Interview: Studying Martial Arts in Japan - Shorinji Kempo


Someone once said, “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.” But it is not just travel that makes you richer; it is how you approach it. If your only goal is to check things off a map, then that is what you will do. Your plane will land, you will follow your Lonely Planet, and you will check things off your map, and then you will fly home. But for others, the richest, their approach takes them into forgotten places off the beaten paths. It takes them out of hostels and into homes with locals.

One way I have expanded my approach to travel is by doing something I love in the countries I visit, training martial arts.  But I am not alone and something I really enjoy is interviewing fellow travelers of the path less taken to learn new ways to train martial arts in other countries and to get inspired to do so. The following is an interview with my good buddy Ian, “The Traveling Yak,” from BorderlessTravels.com, a fellow nomad and vagabond, about his experiences in training martial arts in Japan.

 First off Ian, you’re a badass traveler, so why don’t you give us a little run down of how much traveling you’ve done to date to establish a little bit of street cred. So about how much have you done or where have you been recently?

Like you mentioned I’m not one to just check countries and tourist destinations off a list, but I’ve done some pretty epic trips while visiting some incredible countries to work, travel, and learn.  Recently, I just got back from Ghana where I was leading a group volunteer trip for Me To We.  Over the past few years I’ve spent time is several dozen countries but my most memorable experiences have been training in India with the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, traveling on the Trans-Siberian railway with a couple good friends, traveling through Eastern Europe, and training in Shorinji Kempo while working in Japan.

I know you studied martial arts in Japan, but what brought you there in the first place?

I love Japan, the food, the culture, the people, and the country are amazing to explore.  It’s a unique place I’ve been drawn to before and somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit.  Living there gave me a whole new perspective and appreciation for the beauty of the culture, people, and country.  

Recently, I was there teaching at a University in downtown Tokyo where I found a new appreciation for ramen (Japanese noodle soup), climbed Mount Fuji, and discovered a new martial art.

What martial art did you study in Japan? Had you heard of it before your visit?

I studied Shorinji Kempo.  I’d never hear of the martial art before my visit and discovered it randomly while passing a group of students training at the university club across the street from my campus bulding.  

Ian practicing Shorinji Kempo techniques.
Ian practicing Shorinji Kempo techniques.

 Can you tell us a little bit more about the martial art, maybe about the history or techniques?

Doshin So founded Shorinji Kempo in 1947 upon his return to Japan from his station in China during WW2.  It was seeing the demoralization of society and the Japanese people that encouraged him to create Shorinji Kempo.  He did this to transform society through peaceful means by teaching them Shorinji Kempo and its spiritual foundation of Buddhism.

Shorinji Kempo is an extremely effective when it comes to self-defense and the system is based on a foundation of two fundamental groups of techniques.  The first is Goho or hard techniques which are your punches, kicks,  etc.  The second is Juho, or soft techniques which focus on throws, pins, holds, releases and so on.

How did you find your dojo while in Japan? Was it an easy search or did you need some help?

My goal since the last time I worked in Japan was to study Karate but I couldn’t find a dojo that I liked or that was reasonably priced.  When I saw some of my students training as part of the university Shorinji club I went to check it out and see if I could train.  

After my first lesson with them I learned that couldn’t train with the club because they were training for a national tournament and needed to focus on that (my students came in second).  

That’s when I met Tsubasa, without him I probably would never have been able to train because I didn’t know how to find dojos in Tokyo since the websites are all in Japanese or non existent.

With Tsubasa’s help I was able to find a few dojo’s near where I worked and we checked them out together.  In was during this search that we found the dojo I’d end up training, became a member of the World Shorinji Organization, and discovered a listing of all the dojo’s around the world.

What was the cost like? Was it expensive or relative to the cost of Japanese living?

Shorinji Kempo is relatively cheap and because it’s regulated by a global governing body the fees and programming are standardized around the world.  If I remember correctly it costs about $140 per year to be a member then $40 per month.  Relative to the cost of living in Japan its super cheap especially when you consider that training at places like the world Karate Headquarters in Tokyo can cost hundreds of dollars.

Did you find they were accepting of a foreigner? Was there a language barrier and did you walk away from the experience with some new friends?

The club was amazingly welcoming and enthusiastic to share their knowledge with me, practice their English, and teach some Japanese.  There was a bit of a language barrier but most people spoke a little English and I was able to learn the techniques easier because I was fully immersed and around the world all the techniques are taught in Japanese.  Joining the club was the best thing for meeting new people, creating friendships they went beyond the dojo, and being part of a Japanese community where I was the only foreigner.

Ian with classmates.
Ian with classmates.

How did you find the training? Was it hardcore? Do you have to be a marathon runner or a star athlete to train in this art or can anyone give it a shot?

The training was unique in that it did not push physical limits like running a marathon or being a superstar Olympic athlete.  The techniques are based on transfer of energy and balance rather than brute strength.  Anyone can do it and there’s a big push within the organization to encourage women to join for self-defense.

The drawback I found to not have an abundance of strength building is that the techniques take a lot of practice to learn well and use effectively, some of the Juho (soft techniques) are very specific and need to be perfomed accurately to be effective.  Regardless, it was useful, relevant, fun, and anyone can do it!!

 Aside from the techniques of the martial art itself, did you learn any ancient wisdom or life lessons to take away from training in Shorinji Kempo?

Shorinji Kempo has a strong spiritual foundation based in Buddhism and with my English translation I was able to learn all about this side of the martial art.  It was incredibly fascinating to read about Shorinji’s Buddhist background and spiritual beliefs which are founded on mutual and self respect both physically, mentally, and spiritually.

What’s next for the traveling Yak?  What big adventures are you planning out next? What can we expect to be reading about on BorderlessTravels.com in the future?


This year I’m looking forward to continuing my work with Me to We and hope to bring youth groups to a few different countries over the spring and summer to do volunteer work.  As for big adventures things are still percolating and I haven’t made any decisions yet, right now I’m just going with the flow and continuing to fill the website will all my past knowledge and experience from a year on the road.  Readers can look forward to reading more about Eastern Europe, which includes interviews and experiences from a few days in Chernobyl, as well as some great stuff from Japan.

To learn more about Shorinji Kempo, where to train in Tokyo, and Ian’s experience CLICK HERE.

Teaching in Tokyo, mountaineering the Himalayas, surfing in Indonesia or traveling the Trans-Siberian Ian is always looking for adventure.  He has been to over 30 countries around the world to work, study, volunteer, and travel.  Join him at www.borderlesstravels.com were he shares his experiences, inspires, and teaches you how to start your own borderless travels.


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