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I woke up on Saturday around six in the morning, as the wrestlers in the room were slowly getting themselves out of bed and preparing for practice. The hulk in the futon across the room from my own, Saita, had rolled up his bedding and was sitting on the floor in the dark, bandaging his wrists and ankles.

After he left, I got up and went downstairs. I ran into Batto in the hallway. He was wearing a mawashi and motioned for me to go into the common room. Adjacent to the common room, was a dirt -floored practice area of almost the same size. It was situated below the common room, so the edge of the common room's floor that faced it formed a ledge. At the center of the ledge sat an empty cushion with a clean ashtray on one side and a sports news daily on the other, awaiting, I correctly guessed, the Oyakata.

There was a circular ring, the dohyo, in the center of the practice area, demarcated with half-sunken narrow bales of hay.

So far, I hadn't seen anyone in the practice area, just a big mound of dirt with a design cut from white paper—which I later learned was a religious icon—stuck into the top.

Now the mound was gone and the wrestlers stood there in rows. One took a turn counting to ten and, as each number was called, the wrestlers slapped one of their thighs, lifted a leg sideways, stamped it down, and squatted. The leg lifts didn't occur in unison, but in a sort of lazy syncopation.

They all wore matching gray mawashi, and about half had their feet or hands or shoulders bandaged. They were all big, of course, but not uniformly so. Some had enormous, round fatty stomachs, giant droopy breasts and grotesque folds of fat pouring out from the legs of their mawashi. But the musculature on even the fattest was readily apparent. When they stamped down, their loose flesh was pressed against their bodies and their rippled muscles showed through.

After their leg stretches, they formed what looked like a congo line and marched around the perimeter of the dohyo. Then one wrestler grabbed a broom and swept out the ring, while another drizzled water over it with a sky-blue plastic flowerpot.

Two wrestlers took their places facing each other in the ring, then charged at each other and, after a brief scuffle, one was thrown from the ring. These bouts continued in rapid succession, a new challenger jumping into the ring as soon as the last was tossed out or, less frequently, thrown to the ground.

The initial charges resulted in brutal collisions. A few knocked heads in the ring, and you could hear their skulls hitting. Another wrestler, after absorbing a number of charges on his shoulder, started bleeding at the point of repeated contact. And judging by the welts and bruises and cuts and bandages on the practice floor, this was apparently a gentle morning.

Soon after the actual wrestling began, the Kashira walked in through a door that led directly from outside onto the practice floor. He took off his shoes and the light jacket he wore over a pink oxford shirt, which Kitamura collected from him and brought into the stable. Shortly after that, the Yobidashi walked into the common room, in his Scorpion Boy shirt and checkered track pants, and sat down close behind me. The Kashira waved him over and whispered something into his ear, apparently an instruction to tell me not to sit with my legs outstretched like I'd been doing. I had to sit with my legs crossed, the Yobodashi told me. A day and a half after sitting with crossed legs for the entire four hour practice, my knees and thighs still ached.

About an hour after the wrestling started, the Sekitori entered wearing a white mawashi. All the wrestlers greeted him deferentially and nodded slightly as he made his way to the faucet in the opposite corner of the training floor, where he stood gargling mouthfuls of water. Although the most accomplished wrestler in the room, he was hardly the biggest. His arms and legs were lean and knotty with muscles and his stomach was round and solid, like a polished stone. He remained in the corner of the practice floor, doing squats and leg lifts.

Finally, about two hours after the practice had begun, the Oyakata came down the steps leading from the main entranceway to his apartment. He sat on the cushion that waited for him and lit a Mild Seven. After a bit, he leaned into me and whispered, "Do you need breakfast?" I motioned that I was alright, although I was hungry and my aching need for coffee was growing by the moment.

The Oyakata and Kashira remained in their places on the ledge, sometimes shouting criticisms at wrestlers who lost matches. The matches continued one after another, with wrestlers of close rank racing to get in the ring with the latest victor, staring him down for a heartbeat, then colliding in the middle of the ring. After every few dozen matches, a wrestler would stand inside the ring near its edge and let another wrestler charge him. He'd allow himself to be pushed across the ring without lifting his feet, scraping away the dirt on the ring's surface like a human Zamboni. Then these two wrestlers would play act a quick match, with the one who had served as the Zamboni letting himself be thrown to the ground, where he'd do a summersault and jump up onto his feet.

