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Get Ready For A Beating

Much of the content of this blog appeared in magazine form in the Summer Edition (No. 67) of Kyoto Journal.
View the (slow loading) pdf here.



After a year or so offline, I’m reposting “In the Hall of the Mountain Kings,” my blog chronicling life among sumo wrestlers. I had taken it offline while I used its entries as notes to write the magazine-length story that served as my journalism school master’s thesis. With that project long finished, I decided there’s no reason not to repost.

I must apologize for never really bringing any closure to the story I told about the wrestlers of the Hanaregoma sumo stable. I started off with daily posts from the stable, presenting my experiences there as I had them. Toward the end, though, I was back at school and struggling to find time to turn my notebook entries into blog posts. I wound up posting only once every couple weeks about events that occurred months earlier, before petering out altogether.

Here’s one final funny story, though:

Soon after starting the blog, I began using to keep track of visitors. A few dozen posts in, I noticed that I was getting hits through a linkage with the French-language sumo fan site When I checked it out myself, I saw that someone was translating my blog into French. Flattered, I got in touch with the translator and asked him if I could cut and paste his renderings into a French-language mirror image of my blog that I called "Dans l'antre du roi de la montagne." He was generous enough to let me do so. But I had no way of knowing how accurate or faithful his translation was; I don’t know French.

Anyway, I checked up on "Dans l'antre du roi de la montagne"’s traffic every so often and saw it was getting a few hits each week. But a few weeks after the French version went up, I saw a drastic spike in traffic to the site. I was suddenly getting thousands -- literally -- of visitors each day. And they were all coming from the same place:

“…?” I thought. “Does that have anything to do with the French president?”

I logged onto that site and saw that, yes, it did have something to do with famously sumo-loving Chirac. “Le Blog personnel de Jacque Chirac” it said along the top of the screen: Jacque Chirac’s personal blog. And then, along the “Liens” column to the right of the screen -- between “Le site de Johnny Hallyday” and “Le Blog de Dominique Strauss-Kahn” was a link to the Francophone rendering of my own words.

“Oh my god…,” I said to myself. “The president of France digs my blog.”

I spent the next week or so beaming with pride at my trans-Atlantic success. I told countless friends and acquaintances -- and especially enemies -- “The president of France digs my blog.”

Now, it just so happened that a technology reporter for Le Monde was in residence that semester at my journalism school. If anyone was going to be taken by such a tale of cross-cultural linkage across the blogosphere, it would be him, I figured. I sat down at my computer one afternoon and told him the whole story.

His reply: “Fun. I am not sure the site is exactly what it says though...”

In other words: “You’ve been punk’d.”

It turned out that was a hoax. It was a site parodying the French president, something I would have known if I had spoken French.

At any rate, thanks again for reading. Check out the version of my Chanko Nabe entry that ran on the Associated Press’ new asap service: Grappling with a weight issue.


Kazuya's Match

Enter here.


Afternoon at the Tournament

Not many matches after the Sekitori's victory on the first day of the January tournament, the juryo bouts ended. I could tell from the printed schedule and the lighted scoreboards hanging over the eastern and western sides of the auditorium that the highest-ranking wrestlers, the makuuchi, would begin fighting. According to the schedule, their ring-entry ceremony, in which they would all be introduced, was about to begin.

But instead, a voice announced something over the public address system that I couldn't clearly understand, and the Japanese national anthem started playing. Everyone stood up, so I stood up too. Standing for the national anthem at a sporting event was normal enough, but then I noticed that everyone was looking up and to the front of the auditorium. I looked up, expecting to see a Japanese flag.

Instead, I saw the Emperor and Empress of Japan seated in a balcony over the auditorium's northern entrance, waving graciously to the crowd. The gray-haired imperial couple smiled and waved like kindly grandparents as the music played and I found myself strangely affected by the experience: I'd never seen a king or queen in person before, let alone an emperor or empress.

When the music stopped, the couple sat down and the tournament proceeded, with some 20 wrestlers lining up in the western hanamichi. They climbed atop the dohyo, which they circled as their names were called. Nobody elicited applause as strong as did Takamisakari, the tall, relatively lean wrestler who appears in television commercials for tea-flavored rice porridge and was famous for his flamboyant, self-consciously stiff pre-fight posturing in the ring, for which he'd earned the nickname "Robot". Rumor in the stable had it that Takamisakari gave Kitamura his cauliflower ears when the two were both on the sumo team at Nihon University.

The wrestlers filed into the ring and shiko-ed in unison, then formed a circle around its border facing the audience as their names were called. Once they had all been announced, they turned around, faced the center, clapped their hands, lifted an arm and tugged up on their apron-like kesho-mawashi, which looked vaguely lewd, like they were lifting up their skirts. Then they threw both their arms up in the air and filed out of the ring. (I'm not sure what all these actions symbolize: like much that I encounter in the sumo world, different writers offer different interpretations.)

Next the "eastern" wrestlers filed down their hanamichi and onto the dohyo. Among the eastern wrestlers, the loudest applause easily went to Kaio, the ozeki-ranked wrestler that many hoped would join the Mongolian Asashoryu as a grand-champion, or yokozuna.


Like the western group, the easterners had a couple Caucasian wrestlers among them. I could guess which one was the Bulgarian Kotooshu from his kesho-mawashi, which said "Bulgaria" in the logotype of the Japanese yogurt brand of the same name.

Kesho-mawashi are actually holdovers from Edo-era sumo. When warring between rival landowners ended in that period, some continued to battle each other in sport by sponsoring sumo wrestlers and pitting them against their adversaries'. At that time, sumo wrestlers wore kesho-mawashi with the family crest of their samurai patron.

These days, though, wrestlers get their kessho-mawashi, which cost thousands of dollars to produce, from corporate sponsors or "support groups" made up of fans. The Sekitori's kesho-mawashi, for instance, is adorned with an image of an eagle, which the guys at the stable told me was the symbol of his Saitama-based support group. Takamisakari's kesho-mawashi, meanwhile, displayed the striped logo of the Nagatanien company, in whose television advertisements for rice-porridge broth he appeared. And the Bulgaria yogurt company apparently sponsored Kotooshu.

After this group of wrestlers left the dohyo, Asashoryu entered, accompanied by two attendant wrestlers—one of whom held a sheathed sword—and a gyoji with a tassel hanging from his paddle. The yokozuna also wore a kesho-mawashi, but its design was hidden by the lightning-bolt-shaped paper cutouts that hung from under the broad white rope tied around his waist. He did his shiko for the audience in what looked like slow motion before leaving the dohyo.


Next there was a brief award ceremony for wrestlers who'd won tournaments or earned other honors in the previous year's matches. Asashoryu came back into the ring in a simple silk mawashi and was handed a giant trophy by an older man in a business suit who was visibly relieved to have it out of his hands. Then the giant portraits of Asashoryu and Kaio—painted in honor of their tournament victories—that I'd seen outside the Kokugikan the previous day were unveiled. They had been hung high over the stands in the row of portraits of wrestlers who had won previous tournaments over the years.

After a few more awards were distributed, the makuuchi wrestlers began fighting. They arrived from the same hanamichi as the lower-ranked wrestlers, but they were preceded by younger attendants who placed plush cushions next to the dohyo for them to sit on. The winners of these matches remained on the stage after their opponents departed and were presented with thin envelopes of cash that the gyoji held out on his paddle.

Before some of the matches, a few young yobidashi in thin yellow topcoats circled the dohyo holding advertisements on banners. The companies being advertised were offering extra prize money to the match's winner, about $500 for each banner. The wrestlers also took this money off the gyoji's paddle after the match; the more banners there were before a match, the more envelopes the victor took from the gyoji's paddle when it was over.

Like commercials during network newscasts in the United States, most of the banners advertised medicines, dietary supplements and hospitals. And when I looked around the auditorium, I saw that the sumo demographic is similar to that of network news: old fans clearly outnumbered the young ones, although the apparently foreign spectators, of whom there were many, were on the young side.

Before Takamisakari's bout against Roho, the tall Russian with a vicious pockmarked face, nine yobidashi circled the dohyo, each carrying a striped Nagatanien rice-porridge banner. This was the largest number of banners yet to appear and the crowd cheered wildly as the yobidashi walked around the dohyo and the announcer shilled for the rice porridge.

When Takamisakari first appeared on the hanamichi, the audience had applauded him loudly and called out his name. He'd smiled humbly and sat down on the cushion his attendant had put out for him while he waited for the preceding match to be fought.

Now it was his turn to fight and he mounted the dohyo as the banner-bearing yobidashi left the ring. He played it cool at first, disinterestedly walking into his corner to warm up and scatter a little salt. He returned to the center of the ring to face Roho the first time, then went back to his corner and sprung into action.

First he threw out his huge arms, exhaling so forcefully that I could hear the air leaving his lungs. The crowd went nuts, and he kept the applause coming: he slapped himself in the face like Curly from the Three Stooges; he pounded on his chest with his fists; he did his trademark robotic shiko. When he tossed a heaping handful of salt into the center of the ring, the crowd exploded.

I was getting caught up in the excitement myself. This was easily the most exciting pre-fight posturing I'd seen all day. Before, when the only time I ever watched sumo was on television, I found antics like these hopelessly boring and usually skipped the live sumo broadcasts in favor of the highlights that played on television after the matches, which only showed the bouts themselves.

But here at the tournament, it was a completely different story. Taking everything in at once—the wrestlers working simultaneously to psyche each other out; the shouts from the audience; the salt crystals streaming through the air and catching the glare from the overhead lights—was absolutely exhilarating. (Baseball's the same way: waiting for a pitch while watching a game on television is duller than I can handle; at the ballpark, though, where you can feel the tension, it's exciting.)

