Slowly dying by the foot of Fuji 2 – The Refreezening

Last year, I ran in the Lake Kawaguchi half marathon and lived to tell the tale.  I’m not such a fan of running – after all, the further you run, the further you have to run back home.  It just seems like an inefficient way to displace yourself.

In spite of my running aversion, however, the view at Lake Kawaguchi is absolutely spectacular: Mt Fuji, glistening in the late autumn sun, seemingly wall-to-wall across the horizon.  The unforgettable view from last year:

Kawaguchiko marathon

So, this year, I happily accept my co-workers’ offer to tag along.  I bring my bulky SLR camera this time, instead of using my dinky camera phone, and try to work out a way I can comfortably run with it.  Maybe I’m not such a great runner, but I think of the marathon as the price of admission to getting some great photos.

Then I arrive.  The weather looks like this:

It is bleak.  It is cold.  There is no Mount Fuji.

I am forlorn.

However!  As it turned out, fate had shone happily and mercilessly upon me.  Several days earlier, I had smacked my knee into a door frame nice and hard, making running out of the question.  Since I had already paid for accommodation, there was nothing for it but to freeze on the footpath, watching on while everyone else ran.  Of course, I acquitted myself by being official event photographer.

Full points to this guy for running in 4 degrees in a dress. Judging by the reception he received, he was the belle of the ball:

There was a complete set of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers running the full 44 km in costume too.  Actually, this may not have been so bad – they looked considerably warmer and perkier than less be-spandexed competitors.

This year, as the race callers liked to keep reminding us, there were 14 000 competitors doing full marathons (44 km), a-bit-over-half marathons (27 km) and fun runs (10 km).

This guy ran the entire course in a bus driver’s uniform, complete with arm band.

Maybe it was just poor timing on my part, but this fellow’s expression isn’t really reflecting the amount of levity one would expect an arrow attached to one’s head to bring.  Maybe he’s ruing his poor aerodynamic choices.

The race course was one lap of the lake for half-marathon runners, and two laps for full marathon runners.  The next picture is of the point where the courses diverge.  More than a few full marathon runners, perhaps realising they’d bitten off a little more than they could chew, attempted to enter the final straight after only one lap, only to be told by officials that they had to keep going for another 17 km lap of the lake.

I tried to capture their tears on film, but failed.

I was impressed at the first person I saw running the marathon dresses as Santa, replete with sack.  After the fifth, my respect began to waver.

So, maybe the weather was a write-off, but for a few brief moments at dawn, a truly inspiring view:

With the marathon finished, it was time to panic about my impending Japanese exam the next weekend.

That would be this weekend.

So if you’ll excuse me, I must go and do some futile study, interspersed with fitful bursts of hyperventilation.


Bowing Japanese style

If you’re like me and did archery when you were in school, you might have thought it basically wasn’t too hard.  Swagger up, notch an arrow in there, away it goes, then off to geography class.

In Japan, they worked out how to make archery much harder a long time ago, and they called it kyuudou. The Chinese characters that make it up can be translated as “way of the bow”.  There’s something wrong with you if you don’t think that’s awesome.

Archery (Japanese transliteration: aacherii) and kyuudou are two completely separate sports in Japan.  Archery uses modern equipment (composite bows and range finders and whatnot), while kyuudou is very traditional. The thought process is similar to a martial art.  You don’t just loose off arrows willy-nilly: each shot follows a careful, strict procedure, not dissimilar to a karate kata.  You bow when you enter the kyuudou range, precisely pace out the steps to your allotted position, and follow the rigid set of steps for stringing your bow.  Every stage is done with precision and thought (or thoughless-ness, depending on how zen you’d like to get).  It’s not surprising to learn, then, that kyuudou can be performed for meditative reasons too.

The way of doing is very important: my teacher several times remarked on one student or another having “beautiful” form, the arrow hitting the target apparently secondary.  Or, so the philosophy goes, a beautiful form will inevitably hit the target.  So, as in many Japanese activities such as tea ceremony, the manner of doing, rather than just the result, is highly prized.

One the major differences to “regular” archery is that kyudou bows (yumi) are much bigger than regular bows – they stand well above head height when strung.  So, it draw it successfully, you need to lift it above your head, pushing out your front arm first:

Then extend your back arm as you drop it into place beside your cheek.  Your back hand is extended past your shoulder.

Then, when you let the arrow (ya) go, it’s apparently important to fully extend your rear arm, though I forgot this on each of my attempts:

Just to make things harder, targets (mato) are only 36 cm in diameter, about half the size of regular archery targets:

Here, the various stages of preparation are neatly presented.  The guys on the right are sizing up their targets and notching their bows:

When it came to my turn to have a go, it was challenging to say the least.  My Japanese has improved a lot in the last two years, but hasn’t extended to words like “the notch in the end of an arrow” (mizo) and the three fingered glove (yugake) you use to draw the bow.  My teacher was an old Japanese lady who apparently decided not to show much mercy to my less-than native comprehension skills.  Still, by pushing and prodding me into place when necessary, I ending up doing something approximately like actual Japanese archery.

After 30 minutes of practice on a straw target only 2 metres away, my teacher decided to give me a shot at the real thing.  It was interesting that while I thought none of the Japanese kyuudou students who were there really paid much attention to me, I heard later that when my back was turned and I was shooting, this foreigner was well and truly the center of attention, everybody wanting to see if a gaikokujin had what it took.  Unfortunately, I don’t think I represented the rest of the world with aplomb.  I had three attempts:

Attempt 1: I make lots and lots of mistakes.  I walk to the wrong place, I move the wrong foot, I drop the arrow at least three or four times.  In kyuudou, you don’t grip the arrow between your fingers; it just sits there on the string by itself.  There’s something very anti-climactic about drawing the bow back, feeling the tension and power running through it, you’re ready to shoot… only to hear the dull thunk of the arrow hitting the ground beneath your feet.  Result: my arrow hits the wall about 20 cm from the target.  Okay, it’s a miss, but as a first attempt I’ll take it.

