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The Mawashi

Early morning in the sumo stable has an enchanted air. Nobody speaks, though they mumble to themselves and breath heavily, drifting through the hallways in their light robes and silently binding their wounds from the previous day with white bandages. It was a mood I was reluctant to break Monday morning, but didn't know how else to get myself ready for the ring. Finally, Hiroki saw me looking lost in the hallway by the bathroom and asked me what was up.

"The Oyakata said I could give it a shot today," I said.

"So you're putting on a mawashi?" he asked.

"Yeah, if that's alright," I said.

He pulled a mawashi—a long, broad strip of thick gray canvas, folded lengthwise—from the pile atop the nearby shelf and told me to get undressed, which I did. To put on the mawashi, I had to straddle it, holding one end under my chin and forming the section between my legs into a sort of athletic cup. Then I spun around as Hiroki wound the remaining length of canvas around my waist like a belt. Right before one of the final twirls, Hiroki showed me how to tuck the part of the mawashi I still held under my chin into the belt, so it could be unfastened for bathroom visits. Finally, when all of the mawashi had been wound around my waist, he tucked it into itself behind me. The mawashi only has to orbit the waists of most of the wrestlers here a few times before it's expended itself. I, though, had to keep twirling around until the mawashi had almost layered itself into a course canvas tutu.

In the mawashi, I followed Hiroki onto the earthen practice floor, which was chilly under my bare feet. Hiroki told me to hang out off to the side until someone had time to instruct me, but Murayoshi, the roommate whom I'd seen sleeping with an inhaler, had me jump into the line of wrestlers doing the squat-sideways kick exercise, the shiko.

It was harder than it looked. I had to keep my hands on my knees with my thumbs facing forward and elbows back during the squat; I had to keep my feet placed under my shoulders; my kicks had go straight out, with unbent knees. And before each squat-kick combo, I had to slap myself noisily on the thigh.

Each wrestler counted out ten repetitions, making for about 150 in total: a solid leg workout. Then we kneeled on our right legs while we stretched out our left legs, switched to the reverse position, and repeated the whole exercise a few times. I looked around and saw that all the wrestlers, even the heaviest ones, were sweating less than I was.

Then, following the other wrestlers' leads, I sat my nearly bare ass on the dirt floor and spread my legs as wide as they'd go. We touched our toes, which was especially tough because of all the layers of heavy mawashi digging into my stomach.

Then all the wrestlers leaned forward, bringing their stomachs close to the ground. I couldn't come close to doing that. Murayoshi, seeing my weak performance, pushed my legs farther apart with the ball of his foot and gently pushed on my back, bringing my chest closer to the ground. Suddenly, something in my upper-left inner thigh snapped. I could tell it wasn't anything too serious—no ripped tendon or anything like that—but it was clearly a snap and it hurt. Murayoshi heard it too. He stopped pushing and said something I'm not sure I understood, but sounded like, "You won!"

Then the fighting started, with the lowest-ranked wrestlers taking the ring first as they had on Saturday. Murayoshi told me to keep shiko-ing, like many of the other wrestlers were doing. The motion kept me reasonably warm, despite the fact that I was standing on a dirt floor in an unheated room wearing next to nothing. But once the other wrestlers stopped, I did to, feeling like a schmuck for shiko-ing once the real wrestlers quit.

I didn't stop for long though. Soon the Kashira arrived and motioned for Mitsui, who stood next to me, to tell me to start up again, maybe because he wanted me to stay warm, maybe because that's just what a guy's supposed to do his first time on the practice floor. Either way, I shiko-ed and didn't stop for an hour or more, as terrified that the Kashira would see me standing still as I was on Saturday that he would catch me uncrossing my legs. Mitsui was shiko-ing too, pausing a few times to correct my form.

I must have shiko-ed for an hour or more, until my hips ached and I could barely support myself on one leg while kicking out with the other. When Mitsui stopped, I stopped too, too tired to go on and again feeling foolish for being the only one on the floor doing the exercise.

Standing there in my mawashi, I soon got very, very cold. I suddenly couldn't see the point of point of putting on a loincloth to do a few calisthenics, then wait there in the freezing cold for practice to end. Was this really going to grant me any better an understanding than watching practice from the warmth and comfort of the practice room floor? But, if not, didn't that contradict the whole point of my project?

In the midst of this wave of self-doubt, I managed to watch a little bit of the practice going on in front of me. This day's wrestling was far more brutal than the wrestling I saw on Saturday. The most shocking part was how gentle these guys had been outside of the ring, virtually doting on me to make sure I didn't go hungry or unbathed.

