(proofreaded by Barbara Ann Klein)
Japan, the birthplace of sumo, the country that any fan of this sport wants to visit. In September 2006 I went to watch the Aki Basho live. This is the story of my trip to the land of the rising sun.
Introduction - The journey begins - First contact with sumo - The show starts - The fight of the gods - Tourism across Tokyo - Komatsuryu dojo - Tomozuna beya - Barbara and the typhoon - Senshuraku - Senshuraku party - Daishi - Feel the sumo
First contact with sumo
It’s clear that getting used to a new time zone is not easy. In summer, there are seven hours’ difference between Japan and Spain and I was going to notice it during the first days. I woke up every day between 4 and 5 am, which for me was a huge advantage because it allowed me to use the toilet and shower without having to wait; therefore, I was on the streets at sunrise. And you can’t imagine how gratifying it was to be outside on a new morning in a city where the great humidity makes that 26 degrees convert into an oven, especially for people who do not come from the coast and are not accustomed to such high levels of humidity.
I met Mark at one of the exits in Ueno station to go to watch asageiko at Musashigawa beya. Without a doubt, I must say that my trip would not have been the same without him and that I rarely find people more willing to help me with something than he had. As we waited for other friends who were going to join us, I had the opportunity to get my first drink from one of the thousands of vending machines that are situated across the whole of Japan, and I thought :”what would be better than to get a green tea drink”, so typical of Japan. It was the first and only time I did this, because since then I decided to get only familiar refreshments. Yes, I know that many people like green tea and surely won’t agree with me, but I must admit that this certainly wasn’t the best drink I've tasted.
Mark is living in Japan for some years and has mastered the language quite well, so it was very helpful to be with him for communicating with Japanese people. I must say that all sumo fans should have some fundamental knowledge of Japanese to be able to have a little basic conversation with the wrestlers, which in my case I couldn’t do.
Former rikishi Wakanoyama was in charge of asageiko at Musashigawa and he did not object to our watching the wrestlers train. Moreover, this is one of the heya with many rikishi on the banzuke, so we saw a lot of men doing all kinds of activities. When we arrived, only the lower ranked wrestlers were practicing, but soon the sekitori began to arrive: Kakizoe, Buyuzan, Dejima and Miyabiyama. None of them did any training beyond the typical shiko or butsugari-keiko with the junior men, probably because with only two days remaining to the beginning of the Aki Basho, nobody wanted to extend himself too much and possibly suffer an injury. Meanwhile the other rikishi were fighting really hard among each other.
Perhaps the most shocking moment of the morning was the arrival of former Yokozuna Musashimaru to direct the training. At that moment everything stopped, the rikishi came to greet him humbly one after another, and even Wakanoyama gave up his place to Musashimaru to conduct the training. I should admit that I've never seen a person as voluminous as this Hawaiian. I was also impressed by the seriousness reflected in his face, but all directions made to the rikishi were always considerate, and without raising his voice. I even had the opportunity, few days later, to get a picture with him and Toki, to which they very kindly agreed.
After finishing keiko, it was time to go to the Ryogoku area for my first look at the famous Kokugikan, a large pavilion with an Eastern design which attracts you from the beginning. We couldn’t visit the inside because the final preparations for the tournament were being done, so we went to visit the sumo museum. This was probably the least interesting place of the whole venue - only a few old photographs and little more. I think they could strive a bit more to improve its content.
After saying goodbye to our Polish friends, Mark and I went to eat at a small restaurant in the area which specialized in tempura don (rice with lightly breaded and deep fried vegetables and seafood on top) - a typical place very cheap and of excellent quality, like most Japanese restaurants. Eating in Japan is a delight. The food is very flavorful and the price is extremely affordable. It’s even cheaper to eat at any average restaurant in Japan than one with the same characteristics in Spain. Afterwards we took a tour around the neighborhood to see some heyas, but only from the outside since it was lunch time and one should never bother the wrestlers during the very important mealtimes. I spent the rest of the evening strolling around Akihabara (the shopping area for electronics) and Jimbocho (the book store zone). Having gone on foot from one part of the town to another, I came back to the hotel very tired and went straight to bed. I would be asleep soon, but I recommend that everybody take long hikes during the day if you want to avoid being kept awake by the sometimes noisy companions in the next room. As for me, I really didn’t hear anybody.
