founder Sam Cappiello, “is a way of life.” Photo: Ryan McCarthy

Other than sumo, Kendo is perhaps one of the oldest martial arts in existence today, Cappiello says. A belt-like system and time requirements move fighters up the ranks. There are six levels of “kyu,” which lead into eight levels of “dan.” Only a mere two out of 1,700 fighters actually acquire the status of eighth dan through a test held twice a year in Japan. Kendo is a rigorous art, demanding sheer confidence from its fighters.  

“Kendo has allowed me to do something I enjoy and be physically active at,” says UB student Gary Ye, a Kendo Club member. “You have to be focused and determined in order to improve.”

To participate in Kendo, armor and shinai are required. Ye calls them the tools necessary for improving. The two can be cheaply and conveniently purchased directly through the university. The armor even comes embroidered with a personal name and the UB logo.

With equipment in hand, practice begins.

“Kendo is about 90 percent mental training,” Cappiello explains. “You must prepare yourself to fight. In terms of the physical aspect, really anyone can make the moves.  You have to mentally ready yourself to be hit.”

The art of Kendo also is rudimentarily Japanese. There are strict guidelines to nearly everything during training. Cappiello says one has to be “open-minded to regiment and rules, because without it, it’s just hitting each other.”

For Chin, the nonphysical side of Kendo has been an important part of his club experience.

“Kendo has helped me deal with stress due to the workload given by my professors. At practice, I am able to forget all of my troubles.” And Both Chin and Ye agree the friendships made at the Kendo Club are everlasting.

Cappiello says his main goal is to grow Kendo in the area. He’s always looking for new participants for tournaments.

Some words of advice to those looking to join:

“The Kendo Club is a great learning experience, although it is not an easy one,” says Chin. “You should focus on improving yourself every day — listen to the advice you are given. You will truly have fun once you see yourself improving,” he says.

“Never be put down by a loss and seek to overcome any and all obstacles.”

For more information, visit the Kendo Club’s website.