As an extrovert who loves talking and interacting with people, living in the small, Japanese town of Shimonoseki at age 23 – without a shred of foreign language skills — was not an easy experience. There many times when, sitting alone at home in my 1-room, 6-tatami-mat apartment, I wondered what in the heck I was doing here. What ultimately got me through it all was 1) talking to friends on the phone 2) reading aerograms from my family (yes, this was pre-internet!), and 3) watching Sumo Digest. What’s that last item, you ask? Well, Sumo Digest was the 30-minute, late-evening summary of the day’s sumo tournament. Generally speaking, I’d fast forward through the lower-level matches to get to the top ranked bouts – ozekis vs. ozekis and yokozunas vs. yokozunas. Yokozunas were the cream of the crop, the grand champions; ozekis and sekiwakes were a step below, but still really good. I was a particular fan of a guy name Chiyonofuji who, unlike the other wrestlers, was NOT fat. Barrel-chested, yes. Strong as an ox—absolutely. Movie-star handsome, yep. He also had the best hair.
Once you get into it, sumo is a brilliant sport to watch, with tons of technique and finesse to admire. It’s also enormously popular in Japan and hard to get live tickets for. Luckily, you can go see sumo wrestlers train, year round, in a particular Tokyo neighborhood: Ryogoku. There you’ll find a variety of “stables” that allow visitors to come in and watch the big boys practice.
The day that Yumiko and I visit Ryogoku, we’re lucky enough to visit Chiyonofuji’s stable. Chiyo is incredible. Short in stature, he looks fairly puny when going against 500-pound behemoths like Konishiki, the Hawaiian-raised wrestler who was the first foreigner to reach ozeki status. Chiyo’s claim to fame was the way he could pick up these blubbery freight trains and throw them over his head like rag dolls. If you’ve never seen Chiyonofuji in action, watch a video of him on YouTube. Incredible. Nothing that dramatic happens in his stable while we’re there, however. Just lots of wrestling drills with a touch of ritual. It’s pretty entertaining stuff, and very Japanese.
Afterwards, we go to a nearby restaurant with a sumo theme. The tables are actually within the confines of a sumo pitch, and the food is primarily chanko nabe, the thick, savory soup that the sumo wrestlers eat to strengthen/fatten themselves up. Think miso soup with meat, tofu and vegetables – and more meat. Although that restaurant no longer seems to exist, I understand there are other similar places in the neighborhood, including Hananomai Sumo Restaurant, where you can watch simulated matches while you eat. Chunkos on the stage, chanko nabe in your bowls—what more can you ask for?
(What’s your obscure hobby or passion? What’s the thing you enjoy doing that most everyone in your life thinks is crazy? It’s probably not sumo, to be sure, but whether it’s bocce ball, making starships from Leggo or baking sourdough bread, embrace your weirdness. In the end, people are too busy with their own lives to care much what you’re up to. You be you.)