Attempt 2: I drop the arrow another couple of times.  My teacher comes over and shows me how to grip the arrow again.  I’m getting quite embarrassed.  I shoot, but over-correct for my missed shot last time, and my arrow goes thudding into the wooden barrier above the range designed to stop stray arrows from skewering any kids in the park next door.  My teacher does not look impressed.

Attempt 3: I hit a target!  The only problem being, the target belonged to the person shooting in the next lane, not me.  Still, the feeling of actually hitting something resembling that I was trying to hit is exhilarating.  Perhaps I look a little too happy with myself, because my teacher ends up reminding me three times “…but it wasn’t your target”.

So, hopefully at some point I’ll be able to go back for another go.  Compared to my high school days, the two metre bows used in kyuudou feels frighteningly powerful; that when you release the arrow you’re not sure if the whole bow isn’t going to shatter into splinters on you.

So, now that I’m a kyuudou expert, I think it’s time for me to move on. Maybe it’s time for yabusame – Japanese horseback archery.  Although I don’t even know how to ride a horse, let alone without holding on, how hard can riding a horse while firing a bow be?  Look for the answers in the outpatient report of my local hospital.

Slowly dying by the foot of Fuji

Today, my body knows only pain. Pain, punctuated with agony to keep things interesting. My legs feel like lead pipes, their ability to bend seemingly given up the ghost. My walk is not dissimilar to a robot, with stairs now presenting a major challenge. Yes, these are my rewards for having attempted a half-marathon yesterday.

The Kawaguchi Lake Marathon is held once a year near the foot of Mt Fuji. It’s 44 kilometers (or 27 kilometers) of hell through some absolutely heavenly scenery:

Kawaguchiko marathon

Honestly, at plenty of points along the way, I just wanted to forget about the whole “running” thing, sit down in a deck chair and just admire the view for a while.

Some co-workers were kind enough to invite me along with them, and it was a great weekend.  Around 10 thousand people turned up, and I can understand why it’s such a popular event.  For one, it’s just hitting the tail of autumn, and the leaves are still changing:

Kawaguchiko marathon

Amazingly, some people still had the energy to raise their arms above shoulder height:

Kawaguchiko marathon

There’s nothing like running towards a steaming active volcano:

Kawaguchiko marathon

And let’s not forget the most welcome sight of all:

Kawaguchiko marathon

This was my first attempt at a half-marathon, and if I learned anything, it was that my preparation was woefully inadequate.  Still, it was a great experience, and I’m trying to re-engineer my pain into some sort of feeling of self-satisfaction and accomplishment.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go and be mercifully immobile for a while.  I may be some time.

No, E. Honda wasn’t there

Last weekend let me cross another big ticket item off my list of things to do: sumo!

A sumo tournament is something I can whole-heartedly recommend attending if you come to Japan. It’s a chance to see the locals let their hair down – barracking for the top-tier matches is passionate, with spectators yelling out the names of the favourite wrestlers. Reportedly, if one of the top-ranked yokozuna is defeated by a lower ranked wrestler, the audience all throw their seat cushions at the wrestlers in the ring, but sadly, the yokozuna won his bout the day I was there.

When it comes to watching man-mountains hurl each other around, it certainly doesn’t disappoint on that front:

Lots more photos and stories of sumo after the jump!

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Just like a chocolate milkshake, only I can’t read it

I’m sure you’d all like to know that I’m eating healthily over here:

They’re not quite Coco Pops – they’re “Coco’s Chokowa”. As far as I can tell, “choko”, handily, is “chocolate”, but I haven’t yet worked out what that “wa” at the end is for.

The other interesting point this box shows is the Japanese fascination for baseball. Baseball is huge here. You often see boys throwing a baseball around on the backstreets, or like the guy I passed at the shops today practicing his pitching motion during a few idle moments.

In a move that most Western companies would kill for, baseball teams in the Japanese major league are often named for their corporate owners, like the Tokyo Yakult Swallows (the ones who make the citrus-y milky health drinks) or the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks (a huge Japanese mobile phone company).

I haven’t yet watched more than a few minutes of baseball in electronics stores, since I am bereft of television still.  So, I currently can’t make a good comparison between baseball and Australian games, but everyone is still amazed when I explain “Cricket: The Game That Takes Fives Days To Play”.

They play what now where?

Well, this weekend brought something not even remotely on the radar of my Japan “todo” list – a rugby union match! I had no idea, but it turns out it’s quite popular here in Japan. The match up was the Japanese “Cherry Blossoms” vs the “Classic” All Blacks:

I was pretty stoked to find out who was playing, since I had never seen the All Blacks play before. Actually, slight correction – I had never seen the Classic All Blacks play. And before I got all huffy about not getting the real deal, Jonah Lomu and Carlos Spencer were playing – the only two All Black players I actually know, so that actually worked out quite well.

The vibe of the game was very different – a lot more reserved than the Australian Rugby League and Union games I’ve been to. A lot less alcohol, a lot less shouting, no booing, and far more polite clapping. It was all very refreshing actually, and everyone seemed to be having a lovely afternoon with some perfect weather.

In line with most expectations, Japan got rolled, but I think they acquitted themselves quite well in spite of the 6-36 scoreline. And no-one went home empty handed, at least – I got lots of shots of the game which you can see at the gallery.