Seoul Day 8 – DMZ, Hankuk Kiwon

Yesterday we all feared today’s DMZ tour would be canceled, but we were assured none of that would happen. And indeed, we forged ahead as planned. Or to be more accurate: we crawled ahead with half-opened eyes at 7:15 in the morning. Henry, one of the people I met at the youth hostel, had the brilliant idea of setting the alarm clock 5 minutes before departure time, which was fine by me. In my ray-of-morning-sunshine mode (Olivier will know that one quite well from last year) I hauled myself onto the bus and snoozed for another hour or so. When I finally gave up trying to sleep, we’d arrived at our destination: the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea.

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Arriving at the DMZ means passport checks. A fresh conscript (military service is compulsory in Korea) clambered aboard the bus and gave our passports a brief look. So brief, in fact, I wonder if he’d noticed at all had my passport photograph been one of an overweight black woman.

Well, I guess we presented no threat, and were allowed in for our first stop: Imjingak park. Here we had the opportunity to watch Freedom Bridge, which had been used to exchange POW’s after the Korean War. It’s really cold up here, and the morning light made love to the ice crystals on the park’s various wooden and concrete surfaces in the most beautiful way. I could have stayed here for hours with the right camera. Unfortunately, lacking focus on my crummy second-hand model soon made me abandon my attempts to catch the spectacle and I shot some very authentic looking barbed wire instead. We scored some breakfast at the convenience store and back on the bus we went.

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Our second stop was one of the famous North Korean infiltration tunnels underneath the DMZ. In the 1970s, a defector from North Korea admitted he alone was responsible for designing at least 20 infiltration tunnels from North Korea. So far, four have been found.

The tunnel itself was nothing special. You’re given a safety helmet and then walk down through a brightly lit South Korean tunnel down to where it intersects the North Korean tunnel. After walking for a good five minutes in a tunnel that is too low to walk up straight (chronic malnutrition creates tiny North Koreans) you come to the first of three concrete checkpoints, beyond where you may go no further. No pictures allowed, though there’s nothing to be seen anyway, apart from some barbed wire and dramatic red lighting.

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Next on the list was the Dora observatory, a large deck mounted with binoculars for spying on the North Korean neighbours. You were allowed to take pictures, but only until a certain yellow line drawn way before the edge of the platform, ensuring only giants could actually take pictures of North Korea.

When looking through the binoculars though, you can see the rivalry amounting to comical proportions in the placement of two gigantic flag poles. North Korea has the larger one, by the way.

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Our last stop was the Dorasan train station, which has train tracks that extend all the way up to Pyeongyang. You can also get stamps of North Korea here. The actual stamp and ink cushion are covered in warnings not to put those on your travel passport, as an American man who did just that a few years ago was detained in an American airport for two whole days before being allowed re-entry. Oh, and I bought DMZ chocolate. Just couldn’t resist.

After returning to Seoul, I made my way to the Hankuk Kiwon, the Korean professional go players’ institute. It’s a lot different from the Nihon Kiin in Tōō, and it was almost impossible to see anything just wandering around. I tried talking to the few people I saw wandering around, but they spoke no English. Pretty disappointed, I went back to the subway station, thinking about how unwelcoming the Hankuk Kiwon is. And then it suddenly dawned on me that those thoughts where just that: thoughts.

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I went back, tried one more time with an old man smoking a cigarette in front of the Hankuk Kiwon. He spoke English, and guided me to the basement floor where a dozen or so professionals where analyzing a game as it was being played. He put me on a chair, reminded me to be respectfully silent among the professionals and even got me a drink. I ended up watching the entire relay of a professional match in the 2011 Korean Baduk League. I didn’t know this, but that seems to be a team league. Today’s match was between a team “Posco Something something LED” and “Hite-Jinro”. Team something something was leading 1-0. The game was An Sungjoon (B) vs Ju Hyeongwuk (W). I enjoyed every second of the game and I’ll treasure this as a reminder of how you are responsible for shaping your own experience.

I found the game record on go4go.net and added it below:

 

Download SGF

 

Seoul-08-06

On a pretty bizarre note, I asked the man who had guided me into the room full of professionals for his name. He smiled and gave me his card because I wouldn’t believe it otherwise. He was a 7-dan amateur player who had been teaching go in Mongolia for the past few years and recently returned to Seoul. And now a little reminder of his existence travels with me in my backpack. A piece of paper that says Kim Jeong-Il.

