Despite the popularity of the player Ai Fukuhara, and a series of world champions in both men’s and women’s singles in the 1950s and ’60s, table tennis has long been considered a minor sport in Japan. Often, it is simply associated with hot-spring goers playing in the lounge while clad in yukata and slippers.
Recently, though, the sport seems to be undergoing a revolution as people can be seen enjoying it in rather unconventional places such as cafes and bars.
One of these new table-tennis venues, Famitaku, is located in a Family Mart convenience store in Jinbo-cho in Tokyo, where, in a room divided by glass from the shopping area, there are five tables.
“We have great table-tennis players like Ai-chan in Japan, but the sport is still not very popular. Why? Because, there are few places where people can casually enjoy the sport,” said Kozaburo Kakiuchi, 32-year-old manager of Famitaku. “So, I came up with the idea of having this table-tennis place in the space available in the convenience store.” Ka- kiuchi rents a space for Famitaku that adjoins a Family Mart store managed by his brother.
Kakiuchi, who has been coaching table tennis for 12 years while occasionally participating in major tournaments, said usually table-tennis players practice at gyms and sports clubs and take it very seriously. Beginners often say they feel reluctant to play there just for fun because they’re not skillful enough.
He adds that if table tennis is played in convenience stores, players of various levels can enjoy the sport in a more casual setting without even having to change clothes.
“You can enjoy table tennis easily anytime here,” he says, “maybe after shopping.”
Customers can rent the tables for 700 yen for 30 minutes. Since the Family Mart opened in Oct. 2005, the table-tennis room has become popular with business people during their lunch breaks, local students in the afternoons, and people who stop in after work in the evening. Friday and Saturday nights are especially busy.
The Family Mart Jinbo-cho is the chain’s only store in Tokyo boasting a table-tennis venue, according to Yoko Iiboshi, a spokeswoman of Family Mart Co. She said Kakiuchi’s unique idea was realized because the company thought it could provide a useful service for the local community.
“I hope table tennis will become as much a part of people’s lifestyles as convenience stores are,” Kakiuchi said. He expects the store to bring customers into his table-tennis place, and vice versa.
The convenience store is not only the new place in town where the ping and pong of table-tennis balls can be heard. A year ago, Yuichi Uchida opened a bar and BBQ house where customers can enjoy good food, good drink and table tennis. His shop, called One, is located in a shopping district near Nogata Station on the Seibu Shinjuku Line in Tokyo’s Nakano Ward.
Store owner Uchida, 37, is also a devoted table-tennis player with an almost 20-year career of teaching the sport while playing at major table-tennis tournaments. He also wants to help spread the popularity of the sport.
“I have been playing table tennis for so long — since I was a kid. I also love enjoying good food and drink,” Uchida said. “Opening a restaurant with a table-tennis place was my dream.”
This dream came true when he encountered a famous BBQ restaurant called Wa in Tokyo’s Kichijoji district and was taught to cook by the shop’s owner. Uchida later opened One as a sister restaurant of Wa. He placed a table-tennis table in one half of his bar/restaurant and decorated the wall with table-tennis uniforms and related items.
All five of the staff are table-tennis devotees. Occasionally they play with customers, who can play for free if they order one drink and one plate of food (500 yen per dish).
“Some people ask why I put in a table-tennis table, which occupies half of the place,” he says. “But I say I just wanted a bar with a table-tennis table. Good BBQ, good drinks, darts and table tennis. Unique combination isn’t it?”
Although Uchida said it took a year to draw regular customers, his business seems to have helped not only to narrow the distance between people and the sport but also to expand his own horizons.
“In this BBQ house, I can meet people whom I would never have met if I had stayed only in the world of table tennis,” he said. “I can hear stories that I might not have been able to hear if I had stayed in that world. I am very happy with that.”