"You're looking for the samurais?" said the girl sitting in the hallway. "They're up there."
She pointed up a staircase to a small gym on the top floor of Jan Hus Church on East 74th Street. Inside was a startlingly surreal scene, especially to someone stepping off the streets of the Upper East Side, where people were picking up dry cleaning and lounging at sidewalk cafes on a Saturday evening.
Up in the old church gym, the scene resembled a ferocious battle from The Seven Samurai. Some 50 people in Japanese warrior dress -- dark robes, heavy chest armor and helmets with fearsome face-cages -- hurled bloodcurdling screams as they beat one another over the head with poles.
The gym's door, though closed, hardly stifled the screams or contained the thunderous stomping that rumbled the building itself. Even residents of neighboring high-rises have grown accustomed to the boisterous practices held three evenings a week by the New York City Kendo Club, a tight-knit group of urban samurais who have made this gym their home dojo for a quarter-century.
The club was founded in 1976 by Noboru Kataoka, a world-renowned kendo sensei. To honor its 30th anniversary, the club is holding a kendo tournament on Sunday at John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the West Side, where kendo practitioners from around the world will compete.
Kataoka's students tend to follow his teachings religiously. Whatever their profession -- sanitation men battle architects, lawyers fight film producers and teachers face off with editors -- they say the ancient principles of the samurai warrior help them cut through the complexities of the modern urban environment.
There is the money manager who credits kendo with keeping him sharp when making crucial investment decisions. There is the architect who says kendo enables him to handle high-pressure projects and harrowing deadlines. There is the Brooklyn woman who sleeps with her kendo sword next to her bed for security.
"From the moment you set foot in this dojo, you are a New York samurai," said Jose Pena, 51, who has been studying with Kataoka three days a week for the past 27 years. "It may be 2006, but we still follow the way of the warrior."
Pena studies Japanese culture and travels regularly to Japan to take advancement tests in the kendo rankings known as dans. He is currently in the sixth dan and is already looking forward to returning in 2011 for the test to enter the seventh dan, the second-highest rank.
The money manager, Raymond Stewart, said he joined kendo 25 years ago to help him handle his stressful finance job on Wall Street.
"I manage more than US$200 million and have to make the right decision about what to do with it," he said. "Kendo teaches you to wait for the right moment and then strike with total conviction."
The club's members competing on Sunday are entered under smaller teams with names such as the Spare Ribs, the Wild Bunch and Cutie Honey.
One member of Cutie Honey is Kyung Kim, 33, a teacher from Queens who joined the club three years ago after seeing kendo only occasionally on Korean soap operas.
"I'm very sensitive emotionally, and I needed mental discipline in my life," she said at David Copperfield's pub, where the club gathers with Kataoka for drinks after class.
When Kataoka first came to New York from Japan, he began renting teaching space in various dance studios downtown, but found them too flimsy for kendo practice. Three broken wooden floors and one shattered wall mirror later, he found Jan Hus church. Its floor was strong, but its neighbors were unaccustomed to the screaming and commotion of kendo. Several times, police officers were called to the gym.