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Kodokan: Judo Mecca open to all

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Tokyo (AFP)

Blink and you'd miss it. In Tokyo's residential Bunkyo district squats a nondescript grey office block above a hardware store and within earshot of the squeals from the Tokyo Dome amusement park.

Only the bronze statue of judo's founder Jigoro Kano gives a hint that this unremarkable building is in fact the Kodokan, a Mecca for judo that attracts pilgrims from around the world.

Here is a guide to the mythical Kodokan, the undisputed home of judo, whose name means "place for teaching the way."

- The hallowed mats -

As befits judo's HQ, there are no fewer than six separate dojos for training and matches, a total of 1,300 mats with 150 top-level coaches to teach students from Japan and around the world.

The seventh floor dojo is judo's Holy of Holies, with 420 mats, allowing four separate matches to be held simultaneously. There is a seating gallery above for around 900 spectators.

But the Kodokan also has smaller areas on the two floors below -- an "international dojo", "women's dojo", "children's dojo", "school dojo" and "special dojo" for hire for private events.

For the small price of 800 yen (around $8), anyone with basic judo skills is welcome to practise at the dojo with other judoka and instructors.

Judoka do however have to adhere to the strict rules of the Kodokan -- including wearing a clean white judogi or uniform (not blue) and keeping fingernails and toenails short.

"The most important thing is to never give up. Trainees need to conduct themselves in a disciplined manner, caring for their health through diet and daily living," according to the Kodokan rules.

- Eat, sleep, live judo -

Spread over eight floors, the Kodokan is a temple to judo that contains much more than the hallowed dojos for "randori" -- training with random partners.

The Kodokan also hosts a large museum about the history of judo, a restaurant with pictures of champions on the wall, and a library with around 6,000 works ranging from scholarly tomes to judo manga.

In addition, the building contains a hostel for overseas judo fans -- "once a judoka, always a judoka" reads the sign on the door.

Accommodation ranges from basic single and double rooms to a huge dormitory sleeping 18 on tatami mats on the floor -- for the more budget-conscious judoka at 3,300 yen per night.

The hostel comes into its own during the famous Winter Training in January, where sessions begin at 5:30am sharp and bleary-eyed trainees simply have to stumble up the stairs to begin their randori.

- A moveable feast -

The current location for the Kodokan dates only from 1958. A new wing was built later, bringing the overall dojo space to 2,107 square metres.

It's a far cry from judo's humble beginnings. Jigoro Kano first started teaching in 1882 in a tiny dojo with 12 tatami mats at the Eishoji temple in eastern Tokyo. At the time, he had nine students.

Today, this historic site is tucked between an anime comic shop and a police box near an underground station on a busy main road.

A small metal plaque testifies the temple is the "birthplace of Kodokan judo" where Kano "started training with his friends and his followers."

As more students flocked to the new discipline, Kano expanded and relocated his headquarters no fewer than eight times before finally settling on the present location.

- Running the sport -

The Kodokan also houses the All Japan Judo Federation and various other departments for administering the sport domestically and abroad.

From the building, officials organise tournaments at all levels, provide training to other judo instructors, arrange seminars on judo, and issue publications and rules about the sport.

Crucially, the Kodokan also certifies the "Dan" grades -- judo's ranking system.

Twice a year, the Kodokan runs a "Batsugun" tournament which allows competitors to move up through the Dan system with a series of wins.

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