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TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Nearly 500 people, some in business suits and others in shorts and with dogs in tow, stretched, twisted and bent their bodies in Tokyo at the crack of dawn as part of a new trend to keep fit and make friends.
Japanese traditionally exercise in parks, schools and offices during the summer to piano music to boost morale and encourage unity, but tai chi -- a Chinese exercise using slow, smooth body movements -- is now the new alternative.
Enthusiasts say tai chi helps to achieve balance of body and mind, preferring the Chinese exercise to the traditional "rajio taiso" that has been aired by public NHK radio since 1928.
"I had to do the "rajio taiso" when I was in school, but it's really boring," said Ryogo Yoshitani, a 40-year-old real estate agent who came to the session on his way to work.
"With tai chi I always learn new exciting elements and it's not only good for my body, but also puts me in a great mood for the rest of the day."
Exercises in the trendy Roppongi area start before the scorching sun rises too high, with hundreds of colorfully dressed Tokyoites surrounding a stage on which a tai chi master, draped in a traditional Chinese costume, demonstrates steps.
The sessions, accessible to beginners and passers-by, have gained popularity since they were first organized by a local residents' group eight years ago, attracting people from as far afield as Kamakura, over an hour's commute away.
"When the sessions are on, I wake up at 5 a.m. and eat breakfast after tai chi with friends I made here over the years, then set off to work," said Yoko Nakatsuji from the group as she stood on one leg and moved her arms in slow motion.
Tai chi in Roppongi is popular with locals, but foreigners also come to bend and stretch to the tune of traditional Chinese music before a long day in the office.
"When business meetings get really hectic, I take a deep breath remembering our exercises during tai chi sessions -- it really helps," said Jill Gould, a sales trainer from New York on a short business trip in Japan.
Editing by Miral Fahmy