A knightly quest for combat fitness


Castle Tintagel

Martial arts are one way to work out, and traditions from the East are just one way to fight. But Western martial artists with medieval long swords - from the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) to fabled Avalon - are forging a new path. In Tokyo, it's happening at Castle Tintagel in Mejiro.

Castle Tintagel is an anachronistic anomaly even in Japan. In the rustic salle that serves as event hall and dojo, padded European long swords replace kendo shinai and dogi-grabbing judo throws give way to grappling intended to breach plate mail armor. Yes, armor.

"On any given Sunday," says Jay Noyes, the Castle's 39-year-old chief instructor, "I'm in armor." It's essential for full-contact sparing on Sundays in Tokyo's Koganei Koen (Park) and competitions where winners take all. Noyes took up this brand of old-world fighting in 1993 as a member of the SCA in his native Bloomfield, Missouri. (The SCA boasts 30,000 members globally committed to recreating pre-17th century European arts and skills.) "As soon as I got into it," he says of fighting, "I knew I had to do it for life."

Since moving to Japan 15 years ago, Noyes co-founded SCA-affiliated Avalon to attract local-born fighters. He gave up his day job as a university teacher to co-found Castle Tintagel in March. He's part of a growing cadre, many - but not all - from the ranks of the SCA, who study and practice ancient martial arts from the West.

Western, or historical European, martial arts are those practiced in medieval days of yore "when knights were bold and love was courtly" but which have since died out. Reconstructions have gained followings in recent years, especially in North America. Examples include the Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts (AEMMA) in Toronto, Canada; the Association of Renaissance Martial Arts in Hiram, Georgia, USA; and a host of scholarly works and serious novitiate studies and practices.

"Five or six years ago people started studying these fighting techniques seriously," Noyes says. "By the standards of martial arts, that's a tiny amount of time, but by the standards of these studies that's quite awhile."

At Castle Tintagel, Noyes teaches beginning and advanced long sword classes for fighters as well as a "light training" course for actors who want learn the moves for show. He also offers a half sword class for grappling and piercing heavy armor with a sword tip and hopes to expand the curricula to dagger, poleaxe, German wrestling, English broadsword as well as sword and buckler fencing.

The Castle also offers theatrical combat with the Italian long sword, medieval etiquette, Renaissance dance, belly dancing, yoga, English- and German-language lessons and Western flower arranging taught by others. But of all its period costumes, practice weaponry and authentically crafted armor for practice or for sale, Noyes eyes glisten with pride the most over its library.

Castle Tintagel

The Castle's knightly treasures include translations of the 13th century combat manual known only as "I.33," so classified by historians. The 14th century "Secret Poems" of Johannes Liechtenhauer who coded his teachings on long sword and buckler in prose so perplexing that modern-day disciples still strive to decipher them fully. And the 15th century "Codex of Wallerstein," which cryptically details full-armor grappling.

"I don't ever claim mastery," Noyes says, adding that anyone who does is likely deluding his or herself - or others. "There're so many lost techniques." He adds that unlike the stereotypical approach to martial arts, many in his genre don't guard secrets; they share them freely. "The fight is not between Western martial artists," he says, its a cooperative quest for a holy grail: The full restoration - and practice - of these arts.

Such arts don't lack the deeper soul-purifying qualities of their Eastern counterparts, either. So testifies John Graham, 63, aka Friar Jak, seneschal, or chief of staff, for SCA's Palatine Barony chapter in Japan. After more than two decades with this art and having added kendo to his regiment since residing here, he says Western martial arts have principles similar to Japanese "budo," or the Way of the Warrior.

"The ideal of chivalry runs through it," says Graham, adding most SCA fighters have a "heart of gold," as exemplified in their adherence to a code of honor whereby they freely admit receiving a potentially fatal blow in competitions. (Or stay standing to challenge its veracity and risk another twice as hard.) It's no less challenging physically.

Noyes says the combat training he offers helps hone four essentials for any armor-clad warrior worth his or her salt: strength, flexibility, stamina and coordination. But there's an element to this old-world brand of fighting fitness of which he is particularly proud.

"Most of the people that start training here are people that don't do martial arts or normally exercise," he says. "I have a lot of sympathy because that's the kind of person I used to be. People that are drawn to this find something that makes them want to exercise. I love it when I hear people say things like, 'I quit smoking because it was interfering with my training.'" Participants say they definitely feel the burn.

"I feel it after every practice," says Katherine Bramley, 34. She trains at the Castle and co-heads the regional SCA chapter as Palatine Baroness of the West. She adds that Sunday meets in the park are particularly grueling. "Every muscle aches afterward. You defiantly feel it because we wear armor. It also takes a certain amount of endurance and you have to get speed in there in order to strike someone."

Graham, the Friar, offers an even stronger testimony to the fitness benefits of a good medieval melee. After practicing this art for more than a decade, he says he underwent triple bypass surgery in 2002 and recovered so well that it perked his surgeon's curiosity.

"He asked what professional sport I played," Graham recounts. "I told him none. So he asked me if I ran marathons, rode long-distance bicycle trials or what it was I did do to exhaustion two or three times a week? I told him I put on 30-some pounds of armor and swung a sword for a couple hours until I could no longer lift my arms a couple times per week. He said, 'that would do it.'"

Learn more about Castle Tintagel at: http://castletintagel.com or e-mail Jay Noyes at: jnoyes@castletintagel.com. Find out more about Avalon at: http://avalon.tsukaeru.jp. Info on the SCA's Barony of the Far West chapter in Japan is at: http://www.farwestbarony.com.

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