It’s 8:30 on a cold Tuesday night in the middle of winter. Outside pellets of snow have started to fall. Inside the Fukuromachi Elementary School gym, it is 6 degrees, and the eight people in there are sweating. They are playing table-tennis.
I was introduced to this group by Andi Scheller, who started playing table-tennis in Germany when he was 10. After arriving in Hiroshima, he found a club to join and trains with them twice a week – rain, shine or, in this case, snow.
At 7:15 p.m., the person in charge for the day, arrives early. They turn on the lights, roll out the tables, set the nets and backstops and bring out the buckets of orange balls. Normal one-star balls last some hours but the balls used for practice and games (two-star or three star) are heavier and last much longer.
The eight members here tonight, four men and four women, range from 40s-60s. The women have more free time, so they train more often and enter more tournaments. Everyone finds a partner and goes at it with intense concentration, the only sounds are the pinging of balls against paddles with the occasional grunt or apology.
Looking more closely, there are two racquet grips used by members—the handshake grip, used mostly in the west, and the penholder grip, used more in Japan. There also seem to be several types of serves. One is the normal forehand serve, releasing the ball the required 16 centimeters from the racquet. Another is a backhand serve doing the same. Another is more like tennis, throwing the ball into the air and slamming it with more velocity.
There seem to be mainly two strategies for playing. The first is to stand close to the table, which enables you to fire off shots more quickly. The second is to stand farther back, which gives you more time to return the shots, watching the rotation and listening to the sound of the ball. Andi favors the latter, returning shots with backhand spins from two meters out, which somehow hit the table with uncanny consistency.
In terms of equipment, table tennis is a relatively inexpensive hobby. While some members tonight are wearing regular clothes, others are wearing trainer suits and special table tennis shoes. The main equipment is the racquet, and most members buy theirs at Hiroshima Hosei, a school uniform shop in Hirose, which has a side business in table tennis; selling equipment and offering lessons. Butterfly is one of the most famous brands, used all over the world, and a racquet can cost anything between ¥7000 and ¥20,000 and last for five or more years. But the most important part is the rubber, which serious players change every three to six months. The kind of rubber you use depends on your style of play. An attack rubber has more bounce and allows a faster spin. Defense rubber is thicker. A racquet might have one type on each side. Rubber cleaner is used after each training session.
One of the members, Kazuaki Saiki, 66, is a professional picture framer. He started playing ping-pong when his children were at Fukuromachi Elementary School and he was invited to play there. For him, playing table-tennis is completely different from his work, a way that he can relieve stress. He sometimes enters local tournaments, where there may be more than 100 teams participating. Sometimes he plays doubles, where the partnership relationship is important and the attack and defense tactics are different. Andi remarks, “If you go to a tournament, you won’t believe that they are Japanese. Sometimes they are noisy and argumentative. Sometimes they shout loudly and argue with the judges over points, saying bad things.”
Yuriko Sakai, 66, is a table tennis trainer. She plays almost every day for three-four hours in different places and sometimes trains younger players. Another member, Katsuko Nomura will be 70 this year. Her style is to hug the table and use the penholder grip.
Worldwide, Japan is probably second to China in terms of number of active players, with the best playing for German clubs in the highly competitive Bundesliga table tennis league. Hiroshima’s Chugoku Electric Company women’s team is rated #4 in Japan.
For Andi, table tennis is a way to express himself. “In Japan it is sometimes difficult to express my passion in work, family or ordinary life. With table tennis you are really free. Mental condition is also important. Before serving, I must check my partner, which rubber are they holding, how many centimeters are they standing from the table. If I don’t concentrate, my playing will be bad.”
“Playing table tennis is like an art. To make a drive with the ball, I have to watch the rotation with my eyes and play it back from five meters. It is very, very complicated. If you started today, it would take many years to play that ball.”
These are very dedicated people. Unlike soccer or basketball, table tennis is not a contact sport, but it does take its toll on legs and back, but even if your legs get slower, you have more experience. According to Andi, Saiki-san, his partner tonight is a far better player at 60 than he was at 55.
There is an element of dedication and determination among the players. Andi and Saiki-san come in and play during the O-shogatsu New Year holiday when most people are doing little more than lying around at home, eating and drinking. “Even though my legs and ankles are hurting, it is fun.” There is the story of a man who was in the hospital for a month. When he came out, he started playing right away. Another man had stomach cancer, but when he was not in the hospital for treatment, he was playing table tennis.
The sound of the balls bouncing off the racquets and the tables will continue until 9:15 p.m. Then stray balls will be collected, tables folded and put away and the players will pause outside before going their separate ways – until the next chance to train. Andi reflects the sentiment of the members, “We will play as long as we can. There is no limit. There are players older than 80. We will play until we die. For me, table tennis is life!”