The next day had a special attraction, because I was going to be able to enter the Kokugikan for the first time. At 10 am I was there with my cameras to record everything and to take all the pictures I could. At the entrance I met John Gunning, whom I recognized by some photos I had seen on the internet. He introduced me to a German girl named Verena, who had been in Japan for less than a month and was going to spend 10 months there for scholastic studies. The girl was a bit excited because she was a teenager who, instead of being crazy over Beckham or the Backstreet Boys, was a fan of the sumo wrestlers. Nice girl, without a doubt. When the gates of the Kokugikan were opened, we entered to watch the blessing of the dohyo, a very interesting ceremony. All of the big names of the Nihon Sumo Kyokai were sitting around the dohyo respectfully watching, as three senior gyoji performed a series of traditional Shinto rituals culminating in the introduction of several typical products (rice, squid, sake.) into an opening in the center of the dohyo which was then carefully covered by a yobidashi. Admission is free and the ceremony only takes about 20-30 minutes, and because there weren’t a lot of spectators, we were able to sit in one of the front rows. All of the major oyakatas were sitting around the dohyo. I recognized people like Kitanoumi, Naruto (Takanosato), Fujishima (Musoyama) Ajigawa (Asahifuji), Kokonoe (Chiyonofuji) and especially Takanohana, who had lost quite a lot of kilos and seemed much younger than when he retired.
When it finished, Asashoryu and Hakuho as the winners of the last two basho, were outside with the portraits which were going to be hung on the Kokugikan walls the next day, at the opening of the tournament. It’s really impressive to see two great fighters of the calibre of the two Mongols. I personally was impressed by the height and strength of Hakuho, who is dwarfed by television. After the typical photos, the rikishi disappeared inside the Kokugikan, and in that moment, John and I went for a coffee nearby and later took a short tour of the area. John had to go to work (he is an English teacher) so I went to see the Kyu-Yasuda Teien Garden, near the Kokugikan. It wasn’t a big place, but the heat was so stifling that it was refreshing to be surrounded by trees and plants.
Afterwards I met Hiromi, a Japanese friend who had made reservations for lunch in a chanko restaurant in the area. These restaurants are, in truth, not inexpensive, but the amount of food you get is tremendous. The table has an electric pot and the ingredients are introduced gradually, so there is no danger that all these food cools off before you swallow it. I can only say that we were unable to finish everything that was served. At the end of the meal, the broth was used to make a soup with rice, which was excellent. Unfortunately, I had very little free space in my stomach so I barely could taste as much as I would have liked. What I understood after eating at the restaurant was why sumo wrestlers gain so much weight after eating chanko-nabe. Bufffff.
After we finished, we took the train to Tokyo station and Hiromi and I went to a Pokemon Center where I bought some toys for my son, but most of the things there were for younger children. Indeed, it was Saturday and the store was packed with people, especially children with faces incredible with wonderment. Now I’m sorry for not recording that because it was worth viewing again. I bid farewell to Hiromi, who had to meet her brother who had come from Australia to spend the weekend in Tokyo, and I spent the rest of the evening walking around the Marunouchi area and the gardens of the Imperial Palace. Afterwards I walked to Ginza, the most expensive area of Tokyo which is full of shops, some of them well-known Spanish stores as Zara or Lladro. Then I took the subway and I went back to the hotel. There I met two guys from Barcelona who were very interested in watching sumo, but the next day they had to go to Kyoto and they didn’t return to Tokyo until the 23rd. We were having dinner in a Japanese noodle restaurant, very cheap places where you can get bowl of soup with noodles in and something on top. It is very filling, tastes very good and costs very little. Then we went to drink a few beers at a bar that was near the hotel where we had to endure some drunken Japanese who insisted in speaking to us in horrible English, so at the first chance we had, we left the place and returned to the hotel. I bid farewell to the Catalans and I went to sleep, because the next day seemed that it would be very exciting