free html hit counter


The Oyakata, the Kashira and Iki

Miki-san, the Yomiuri sports writer who arranged for me to stay in the stable, was going to be out of town yesterday, when the sumo stable expected me to move in, so he had one of his colleagues, Usaoa-san, deliver me. Usaoa met me at Ryogoku station, near the Kokugikan, Tokyo's sumo stadium and headquarters, from which a junior wrestler was supposed to accompany me to the stable.

Usaoa walked me into a cluttered office in the Kokugikan. It looked like any Japanese office, six desks facing each other in a block, paper everywhere, metal shelves and cabinets in '50s hues.

Toward the rear of the office, a man with slicked-back gray hair sat behind a desk wearing a tie that peaked out from his blue monogrammed zippered waist-length jacket. He looked like a company executive, dressed for a photo op on the factory floor. There was a table in front of his desk, where a bulky guy in a crew cut was seated. He looked like a bouncer at a mob-run nightclub in the navy blue, gold-buttoned blazer that hung on his massive frame.

Usaoa had me sit down before the guy at the desk and took a seat behind me, near the goon.

"So, Miki-san says you want to experience life as a rikishi," he said, using the Japanese word for sumo wrestler. "That's fine with me, but I just want to make sureā€¦"

I actually, at that point, didn't know who this guy was. He was sitting at a desk in the Kokugikan, so I assumed he must be some sumo establishment functionary. In fact, he was the Oyakata, the head coach or master, of the sumo stable where I was headed. Maybe Usaoa thought I'd recognize him. Or maybe he told me that's who we were going to see on our way from the train station and I just missed his explanation. I miss a lot in Japanese.

The Oyakata continued: "You know, rikishi wake up very early. Can you wake up that early, before it's even light out?"

"Sure," I answered. That one was easy. I'd only arrived in Japan a couple days earlier and jet lag had me up before dawn as it was.

Next, the Oyakata asked: "You know, rikishi sleep on a futon on the floor, sharing a big room. Can you sleep like that?"

"Okay," I replied. That just sounded like staying at a youth hostel.

"Rikishi only eat twice a day, lunch and dinner," said the Oyakata, "No breakfast. You're probably used to eating three meals. Can you get by on just two?"

This one was tougher than the previous questions, but still, I answered, "Yes, that would be okay." I could go hungry in the morning for a week if I had to. And I did, after all, genuinely want to experience first-hand what life is like for the wrestlers.

"Do you know what rikishi eat?" said the Oyakata, launching into his next challenge. "They eat chanko nabe. Can you eat chanko nabe?"

I'd never tried chanko nabe, but I'd heard plenty about it. It was the hearty, protein-rich staple of any sumo wrestler's diet, a stew thick with beef, pork, fish, chicken, tofu and who knows what all else, boiling away in a dense meaty broth. There are
supposedly few clear career paths open to former sumo wrestlers, who leave the sport with an unwieldy body to contend with. One is to become an Oyakata and start one's own stable, an expensive proposition since one has to pay for a special license to operate a stable. Another is to become a sumo hairdresser. A third is to open a chanko nabe restaurant.

I'd never eaten chanko nabe, and I told the Oyakata so when he asked me if I could stomach it. "But it sounds good," I said, getting him to crack a grin for the first time since I started talking to him.

He continued his litany of things I would have to do if I wanted to live like a sumo wrestler. "Rikishi wear mawashi," he said, referring to the diaper-like loincloths that the wrestlers fight and train in. "Will you wear a mawashi?"

In truth, I didn't really want to wear a mawashi and was pretty sure it wouldn't be very flattering on me. But I wanted the Oyakata the know I was keeping it real, so I answered, in highly imperfect Japanese, "If that's what the wrestlers do, than I will too."

"Okay," he said and told me that the goon would accompany me to the stable. After a final brief exchange with the Oyakata where we discussed how long I'd be staying (it's still up in the air; probably for a week or so) Usaoa and I followed the goon out the door. Walking to the station, the goon introduced himself to me as Kashira. That wasn't his name, it was his title. It's kind of a second-in-command to the Oyakata, it turned out. He later told me that he had been a wrestler until a decade ago. His ring name was Hananokuni.

At the station, Usaoa parted from us, the Kashira bought me a ticket, and we passed through the ticket gate. A sumo wrestler fell behind us, which I figured was probably a pretty normal thing to happen in Ryogoku, traditionally the city's sumo district. But it turned out that he was with our stable; I think he'd come out to accompany us. The Kashira introduced him to me as Kitamura.

Kitamura was a handsome guy with the beginnings of a 5 o'clock shadow and a forward pointing top-knot slicked down on his head. He wore a purple robe and a blue sash with a cell phone tucked into it. He wasn't all that tall, and the robe covered belly that protruded over his sash was not grotesque. It was a healthy, solid gut.

But his ears were disgusting. They were scared and bulbous, swollen into sickly nuggets. I was pretty sure he'd acquired them over the course of his training. In preparation for this project, I'd just read a book about the Hawaiian wrestler Takamiyama, the first non-Japanese rikishi to win a sumo tournament. It explained how Takamiyama got his own cauliflower ears: at the hands of the senior wrestlers in his stable when they thought he was behaving arrogantly. If the Oyakata had said to me, "Rikishi get their ears beaten to a bloody pulp. Are you ready to have your ears beaten to a bloody pulp?" that's where I would have had to draw the line.

