Finding budo in Kyoto

by Oscar Johnson
Stripes Okinawa

Be it to climb the ancient steps of Buddhist temples or steal a glimpse at a classically garbed geisha, Kyoto is the go-to destination to see traditional Japan. But there’s more to this former capital than the holy and the high-class. “Budo,” that time-honored “Way of the Warrior,” is also alive and well here. And nothing better represents it than Kyoto Butokuden – a living monument to the martial arts.

In the span of an afternoon – if not an hour – the culturally curious and would-be warrior alike can witness a smorgasbord of Japan’s budo arts within the grounds of this grand old wooden pavilion. They include judo meets, aikido training and Zen archery – maybe even “naginata-do” (halberd fencing), “juken-do” (bayonet fencing) or a sumo wrestler presiding over kids trying their hand in the ring. If that’s not enough, there are several martial arts shops nearby loaded with a plethora of low- to high-end gear for practicing these and other arts.

Unknown to most tourists, the compound that is Kyoto Budo, or Martial Arts, Center resides inconspicuously near the famed Heian Jingu Shrine and other main attractions. It sports a “kyudo” (Japanese archery) range, covered outdoor sumo ring, large modern gymnasium and clubhouse. But its centerpiece is the 110-year-old regal Kyoto Butokuden. Here, karate “kiai” cries, the clack of bamboo kendo swords, swooshing “iaido” blades or the slam of bodies flung deftly to the floor may echo throughout the 1,051-square-meter interior on any given day. It’s a testament to Japan’s martial arts traditions.

Since the feudal days of samurai, budo practitioners sought more than mere mastery of the martial arts. These “budo-ka” sought virtuous self-refinement through the earnest study, practice and application of these arts. For many today, this Spartan tradition remains the same, making it an esteemed part of Japan’s cultural heritage. Hence, public “budokan,” or martial arts halls, are common in the Land of the Rising Sun. Many cities have at least one of these facilities where locals practice martial arts or other activities. Like cities themselves, they vary in size, grandeur and even scope. Tokyo’s mammoth Nippon (Japan) Budokan, for example, was built for the 1964 Summer Olympics judo competition. Yet it’s now known more for big-name concerts and ensuing “Live at Budokan” albums – from the Beatles to Bryan Adams. But Historic Kyoto’s equivalent remains true to its name. As implied by its archaic title, “Butokuden,” or Hall of Martial Virtue, this is no mere community dojo. For many, it’s a century-old martial arts Mecca.

“One of the highlights to visiting the country of origin for my martial art was being able to visit the Butokuden,” Russ St. Hilaire, a sixth-degree black belt in traditional Japanese jujitsu, says via e-mail. The former U.S. Army hand-to-hand combat instructor and founding instructor of Kobukai Jujitsu dojo in Glastonbury, Conn. made his proverbial martial arts hadj in 2007. He says it left a definite impression: “So many notable martial arts masters have trained there in the past that it felt almost like a place of pilgrimage for me.”

That comes as no surprise to Kyoto Amateur Sports Association’s Keisuke Inoue. He says Kyoto Butokuden, “is a historic and legendary place for martial arts.” Since it’s a public venue used by a variety of groups, he says the best thing visiting would-be participants can do is call his office and inquire in advance. But visitors are always welcome to watch from outside where the action can usually be seen from one of the open double doors on all four sides. (Activities at other facilities on the grounds can also be easily viewed.) The center is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. with weekends and holidays being the busiest times, Inoue says. But he warns, “Don’t cause any disturbances during the events.” That doesn’t mean, however, it’s impossible for unexpected visitors to ply their martial arts in this hallowed hall. 

In what seems to be the result of one of those must-have-been-doing-something-right moments, St. Hilaire says he was able join a judo class during his visit. Using his limited Japanese, he says, he obtained permission from the center’s office to watch the class from inside the Butokuden. Thanks to the aid of a gracious greeter who was participating, he later was given the OK to join the next judo class. It made the 30-year-jujitsu veteran’s pilgrimage all the more memorable.

“In the huge, echoing, dark ancient hall of martial masters, I was able to practice martial arts for an hour,” St. Hilaire says. “That hour of throws and chokes and arm bars went by in the blink of an eye, yet has stayed with me for years. That moment when you realize you are in the ‘cathedral’ of the traditional martial arts of Japan is a moment one never forgets. The sound of the echoing kiais, the smell of the old wood, the chill of the breeze that blows through the doors, the sound of the shuffling feet on the tatami mats. … One is taken with the moment and the atmosphere as one experiences the spirits of the ancient warriors that no doubt dwell in that hallowed hall called the Butokuden.”

To be sure, Kyoto Butokuden’s role in the rich heritage of budo is not to be taken lightly. It reflects the importance modern prewar Japan – for better or for worse – put on its martial ways. The pavilion was initially headquarters to a powerful group that controlled the nation’s martial arts. Dai Nippon Butoku Kai (The Great Martial Virtues Association of Japan) was founded in 1895 to promote, preserve and standardize Japan’s martial traditions. Endorsed by Emperor Meiji and established under the Ministry of Education, it was Japan’s first and only government-sanctioned body of its kind. By 1899, Kyoto Butokuden was completed as the “hombu,” or headquarters, dojo for this elite association. Here, some of the most esteemed practitioners honed Japan’s now famous martial arts.

