Planet Japan: The Samurai Museum and Samurai Kembu Theater

Planet Japan: The Samurai Museum and Samurai Kembu Theater

0 comments 📅17 September 2018, 09:09

From George Lucas to Quentin Tarantino, Marvel Comics to the Cartoon Network, Western pop culturists have been obsessed with samurai for decades. It’s not hard to see why: a ruling warrior class of honourable, highly skilled fighters who sported fearsome armour and really, really sharp swords, the samurai make for endlessly fascinating source material. And even though they haven’t been employed on the battlefield for around 150 years, there are still those in modern Japan who are keeping the spirit of bushido – aka “the way of the warrior” – alive.

If you’re looking for a crash course in samurai history, Tokyo has you covered. Nestled away in the back streets of the bustling Shinjuku district, a stone’s throw from the Godzilla-besieged Toho tower, is the imaginatively titled Samurai Museum – which boasts an eclectic collection of armour, weapons and art from throughout the feudal era, stretching right back to the 12th century.

Shoes off (of course), our friendly guide takes us through the museum’s various exhibits, entertainingly recounting the dramatic stories of power, revenge and honour that accompany the men behind the intricately crafted metal suits – as well as the epic battles they were involved in. As the tour draws on, it’s interesting to see how modern artists have been inspired by the samurai. Case in point? The none-more-black armour of the infamous lord Oda Nobunaga – a ruthless 16th-century leader known as Japan’s first “unifier”, who was betrayed by his former apprentice and committed seppuku (ritual suicide) during a coup d’etat – is a clear inspiration for Darth Vader’s iconic, menacing get-up.

Head full of fascinating trivia (fun fact: holstering your blade on your right-hand side was a surefire way to get yourself executed on the spot) and gruesome musings (just how many heads have been lopped off by that sword collection over the years?), it’s time for a demonstration. Our host introduces a real-life, modern-day trainee samurai, who proceeds to leap around the room in an impressively shouty show of katana-wielding martial artistry. It’s so impressive, in fact, that we’re itching to try it ourselves…

Less than three hours on a bullet train and you’re in Kyoto – Japan’s historic capital. There, in the charmingly old-fashioned Higashiyama district, you’ll find the Samurai Kembu Theater, where you can take part in performances of the titular “kembu” – a martial art that combines traditional swordplay with dance. Developed as the samurai era was drawing to a close in the mid-19th century, kembu preserves the bushido spirit through dramatic interpretations of heroic deeds and great battles. Be warned, though: there’s nothing interpretive about the swords, which are still sharp enough to give you a nasty nick if you’re not careful (they also cut the air with a very satisfying “swoosh”).

There are various options on offer to suit different budgets. We opted for the full kembu school experience, which included picking out and getting dressed in customised attire – a kimono, hakama (samurai trousers tied up at the back, corset-style) and our very own pair of tabi (divided-toe socks) – before embarking on what amounted to a two-hour personal training session with our instructor, Hisyou. This is definitely the best option if your budget and schedule allows it: it’s amazing how much looking the part helps you act it, too.

The lesson itself is surprisingly complex. Before being let loose with a katana, students must first learn how to walk and talk like a samurai: shuffling around the room in a kind of upright-squat position and perfecting your battle cry (a guttural – and very loud – “HUP!”).

From there, it’s all about getting your head around the sword movements – forward thrusts, side strikes and even elaborate spinning-jump attacks – and the dance techniques, and then seamlessly blending it all together to craft your own kembu performance. It requires a lot of concentration and is fairly physically challenging – there’s a lot of lunging and squatting involved, so make sure you’re prepared to get a bit sweaty and remember to stretch afterwards – but it’s great fun, and a unique opportunity to experience the way of the samurai for yourself. The only downside? You don’t get to keep the sword…


Samurai Museum
Shinjuku, Tokyo
Entry (includes tour and performance): ¥1,900 (approx £13)

Samurai Kembu Theater
Higashiyama, Kyoto
Full lesson with costume: ¥9,000 (approx £62)

Our man on Planet Japan was culture and lifestyle journalist Richard Jordan, who travelled to the country for the first time and became obsessed with the fearsome Japanese warriors known as the samurai. You can find him on Instagram @richjordan.


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