In this review, I am going to try to be as critical as I can be. In fact, after the initial WOO I GOT NEW BOGU YEAH BABAY phase (which lasted all of 2 minutes… LOL), I tried to hate the bogu, in order to do a review. Why? Because it is easy to overlook faults when you love something (aka love goggles… like lady, your baby cute, but it ain’t THAT cute…). I will attempt to give a fully unbiased review. Obviously, I’m going to like it because it’s mine, but I will rate it objectively for others looking to buy a new set.
I got my now-retired bogu set when I was in high school, sometime between 7-8 years ago. It was from a Korean bogu manufacturer that my sabumnim (sensei, I just feel weird calling him anything other than sabumnim because that’s like… his name. To me, at least. Others call him Master Jo, etc.) works closely with. Over the past 8 years or so, I’ve not only grown taller, I’ve also grown broader and thicker (hehehe… hehe… heh… ‘taller’ and ‘thicker’… heh…). Rough table of difference in statistics:
|Waist to ankle
||Idk… didn’t have no shoulders LOL
||L&R: 17.5 cm
||L:20 cm R: 19 cm
*That’s right… we’re using lbs… cuz MURICA.
Of course, the high school ones are based on memory, but the point remains – I am much bigger than my bogu was meant for. As far as my old bogu set… I’ll post up pictures of it when I’m back home, but it is like… destroyed. The palm material (deerskin) is practically a flap that kind of rests on my palm and has holes all over it. When I put the kote on, by the end of this summer, my fingers were poking out at the ends. The men was dented in from one (or two or a few hundred) too many men strikes. The do barely covered my sternum (should’ve worn a coconut bikini instead, given the amount of tsukis to the chest I took…). The only thing salvageable was my tare, which I had ordered afterwards, maybe last year in high school. A bit short and snug, but it still fits and does its job admirably (also, I refuse to spend $300 on tare… when I do invest in one, maybe in 4 or 5 years or something… I’m going to get a decked out one, like all leather and classy and sexy and whatnot, nah mean bruh? Like the kinda tare that’s a lady in the streets but a freak in the sheets! [on a more serious note, the current tare has a few bare threads, but otherwise looks fine (see title picture). So I decided to save my money.]). And so, my bogu shopping began.
There were way too many options to choose from. I remembered Chiba Budogu from way back when, but apparently they don’t do business anymore. I had some other options – order from the Korean budogu for an EXTREMELY nice hand-stiched set, All Japan Budogu, Shobudo, or Kendoshop. The Korean budogu’s set was REALLY nice, but quite pricey. Also, it would take a long time as the person that does all the work is quite famous amongst older Korean kendoists and many senseis go to him for their bogu needs. In addition, I’m quite partial to machine stitched, instead of hand-stitched. Shobudo was my second choice, but I don’t understand a single word of Japanese so I thought of asking my grandmother since she is fluent in Japanese (she was born and raised in Japan during and after the Japanese occupation of Korea). However, for the price that I was paying, I wanted a little more ‘hands-on’ control of the set that I was paying. Kendoshop was alright, but I decided to go for All Japan Budogu since their Mugen brand had just launched and it was machine stitched. So in the end, it came down to machine vs hand stitching, with me much preferring machine stitching. (Note: Mugen brand is machine stitched, but done by hand, if that makes sense. See video below)
I started my inquiry into kotes first (I was thinking about buying things piece-wise) by asking on the AJB facebook page about workhorse kotes. Nathan, a sales rep, pointed me towards the Renma and gave me his email for further questions. Later on, when I had decided on buying a full bogu set, I emailed Nathan. He was extremely responsive, and pointed me towards the Tanren. Throughout our exchange, things were pleasant and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had with regards to a sales rep.
I managed to save a lot of money on the tare, as well as through the WKC sale they were having. I suggest that people wait until sales periods to buy bogu.