If fact, over the years, these pre-fight warm-up/psych-out sessions were abbreviated with broadcast audiences in mind. Until early in the century, they'd go on as long as the wrestlers wanted. But when live radio broadcasts of matches began, the posturing was limited to 10 minutes. Now, with television broadcast schedules to stick to, wrestlers only have four minutes to stretch out and throw salt (over 100 pounds each day).

In most cases, though, four minutes is still often several hundred times longer than it takes for the wrestlers to actually fight. Takamisakari's match against Roho, at about a minute, was an eternity compared to many other matches, which last mere seconds. The two met in the center of the ring, grabbed each other's mawashi and pushed each other by millimeters until Roho thrust Takamisakari forward and out of the ring in one exerted shove. Takamisakari left the ring looking genuinely upset; he actually pouted, something wrestlers usually don't do. Roho, meanwhile, went home with the cash that Takamisakari's sponsor had ponied up.

A few matches later when it was Kaio's turn to fight, even more banner-bearing yobidashi circled the stage: 10 this time. Kaio's opponent, Iwakiyama, had a protruding jaw and forehead that made him resemble Jay Leno—except that his face was likely indented from being repeatedly bashed in by the heads of his opponents. The two seemed well matched during the bout's initial moments, but when his opponent lost his footing near the edge of the dohyo, Kaio easily pushed him out of bounds. Iwakiyama nearly stammered off the raised dohyo.

The cheering reached a new crescendo. Seeing Kaio make his way toward potential elevation to yokozuna rank was arguably what most of the fans had come hoping for. The next and final match, in which Asashoryu beat fellow Mongolian Hakuho, felt like an anticlimax after Kaio's victory.


Notes on the Sekitori

I was glad to see the Sekitori win his match. Having lived under the same roof for a couple weeks, I felt a sort of loyalty toward him, despite his mistreatment of the stable's other wrestlers. But I was also surprised by how much support he got from other fans. Why had he received so many cheers?, I wondered.

One answer came in the form of an email from an English fan who said he trains at the same northeast Tokyo amateur stable where the Sekitori got his start. Most wrestlers grew up far away from Japan's big cities, off of Japan's main island or on it's northern and southern tips. But the Sekitori is from Saitama prefecture, much of which consists of bedroom communities for workers in Tokyo.

He "is basically a local lad of sorts," wrote the English fan.

I also learned from David Shapiro, the American sumo announcer, that the Sekitori is in the middle of a comeback. I knew that the Sekitori was competing in his second tournament as a juryo-ranked wrestler, but I didn't know that he had ascended to—and then fallen from—that rank once before. Shapiro told me that the Sekitori suffers from diabetes and had lost the rank before because he was weakened by his condition.

But, his health having improved, the Sekitori was now on the upswing. "He's a great kid with lots of promise and a great work ethic," Shapiro said.

The Sekitori had actually dropped his old ring name and taken on his current one, Ishide, as a way of distancing himself from his illness and losses. A few people told me that if he ascended even higher—as he stood poised to do if he performed well enough in this tournament—he'd likely change his name yet again.

"There's nothing special about a name like 'Ishide'," Miki explained over lunch the day before the tournament started. "It's like calling yourself 'Miki'."

In fact, the Sekitori did fight well enough to advance to Makuuchi rank in the tournement, winning nine out of 15 matches; but he's competing in the Osaka tournament as "Ishide".

NEXT: Afternoon at the Tournament


The Sekitori Fights


After we left the wrestlers' changing room, Miki took me into the press club office, the walls of which were stained yellow. In an earlier time, before smoking was banned in the entire Kokugikan, only the most devoted chain smokers probably dared enter. Dark smudges spotted the yellow surface and the place smelled like old sesame oil, as though decades of Chinese takeout had permeated the atmosphere.

Sports writers from all of Japan's big newspapers had desks in the room, which was divided into cubicles. The Yomiuri seemed to have a cubicle all to itself. But with the important matches still hours away, the room was nearly empty of reporters.

I left my jacket and bag in the Yomiuri cubicle, then went back into the auditorium to watch more of the matches. I sat in the corral on the west side of the room that was perpetually on reserve by the newspaper. I noticed Haruki, the yobidashi, sitting with a small crowd of other young yobidashi near the mouth of the hanamichi.


When I got hungry a little before one in the afternoon, I went back to the press room to pick up my computer so I could check my email at the McDonald's across the street that had a wireless signal.

I ate a cheeseburger and spent a little time replying to messages, then went back to the tournament. When I returned, a bit past two, the atmosphere in the auditorium had completely changed. It felt more like a park full of boozy cherry-blossom viewers than a stadium of sports fans. About two-thirds of the corrals were now occupied with spectators, who were sitting on their cushions, drinking beer and eating delicate tidbits from sectioned plastic lunch trays. Many had big paper bags overflowing with liquor, snacks and souvenirs that the "tea-house" stands near the building's entrance provide.

These stands are actually a vestige from sumo's days as an outdoor activity, when actual freestanding tea houses set up outside the temporary stadium structures built on temple grounds. In their current incarnation, they not only sell food and drink, but are also where the vast majority of sumo fans go to reserve tickets. According to one estimate, up to 90 percent of ticket sales are handled by these shops, which have been criticized for selling only to preferred patrons and freezing out regular fans. The sumo association's methods of disbursing tickets to the tea houses led to one of the sport's most serious scandals in the late 1950's, when it was revealed that the wife and daughter of the sumo association's chairman were running two of the biggest shops, as P.L. Cuyler explains in her book about sumo. At the height of the scandal, the chairman, Dewanoumi, attempted ritual suicide before being replaced.

When fans get to the tournament, they check in with the tea house they bought their ticket from and are shown the way to their seat or corral by an usher dressed in a topcoat and knickers who works for the stand. I saw these guys leading their clients through the growing chaos in the auditorium as I made my way back to the press room to drop off my bags.

The press room was now filled with reporters watching the sumo matches on television. I left and went back to the Yomiuri's corral until the paper's official guests for the day arrived, when their usher told me to split. Then I moved down one row to the press seats behind a long desk set into the floor.

By this time, the juryo-ranked wrestlers—like the Sekitori—had started their matches. They wore smooth-looking silk mawashi in various colors, while the wrestlers I saw fighting before lunch wore the same coarse gray canvas mawashi that they practice in at their stables. And their sagari were stiff and stick-like, unlike the loose stingy ones that their juniors wore in the dohyo earlier. (I'd read that the high-ranking wrestlers' sagari were stiffened with starch, though when I asked Hiroki about them later, he said they are treated in a solution of boiling seaweed.) The juryo wrestlers also wore their hair in more elaborate topknots: they fanned out in the back in a shape likened to a gingko leaf, from which the hairstyle gets its name, "oicho."

The juryo matches were also more suspenseful and entertaining. The wrestlers in the morning matches seemed to just bully each other around the ring, pushing and tugging their opponents until someone fell down or was pushed out of bounds. But these guys moved fast and furiously, their arms snaking around each other's bodies wildly searching for the best grip. Even the yobidashi were better: they had stronger voices. And the gyoji wore real robes—not knicker suits—and they had metal ornaments set into their paddles.

The juryo matches were also eliciting considerably more enthusiasm than those of the low-ranked guys. The only wrestler who was cheered for by name during the morning matches was a young Caucasian giant named Baruto, whom I later found out was Estonian. But a lot of the juryo wrestlers were having their names called out as they mounted the dohyo.

However, I don't think any of the juryo wrestlers was cheered as loudly as the Sekitori was when he entered the dohyo. I saw him walk down the hanamichi and sit beside the ring in front of me and was looking forward to seeing him fight.

"Ishide," came voices from all over the auditorium when it was his turn and he climbed onto the dohyo. "You go Ishide!"

Like the rest of the juryo I'd seen since returning from lunch, he took a lot longer getting himself ready for the tussle. Unlike the lower-ranked wrestlers, who just did a few quick shiko in the corner of the dohyo before facing off and charging each other, these guys took their time.

I watched the Sekitori get in the ring and take a ladleful of water into his mouth, which he spewed into a spittoon I only now realized was built into the side of the raised dohyo. He took a handful of salt from a bucket in the corner and sprinkled it onto his feet and legs then walked into the center of the ring and faced his opponent.

But they didn't fight, not yet.

Instead, both returned to their respective corners to sprinkle more salt on themselves, then shiko for the crowd.

"Ishide!" yelled someone behind me.

They returned to the center of the ring again, but again only stared into each other's eyes before going back to their corners, where they toweled themselves off and once more dipped their hands into their salt buckets. The Sekitori's opponent took a huge handful of salt and threw it arrogantly into the ring. The crowd roared.

The Sekitori took a much smaller handful, which he tossed gently into the ring, then softly rubbed it into the earth with his foot. The crowd cheered for this too. The Sekitori's public persona, I was beginning to understand, was the opposite of his character in the stable. In the ring he was temperate and humble.


"Go Ishide!" I heard again to my side.

Again they returned to the center of the ring where they gazed fearsomely into each other's eyes. And this time they stayed put. When the gyoji signaled with his fan, they tapped their fists onto the ground and lunged at each other.

Within moments, the Sekitori had wound his arm behind his opponent's back. Seconds after that, he'd flung him from the ring, while the crowd cheered more loudly than I'd heard all morning.

I caught myself cheering too.


NEXT: Notes on the Sekitori


Morning at the Tournament


I got to Ryogoku on Sunday—the first day of the tournament—at 10 in the morning, about two hours after the matches had started. A wrestler got off the train the same time I did, presumably on his way to compete. Downstairs from the platforms, I saw Tatsuya passing through the ticket gates. He didn't recognize me at first, perhaps because I was wearing a jacket and tie and had let my beard and mustache grow back in.

"Tatsuya," I called out. He looked surprised to see me. "How'd it go?" I asked him.

"I lost," he said matter-of-factly.

I told him I'd see him on Tuesday, when I'd come back to spend a few more nights at the stable. Then I left the station and went into the public relations office at the Kokugikan to pick up my press pass.

