Francis in Japan 2014


My second visit to Japan this year was to accept a kind invitation from the International Pair Go Association to attend their 25th anniversary championship (25th-27th October.) I qualified for this as a Pair Go Promotion Partner (PGPP). Also invited were Tony Atkins, and Alison and Simon Bexfield.

I arrived in Osaka on Saturday 18th, to visit my friend Harumi Takechi in the commuter town of Hirano, and to give myself jetlag recovery time. Almost at once she whisked me off to my friend Mamoru Matsumoto's house for a go meet. This is a traditional Japanese residence, with tatami mats and shoji screens everywhere. Five gobans catered for his visitors. Considering jetlag, I played OK.

On the Sunday and Monday we took part in a tournament in Osaka. The group was a club whose main purpose was to organise overseas go trips, but this was a home event. The format was five round handicap Swiss, fudged slightly to minimise handicaps. Time limits were 45 minutes sudden death, as is normal in Japanese amateur tournaments. They had a numerical grading system, with their strongest player at 200. I was put in at 180, whatever that meant, which entailed my giving low handicaps in most rounds. In my jetlagged state I was pleased to win even 1/5. At the prizegiving I was surprised to hear my name called out, and duly received my prize. I then found that it was consolation, for being ranked bottom.

There was a dinner on the Sunday evening, and in the course of the inevitable speeches I found a microphone thrust into my hand. My reputation as a go songster had preceded me, and would I like to sing them a go song? What will they understand, I asked myself, even if explained in Japanese? I hit on the Komi Song, and after explaining that each verse referred to the increasing levels of komi from 0 to 7.5, gave my rendition. A few moments later I received the microphone again: did we really have 7.5 points komi in Britain? They'd not heard of such a thing.

On Tuesday we went to an informal cafe concert, given by a duo of Irish harp and various flute-like folk instruments. I have noted a Japanese interest in Scottish culture before, but to find two Japanese with a good knowledge of Irish music was novel. I chatted with the fluter afterwards, and found that he knew English folk music as well. We played a few informal duets. Then in the evening we went to a go club for doctors, and, apparently, people like me who weren't doctors. I got a game with a pro there. No, I didn't win.

On Wednesday we attended a parade in Kyoto, held every year to commemorate the moving of Japan's capital there from Nara over eleven centuries ago. There paraded past us such as historical figures on horseback, samurai, soldiers with antique weapons, musicians, dancers, priests, and people wearing unusual hats. The whole parade took two hours to pass, but we had had enough after 90 minutes. And anyway it was raining.

Thursday was a much needed rest day. I went for walk into the local countryside for the first time. Then on Friday it was time to go by the Shin Kan Sen bullet train to Tokyo, and to the Edmont hotel for the pair go event. In the evening we PGPPs were invited to a celebratory dinner at another hotel by Hisao Taki, the inventor and sponsor of pair go. An excellent string quartet included in their repertoire, as well as more conventional music, an arrangement of the newly composed Pair Go Song. Later we were to hear a recording of it as intended by its composer. It will appeal to those whose musical tastes include J-pop.

On Saturday, after the usual formal opening ceremony, Round 1 was held. There was not much for us PGPPs to do but spectate. After lunch was the Friendship Match, for which we were asked to wear national costume. What is English national costume? In my case it is my Morris Dancing kit, preserved from university days. Each of us was randomly paired against randomly selected opponents. It makes quite a difference to how you play if you don't know the grades of either your partner or your opponents. We lost.

In the evening there was a party (still with us wearing national costume), with a lot of standing up listening to speeches, ably translated sentence by sentence by John Power. On Sunday the remaining four rounds of the tournament were held. The results are available elsewhere.

Simultaneously there was a one day handicap tournament; mainly for Japanese pairs, but we PGPPs were invited to join in. I was paired with Natalia Kovaleva, a Russian 5 dan. It was my first experience of playing pair go with a partner stronger than myself. It was a joy to play with one who was clearly doing her best to make things easy for me, and I felt that I was playing above myself. We won 3/4.

In the discussion session later it that was mentioned that that the IPGA is minded to establish a world wide grading system for pairs. (Roll on the day when someone undertakes the easier task of doing the same for individual players.) The point is that pairs do not necessarily play at a level determined by averaging their grades. It has been observed that a pair with good empathy may play above that level; the reverse has also been seen.

I am able to report a British triumph when it came to the prizegiving ceremony in the evening. Alison and Simon did not win the championship, but their names were were proudly emblazoned, with the Union Flag, at the top of the Best Dressed Pair results. Huzza. They had decided that national costume entailed masquerading as Ascot attendees.

On Monday morning we had the usual Pandanet presentation. Pandanet is a major sponsor of Pair Go, and we were shown not only their online services for go players, but also video clips of the many pair go events that they support. After that was the aforementioned discussion session, when individuals were invited to make comments on the pair go scene.

Monday afternoon was free; we did not have check out until Tuesday. Tony and I joined some American go players to visit what used to be T Mark Hall's favourite bookshop, where old go books are on sale. In the evening we visited the nearby Nihon Ki In, where new go books are on sale. Then came checkout time, and a trip to Haneda airport, via my cousin's language school in Senzoku.

Pair go has certainly moved a long way from its small scale beginnings. There are now 80 countries involved. Next year is our own British pair go silver jubilee; let us hope for a record attendance at our own championship. This trip certainly renewed my enthusiasm for pair go. It is quite a different experience from individual go; do try it, if you haven't already.

Irish music recital
Irish music recital

Palanquin at Kyoto parade
Palanquin at Kyoto parade

National costume
National costume