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When facing an opponent in battle, a samurai had to keep his head -- or risk losing it.

Modern life isn't quite so extreme, but people who practice kendo, the art of Japanese fencing, say there is much to be gained from studying this martial art that goes far beyond a vigorous workout and

Kill Bill

-style swordplay.

Granted, kendo, or "way of the sword," does look rather intense. A kendo class is a symphony of combat, as participants clad in body armor and massive helmets face off with bamboo swords and attack each other with spirited shouts of "



Yells, foot-stomping and the steady whack-whack-whack of clashing swords fill the air as the energy level in the room steadily rises.

But that's just the surface. Those who practice the art say there's much more going on that you don't see. Kendo enthusiasts say it develops a level of focus and concentration that goes well beyond the walls of the dojo or training hall.

"Kendo concepts will help you for whatever you're doing," says Daniel T. Ebihara, chief instructor at Ken Zen Dojo in New York. "You're training to make yourself strong. But you don't use much physical strength; it's more mental strength."

Kendo traces its roots back to feudal Japan and the fighting techniques of


. During a relatively peaceful period in Japan's history, the sword techniques were converted from killing one's opponent to developing one's character.

"Knowing you're strong in kendo does not mean you become disruptive," Ebihara says. "The stronger you become, the more tender, the more understanding you become."

"Kendo forces me to function under difficult circumstances -- you learn how to stay calm, how not to let fear captivate you," says Sean Smith, a fitness trainer, who practices at Ebihara's dojo.

Men and women all over the world participate in Kendo. Enthusiasts can be just about any age and some of the most skilled practitioners are in their 70s and 80s. Many people don't start training until they reach middle age.

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"The longer you stay in Kendo, the more it becomes a lifestyle," says Bob Kumaki, who holds the rank of nidan, or second-degree black belt, at the Chicago Kendo Dojo. "You start applying to situations that require focus and concentration. It tends to make you a very polite person. You think of others."

A Japanese-American, Kumaki says kendo appeals to him on a cultural level, but people have other reasons for wanting to practice this art.

"Kendo is one of the most traditional of all martial arts," he says. "Etiquette plays a large part in day-to-day kendo activity. You never hear the trash talk. ... It's much more traditional."

Kumaki says the dojo tends to get new members after a popular film featuring kendo-style fights, such as

The Last Samurai

or the latest

Star Wars

movie, hits the theaters.

"This is not so much of a meathead martial art or sport," says Scott Fujimoto, head instructor at West L.A. Kendo Dojo in California. "You do have very testosterone-charged people who just want to fight, but they don't last too long. There's a lot more timing and technique involved ... a lot of thinking. If you stick with it and do your best, you can face a lot of challenges."

When choosing a kendo dojo, Jeffrey Marsten, an instructor at the Kendo Club at the University of Washington, recommends that the school be affiliated with All United States Kendo Federation and a regional kendo federation, since this guarantees support from qualified instructors.

It's a good idea to observe classes at a few clubs to get a feel for what's available. More importantly, Marsten says, see if you get a good vibe from the class and a feeling that you will fit in.

Marsten says that while there is an initial outlay for equipment, the clubs are almost universally nonprofit, so the membership fees are comparatively low.

"We want to get away from it being a business that pops up in every mini-mall," Fujimoto says. "A lot of other martial arts have lost their traditional values and have become more business-oriented and less interested in preserving the art."

Kendoists can participate in tournaments if they wish to test their skills outside of the dojo. However, Ebihara in New York says he does not care for contests.

"Kendo's goal is much higher than competition," he says. "You win a trophy at a competition and the next year it can be taken away by somebody else.

"The goal," he says, "is to win yourself."