In the auditorium, the league's lowest-ranked wrestlers were fighting. The matches were proceeding in quick succession and with little ceremony. When I walked in, the gyoji presiding over the matches wore what looked like a blue jumpsuit that ended at his legs in a pair of knickers.

Meanwhile, the wrestlers' names were being called by a yobidashi in a blue robe with "Natori" printed on his back. I thought that must be his name, but knew I was mistaken when he was replaced by a yobidashi with "Ozeki Sake" on the back of his robe. Then I realized that his robe was actually an advertisement for the Natori snack company.

The dohyo was also surrounded by judges, called "shinpan," in black kimono. They sat one apiece on the floor at the foot of the dohyo on the north, east and west sides, with two sitting beside each other on the south side. The shinpan, I knew, were all former wrestlers who had once wrestled at the sport's highest ranks.

They had the final word on the matches' winners. If a shinpan disagreed with the gyoji, he could call a quick conference with his colleagues atop the dohyo and, if they all agreed, reverse the gyoji's judgment. The chief shinpan—who sat on the north side of the ring—wore an earplug that connected him to a sixth judge hidden away in a control booth where he could watch video replays of a disputed match.

The shinpan to the east and west of the dohyo were each flanked by two wrestlers, the next pair to compete. Wrestlers waited on the side of the side of the dohyo that matched where they were listed on the banzuke, or ranking sheet, (i.e. wrestlers listed under the "east" column on the banzuke waited on the east side of the dohyo).

The next wrestler up waited until the yobidashi sang his name in a drawn-out, quavering voice while opening a white fan. The melody and the singing style reminded me of the song that sweet potato venders play out of the trucks they drive around Tokyo in the winter selling baked yams.

After the yobidashi sang out their names (and compass direction), the wrestlers mounted the dohyo. His place beside the shinpan was filled by the next wrestler in line, who emerged from a corridor under the stands. (The corridor, I'd read, was called a hanamichi, or "flower path." The aisle kabuki performers take to the stage is also called a hanamichi.)

Next the gyoji waved his paddle from one side of the dohyo to the other while calling out the names of the wrestlers a second time. He spoke in the theatrical, forceful voice of a Noh performer or Shinto priest. The wrestlers, in the meantime, did a few shiko in their respective corners at the south side of the ring facing the hanimichi from which they'd arrived. Over their thighs fell their sagari, the rows of thin ropes attached to a belt they wore tucked into their mawashi. Different wrestlers had different color sagari. I'm not sure what their purpose and significance is: one book I consulted said they're related to Shinto; another said they hang over a wrestler's pelvis to specify the part of the mawashi that's off limits for grabbing during the match.

When the gyoji finished calling out the wrestlers' names, he held the paddle level with the ground, lifted it up, and stepped back. At that signal that the wrestlers walked to the center of the ring while their names were announced for a third and final time over the public address system. Then the gyoji signaled with his paddle and the wrestlers bent their knees, tapped on the dirt floor with their fists, threw their sagari over their crouching thighs, and lunged at each other.

The gyoji followed the wrestlers around the ring as they tussled chanting what sounded to me like "teribu-teribu-teribu-tah." It turned out that he was actually saying "nokotta, nokotta, nokotta," which means something like, "You're still going."

When one wrestler had thrust the other out of the ring, or thrown him on the ground, or maneuvered him off his feet, the gyoji pointed his paddle in the compass direction associated with the winner. Then the two wrestlers faced each other in the middle of the ring and bowed. The loser walked off the dohyo, while the winner crouched down before the gyoji, who called out his name.

When I walked in, there was only a smattering of spectators—a lot of them Caucasians—in the lower-tier corrals and the mezzanine above was virtually empty. Miki had told me the day before that some sumo fans buy single-seat tickets on the mezzanine level, which can cost as little as $40, and watch from the ground level until the spectators who'd paid at least $370 for their four-seater corral arrived. Foreigners are especially notorious for that practice, Miki said; most Japanese don't care about the early matches and only arrive at around 2:30 or three o'clock, when the highly ranked, higher-profile wrestlers face off.

I had been sitting in an empty corral myself while I watched the matches. The first ones I saw were between jonidan-ranked wrestlers, but as the morning progressed, more highly ranked wrestlers began fighting. Every few matches, new gyoji and yobidashi were rotated in, their ranks increasing along with the wrestlers'. A couple of the matches I watched were decided by the gyoji that lived at the stable where I stayed, and one of the yobidashi whom I'd seen help remake the stable's dohyo announced the names of the combatants in a few consecutive matches.

I had been watching for about an hour when Miki arrived. He brought me under the stands and into one of the "west-side" wrestlers' changing room. It was a long room with a narrow corridor running between raised tatami floors, on which dozens of wrestlers sat in various stages of undress. Kazuya, who must have wrestled moments before I arrived, was on his way out. I asked him how his match went.

"I won," he said with healthy self-satisfaction in his voice.

NEXT: The Sekitori Fights




Just inside the Kokugikan's entrance hall was a glass display case filled with sumo trophies. There was a giant chrome Coke bottle—"the Coca-Cola trophy," according to the plaque at its base. Another trophy was a huge glass cylinder filled with dehydrated mushrooms. The "Czech cup" was a giant crystal goblet that stood in front of a Pilsner Urquell beer poster.

I was looking over the trophies when I heard someone call my name. I looked up and saw a youngish guy with slicked-back bangs in a gray-checked blazer and black pants. I guessed, correctly, that it was Miki.

Miki hustled me out of the entry hall and into the public relations office, the same place where I had met the Oyakata. He had a Yomiuri photographer take me into the hallway and shoot my picture for the tournament press pass he'd promised me. Back inside the office, the newspaper reporters and photographers who'd collected there were picking over a tableful of press swag: press releases, DVD's, photos.

Also on the table was a small selection of Hello Kitty figurines wearing sumo-related costumes: Kitty in a gyoji's vestments, Kitty in a kesho mawashi. One even had Kitty's white kitten head perversely transposed onto the round, flesh-colored body of a mawashi-wearing sumo wrestler.

Miki had me wait for him while he typed into his laptop, which he had jacked into his cellular phone. Then he took me to lunch at a tempura restaurant and ordered us both bowls of scrambled shellfish over rice, with which we drank beer.

Miki ate quickly. When we left the restaurant, he told me I could come to the Kokugikan any time the next day—the first of the tournament—and pick up my press pass, which would let me come and go as I pleased. Before we split up, I had him show me the way to the Eko-in temple, which I was interested in checking out because of its connection to sumo wrestling.

Eko-in, in fact, is what brought sumo to the Ryogoku section of what's now Tokyo in the first place. It was built in the mid-18th century to inter and memorialize the 100,000-plus victims of a fire that had destroyed much of the city about 100 years earlier. But Eko-in didn't have access to the cash stream that supported most temples: since its graves were anonymous, it couldn't collect dues from the family members of those that it interred. So it began sustaining itself with biannual sumo matches, which thousands attended.

Sumo on temple grounds was nothing new. Temples and shrines had long raised money by hosting the hodgepodge of disenfranchised samurai and migrants from the countryside that performed the prizefights that became modern sumo. Before Eko-in began hosting the matches, most were held on the grounds of the Fukagawa Hachiman shrine down the Sumida river. But once they moved to Eko-in, it became the chief venue for sumo and Ryogoku soon became the sport's de facto headquarters.

In the early 20th century, sumo gained new prestige, as the flurry of national pride that followed Japan's victories in its recent wars with China and Russia turned the Westernizing country's gaze back toward its native culture. As a uniquely Japanese expression, sumo wrestling was elevated to Japan's national sport and given a permanent home: the Kokugikan that was built near the temple.

These days, though, the only thing that seems to link Eko-in to its sumo past is the stone with the inscription "power mound" near its entryway, which was erected in the 1930's as a memorial to a wrestler. The temple itself sits at the end of a busy road behind a corporate-looking cement-and-steel archway. Gone are the vast temple grounds that allowed it to house the massive temporary structures in which sumo was once performed. It's now a cluttered compound of modern one-story buildings. But its history as a graveyard remains on clear display in the dense block of tombs off to the side.


NEXT: Morning at the Tournament


The Big Dohyo-Matsuri


The day after I saw the wrestlers train in front of the yokozuna promotion council, Miki, the Yomiuri reporter who'd arranged my stay at the stable—and whom I still hadn't met in person—sent me an email. He wrote that the sumo association was going to hold a dohyo-matsuri on Saturday morning to sanctify the ring at the Kokugikan before the start of the January tournament. He invited me to drop by and said he would meet me there afterwards.

I arrived late and by the time I got there, a small crowd had formed along the roped-off entrance to the stadium. People held cameras and craned their necks for a clear view of whoever was supposed to emerge from the doors. Leaning against the doors were two almost billboard-sized paintings of wrestlers, whom I recognized from the sumo magazine I bought a few days earlier.

One was Kaio, standing with his muscular arms at his side; the other was the Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu, pictured kneeling midway through an elaborate shiko. Both wore the ornate apron-like kesho-mawashi that designated their advanced rank. Asashoryu wore a broad rope around his waist with lightning-bolt-shaped paper cutouts hanging between his crouching thighs. The rope and cutouts identified him as a yokozuna.

These portraits, I later learned, memorialized the wrestlers' victories in the tournaments held last year. Asashoryu had won five championships; Kaio had won only one.

At first I thought that the crowd was waiting to get into the dohyo-matsuri, but now and then a guard would usher someone through the pack and into the entrance. I worried I was missing the ceremony inside, so I wandered over to the side entrance by the sumo museum and walked in without being stopped. I saw a guard and asked him where the dohyo-matsuri was being held; he motioned toward a nearby set of three doors. I assumed my jacket and tie were affording me this unfettered access.

