Fourteen years ago, while walking with a friend, a piercing yell echoed suddenly down the hall of my university. As we followed the sound, eyebrows raised, a different sense began to take over. The pungent smell of gear that can be set out to dry, but can never really be washed, led us to the dojo.

Kendo's visual impression proved no less unsettling: Students in robes and strange armor searched with bamboo swords for openings in each other's guard. This bristling tension was broken here and there by the indigo blur of a strike, and although the screams were warlike, the people maintained a calm dignity behind their mantis-like masks. How, I wondered, did an activity like this come to be?

A little history