Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Whole Lot of Sumo Goin' On

First, it got hot again here in Tokyo. As a result my temporary roommate and I are in agreement about keeping the room cool while we are in the apartment. No conflicts on that front so far.

Over the past two days we have been immersed in sumo. We went to the Ryogoku Kokugikan (Sumo Stadium) for the Day 9 matches. My favorite rikishi, Homasho, won his match that day but returned to his losing ways the next. He is now 3 and 7 and one loss away from a losing record. Yokozuna Hakuho is still undefeated and has a winning streak of 57 straight matches that he is working on. The big Bulgarian, Kotooshu, lost his first match and now must win his matches on the last 5 days to get into a playoff with Hakuho whom he would have to beat.

On the day we attended 3 of the 4 Ozekis lost their matches. Aside from Kotooshu, Yokozuna Hakuho has no competition.

There is another rikishi who is very interesting and supplies a lot of fun at the matches. His name is, Takamisakari. He is very famous in Japan and is seen a lot in television commercials. He has a very exuberant warm-up process when he gets in the ring which involves a lot of chest pounding, arm thrusts and foot stomping followed by the tossing of a large handful of salt. The crowd grunts along with him on each arm thrust and cheers loudly when the salt flies clear across the ring.

If Takamisakari wins, the crowd is happy and he marches out of the stadium with his shoulders back, his head high and his chest bursting out with pride. If he loses, well, you know what it was like when you were a little kid and your older brother threw dirt on your popsicle, that's what Takamisakari looks like when he walks out after a loss. The crowd groans with sympathy then applauds to give him a little moral support.

So far this basho Takamisakari has won only twice and, that costs him money. Before some matches there are some banners that are carried around the ring. These banners are advertising banners that companies pay 60,000 yen ($600) to have presented before the crowd. The 60,000 yen is placed in an envelope which is given to the winner of that particular match. Fifty percent of the money goes to the government for taxes; five percent goes to the rikishi's sumo stable and the remaining forty five percent goes to the rikishi himself so each packet means about 2,850 yen ($280) to keep. Before each Takamisakari bout, the company that he does so many television commercials for puts up 5 to 7 banners so, Takamisakari or his opponent gets $1,500 to $2,100 (round numbers).

For the Yokozuna matches there are anywhere from 12 to 25 packets on a regular day and I have seen as many as 50. I did the calculations once for a years worth of packets for former Yokozuna Asashoryu and it came to around $1,000,000.

Takamisakari usually wins between 6 and 9 bouts each basho so he makes a good buck but his opponents also have a chance to make some pocket money.

After sumo that day our new friends that I met one night at La Rochelle, asked us to meet them for Chankonabe. Chankonabe is the food that sumo wrestlers eat to increase their bulk. It is a rich stew with meat and seafood, plenty of vegetables and a delicious broth. There are a number of restaurants that offer Chankonabe but our new friends have a favorite one so we met there. This restaurant is owned by former Yokozuna, Mienomi, who was the head of the Japan Sumo Association up until about 4 weeks ago. He retired due to the betting scandal and for health reasons.

The food was delicious. There was more than just the stew. As usual there was an appetizer that was two kinds of fish roe followed by a sashimi platter. Tasty as always. Then there was a dish of home-made tofu with sea urchin roe (uni) in a thick brown sauce that they called turtle shell broth because of the color (no turtles were killed during the courses of the meal). We were then each presented with a whole grilled halibut about 8 inches long. Fantastic flavor with a crispy skin and tricky to take apart with chopsticks.

The stew had meat balls of chicken and fish that the lady formed into balls with chopsticks then dropped into the broth. After eating the contents of the stew it is customary to add either rice or noodles to the remaining broth so you finish your meal with a hearty bowl of starch. We chose noodles and at this restaurant they used home made ramen. They were nice and firm yet fully cooked and we slurped away enjoying the texture and the savory broth, umame.

We knew that the next day we had to get up very early because our young friend from La Rochelle restaurant had arranged for us to attend morning sumo practice at one of the sumo stables. Her uncle has some connections but we didn't know which stable we would be visiting.

My friend that works at the Keio Plaza Hotel who was with us for sumo and Chankonabe, had joked that we might get lucky and be asked to eat Chankonabe with the wrestlers in the morning.

We got up about 5:00 AM and took a train to meet our young friend, her uncle and her uncle's friend then we went to the sumo stable. We were very lucky. We got to visit and watch the sumo practice at the Azumazeki Beya, which is the beya of none other than, Takamisakari. We were shown where to enter by one of the young rikishi who was covered in sweat since he had just finished a practice match. I was amazed at how tall he was.

We took off our shoes then stepped onto the platform around the practice ring and there was Takamisakari warming up in the corner. We watched the rikishi work out for about 45 minutes. I was amazed at how hard they worked in practice on a day when they would have to fight a real match at the stadium. I also couldn't believe the loud sound of smacking flesh as the two wrestlers came together at the start of the match (tachiai). In the stadium or on television you can hear these collisions but when you are just ten feet away it's hard to believe they can make that big a noise without someone getting hurt.

After the practice matches we received another bonus. The former Oyakata of the beya, Takamiyama, came to talk with us. Takamiyama was known by all in Japan by his Christian name, Jesse. He is a Hawaiian and left Hawaii after high school to join sumo in Japan. He's been there for 45 years. Jesse was the first foreign born wrestler to win a Grand Championship (see the picture of his championship portrait on the right of the www.Zonajin.blogspot.com blog page). He also recruited, Ake Bonno, the Hawaiian who became the first foreign born Yokozuna.

After our chat he pointed to the kitchen and said that they were waiting for us to join them for Chankonabe. We felt honored and went to the kitchen to eat. Throughout the practice session we could hear chopping coming from the kitchen and then we could smell food being cooked. Each beya makes their own version of Chankonabe and they will never give out their recipe. Each beya thinks its version of Chankonabe gives them a competitive advantage. Now we were going to eat Azumazeki beya's version.

When we got to the table (we were actually sitting on the floor) and I got to sit beside Takamisakari. We each had a bowl of stew set in front of us then big platters of fried eggs and steak were placed on the table. They wanted us to take food first so I took some steak. The stew was in a spicy broth. You don't get much in the way of chili spiced food in Japan but this broth had chili in it. It was very tasty with a back ground chicken flavor. There was chicken meat, youba (tofu skin), cabbage, carrots and mushrooms. They offered a side of rice but I didn't take it.

I spoke Japanese with Takamisakari. I told him about the temperature back home in Phoenix and he commented that it was hot like that in Las Vegas as well. This reminded me to tell him that when all the rikishi came to Las Vegas in 2005, my girlfriend and I had gone to Las Vegas to see the matches. He was very impressed that we had seen him there.

The other young rikishi were standing around listening and watching us eat and I realized that they wouldn't eat until Takamisakari and his guests were finished and that anything we ate, they wouldn't.

After the meal we watched as the stables hair-dresser groomed the hair of a few of the wrestlers. That was pretty interesting as he pulled, combed and waxed the long black hair into the traditional topknot of the sumotori.

That afternoon as we watched the sumo matches on television we were especially interested in Takamisakari's match. Unfortunately his older brother threw dirt on his popsicle again and he marched out with his head down as his opponent pocketed the reward money.

It was a great two day stretch of sumo and I will never forget the morning sumo practice and the Chankonabe with Takamisakari. See the picture on the right side at www.Zonajin.blogspot.com and visit my author page on my publisher's website, www.pensmithbooks.com, for links to the Japan Sumo Association.

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