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Whistler Kendo Club brings an age-old art to a young, growing town

Club founder Hiroaki Yano says that kendo can be for anyone
The Whistler Kendo Club was founded in January 2022 and teaches a Japanese martial art that is growing in worldwide popularity.

The words “kendo” and “Whistler” do not often appear in the same sentence. In fact, many of you reading this probably have no idea what kendo is.

Long story short: kendo is a Japanese martial art in which fighters wearing a specific type of practice armour (called bōgu) try to score points by striking certain areas of their opponents’ bodies with bamboo swords (or shinai). The discipline traces its roots back to the Edo period from 1603 to 1868, considered a peaceful era of Japanese history. 

With relatively few enemies at hand, samurai warriors honed their skills by sparring with one another. A father-and-son duo, Yamada Heizaemon Mitsunori and Naganuma Shirozaemon Kunisato, are credited with developing the precursors of modern shinai and bōgu in the 18th century to facilitate widespread training with minimal injury. 

Kendo has since descended and deviated from kenjutsu, which teaches more traditional swordsmanship skills that samurai once used in battle. 

As both a martial art and a sport, kendo remains popular in Japan and has spread to many countries around the world. It officially reached Canada in 1914 with the establishment of a dojo called Yokikan—which today is known as the Steveston Kendo Club in Richmond. 

Whistler’s own kendo community is not nearly as well-established, but if all goes according to plan, it is here to stay.

Continuing the tradition

Hiroaki Yano, founder of the Whistler Renbu Kendo Club, has been training for over 23 years. His life of skill and discipline has taken him well beyond the borders of his native Japan to Europe, South America and the United States. Yet, as a nature lover who enjoys skiing, hiking, camping and golf, Yano was bound to take interest in what Whistler has to offer. 

After visiting multiple dojos in Vancouver, Yano felt that it would be possible to bring kendo to Whistler. Thus, he enlisted the help of his friend Dean Masahiro Ara, the head coach of Canada’s national team. Ara, in turn, introduced Yano to Albert Yeung, a fellow kendo practitioner who lives in Whistler but trains in Vancouver. 

The trio joined forces to bring their chosen pursuit to the Sea to Sky. 

Since its beginnings in January 2022, the Whistler Kendo Club has grown to 11 members: seven youths and four adults who practise on Wednesday nights at Myrtle Philip Community School. Eight of them took a big step forward back on Feb. 11 by competing in the 59th annual Steveston Kendo Tournament, one of the biggest and longest-running kendo events in North America.

Yano himself placed first among 64 contenders in the division for those ranked fourth Dan and up—in other words, senseis or masters. He also reconnected with a group of his former pupils from California, who won the adult team competition. 

None of his students won a match, but they have gained valuable experience in their own journeys. 

“They could practise only 10 times with bōgu on before the tournament,” Yano said, explaining that it takes beginners anywhere from six months to a year to progress to the point where they’re allowed to don armour. “I’m so proud of them.” 

‘Still trying to be better’

It hasn’t always been easy to attract and retain new students. Most Whistlerites have never heard of kendo, and the nature of the art—which includes contact sparring and hearty battle cries (or kiai)—can be off-putting to some. 

Nonetheless, Yano would encourage any and all comers to pick up a shinai—including those who may feel that their athletic days are behind them. 

“Age doesn’t matter,” he said. “To achieve the highest rank in kendo, the minimum age is 45 or 46 years old. Building human character, manners and etiquette are so important as well.” 

Yano didn’t always keep that in mind. He was very competitive as a younger man and regularly took part in kendo tournaments since his days growing up in Kagawa Prefecture on Shikoku Island. Many respectable performances, including several championship wins, came in Japan and the United States over the years, but in hindsight, Yano realizes he was missing something. 

“When I went to Europe and South America, they reminded me about what kendo is like,” he explained. “Winning is also important, but making friendships and [practising proper] etiquette, that’s more important than winning.” 

Now 30 years of age, Yano brings a wealth of experience to his nascent club. He coached Team Portugal at the 2017 European Kendo Championships in Budapest, Hungary, and is currently the head coach for Team Colombia. Some might be tempted to rest on their laurels, but that’s not in Yano’s nature—nor is it part of the discipline he’s given his life to.

“Even if you get to the highest rank [in kendo], it’s not the end,” he said. “You’ve got to keep working. I’m still trying to be better, better, better, all the time, even if I win a competition.”

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