I have just (within the last 24 hours) returned from 8 days spent in Japan. I didn’t blog when I was out there (preferring to sleep in my downtime), so here is a short(ish) summary.
An early start with about 4 hours sleep before the taxi picked us up to take us to Bristol airport. Checked in nice and early (though a new computer system was being used, which may explain later events) and pottered through security without any major hassle. The flight was delayed a little (maybe 20 minutes) but we arrived in Amsterdam with plenty of time to chill before the big flight to Osaka. We were to be joined by two Dutch kendama players but as boarding approached they were nowhere to be seen. Texts were sent but we had to get on the plane. After we’d taken our seats they did arrive: they had flown from Dusseldorf and been delayed, then went for smoke, not realising that international flights close their gates sooner than those within the EU. The flight was 11 hours. I watched The Hunger Games, didn’t sleep, but did eat all food made available to me.
We finally arrived in bright and sunny Osaka at 08:50 local time (0:50 UK time) and saw a note to contact KLM asap. Our luggage wasn’t loaded on the plane but had been left in Amsterdam. It would have to come across on the same flight the following day and be sent to where we were staying. The only problem was that we didn’t know where that was as we were being picked up by “someone” and they were on the other side of security. We filled in some forms, got through security to find, no-one. After a bit of hunting around we finally found our host, Yano-san, at the other international arrivals gate, got the address for our bags and headed off.
We were first taken to see Osaka castle and the park it sits in, with the girlfriend of one of Yano-san’s sons translating (along with his son). This was our first experience of the sapping heat and humidity of Japan in July, and it was a cloudy day, but we were grateful to head to a shopping centre for lunch before going over to Yano-san’s house for some pre-dinner kendama playing (watching and reading for me). Dinner was held at a local Indian restaurant and we’d been awake for 36 hours before we finally crashed out on futons.
We headed over to the local elementary school early in the morning and two sessions were run for the younger kids with demonstrations, teaching, and games. The kids were all very well behaved, but also very vocal when called upon to be. Afterwards we headed to the home of our Dutch friends’ hosts fo lunch, and the again to a large Temple complex (and my first squat toilet). After a quick climb up the tower (it was approaching closing time) it was off again to a local community-type learning centre for some kendama practice and to meet some local players from Osaka as well as some of the players that went to the European Kendama Open in Munich in 2011. We returned to Yano-san’s to find that our suitcases had finally been delivered (woo!).
Another early start and off to the learning centre again to meet more players, including the Canadians (Colin, the American, had missed his flight and wouldn’t arrive until later in the evening). A couple of trial competitions were set up to give the foreigners a chance to get used to the format of a kendama competition in Japan (something none of them had experienced before). I took the opportunity to take a walk through the local streets, getting a little bit lost, a little bit burned and blistered, but also seeing cats and dogs in the pet section of a hardware store and getting some aloe vera gel to treat my mosquito bites (my repellant was in my suitcase so I was undefended on the first night). I got back just in time for the auction of some rare kendamas before we moved over to the venue for the competition to help set up the stage.
Once the stage was set up (I got some very strange looks for helping to carry the wood from the van, maybe it was the bunnies on the dress I was wearing), the foreigners were given the opportunity to try and achieve the moshikame numbers they needed for their various dan grading exams. Colin managed over 500 within the allotted time, and Void and Nick both managed 1,000 which meant they would never have to do moshikame for a grading again (1,000 being the maximum required).
We all went off for a sit down, multiple course, dinner with much toasting, photos, and attempts to converse using translation apps, sign language, and hastily hand-drawn maps.
Competition day. Up early to head to Kids Plaza in Osaka, for the 2012 World Kendama Championships. The festivities kicked off with a couple of young street dance crews before all of the competitors for the main event took to the stage for photos. The draw was made and the first three rounds of competition flew by, with two pairs competing head-to-head (first to 2 points) at a time. Tricks were selected randomly by players picking a card and the higher rated players (by dan grading) having to do the harder of the two tricks on that card. There was a maximum of three attempts per trick (but it was sudden death) and if after 4 cards had been drawn there was no outright winner, it went to a speed trick challenge. Unfortunately none of our group made it beyond the third round, but everyone put up a good fight.
I took a break at this stage to have a look at a local shopping street that is over a mile long, whilst the juniors competitions took place and the foreign players took the opportunity to take dan gradings (with mixed results, but the majority being pleased with their performances).
I returned in time for demonstrations, a juggler, and the finals (quarters, semis and final). It was all surprisingly entertaining for a non-player such as myself and after the prizes were awarded, more photos taken, and the stage was dismantled it was off for another group meal with lots of gifts being presented and trades being made.
Basti, a German kendama player who currently works in Tokyo, stayed at Yano-san’s after the competition and he accompanied us to Tokyo via Kyoto (acting as tour guide). It was very helpful to have a Japanese speaker assist with exchanging our exchange orders for Japan Rail passes (offering unlimited travel on JR trains for 7 days) and getting us onto a bus up to the hills. The day was a public holiday (Marine Day) so Kyoto was busy, but he had chosen temples not involved in the day’s celebrations, so they were wonderfully quiet and crowd-free. The first temple had an impressive gate to stop the demons coming in and a waterfall under which we all got a thorough drenching (along with meeting a member of the triumphant US Ultimate Frisbee team). After lunch in a local cafe we wandered around another temple until closing time (monks seem to have pretty good hours). Then it was back to Kyoto centre and onto a bullet train to Tokyo where we were to spend the night at Basti’s.
We headed to the hotel early as they would accept our bags whilst we hit Tokyo and managed to actually check in early (without getting the key), which was a relief as we were to meet up for dinner later and weren’t sure how long our sightseeing would take.
We headed first for Ueno park where there were a number of shrines, a lake (which we didn’t spot at first because it was full of waterlillies), and a fountain which wasn’t on originally but fired itself up as we were leaving. Then we hit Ameyoko arcade before heading over to Asakusa for more temple goodness and views of the new Skytree. This was the most touristy place we’d visited so far, with a line of shops catering to the visitors. It was a short stay, then back to the hotel for a shower via Akihabara (also known as Electric Town).
Dinner was proper Japanese sit down style (on a raised platform) with two local kendama players who had been at the EKO the previous year. Rare kendamas were brought along to be viewed and Void had another go at the speed trick for his next dan grading (but in poor light). We had our earliest night of the trip, getting to bed about 23:30.
A lazy start with an all-you-can eat breakfast before heading to the HQ for the Japan Kendama Association to view their collection of old and unusual kendamas (and another failed speed trick attempt, though the practice run was a valid time). Then a quick trip around Harajuku (where we were photographed for a magazine with a board saying what we business we would start if we had sufficient money), and a fruitless attempt to find the famous crosswalk in Shibuya before getting back on the bullet train to Osaka.
Back in Osaka we had a final meal with our host family before being taken out to shop for souvenirs, then on to a cocktail bar for a flair show (which was awesome), finally returning to pack a number of additional kendamas into our bulging cases.
After less than 4 hours’ sleep we were up again to travel back to Kansai International Airport where Void managed to get his speed trick in the required time (under a minute) before we finally said goodbye to our host family. The flight back was less busy than the one out, allowing us to spread out a bit more, but still didn’t get any sleep (even watching the appalling Sherlock Holmes 2 didn’t help). A fair old layover in Amsterdam allowed me to watch a number of episodes of Jeeves and Wooster on my ipad, then we were finally back in Blighty and the cat didn’t hate us and still remembered us.
Photos here: http://www.fakoriginal.com/fak%27s_fotos/Japan_2012/ If you’re not into kendama you might want to skip the first few pages.