Kiyota Martial Arts Supply Baltimore
Community bulletin board inside Kiyota Martial Arts Supply.

Baltimore Martial Arts Supply Stores

On the Saturday before Christmas, my son, Connor, and I spent some time hanging out. His morning karate class had been cancelled and we had the whole day. I asked him what he wanted to do. His interest steered toward going to martial arts supply stores.

I often think back to when I was my son's age—when I was 11, 12 and 13 years old. I was fascinated with martial arts. I would absorb everything in Black Belt magazine, which I could pick up at the local 7-Eleven. My friends and I would sneak out at night and prowl around the city or nearby woods, sometimes getting chased by adults and having to hide for hours. We all had "Rambo knives"—big military survival knives that we had found at local military surplus stores or flea markets. We sharpened them so that they could cut sheets of paper, just like in the movie First Blood. I looked forward to every issue of the G.I. Joe comic book for some new revelation about the Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow characters. I wanted a ninja uniform and weapons, but never had any money. I would improvise with hooded sweatshirts, black bandanas, and sticks. Throwing stars were rare and invaluable. I wanted to take karate classes, but my parents had no money. I would improvise by trying to learn from how-to books, Bruce Lee movies, and Saturday-afternoon UHF matinees with bad voice overdubbing. There was a place in Philadelphia called Asian World of Martial Arts that had all of the things, but I never had a way to get there. It was frustrating wanting things and not knowing how to get them. Oddly, this is a feeling that has followed me my whole life now.

One of the beautiful things about being a parent is that you can give your kids the opportunities that you didn't have. There's something exquisitely satisfying about that. I don't know why Connor gravitates toward martial arts, but I can't help but feel that there's something authentic, natural and healthy in it—that he's expressing something unique to being an 11-year-old boy in our time. And with all the pull to spend time on a screen, anything that helps a kid to live in their body and move in the world seems particularly vital.

So, when Connor said he wanted to go shopping for weapons, I was down. There aren't many options in the Washington, DC area (or anywhere in the country, to be honest). We reviewed the map together. There were three in the DC/Baltimore area:

  • Kung Fu Gift Shop
  • Warrior Emporium
  • Kiyota Co.

There was also the Martial Arts Super Market about 170 miles north in Haddon Heights, NJ.

It's said that one path to happiness is choosing a long-term, lifelong project and seeing it through to completion. It's also said that the other path to happiness is in new experiences. Personally, I think it's best to run these two approaches in parallel. So, when covering ground where we've been before, I'll often try to work something new into the mix. We'd been to Kung Fu Gift Shop in Washington, DC many times. We'd also been to Warrior Emporium a couple of times. Checking the traffic, a trip up I-95 to South Jersey on the Saturday before Christmas looked aggravating. We decided that we could hit two shops in one day by heading to Baltimore and visiting Warrior Emporium and a new place called Kiyota Co.

Below are some notes on our visits.

Kiyota Co.

Connor and I started out by exploring the place we'd never been before. From the listing on Google Maps, it wasn't clear if the business was currently functioning and open, so I called in advance. The man who answered said they were, and to knock on the door when we arrived.

Kiyota Martial Arts Supply Baltimore
Kiyota Co. front entrance.

The location is in a neighborhood in inner-city Baltimore. The appearance of everything was rough, from the architecture on the surrounding blocks down to the signage on the shop. Connor and I knocked. An elderly Japanese man approached from deep inside and let us in after a few moments.

Connor and I entered and stepped in to the dimly-lit, cluttered showroom, full of boxes and what looked like stale inventory that had been sitting for years. Kiyota Co. was not much different from Kung Fu Gift Shop and Warrior Emporium in this regard. The shabby retail experience seems to be the usual for martial arts supply stores. It also makes them fascinating in their own way—especially for a kid: there are hidden and lost things that can possibly be discovered.

Kiyota Martial Arts Supply Baltimore
Tsubas (Japanese sword hand guards) on display at Kiyota Co.
Kiyota Martial Arts Supply Baltimore
Throwing knives and darts in display case at Kiyota Co.
Kiyota Martial Arts Supply Baltimore
Nunchaku and katanas at Kiyota Co.
Kiyota Martial Arts Supply Baltimore
Patches and insignia at Kiyota Co.
Kiyota Martial Arts Supply Baltimore
Japanese Sword Museum publication and issue of Black Belt magazine.