Only moments ago, Murayoshi was asking me whether I needed a bathroom break, afraid I might neglect to take one because I didn’t know how to unfasten my mawashi. Now he was in the ring with Hiroki, tearing the poor guy to pieces. Hiroki was already in pretty bad shape: his left knee and right thigh were bleeding. But he kept jumping back into the ring with Murayoshi, who was far surpassing the simple cruelty it took to win the matches. On more than one occasion, he'd toss Hiroki out of the ring, then reach out to land a gratuitous slap on his cheek on his way out. Once he even dropped Hiroki on the ground, then kicked him in the back.

Muriyasu was even more brutal. During a Zamboni session, which are really called butsukarigeiko matches, he was challenging Batto to push him out of the ring, but Batto wasn't able to move him more than a few feet at a time. Muriyasu shouted at him cruelly, "Faster! You're slow!"

All the Zamboni session's I'd seen up the this point were followed by a play-acted match, where the always lower-ranked pusher lets the higher ranked pushed lead him around the ring by the neck. Then the pusher lets himself be thrown to the ground where he theatrically tumbles back up to his feet.

But these weren't play acted. Muriyasu was genuinely pulling Batto around by his neck and his hair, and throwing him down with violence. And instead of cheerfully tumbling to his feet, Batto would roll over on the ground with his dwindling strength and, wheezing and moaning with tears in his eyes, try and fail to push Muriyasu out of the ring once again. He was covered from head to toe in dirt from the ground sticking to his sweaty body, with thick droplets of blood showing through on his knee.

When most of the matches were finished, the Sekitori, having fought two of his immediate inferiors and left them to fight among themselves, walked by me and asked if I was ready to fight. I lifted my arms and waved toward myself in the international signal that means, "Bring it on."

"You'll fight him," he said, pointing to Hayeshida, who was walking right behind him.

"But he's gay," added the Sekitori.

"Okay, I'll keep that in mind," I said.

But I wound up facing off against Hiroki instead. First they tried to have me Zamboni him. He stood himself in the center of the ring and waited for me to charge him from its edge. As instructed, I started from a squat at the edge of the ring with my fists on the ground before me and thrust myself at him, meeting his chest with my open palms.

He didn't budge.

The Sekitori told me I had to collide into his chest with my head and Hiroki pointed to the spot below his right shoulder where the impact should occur. I charged again, and this time he slid an inch or two. But the Sekitori told me I'd charged incorrectly again. I was supposed to approach him without lifting my feet off the ground.

For my final charge, I shuffled my way toward Hirkoki, never stepping off the ground, and met his chest with my palms and head. Again, he moved about an inch.

Next we really wrestled. We faced off from across the center of the ring, squatting with our wrists on the ground, and he met my charge gently and grabbed onto my mawashi. I scrambled to get him into some sort of hold, but the Sekitori called out, "Grab his mawashi."

Pulling him by his mawashi, I somehow got him near the edge of the ring and the Sekitori shouted, "Push!" But it was no use. I couldn't move Hiroki, who towered over me and weighed almost 290 pounds. He pushed me instead and soon we were on the opposite side of the ring, with me about to be pushed out. Somehow, though, I managed to stay in the ring my getting a toehold between the ring and the buried bales of straw that marked its border. Before he could lift me up and toss me out, though, the Sekitori ended the match.

The training session ended with us all standing in a circle, doing a few hundred squats, all painful after my hours of shiko-ing. Then we did pushups and a quiet breathing exercise and the session was over.

Someone brought me a robe. The Sekitori told me to sit in front of the heater. I clearly wasn't being treated like a normal new recruit.

After practice, I bathed and ate and went up to my encampment, again planning to type up some notes and again sleeping soundly for several hours instead. When I woke up, Murayoshi told me that the Kashira was taking us out for Korean barbecue. When it was time to go, Murayoshi, Ishikawa and I took off on bicycles, riding through quiet residential streets and train-station-side shopping districts until we reached the restaurant. My legs were already sore from all the shiko-ing I'd done.

The Kashira arrived with his quiet, but good-humored 13-year-old daughter, who read a C.S. Lewis book translated into Japanese at the table when she wasn't eating. The Kashira wanted her to speak English, and was trying to communicate with me by using her as a translator, but her English wasn't really up to the task and she wasn't into the idea anyway.

The Kashira ordered a mess of food, including an order of boiled pigs feet, a bowl of rice soup and a salad, which he ate all by himself. For the table he ordered several large plates of marinated beef slices that we broiled on little charcoal grills set into the table. We also barbecued ourselves a few orders of beef tongue, which were very good swished in fresh lemon juice, and an enormous tray of stomach and intestine pieces, which were chewy and tasted like halitosis. We had a few little plates of beef liver sashimi, eaten raw dipped in sesame oil too, which were surprisingly palatable.

When we got back to the stable, Hiroki, who'd seen me scribbling in my notebook before, joked, "Now he's going to write in his diary, 'Today, the Kashira took me out for Korean barbecue. It was very good.'" Which is exactly what I did.

NEXT: The Day After Shiko