Tokyo’s Undying Love for Sport
Join veteran baseball writer Jim Allen on a journey to discover and understand the soul of Japan’s capital through an athletic lens. Accompanying him are martial artist Alice Iwamoto and street basketballer Susumu Ebihara, each of whom is connected directly to the city’s past and future through their chosen sports. Dive into their worlds and discover what “Tokyo” means to athletes who have pledged their hearts to the metropolis.
Jim Allen is an American baseball writer who has lived in Tokyo for more than 30 years. Join him as he explores other sports in the Japanese capital.
Kobudo is part of Japan’s rich and diverse martial arts heritage
Sumo continues to live on in younger generations
Kobudo has inspired more modern disciplines like aikido
Predating karate and judo, kobudo means “old martial way” and uses traditional weapons such as the bo (staff) and katana (sword). “There’s a spiritual element to Japanese martial arts that is very distinct,” says Jim of the allure of the traditional Japanese martial arts that have captured the imaginations of people the world over - including Alice Iwamoto from Australia.
Background: Hamarikyu Gardens.
Meet Alice Iwamoto, an Australian woman who has moved to Tokyo to pick up kobudo, an ancient martial arts form dating back centuries.
“I love walking around places with a bit of greenery, like Meiji shrine and neighborhoods such as Nakameguro, Yutenji or Shimokitazawa.”
Yanaka’s shopping street is a trove of delectable treats
“Tokyo is a futuristic, fast-paced city.
But there's also a whole other side of Tokyo - one with lots of places for quiet contemplation.”
Hamarikyu Gardens is located in the heart of Tokyo
Enjoying a coffee at Cafe Keats
Outside the dojo, Tokyo’s vibrant neighborhoods, lush parks and gardens, and serene shrines are an unending source of inspiration for Alice.
Alice grew up in Queensland, Australia, and has been living in Tokyo for two years now. She loves the city and all it has to offer. She’s been practicing kobudo for a year now, after previously studying kenjyutsu and jyo-jyutsu, and is currently working towards getting her black belt. The challenge of learning four to five different skills in one training session is what initially drew her to kobudo.
Alice takes Jim to an izakaya (a fuss-free Japanese bar that serves food) in the lively Shinbashi district and introduces him to the street basketballer Susumu Ebihara, who has played since he was in elementary school. Over yakitori - skewers of grilled meat - the three fall easily into conversation. Why did Susumu pick basketball over baseball, which was then Tokyo’s most popular sport? “All my friends picked baseball, but I wanted to be different so I could stand out,” says the 6 - foot - 3 Susumu, laughing.
Waseda University’s basketball team in 1928
Futsal is played on rooftop courts citywide
Indeed, baseball is huge in Tokyo; behold the 50,000 fans cheering for their favorite players (each with a personalized chant) at the Tokyo Dome. The city’s sport culture is not just baseball or spectating from the bleachers. Modern entrants such as dodgeball and futsal have found their place alongside tennis and basketball as beloved pastimes - there are recreational leagues for just about any sport imaginable. “Sports represents freedom of expression,” observes Jim.
Susumu Ebihara has been dunking basketballs since elementary school
Baseball may be Japan's favorite sport, but street basketball also boasts a fervent following. Witness Susumu Ebihara in action as he makes an impact in basketball courts across Tokyo.
“Tokyo is the most international city in Japan. Here you can experience a diversity of international and local cultures.”
The Tokyu mall’s mirrored escalator transports people from street level to a shopping haven in Omotesando
Tokyo’s nightlife is always bustling with activity
“kampai” says Susumu, using the Japanese word for “cheers.“
Susumu went to college in the United States, but returned to his hometown because “my roots are here.” Nothing excites him more than being part of a constantly evolving city. Tokyo embraces new, global ideas and then incorporates them into its DNA with unmistakably Japanese riffs on everything, from food to sports to architecture.
Background: Shibuya crossing.
Susumu plays street basketball and considers it not only a sport, but a lifestyle. He started playing the sport at nine years old at elementary school. When he was 18, Susumu moved to America to study and play at a college in California. At 21, he moved back to Tokyo and now lives in the Shibuya area. He plays basketball 3 to 4 times a week in Tokyo, often at Yoyogi Park.
“You see sumo wrestlers on the street, riding the train, and people carrying their archery bows to class. The contrasts are spectacular.”
While children all over the world pick up sports in school, it’s often one of the first things left behind when they become adults. Not so in Japan. “The amazing thing is that you come to Tokyo and you see grown men in their 40s and 50s, even 60s playing baseball,” says Jim. “Sports is an element of what it means to be Japanese.”
The paradox is that sports as leisure is a relatively new concept in Japan. Traditional martial arts served a specific, military function that required strict rigor. “Part of the attraction of the Japanese tradition that you see in every sport is that you do things the right and proper way, for a right and proper reason,” continues Jim. “When Westerners brought sports to Japan, they fused discipline with fun.”
Today, sports has become a healthy way for people in Tokyo to leave work at the office and sharpen both their bodies and minds. Visitors to Tokyo who want a taste of the city’s dynamic sports culture can rent a bicycle to explore the numerous sports complexes, courts and stadiums where they might glimpse kyudo (traditional archery) in session, catch a baseball game or even join in a game of street basketball.
Jim Allen is an American sports journalist who has been based in Tokyo for 34 years, specializing in baseball coverage. Besides co-hosting the Japan Baseball Weekly podcast, he’s also a frequent contributor to Kyodo News Plus and the Japan Times.
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This content was produced by T Brand Studio, The New York Times and appears onhttps://www.nytimes.com/paidpost/tcvb/tokyos-undying-love-for-sport.html