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The Sekitori

It would be nice to think that sumo wrestlers get fat on fine sashimi and Kobe beef, maybe with a little bit of foie gras thrown in on international night. But it wouldn't be anything close to the truth. The sumo diet is nothing to envy.

I had my first taste of sumo fare Friday evening, a few hours after I got to the stable. As the late afternoon naptime wrapped itself up, the wrestlers trickled downstairs into the main common room. Three round tables were spaced out on the floor. I was told to sit at one, so I sat down at the same table as who I later found out was the Gyoji.

Gyoji are sumo referees. They dress like Heian-era aristocracy in colorful robes and black gauze hats and signal wrestlers' performance in the ring by motioning with the paddles they carry. I expected gyoji to be older men, established members of the sumo establishment. But the Gyoji at the table was a kid; he couldn't have been older than 25 or so (I haven't gotten around to asking him his age yet). He had a short, conservative haircut and wore a long-sleeve pullover and jeans—basically like a normal youngish Japanese guy, except that he, like many Gyoji, lived with wrestlers in the stable he's associated with.

We were joined at the table by the Yobidashi, who, looking even younger, was even more of a surprise. Yobodashi are sumo announcers, who shout out the names of the competitors. This one, who also lived in the stable, looked like a skinny adolescent. He wore dark jeans and a black t-shirt printed with the words "Scorpion Boy."

Both the Gyoji and the Yobidashi ate quickly, and soon left the table. It took me, however a little longer to get through the meal. It consisted of leftover chanko nabe from the afternoon: a sour, murky miso base with bits of bony fish floating in it. Chanko nabe, it turned out, wasn't necessarily the multi-meat soup I had heard about. It's actually made from whatever meat is available, usually just one kind. We also ate salty little cured fish that the bones had to be pulled out of, slabs of dry, fatty cold pork, and potatoes floating in an oily ground beef sauce. At least I think they were potatoes: they might have been chunks of long radish. It was hard to tell, as they had no taste and any recognizable texture had been boiled out of them.

The wrestlers ate heartily, but not as gluttonously as one would expect. They each did polish of a soup bowl of rice, and at least one helping of each of the items on the table. But that really didn't seem like much, considering their bulk.

Once we finished eating, the tables were cleared off and again stacked up against the wall, leaving everyone lounging on the floor, watching television. One of the wrestlers came up to me and said, "Come on. There's one more person for you to meet. He's a sekitori."

The sekitori category includes sumo's highest ranks, from yokozuna grand champion down to the juryo ranking. This stable's lone sekitori, a juryo, lived in a private room up a separate set of stairs from the one leading to the shared room where I'm staying. On our way up the steps, the wrestler accompanying me kept stressing: "Just say, 'My name is Jacob, yoroshiku onegaishimasu," standard words of greeting. One is apparently loathe to go off script when addressing a sekitori.

When we reached the top of the steps, a few wrestlers were standing around near the sekitori's doorway. I walked in and saw the sekitori sitting on the floor of his tiny room in a loosely sashed white robe, a video game control pad at his knees. He had squinty eyes and his hair was falling out of his topknot.

"My name is Jacob, yoroshiku onegaishimasu," I said.

He asked me how old I was and I told him I was 30.

"That's old," he said.

Then he asked me how long I'd be staying. "About a week," I said.

"And are you going to be putting on a mawashi and really fighting?" he asked.

"Maybe," I said. With that he waved me off and the wrestlers standing around shuffled me out of the room. Downstairs, I started chatting with a few of the younger wrestlers. The one non-Japanese wrestler in the stable, a Mongolian named Batto, kept saying that another wrestler, a dark-complexioned Japanese guy, was Iraqi.

"Look, he's Iraqi, and Arab," Batto kept repeating. "His father's brother is Osama bin Laden."

"Your Mongolian jokes aren't funny," shot back the target of Batto's humor.

After a while, another wrestler, Takemura Hiroki (not to be confused with his younger brother Takemura Tatsuya, who also wrestled at the stable), invited me to go to the local sento, the public bath, with him. I went, only a little worried that he might ask me to scrub his back, or worse, as I've been told lowly wrestlers are forced to do for more established ones. But by the other wrestlers' refusal to let me help out with kitchen duties that evening, it was already clear to me that I really wasn't going to be treated like an apprentice wrestler, as the Oyakata said I would. And, besides, coming home with cauliflower ears had long surpassed having to bathe a wrestler as my primary fear.

Tatsuya and I scrubbed our own respective bodies, and tried to chat, but, like lots of the wrestlers here, he had an accent that made him hard to understand. He said he was from a factory town in central Japan with lots of crime (though not as much as in an American city, he pointed out). When he was 16, a teacher in his high school knew the Oyakata and recommended him for the stable, although he'd never wrestled before. So he left school and came to Tokyo.

Back in the stable, I lounged a little longer with the wrestlers in the common room. They watched television, fooled around with their cell phones, played handheld video games. It felt normal and mellow, but I was still acutely aware of the brutality just below the surface—these guys did, after all, fight for a living. Their bruised faces, black eyes and cauliflower ears didn't seem to be bothering them: pain, when all your days are spent training for bouts in the ring, is a fact of life. But the way these guys lived, inflicting pain on each other all morning, then relaxing contentedly in each other's company in the evening, made them seem like members of a weird priesthood of violence, a highly structured street fighters' cooperative.

Soon I saw that some were pulling futons out of the closets in the walls and I understood that the room—which I'd already seen serve as a living room and dining room—was about to become a bedroom too. I went up to the smaller room where I was staying, figuring out by now that I was bunking up with the stable's most highly ranked wrestlers (aside from the sekitori), who, while having little privacy, had far fewer roommates and, more importantly, the ability to accumulate stuff. The less established guys couldn't really own much because they don't have any place to put it. These guys up here have their turf marked off with piles of their things.

No one was in the room when I got there, and the heater was off, so I unfolded my own futon and crawled inside under the blanket to stay warm. I fell asleep right away without intending to and slept soundly all night.

NEXT: Training