As Connor and I browsed the shop, I picked up a Japanese-language magazine that was on the sales counter, next to some old issues of Black Belt. The design of the magazine caught my attention more than the subject, and I opened it to inspect further. It was an example of classic Japanese minimalism: undertated, detailed, and lots of room to breathe and reflect. The shop owner, Mr. Kiyota, motioned to it and said in broken English that it was a publication of the Japanese Sword Museum. I showed a little bit of surprise. I mentioned that I knew about the museum, and had actually looked into it a few months ago, thinking that I might take my son there. He said he was a member of the museum, and that they send him things to review and comment on. Connor had been browsing the shop, but I could tell he started to pay attention to what he was overhearing.

I talked with Mr. Kiyota about the museum for a bit, then asked him about his shop. I think he said that he had opened in 1983. I mentioned that 40 years is a long time to be in business. He agreed. I asked him about the neighborhood, and the practice of locking the door. He said that he had a couple of incidents, years ago. I asked him what the outcome was. He smiled slightly and said that they didn't accomplish much. We talked about the katanas that were on display, which is what my son was most interested in, and circled back to the subject of the museum. He told my son and I about the historical significance of some of the more valuable swords and gave some insight into his process of acquisition of some very rare works over the years. My son was all attention at this point.

We stayed at Kiyota Co. until closing time. When we left, Connor said that he learned a lot about how to valuate swords. I told him it was important to learn to talk with people. Sometimes those who don't look like much on the outside can have a lot of value under the surface.

Kiyota Martial Arts Supply Baltimore
Various throwing stars at Kiyota Co.
Kiyota Martial Arts Supply Baltimore
Books near main entrance at Kiyota Co.

Kiyota Co. was legitimately cool—mostly because of the owner and how knowledgable he was. Connor and I both agreed that we'd go back.

Warrior Emporium

Our second of two stops was at Warrior Emporium, located just outside the city, near Landsdowne. Connor and I had been there a couple of times before, so we had a general idea of what to expect. The shop is located in a light industrial park. It's not a storefront so much as a warehouse, and if you weren't looking for it, you'd probably miss it in the mix of semi-trailers and concrete buildings.

Warrior Emporium Martial Arts Baltimore
Warrior Emporium martial arts supply store in Baltimore, Maryland.

Inside, one steps into a cluttered hallway leading to an office and makes a right turn into the warehouse area. That space is sectioned into a small retail display area in the front and then what seems to be a sprawling stock area from there to as far as the eye can see.

I can only imagine what places like these shops seem like to my son. When I was his age, I would sometimes go to places like the Columbus Farmers Market or Berlin Farmers Market, both in South Jersey, not too far from where I grew up. These places all at once seemed mysterious, dangerous and repulsive. I always felt that there was something to be discovered—nunchucks or throwing stars, perhaps—if I just looked long enough. Sometimes I would find those things in some import goods stall. It was like hitting a jackpot. My son seems to approach these martial arts supply stores in a similar way. The retailing is terrible—oddly, as a group, martial shops like this demonstrate maybe the worst retail layouts I've ever seen—so one has to really look closely and dig to find what they want. As a kid, maybe that can make it a little exciting to find things. Perhaps there's something to be said about the wild nature of it all in a world that is so organized, cozy and safe.

Warrior Emporium Martial Arts Baltimore
Inside showroom at Warrior Emporium.
Warrior Emporium Martial Arts Baltimore
Warrior Emporium showroom.

The owner at Warrior Emporium was helpful and friendly. He offered to open boxes and pointed us to some things that were not immediately visible in all the clutter. My son had a clear idea of what he was looking for and the price he was willing to pay before we had set out that day. He found a sharpened katana that he liked, as well as a Legend of Zelda costume sword that he got for his mom for a Christmas present. I think we were $180.00 out the door for both of those things.

Warrior Emporium Martial Arts Baltimore
Martial arts books at Warrior Emporium.

I don't think our adventures in martial arts retail are over yet. There's a place in South Jersey that we have on our radar, as well as one in NYC. And there's a sword exhibit at The Met, and an entire sword museum in Tokyo, which Mr. Kiyota had talked with us about. We'll see where Connor's interests go and what opportunities arise in the next couple of years.

Time for Some New Weapons

Get expert help with your marketing and make your business look great online. Let's talk about how.

Get Started