But it was too late for thoughts like that. I was already on the train, sandwiched between Kitamura and the Kashira. The Kashira and I made small talk, him quizzing me on what Japanese foods I was capable of eating, until we reached Ogikubo station, the closest stop to the heya.

It was about a ten-minute walk to the stable. Kitamura, who'd gotten off at the previous station for some reason, was already there. Inside a dozen or so wrestlers stood around on the tatami floor. Most were wearing sweat clothes; one, for some reason, stood there in white boxer shorts and nothing else. They all had topknots slicked down onto their heads and they were all huge. It was like I had suddenly entered a world of inflated human beings.

The Kashira withdrew me from that world briefly to take me up the stairs leading directly up from the entry alcove, which in Japanese homes is where visitors shed their shoes. Upstairs was a separate little apartment where the Oyakata and his wife lived. The Kashira introduced me to the Oyakata's wife. A bandage covered an ominous lumpy bruise on her left cheekbone.

Then the Kashira brought be back down to the straw mat room, where each of the wrestlers introduced themselves to me in turn. I didn't remember any of their names but I'll never forget the sensation of standing around so many people so blatantly different in every way from myself. They all towered over me, weighed something like twice as much as me, were all Asian (one of them, it turned out, was Mongolian) and all had the same hair style, one that most people probably know only from the John Belushi sketch.

In Paper Lion, where George Plimpton trains as a rookie with the Detroit Lions and then writes about that experience, he concealed the fact that he was a writer and was able to keep his identity a secret for a little while, until his teammates started wondering why he always walked around with a notebook. But there was no way I was going to pass myself off as belonging here.

After they'd introduced themselves, a couple of the guys led me through a door, down a concrete-floored hall with filthy walls and flanked by pissy smelling bathrooms, and up a flight of steps into one of the shared bedrooms. They showed me the bedding, folded up on the floor that I'd be using and all crawled into their own beds, surrounded by all their stuff. Each had a little encampment, with his own small television, a shelf with toiletries and various odds and ends, compact disks, a statue of a hand giving the finger, girly pictures, booze bottles. Pretty much everything you'd expect to find in the bedroom of a male teen- to twentysomething, just here it all jammed into the space they were allotted in this one big room.

It was now clearly naptime at the stable. Two if the guys in the room fell right to sleep. One played video games on his flatscreen television before dozing off himself. I heard another chatting on the phone under his blankets, then his cell phone beeping as he apparently sent text messages. I started typing up some notes, when the door slid open and a skinny dude in an orange velour jogging suit, blonde highlights and gold jewelry charged in carrying a silver metal briefcase and a cardboard box. He looked at me and said:

"Harry Potter? Are you Harry Potter?"

He asked me if I like sushi, his voice at full volume despite the sleeping wrestlers around me. One rolled over and asked him what time it was. I notice for the first time that he was sleeping with an athsma inhaler.

The orange guy sidled up next to me on top of the futon where I was laying and typing. Then his phone rang. He had a long conversation that I didn't really follow, asking me questions during pauses in his chat.

"You know?" he asked me in English, then pointed to the logo on the box he walked in with. I didn't know.

During another pause he opened up his briefcase and handed me a little photo album, the kind that come free when you get your film developped. There were pictures of him in a bar, drinking with lots of different women, most of them young and very good looking.

"My work," he said. When I paged to a photo of a display case filled with photos of glammed-out Japanese dudes, I thought I understood what he did for a living. He was a bar host. Women paid him to drink with them.

It turns out I was only partially right. When he finished his phone call, I asked him about his job, but this time he pulled out a binder full of product illustrations that he apparently sold as part of some sort of network marketing scam. He started giving me his pitch: one illustration he pointed to demonstrated a chain of sale from makers through distributors and wholesalers to consumers. The next showed an arrow with all the intermediaries cut out.

"Direct to the consumer," he said. He paged through his product guide, slipping in and out of his pitch. I'm not sure what he was selling. It seemed to be some kind of patent medicine for intestinal problems.

In a mixture of English and Japanese, he explained to me that he works as a host at night as a sideline, but his main hustle is his marketing gig.

"I'm very busy," he said. "But I'm rich." Then he tried to crawl under the covers with one of the wrestlers, got up, went outside the bedroom and smoked, came back, pulled bedding out of the closet, and went to sleep.

Somewhere over the course of our conversation, he told me that he had been a wrestler himself 10 years ago. By the look of his cauliflower ears, I could believe it. Now he lives nearby, he said, and drops by the stable to hang out.

Pretty soon, the wrestlers started stirring. Someone came in and started sweeping the floor, so I folded up my bedding to get out of his way and went downstairs, where one guy swept while a couple others ravaged the boxes of chocolates that I'd brought as a souvenir. In the kitchen, huge pots of stew were boiling and three wrestlers were cutting down giant hunks of meat. A foam cooler with two whole fish, each as long as my arm, sat on the floor. I asked if I could help out with anything, but was waved off, so I came back upstairs to write some more. That's where I am now, about to go downstairs to eat.

NEXT: The Sekitori