Athletes extol sensation of ‘iron calm’ at the limit


People have been enjoying a wide variety of sports since at least the time of Ancient Greece. In the Athens 2004 Olympic Games alone, athletes competed in about 300 categories of 28 sports — and the list seems to get longer every time.

In fact, that is hardly surprising, as a glance at my Webster’s dictionary confirms. There, “sport” is defined as: “Any activity or experience that gives enjoyment or recreation; pastime; diversion.”

So, reflecting the near-limitless scope of “sport,” and humans’ boundless imagination in pursuit of “recreation,” another new — though not yet Olympic — sport has been invented and recently introduced in Japan. That sport is “extreme ironing.”

In this activity combining outdoor exertion and ironing, athletes do ironing in “extreme” situations, such as on the top of a mountain, halfway down a cliff or even while bungee-jumping. Of course, in the mountaintop category, for example, they must first make their ascent while carrying an iron, an ironing board and shirts to be pressed. According to the Web site of the Extreme Ironing Bureau, the sport “is an outdoor activity that combines the danger and excitement of an ‘extreme’ sport with the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt.”

Never heard of it? Well, after I stumbled on its existence, I asked around quite a lot, and only one other person had also heard about it. That singular authority was an Englishman who is a devoted alpinist — just like the sport’s 1990s inventor, one Phil Shaw. Apparently, according to the Web site, it occurred to him one day to do his household chore outside in his garden. To his astonishment, he found the activity enormously fulfilling. It wasn’t long until the idea to do ironing on top of a mountain was born.

From such a small beginning, extreme ironing has since gradually spread to encompass a small band of ironing enthusiasts and outdoor athletes in the world. It finally reached these shores last year, when Hitoshi Matsuzawa, who was inspired by the combination of ironing and the great outdoors, established a group called Extreme Ironing Japan. These days, Matsuzawa, 37, who works for an outdoor-wear supplier, can be found training hard with iron, board and shirts in parks on weekends.

“You might say there’s just no point in this,” Matsuzawa said one recent Saturday morning in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. “But I want to tell you, ‘just do it and you will understand.’ ”

For beginners, he recommends starting with ironing on the balcony at home to get to know the feeling of pursuing such pressing business in the fresh air.

Interestingly, Matsuzawa said that the act of ironing like this amid nature’s raw elements gives a feeling of fulfillment and calmness that is the secret attraction of the sport.

Ultimate presence of mind

“If you do ironing on top of a mountain, you can get the feeling of double satisfaction from climbing up the mountain and ironing out the wrinkles in a shirt,” he said.

“Also, at the top of high mountains, you can achieve the ultimate presence of mind if you do ironing. Even if you are feeling petrified on the precipice, when you take out your iron, you can get an ‘iron calmness’ in your mind. I think this is because you can feel like you are in your living room at home,” he amusingly observed.

But seriously, this sleuth inquired, how do you get a power supply on top of a mountain?

“Everybody asks that question,” Matsuzawa replied. “I have several ways of answering. Usually, I say ‘this is the ultimate challenge to overcome.’ ”

Actually, it seems, because generators are too heavy to carry around, extreme-ironing athletes often use battery-powered irons. But the problem with them is that the batteries only last for about 15 minutes, Matsuzawa explained. “As a compromise, sometimes we have to iron without heat.”

If that’s the case, is it ironing?

In fact, Matsuzawa said there are performance-art aspects to the sport. Some athletes do their ironing while surfing, or they place an ironing board across a basketball basket and jump up and down to press their clothes, for example.

“I know it sounds crazy, but it is humorous. I believe enjoying something that looks meaningless can sometimes spice up your life.”

But Matsuzawa emphasized strongly that extreme ironing can be very dangerous.

“Seriously, unless you do it very carefully, you may be killed. We always say to beginners and children that they must not imitate us.”

The performance side is just one aspect of the sport, however. Underlining the sport’s competitive side, “extreme ironists” held an international competition in 2002 in Germany. About 80 athletes from 10 countries — many of whom were alpinists — participated in the events held in a village called Valley, near Munich.

Competing for points in categories such as speed, technique and artistic impression, the ironists ran a 1,500-meter course designed in the shape of an ironing board, with five checkpoints around it at intervals. At each checkpoint, they beautifully ironed standard pieces of cloth in a manner both creative and acrobatic, Matsuzawa explained.

Matsuzawa is a surfer, and loves most sports — but he was not an ironing fan until he was 19, when he went to study in Australia. There, he stayed with a host family whose members were “keen ironers,” he said — including ironing jeans. Astonished to know that Matsuzawa had never thought much about ironing, the mother gave him some lessons.

Uncomfortable feeling

“For that reason, I gained a background in ironing much more than the usual Japanese man,” he said rather proudly. “Then I happened to hear about extreme ironing. I could sense it would be fun.” That’s why, with about 10 members, including three women, he started Extreme Ironing Japan last year.

Since then he has expanded his ironing horizons, notably to address the disquieting feeling it gives him that many people regard ironing as women’s work. In particular, he rankles that the designs of irons are often deliberately very cute — to appeal to female customers.

“I would like to change the mind-set about ironing through this sport, and eventually I would like to see more Japanese men doing household chores,” he said.

Internationally, Matsuzawa’s horizons have also broadened — to take in his dream that extreme ironing may one day be recognized as an Olympic sport.

Smiling but sincere, he expounded: “Think about the total number of people doing ironing in the world. If you were the gold medalist of extreme ironing in the Olympic Games, you would be the real champion as you are the best of the huge number of ironers in the world. We have curling in the Olympic Games. We have synchronized swimming. Extreme ironing? Why not?”