One does not usually expect to be kept awake at night by frogs. After a few nights of vigorous honking by large frogs in Hirano, Japan, I began to see the matter from Pharaoh’s standpoint (see Exodus VIII verses 1-15). Of frogs more later. I was in Japan visiting friends, following competing in the World Amateur Go Championship in Gyeongju, Korea. If you are wondering what such a faltering ex-4 dan was doing there representing the BGA, I should explain that the British selection process rewards persistence as well as competence, as you may see on the relevant pages of the BGA website. So, here is my travel diary:
Tuesday 1st July: I arrive in Busan, having changed planes at Narita. With help of some friendly Koreans approached in the street (the younger ones usually speak English) I find my way to my hotel. Later my friend Hyang Hee takes me out to dinner. I have arrived in Korea a few days early to overcome jetlag and look around Busan. The second part of this plan proves more successful than the first, as I am still woozy by the time of the first round of the tournament. I should have given myself longer.
Wednesday 2nd: Hyang Hee takes me to a baduk (= go) club, where I hold my own reasonably well. Here for the first time I see baduk played for money. After another Korean meal she takes me with two other friends to a concert, knowing that I like to sample the local music. This is in the main Busan concert hall, and given by the Doctors Symphonic Wind Band. The doctors do pretty well, playing to a good advanced amateur standard, with light songs-from-the-shows type music, which is standard repertoire for these American style bands. British doctors don’t seem to do this sort of thing.
Korean food is utterly different from Japanese. Much of it is quite hot in taste, including the renowned kimchi (pickled cabbage). There is usually a large variety of vegetables, with a central hot meat or fish dish with rice. I was told to mix all this stuff together with sauce. Eventually I preferred not to do this, and taste the ingredients individually. You eat with metal chopsticks.
Thursday 3rd: After a morning to myself Hyang Hee takes me to a Junior school where she runs a baduk club for the children. No nonsense about CRB; I just walk in with her. Once the children have realised that I don’t bite they all line up to play Mr. Foreigner, and try out their English. I am intrigued to see that Korea, supposedly with higher standards of educational achievement than Britain, favours desks in rows facing the front, and a blackboard with chalk. A lesson there for our “progressive” style of teaching, I think.
Later we visit a pleasant park, opened quite recently on the site of a former American military base. Ploughshares Park, I want to call it. It contrasts beautifully with the crowded bustle of most of Busan.
Friday 4th: Wanthanee and Dae, the vice –president of the Thai Go Association and a 7 dan Korean baduk player resident in Australia respectively, join the party. We divide up by gender to do shopping in a vast department store. Dae needs a jacket, and ten minutes’ shopping produces what he needs, after which we repair to a coffee shop for a long chat. The two ladies require 90 minutes for their shopping, after which we rejoin them for another Korean meal.
Now it is time to go to Gyeongju; Hyang Hee drives us the 90 minute journey. The tournament takes places in the vast 5 star Hyundai Hotel, which is about four miles outside the city. It is attractively situated on a lake, and it is evidently in a holiday area. The rooms are quite spacious, unlike those you sometimes get in a Japanese hotel, and mine has a view over the lake. I start meeting up with many old friends from previous international encounters.
Saturday 5th: In the morning I attend the AGM of the International Go Federation on behalf of the BGA. It is quite clear that all the important decisions have been taken beforehand, and that people like me are there to approve them, and not actually to contribute anything. Later we have the opening ceremony and banquet. Various dignitaries make what appears to me to be the same speech five times. All in Korean, of course, but English versions are projected onto a screen. We also get “traditional” music from a sextet of Korean flute, Korean shawm, koto-like instrument, shamisen-like instrument, drum kit and electric keyboard. Hmm. And we got our first taste of a little cost-cutting to come; a banquet where the drinks on offer were mineral water and coca-cola. Double hmm.
Sunday 6th: Rounds 1 and 2, in which I am soundly beaten by Slovakia and Australia. The time limits are an hour each, with some byo yomi. Considering that this is the premier international amateur baduk/go tournament, that is perhaps a lesson for those who whinge about short time limits, and want 90, 120 or even more minutes. Amateurs don’t have the technique to make use of so much time, IMHO.
The breakfast here is buffet style, and pretty good. But when it comes to lunch and dinner, we get no choice, and somewhat uninspiring stuff. Another odd feature of this 5 star hotel is that there is nowhere really to sit, relax and socialise. The only available armchairs are next to the bar. Sit in one and a waiter comes and asks you which overpriced drink you want. I don’t want a drink, I just want to sit and chat with my friends. There is a playing room with about a dozen boards; not really quite enough for 55 contestants.
Monday 7th: Rounds 3 and 4. I lose to Portugal in circumstances which betray some unexpired jetlag, but record my first win against Azerbaijan, against a self-declared 6-dan. Curiously, our only common language is German. In the evening I accompany my friend John Gibson, the Irish representative, on the bus to Gyeongju. I didn’t realise, but for 1000 years it was Korea’s capital city. It is replete with bits of archaeology, but I never get to see most of it. Getting a bit fed up with the food at Hyundai, we have a Korean meal in a restaurant, for less than the price of a beer back at the hotel.
