Big believers in team spirit, the Japanese embrace many sports with almost religious fervour. Baseball is actually more popular than the home-grown sumo, and hot on the heels of both sports is soccer. Martial arts, such as aikido, judo and karate, all traditionally associated with Japan, have a much lower profile than you might expect. Tokyo, with its many dōjō (practise halls), is the best place in the country in which to view or learn these ancient sports. Tokyo’s TICs have a full list of dōjō that allow visitors to watch practise sessions for free.
Popular outdoor activities include skiing, hiking and mountain climbing. The Tokyo-based International Adventurers Club (IAC; w) and Outdoor Club Japan (w), and the International Outdoor Club (IOC; w) in the Kansai region provide informal opportunities to explore the countryside in the company of like-minded people. The bilingual bimonthly magazine Outdoor Japan (w) is also a mine of useful information.
Baseball first came to Japan in the 1870s, but it wasn’t until 1934 that the first professional teams were formed. Now Japan is yakyū (baseball) crazy, and if you’re in the country from April to the end of October during the baseball season, think about watching a professional match. Even if you’re not a fan, the buzzing atmosphere and audience enthusiasm can be infectious.
In addition to the two professional leagues, Central and Pacific, each with six teams, there’s the equally (if not more) popular All-Japan High School Baseball Championship. You might be able to catch one of the local play-offs before the main tournament, which is held each summer at Kōshien Stadium near Ōsaka.
In the professional leagues, the teams are sponsored by big businesses, a fact immediately apparent from their names, such as the Yakult (a food company) Swallows and Yomiuri (a newspaper conglomerate) Giants. The victors from the Central and Pacific leagues go on to battle it out for the supreme title in the seven-match Japan Series every autumn. Tickets for all games are available from the stadia or at advance ticket booths. They start at ¥1500 and go on sale on the Friday two weeks prior to a game. For more information on Japan’s pro-baseball leagues, check out the official professional league site w, and the fan-site Baseball Guru w.
There’s something fascinating about Japan’s national sport sumo, even though the titanic clashes between the enormous, near-naked wrestlers can be blindingly brief. The age-old pomp and ceremony that surrounds sumo – from the design of the dohyō (the ring in which bouts take place) to the wrestler’s slicked-back topknot – give the sport a gravitas completely absent from Western wrestling. The sport’s aura is enhanced by the majestic size of the wrestlers themselves: the average weight is 136kg, but they can be much larger – Konishiki, one of the sumo stars of the 1990s, for example, weighed 272kg.
At the start of a bout, the two rikishi (wrestlers) wade into the ring, wearing only mawashi aprons, which are essentially giant jockstraps. Salt is tossed to purify the ring, and then the rikishi hunker down and indulge in the time-honoured ritual of psyching each other out with menacing stares. When ready, each rikishi attempts to throw his opponent to the ground or out of the ring using one or more of 82 legitimate techniques. The first to touch the ground with any part of his body other than his feet, or to step out of the dohyō, loses.
Despite their formidable girth, top rikishi enjoy the media status of supermodels, their social calendars being documented obsessively by the media. When not fighting in tournaments, groups of rikishi live and train together at their heya (stables), the youngest wrestlers acting pretty much as the menial slaves of their older, more experienced, colleagues. If you make an advance appointment, it’s possible to visit some heya to observe the early-morning practise sessions; contact the Tokyo TICs for details. For all you could want to know and more on the current scene, plus how to buy tickets, check out the official website of sumo’s governing body, Nihon Sumo Kyōkai, at w.
Soccer was introduced to Japan in 1873 by an Englishman, Lieutenant Commander Douglas of the Royal Navy, but it wasn’t until Japan’s first professional soccer league, the J-League (w), was launched in 1993 that the sport captured the public’s imagination. Following on from the success of the 2002 World Cup, hosted jointly by Japan and Korea, the sport is now a huge crowd puller.
Games are played between March and October, with a break in August. Sixteen clubs play in the top J1 league, twelve in the J2, and all participate in the JL Yamazaki Nabisco Cup. There is a host of other cups and contests including the JOMO Cup, in which fans pick their dream teams from among all the J-League players.
