Aikido, judo, jujitsu, kendo, karate, sumo: Surely Japan has enough martial arts to keep even the most voracious of combat connoisseurs entertained for a lifetime, right? Wrong.
Jay Noyes, a 40-year-old self-described “farmer from Missouri,” has recently established his own school for Western martial arts — in Tokyo.
Castle Tintagel, as it’s called, is located in the leafy residential district of Mejiro — just up the road from Gakushuin University, where members of the Imperial family are educated. Presumably the local branch of the Security Police has already noticed the presence of fully armored knights wielding longswords, poleaxes, daggers and shields in their midst.
But lest too much alarm ensues: while the armor Noyes and his students use is real — custom-made in mild or stainless steel, chain mail and leather — the weapons are not. “These are made of rattan,” Noyes explained, holding up a tape-covered pole about a meter long — a longsword.
“It won’t injure you, but it hits with a certain amount of authority,” he explained.
Noyes has always been interested in medieval combat. In the United States he was a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, an international, 32,000-member group that studies and reenacts elements of pre-17th-century Western European cultures.
Some of the most popular SCA events are battles, which, Noyes wistfully remembered, can involve “over 2,000 people, all in full armor, fighting — a great melee.”
Having moved to Japan in 1991, Noyes first started participating in local SCA events, which were mostly organized out of U.S. military bases.
“I wanted to get them off the bases and get Japanese involved,” he recalled, so he formed his own group, Avalon. The group (whose name comes from the fabled island where King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, was forged) now holds medieval feasts, barbecues, camping outings and, of course, combat events.
Castle Tintagel, which Noyes opened last year (it’s also got an Arthurian name, being the Cornish stronghold where the legendary king was supposed to have been born), is designed to teach budding combatants the skills they need to take up arms at Avalon combat events.
And thus to the converted Mejiro storeroom, where on a rainy Sunday morning last month, unsuspecting passersby would have been startled to hear sudden cries of “my lord,” “yield,” “telling blow” and “dead,” interspersed with feverish flurries of clangs and thwacks.
“No killing today. We only have three people,” the good-humored Noyes said to his charges: Joshua from Canada; Pascal from France; and new, local boy, Suguru.
The day’s class was titled “Academy of Chivalry,” which meant armored combat and chivalric philosophy. (There are other classes focusing on specific weapons, and others still for more peaceful pastimes, such as calligraphy.) After some quick stretches, the group launched into energetic sword-thrust drills — without wearing any armor.
“Right foot at 45 degrees. Bend your knees. Lower yourself from the ceiling on a string,” Noyes said in describing the initial stance.
“The power comes up from the earth,” he said, launching his body into a rotating move that ended with a straight thrust of the sword in front of him.
“Right foot rotates forward on your toes. Hip, shoulder, hand, out, hit, good, drop back,” he instructed. “The feeling is you’re a waiter serving soup. You’re a soup server.”
Suguru, the newcomer, quickly got the hang of it, and was shortly “serving soup” as though he’d apprenticed at the Ritz.
“I’ve been doing kendo for 16 years,” the stocky 25-year-old said during a break. “The difference is that with Western fighting there are so many more ways to swing the sword — sideways, downward, up. In kendo, it’s all straight up and down.”
When Suguru is not swinging weapons in real life, he’s doing it in cyberspace as a producer at one of Japan’s leading game-makers. “When you’re designing fighting games you try to guess what it would be like to swing a sword or hold a shield. But when you actually do it, it is very different. I wanted to experience it myself, and wearing the armor too,” he explained.
Suguru had to wait till the afternoon to wear the armor, when the lesson had finished and some Avalon members turned up for sparring practice. Like most of Noyes’ students, Suguru had ordered his own suit of armor (15th-century style, with a bucket helmet, at a cost of around ¥100,000), but was borrowing Noyes’ until it arrived.
“When I get my own gear I’m going to wear it to a friend’s wedding,” he laughed, as he strapped on the 30-kg kit. “How much fun would that be?”
Well, a little more “fun,” perhaps, than the bouts themselves. After pairing off, the helmeted combatants greeted each other with chivalrous “My Lords,” sauntered around for a few seconds with surprising agility and then crashed magnetically together in an explosion of swords, shields, breastplates and chain mail.
“There are no judges,” Noyes explained over the fracas. “It’s a self-judging system. A strike to the head or the body with the kind of force that would have damaged you through chain armor is a ‘telling blow’ and you have been beaten,” he said.
After about 15 seconds or so, somewhere in among the maelstrom of lunges, swipes, blocks and parries, one combatant was struck tellingly and as fast as it all began, the bout ended.
“The idea with Western martial arts is that you should be strong, but you don’t need to be all macho about it,” Noyes said. “The self-judging aspect actually makes people very polite.” It also makes the kind of 2,000-person battles that SCA holds in America possible. “Imagine trying to have 1,000 judges in there at the same time,” he said.
Noyes hopes some day to realize battles on that scale in Japan. So far Castle Tintagel has gathered about 45 students, and Avalon has an active mailing list of over 300 — with Japanese accounting for around 90 percent of each group.
As yet, there may not be quite enough combatants to recreate the Battle of Agincourt here in the Land of the Samurai, but it’s a start. Let the games begin, my lords!
For more information on Castle Tintagel, visit www.castletintagel.com
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.