2011-11-22 – Study Session with Takemiya-sensei

Today was spent in the same way as most of my days recently: studying Japanese. In the afternoon there was to be a reward for my diligent studying: another English study session with the professional go players at the Nihon Kiin. Only this time, the cherry on the pie was the attendance of none other than Takemiya Masaki. He is just as friendly and easy-going during small-scale study sessions as he is during his lectures. Constantly smiling, and after joining in with some English terms (with some help by Mr. Urasoe), he even remarked that “English is very easy”, followed by another fit of uncontrollable laughter. He left during the middle of the study session for his dancing class, but promptly returned to show us some photos of his dance performance, a tango with an absolutely stunningly beautiful Japanese woman. The other pro’s were quick to utter the required ooh’s and aah’s, followed by some praise for his dancing partner (and no doubt her rather short skirt). It was wonderful meeting the legend up close, and my respect for Takemiya-sensei has only grown. Not only is he regarded as one of the best go players of the 20th century, turns out he is also one of the most friendly and outgoing Japanese I’ve ever met. I can only hope he drops in sometime during one of the following study sessions.

Last week in Tōkyō

I spent this last week pretty much as I’d spent the ones before that: a mixture of must-see tourist sites with personal crusades. Only this time, I had some friends to share the fun with.

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On Monday I spent most of the day at the Takadanobaba go club, which was celebrating its 1-year anniversary. There were quite a few people there, all in all I think about 15, and most of them were much stronger than I am, so this club is a great learning environment. I played a long game against Ishida Junichi, a guy around my age and strength. I took black and the game had a komi of 6.5. The game was quite exciting, and while people all around us finished games, started new ones and finished those, we kept on playing. It was a close match, and in the end, I managed to win with 6.5 points. By this time, Antti (the Finish 6-dan player who has become an insei and has had almost straight wins since starting), had commenced playing against a very strong ex-insei who now worked for the Nihon Kiin. Mr. Urasoe gave live commentary and even stopped the game for a little pop-quiz. Some of the fruit juice cocktails you can see in a lot of stores here seemed very popular among the go players, and one by one, the Japanese faces lit up with a bright red “woops, I’ve had a drink” kind of glow. We had great fun, but I had to leave because I had another place to be that evening.
I was going to stay with Kentarō again for the coming days, and this time, I would be joined by Reed. He is an American from California, but did all of his undergraduate studies in Scotland, where he worked as a bartender at night. About 10 piercings and a quarter body suit of tattoos adorn his body, but even so, he doesn’t quite manage to pull off the bad boy look. He’s always smiling and a great guy to hang out with. I actually met him at Avocado House, where he arrived the day I was leaving to stay with Taka. The three of us went to the izakaya near Kentarō’s house, and this time I didn’t forget to bring my camera.

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The next day (that will be Tuesday for the budding Sherlock Holmeses among the readers), Reed and I set out to explore Tōkyō together. Our first stop would be the famous Meiji Shrine. From the bustling streets of Shibuya, you enter an actual forest, and while walking deeper and deeper into the forest in search of the shrine, the sounds of the city completely disappear. Birds, insects and the sound of shoes on gravel are the only things that break the silence around these parts, as most people seem to respect the aura of this place. After some five minutes of walking, we suddenly stumbled upon the shrine, and to our amazement, a Japanese wedding was taking place. The parade of people wearing traditional Japanese clothes made its way to another part of the shrine just as we arrived, and soon it was just us (let’s forget about the hundreds of other western tourist for a moment) and the shrine. The shrine is a beautiful piece of architecture indeed, but it gets it magic not from man-made art, but rather the serenity of the surrounding forest, even though it’s located in some of the busiest districts of Tōkyō.