Tuesday 8th: Rounds 5 and 6. At last I remember how to win games of go, seeing off Brazil and Switzerland. I can’t go out in the evening, as I have booked a simultaneous game with a pro. Which I very nearly win … No time to go to Gyeongju, but there are some nice walks around the lake, and some shops where you can buy reasonably priced beer, or what passes for it in Korea. I stock up.
Wednesday 9th: Rounds 7 and 8. I lose to Belarus and Turkey. Now it is common or garden tiredness rather than jetlag which is setting in. I am really a bit out of my depth at this event. I could have done better when I was at my peak, about fifteen years ago. But rules are rules, and my number didn’t come up till I was on the decline. Oh well, it was a good experience, and I am grateful to the BGA Council for selecting me.
Thursday 10th: Today is the rest and excursion day. I could have done with it in the middle of the tournament, but that is how things are. My German friend Daniella Trinks arrives from Seoul and keeps me company. She is doing a PhD in Baduk Studies. Korea is the only country in the world where that is possible. We bundle into a coach to visit a traditional Korean village, which is a World Heritage Site, and a Buddhist temple complex. It is impressive enough, but I have seen many temples in Japan, and they all look rather similar to me.
We get some free time in the afternoon, and then the closing ceremony, when the prizes are given out. I had hopes of a repetition of 2008 at the Prime Minister’s Cup, when I received a special award for being the oldest player. But this time the Brazilian beats me by two years; he was born in 1941.
Friday 11th: Time to leave. I have a 9.00 am flight from Busan Gimhae to Kansai International (Osaka). Do I catch the 4 am or the 6 am coach provided by the organisers? I opt for safety and leave at 4 am, but it makes for rather a long day. A limousine airport bus and two trains bring me to Hirano, about an hour away from Osaka. Here lives my good friend Harumi Takechi, who has invited me to stay at her house for as long as I wish. I have been there twice before. She picks me up from the station, and later we have a good Japanese restaurant meal. I do prefer Japanese food to Korean. And this is where we came in: I am warned about the frogs, and they really do kick up one hell of a racket.
Saturday 12th: Harumi takes me to a go kai sho in Osaka where we have been before. On the way we queue for about 35 minutes to have lunch at a tiny restaurant with only six seats, and which serves only one dish, unagi don (eels on rice). Then I have to be shown exactly where I am to be met at an Osaka station on Monday by another friend. And then on to the go club, where I hold my own reasonably.
Sunday 13th: A much needed day off. It is so easy on these trips to think that you must use every minute. The result is that you get tired and don’t enjoy it as you would have done with a little down time. I had hoped to do some exploring in the Hirano countryside, but it is too hot for that sort of thing. Harumi takes me out to lunch at a country restaurant, and the rest of the day I spend indoors, watching the go channel on TV or actually playing the game.
Monday 14th: I betake myself to the appointed place at Osaka Umeda station to meet another friend, Mamoru Matsumoto. He takes me on to a go camp. Expecting to see tents, I am taken into the basement of a suburban concrete-and-glass building. Here the so called camp goes on for three weeks. Each morning you play a tournament game, and then in the afternoon there are lectures and teaching. You stay in a local hotel.
Here I see several familiar faces, including Paul Taylor of St. Albans Go Club. Translation of the pro lectures is done by John Richardson, a British 4-dan now resident in Japan. In the evening my friend takes me back to central Osaka for yet another fine Japanese dinner.
Tuesday 15th: Today I have more time off until the evening, when Harumi drives me to a place where I meet more doctors, this time playing go rather than wind instruments. When I arrive all are watching the game of a young player looking about 10 years old. Why don’t we get on and play our own games, I am thinking. I soon find out. When later the boy plays the local pro, he does so without handicap. I play a few games, win some, lose some, and then back to Hirano by taxi.
Wednesday 16th: Harumi is off on her own travels today. She is a regular attender at overseas tournaments, especially the European, and now she is bound for Germany. She showed up once at our own Isle of Man go festival.I am given strict instructions on how to look after her house, and am left on my own. It is cool enough now to do a spot of exploring. In the evening I visit an Indian restaurant for a change. Rather different from ours, and do they speak English? No they don’t; my elementary Japanese is called into action if I want any food.
Thursday 17th: I lock up Harumi’s house and set off for Tokyo, getting the Shin Kan Sen from Osaka. My hotel is in the Shinjuku district, and I have an internet map. But I quail at the thought of finding my way through unnamed Tokyo side streets, and take a taxi. Just as well; I would never have found the Granbell Hotel amid the unsystematically disposed streets. The hotel itself is a standard international one, but it is surrounded by the famous love hotels, where rooms can be rented by the hour. They give no impression of sleaze. I am told that while many of the clients are youngsters, married couples who lack privacy at home also use them.