It was through Dai Nippon Butoku Kai and this historic structure that much of Japan’s popular martial arts such as kendo, judo and karate-do took their modern forms. In 1917 at Kyoto Butokuden, for example, Funakoshi Gichin gave the first official demonstration of “toudi-jutsu” on mainland Japan. At the time, this Okinawan martial art with Chinese roots – like most things foreign – had not exactly been embraced on the mainland. But Dai Nippon Butoku Kai soon after pushed to standardize the practice and teaching of what is now known and practiced worldwide as karate. (Gichin was the founder of Shotokan karate.)

As the standard bearer for martial arts in prewar Japan, the Butokuden was Dai Nippon Butoku Kai’s flagship. The organization made judo founder Kano Jigoro’s “dan” (black-belt degrees) and “kyu” (lower-grade) ranks the norm for all martial arts here. It collected weapons, equipment and historical data related to Japan’s budo traditions; held demonstrations and tournaments; and published related literature. In 1911, it opened Budo Semmon Gakko (The Martial Ways Specialty School), said to be Japan’s West Point Academy and successfully lobbied the Ministry of Education for mandatory judo and kendo courses in all middle schools.

Needless to say, after World War II, Dai Nippon Butoku Kai and its college were some of the first institutions disbanded and shuttered during the occupation. Martial arts were banned. In a twist of fate, the Butokuden was used as a local headquarters by the Allied Forces from 1945 to 1950. (Three years later, Dai Nippon Butoku Kai regrouped as a private organization with similar social and political ties but no state authority.) Kyoto Butokuden was declared a national treasure in 1970 and restored to its original splendor in 1987. The newer buildings were also added to the grounds. Today, Dai Nippon Butoku Kai is affiliated with a myriad of martial arts organization here and abroad but its former hombu dojo is now owned and operated by Kyoto city. But the Butokuden is still revered by many adherents to Japan’s budo traditions – both here and now abroad – as a place to hone their skills.

“I think anyone that practices budo would probably like to train there at least once in their lifetime,” says Yoko Okamoto. The sixth-degree black belt and aikido instructor should know. After cofounding and running her first dojo with husband Chris Mulligan in Portland, Ore., she started Aikido Kyoto in 2003 and has since hosted yearly training seminars and taught occasional classes at the Butokuden. Okamoto admits the historic significance is what makes it ideal for hosting seminars for visiting “shihan,” or master teachers, but says the real draw for her is that they just don’t make ’em like this anymore.

“The first time I trained at Kyoto Butokuden was at an aikido seminar and I remember feeling that it was open – like you’re training close to nature,” Okamoto recalls. She says everything from the slight spring in the handcrafted wooden floors and natural acoustics and lighting, to the pavilion’s airy ventilation during the sweltering summer months, make it ideal for budo training. “It’s a feeling you don’t get when you are training in a concrete building. You feel closer to nature. Because of the handmade architecture, it’s almost like your training in the woods.”

For a budo-ka, she adds, that’s as it should be. It’s a feeling, like the Butokuden itself, Okamoto seems willing to work toward preserving. As a committee member of a private organization that raises funds to help preserve this and other historic Kyoto buildings, Okamoto says she has concerns about its future: “Nowadays there are many modern budo places in Japan but I think that place is unique. It’s wonderful that anyone can use it, but sometimes people take it for granted. It needs to be taken care of. I’d rather see my taxes going there than some of the other things they’re being used for.” It’s an appreciation that many others seem to share, as can be seen by the myriads of events held at Kyoto Butokuden annually.

The city-owned structure is nearly always booked solid, ensuring there almost always will be something going on there to see, if not join. In fact, Akai Ryuichiro of nearby Tozando martial arts-supplies shop says his company opened this local branch in 2007 for that very reason. Okamoto says she must book the historic venue a year in advance for aikido-training seminars (and its use is reserved for Kyoto city residents but exceptions can be made).

Inoue, of Kyoto Amateur Sports, says upcoming events are usually posted on the center’s Japanese website only about a month in advance. Since Kyoto is a popular destination, getting there to see these and other events, individually or on a group tour, is as easy as a call to Information Tours and Ticketing.

No matter how one gets to Japan’s historic former capital, Kyoto Butokuden and the surrounding Kyoto Budo Center offer insights into the city’s history, culture and living budo traditions. Unfortunately, they are not likely to be on the average tour itinerary (though nearby Heian Jingu Shrine is). Nonetheless, this is one site that’s well worth making a detour to see.

Yusuke Sato assisted in reporting for this story.

• For more on Kyoto Budo Center, call 075-751-1255 or visit
• To learn more about Aikido Kyoto dojo, visit: 
• Learn more about Kobukai Jujitsu dojo at:
• Read more about Dai Nippon Butoku Kai at:
• See what Tozando martial arts supplies has at:

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