By TEMIRA WAGONFELD
May 31, 2006
Editor’s note — Temira, a former Hood River resident and pro windsurfer, is currently working in Hood River’s sister city of Tsuruta as the Coordinator of International Relations. The following article, about sports in Tsuruta, is one of several written for the Hood River News to share the experience of life in our sister city.
Tsuruta residents, like the people of Hood River, can’t live without sports. Tsuruta sportsmen hope we can further our sister city relationship through athletic exchange. Although Japanese language and culture are different from our own, we understand each other perfectly once we’re bound by the rules of a sports match.
False sunshine glares down from banks of halogen lights. It’s seven o’clock on a Tuesday evening, and I’m playing tennis with Tsuruta’s tennis club. Two 50-ish salarymen in sweat suits, a high school student and I do short-court drills. On the other court, a red-faced coach hits balls to a crowd of 10 or so giggling beginners. Drill follows drill. I thought I was here for fun, not for bullying by a coach. This reminds me of martial arts practices I attended in college: endless drills followed by short sparring sessions. Very Japanese. Ninety minutes later, already dripping sweat, we play a doubles match. It’s over in 30 minutes. My partner and I lose.
Tsuruta residents love sports, but they can’t recreate outside for much of the year. Dark winter days filled with raging blizzards restrict outdoor activities. Two notable exceptions exist: white-out skiing and show-shoveling. Winter isn’t a complete wash for team sports addicts, as some of Tsuruta’s 25 sports clubs run indoors year-round.
When outdoor facilities disappear under meters of snow, indoor basketball courts become improvised tennis courts, baseball players flock to batting cages and martial artists build their spirits by suffering in poorly heated dojos and practice halls.
After snowdrifts finally melt, muscled shovelers and athletes desperate for fresh air emerge from their homes in search of fun ways to stay in shape until the shoveling begins anew.
Come spring, athletes flock to Tsuruta’s clubs. Team sports carry immense appeal in Japan’s group-oriented society. Tsuruta sponsors a variety of clubs, including swimming, skiing, golf, social dancing, ping pong, weight-lifting, track and field, Kendo, and of course, Sumo. Designed for adults, clubs welcome talented young athletes as well. Out-of-towners join too, paying a minimal fee of around $20 a year. Co-ed sports are the rule, with a few exceptions.
Participants focus on fun. Clubs provide overworked salarymen with opportunities for socializing and networking. Parties and outings in Japan occur in groups with common interests. Japanese almost never hit the town alone. Members of Tsuruta’s tennis club, for example, meet six or more times in summer for an “enkai.” These group parties are grueling weeknight affairs involving hours of drinking, overeating and off-key karaoke.
Japan’s casual athletes aren’t exercising for weight loss or muscle gain. Most Japanese don’t consume enough calories to have to burn them off later. Even if they do, Tsuruta’s athletes have a different take on extra winter padding.
“Fat’s a good thing,” says Akiba, the man in charge of Tsuruta’s sports clubs. “If we gain some weight in winter, we don’t have to wear uncomfortable long underwear.”
On top of this, cross-training is frowned upon. Japanese athletes rarely participate in more than one sport, because they don’t want to build the “wrong” muscles for their chosen activity. Runners, for example, avoid upper-body workouts and swimmers don’t run.
Sports clubs serve purposes other than pure fun. Resumes graced with club activities attract employers’ attention. Japanese students often study from sun-up until sundown, leaving little time for social interaction. According to Akiba, Japanese employers find club participants socially savvy, an important skill in this teamwork-obsessed country. In addition, club membership shows that kids can “apply skills and knowledge,” rather than merely express rote learning.
Extra credit goes to martial arts students. Surviving from the days of samurai warriors, martial arts such as karate, judo and kendo are more than mere sports. Martial arts, or bujitsu in Japanese, impart etiquette, self-control and discipline to adherents. To survive in Japanese companies, people must keep face, respect social hierarchy and embrace coworkers despite personal feelings. The dojo, with its rigid sempai/kohai (senior/junior) relationship, provides the perfect training ground.
Japan’s group-based society favors club sports over solitary gym workouts. Tsuruta’s neighboring town hosts a gym, but it’s nothing like gyms in Hood River. Wing Gym looks more like a dilapidated warehouse than a workout facility. Never crowded, the 50 by 30 foot one-room workout facility boasts seven bicycles, six nautilus machines, three stair-steppers, two treadmills and one vibrating-belt passive exercise machine from the 1950s.
At one end of the room, aerobics students bounce through high-impact routines while listening to full-volume J-pop. At the other end, trying to ignore the blasting music and screeching instructor, two or three women slowly pedal bicycles, avoiding sweating at all costs. Oversized biceps and bulging veins never make an appearance, perhaps due to the lack of dumbbells over 20 pounds. Despite this, everyone is svelte, some to the point of anorexia. The national diet of fish and white rice substitutes for endless fat-burning sessions in the gym.
Tsuruta’s clubs and gyms are popular, but they lack two important Japanese sports: windsurfing and surfing. Thousands of miles of Japanese shoreline teem with surfers and windsurfers sporting the newest in gear. Only a few people from Tsuruta surf or windsurf, but ocean sports garner national attention here. An amateur windsurfing competition near Tokyo in January, when temperatures hover around 40 degrees, draws 200 participants. Motoko Sato, the 2004 world windsurfing champ, graces television commercials and captivates the country with her daily blog. Talented female sailors are the rule here, not the exception. Every female sailor I’ve met throws forward loops, the mental bane of many Hatchery windsurfers, male or female.
Like much of water-bounded Japan, Tsuruta delivers both surfing and windsurfing. Shichiri-nagahama beach, 25 minutes from Tsuruta, takes constant abuse from 20-plus knot winds blowing almost straight onshore. Piles of half-buried rubbish, borne by gale-force winds across the Sea of Japan, make for unpleasant beach-walking, but windsurfers love this place anyway. Few that they are, these die-hard boardheads live for their sport. Chilly days, onshore winds, and fishing nets are mere annoyances. Japan is an athletic country, and the ocean athletes are the cream of the crop.