Most of you know I'm in Japan now to play in the senior team championships with Suguru Araki and two other players from the prefecture of Sendai. But I haven't talked to some of you in a while; sorry, I been really busy this year, so I'll update you on what's been going on. Since Iím here, Iíll try to write as much as I can when I can, mostly about this trip while my memory is still fresh.††
This annual tournament apparently, is pretty big; two teams from each prefecture and four from larger city and prefectures like Tokyo, are selected to represent their prefecture. Each team consists of four players and a manager. The event starts Friday, July 14, 2006.
Getting to Sugurus's university in Sendai, about 300 miles north of Tokyo, was an adventure. Because first, I can' read or write Japanese and my ability to converse is limited. Second, Suguru didn't show up at the airport to meet me. Some of you who knows Suguru, is an intelligent astrophysicist with an PhD, who holds a professor position and teaches computer science at a prestigious private university in Sendai, but quite the opposite of a typical Japanese who are very service oriented and punctual. He has a record of always being late or not even showing up for our dates and appointments. Very odd for a Japanese but perhaps not for an eccentric scientist with strong work ethics, critical views about Japanís education, social and economic future over burdened with responsibilities so I know his situation, who he is, so it wasnít totally unexpected. I was prepared.
I left a message with him since I couldn't get hold of him on his cell phone (Wrong number) and home number that I will find my way to his university. I got a JR Pass (Japan Railway) in SF; you can't buy it in Japan, it's for foreign tourist only and it's a must and great deal. I got on a special express train to Tokyo, from there, transferred to the Bullet Train for Sendai traveling about 120-140 mph and a very smooth ride. (They told me they started building operational magnetic levitation train system capable of traveling at 350 mph.) And of course, when I got to Sendai station, made my way to the university, I still couldn't get hold of him. Luckily, I found one of his colleagues who knew where he was and made the connection. He was still working.
Since I haven't been to Japan for so long, I expected many changes but not really. There are more people, moving just as fast from point "A" to point "B", but what struck me first, was that everywhere I went, from station to station, street to street, there are no graffiti, trash or garbage disposal anywhere, none. I consciously started looking for them and today; I found one soda can hidden in a corner of a sidewalk. While riding the trains, I looked for graffiti on walls, houses, trucks and buses, that must exist somewhere in this sea of humanity but I didn't see any. What a contrast. It was a subject of long conversation afterwards with my friends.
I got there late in the evening so we went to this tiny hole in the wall restaurant that was still open near his neighborhood that reminded me of a place my parent used to take me as a child. The food tasted better then, but Iíll give them more opportunities. I got settled in his university provided apartment near the college and crashed.†
Wednesday, July 12: in preparation for my tournament, I practiced with the university team on campus; 12 tables with everything that a dream training center would have; excellent lighting, floor, lockers and showers, decent food on campus, coaches office and the funds to operate a high level training program. This is the same training program Katie and Wallace came to couple of summers ago. There are about 50 players including couple of scholarship players from China and their level ranges from about 2200-2600. Some times, few world-class players visit to train.
The official training days and times are set (They train seven days a week) but the hall is open from 9:00am Ė 9:00pm allowing students in the club (The training program is referred to as a club) access to practice also whenever they want or can. I didnít notice much change in their training structure since the last time I was in Japan in summer of 1979 to study coaching. This is not a negative observation; the structure is consistent through the years and it works for them. They run it like a successful company: the head coach, who is hired full time by the university to set the direction and oversee the program, and lead players who are senior members of the club, actually run the daily training aspects and help with variety of managerial duties. A typical Japanese company hierarchy and management principles are basically the same. We also discussed why Japan has fallen from the top ranks in the world. I have my opinion but Iíll leave it for another time.††
Hereís some details on how it works: the head coach with his lead players, decide on any new direction aside from daily practice routines. Everyone cooperates fully and seems to be very self motivated. There are other motivational reasons; itís not easy to get accepted to the club but easy to get kicked out and even harder to be selected to be part of the team and compete in foreign events. The head coach usually leaves around 7:00pm but training continues until 9:00pm supervised by lead players.
After my training session at the university, we went to Mr. Chikara Murakamiís (Team captain and very well known player from the 1980ís, now playing about 2300-2400) training hall to do some practice matches with him and meet the manager of our team. I lost to Mr. Murakami twice, both 3-1. I was already tired from training in the afternoon with the university team and now I was dead, especially being that itís summer here, very hot and humid.
