Tokyo beyond the dojo

Nine Auckland teenagers experienced the dream of all young judoka (judo practitioners) when they got to live and train at the spiritual home of judo, the Kodokan Institute, in central Tokyo in April.
Two girls dressed in Judo robes chatting in a dojo

The team got to make friends with local judo practitioners and learn about life in Japan

Led by coach Robert Levy, the tour was designed to improve the squad’s skills and also familiarise them with living and training overseas. They trained twice a day and visited five Tokyo high schools to train alongside local students.  

To further enhance what was already an incredible cultural experience for the 15-17-year olds, the Asia New Zealand Foundation provided the group with funding to extend their cultural activities outside of the dojo.

Coach Levy describes what they did.

Sushi making

At Tsukiji Tama Sushi in the heart of Ginza the squad learned how to prepare sushimi and make/form and roll many different types of sushi.

The restaurant was the original home of cone-shaped sushi and training was given by a sushi master with more than 30 years’ experience. The sushi master, who had a very patient and relaxed style, only spoke Japanese, which meant the squad had to pay very close attention to every element of the training.

The squad took immense pride in eating their hard work in a traditional setting at the end of the session.

Time out in Hamarikyu Gardens

Located at the mouth of the Sumida River, the gardens have been open to the public since 1946. The traditionally landscaped gardens surround Shioiri Pond and there is a beautiful tea house on the edge of the pond.

During the busy and physically challenging tour, the squad really enjoyed some quiet time in the gardens.  In a busy city like Tokyo, it was awesome to be able to visit a relaxed environment.  A highlight was an artist pausing from his sketching to engage with the young athletes in English to ask about why they were visiting his city.

A view from the Tokyo Skytree

At 634 metres high, the Tokyo Skytree is the second tallest structure in the world. From the observation tower the squad got amazing 360 degree view of Tokyo. Visiting the Skytower was a really nice ‘touristy’ experience, in the middle of a packed training schedule. Being packed into elevators to go up and down the tower (personal space cannot always be allowed for in a densely populated city like Toyko) was quite an experience for the whole squad.

Four of the team looking across Tokyo from the Tokyo Skytree

The view from the top of the Tokyo Skytree allowed the team to see how truly massive Tokyo is

Visiting a municipal sento (bath-house)

After the squad’s second visit to bustling Harajuku, we took the time to visit a public bathhouse.

All the male members of the squad embraced the experience fully. Our two female team members felt a little isolated and intimidated (but gave it a go).

In what is a very respectful and modest society, our crew was initially a little surprised at the indifference to nudity from other sento users. There was a great deal of social interaction, chuckles and guidance throughout the experience.

After the hard physical training, the crew really enjoyed a total clean and scrub, followed by a number of different hot and cold baths and pressure showers as well at the sauna and steam room experience.

Eating Japanese style

Following the sento (bathhouse) experience, we had a team dinner of shabu shabu (Japanese hot pot). With team members who are Jewish, Muslim and vegan, shabu shabu offered a variety of delicious ingredients (meats, tofu, noodles and vegetables) in three different pots, which meant everyone got to eat the food of their choice.

Everyone enjoyed the novelty of starting with a magical pot of boiling water (no heat on the element due to induction heating) and cooking their own food, and after hard training, the ‘all you can eat’ was a challenge enjoyed by everyone.

The team taking a group selfie around the dinner table

Eating out was a cultural experience in its own right

After visiting the ‘Electrical District’ in Akihabara, we went for a ‘working man’s lunch: gyoza (dumplings) and curry.

In Japan, cauliflower ears (from judo) are well respected, and many businessmen sport a good set of caulis from their youth. However, in Japan cauliflower ears are called dumpling ears -  ‘gyoza mimi’.  The squad took much amusement in laughing at their coach’s gyoza mimi. Yet another part of Japanese life.