Half-sport, half-religion, aikido translates as “the way of harmonious spirit” and blends elements of judo, karate and kendo into a form of non-body-contact self-defence. It’s one of the newer martial arts, having only been created in Japan in the twentieth century, and, as a rule, is performed without weapons. For a painfully enlightening and humorous take on the rigours of aikido training, read Robert Twigger’s Angry White Pyjamas.
To find out more about the sport, head to the International Aikido Federation, 17-18 Wakamatsuchō, Shinjuku-ku (合気会; t03/3203-9236, w).
Probably the martial art most closely associated with Japan, judo is a self-defence technique that developed out of the Edo-era fighting schools of Jūjutsu. All judo activities in Japan are controlled by the All-Japan Judo Federation, at the Kōdōkan Dōjō, 1-16-30 Kasuga, Bunkyō-ku (講道館; t03/3818-4172, w), reached from either Kasuga or Kōrakuen subway stations in Tokyo. The dōjō holds classes most evenings (Mon–Fri 5–8pm, Sat 5–7.30pm), and there’s also a hostel here where you can stay if you have an introduction from an authorized judo body or an approved Japanese sponsor. Judo is also taught at the Nippon Budōkan Budō Gakuen, 2-3 Kitanomaru-kōen, Chiyoda-ku (日本武道館; t 03/3216-5143, w), near Kudanshita subway station in Tokyo.
Karate has its roots in China and was only introduced into Japan via the southern islands of Okinawa in 1922. Since then the sport has developed many different styles, several with governing bodies and federations based in Tokyo. The Japan Karate Association, 2-23-15 Koraku, Bunkyō-ku (日本空手協会; t03/5800-3091, w), is the world’s largest karate association teaching the Shokotan tradition. You can apply to train or watch classes here, but it’s best to call or email first. The closest subway stations are Iidabashi and Kōrakuen.
The umbrella organization, Japan Karatedō Federation, 6F, 2 Nippon Zaidan Building, 1-11-2 Toranomon, Minato-ku, Tokyo (t03/3503-6640, w), can advise on the main styles of karate and the best place to see practise sessions or take lessons. The closest subway station is Toranomon.
Meaning “the way of the sword”, kendo is Japanese fencing using either a long bamboo weapon, the shinai, or a lethal metal katana blade. This martial art has the longest pedigree in Japan, dating from the Muromachi period (1392–1573). It developed as a sport during the Edo period and is now watched over by the All-Japan Kendo Federation, Nippon Budōkan, 2-3 Kitanomaru-kōen, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo (全日本剣道連盟; t03/3211-5804, w), near Kudanshita subway station. Practise sessions are not generally open to the public, but you might be fortunate enough to catch the All-Japan Championships held in Tokyo each autumn at the Budōkan.
Skiing and snowboarding
Japan is a ski and snowboard paradise; even on the shortest trip to the country it’s easy to arrange a day-trip to the slopes since many major resorts on Honshū are within a couple of hours’ train ride of Tokyo, Nagoya or Ōsaka. Serious skiers will want to head to the northern island of Hokkaidō, which has some of the country’s best ski resorts.
The cost of a ski trip needn’t be too expensive. Lift passes are typically ¥4000 per day, or less if you ski for several days in a row; equipment rental averages around ¥4000 for the skis, boots and poles per day, while accommodation at a family-run minshuku compares favourably to that of many European and American resorts.
Transport to the slopes is fast and efficient; at one resort (Gala Yuzawa in Niigata; w) you can step straight off the Shinkansen onto the ski lifts. Ski maps and signs are often in English, and you’re sure to find some English-speakers and, at the major resorts, gaijin staff, if you run into difficulties.
Top resorts can get very crowded, especially at weekends and holidays; if you don’t want to ski in rush-hour conditions, plan your trip for midweek. In addition, the runs are, on the whole, much shorter than in Europe and the US. Compensating factors, however, are fast ski lifts, beautiful scenery – especially in the Japan Alps – and the opportunity to soak in onsen hot springs at night.
