As one of the world’s only native English speaking Kendo equipment professionals, and as the owner of one of the internet’s most popular Kendo equipment suppliers, I am frequently asked about choosing the correct Bogu. I am pleased to say that I’m good at what I do - really good at it, and my customer’s generally agree. Many of the Kendoka who are most satisfied with our products are people who are replacing their Bogu, after being unhappy with the Bogu that they have bought elsewhere previously.
Buying your first Bogu set is hard, and it doesn’t get much easier the more you do it. It’s hard because it is difficult to know what to look for, and what information is correct. The market is saturated with different types and styles, and there are now many companies who want your money - so it follows that many of us make big mistakes when choosing which set is right for us.
I have direct experience of this myself - my first Bogu set was a terrible choice, as was my second… Basically, at the time, I didn’t know what it was about my first Bogu that made me unhappy. So I just thought, if I buy a more expensive one, that will solve my problems, right? Well, no, I was wrong. I repeated the mistakes I made when choosing the first set, simply because I didn’t know that I was making them. It’s actually largely because of these experiences that I got into the Kendogu industry in the first place!
Everyday I speak with people who are in the very situation as I was - who wish they had known better when they had bought their first set, and don’t want to make the mistake again. So let’s look at 4 top mistakes many of us make when we shop for a Bogu set.
1). Deciding by Stitching
Browsing any kendo equipment catalogue or website will reveal that manufacturers talk about stitching, or ‘stitch width’ in relation to Kendo Bogu. For the most part it is measured using millimetres (mm), or ‘Bu’ - a traditional Japanese measurement, with one ‘Bu’ being equal to 3.03mm. In other words, a Bogu may be described a ‘3mm Bogu Set’ or ‘2.0 Bu Bogu set’, or if not, somewhere in the product specification or description it will often state ‘4mm stitching’, or words to that effect.
But what does this mean? Well, when the Futon (padding) section of the Bogu is made, several layers of padding are put together, and inserted into a ‘bag’ made from navy cotton, to form the basic Futon. Then, several rows of stitches are applied along the length of the Futon, to give it rigidity and durability. This is most commonly done with an industrial sewing machine, but can also be done by hand. The distance left between each row of stitches is the stitch ‘width’, and is measured in millimetres - in the case of machine stitched Bogu, and in ‘Bu’ when it is stitched by hand.
So now we know that, how do we choose? Well, many companies have the stitch width correlate with the price - so a 6mm Bogu will be cheaper than a 3mm Bogu, for example. This has led to the misconception that the smaller the stitch with (i.e. 3mm) is better, and a wider stitch width (i.e. 6mm) is poor quality.
This is perhaps the biggest misconception that exists about Kendo Bogu, and it is REALLY important for me to stress that stitch width does NOT correlate with quality.
So why have the different widths? Well, this is because the stitch width does affect the properties of the Bogu. Let me put it simply - the more rows of stitching (smaller stitch width i.e. 3mm etc.), the harder, stiffer, and thinner the Futon becomes. This means that it will be less comfortable, less protective, and less shock-absorbent than a set with a wider stitch width (i.e. 6mm etc.).
Does that mean that there are no benefits to smaller stitch widths? No, that’s not exactly true either. Smaller stitching is a little more durable (though not massively), and also allows for better shaping of the Bogu. Therefore, it can be good for a Bogu set to use smaller stitch widths in specific areas, such as on the Mendare (wings protecting the shoulders), or on the Tare.
In Japan, it is extremely rare for people to use Bogu that is stitched with a smaller stitch width than 4mm. Although 3mm is offered for sale by many suppliers, it is not popular. 2.5mm or 2mm sets are simply not sold, as they are considered to be too uncomfortable and cumbersome. Recently, it is most popular for wide stitch widths to be used, 5mm is a good all-round choice, and very large widths, like 10mm are popular with those who want maximum protection.
2). Ignoring the Materials
Materials are a large part of what decide the production cost of a Bogu set, rather than the stitch width, and there are several areas of the Bogu where it is best to consider the materials. The overall reinforcement is the prominent area - this is the material that covers the area of the Futon that is hit with the Shinai most often. Whilst browsing online, you might see terms like ‘Orizashi’, ‘Clarino’, or ’Deerskin’, and these are often in relation to this reinforcement.
As this reinforcement covers a large area of the Bogu, it has a large effect on how the Bogu itself performs. Orizashi is basically thick, woven cotton - essentially the same type of fabric used to make the cotton Kendogi. This is a popular material as it is lightweight, flexible, and very quick to dry. It is a little less durable than some other materials, but in all honesty, it is not a very big difference. Further, it is easy to care for.