In the evening Masa Kono, an old friend from the London Japanese go community when there used to be one, takes me out to dinner, and tells me of the arrangements for the next day, when I am due to meet several old ex-London friends.
Friday 18th: Owing to a late change of plan, I need to transfer to the Washington Hotel for the remainder of my stay. No, I will not use a taxi. Following some cartographical study I wheel my luggage successfully to the new billet. It is a huge international hotel, and quite acceptable once you have discovered that the front desk is on the third floor, and not where you would expect to find it.
In the afternoon I am met by my old friend Mr Niwa, whom London players active in the 70’s and 80’s might remember. Another name which might ring a bell for some is that of Reiko Monna. We play some go at a go kai sho, and then off for yet another Japanese dinner.
Throughout my trip, my various hosts and friends were unbelievably generous in feeding me with fine Japanese food, which I like. I bought few meals myself, apart from breakfast in the hotel. And woe betide me if I tried to offer to pay my share. It quickly became clear to me that that was not what was expected.
Saturday 19th: I catch the train from Shinjuku to Totsuka, a suburb of Yokohama. Here lives my friend Kiyoshi Sekiguchi, whom I have met at many an EGC. We take a walk in the local nature reserve. In the afternoon in true Japanese fashion he has invited two male friends to make up a go playing foursome, while his non-playing wife plies us with refreshments.
Then in the evening we are taken to a Bon Odori festival. I am encouraged to join in the traditional dance with Mrs. Sekiguchi, though actually it is more of a processional line dance. Having done quite a lot of folk dancing of various types in Britain I feel rather gratified at being thus drawn into traditional Japanese culture.
Sunday 20th: I stay the night with the Sekiguchis. In the morning, following an alarming session in Kiyoshi’s massage chair, we play more go, and then it is time to return to Tokyo.
At 1.00 pm I meet another old friend from EGCs, Take Ichikawa. He meets me at Tokyo station, and takes me off to his nearby go kai sho, where I meet yet another old friend. We play go for about four hours, and here for once I seem to be on form winning all my games. That is probably owing to the disparity between European and Japanese amateur grades, but I won’t bore you with my views on that subject. And then, yes, you’ve guessed it, another fine Japanese repast.
Monday 21st: I meet my friend the pro player Chizu Kobayashi with her daughter Anna at a very posh hotel in Yotsuya. Here Chizu runs a class for young go players of various standards. And as at Busan I am roped in as a suitable opponent. My youngest opponent at five years old has yet to learn that it is not good tactics to fill in your own eye space, and it becomes an interesting exercise for me to find a way of not capturing all her stones.
More food, and then time off for Francis in the hotel. Later I walk down to the nearby Yoyogi Park. Here stands the Meiji Shrine, the memorial to Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) who was instrumental in modernising Japan. Here I am lucky to see a Shinto wedding procession; very slow, with priests and the couple in traditional garb. The park itself, like some others in Tokyo, consists largely of wooded areas, amongst which you are not encouraged to walk. You just saunter along paths between them, with open grassy spaces being the exception.
Tuesday 22nd: My last day in Japan. I take a train to Senzoku, to meet my only non-go-playing contact, my cousin Vernon who runs an English language-and-culture school. Adults in the day, and children after schooltime. It seems to be flourishing.
Chizu has told me that my help would be appreciated at an English language class for pros at the Nihon Ki-in Chuo Kai Kan (the Japan Go Association Central Hall) in Ichigaya. At 5.30 pm I duly take the lift up to the 7th floor as instructed. No one visible. Eventually I find a room with some people. “Sumimasen ga, Eigo curassu no heya wa doko desu ka?” I am directed to an empty room with a table and a dozen or so chairs. Patience is rewarded, and by 6 pm four pros, a Finnish insei, and a pro’s Australian wife with fluent Japanese turn up. “Have I brought any game records?” Well actually I do have some on my tablet. The form is that the pros go through the game commenting in English. When they get stuck the three English speakers (like all Finns, he is fluent in English) help out as best they can.
As a teacher, I can see that the problem here is to keep them talking English. Sometimes the pros get so interested in the go that they break into Japanese. I won’t have it, and duly remonstrate. Sometimes I ask a question to which I know the answer just to make them use their English. It seems that quite a big problem for them is pronunciation. It seems to be a new idea that we say joSEki, with accent on the second syllable, while the Japanese pronunciation is jooseki, with no stress but a long O. And later there is the inevitable meal, Chinese this time, though not the sort you get in Britain. I see the nearest object I have come across to a Klein bottle: a sake bottle with an internal cavity for ice.
Wednesday 23rd: Narita Express train from Shinjuku, and then home. I now have a jetlag recovery week before setting off for the USA and their congress. This was my sixth visit to Japan. I love visiting the country, and look forward to my next excuse for going.