After several rounds of this, with most of the wrestlers who'd fought in the last set of matches having had a chance to push or be pushed, the dohyo would be swept and watered again, then a new set of matches would start back up with more highly ranked wrestlers competing.

In the last set of matches, Kitamura and an absolute giant named Nakahara took turns going up against the Sekitori. As soon as the Sekitori entered the ring, three younger wrestlers—Batto, the Mongolian; a big guy named Fuchita; and relatively small, young-looking guy named Hayeshida—lined up at the rear of the dohyo, holding, respectively a towel, a bowl of salt, and a broom. The Sekitori took a few handfuls of salt and rubbed them into his arms, legs, and mouth, then sprinkled some onto the dohyo. Then he faced off against Kitamura.

Kitamura was easily the skinniest wrestler, speaking, of course, in relative terms. He had a broad chiseled chest and, a real rarity here, clearly defined stomach muscles. His full bulk was enough so that he didn't quite look out of place amid the other wrestlers, but nearly all of the bulk was muscle.

Yet, he was no match for the bigger but flabbier Sekitori, who forced him out of the ring with ease match after match. It was rare that the Sekitori came close to being pushed from the ring himself, but when he was, he could usually spin his opponent around, tossing him out instead.

One of the few times he was thrust from the ring was when the much taller and fatter Nakahara trapped him in a bear hug on the edge of the ring and, using his massive stomach as a lever, picked the Sekitori up off his feet and deposited him outside boundaries.

Much more often, though, the Sekitori won. He was a master at letting his opponent use his own force to thrust himself from the ring. When charged, he'd often step out of the way at the last moment, grab his opponent by the mawashi, and guide him from the ring under his own inertia.

Once, grappling with Nakahara, he started trash talking into his hear. "What are you going to do?" he was saying, "What are you going to do?" as, nearly enveloped in the giant's flesh, he danced him around the ring before stepping to the side and letting him simply collapse.

When this round of matches was over, the dohyo descended into a Zamboni free-for-all, with wrestlers pushing each other across the ring one after another. Kitamura and Nakahara each in turn ceremoniously offered the Sekitori a ladle of water from a bucket by the faucet, which he refused. The wrestlers were covered in sweat, their hair falling out of their top-knots. Many had their backs entirely covered with dirt from the dohyo floor, which had stuck to them when they were tossed on the ground.

Meanwhile, I was starting to worry. I suddenly couldn't figure out what was going on in my head when I thought I'd be able to train along with these guys. Maybe I assumed they'd do a few rounds of calisthenics, drill some moves like in judo school, and go at each other in a couple refined, low-impact matches.

But I was way off. Here's how they really train: They collide into each other with the force of two locomotives, then push, shove, trip and nipple-twist each other into submission. There was nothing incremental about it: you just jump in the ring and go at it. And I realized that getting into the ring with any of these guys would be like me riding me scooter into a head-on collision with an SUV. I'd be crushed, literally.

Maybe that was alright, though, I started rationalizing. I could still hang out, watch what's going on, talk to people as much as I could. I didn’t have to get in the dohyo to wring a masters' project out of this experience.

Then, as the wrestlers toweled themselves off and started giving the dohyo a final sweeping, the Oyakata leaned into me again. "So, you want to give it a try?" he asked.

I got the idea that his preferred answer, and now mine too, was a "No." So I tried to back out as gracefully as I could.

"Well, you know, I would like to," I said. "But I really don't know how it's done?"

Surprisingly, though, he didn't mean to let it go at that. "Of course not," he said. "But someone can teach you, a little at a time. And if there's something you don't want to do, you don't have to."

And just like that, I was back in the game. On Monday (the next day, Sunday, was their day off) I would begin my sumo training.

In the meantime, Batto had started sweeping the dirt in the dohyo back into a mound in the center of the ring, like I'd seen it before, while a few wrestlers stood around talking to the Sekitori. In the common room, the sumo hairdresser, the "tokoyama," who'd arrived and started setting up during the final matches, was working fragrant oil into a wrestler's hair and tying it into a topknot. The tokoyama—his name is Tokokado—used to live in the stable, but left when he got married and now comes by at the end of the practice sessions.

I was on my way out of the room, when the Sekitori called out to me, pointing to Hayeshida. "Hey, he's gay," he said. Everyone laughed. I got the idea that when the Sekitori told a joke or tossed an insult, everyone always laughed.

