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Years ago I sat in Philadelphia's airport about to board a plane to Japan, not knowing what to expect of the place. I knew I was going to live in a dormitory for foreigners, mostly teachers, but didn't know what it would look like. I didn't know how hard it would be to find food that I could eat, clothes that I could wear, or people I could relate to. I knew that coffee was supposed to be expensive and the streets were supposed to me immaculate, and that was about it.

Since that first flight into Tokyo, I've taken many more, returning from short vacations during my first long stint there, and coming back to study, work or visit friends after extended stays away from Japan. Naturally, on these return trips, I never felt the same sense of unsureness. The more time I spent there, the more it lost its mystery and capacity to surprise. It became a normal place to me. I knew that the coffee wasn't all that expensive; the streets weren't all that clean. That the clothes fit little me better than most stuff I can find in my own country. And I know what kinds of food are available here, which is one of the things that keeps me coming back. I know what it's like here; I know what to expect.

But the other day, sitting in the airport in San Francisco, waiting for the plane to take me here again, I felt much like I did the first time around when I hadn't a clue what to expect. I didn't know what my living arrangements would look like, what I'd be eating, what I'd be wearing. For the first time in all these years, I was going to Japan to do something completely unlike anything I've ever done here before—indeed unlike anything most people have done here before.

I was coming to Japan to be a sumo wrestler.

Not a real sumo wrestler, of course: I'd only be at it for a couple weeks and I wouldn't fight publicly. But I also wasn't going to be putting on a goofball padded sumo suit for a college athletic fair. I was actually going to live and train with sumo wrestlers for a week—and perhaps even longer—so I could write about the experience.

The idea for this project, like many things in my life, was born out of laziness. The two masters' degree programs I'm in—journalism and Asian studies—each require me to write a thesis. When I started considering thesis topics, I tried to think of something that I could count for journalism and Asian studies, thereby saving myself the trouble of writing a second thesis. Everyone I ran the idea past was intrigued by it, though no one thought I might actually get a sumo "stable," as the training houses are called, to let me in.

I took baby steps toward really doing this thing. I wrote a paper on sumo for a history course on Japanese pop culture. I talked to advisors about whether I really could get it to count for both of my degrees. I started asking people how I might go about getting into a stable.

It was the last thing that looked like it was going to hold me back. A guy who graduated from Berkeley with a doctorate in anthropology that he got after writing his dissertation about sumo wrestling told me that the kind of access I was looking for came after years of relationship building. No one else I asked seemed to have any idea where to begin looking for a stable that might let me in. But I kept asking.

I don't want to make it sound like I was approaching this thing with the dogged enthusiasm of someone who had a story to tell, and sure as hell wasn't going to let anyone stop him. In fact, I was just making casual inquiries, never really believing myself that a stable would let me in, and poking around for alternate topics.

Then one of my casual inquiries paid off. I talked about my idea with Mariko, the reporter who came from the Yomiuri Shinbun, Japan's leading newspaper paper, to teach at Berkeley's journalism school last spring. She seemed doubtful about the idea at first, but a couple weeks after I mentioned my idea, she surprised me: "So, when do you want to go?" she asked. It turned out that the Yomiuri's sports writers had suggested that this was something that could be arranged.

Now that it looked like it really might happen, I started talking to my journalism teachers about the idea, who were as enthusiastic about the idea as others I'd spoken to. "It's a slam dunk," said one. Just because the idea came out of me being lazy, it seemed, didn't necessarily make it a bad one.

A couple months ago, Mariko sent me an email to let me know that the head coach at Hanaregoma stable offered to put me up for a week to 10 days, longer if I make a good enough impression. Now that it all looked sorted out, I put together a reading list for myself and started getting together names of people I wanted to interview: academics, sportswriters, ex-wrestlers and members of the sumo establishment. I also started weightlifting regularly so I wouldn't be crushed too badly during the workouts in the stable.

The exercise program was fairly successful. By the time I finished, I could bench an almost respectable amount of weight and a few people even remarked that I was looking more toned.

The reportorial preparations, however, were unfortunately not quite as successful. Right after I learned that Hanaregoma was going to let me hang around, I was hit with a tidal wave of schoolwork and teaching responsibilities that kept me away from the sumo project. I managed to read a couple books and a few articles, but that's about it. I'll be catching up in the stable, and hope that the wrestlers, whom I'll move in with tomorrow, don't think I'm a dork for spending all my free time reading.

This is all to say that I'm woefully underprepared for what I'm about to do: report an intelligent first-person account of life among sumo wrestlers that doesn't read like a "what I did during my winter vacation" essay and truly sheds light not just on the sumo world, but on Japan itself as well.

I'm not saying that I'm embedding with sumo wrestlers in order to come out with an account of "the true Japan." The perceived close association between sumo wrestling and traditional Japanese-ness notwithstanding, I don't think that sumo represents any "true Japan," far from it, in fact. According to the most convincing scholarship I've read on the subject, what we know as sumo today is a late 17th-century confection, created when fight promoters dressed prize-fighting up with religious trappings in order to make it palatable to Japan's martial government at the time. Sure, 300 years is a pretty long time, but its nothing compared to the millennia-long history given to sumo by those who see it as an embodiment of the Japanese spirit.

On the other hand, though, this centuries-long project of legitimizing sumo has been so successful that now, people really do consider the sport to be an embodiment of Japanese culture. And looking out at Japan from an institution with which it has entrusted its national spirit is bound to be enlightening.

These are issues I hope to return to, and definitely want to address in my final piece. For now, though, stay tuned for reports on what life is like among sumo wrestlers. And please, everyone, email me with questions, comments, criticisms, whatever:

NEXT: The Oyakata, the Kashira and Iki