From the southern exit of the shrine, we walked straight into throbbing heart of Tōkyō’s hipster culture: Harajuku. This district is full of second hand clothing shops, sneaker stores and unidentified spaces that look like they might sell or exhibit something even less identifiable. The reason to come to Harajuku has got nothing to do with those, however, it’s the people that make this district. Since Reed is a degenerate smoker (if you ask him whether he smokes, he’ll reply “Like a chimney” with one of his big grins), we had to take quite a lot of nicotine-breaks, which doubled as opportunities for people spotting. And were there ever people to spot around here. We seriously suspected people dressing up like an avant-garde fashionista and then just randomly picking a spot in Harajuku to grow roots and check out how your coolness compares to that of the other hipsters. This place is so cool you could liquidize nitrogen with it. Just sayin’.
From Harajuku we walked to Roppongi Hills, the mega-building that looks like it should have bat-sign on its roof. On the way we stumbled upon a temple, and some of the readers can imagine my astonishment when I read its first kanji as Dōgen Zenji, the 13th-century zen master I wrote my master’s dissertation on. I really want to visit his temple Eiheiji, but it’s located in the mountains in Fukui prefecture, and not very accessible through public transportation. Turns out there is a branch temple right here in Tōkyō, and Reed and I explored it just as an afternoon session of seated meditation came to an end. The sound of the singing bowl and the chants of the monks lead us to the zendō, and Reed managed to take some excellent pictures. Still somewhat baffled from encountering such a dear part of Japanese history right here, we walked around Roppongi Hills to the shrine dedicated to general Nogi, one of the last examples of samurai culture who tasted defeat in the Russo-Japanese wars of 1904-1905, but only took his own life after his lord, the emperor, passed away years later. Dusk was upon us, and we had some very hot beef, followed by some very cold cocktails at HUB, watching Japan humiliate Tajikistan 8-0 in the preliminaries for the soccer World Cup. It was a good night to be in a bar with drunk Japanese.

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On Wednesday Reed left for his next host, and I dropped my bags off at Avocado House. Man, I love that place. Instant home-feeling. For everybody that knows Frédéric “Frekke, Frekke7, Frekstok” Van Hamme, imagine 6 Japanese versions of him living together in one house in the centre of Tōkyō. Things are bound to go wrong in the most hilarious way.
I took a train to Ginza, and for the first time since coming to Japan, I saw people being pushed into the train. There’s too many businessmen in Tōkyō. Luckily there’s quite a few businesswomen as well ^^. Ginza is one Tōkyō’s oldest districts. It got its name from shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu who minted silver here, quickly turning Ginza’s main street into the most fashionable place to be. Today it still houses the main shops for brands like Gucci, Swarovski, and all the other stick-your-nose-up-in-the-air things that don’t really concern me. Out of place though I felt, I have to admit the shops had some first-class interior design, incorporating waterfalls, ponds and vines.
From there I walked through block after block of bank headquarters. Nihonbashi is Tōkyō’s financial center, and it shows. I’ve never seen so many banks in one place. The district actually gets its name from a famous bridge (hashi is bridge in Japanese) that used to mark the start of the Tōkaidō, the great road connecting Tōkyō (then called Edo) with the old capital Kyōto. next up were Marunouchi, with the immense JR Tōkyō Station, and Yūrakuchō. I eventually ended up at zōjōji, a large buddhist temple related to the Tokugawa shogunate. Tōkyō tower rises over the temple grounds, and after having a brief look at this slightly larger copy of the Eiffel tower (the Parisian model has a lot more charm than this red and white copy), I went back to meet up with Hashi, Tōma, Tetsu, Shuji, Eiji and Yang Soo.

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On Thursday I finally managed to attend a karate training at the JKA headquarters near Kōrakuen. In the afternoon Antti and I headed to the second english study session at the Nihon Kiin. Meeting the professional players and studying the game through their eyes remains a spectacular experience.
At night we had a huge party with a lot of couchsurfers and hosts. Kentarō and the guys from Avocado want to promote CouchSurfing in Tōkyō, as it’s still rather unpopular, mainly because according to them Japanese people are not inclined to invite complete strangers into their houses. They want to change all that by showing how much fun it can be. This sort of commitment is just heartwarming. If you’re anywhere near Japan, head over to CouchSurfing.jp to support their efforts. The party was also the last time I would see Reed in a long time, and I was slightly sad to see such a wonderful specimen leave Tōkyō. He’ll come back though, and when he does, many a Moscow Mule will be had in his honour.

