It’s Golden Week in Japan, which has an important significance: 4-day weekend! It’s a holiday when people will take time off for the whole week and visit their hometown or other popular tourist spots. Tokyo is a virtual ghost town during this week (at least, it’s just “crowded” instead of “extremely crowded”), so even if you don’t go anywhere, you still get to enjoy bearable crowds on the train and the novelty of going places where you’ve got the luxury of space.
As part of Golden Week, one of my co-workers and his wife invited me to stay at her parents house about an hour from Tokyo. It was a fantastic and rare opportunity to experience Japanese home life firsthand – home cooking, tatami matting, futons and the works. Since her parents didn’t speak any English, my Japanese really got a working over. The Japanese spoken in homes is also different to those in business. Of course, the vocabulary used is different, but the means of conjugating verbs is different too. Instead of saying shimasu (to do), you say suru. Instead of saying ikimasu (to go), you say iku. In spite of the challenges, I learned lots of things, and one of the first was this Shogi.
Shogi is Japanese chess. The rules and objectives very similar to chess, in that you’re still trying to checkmate the king. There’s lots of differences to ratchet up the difficulty, though. Firstly, when you capture a piece, it can come back into play under your control. So, capturing pieces not only makes your opponent weaker, but it makes you stronger, too. You can drop this captured piece almost anywhere on the board, including right into the middle of your opponent’s pieces. So, not only do you have have to calculate all the moves the pieces currently on the board can make, but also the effect of your opponent dropping a captured piece of their choosing on to the board. As if chess didn’t hurt the brain enough already…
Overall, the pieces have more restricted movements than Western Chess. There’s no equivalent Queen piece, and there’s only one rook and one bishop. Pawns can only capture forward, not in both diagonal directions. Knights still move in “L” shapes, but only forwards, not sideways. There’s a four “Generals” which can only move one square like the King, but in restricted directions.
If you can get any of your pieces into one of the back three rows of the opponent’s territory, they are promoted to upgraded versions. At this point, the possible moves of the piece sometimes changes completely – rough for a beginner! It was a tough time remembering which piece was which, and what it did: the main way to distinguish them are somewhat elaborate kanji printed in a calligraphy style on them.
The combined effect of all this: I got my ass handed to me. Which proves that at its essence, yep – it’s still definitely chess.