I recently played table tennis for six hours and never lost a match! I also never won a match. In fact, nobody ever played any matches, at least not singles. Learning to fit in at the two clubs I played at in Narashino, Japan means doing things the way they do them. Both clubs had a very similar routine. Before anyone played, introductions were made and there was a lot of bowing. Some of this was probably on my account, since I don’t think they get a lot of visitors and they all clearly knew each other very well.
Once we were ready to go, everyone moved to their designated tables and began to hit forehands. A timer was set for six minutes and when it went off, everyone smiled, bowed, and moved over one space and began hitting forehands with another partner. This went on for about an hour, although some of us switched to backhands after about forty-five minutes. There was a little practicing of serves and serve returns, again switching partners every six minutes.
At this point, I thought some matches would start and I could proudly represent the USA in this small corner of the table tennis world. It was not meant to be. At one club, everyone stopped and had a small lunch. The other club called for a rest time for everyone to have some water and sit down for a few minutes. I was starting to learn a little about the Japanese way.
I have been asked how good the players were that I met. They were mostly senior players and they could sure hit forehands. My guess, though, is that if they had a U.S. rating, most would be between 1400 and 1800. One 70-year-old player had a 2300-level serve and may have been a professional at some point.
Ratings, however, seemed to be the furthest thing from these players’ minds. They almost all had good fundamental strokes, but not much match experience. The last hour of each session did allow for some doubles play, and most players stopped training to watch the one or two doubles matches. I did get in on the doubles play and had a great time, generally getting a new partner for each match.
One very noticeable difference compared to playing in the U.S. was that everyone went home happy. There were no devastating losses and everyone got what they came for: exercise, friendship, and fine tuning their skills. I am not sure this system would work as well anywhere but Japan. There are so many great benefits to table tennis and competing is just one of them. For once, it was really nice to be somewhere where competition was not the most important concern.