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Man-Faced Dog

Sunday was the stable's day off; no morning training. None of my roommates were around when I went to bed the previous night, and when I awoke, all but Moriyasu—who still hadn't come home—were fast asleep.

Downstairs, a handful of wrestlers were lounging around the common room in front of the television. Mitsui, a quiet, serious guy who wore glasses, sat against the wall, reading a comic book. Two other wrestlers lay side-by-side against each other—almost snuggling—each fiddling with a cell phone. The Takemura brothers, Tatsuya and Hiroki, were polishing off a stack of Egg McMuffins and a few cartons of McNuggets while they waited for lunch. Batto was setting up a clothesline in the practice area, where he hung up the Sekitori's kesho-mawashi to air out.

Kesho-mawashi are ceremonial mawashi with aprons that highly ranked wrestlers wear at tournaments. They're handmade silk creations that cost thousands of dollars and are provided by a wrestler's patrons or support group. The one kesho-mawashi that Batto had hung facing the common room where I could see it had an image embroidered into it that looked like the Bob's Big Boy mascot holding a hammer. The Sekitori's wrestling name, Ishide, was embroidered on the right side.

I asked Hiroki what wrestlers get up to on their day off. "We sleep, clean, relax…stuff like that," he said.

Since I had slept plenty over the past couple days, aided no doubt by the apparent absence of coffee in the stable, and knew that no one here would let me clean, even if I insisted on it, I decided to get lost for the afternoon. I could use some fresh air, having barely left the stable since I got there. So after lunch, I took the train across town to Shibuya, where I had a much-needed cup of coffee and caught up on some emails at a café with wireless Internet service.

I would have liked to grab dinner out—maybe Indian food or pizza, something that would never show up on the stable's menu. But I didn't know when the wrestlers were expecting me back and worried that staying away for too long might be perceived as a slight. So I made my way back, boarding the train this time at Harajuku station, where I waded through the Sunday afternoon crowd of rockers and Goths and slutty Bo-Peeps and foreigners lining up to take their pictures.

Dinner at the stable, it turned out, was a pleasant surprise: scallops broiled in their shells, with a few side dishes. After eating and once again having my offers to help out with dishes rebuffed, I went up to my room to type up some notes.

Soon after I started working, Tatsuya came in and said it was teatime. I followed him downstairs, where we passed the Sekitori in the hall entering the bathroom with Batto, who presumably was going to bathe him.

I assumed that teatime was a vacation-day tradition and expected to see a roomful of wrestlers enjoying cups of tea in the common room. Instead I was handed a cup of coffee and a doughnut and told to sit on the floor. Apparently it was only teatime for me. One paranoid explanation for my teatime is that they were hoping I'd drink a cup of coffee, stay up all night and sleep through practice the next morning, thereby saving themselves the trouble and embarrassment of dressing me up in a mawashi and having me in the dohyo with them. But in all actuality, they probably just thought giving me a cup of coffee and a doughnut would be a nice gesture, which it was.

I sat with my coffee and my doughnut, watching a television program about special agents who investigate the truth of urban legends. In this episode, they were checking the veracity of the story about the lady who microwaved her cat and finding out whether burnt food really causes cancer. Suddenly, the Sekitori came in with a yellow towel around his waist, followed by Batto who had his own boxers hiked up into something resembling a g-string.

Everyone stood up when the Sekitori walked in. I looked up at Ishikawa, the wrestler Batto had called an Iraqi. Ishikawa shook his head slightly, signaling that I didn't have to get up. The Sekitori handed Mitsui a stack of coupons, then stood in front of the heater, changing from his towel into a pair of boxer shorts. Another wrestler, a tall, almost square-jawed guy with a bald spot near the front of his head named Matsunaga, wandered between me and the television. The Sekitori noticed this. "Get out of his way," the Sekitori barked.

Later, the Sekitori was sitting next to Mitsui, and I thought I heard them discussing how much of the television program they thought I could understand. It turned out I was right.

"About how much of this show are you getting?" the Sekitori asked me.

"About 60 percent," I answered.

He punched Mitsui. "I told you he doesn't understand it all," he said. Then he pointed to Mitsui and said to me, "He only understands 40 percent," and everyone in the room laughed. Next he pointed to Kitamura, who was drying the Sekitori's towel in front of the heater. "He only understands 15 percent," he said.

After the laughter died down, he remained next to Mitsui for a few moments before standing up to put Fuchita in a headlock until Fuchita started coughing and gagging, his face red. When he let go, Fuchita continued to wheeze.

By now the television program had moved to a segment about the man-faced dog, apparently a well-known urban legend in Japan. The camera zoomed in on the face of a mummified man-faced dog, which was revealed to be a hoax. The Sekitori pointed at Kitamura's face, indicating a perceived resemblance to the man-faced dog's long mien. Kitamura wasn't paying attention, so everyone chuckled quietly until Kitamura looked up to find himself the butt of another of the Sekitori's jokes.

Then the room burst once again into raucous laughter.

NEXT: The Mawashi