‘You can do this. I'm so sure, I'm going to congratulate you now."
It was the words I needed to hear just two days before my kendo shodan exam. I had worked hard during the past two months to first achieve i-kyuu and then attempt shodan.
My practice schedule went from going to the children's practice once a week, to practising keiko in another town and attending the junior-high and early Sunday morning practices. The more I practised, the more I came to really learn about and appreciate the sport of Kendo.
Things I had been doing up until then, I never understood them. Everything has a meaning. The angle you hit your opponent, the way you hold your shinai, the way your eyes must be focused on your opponent and the way your feet move; in kendo, you are learning the ways of the samurai.
I had watched v-logs where foreigners talk about how they failed shodan first time around, so I knew that the judges - five members of the Japanese National Kendo Association - would not go easy on me simply because I was a foreigner.
Besides, I didn't want them to. If I was going to pass, I wanted to pass because I deserved to. I was excited.
The day before the exam things took a turn for the worst.
Along with my kendo training, I had also been doing an exercise programme off YouTube which my friend challenged me to. I hadn't intended on doing it the week prior to the exam, but I got confident and wanted to start the second level. Big mistake.
During the early hours of Saturday morning, my lower back began to have sharp stabbing pains, and I found myself trying to get up and walk around every hour or so. Each time it got more and more painful. I would lean on my legs and try to push myself up, but it wasn't good.
By the morning, I couldn't even do that.
It was devastating. Even though I was in terrible pain (a reoccurrence of a slipped disc incident from 2011), the only thing I was worried about was being able to sit shodan the next day.
Eventually the pain subsided enough for me to stand and slip on a skirt. My friend came over and helped me get to the doctor's where they injected something in my back and gave me some sort of pad containing medicine which absorbs through the skin, and tablets.
I spent most of the day on the couch praying that it would get at least good enough for me to do the maximum five minute physical part of shodan. I was lucky because I had previously sat and passed the kata part of the exam, so all that was left was the kirikaeshi, keiko, and written exam.
By the afternoon, my back was feeling a little better, but I wasn't convinced I should be practising that night. I made it to practice where my coaches discussed what to do and rang a specialist "bone doctor" to get more details.
They sent me home with my main coach's wife and instructions to spend the evening lying down and to buy a corset. One of them would come to my house the next morning before I had to leave for the exam (it was in a town close to Kyoto), to wrap me up in it.
I spent the night watching movies from my bath. It helped a lot.
The next morning, I got up at 5.15am. There was still a wee bit of pain but I could definitely move a lot better than I could the day before.
But instead of feeling confident I would pass, I was nervous. All the time that people from various clubs had invested in me and all the time I had invested in myself came down to this one day, and it could be derailed because of this injury.
By 6.30am, someone came and wrapped me tightly in the corset, which helped a lot. In fact I'm amazed at just how much it helped. My movements became easier, I could stamp my feet without it hurting. It was good.
At 9.30am, along with 400 other kendoka from around the prefecture, I went into the hall for the opening ceremony and start of keiko examinations.
I was number 67 in the female shodan category. One of my opponents was a 3rd year high school student and the other, who referred to herself as obaa-chan (grandmother, although she was only in her 30s or 40s) was the same opponent I had in my i-kyuu exam. I was grateful to have her with me, and because we were the last three, we spent the waiting time getting to know each other a bit.
Keiko and kirikaeshi are all about showing good form, so as I entered the "ring" all I could thing was keep your arms straight, relax, always move straight, use a big, strong voice. It happened so fast - two kirikaeshi and two keiko (matches) and it was done.
I wasn't sure how it went, but when I left the ring one of the men I had trained with assured me it was good. My private coach told me he was sure I had passed.
A few hours later,the judges brought out the results board and I'm happy to say my number was on it.
I had done it.
The written test was a strange experience, with us lined up writing on the floor. It was so hot, sweat was dripping from my forehead on to my exam paper.
By 3pm, it was official - I had passed shodan. Best feeling in the world.
Tania Butterfield is a former Express reporter teaching English at two schools in the Shiga prefecture of central Japan.
- The Marlborough Express