The only negative was the time it took, or rather, the anticipation. I ordered the bogu set on the 19th of May.I got an email ~7 weeks in (July 6th and 7th) that everything would be “ready in a couple of days” and would be sent out “within the next week or two”. An email was later sent to me that the mune was not in stock and would have to be made from scratch. I finally got an email that the bogu was ready on August 10th. Unfortunately, that was the last week I was home and thus had to have it shipped to my Cleveland address, and it arrived on the 17th. So, ~13 weeks, plus an additional few days for shipping. Maybe if I had not gotten word that my bogu was coming ~7-8 weeks in, I would not have been as impatient. (BTW, Nathan was super super nice about this whole thing… and I am afraid I was a lot more impatient than normal due to my desire to practice with sabumnim in the new bogu. Also, my grandaunt, whom I was close with, passed away during the month of August, and I am afraid that because of the sour (and angry) mood, I sent a rather sharply worded email to Nathan… I do apologize for that… But yes, he was the consummate professional in all our exchanges. Very nice young man.)
So… on to the good shit! The bogu itself!
I will post both a personal and objective score. I don’t do the 1-10 in the 10% by 10% steps… I group the scores together in a scaled %.
- 1-3 is horrendous. This is a small % of bogu, ~15%
- 4-6 is average. This is the majority of bogu, ~70%
- 7-8 is excellent. Very few bogu are in this league, ~10%
- 9 is top of the line. Extremely few bogu can get this score, ~5%
- 10 is my personal favorite. This doesn’t belong in the %’s. Objectively, the score could be anything from 1-9, but it just tickles your fancy, floats your boat, whatever other cliché you want… To others, it could be just meh, it could be great, nothing special, whatever… but for you, it’s perfect, there’s nothing else in the world that compares to it. It’s YOUR special little star (kind of like how parents view their children. Hey, to me it’s a fucking runt, but to you, it’s your special angel).
- If something is a 10/10 on the personal score, I will not give it an objective score, as it’s not possible to give an objective score to something you love so much.
Description of the Tanren:
*All emphases (bold) are mine*
From their website:
“Manufactured by Japan’s only workshop capable of producing 100% MADE IN JAPAN Kendogu, we present the MUGEN series’ deluxe Koshikigata (traditional) model – TANREN is reinforced using genuine Japanese ‘Aizome’ dyed Orizashi cotton, #8,800 grade cotton, and premium cuts of genuine ‘Aizome’ dyed deerskin. It features a very flexible and protective 8mm Nagazashi Futon, with 4mm Gunomezashi (finer stitching) on the Mendare. This allows the Bogu to [be] flexible and protective in the strike zone, yet still gives the ability to form an attractive overall shape.
TANREN offers a fully made to order, made in Japan option for those looking for a bespoke ‘work horse’ Bogu set. Soft and flexible, with a thick and protective Futon, TANREN is well perfect for those looking for a Bogu set to mainly use for heavy Keiko. Especially recommended those who often assume the role of Motodachi, and finding themselves on the receiving end of repeated, heavy strikes. The 8mm stitching allows for excellent comfort, owing to the thick and padded Futon, yet the tighter stitching on the Mendare allows for a nice shape to be formed, ensuring that you still look great whilst wearing it. ‘Koshiki’ means ‘Traditional Style’, and the overall design is intentionally simplistic, based on traditional designs.”
Basically, the only thing important for me was that it’s a workhorse set and the design is simple, which were the two criteria.
“The TANREN Men is completely made to order to your exact sizes, using high quality Shoai-zome cotton, and top-grade synthetic deerskin for the reinforcements. The design is simplistic overall, and features straight ‘Gunomezashi’ stitching on the Mendare, allowing for easy shaping. The MUGEN Original Mengane is an originally designed Mengane, featuring an improved balance, giving improved lateral vision, and has reinforced Titanium bars in the strike zone. This gives the optimum balance of being lightweight, and also extremely strong. Further, the Mengane is coated with an original high-gloss coating, which strengthens the surface, preventing chips, cracks and dents. Finally the MUGEN Original Mengane is finished with matte grey on the inside, giving a cool and discreet outlook.”
I opted for a black menbuchi and a jodan/nito cut of 17 cm on the mendare. Looking back, I should’ve gotten the classic cut of 22cm, but that’s quite alright. As you can see in the picture below, when I am in jodan no kamae, there is no mendare in the way – it obviously does what it claims to do. (and I’m rather partial to compact designs… )
Personal score: 8/10. Quite lovely. Chin has yet to shape to my mandible, particularly at the angles.
Objective score: 7/10. Maybe a longer, more traditional cut would be better for most.
The tsuki-dare: thick and stiff, large enough to cover throat without any issue.
A closer look at the stitching.
You can clearly see the grey inside of the mengane
More looks at the stitching, and the deerskin chichikawa I got.