Clarino is a type of synthetic leather, and basically most (if not all) synthetic leathers used in Kendo Bogu production are a type of Clarino. In the past it was poor quality, and looked terrible, however, current versions are much better. Modern Clarino looks very similar to genuine Deerskin, but is a fraction of the cost, making it a great material for entry-level Kendo Bogu sets. Clarino does not dry as quickly as Orizashi, but it is durable, and requires very little maintenance.
Deerskin in the traditional material used in Kendo Bogu construction and is certainly the most prestigious. It looks beautiful, and is very durable. It requires to be cared for a little more than other materials, and the indigo dye (Aizome) rubs off much more than with other materials - so it has a tendency to colour the user blue. It is also much more expensive, so you can expect to pay a lot more for a Kendo Bogu set that uses genuine Deerskin.
Some Bogu sets also use Cow leather in place of the above, because, when dyed indigo, it looks very similar to Deerskin, but is much cheaper. However, it is probably the worst possible material for Bogu construction, as it reacts very poorly with moisture. With use, a Cow leather Bogu will become stiff, uncomfortable, and the leather will start to crack. Further, it does not age well - generally it becomes shiny, and fades to a grey, or purple colour.
Another area where we should consider the materials is the Kote palms. The best materials are Clarino and Deerskin. With Clarino being the easiest to care for, and generally the most durable. Palms that are made using Cow leather will quickly become stiff, uncomfortable, and will tear after a short time.
3). Overlooking Relevance
This is a little bit of a complicated one, but it is still a mistake that many people make, nonetheless. In the modern market, there are several ‘types’ of Kendo Bogu out there. Sure, there are still many ‘All Purpose’ type Bogu sets, but there are also sets that prioritise a specific quality above others.
The most obvious example of this is recent advent of ‘Jissengata’ Kendo Bogu sets - or sets that are aimed towards competition or tournaments.
If you are looking specifically for a set for tournaments, that is as light as possible, then this is what you should look for. But if you are a beginner, looking for your first Kendo Bogu set - or a teacher looking to receive lots of Uchikomi, then investing in a ‘Jissengata’ set would be a mistake.
4). Shopping by Budget
Of course, it is completely normal that when we are shopping to make a large purchase - such as a Kendo Bogu set - we have a budget in mind. It is also very important that the decision we make fits into the budget that we have.
However, shopping only by budget can result in disappointment. Unfortunately, in the world of Kendo Bogu, the formula ‘higher price = better’ does not always apply. Therefore, if you know you have a budget of ‘X’, you should not decide on a set simply because it fits the budget you have, or you may find that you have invested in a set that is not suitable for your needs.
If you are just starting out, then it is not necessary for you to go out and spend a vast amount of money, on the most expensive Bogu set you can find. This may not be suitable for your needs. Instead, it is better to find a good-quality set that you buy for an appropriate price.
On the other hand, it is also important not to under-spend. Again, I know that all of us have a budget to work to, and our budget cannot be unlimited. However, in recent years, many large Kendo Bogu manufacturers have pushed the price of their lowest priced sets to extremely low levels - It’s even possible to go out and pick up a full Kendo Bogu set for around $300 USD!
Of course, it is a great thing that Kendo is becoming more affordable, however, purchasing a Bogu set that has been offered at such a low price comes with several disadvantages. Obviously, to get the prices this low, a manufacturer has to cut corners somewhere. Generally this comes though cheaper materials, and poorer craftsmanship - negatively affecting the durability and protection. Often, compressed fibres (think cheap & nasty carpet underlay) are used for the inner parts of the Futon, which break down when hit, compromising protection.
Further, another point to consider is the actual investment you are making. Sure you can spend $300 on a cheap Kendo Bogu set, and you’ll be able to ‘get started’ in practicing Kendo. However, it will always be a short term investment. As you continue your journey, and start to try to achieve the Kyu and Dan ranks, you will notice that a specific appearance is also part and parcel of Kendo progression. You will not see many people who are 3rd Dan or 4th Dan who are still wearing a $300 Bogu Set.
Let’s remember that the Kendo Bogu exists as a piece of safety equipment, there to protect us from serious injury or possible death. Although we all have a budget to work to, it is important that we do not compromise our safety. Further, despite there being very cheap Kendo Bogu sets available, it is worth considering that an extra $100 or so may help you get a set that will last you from the beginning of your Kendo journey, well into your Dan grades.
If you are starting out in Kendo, and are looking for your first Kendo Bogu set, then here are the two that are most popular :
Hibiki is a fantastic all-round set, it’s great price, comfortable, protective and will last you a very long time.
VANGUARD is the flagship model from the KendoStar Brand, it’s a little more expensive than Hibiki, but it has even more protection. It also looks great, and is perfect for all levels of Kendoka.
Both of these sets are key in stock, and come with FREE express shipping! We ship most orders within 24hrs, and many are even delivered next-day!