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A Row in Tokyo

October 2011

[The following is an article I wrote in 2011 for the Hawthorn Rowing Club newsletter. I was dusting it off to include part of it in the program for the 2019 Head of the Yarra, and I though it would be good to make the whole thing available more widely. The picture is us during the row - that's me in the blue shirt.]

In October I found myself with a couple of spare days in Tokyo, so through a kind invitation from Mr Koichi Tanaka of the Partez Rowing Club I was able to have a row with some of their members who will be competing in the 2011 Head of the Yarra.

The main rowing site in Tokyo is the Toda Rowing Course, which was originally prepared for the (abandoned) 1940 Olympics, and refurbished for the 1964 Olympics. The course has been dug in a tributary of the Arakawa River, Japan's largest, which runs around the west and north of greater Tokyo. There are about twenty boatsheds at the course; from what I could see they were mostly from university clubs, or from large companies.

The Partez Club (it's pronounced "par-tay", as it comes from French), shares the large Mitsubishi boatshed, which is mostly used by clubs associated with about 20 Mitsubishi subsidiary companies. The shed is large and modern, and is kept scrupulously clean and organized. The boat storage area is quite high and a mechanical lift is used for moving boats between shelves and ground level.

As there was a regatta taking place, our row could not be on the course itself, so we had to carry the eight to the Arakawa River itself, about 150 metres away. This meant rowing across the course and then lifting and carrying the boat. The crew was well organized for this, and the eight had foam strips taped to the gunwales where the boat rested on shoulders. The Arakawa has high embankments either side, as it is very flood-prone, so we had to carry the boat up and down flights of steps, with the cox calling the time.

Once on the river itself, it was a fairly intense training row. The crew has a professional cox, and he kept up a steady stream of instructions. My Japanese aural comprehension is not what it should be, and the distortions of a coxbox don't help much. Koichi was sitting behind me in the 4 seat, and prompted me when I didn't catch on. Many of the commands are in English, but sometimes embedded in Japanese. I eventually twigged that "No feather!" meant square blade rowing. We went 8-9 km up the river doing a variety of exercises, then returned in a single stretch, including about 5 km at a fair clip. The water was good; fairly still and we encountered only a couple of other eights and kayaks. Apparently there are often cruisers and motorboats, which can be a hazard as there are no firm speed limits. The river runs through mostly light industrial areas, but from the water one can only see the embankments, surrounding scrubland and the occasional sporting ground. There are quite a few encampments of caravans and tents along the river, and many people fishing.

It was a typically humid Tokyo day, so I was glad when the landing came into sight, and even gladder once the portage was over and we had the boat back in the shed. I was very impressed with the care the crew took with the boat, and the way both the boat and oars were cleaned and dried before they were put away. The crew also did a formal post-row debriefing where the problems, good points, etc. were discussed and analyzed.

After the row I was a guest of the crew at a nearby pub - I gather the boatsheds themselves are rarely licensed to serve alcohol.

The row was a fascinating experience, both in terms of rowing in another city and country, as well as having the chance to observer the cultural aspects of rowing and clubhouse organization in Japan. I was very glad to have got out on the Arakawa itself, as I had lived near it when I was in Tokyo in 2000/2001, and my wife and I used to jog along it in the mornings. I hope Hawthorn can keep up a warm association with Partez, and can continue to exchange hospitality.

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