“Utilizing our original ‘Infinity Grip’ technology, TANREN presents the culmination of generations of expertise in crafting premium Kendo equipment. The TANREN Kote are made, not only to your EXACT sizes and specifications, but they are made to – what we believe – to be the optimum design, allowing an unparalleled level of comfort, and ease of use. The full Orizashi design makes the TANREN Kote lightweight, and quick drying. Genuine smoked deerskin palms are used, allowing for extra durability, and also an accurate feel of the Shinai. Finally the 8mm Nagazashi stitching makes for a thick, cushioned Futon, giving a fantastic level of protection.”
Things I don’t like:
- Full orizashi design – I prefer the kote-gashira to be leather
- Lack of reinforcement on tips of fingers (particularly thumb)
- Tsutsu – long. I prefer short
- More padded namako
- Short kote buton (the “body”)
While that sounds like I really hate the pair of kote, it hasn’t really been the case. In fact, I would have to say that the only real things that bother me are the orizashi gashira and the namako section.
What I generally like in the namako/tsutsu sections are more… classic? Traditional? Take, for example, the Takumi bogu kote by AJB (see below). The long stitches on the tsutsu are much shorter than that of the Tanren, which makes it less flexible, but offers more room for the thicker padding on the namako. This is REALLY important for me, and is, in my opinion, the single biggest flaw in the newer kote designs (not just AJB…). In the desire to create lighter and more jissengata-styled kote, the trend towards a longer tsutsu with less padded namako has taken a lot of protection away. When I get hit on that section, it feels no different than getting hit on the wrist without kote on. Unfortunately, except for lower-end or really high-end hand-stitched kote, this is the current design trend in kote and I don’t really see it changing.
Same thing with the orizashi design, it’s just the trend nowadays. I just prefer leather on the kote-gashira because of all the fist hits I take. But it is really well stuffed, so there’s quite a bit of dampening there, unlike the tsutsu.
[Am I nit-picking? Kind of. In all honesty, it’s just personal preference. I had a big fracture on my wrist from a snowboarding accident in my teens, and I’m always wary about my wrist since then.]
The short(er) kote buton is actually not bad. A bit tight, given how thick my forearms are, but that’s ALWAYS the case. The thick stitching makes it comfy.
The palm leather is a bit short and the thumb is a bit long. I prefer not to have the ergonomic shape, since my left wrist is slightly misshapen; it would have been better if there was a less extreme tilt on the wrist joint.
Disclaimer: I have paws for hands. Thick palm, short fingers, and a garden gnome of a thumb. In addition, I have mismatched hands, with my left hand a full cm or so longer.
Personal score: Undecided. For now, 6/10. It’s average. But as the kote shapes to my paws, I’ll revisit the score in a few weeks.
Objective score: 8/10. Based on current design trends, this is a great kote (has that ergonomic shape).
The palm is a bit short for my tastes and you can clearly tell that the thumb is a bit too long for my hands.
A closer look at the thumb of the kote
I purchased the yellow kiji do.
[Interesting story. My grandmother’s older brother was in the Japanese military as an officer (this is WAYYYY back when). He learned kendo during his time there and apparently he had one that looked similar to this, as far as she remembered (though in all likelihood, it probably didn’t have the leather and was probably just all bamboo). I was originally going to get a regular synthetic do, but this story made me want to get a bamboo do, mainly because… well… I wanted it to remember my grandparents by, so grandma chose the do-dai and grandpa chose the mune.]
As usual, I put the HMK dojo design on the do-dai (actually too high… should’ve put it a couple cm’s lower). It just doesn’t feel like my bogu unless I have that sticker on there.
Personal score: 10/10. Love it. Love it. Love it. It’s mine. MINE. MYYYY PRECIOUSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS
The thick and high raised flanges of the mune REALLY help protect the area right under the armpits from getting bruises.
Lovely mune, really.
I got the deluxe aizome himo. Slightly too ‘slick’ for now, but that will change as sweat soaks in and use (or misuse) breaks in the fibres to have more grab. Thick as hell too, but they don’t feel as dense as the ones I have (mine are more rectangular in profile)
Quick notes after first practice
- Fit on the men is a bit tight in the jaw. I have a square-ish jaw, so I had a two huge blue dots at the angles of my mandible. The men seems to be made for a slightly narrower jaw-line. Over time, it will definitely mold to my face.
