On a warm Saturday I walked in my swimming trunks about a mile to the beach and observed Japanese families relaxing, sunbathing, swimming and kite flying. An athletic student with dark hair combed strait back was playing ping-pong at tables where many watched and took turns. He seemed interested in talking to me, “Do you speak English?”I asked.
“Yes. My name is Yoshio Suzuki. You can call me Alex. What’s yours?”
“Would you like to play?”
“Sure, it’s one of my favorite games.” He handed me a paddle and flipped a coin. “Heads,” I said while it was in the air.
“Tails makes it my serve,” Alex said. At first he served an easy ball I volleyed back. He held the paddle differently from anyone I had played ping-pong with before. Instead of placing the handle in his palm, he put his index and middle finger around the handle so he used those fingers rather than his entire hand to manipulate his paddle. He could give balls a top spin, backspin, or curve this way that differed from the way I’d seen them before. His slams and curves came at me faster than any I had ever seen. When I served the ball to the back corners or down the edge of the table he was often unable to return my serve. Nevertheless, he beat me each game. Most Asians held a ping-pong paddle similarly. They seemed to have found an advantageous way to strike the ball over our method. When we finished we walked toward the beach and conversed, watched the waves roll in, and put our feet in the cool water.
“What grade are you in?” I asked.
“How old are you?”
“How long have you studied English?”
“Do you play sports?”
“I practice Judo every day.”
“How long have you done judo?”
“Would you show me some moves?”
“After school. How old are you?”
“Where do you go to school?”
“Yokohama American High School.”
Near Kamakura beach, Alex took me on a hike to explore a sacred volcanic island known as Enoshima. We jumped from rock to rock, while the surf crashed sending refreshing salt water ocean spray on us during a hot summer day. Crabs and small fish moved in pristine tidal pools with snow-peaked Fujiyama piercing the blue sky in the background. A range of mountains flanked the active volcano that occasionally sent a plume of curling grey smoke skyward that dissipated in the gentle breeze.
Giant Tombe hawks circled overhead squawking and diving as the surf crashed into caves under high sea cliffs covered with green foliage. Running through verdant pathways we found a shrine to Benzaiten playing a flute. The nude female Sea Goddess was a milk-white statue with half-crossed legs displaying her genitals. “Ancient shoguns and the public prayed to Benzaiten for success and revered Enoshima as a sacred place,” Alex said. The wilderness felt like a spiritual shrine to ancient Japan.
We exchanged name, address, and telephone numbers. It was an accomplishment connecting with the first Japanese stranger I had met by taking a chance, instead of acting with my usual shyness.
The next week, Alex invited me to his dojo to learn judo, “the gentle way.”
“I play football, am much bigger than you, and don’t want to hurt you.”
“That doesn’t matter in Judo."
He put me in a sturdy white cotton jacket with a belt, white cotton drawstring pants, and bare feet. As we grappled in front of about fifty others, the principle of using an opponent's strength against him--adapting well to changing circumstances, was an important lesson to learn. When I pushed against him; he stepped aside allowing my momentum and his skill to throw me into a padded wall. He showed me rolls, falls, throws, hold downs, and basic chokes. Exhausted, my respect for Alex, judo, and his culture grew exponentially.
Alex invited me and Chip to his birthday party at his home a few weeks later, introducing us to his mother, father, two brothers, and sister. He also invited Bill Mikasa and Ken Blankenship from YoHi. His father owned a milk factory in the city. Some of his American friends gathered with us around a brown wooden table for a traditional Japanese meal. Alex’s mother and sister served courses in ceramic bowls decorated with nature scenes--miso soup with tofu, rice cakes, chicken teriyaki, cucumbers with seaweed, spinach, and steamed rice, sodas, and a green-colored bowl of noodles that did not look appetizing. He demonstrated the use of chopsticks, assuming we needed his expert advice before we attempted to eat the noodles. As a sensitive cultural ambassador, I took a spoonful of the sticky substance, laid it on my plate, and ate a small portion allowing a few of the slimy noodles to slither down my throat. I hid my displeasure and looked at Alex’s plate. He had none.
“Alex, why didn’t you take the green noodles?”
He turned toward me and whispered back, “I don’t like them.”
(Click to zoom photos: Dan on a rock at Enoshima, and Yoshio's Birthday party-Chip, Bill Mikasa, and Dan back row, Ken Blankenship front, Yoshio, "Alex," head of table with his sister and other friends 1955)