We left for the tournament site the next day. The venue is located another two and half-hour train ride north of Sendai in Aomori prefecture. From Aomori, we rented a car, got to our hotel and asked the locals for a good place to eat. We went to the advised place and we werenít disappointed. As you can guess, Japanese food here is much better than Japanese food in the states, and items and tastes varies from prefecture to prefecture with their unique specialties. There was one dish that really got my attention: we went to a recommended sushi bar and I asked for something different from this area. He suggested and brought out ďHoyaĒ, that looked really dangerous, like a small WWII sea mine with large protruding pimples and hairs and two distinctly larger pimples at the top that he referred to as nipples, and it did look like it. He continued to describe the uniqueness of this creature (I was told science have not yet determined whether itís a plant or an animal) and available only from this area.†
As he was preparing this live dish, his description of this thing was clearly becoming sexual as he described how this thing lives, eat and procreate, because he, we and couple of women in the bar, had few drinks already and was in a jovial mood, started a dialog with heavy sexual connotations about this thing. He went on to say, this is a unisex creature with positive and negative nipples, and if you squeeze the nipples, sperm will come from one and pollinate the other. I asked him why did you describe the nipples as positive and negative instead of male and female and he said because the nipples has positive + and negative Ė markings on top of the nipples like on a car battery. I said no way and he showed me! I couldnít believe it!
I am very nature oriented and believe I know more about strange creatures around the world than most ordinarily person and I thought I seen it all. But I also had the unfortunate opportunity to eat it. It tasted like Sriver FX with wasabi and soy sauce. Apparently, itís popular dish around here.† By the way, everyone says itís expensive here but like all major cities around the world, if you know where to go or have a guide, itís not that bad and in some instances, cheaper.†
Friday, July 14: The official name of the tournament is 25th Annual National Club Team Championships. The venue is a new multi sports complex with excellent space, lights and flooring; In contrast, Iím so used to playing on slippery floors, I needed to adjust to it as my foot kept getting stuck on the floor in my first match. There was a match protocol person on every table (50) to introduce the teams, get the match started, and to dry the floor from sweats. There were no umpires; we all took turns keeping score and umpiring ourselves and there were no problems. Another observation and contrast; I mentioned earlier that the streets were devoid of litter and trash. So was the hall with all these people. But somebody left an empty disposable lunch box in the hall and immediately, there was an announcement over the intercom reminding people to pick up after themselves. I also remember when I bought a boxed lunch on the train; the server also gave me a plastic bag, which I first thought it was for leftovers to take home. But it was to be used as a trash bag for you to take off the train-thereís no trash disposal on the train. I later found out, the reason thereís no trash bins on the streets disposal or on the train is, after 9/11, some wannabe terrorist planted a bomb in one of the trash bins (That didnít explode), the government decreed not to have trash bins available. I donít know how to take this. Is it over zealousness, paranoia or both? But the streets and halls are immaculate.††
The teams are separated by gender and spans all generations; Pre Cadet, Cadet, (There were no Juniorís 15-17 category?) Open Under 50, Over 50ís and 60ís team events over a one-week period. The tie is the new Olympic team format; best of five, two singles, one doubles and two more singles if necessary.†††††††
Our event, in the Menís Over 50ís, there were 60 teams, grouped into three-team round robins preliminaries with one team advancing to the knockout stage main draw. We were seeded relatively high (Thereís no rating system) I heard, because of Mr. Murakamiís reputation and past record. We won our RR relatively easy 3-0 in both ties but we lost in the first round of the knockout stage. For some reason, our top player Mr. Murakami was playing poorly all day. We won the preliminaries because our opponents were weak but you know it gets tougher as you advance. In our first two ties, he placed me in position 1, him 2, him and his friend in doubles, and if needed, his friend 4 and Suguru #5. In the knockout stage, I played first again against a guy who got to the final eight last year, who I was told is about 2300. I lost the first two games but won deuce in the fifth after leading 10-8 in the fifth. Mr. Murakami lost his singles and doubles then Suguru playing 4th position, lost to a long pips penholder.
So, hereís something to think about. I came here from the U.S., played three matches. Mr. Murakamiís friend didnít play any singles and Suguru played one match, the whole event. For some others in the preliminaries, they didnít even get to play at all after traveling from all over Japan. Here, if you lose, youíre out. Was it worth it? For me it was because I played pretty good, made new friends and had a great time.†
Itís Sunday, July 16. Iím leaving for Tokyo area tomorrow to visit my college friend. Iíll write more, time allowing, and depending on what internet access I have so if you donít hear from me, Iíll talk to you when I get back.