I stepped through the doors and into the enormous wrestling hall. The dohyo was at its center, set into a raised trapezoid of packed earth barely larger than the ring itself. A wooden Shinto-style roof was suspended over the dohyo, with thick red, white, black and green tassels hanging from each corner. These four tassels are said to represent the four seasons, the four points on the compass, or four mythical beings, depending on whose explanation you're reading. But nobody seems to dispute that they at least symbolize the four pillars that once supported the canopy.

Until the 20th century, sumo matches were held outdoors, often in dohyo under canopies to protect wrestlers from rain and snow. When the sport moved inside the Kokugikan (literally, "national sport hall") that was built specifically for sumo matches in 1909, the roof came with it. But now that matches were held indoors, the roof served no practical purpose and the pillars that supported it blocked spectators' views of the ring. So in the 1930's (or the 1950's, depending, again, on your source), the thick tassels replaced the pillars.

The canopy itself, meanwhile, was modeled after the roofs that cover many Shinto shrines. I've read that it bears an especially close resemblance to the roof of the Ise Shrine in Mie prefecture. The Ise Shrine is dedicated to the Sun Goddess that, according to Japan's native cosmology, began Japan's imperial line. This makes it one of the country's most important religious sites.

But while the Ise Shrine was established millennia ago, it has only shared roof styles with sumo dohyo since the 1930's, when it was introduced to the Kokugikan to make sumo look more classically Japanese. Before then, the canopy over the dohyo was modeled after roofs of traditional farmhouses in the Japanese countryside.

Around the dohyo were two tiers of seating. The lower tier consisted of floor seating with 15 gradually sloping levels of corrals divided by calf-high metal rails. Each corral was just large enough for four people, and four square cushions divided the orange-carpeted enclosures into quarters. A small wooden tray with four ceramic teacups waited in the center of each corral. Below the levels of corrals, there were a few rows of cushions directly on the ground around the dohyo. The upper mezzanine tier extended over the corrals on the lower levels and was made up of 15 or so rows of red folding seats.

A few spectators, mostly lone watchers who had claimed a coral for themselves, watched the dohyo-matsuri, which seemed to be following the same basic sequence as the one I saw performed at the stable. But this one was far more intricate, with three gyoji performing the rites, each looking more explicitly priestly than Hage-san. Unlike Hage-san's flamboyant costume, their formal hats and robes were identical to the vestments worn by actual Shinto priests. The main gyoji, who recited the prayers, wore a gold robe; the other two wore white ones.


The dohyo was surrounded by Oyakata and other sumo functionaries in dark suits. They shared the sake and other offerings that the wrestlers sampled at the dohyo-matsuri I watched at the stable.

When the ceremony ended, I followed the small audience outside, where the crowd around the front entrance had grown. Soon after I joined the crowd, Kaio and Asashoryu emerged from the building wearing formal kimono. I recognized Kaio's ursine face from when he appeared before the yokozuna promotion council. But I'd never seen Asashoryu in person and was surprised by how young he appeared with his pudgy unlined face.


An older Japanese man ceremoniously handed each of them a smaller version of the giant portraits of themselves that they now stood in front of. I couldn't make out who the old guy was, but assumed he was either a member of the sumo association or a representative from the Mainichi newspaper, which commissioned the paintings. When he handed Asashoryu his portrait, a short, old Japanese woman in front of me remarked bitterly to an equally short old woman beside her: "He just came back from Mongolia last week."

Then the two wrestlers edged up close to one another and shook hands for the cameras that everyone in the crowd seemed to be holding. "You go, Kaio!" shouted the old woman in front of me.


Indeed, with the tournament a day away, the question that seemed to be on the minds of all sumo fans was whether Kaio would perform well enough to become a yokozuna in this tournament. Japanese fans, I had read, were tired of having a foreigner alone at the pinnacle of their national sport. They wanted a Japanese yokozuna.

But, so far, Kaio's chances didn't seem very good. He had suffered multiple losses to lower ranked wrestlers during the yokozuna promotion council session—I even saw one of the oyakata there publicly chide him for losing so many matches, though I didn't know who he was at the time.

Some fans and commentators blamed his poor performance before the council on Asashoryu. The yokozuna missed the session, his oyakata said, because he had returned from his New Year's vacation in Mongolia with a cold. Kaio lost so many matches because he had to pick up Asashoryu's slack and fight more than he would have otherwise had to, some were saying.

Implicit in many fans' comments, it seemed to me, was some resentment that Asashoryu had left Japan for the New Year's holiday.

"It's been a longstanding tradition in the sumo world that wrestlers wait and take their New Year's holiday after the year's opening tournament," wrote one commentator in the Asahi newspaper. "If Asashoryu loses several matches [because of his illness], he will likely receive the criticism that he deserves."

I don't think this bitterness stemmed from resentment over a lack of a Japanese yokozuna. Instead, I feel like Japanese see Asashoryu as not living up to the demands of his esteemed position.

Sumo wrestlers dress like Japanese of centuries past, surround themselves with emblems of Japan's native religion and observe traditional Japanese social mores and customs with a greater gusto than the rest of the population. In all this, they are kind of like a distilled version of an exaggerated form of Japanese-ness. So the sport's sole champion should be an exemplar of Japanese behavior, whether he's Japanese or not. Slacking off on pre-tournament practice after splitting for Mongolia just wasn't becoming for a yokozuna, the subtext seemed to be.

At any rate, once the brief award ceremony ended, the crowd dispersed and the rope boundary was taken down. I wandered back into the Kokugikan to kill time until I heard from Miki, from whom I expected a phone call.

NEXT: Eko-in



Once, while I was typing up some notes in the bedroom at the stable, I asked Murayoshi what the real name was for what I'd been calling the "Zamboni sessions," during which the wrestlers push each other across the ring between grappling matches.

"Butsukarigeiko," he answered. "It's the most brutal part of practice."

After a moment, he asked me, "Do you think we're rough on each other?"

"Yes," I answered without missing a beat. At practice that day, I saw Moriyasu pull Batto around by his neck and throw him on the ground every time the Mongolian failed to push him across the ring during butsukarigeiko. Moriyasu tortured him like this endlessly, until Batto was covered in dirt, hyperventilating and weeping. I could barely watch after a while, but nobody else seemed to regard it as a very big deal.

"I thought Moriyasu was really rough on Batto today," I said.

"Oh, that?" said Murayoshi. "That was nothing. It used to be much more rougher."

When Murayoshi joined the stable 11 years ago, such brutality during butsukarigeiko was a daily occurrence, he said. And he said wrestlers went even harder on their subordinate stablemates before his time.

"But Japanese people these days aren't as thick-skinned," he said. "They whine and get homesick. They wouldn't put up with too many beatings; they'd just pack up and leave."

In addition to being beaten by each other, Murayoshi said, they were also whacked around pretty regularly by the Oyakata and the Kashira. "When I started, the Kashira used to beat me with a stick if I made the same mistake more than once," he said. "Sometimes he hit me because he thought I had a bad attitude."

A few days later, Hiroki substantiated Murayoshi's description of the Kashira of years' past. Now a harmless if thuggish presence in the stable, the Kashira was apparently once a real mean son of a bitch. He used to sit, watching practice in the same spot before the heater that he still occupies, with a long, menacing stick across his lap. "If someone fouled up during practice, he'd whack him in the ass or the thigh—sometimes he'd even knock him in the head," he said.

But about four years ago, Hiroki said, the Kashira changed. His temper cooled down and he stopped attacking the wrestlers during practice. And the stick disappeared.

David Shapiro, the American sumo expert I talked to after I left the stable, offered a similar reason as Murayoshi's for sumo having grown more gentle: modern Japanese kids won't put up with too many beatings.

"It's how they're being raised at home," Shapiro told me. "Before the war, if a kid goes out to do sumo, his dad says, 'Don't come back home until you reach juryo," which is the Sekitori's rank. "Now his mom says, 'If you don't like it, just come home.' It's hard for a kid who's raised like this to take a beating and then come back for more."

This trend of young Japanese growing less indulgent of their superiors is beneficial to a modern country trying to raise a questioning, assertive citizenry, Shapiro said. But it's no good for producing tough-as-nails sumo wrestlers.

When I visited the Oyakata in his office, I asked him if he thought sumo was getting gentler. He did, but he didn't see it as a consequence of the decline of corporal punishment in the sport. Rather he thought it was because young sumo wrestlers are unwilling to push themselves as hard as their forerunners were.

"Maybe it's getting gentler," he said. "But the problem is with the wrestlers themselves. If someone works hard, then the sport if tougher."

The Oyakata didn't seem to miss the days when training involved a healthy dose of physical abuse. "Wrestlers don't get better through beatings," he said. "They get better through good training advice. Everyone's body is different, so everyone needs to be trained differently. Just beating someone with a stick is easy."

NEXT: The Big Dohyo-Matsuri


The Stablemates and I

I went directly from the Oyakata's office back to the stable. There was more I wanted to talk to the wrestlers about.

It was obvious to me what motivated them to progress through the ranks: like I wrote before, promotion means an exponential improvement in the quality of their lives. But what motivated them to join the stable in the first place has was a mystery to me. I asked them, of course, but never got a satisfying answer. They generally said something along the lines of, "I got recruited," and left it at that.

Despite the warmth and openness with which the wrestlers treated me, I wasn't able to get too far below the surface to see what makes them tick. One reason, of course, was the language barrier that mucked up our communications. These guys speak a pastiche of youth culture slang, regional dialect and sumo patois that left me clueless to what they said to each other and sometimes even to what they said directly to me.

There were also the dissimilarities between them and myself. Sure, there was the physical aspect, which often made me feel like a guppy swimming among catfish, especially when I put on a mawashi and got into the dohyo with them. And there were the general cultural differences, with me being American and they - except the one Mongolian - all being Japanese.