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Friday was my last day in Tōkyō, and I spent most of it hanging out with Tetsu, tasting the life of a Japanese university student. At 10:00 AM we headed out to the games arcade for a long-anticipated bout of Street Fighter IV. Tetsu plays Ken, and I play Ryu, so the inevitable trashtalking had to be settled. We were pretty equally matched (Tetsu winning slightly more rounds, and scoring a lot more ultra combos, reminiscent of the way Boets would beat me at my own game). Afterwards I had a continue left, and we finished the singleplayer arcade mode in one go. The Xbox AI seems a lot harder than that of the original arcade version.
All mashed out, we strolled towards Tetsu’s favourite ramen-place, and had a huge bowl of the best ramen I’ve ever had. Afterwards I attended one of his classes ‘something something life insurance.” I didn’t get all of what was going on, which was sort of embarrassing as we were 15 minutes late and had to come all the way down to sit in front of the guest lecturer. I wrote down every new word I could understand and learned a lot of kanji, though. Tetsu didn’t seem to be too bothered by the whole class-thing, as he fell asleep after a few minutes, only to wake up moments before class ended. 犯罪者養成大学、お世話になりました。

Tōkyō Day 11 – Hiratsuka Go Festival, Kitani Go School

Mr. Urasoe had invited me to go to Hiratsuka today, where the largest Go event of Japan is held every year. Just so happens today was the day of the festival. Coincidence? I think not. Anyway, Hiratsuka is about an hour away from Tōkyō by train, and it’s the place where the famous go player Kitani Minoru lived and taught in his legendary go school. The Kitani dōjō has produced a staggering amount of professional players, among which my favourite pro Kato Masao, as well as Cho Chikun and Kobayashi Chizu, among others.

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Upon arriving in Hiratsuka, Mr. Urasoe spared no effort in order to let me play a game against a professional that afternoon. After the paperwork was taken care of, we grabbed a bite to eat at one very peculiar burger place they have all over Tōkyō: Mos Burger. Apart from the standard burgers, they have some pretty outlandish samples as well. I had a grilled tomato burger with a downright delectable brownish sauce. Mos Burger is to burger places what our dearest Frietketel is to its competition: two levels up. Imagine getting coasters for your glass of sophisticated white grape sparkling soft drink at McDonalds? I didn’t think so. You just take a seat and a waitress brings the food to you. Aah, glorious semi-fast food.

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We still had some spare time before the event started, so we went to the Museum that now stands at the location of the Kitani dōjō. The museum wasn’t all that big, but it housed some very old go books, game records (the original record of Kitani’s game vs Honinbō Shusai) and pictures of all of Kitani’s professional students (and pictures of their students that turned professional, the ‘Kitani grandchildren’). The most interesting part were the pictures on the wall, one depicting a very young Kobayashi-sensei standing next to an even younger Cho Chikun, another showing an adolescent Kato Masao arm wrestling with Kitani, pretty funny.

We walked back to the town center, where the festival was about to start. On first walking from the station to the Kitani museum, it dawned on me just how big this event was: 500 go boards were set up right in the middle of one of Hiratsuka’s main shopping streets, allowing for 500 simultaneous games with professionals to be played. Since they would do this in two shifts, a total of 1000 simultaneous games would be played that afternoon.

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So go must be really popular in Japan, even these days, I thought. But these numbers are more of a reflection of Japan’s average age being extremely high than of the game’s popularity among Japanese youth. I’d say over 90% of the people there were in their 50’s, and well over half of the people were in their 70’s. You saw some children playing the game, but I think out of a thousand people playing that day, I was the only one in my twenties that was not a professional. Sadly it seems like in Japan, even more so than in Belgium where at least university students play the game, go has become a pastime for those with a lot of time to spare. If you’re working all day long, you spend whatever time you have left in a bar, a pachinko parlour or a games arcade. Go is for old people.
Be that as it may, this is definitely my crowd, however. Their love for the game transforms these oldtimers into nothing short of children unpacking christmas gifts. My status as a young foreign go player makes me quite the oddity, so a lot of people came up to me to have a chat. I wonder if the young Japanese gamers in the arcades are this friendly. I somehow doubt it.

At long last, the professional players arrived, headed by a disgustingly happy little marching band. Among them where Aki and Kuma, from the study sessions at the Nihon Kiin, and such famous players as Otake Hideo, Ishida Yoshio, Kobayashi Chizu and Takemiya Masaki.

