Yeoh Siew Hoon
Yeoh Siew Hoon

Here's the story of how a samurai sword fighter got into travel and how he wants to tell the story of samurai to travelers.

Hiroki Noguchi was 14 when he first saw a Sonny Chiba movie about a samurai. Chiba was one of the first Japanese actors to achieve stardom through his martial arts skills and went on to star in movies such as "G.I. Samurai" (1979) and "Samurai Reincarnation" (1981).

The teenage Noguchi was so impressed he decided to take up samurai sword fighting right away. His parents were not impressed with his plans.

"But in the end, they gave up," he said, "and now they are proud of what I do."

Noguchi is the samurai behind Samurai Workout, a program set up to showcase samurai history through classes as well as tate (sword fighting) performances. It's a collaboration between Noguchi and entrepreneur Fumihiro Akahori, who was looking to start an inbound business showcasing Japanese culture and heritage.

Akahori, CEO of Japan Content Laboratory, which runs Samurai Workout, said, "We wanted to showcase samurai history to foreigners because samurai is more than a martial art. It is an entire spirit, a way of life, a code of honor called Bushido. It is inclusive of all religions, whether Buddhism or Shintoism."

Noguchi added, "It is also becoming very popular globally through anime, but we feel that doesn't show the real history, so now is a good time to tell the real story and share the whole spirit."

In their performances, you get a glimpse of the art and mastery of the samurai world, and their classes teach you, through live demonstrations, about how to get properly attired as well as how to practice sword fighting.

They're not promising to turn anyone into an instant samurai expert, because, according to Noguchi, this takes a lifetime. He's been training for 35 years, and he still trains between six and seven hours each day.

To pay for his classes, he had to take on a variety of odd jobs throughout his life. He now acts in TV commercials such as one for Aderans, a hair product.

Samurai Workout founders Hiroki Noguchi, left, and Fumihiro Akahori.
Samurai Workout founders Hiroki Noguchi, left, and Fumihiro Akahori.

Today, Noguchi trains students, and his students have performed in Jakarta, Indonesia, while he has performed in Paris as well as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland.

Noguchi said that learning to be a samurai teaches you discipline, manners and kindness to others, "but you have to be hard on yourself." And while we may associate samurai with violence (In how many movies have we seen people being sliced and diced by swords?), Noguchi said that in samurai code, "even if you lose, you don't lose respect."

This means that "even if you kill them, you don't kick them. There is honor in death."

You can tell Noguchi is passionate about his art form and about samurai history, and he believes that all of us should love our own history. He feels that nowadays, many Japanese do not appreciate their own history and that, interestingly, it is foreigners who appreciate it more.

Akahori, who looks after the business side of the partnership, said Samurai Workout draws more foreigners than locals. They get equal numbers of men and women as customers.

Do women make better samurai, I asked? "Somehow women have more patience and discipline," he said with a laugh. "Japanese men today are weak and impatient."

Still, there's been an increase in young Japanese who have expressed interest in learning about samurai history.

"They learn about it from video games and anime and get curious enough to come and learn," Akahori said. "They think it's cool, but then they learn that it can be hard."

Akahori has worked with travel advisors and hotels to promote Samurai Workout performances, but he now wants to do more digital marketing.

Beyond samurai history, he also wants to introduce ceremonial narratives to the company's offering.

Part of Samurai Workout's attraction is that it is based in Kagurazaka, a neighborhood of Tokyo known for its ancient temples and shrines quietly intermingling with a significant French presence and discreet ryotei, traditional luxury restaurants. It is also renowned for its geisha houses, several of which remain today.

The Samurai Workout office is located within a Buddhist Jodoshu temple, the Shojoin Houkokuji, which was constructed more than 400 years ago by the wife of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan.

Given how his life as a samurai was inspired by movies, I had to ask him which was his favorite film. He named Akira Kurosawa's "Yojimbo" (1961) and "Sanjuro" (1962).

As for what he thought about 2003's "The Last Samurai," starring Tom Cruise, he said, "I felt his spirit, it was an amazing movie." In fact, one of the actors, Hiroyuki Sanada, was the teacher of his first teacher, Noguchi said.

So the good news is that anyone can be a samurai if they want. The key is to train both spiritually and physically, and often, the spiritual part is harder to conquer.
"The two have to be connected for you to become a samurai," Noguchi said.

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