There are class differences too. The Oyakata insisted when I dropped by his office that the wrestlers come from all different social and educational levels. Indeed, Kitamura joined the stable after doing college sumo at a fairly prestigious, pricey university. But most of the guys I talked to do come from working-class families, which is a lot different from me and the bookish middle-middle-class family that I come from.

These guys are also devoted athletes and, in some cases, accomplished ones. I, meanwhile, didn't play a single sport between Cub Scout softball and the intramural soccer team I played on until my teammates—tired of me dragging them down—stopped telling me when the games were. And they are working through commitments of a decade or more that they made to themselves and the stable, while I have trouble committing to an entrée when I'm ordering dinner.

Of course, being at the stable to write about the wrestlers, their sport and their lives, I had a responsibility to overcome these differences and find a way to understand them a little bit. I thought by spending a lot of time with them and allowing a level of trust to grow between us, I could do this, and I was somewhat successful. But in a way, it was also counterproductive.

A reporter's standard routine is to drop into people's lives with a notebook for a brief snatch of time and ask them questions. If you don't like the answer you get, you ask harder, more probing questions. In fact, you keep asking questions until you get a satisfying answer and if that alienates the person you're talking to, well, that's too bad. After all, you're looking for quotes and insights, not new friends.

But in the stable, while I always had my notebook and was constantly writing in it, I didn't report in the same way as if I'd dropped by for the afternoon. My information gathering was done during chats over dinner or during commercials. They were friendly conversations more than formal interviews. And if I asked a guy over dinner why he became a sumo wrestler in the first place, and he says, "I got recruited," I wasn't comfortable saying, "No, come on, really, why? Why'd you let yourself get recruited?" It wouldn't have been friendly.

The best way to deal with this, I decided was to wait until I left the stable, then come back on a brief visit for the sole purpose of interviewing the wrestlers about how they got into sumo and what they thought of the lifestyle. So after meeting with the Oyakata, I went back to the stable to sit down with some of the guys. That's where much of the information in the "Stablemates" interludes comes from.

NEXT: Brutality


The Photo Hall

Visit The Photo Hall of the Mountain Kings.

NEXT: The Stablemates and I


A Chat With the Oyakata


At three o'clock, I arrived at the Oyakata's office, the same place that Usuda brought me to weeks ago when I moved into the stable. I saw the Oyakata marking up papers at his desk in the back of the room.

"My name is Jacob," I told the receptionist by the door. "I have an appointment with Hanaregomo Oyakata."

She asked me to wait and walked to the back of the room, where I saw her say something to the Oyakata. He looked up and waved me back toward him.

"Happy New Year," I said when I reached his desk.

"Uh, happy New Year," he responded, sounding like he'd forgotten that the previous year had ended so recently. He motioned for me to sit down in the chair in front of his desk. "You have a beard," he said with the trace of a grin.

"I actually shaved before I entered the stable," I explained. "I thought I'd be putting on a mawashi more often and I'd never seen a sumo wrestler with a beard…until I saw that big Eastern European guy at the practice this morning."

"Oh, you were there?" he said. "You must be thinking of Kokkai. He's from Georgia."

Meanwhile, the receptionist had brought each of us a plastic cup of coffee set in a reusable rubber holder with a handle. The Oyakata sipped his and lit a cigarette. I ignored mine, still wired from the coffee I drank at McDonald's while checking my email and at the café while awaiting my appointment with the Oyakata. I started in with my questions about how he became a sumo wrestler.

It turned out that he entered the sport reluctantly. As a 19-year-old, he was happily enrolled in college in his hometown in Yamaguchi prefecture, where he studied law and wrestled on the judo team, but his parents had other ideas for him.

"They said, 'Go, give sumo a try," he said. "I didn't want to, but I didn't have a choice: they weren't going to pay my college tuition anymore."

I asked him why his parents wanted him to be a sumo wrestler so badly, while the receptionist, seeing my untouched cup of coffee, replaced it with a mug of green tea.

"My father loved sumo," he answered, and left it at that.

He entered Hanakago stable, not far from where he would later establish his own Hanaregoma stable. Stable life, he told me, was actually easier than life as a student athlete. In college, he said, his judo training sessions were just as intense as sumo practice in the stable, and he had to spend nearly the same amount of time looking after his senpai and helping cook meals in the house that the judo team shared. But when he was a student, he had schoolwork to do on top of all this; as a wrestler, he spent the afternoons napping and his evenings relaxing with his stablemates.

He spent 12 years wrestling with the stable, eventually reaching ozeki rank and becoming, it seems, a household name. Whenever I tell people here that I stayed in the stable run by the former ozeki Kaiketsu, they know exactly who I'm talking about and are deeply impressed, assuming they're old enough to have been paying attention to sumo when he was active in the 1970's.

As Kaiketsu, the Oyakata had a reputation as a solid, hardworking wrestler, I later learned from David Shapiro, an English-language sumo announcer on Japan's public television network and the author of a book on sumo. Kaiketsu was demoted from ozeki after losing a series of matches that he fought with an injury, but was one of the few wrestlers to have ever lost and then regained that rank. "He was famous for saying that dropping out of a match because of an injury was the same throwing a match," Shapiro later told me. "The entire nation loved that."

At the end of each tournament, a series of awards are handed to wrestlers in each division for the most wins, best technique, and so on. Kaiketsu won the kantosho award for fighting spirit seven times in his career. I don't know if that's a record, but I couldn't find any wrestlers who had won it more times.

In 1979, when he was 31, Kaiketsu retired from wrestling and became Hanaregoma Oyakata. He started his stable two years later. Not all oyakata have their own stable—some help coach at others' stables or have roles in administering the sumo association—but all stablemasters must be oyakata.

I asked the Oyakata why he wanted his own stable, and he looked at me like I'd asked the most naïve question imaginable. "I knew when I stopped sumo that I wanted to bring up wrestlers," he said. "It's a natural feeling—everyone feels like that. And even if you can't start your own stable, you want to remain involved with sumo."

The Oyakata even had a yokozuna come out of his stable. I didn't know it at the time, but one of the oyakata that came to the stable with his wrestlers weeks earlier—the rotund one I joked looked a little like a mobster—was the former yokozuna Onokuni, who wrestled in the 1980's.

Shapiro later told me that the Oyakata is now known for his competence as the head of the sumo association's busy public relations office. This has its downside, since it discourages the association's executives from rotating him into a less time-consuming post. "He's so busy that it's hard for him to recruit and difficult for him to train his guys the way he wants to train them," Shapiro said.

I had actually also asked the Oyakata about how he does his recruiting. He said he has friends all over the country who nominate wrestlers for his stable. He follows up with a phone call or a visit.

"I look for tall people; I look at whether they've done sports," he said. "But even if they've never played sports, if they really want to do sumo, it's okay. The most important thing is that they'll put their hearts into it."

His own experience—and, for that matter, that of Haruki—notwithstanding, the Oyakata said he's not interested in wrestlers whose parents pressure them to join. "It's got to be their own choice," he said.

But when the Oyakata finds someone he really wants in his stable, he'll sometimes spend years, as he did with Kazuya, trying to convince him to join, he said. "I tell them about the sumo life and how it will make them strong," he told me.

Yet, in today's Japan, with so many other, easier paths leading to clearer rewards, getting new wrestlers to join the stable is difficult, he said. "There are a lot of stables and so few people out there who want to join," the Oyakata said. "Everyone thinks sumo life is hard and exhausting, and they know they'll probably never make it far enough to become famous or earn much money."

I wondered if the difficulty of recruiting varied at all with the economy. Maybe, I reasoned, it was easier for him to find new wrestlers at the start of his tenure as an oyakata, before Japan's affluent "bubble economy" exposed the infinite number of easier ways to get by. And now perhaps it was getting easier for him to recruit again, since the start of the country's recession.

But this wasn't the case. "It' been difficult the whole time," he said. "It was difficult then; it's difficult now."

I'd been talking to the Oyakata for less than 30 minutes at this point and had already worked through most of my questions. The Oyakata, it turned out, was a man of few words. He'd answered my questions succinctly, but not always satisfactorily. It still wasn't entirely clear to me how he convinces wrestlers to join his stable, for instance. I'd also asked him what wrestlers from his stable have done after retiring from the sport. "Some of them work for companies. Some of them start companies," was his answer.

The Oyakata was not cagey, but he sure was vague.

I tried to think of questions that might get him to talk a little more. "How does it feel when one of your wrestlers wins a match?" I asked.

"When someone is successful, it feels good," he said. "When they lose, it's terrible."

"How about when you see one of your guys advance up the banzuke?" I pushed a little more.

"I'm always glad when they are promoted," he said. "But I'm nervous they'll come back down."

I decided to take one more shot at getting him to open up a bit before surrendering. "How do you feel about your wrestlers now, with the tournament about to start?" I asked.

"Everyone just had a long break," he said. The wrestlers had finished their four-day New Year's break two days ago. "Now I really feel like no one is working hard enough."

I realized I wasn't going to get much more out of him and decided to wrap up our interview there. I just had two more questions I was saving until the end.

"There's one more thing I wanted to ask," I started. "I've been wondering how the atmosphere at the stable might be different during the tournament. Do you think it might be okay for me to come back for a few nights once the tournament starts up?"

"Sure," he answered with as much forethought as if I'd merely asked him to break a dollar. "You've just got to understand one thing: no two stables are alike. Ours is on the small side—I mean, the building itself is small—and you shouldn't walk away with the idea that all stables are like that."

"Got it," I said. "I really appreciate it." I'd been kicking myself the past couple days for leaving the stable before the tournament and was grateful for the chance to return. But I still wanted to ask one last thing. "You know, actually, I did have another question for you, if you don't mind."

He nodded.

"What do your kids call you?" I asked.

"What?" he said, looking confused.