- The grey of the men grill is pretty good.
- The thick padding really helps absorb a lot of the impact of men strikes.
- Shorter mengane seem to not be an issue.
- Slightly uncomfortable in my left hand due to the angle.
- Good protection on good hits, but MAN that long joint causes mishits to hurt tremendously. I would readily give up some wrist flexibility for some extra protection on the wrist joint.
- Fist portion seems pretty protective, despite the orizashi design.
- The large flanges of the mune under the armpits perfectly deflect most mishit do strikes.
- Much wow. Much love.
Tare – what can I say? It’s still the same old trusty tare.
Update after second practice: [a little more in-depth since I had some time to really push it]
I went to practice at Cleveland Kendo Association (which, luckily, is held at the same gym that I train at). It was held from 3 to 6, I got to put some decent time in with the bogu (and came out looking like I had spent three hours at a Smurf brothel).
Before I go on, I have to say, breaking in the left kote for about 30 minutes the night before really made a huge difference. As soon as I put it on at practice, there was a marked difference in the fit, mainly due to the angle (less extreme). I plan on doing the same thing with my men in the coming days.
The fit is… strange. In terms of fit, if the old men felt like a cloth ski mask, this one feels like a motorcycle helmet. I suspect that will change with time, but I am hoping that it happens sooner rather than later. Again, the padding where the face sits (uchiwa is the term, I believe) is made for a more oval face, whereas my face is more square-ish. This meant that I had to be extra careful with the men himo in order to not give myself a pressure headache. The chichikawa is super long, so I might have to either shorten the himo (which I don’t want to do since that’ll lead to early fraying) or switch to the style where you tie at the top of the men. Or I can just live with it, whatever. Anyways, by the end of the practice, I had a bit of pain/soreness on the angles of my jaw and my temples. I might move the chichikawa up to the 5th rung of the mengane. I had to tie the men a little bit higher than I’d like to for a better fit.
The first time I wore it, the mengane was right in my vision so I took it off and redid the himo. The second time fared a little better I’m going to have to experiment with the men, not only breaking it in, but also figuring out how much pressure to apply during the tying process.
The short mendare doesn’t seem to particularly improve my kendo, but it doesn’t impede it either.
How do I rate it? Pretty good. It remains an 8/10. It’s a good men in that it does everything a men should do competently.
What a difference spending some time breaking in the kote makes. It’s becoming clear to me why the trend has been this style of kote design with the long tsutsu, orizashi kote-gashira, and less/shallower namako – it’s not only incredibly light, but also incredibly comfortable. That said, the cons are still the same. When I get hit anywhere near the wrist joint, it hurts like hell (particularly when being motodachi for beginners) and mishits onto the kote-gashira (quite common when I take up jodan) are also pretty… uh… “feel-able”. I might invest in a wrist pad for the wrist area.
Something I noticed during the practice was how much thicker the deerskin palm was, and I really enjoyed how luxurious the leather felt, in addition to how much more comfortable it was.
Would I buy another all orizashi, modern design pair of kote again? Probably not. Not that I don’t enjoy this pair, but the tradeoffs just are not worth it at all. Just my personal opinion.
Revised personal score: 7-8/10
Revised objective score: 9/10. I doubt things get much better than this for kotes of this design.
I LURVE DIS. :3
Uh… yeah. Really good. The bamboo is not heavy at all. I might have to wear it a bit lower (I got used to cranking the do up because my old one was so small).
Did AJB/Mugen achieve what they were looking to do? Let’s go back to their selling points about the Tanren set and critique each of them:
|Part of bogu
||Result (letter grading)
||N/A due to lack of time
||Mainly for heavy geiko
||For those who are often motodachi
Do: A (+++++++++ LOL)
||Fantastic level of protection
Final grade: A–/B+
It falls squarely in the 7-8/10 range of bogu and is well worth the price paid. I only see it getting better with age.
I will do another review of the bogu set in about 3 months, after it has fully broken in. Nonetheless, I’m very pleased with the set. I might have to invest in another pair of kote that is more along the lines of what I am looking for in terms of everyday practice, but will utilize these for tournaments and geiko times, as they are REALLY just perfect for matches. If you are in the market for a new bogu set, I can’t think of another company besides All Japan Budogu/Mugen to get it from. From their customer service to their great products, I think most will be able to find what they need/want from them.