When I was about six years old, my dad, who was in the Air Force at the time, was transferred to an air base in Japan, with the rest of the family in tow. I spent the next two and a half years running around Misawa Air Base, causing mischief and loving every minute of it. But among all the important lessons I learned while living in a foreign country, the most important was probably this: The Japanese have the best playgrounds in the world.
One playground I remember had a huge (to me, anyway) pirate ship. It seemed life-sized at the time, though I haven’t got any idea whether it really was. You could climb all over this thing, pretending to be a pirate. It was awesome. Another playground had a real honest-to-God old steam engine just sitting there waiting to be explored and played on. But my favorite Japanese playground equipment of all, and perhaps my favorite playground implement of all time, was the swinging ball.
The swinging ball (it may have had another name, but that’s all I could think of to call it) was very simple, and consisted of a diagonally-situated telephone pole pointing up in the air, with a long rope tied to the high end and a big hard foam ball on the end of the rope. The idea was to climb up onto this big foam ball (which wasn’t easy; they were pretty high off the ground to a little kid) and then get a friend to grab the end of the rope and start you swinging. The rope was usually long enough and the pole high enough that you could really get going on these things. Dangerous as all hell, but all the more fun because of it.
The day that sticks out most in all my memories of Japanese playgrounds was when some friends and I were off wandering around, far from home (“far” to us being “several blocks” to anyone else), and we found the ultimate swinging ball. There were two of them, actually, as there usually were, but one of them was positioned just the perfect distance away from a tall set of monkey bars, so that if you climbed to the top of the monkey bars, then got a friend to swing the ball up to you, you could climb on and rocket down at something approaching the speed of sound. And, if you could convince your friend to climb onto the other ball and start swinging, you could have swinging ball battles. And your friend would always lose, because it’s hard to stay on one of those things when you get pummeled by a large hard foam ball traveling at Mach 0.92.
In addition to the joy factor of swinging great distances at insane speeds, this particular playground implement taught me the concept of the pendulum. I learned that as long as I didn’t push off too forcefully from the monkey bars, I would never swing back quite far enough to hit them on the backswing. Which was a good thing, because getting slammed into a tall meshwork of metal bars at high speed would have been painful.
I wish Americans weren’t such sissies about their playground equipment.