Recommended for beginners is either Gala Yuzawa (w) or Naeba (w), both reached in under two hours from Tokyo by Shinkansen. Nozawa Onsen also has good beginners’ runs, but its off-the-beaten-track location makes it a better bet for more experienced skiers. Appi Kōgen and Zaō in northern Honshū and Hakuba in Nagano are considered the Holy Trinity of Japanese ski resorts. Shiga Kōgen is another mammoth resort in Nagano. If you’re after the best powder-snow skiing without the crowds, head north to Hokkaidō, to the world-class resorts of Furano and Niseko. There are also many slopes easily accessible on a day-trip from Sapporo.
All the major travel agents offer ski packages, which are worth considering. Hakuba-based Ski Japan Holiday (w) and Niseko-based w (w) both have plenty of experience setting up deals for the expat community. Youth hostels near ski areas also often have excellent-value packages, including accommodation, meals and lift passes, and can arrange competitive equipment rental.
The most current and comprehensive English-language guide to Japan’s ski resorts is Snow-search Japan (w) with details of over seventy resorts.
Mountaineering and hiking
Until the twentieth century, few Japanese would have considered climbing one of their often sacred mountains for anything other than religious reasons. These days, prime highland beauty spots such as Kamikōchi are very popular with day hikers and serious mountaineers, so much so that they risk being overrun. In addition, there are scores of national parks and other protected areas, and exploring these and other picturesque parts of the countryside on foot is one of the great pleasures of a trip to Japan. Nevertheless, bear in mind that those areas close to cities can get very busy at weekends and holidays. If you can, go midweek or out of season when the trails are less crowded.
Hiking trails, especially in the national parks, are well marked. Campsites and mountain huts open during the climbing season, which runs from June to the end of August. The efficient train network means that even from sprawling conurbations like Tokyo you can be in beautiful countryside in just over an hour. Top hiking destinations from the capital include the lakes, mountains and rugged coastline of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park to the southwest and Nikkō to the north. Also west of the capital is the Chichibu-Tama National Park and the sacred mountain Takao-san, particularly lovely when the leaves change colour each autumn. The website w has useful ideas and information if you plan to go hiking or camping in Japan.
Rafting, canoeing and kayaking
All the snow that gets dumped on Japan’s mountains in winter eventually melts, swelling the country’s numerous rivers. Although the vast majority of these have been tamed by dams and concrete walls along the riverbanks, there are stretches that provide the ideal conditions for whitewater rafting, canoeing and kayaking. Prime spots for these activities are Minakami in Gunma-ken, Hakuba in Nagano-ken, the Iya Valley and Shimanto-gawa, both in Shikoku, and Niseko in Hokkaidō. A reputable firm to contact to find out more is Canyons (w).
One of Japan’s premier pro-golfing events is the Japan Open Golf Championship (w), held in October with a total prize fund of ¥200 million. If you fancy a round yourself, there are details of 2349 eighteen-hole or more courses at Golf in Japan (w). Course fees vary widely from ¥3000 at the cheapest places to over ¥40,000 for a round at the most exclusive links.
Beaches, surfing and diving
Given that Japan is an archipelago, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it would be blessed with some pleasant beaches. The truth is that industrialization has blighted much of the coastline and that many of the country’s beaches are covered with litter and/or polluted. The best beaches are those furthest away from the main island of Honshū, which means those on the islands of Okinawa, or the Izu and Ogasawara islands south of Tokyo.
Incredibly, Japan’s market for surf goods is the world’s largest, and when the surfers aren’t hauling their boards off to Hawaii and Australia, they can be found braving the waves at various home locations. Top spots include the southern coasts of Shikoku and Kyūshū. Closer to Tokyo, pros head for the rocky east Kujūkuri coast of the Chiba peninsula, while the beaches around Shōnan, near Kamakura, are fine for perfecting your style and hanging out with the trendiest surfers. A useful website is w.
The best places to head for diving are Okinawa, around the island of Sado-ga-shima, near Niigata, and off the Izu Peninsula, close to Tokyo. Walruses may fancy braving ice-diving in the frozen far northern reaches of Hokkaidō. Check out w for more information.