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Staff writer

SOKA, Saitama Pref. — The kilts and sporrans may have drawn more glances en route than they would back in the glens, but the clans gathered with the same enthusiasm for the 17th annual Japan Scottish Highland Games, held Sunday at Ueno Gakuen University’s Soka campus.

Bringing together some of Scotland’s most traditional musical, dancing and sporting events — as well as a keenly contested five-a-side soccer match — the Games have made a whole new culture accessible to Japan, as well as to a large contingent from the nearby U.S. air base.

Take Hiroki Ogawa, for example. Competing for the second time in the heavy events, he has got the hang of wearing a kilt and is no longer put off by most of the disciplines, but he did quail at the sight of the first competitor, a beefy U.S. serviceman, trying to get to grips with the caber.

“That looks very difficult,” Ogawa said, shaking his head.

The object of the event is to toss the 60 kg caber end-over-end so that it lands with the base pointing away from the contestant; the athlete with the straightest toss is the winner. No mean feat when the caber in question is an unwieldy 7 meters long.

Alan Sim, the judge for the heavy events, gave the 20-odd competitors some tips on technique — and a couple of the Americans taking part put in brave attempts — but slightly built Ogawa, 30, was struggling to get the caber aloft, let alone throw it.

So it was left to Sim to show how it should be done; after a few quick steps and a mighty heave, the caber flipped on its own length to loud applause.

“It doesn’t come easy, it’s true,” he said. “But a lot of it is technique. These boys are really giving it their all, and they’re getting there.”

Sim shrugs off his obvious adeptness with the caber, pointing out that he has been involved in the Highland Games circuit back in Scotland since he was 13, competing at events around the world until five years ago — “when Father Time caught up with me” — and is now president of the Scottish Games Association, officiating at 20 meetings a season.

Ogawa, in an orange and green kilt, performed slightly better in the other events:

1) The hammer: a 7.3 kg cannonball on the end of a wooden shaft that is thrown for distance;

2) The stane: also known as the “clachneart,” the 7.3 kg “stone of strength” that dates back some 1,000 years to the time of legendary Scottish King MacBeth and is thrown much like a shot put;

3) The block for distance: a 12 kg weight thrown for distance with an under-arm heave;

4) The weight toss: a 25 kg block swung one-handed between the knees and tossed up and backward over a bar.

After hurling the hammer, Ogawa said, “It’s fun, and I threw it straighter this time than I did two years ago.” It seems all this exposure to Scotland’s culture has made a deep impression on Ogawa; he honeymooned with his bride, Hoko, there last year.

No less visually impressive than the sports were the pipe and drum competitions. “I have been playing the piano for 20 years, but when I was at Waseda University I saw a bagpiper playing. That’s when I really got interested in the pipes,” said Yukari Sasaki, tucking the instrument under her arm. “I have been to Scotland, and I studied at the Piping Centre in Glasgow for a month two years ago.”

The bagpipe dates to around A.D. 100 and was traditionally a solo instrument, with each clan chieftain having a hereditary piper. The instrument consists of a bag of sheep skin or elk hide from which five pipes and a mouthpiece for inflating the bag protrude.

A member of the Tokyo Pipe Band, whose emblem incorporates a “kabuto” warrior’s helmet and cherry blossom with tartan, 30-year-old Sasaki’s red and black Royal Stewart tartan is specially imported from Scotland.

And even though Rie Hirai has never been to Scotland, she is similarly taken with the music of a country half a world away. A drummer in the same band, Hirai, 23, has been playing for five years and said she practices every week with the 30 or so other musicians.

Harai’s performance was watched closely by James MacLean, a native of the Outer Hebrides islands, off Scotland’s northwest coast, and the judge of the competition.

“I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the standard of piping and the number of pipers,” he said. “To put your whole life into learning an instrument that you only hear rarely is phenomenal. They dedicate their whole lives to it, and they clearly have a great love for the sound of the pipes.

“They know what they are doing and the standard of many of them is very, very high,” said MacLean, an instructor at Glasgow’s Piping Centre, adding he hopes a Japanese band takes part in the famed Edinburgh Military Tattoo in the near future.

Across the field, Nao Ogawa was practicing her steps before taking to the stage to perform a Ladies’ Lilt with the Bluebell Highlanders Scottish dancing club.

“When I went to Scotland I saw this style of dancing, and I thought it was very beautiful,” said Ogawa, a 23-year-old student at the University of Tokyo who has been dancing for three years. “The forms the legs take are very beautiful, but it takes a lot of practice to get it perfect.”

Ogawa was accompanied on the pipes by Fred Moyes, another Scot impressed by the way his homeland’s traditions have been adopted overseas. “The presence of the Scottish culture all over the world never ceases to amaze me; I don’t know why it appeals so much. Perhaps it is the dress or the dancing techniques — which are clearly documented and the same whether it be here in Japan or in, say, Inverness (Scotland). But the standard here is very high, and they always tackle it with such enthusiasm.”

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