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Afternoon in Ryogoku

Once Usuda and the wrestler he was trailing disappeared down the street, I headed back toward the Kokugikan and ducked into the sumo museum housed on its grounds. It was smaller than I'd expected: just one room, with exhibits lining the walls and a display case running down the middle of the floor.

The museum's exhibits were arranged chronologically, implying a continuum in sumo from the ancient past to the present. The first items were photocopies of early manuscripts of the Kojiki, the eighth-century chronicle that recounts Japan's creation myth, and the Nihon Shoki, which appeared a few years later and contains an account of the country's earliest dynasties. Both were compiled as the Yamato clan was shoring up its dominance over much of central and western Japan; the chronicles contained a narrative that legitimized Yamato control of the imperial court that had emerged based on the Chinese model.

I couldn't read the manuscript pages at the sumo museum, but noticed that lines from them were highlighted. I assumed they were passages that recounted the legendary wrestling matches between the gods of Japanese antiquity that are often cited as the origins of sumo. Nearly every book on sumo that I've encountered starts off with an explanation of these mythical matches as modern sumo's ancient antecedents.

The pages shared the display case with haniwa, grave statues from Japan's third- to sixth-century Kofun period. That era gets its name from the "kofun," or burial mounds, in which Japan's proto-aristocracy was interred, before cremation became customary with the spread of Buddhism. Those burial mounds were surrounded by haniwa, nearly-human-sized clay hollow clay figures.

The haniwa at the sumo museum were apparently supposed to represent wrestlers. Now, I'm no archeologist, but the only thing about them that resembled sumo wrestlers to me was their disproportionately large thighs and hips. And other haniwa I've seen—representing soldiers or women—have the same large thighs and hips.

Then, on the adjacent wall, there was a scroll painting of chubby guys in loincloths about to go at it with a gyoji standing by, which really did look like a sumo match. I could only read enough of the caption to understand that it was being presented as an example of a match from the eight- to twelfth-century Heian era. The caption didn't seem to give the date that the painting was actually created, but in my uninformed opinion as a non-art historian, it did look like it was painted before the Edo period. And I had thought sumo adopted many of the accoutrements of contemporary sumo featured in the painting during Edo.

The next display case had photos of famous wrestlers of the past, old banzuke, Edo-era woodblock prints of sumo matches, and rows of elaborately embroidered kesho-mawashi. The museum's exhibits ended with rows of portraits of each of the 68 wrestlers to have held yokozuna rank over the past four centuries. The first 16 were woodblock prints; the rest mostly photographs, with a few photorealistic paintings mixed in. I only recognized the last few: Akebono; the brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana; the second Hawaiian (born Samoan) yokozuna Musashimaru; and Asashoryu.

In fact, the rank of yokozuna actually didn't exist until the late 19th century, when the designation was first granted to especially talented ozeki-ranked wrestlers. The 15 wrestlers featured on the wall who were active before this time had been awarded the rank posthumously; the first two are legendary fighters, whom most scholars believe never really existed.

After taking a look at these portraits, I left the museum to find a place to eat lunch. Being the center of the sumo universe, Ryogoku is dense with chanko nabe restaurants; a building across from the train station had chanko nabe shops on each of its eight floors, except the fifth, which had on it something called the "Philadelphia Motor City Soul Bar."

But I had already eaten my fill of chanko nabe while in the stable, so I skipped those shops and circled the block adjacent to the train station. I passed a cake shop that was decorated with sumo pictures and purported to sell some kind of sumo snack, and I stopped by a bookstore to buy a magazine featuring the names and statistics of the upcoming tournament's top-ranked wrestlers. Then I popped into a ramen shop—it had a sumo calendar on the wall—and ordered a bowl of noodle soup with a miso broth and chunks of pork and a soft-boiled egg in it.

While I waited, I flipped through the sumo magazine. The big white guy with the pockmarked face, I read, was a Russian who wrestled under the Japanese ring name Roho. The squat guy with the stubble was from Georgia and his ring name was Kokkai, which means "Black Sea."

I also identified the wrestlers that the journalists were interviewing outside the stadium building. The first was Chiyotaikai, one of the two ozeki currently on the banzuke, whom I'd read was in danger of demotion if he did not perform well in this tournament. The one who disappeared down the street with Usuda was Hakuho, a 20-year-old Mongolian wrestler who had been promoted from a lower rank at the most recent tournament and was being portrayed as a rising star of the sumo world.

When I finished my noodles, I stopped by the McDonald's next to the eight-floor chanko emporium—probably the only McDonald's in the world with a banzuke posted to the wall. It had wireless Internet service and I wanted to check my email. Then I sat down in a café to wait for my appointment with the Oyakata.

NEXT: A Chat With the Oyakata