"Really?" I asked innocently. I didn't know what to say. I didn't want it to be complicit in the Sekitori's bullying by laughing myself, but couldn't just ignore him.

But the Sekitori laughed at my reply, and so, consequently, did everyone else. It emboldened the Sekitori to keep the joke going. "He's gay too," he said, pointing to Kitamura, eliciting further laughter. "He's bisexual."

"Oh," I said, leaving the room.

I went up to the room where I'm staying, where Moriyasu, who's encampment was next to mine, was playing with his cell phone and listening to Missy Elliot. Moriyasu joined the stable 13 years ago when he was 15. His current rank is makushita, the highest rank in the lower wakaishu division and one just step under the Sekitori, who, as a juryo, is in the lowest rank of the sekitori division.

After waiting for the Sekitori to finish his own bath, Moriyasu went to bathe himself and suggested I join him. I was beginning to think that the wrestlers here seemed overly eager to bathe with me, but finally settled on the explanation that they wanted to make sure I knew how to take a Japanese style bath, where you scrub yourself clean before soaking in the tub. Two more wrestlers—enormous ones—joined us in the shower room.

I wish I could say something clever about the experience of bathing alongside three sudsy sumo, but it was surprisingly mundane.

Anyway, once we'd bathed Moriyasu said I should greet the Oyakata. I didn't understand why, since I'd just spoken to the Oyakata during the practice, but he shuffled me up the steps and instructed me to say "Otsukarisan degozaimasu," a sumo-inflected version of another common greeting that signifies an appreciation for ones hard work. We filed up the steps to the Oyakata's apartment, past his wife sitting at the kitchen table and through to the office at the end of the hall, where the Oyakata sat at his desk.

"Otsukarisan degozaimasu," I said, as Moriyasu pulled my hands from my pockets, where I had absent-mindedly and rudely shoved them while addressing the Oyakata. When the Oyakata dismissed me, Moriyasu pulled me from his office and hustled me down the hall, reprimanding me with a motherly, "Keep your hands out of your pockets when you're talking to the Oyakata."

Back down in the common room, the Sekitori was eating lunch, seated alone on the floor. Hayeshida, Fuchita and Batto stood before him on the other side of the table, ladling him his chanko nabe and pouring him chilled oolong tea in their loincloths like ancient Grecian boy-slaves.

In a further expression of my ambiguous status within this highly stratified world, Moriyasu told me I should start eating, right there with the Sekitori, who I thought always ate first and always ate alone. I sat down beside him, and Fuchita ladled me a bowl of chanko nabe. Then the Sekitori barked at him to pour me a class of iced tea: this was the first and only time that I've been served a beverage with a meal here.

As we ate wrestlers filed by on their way upstairs to greet the Oyakata themselves. I realized that this was something everyone does everyday once they've bathed after the morning practice session. One wrestler was on his way through the room, when the Sekitori said to me, "His name is 'Gu-Rauns."

I believed him, although everyone was laughing again, including the wrestler he was talking about. "Okay," I answered.

"He's from Yamaguchi," continued the Sekitori, accounting for the laughter. "'Gu-Rauns' means 'asshole' in the Yamaguchi dialect. That's why his name is 'Gu-Rauns."

"Oh, really?" I said, searching again for an answer that wouldn't make me complicit. "It sounds French." Then I said "Gu-Rauns" a couple times with an exaggerated French accent.

"French, huh?" said the Sekitori, as the wrestler from Yamaguchi continued upstairs. "That makes it sound kind of cool."

This nabe was much better than the previous day's: it consisted of chicken pieces in a clear broth with cabbage, mushrooms and carrots. The side dishes—slabs of fish cake in a mild chili sauce and little grilled yellowtail steaks—were also more palatable. But I was having trouble enjoying it in the presence of the Sekitori and his boy-slaves, so I was glad when he announced, "I'm stuffed," and left for his own quarters.

I finished my own meal and went upstairs to my own encampment, intending to kill time until everyone had eaten and gone to sleep, so I could sneak out without explanation and plug my computer into a pay phone to check my email. But, not surprisingly for a day without caffeine, I fell asleep myself and dozed for a good couple hours until around dinnertime. After dinner, I watched a Korean soap opera with some of the wrestlers, before going to sleep yet again.

This routine of eating lunch, going to sleep, eating dinner and then sleeping again, is exactly how sumo wrestlers put on weight.

NEXT: Man-Faced Dog