"It's kind of interesting to me how you were born with one name, then wrestled under a different name, and now are known as Hanaregoma Oyakata," I said. "So I was wondering: What do your kids call you?"

"They call me 'Dad,'" he answered.

NEXT: The Photo Hall


Afternoon in Ryogoku

Once Usuda and the wrestler he was trailing disappeared down the street, I headed back toward the Kokugikan and ducked into the sumo museum housed on its grounds. It was smaller than I'd expected: just one room, with exhibits lining the walls and a display case running down the middle of the floor.

The museum's exhibits were arranged chronologically, implying a continuum in sumo from the ancient past to the present. The first items were photocopies of early manuscripts of the Kojiki, the eighth-century chronicle that recounts Japan's creation myth, and the Nihon Shoki, which appeared a few years later and contains an account of the country's earliest dynasties. Both were compiled as the Yamato clan was shoring up its dominance over much of central and western Japan; the chronicles contained a narrative that legitimized Yamato control of the imperial court that had emerged based on the Chinese model.

I couldn't read the manuscript pages at the sumo museum, but noticed that lines from them were highlighted. I assumed they were passages that recounted the legendary wrestling matches between the gods of Japanese antiquity that are often cited as the origins of sumo. Nearly every book on sumo that I've encountered starts off with an explanation of these mythical matches as modern sumo's ancient antecedents.

The pages shared the display case with haniwa, grave statues from Japan's third- to sixth-century Kofun period. That era gets its name from the "kofun," or burial mounds, in which Japan's proto-aristocracy was interred, before cremation became customary with the spread of Buddhism. Those burial mounds were surrounded by haniwa, nearly-human-sized clay hollow clay figures.

The haniwa at the sumo museum were apparently supposed to represent wrestlers. Now, I'm no archeologist, but the only thing about them that resembled sumo wrestlers to me was their disproportionately large thighs and hips. And other haniwa I've seen—representing soldiers or women—have the same large thighs and hips.

Then, on the adjacent wall, there was a scroll painting of chubby guys in loincloths about to go at it with a gyoji standing by, which really did look like a sumo match. I could only read enough of the caption to understand that it was being presented as an example of a match from the eight- to twelfth-century Heian era. The caption didn't seem to give the date that the painting was actually created, but in my uninformed opinion as a non-art historian, it did look like it was painted before the Edo period. And I had thought sumo adopted many of the accoutrements of contemporary sumo featured in the painting during Edo.

The next display case had photos of famous wrestlers of the past, old banzuke, Edo-era woodblock prints of sumo matches, and rows of elaborately embroidered kesho-mawashi. The museum's exhibits ended with rows of portraits of each of the 68 wrestlers to have held yokozuna rank over the past four centuries. The first 16 were woodblock prints; the rest mostly photographs, with a few photorealistic paintings mixed in. I only recognized the last few: Akebono; the brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana; the second Hawaiian (born Samoan) yokozuna Musashimaru; and Asashoryu.

In fact, the rank of yokozuna actually didn't exist until the late 19th century, when the designation was first granted to especially talented ozeki-ranked wrestlers. The 15 wrestlers featured on the wall who were active before this time had been awarded the rank posthumously; the first two are legendary fighters, whom most scholars believe never really existed.

After taking a look at these portraits, I left the museum to find a place to eat lunch. Being the center of the sumo universe, Ryogoku is dense with chanko nabe restaurants; a building across from the train station had chanko nabe shops on each of its eight floors, except the fifth, which had on it something called the "Philadelphia Motor City Soul Bar."

But I had already eaten my fill of chanko nabe while in the stable, so I skipped those shops and circled the block adjacent to the train station. I passed a cake shop that was decorated with sumo pictures and purported to sell some kind of sumo snack, and I stopped by a bookstore to buy a magazine featuring the names and statistics of the upcoming tournament's top-ranked wrestlers. Then I popped into a ramen shop—it had a sumo calendar on the wall—and ordered a bowl of noodle soup with a miso broth and chunks of pork and a soft-boiled egg in it.

While I waited, I flipped through the sumo magazine. The big white guy with the pockmarked face, I read, was a Russian who wrestled under the Japanese ring name Roho. The squat guy with the stubble was from Georgia and his ring name was Kokkai, which means "Black Sea."

I also identified the wrestlers that the journalists were interviewing outside the stadium building. The first was Chiyotaikai, one of the two ozeki currently on the banzuke, whom I'd read was in danger of demotion if he did not perform well in this tournament. The one who disappeared down the street with Usuda was Hakuho, a 20-year-old Mongolian wrestler who had been promoted from a lower rank at the most recent tournament and was being portrayed as a rising star of the sumo world.

When I finished my noodles, I stopped by the McDonald's next to the eight-floor chanko emporium—probably the only McDonald's in the world with a banzuke posted to the wall. It had wireless Internet service and I wanted to check my email. Then I sat down in a café to wait for my appointment with the Oyakata.

NEXT: A Chat With the Oyakata


Morning in Ryogoku

When the Oyakata was born about a half century ago on the south end of Japan's main island, his parents named him Teruyuki Nishimori. As a wrestler, he adopted Kaiketsu as his shikona, or ring name. Soon after retiring from wrestling in 1979 as an ozeki, he started Hanaregoma stable and began to be known as Hanaregoma-oyakata, literally "Master Hanaregoma."

One man. Three names. Like geisha, kabuki performers and other practitioners of Japan's traditional arts, sumo wrestlers can go through numerous names over the course of their lives and careers. A wrestler might change his name to mark his ascent to a higher rank, or to make a clean break from a rough patch in his career. He might take on a mentor's name as a gesture of respect. Or, in the Oyakata's case, he might relinquish his shikona and take on the name of his stable when he becomes an oyakata.

So two Tuesdays ago, when I called the Oyakata's office to make an appointment to drop by on him, I didn't ask if I could speak with Mr. Nishimori. I asked if I could speak with "Master Hanaregoma." This nameshifting fascinated me. I wondered what his family called him. Do his kids call him "Oyakata" too?

I wasn't really able to talk to the Oyakata much during my stay at the stable. The wrestlers rarely entered his apartment, other than to pay him brief deferential visits. And while I wasn't really bound to all the rules and conventions of the stable's real residents, I didn't feel comfortable intruding into his home for a chat.

But I wanted to talk to him about how the sport has changed during his time in its orbit, and what it was like to run a stable. So right before I left, I asked for the phone number of the public relations office he supervises in Ryogoku at the Kokugikan, the stadium complex that serves as the sumo association's headquarters.

When I called him, he invited me to come by the next day, the same day that Miki had invited me to the meeting of the yokozuna promotion council. At this gathering, the sumo association's "elders" and prominent associates watch the sport's highest-ranked wrestlers train together to get an idea of how they'll perform in the upcoming tournament. This gathering would also be held at the Kokugikan, so I figured I'd hang around Ryogoku from the time it ended until my meeting with the Oyakata.

The next morning, while I was taking the train to Ryogoku, I got a call from Miki's colleague Usuda (whom I misidentified in a previous posting as "Usaoa"). I couldn't answer his call because people don't talk on the phone on buses and trains in Japan; it's bad manners. But when I listened to the message he left, I learned that Miki couldn't make it that morning, so Usuda would meet me at the train station and take me into the Kokugikan instead.

I met Usuda at the same spot as when he brought me over to meet the Oyakata a few weeks earlier. "How's the stable?" he asked me while we walked toward the stadium building.

"I had a good time there," I said. "It was interesting."

"Oh, so you already left," he said, sounding surprised.

We climbed a flight of steps set into the exterior of the building and entered a large dirt-floored meeting hall with a dohyo on each end. The dohyo to the rear of the room wasn't being used, but there were rows and rows of chairs on a long plastic tarp, all full, facing the front dohyo, around which stood about two-dozen wrestlers. Their mawashi were white like the Sekitori's, indicating their advanced rank.

Before the first row of chairs, directly in front of the dohyo, important looking men sat at a long table with a white tablecloth. There was another row of seats facing the dohyo from against the wall; the Oyakata sat in one of them, but I didn't notice him at first because he was wearing a suit. Photographers were packed onto a raised platform across the dohyo from the rows of seats, shooting pictures under an elevated shrine identical to the one in the stable.

Usuda and I took what looked like the only remaining seats, in the front row behind the men sitting at the table. The wrestlers in the dohyo faced off, threw each other out of the ring, dropped one another on the floor. I knew that these were the sport's absolute top wrestlers. I'd gotten used to seeing the Sekitori as a figure of almost incomprehensible prestige because that's how he was treated at the stable. But at the stable, I now realized, he was a big fish in a little pond; these guys were the biggest fish of all.

Yet, embarrassingly, I didn't know who any of them were. The last time I'd really followed sumo was when I lived in Japan about five years ago, when there was an entirely different cast of characters at its highest echelons. And even then I didn't follow it very closely, at most watching the highlights of the day's matches on NHK during the tournaments.

I knew who the yokozuna were at the time: Akebono, from Hawaii, and the brothers Wakanohana and Takanohana, whose Futagoyama stable was about two blocks away from where I lived. I used to see that stable's wrestlers shopping in the local 7-11, and we frequently washed our clothes together in the Laundromat. In fact, when I first walked into Hanaregoma stable a few weeks back, the smell of their fragrant hair oil brought on a wave of nostalgia.

But I'd failed to get myself up to speed on who the current sumo stars were and was embarrassed to ask Usuda, who was busily scribbling down who won each match and what maneuver, or kimarite, he used to beat his opponent. Which one was the Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu? I wondered. And which one was Kaio, whom I'd read was a contender for promotion to yokozuna?

