My first day in the Kyoto Igo Salon began with me walking into a classroom full of elderly ladies and being greeted by their curious stares. Upon telling the instructor that I am a foreigner trying to take Igo lessons, the classroom buzzed with whispers of “He’s a foreigner!” Needless to stay, the unwanted attention was more than enough to reconsider going back to the salon.
I’m happy to write though that it feels a lot more comfortable attending the class now. The class, including the instructor, is very friendly, and a lot of the students have been eager to talk to me about life back in the states, my thoughts on Kyoto, Igo, and so on.
Each week, the instructor lectures the class for half an hour about new strategies. After walking me through a brief overview of the basic rules of Igo, the instructor has allowed me to listen in on the lectures along with the rest of the class. The basic idea of the game is to build one’s base as large and secure as possible using “stones,” which are the basic unit of the game. The lectures have been mostly about conducting offensive and defensive moves based on predictions of the opponent’s moves. According to the instructor, veteran players can predict the flow of the game multiple moves ahead of time, though I’m not confident that I can predict beyond one or two moves at best.
I have to admit that I have yet to win a game (and I don’t imagine that I’ll be returning to the states with a win on my record), but strangely enough, despite my competitive personality, I haven’t found myself stressing about losing in Igo. My guess is that there is a certain atmosphere about Igo (or perhaps an atmosphere specific to my salon) that allows both the winner and the loser to walk away from a game with satisfaction.
What kind of atmosphere? What I view as the attractions of the Igo game come mostly in comparison to other strategy board games that I have played in the past, namely chess. Granted chess has its own appeals, I would characterize Igo as a game that places relative emphasis on respecting the opponent. Some of the customs of Igo (bowing to the opponent before the game, placing the first stone in the upper-right hand corner, avoiding making sounds or touching the opponent’s stone when placing one’s own stone, etc.) are purely for the sake of paying respect to the opponent. Of course, mannerism is present in any game, including chess, but clearly Igo comes with a longer list of intricate customs and manners that are virtually considered rules.
Besides the general rules and customs of Igo, it is also the informal atmosphere of my salon that allows for a relaxed few hours of lectures and practice. It seems that the students here have been regulars for a long time, since they all seem to know each other well and speak to each other in informal Japanese. While they address the instructor as “sensei,” it was surprising to see that they also speak to the teacher in informal Japanese, as does the instructor. I have been able to talk with a number of students, though the talks mostly consisted of them asking me questions about where I am from, why I decided to come to Japan, why I chose to study Igo, and so on. The students had a strong Kansai Accent, and it might be a safe guess that talking with them helped grow my ears for the Kansai Accent.
I can’t say that there’s been a major breakthrough that suddenly elevated me to become adept in the workings of Igo. What I can say, however, is that over the course of the semester, I steadily grew a good amount of understanding of the logic and dynamic of the game. I dare to say that along with better understanding came a better appreciation of the game in its unique charisma.