Mr. Ito, right, with his apprentice, Yean Han, 33, who is learning how to make kendo gear.Credit...Shiho Fukada for The New York Times
Mr. Han said he was still learning skills. “I still have a certain way to go before I can be entirely responsible for making something. What Sensei will do when he creates something and thinks he can trust me with certain parts of the process, he will ask me to do one part,” he said, referring to Mr. Ito as sensei, a term of respect for someone who has attained a certain level of mastery. (He doesn’t train any longer, as Mr. Ito gave him a choice: practice kendo or make bogu.)

Mr. Ito’s handcrafted bogu is a rarity: Today, he said, less than one percent of the world’s kendo gear is made in Japan; other Asian countries, such as China and South Korea, manufacture it. Yet in the 1970s and ‘80s, when kendo was particularly popular in Japan, his shop had 14 employees and would distribute to vendors. Now it does business with individual customers.

The elaborate stitching on the body armor of a kendo uniform.Credit...Shiho Fukada for The New York Times

According to Alexander Bennett, a professor of Japanese history at Kansai University and editor in chief of Kendo World magazine, “The golden age for kendo in Japan was in the 1970s and 1980s for children. There would have been a waiting list to get your child into kendo.” Now, however, the country’s low birthrate means there are fewer children, and kendo may not be as appealing as soccer or baseball.

“Kendo is traditionally known for discipline and for teaching children good manners,” he said. “But nowadays parents give their children more freedom of choice, and parents do not see the value of kendo the same way they used to.” Still, he said, the All Japan Kendo Federation estimates there are 1.5 million practitioners in Japan today; the population is around 126 million. (For comparison, there were four million to five million practitioners in the 1970s and ’80s.)
Mr. Ito is worried the old ways will disappear. “Martial arts are too ‘old school’,” he told me. “And compared to other martial arts, kendo is expensive, probably the most expensive, which could be a factor. You have to think about the costs in the long-run if your son continues kendo.”

Models wearing kendo gear. The adult uniform includes a face mask, a breastplate and gloves. Credit...Shiho Fukada for The New York Times
My son’s simple cotton set and shinai, or sword, cost less than the equivalent of $100, while his teacher’s garments, bought from Mr. Ito, were around $300 and a full outfit, with shinai, can cost $500 to $1,000, depending on the quality.

But well-crafted bogu can last: Mr. Ito mentioned a client who has kept his uniform for more than 40 years. “High-quality, handcrafted items can be repaired and used for a long time,” he said as he repaired a kote, or glove, for a girls’ kendo team at a local high school. The kote was lined with deer leather, which is easily worn out and may need to be replaced as often as five times a year because the team practices daily. But Mr. Ito replaces just one small area so the team doesn’t have to keep buying new ones.

Mr. Ito’s wife, Yasuko, 79, also is part of the business: She used to take care of the deliveries, but now handles administrative tasks. “A lot of burden goes to my wife,” Mr. Ito said, and she is in charge when they all take a break for oyatsu, or afternoon snack, at 3 p.m. each workday, handing out cups of tea and sweets. “The sweet is different every day,” Mr. Han said.

Mr. Ito doesn’t take much time off. He said he doesn’t have any hobbies, but he loves the annual matsuri, a traditional festival held in September in Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s entertainment and business districts. “If you allowed me to talk about it, I could talk about it forever,” he said.
Even though the official business hours of the shop are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday, Mr. Ito usually works late in the atelier. “There is no end time,” he said.

“At my age, I’m often asked if I still do this as a hobby or for pleasure, but I do this to make a living,” he said. “I don’t receive any pension money like people who used to work in big companies. As a craftsman I don’t have that, so I have to keep working.”

“I’m the last bogu craftsman in Tokyo,” he said. “When I pass away, there won’t be anyone.”
What a beautiful story...