But the most puzzling question of all was: Where did all these white guys come from? It seemed like about a quarter of the wrestlers in the dohyo were big, burly Caucasians. I'd heard that there was a contingent of wrestlers from the former Soviet bloc, but it was still a bit of a shock to see them for real. With their double chins and big bellies, a few looked like American truck drivers in loincloths with topknots on their heads. One was a blonde-haired giant with a fierce pockmarked face. Another dark-haired, pale-skinned wrestler looked almost as broad as he was tall and wore what I guessed was a terminal five o'clock shadow. It was disarming at first to see these guys in the ring with the Japanese wrestlers and their less conspicuous Mongolian counterparts going through the exact same routines I'd seen performed each morning in the stable.

But as I watched, I stopped noticing anything different about them. They fought as well as the Asian wrestlers and their repertoire of kimarite was just as advanced. Every match—whether or not one of the white guys was a contender—seemed to end differently. Sometimes the victor would push his opponent from the dohyo with brute force. Sometimes he'd get him near the edge and lift him out by his mawashi. Sometimes he'd kick his opponent's leg out from under him and drop him to the ground.

Distressingly often, though, I couldn't even tell how the matches ended. The frequently finished in a matter of seconds, leaving me wondering what had happened. Sumo, I've heard said, is a sport for connoisseurs. A true sumo fan knows the full gamut of kimarite by name, and understands which wrestlers have the greatest mastery of the various maneuvers. Usuda was writing down the kimarite that ended each match because that's something his readers wanted to know.

Just like in the stable, the practice session between these elite wrestlers ended with a few rounds of butsukarigeiko. Then the seats started emptying out and Usuda ran out of the room, presumably to catch up with a wrestler he wanted a quote from.

I wandered outside, passing a row of reporters standing by the entrance to a locker room. Down the steps, a crowd of reporters, photographers and cameramen were laying in wait. One wrestler came down and was quickly surrounded by reporters. I joined the huddle, trying to listen in on what they were asking him and what he was saying, but I couldn't get close enough. Then a second wrestler came down the steps and most of the reporters shifted over to him. In the meantime, chauffeured black luxury cars were passing by; behind tinted glass, I could see the men who had sat at the long white table in front of the dohyo.

I kept my distance from Usuda while he jockeyed for quotes. He followed a wrestler out of the stadium compound and onto the sidewalk, where he stood trying to hail a cab. It was cold—I was bundled up in a wool coat and a heavy scarf, but the wrestler was just wearing a thin robe and a pair of sandals, with his knees and calves completely exposed. When the wrestler gave up on the cab and took off toward to train station with Usuda in tow, I backed off and watched them disappear down the street.

I needed to figure out who these guys were.

NEXT: Afternoon in Ryogoku



The morning after the bon-en-kai, I was sitting in my usual spot behind the Kashira when the Oyakata came downstairs and sat on his cushion. He nodded off the wrestlers' deferential greeting and leaned toward me.

"You're leaving today?" he asked.

"That's right," I said.

"You know, you're welcome to stay," he said. "You know that, right?"

The Oyakata had offered to put me up for as long as I wanted, but I never thought he really wanted me around any longer. I assumed he was just being nice, and that I was expected to decline the invitation. I'd already been there 13 nights and was afraid of wearing out my welcome. It wasn't just the Oyakata I was wary of imposing on; I'd also been cooked for and cleaned up after by all but the most highly ranked wrestlers and I figured they must be tired of having an extra, idle body around the house as well.

But even if he didn't mind me hanging around, it was too late for me to stay now. I'd already found a place to live for the next couple weeks, since I planned to stay in Tokyo for some of the January tournament. And I was looking forward to eating breakfast and having a ready supply of coffee again.

It took me so long to pack my bags that morning that I didn't get down to lunch until most of the wrestlers had already eaten. I filled my plate with the remaining scraps and munched as the wrestlers gradually left the table with their empty dishes, eventually leaving me alone. I finished and handed off my plate in the kitchen—they still wouldn't let me do my own dishes—then grabbed by bags, said my goodbyes, and left.

I stopped back over a couple days later, on New Year's Eve. Murayoshi had told me the wrestlers would be eating soba noodles together for the occasion—an auspicious way to start the year—and invited me to stop by.

"Do you eat them around midnight?" I asked him over the telephone.

"Yeah, midnight," he said. Or at least that's what I thought he said. Around 9:30 on New Year's Eve I was on my way to the stable, when my phone rang. It was Murayoshi.

"Where are you?" he asked.

"I'm at Shinjuku station," I told him. "I'm on my way."

"It's been time to eat," he said.

I was worried that the guys at the stable might be waiting for me to show up before eating their noodles. But when I arrived, everyone had long finished. They were lying on the common room floor, watching wrestling matches on television and playing video games. Iki was there too, dozing on the floor with his face resting on an open comic book.

Hiroki disappeared into the kitchen and came out about 10 minutes later with a bowl of course, dark buckwheat noodles in a salty broth of stewed daikon and carrots, with a piece of shrimp tempura resting on top. Haruki rolled out a table for by benefit and I ate my noodles, feeling bad for putting them to the trouble of preparing another round of noodles especially for me. Plus, I regretted missing the communal noodle eating.

While I ate, I watched the Pride wrestling matches on the television, which were being broadcast from Saitama, the next prefecture over from Tokyo. Pride, like the K-l matches being broadcast from Osaka that same evening, features no-holds-barred wrestling matches fought between combatants of various fighting disciplines. You might get a Thai kick-boxer fighting a Korean tae-kwon-do practitioner, or an American boxer fighting a Chinese martial artist.

These sorts of matches have their followings all over the world, but they're hugely popular in Japan, as is U.S. pro-wrestling. Japan also has its own pro-wrestling league, which some of the guys in the stable followed closely. One day while I was there, Murayoshi disappeared after practice and spent the afternoon mixing with professional wrestlers at an end-of-the-year party for the league's biggest fans. He came back star-struck.

I was surprised they were watching Pride instead of K-1, since K-1 was featuring a special New Year's match between a high-profile former sumo wrestler and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu-ist. The sumo wrestler was the Hawaiian former yokozuna Akebono, the first non-Japanese to reach sumo's highest rank. He joined K-1 a couple years after retiring from sumo; it was rumored that he had debts to pay off. But he had yet to win a match (and indeed did not redeem himself that night), which may have explained why the wrestlers weren't watching him fight.

I was almost done my noodles when Murayoshi, in his boxer shorts, poked his head into the common room and said, "You're late, Jacob."

I apologized and, when I finished my noodles, went up to visit him in the second-floor room. He was alone in the bedroom and was also watching Pride, which ended about 15 minutes before midnight. Then he switched between countdown programs, spending just a few seconds at each one.

"Which one should I be watching at midnight?" he muttered to himself.

He finally settled on a program featuring "99," the same comedy duo that exposed pop-star Nakai to the series of practical jokes on Christmas. For New Year's, the sillier half of the duo, a short guy whom many say resembles a monkey, was dressed in a traditional Japanese short coat with a bandana on his head. I'm not sure what Japanese archetype he was emulating; to me he looked like a waiter at a restaurant that affects a traditional ambience.

The comedian shook his shoulders doing some sort of macho dance as a row of percussionists beat on taiko drums and the counter in the corner of the screen marked off the seconds until midnight. When it hit zero, the comedian hit an enormous temple bell with a long pole that hung suspended horizontally in front of it, while fireworks exploded on the horizon. Murayoshi and I exchanged New Year's wishes and I left for my new temporary home, anxious to get there before the trains stopped running for the night.

The following Sunday, I got a call from Miki. I'd written him an email before New Year's to thank him for arranging my stay at the stable and to tell him that I'd left.

"The Oyakata said you could have stayed longer," he said.

I was about to respond that I thought the Oyakata was just being nice, but then stopped myself, thinking such an answer might sound ungrateful. "I stayed as long as I needed for my project," I said instead.

Miki invited me out for dinner in Ryogoku, where the sumo association has its headquarters in the National Sport Hall, the following Tuesday. He said he'd call me that day, then hung up.

Now that I knew for certain that the Oyakata genuinely would not have minded me staying longer, I deeply regretted leaving the stable. I was especially sorry that I wouldn't be there for any of the tournament that was soon to start. A wrestler's performance in the tournament determines his rank, which has a tangible bearing on the quality of his life. I wanted to know how the stable's atmosphere would be different with so much on the line, and now it seemed I never would.

Maybe I should try to go back, I started thinking.

NEXT: Morning in Ryogoku


Stablemates III

When Haruki was four, his family moved to Tokyo from Beijing, where he was born. His father's father was Japanese and his parents thought they'd have a better chance of carving out a decent life for themselves in Japan. Within a couple years, they'd opened a Chinese restaurant on the northern fringe of the city, where a friend of the Kashira was a regular customer. Through the Kashira's friend, they met the Oyakata, who offered Haruki a spot in the stable when he got old enough.

Haruki never wanted to join the stable. "My parents decided," he said. "It had nothing to do with me." His parents loved sumo, he told me, and wanted him to be a wrestler. And while he didn't say so explicitly, they probably were also trying to figure out what to do with Haruki, whose disdain for schoolwork must have caused them some distress. "I hated school," he told me. "I never studied."

But as Haruki grew older, his chances of success as a wrestler appeared to be diminishing. He stopped growing and had a rot-rod metabolism that burned calories faster than he could consume them, keeping him rail thin. It seemed like he was even less cut out for sumo wrestling than for the academic life.

The Oyakata, however, was determined to hold up his end of the deal. He had agreed to let Haruki into the stable and apparently remained committed to doing so. "He said, 'If you can't be a wrestler, be a yobidashi,'" Haruki recalled. So last April, after graduating from middle school, the 16-year-old moved into the stable to begin his career as a sumo announcer.

Haruki said he hated sumo wrestling when he joined the stable, but he got to like the guys in the stable and is now merely indifferent to the sport. "I don't like it," he said. "But it beats studying."

