I get this question once in a while and with mainstream shows like Cobrai Kai being all the rage, it rather surprises me that I still do. But those of you who know me are fully aware that I can talk an elephant’s ear off, so here I am, ready to explain once again. In short and from a high level, the term “dojo” is actually the joining of two Japanese characters that are combined to mean “Place of the Way.” A dojo is generally a special place that is set aside and laid out specifically as a gathering place for students of the martial arts, like Karate and Judo. The term has been used in other forums as well. Interestingly enough, Zen Buddhists refer to their meditation chambers as dojos, as well.
Unlike other training locations, a dojo is intended to maintain a certain level of decorum and ceremony and is intended to be treated with respect. A clean, proper uniform is required when training in one, and bowing respectfully when entering or leaving is also expected. Unlike training locations like your local gym and only under special circumstances, the dojo is intended for structured training, with a Sensei or senior student leading the other students through drills, lessons and teachings, which can include forms, sparring and even meditation, in some styles.
The important aspects to look for when visiting a dojo include the cleanliness. As I mentioned earlier, a dojo must be treated with respect and filth does not align with that. Unlike what you may have seen on television and in movies, a dojo doesn’t need to look like a bad Japanese tourist trap, with the polished wood everywhere and fancy decorations. Literally four walls, a floor and a roof are all that are required. Any additional equipment or accoutrements should be limited to what’s required for training and not include a bunch of decorations or trappings intended to make an onlooker believe the dojo is fancier than it is. Because a dojo isn’t MEANT to be fancy.
I’ve trained with students who have had a small, square ten foot by ten foot space set aside on their home. That’s their dojo. And it’s adequate for training and all they need. Although it can be enticing to see all the gilded decorations and weaponry on the walls of some dojo, it’s important to bear in mind that such things don’t speak to the quality of the art or its teachings but to the quality of their decorator. And that won’t provide much in terms of learning the martial arts. If a student chooses what style to study based on how fancy the dojo looks, they may be in for a rough ride. ☯️