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I attended a lecture by crowd favourite Takemiya, and as he was talking about creativity and having fun while playing go, he suddenly stopped and said: “Oh. There’s even a foreigner here.” One hundred old necks crack simultaneously as the heads they support turn my way. Enter blush mode. A shy wave and a “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu” later, Takemiya resumed his lecture with “Ah, he even understands Japanese, very well. Very well.”
A similar thing happened when I was taking pictures of Kobayashi-sensei’s beginner’s class, and she suddenly pulled me on stage and pushed the mic in my hands. “Introduce yourself, please.” Who can refuse the polite smile of a Japanese woman? I got off cheap with a few words and quickly disappeared into a nearby supermarket.

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At long last it was time for me to play my game in the second series of simultaneous games of the day. I asked Mr. Urasoe how many stones I should place, and he advised me to put down eight or nine. Nine stones it is, then. I thought I should be able to do this, especially as I had entered (again after deliberation with Mr Urasoe) as a Japanese 1-dan. Japanese 4-dan players put down only about five stones, so I should be able to do this. But then again, I’ve never played against a professional before. My opponent was Haruyama Isamu, 9-dan professional and student of Kitani Minoru. Western go players might know him from his lectures on basic go theory which have been published under his name and that of Nagahara Yoshiaki. Playing against a 9-dan professional makes you nervous. Very nervous. I made a mess of the start of the game, and some 30-40 moves into the game, a large group of mine had been mercilessly slaughtered. I read the position quite carefully, but Haruyama-sensei didn’t even spend one whole second on killing it.
After I got used to the tempo of the game I managed to relax a little, and I cut off a large white group. I kept gaining profit while attacking it, and when Haruyama-sensei initiated a ko for the life of his group, I used my ko threats to attack a second weak group of his. He resigned after 130 moves, and I have now won my first game against a professional.
Afterwards, a little crowd had gathered around the weird white youngster, and I was immediately captured on camera and interviewed for Shūkan Go (‘Go Weekly’, the newspaper dedicated to go, and also the only Japanese paper I’ve been buying ever since I got here). “A foreigner? Oh, really?” They said they would use the interview for the next Go Weekly, how cool is that?

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We had some spare time left, and I managed to scrap another item from my very long ‘To Do in japan’-list. We went to an onsen, a hot spring resort, with multiple hot baths, sauna’s, what have you. At first I was slightly surprised when Mr. Urasoe proposed to go to an onsen, but everybody does it here, they really have a public bath culture here. Were those springs ever refreshing. My back has suffered quite a bit of abuse (especially from the latest “couch” I was surfing on), so it was a welcome experience.

Edible Go Board and Stones? Sign me up!

I’m a huge fan of anything even remotely resembling cookies, so I took the time to translate an awesome recipe I found on p.13 of the following Go magazine: Igo Amigo – Goteki, vol.4

4×4 Board Cookie Recipe
(enough for 2 4×4 boards and 32 white and black stones each).

Ingredients:
– Unsalted butter (90g)
– Sugar (50g)
– Egg (1 or 2)
– Chocolate Pen (1)
– Ingredient A: Wheat flour of low viscosity (150g) and almond powder (30g)
– Dark cocoa powder (2 teaspoons)*
* If you don’t have any, normal cocoa should do just fine.

gocookies

Recipe:
1) Stir the butter that’s softened at room temperature with a spatula until it has become whitish, then add sugar and the beaten egg while stirring. Add the sieved ingredient A and stir gently.
2) Divide the dough in three, mix cocoa powder through one of the thirds. Wrap each part [of the dough] in cling film, and let it rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
3) [4×4 Board] Stretch one of the white pieces of dough until it’s 3mm thick, and cut out 2 6x6cm squares.
[Go Stones] As for the remaining white and dark dough, divide each into 32 parts, roll and lightly press.
4) Line up the pieces of dough at a regular interval on a cooking sheet, spread over a baking tray. Bake for 10-15 minutes in a pre-heated oven at 180°C.
5) Draw 4 vertical and 4 horizontal lines (as seen in the picture on the left) on the 4×4 board with a chocolate pen, and draw a round dot on the intersections.