Imabari for Martial Arts and More
"International Martial Arts Competition"
I first went to Imabari for an International Aikido Competition in 1997. This was a big competition, featuring participants from all over the world.
In addition to Aikido, Imabari offers fantastic training in many traditional martial arts -- kendo, judo, karate, etc.
The competition was a big success. It seemed as if about a million Japanese university students participated, but there was also a large team from the UK, and smaller teams from the US, Australia, Russia, and Brazil, among others. The highlight for the UK team came when a UK competitor, Chandra Kaur, became the first non-Japanese woman to win an individual gold medal.
I was privileged to stay with a host family, Mr. and Mrs. Mr. Toshitaka Fujiwara, during most of my first visit to Imabari. This was a wonderful insight into modern Japanese life. Mrs. Fujiwara cooked traditional Japanese food for me, and they took me to a truly fantastic street festival in the evening. The festival was similar to Chinese New Year celebrations, with people dressed in traditional fishing and farming costumes carrying large "floats" (for want of a better word) through the streets of Imabari. Everything was lit with lanterns, and the atmosphere was wild. Everybody was dancing to the music of the taiko drums. It was an amazing experience, and one that I shall never forget.
My last two nights in Imabari I stayed in the incredible five-star Imabari Kokusai Hotel. (http://www.imabari-kokusai-hotel.co.jp/equip_e.html). All I can say it, it was absolutely AMAZING. Because Imabari is on the coast, the hotel has a night view across the Seto Inland Sea that has to be seen to be believed. I've never been in a more beautiful hotel. OK, it's a five-star hotel, so you expect it to be good, but this hotel took my breath away.
To keep all the Aikido competitors from getting bored when they weren't on the Aikido mat, Sensei Kenshi Uno, the tournament director, organized various tours to the many cultural sites around Imabari. Among the many interesting sites we saw were Imabari towel factories (the majority of high-quality towels produced in Japan come from Imabari), the amazing Imabari Castle and museum, and several Zen Buddhist shrines and temples (Shikoku is home of the 88-temples pilgrimage. This pilgrimage is the oldest and longest in Japan - requiring more than 60 days to complete). In addition, we saw the partially-finished (it is now completed) Kurushima Kaikyo Bridge -- an amazing structure spanning the gorgeous Seto Inland Sea and connecting several major islands. For more details on sightseeing in the Imabari area, there is a lot of information on these websites:
On later trips to Imabari, we also visited the Asakura towel museum, which only opened in April, 2002. A towel museum may sound boring, but this was amazing. In addition to seeing how the towels are made, we saw exhibitions of towels made by many famous artists and designers. The best part, however, was picking out gift towels and having my friends' names embroidered into them in Japanese or English. Many of my friends asked for English, but I had all mine done in Japanese -- it looked better!
Some of my strongest memories of Imabari are of the parties and music. We took a bus out to a picnic area overlooking the blue waters of the Seto Inland Sea. From the top of a small mountain/hill, we ate our picnic lunches in the warm sun and looked out across what must have been 200 islands scattered below us in the blue water. It was amazing. On the bus on the way back, Kenshi Uno, world famous night club singer and tour guide, introduced us to the ancient (thousands of year old!) Japanese tradition of "tour bus karaoke". That's right -- Japanese tour buses come complete with karaoke systems. My friend, John Waite, gave us a renditon of "Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner" that wowed the crowds. Other musical moments included a wonderful exhibition of taiko drumming, and evenings spent in a variety of karaoke and yakitori bars, enjoying the wide range of night-life available in Imabari. My wife even gave a command performance of her tap-dancing at an evening yakitori dinner. Singing, dancing, drumming, music, great food, beautiful scenery, and great times. That's what we remember about Imabari. And lots of laughing.