Like wrestlers, yobidashi have ranks, determined mostly by their time on the job. As a new yobidashi, Haruki announces tournaments matches between the lowest-ranked wrestlers that fight early in the morning. Yobidashi also beat drums each morning of the tournament when wrestling starts, sweep the dohyo between fights, and hold up flags bearing the logos of companies offering prize money to the winners of particular matches.

"It’s not a hard job, but it's embarrassing," Haruki said. "I hate standing up in front of so many people."

Between tournaments, a yobidashi's responsibilities are minimal. He might have to help make a stable's practice dohyo here and there, but that's about it. So he wakes up, watches a bit of the morning practice, sweeps out the vestibule, waits until lunch, takes a nap, does some cleaning, eats dinner, then reads comics and plays video games until bed. It's more or less the same daily schedule that the wrestlers follow, minus the wrestling.

NEXT: Pride


The Bon-En-Kai

So there I was, alone in the upstairs bedroom, snooping through Iki's photos. I was about to put them down and move back to my little encampment on the floor when I noticed the laminated image taped to his metal briefcase. It seemed to an advertisement that featured him holding a bottle of MOET champagne while he did a variation of his "Japanese geisha boy" pose. I was trying to puzzle out the writing on it when I heard someone coming up the stairs. I rushed back to my rolled-up futon and leaned back, pretending to read a book.

In walked the Kashira. Ishikawa, still in a mawashi, followed the Kashira through the door with a pile of his clothes folded into a neat pile. Ishikawa gently placed the Kashira's clothing on a cushion on the floor, while the Kashira sat down on the tatami and lit a cigarette. He asked me what I was reading.

"It's about boxing," I said.

He replied with a Japanese phrase that literally means, "That stinks like a geezer." He meant my book sounded square; something only a grownup would read.

"It's pretty interesting," I told him.

The Kashira grunted, but Ishikawa outed him. "The Kashira has shelves full of serious books," he said.

Then the Kashira asked me if I'd ever seen a Japanese yakuza movie. I named some of the noirish Kurosawa movies I'd seen, but that wasn't what he was looking for. "Do you know Akira Kobayashi?" he asked.

I told him I didn't and he named a movie he thought I should see.

By this time, he had undressed for his bath and was wearing a towel around his waist. He disappeared through the sliding door and I went back to my book. Not long after that, Iki came back. He quickly undressed, wrapped a towel around his own waist, and went downstairs.

Now, there are few inviolable restrictions placed on me, as more or less a guest, at the stable. One is that I can't lie with my feet facing the dohyo. But another is that I'm not to bathe until the Oyakata, Sekitori and Kashira have done so. They each prefer to bathe alone—or, in the Sekitori's case, with a tsukebito—and no one would dare deny any of them this privilege. But now, it looked like Iki did exactly that. It appeared like he barged in on the Kashira during his bathtime. How could he possibly get away with that? I wondered. It wasn't hard to imagine that he was involved with organized crime; maybe he was some member of a yakuza elite whose position trumped that of anyone in the stable.

He came back in about ten minutes and changed into the clothes he was wearing earlier: plaid shorts and a red t-shirt with white characters sewn onto it that said "AI," which means "love." It used to say "DAVID," he told me, but he tore off the D, V and D.

When he sat down, I pointed to his briefcase with the strange advertisement on it and asked, "Is that you?"

"Yes," he said, then tapped the first two Chinese characters at the top of the page.

"I can't read that," I said.

"Baishu," he read for me. I told him I didn't know what that meant.

"Soap, you know?" he said. That I did know. "Soap" is short for "Soapland" which is also known as "The Turkish Baths." It's a form of prostitution available in Japan that involves having one's body vigorously scrubbed with that of a naked sudsy woman. I don't know exactly what else it involves, but can only assume the most unsavory.

But before he could tell me how he and the bottle of MOET figured into the arrangement, the Kashira walked in. Iki cut off his explanation and fell silent. The room was now tensely quiet, and I wanted to get out. Since the Kashira was now out of the bathroom, I knew I could bathe so I started looking for my towel, but couldn't find it.

I finally spotted it over by Iki: he'd apparently stolen it from my pile of things before he'd gone to the shower. I'd share a towel with just about anyone at the stable, but I could only imagine what sort of secret dermatological infirmities Iki suffered from. Fortunately, the Kashira asked me what I was looking for and, when I answered, commanded Ishikawa to fetch me a clean towel from somewhere.

After my bath, I went downstairs to eat some of the mochi that the wrestlers had made. It was easily the best mochi I'd ever had: fresh and hot, chewy without being rubbery. The Kashira's wife, daughter and little grandson worked together with a friend of the family, molding the mochi into oblong balls and cutting it into chunks. They served it under mounds of shredded daikan, sugary black beans, sweeted soybean powder, and natto. All, except the natto—which I skipped—were delicious. Stuffed, I went back upstairs to hang out until the bon-en-kai, while the wrestlers took their naps.

A bon-en-kai is sort of like a New Years' party, except it doesn't fall on New Year's. It literally means, "forget the year party," and considering the amount that is imbibed at a typical bon-en-kai, much of the year is indeed likely to be forgotten.

One of the reasons why I remained at the stable longer than intended was so I'd be around for the bon-en-kai. The Oyakata originally said he thought I'd get what I needed from living in the stable in a week to 10 days. He said I could stay around longer if I wanted, but I interpreted that as him just being nice. So I thought I would leave two days after Christmas, which would have had me at the stable for 10 nights.

Then, toward the end of my stay, wrestlers started asking me if I'd be there for the bon-en-kai. They told me it would be fun. I was flattered that they wanted me around and thought it would be cool to see the guys outside the stable, maybe with a little bit of liquor in them. Plus, I saw it as a way to bring some closure to the experience. When I asked the Oyakata if I could hang around for a few extra nights, he said, "Sure, no problem."

When the wrestlers woke from their naps, they began putting on layers of sumo clothing—their button-up undershirts, robes, sashes—in preparation for the party. Iki had changed too, into a vaguely shiny dark gray suit, with a gold necklace over his collar and under his tie. He'd been working his cell phones furiously for nearly an hour; I couldn't make out what he was talking about, but I heard him mention a string of women's names in the diminutive form: Tomoko-chan, Hiromi-chan, Etsuko-chan. Maybe he was procuring hostesses—or strippers!—for the bon-en-kai, I thought. Maybe now I'd witness why they let this guy hang around.

I followed the crowd out of the stable to the spot near the train station where they said the party would be held. It turned out to be a "snack bar" in the basement of a commercial building across from the station. Snack bars, in Japan, are not kiosks that sell soda, hot dogs and potato chips. They're little bars, most with a small but regular male clientele. They usually have karaoke machines with a generous selection of "enka," which are melodramatic synth-folk songs about lost love and broken dreams. One representative enka tune boasts the refrain, "Please let me have some money before you leave me."

Snack bars are generally run by a handsome, if aged, proprietress and sometimes an attentive younger staff. But now this basement snack bar was empty, rented out for the stable's party: the perfect site for the wild sumo bacchanalia I suspected Iki had planned.

We filed into the narrow bar. I took a spot on the long black vinyl sofa that ran the length of the room under a mirror. Hiroki sat next to me and Batto across the table. There was a karaoke stage at the front of the bar, done up in a Hawaiian motif.

No one said much. A guy in a white shirt and black bowtie came out of the kitchen and placed some trays of sushi on the tables. I sat back and waited for the madness to begin.

Then, suddenly everyone stood up. "Otsukarisandegozaimasu!" they belted out, as the Oyakata walked in. He was holding his grandson's hand and was trailed by his wife and daughter. The evening suddenly looked much tamer than I'd expected.

And indeed it was. Not only were there no hookers, the wrestlers barely even drank, most of them sipping iced oolong tea once they'd gotten past their obligatory beer toasts, during which the Sekitori shared his wish for everyone to advance up the banzuke in the coming year.

But the party did give me the sense of closure I was looking for. It was like a reunion of the characters I'd met over the past couple weeks. Everyone was there: the wrestlers, their hairdresser, the bald gyoji, the yobidashi who came to help make the dohyo.

I looked up at one point and saw the Kashira chatting with the Sekitori, who was absent-mindedly poking Kazuya between the neck and collarbone with a folded fan. I saw Murayoshi chastise Hiroki for singing too softly just like he had in the ring the previous morning for letting himself be thrown to the floor. "I'm sorry," Hiroki replied deferentially. I watched Iki flit from table to table, making smalltalk, pouring drinks, entertaining the Oyakata's grandson.

Eventually, it became my turn to sing a karaoke tune. I ordered up "Back in the U.S.S.R." and took the stage, hamming up the "Georgia's really on ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-mind" part. After I sang, Moriyasu called me over to the Kashira, who tried to give me a rectangle of 1000-yen bills folded together. I'd noticed that the wrestlers were getting something from the Kashira after they sang, but hadn't been able to tell what.

"What's that for?" I asked Moriyasu.

"For singing," he said. "Everyone who sings gets money. It's part of the bon-en-kai."

"I can't take any money," I said.

"Sure you can," he said. "You have to—you sang."

"I'm sorry, I can't," I said. Moriyasu looked hurt. He gave up on me, but the Kashira thrust the bills at me again.

"It's for singing," he said.

"Thanks," I said. "But I'm sorry, I can't take that."

"Why?" he asked, confused.

"I'm a journalist," I answered, sounding grander than I'd intended. The young gyoji Kichijiro, with whom he'd been drinking, managed somehow to explain what that implied, and I was off the hook.

"But I'll take some of this," I said, pointing to the bottle of sho-chu they'd been sharing. The Kashira poured me a cocktail of sho-chu, a vodka-like liquor, and water with a splash of canned black coffee. It was very good.

I spent the rest of the party drinking sho-chu with the Kashira, Kichijiro and Ishikawa, listening to the wrestlers sing pop songs, while the old guys sang enka tunes of loneliness and despair. Then we all walked back to the stable.

NEXT: Stablemates III