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Chanko Nabe

Last Tuesday, I didn't practice with the sumo wrestlers because my legs hurt from my workout with them the day before. On Wednesday, the wrestlers remade the dohyo instead of practicing, and on Thursday they had the day off to process the banzuke. So by Thursday night, with most of the pain having left my legs, I was eager to get back in the ring when practice resumed the following morning. I told Tatsuya so.

"I don't think you can," he said, which surprised me. He, like everyone else, had been so indulgent toward me up until then, letting me participate in nearly all the stable's activities.

But it turned out that the banzuke's arrival that day had marked the beginning of a new phase of stable life. Now that everyone knew where he stood, it was time for practice for the January tournament to begin in earnest. Wrestlers from other stables were going to be joining practice. I'd just be in the way, Tatsuya said.

In all truth, I recognized by this point that my stated mission going into the project of "training for a week or so to be a sumo wrestler" wasn't really going to be accomplished. Lots of guys join the stable not knowing how to do sumo; but everyone who enters the stable, I found out, spends the first six months of his residency going to sumo school at the headquarters in Ryogoku, which is where he learns the fundamentals. Practice at the stable consisted entirely of fast and furious one-on-one matches, with some instruction shouted into the ring by senior wrestlers, the Kashira and the Oyakata. I could never hope to meaningfully participate in that.

But I still hoped that the rest of the group didn't share Tatsuya's reluctance to have me train along with them, and that they'd let me tie on a mawashi in the morning and join them. I'd come to participate in sumo life, which revolves around these practice sessions. So I was determined to join in again, even if it just meant spending another long morning shiko-ing my way to warmth on the dohyo's earthen floor.

On Friday morning, I woke up when I heard the wrestlers moving around the room. Murayoshi was rolling up his futon in the dark.

"Can I train with you guys today?" I asked him.

"I'm not sure," he said. "But it's early," he added, intimating that I ought to go back to sleep. I dug out my watch from the heap of clothing, books and wires next to my futon and saw that it was only 4:30. So I crawled back into bed.

The next thing I knew, Moriyasu was talking to me. "Jacob," he said, "It's 7 o'clock." I popped out of bed, just as Murayoshi was walking in wearing a mawashi.

Seeing me, he said, "That's right, you wanted to put on a mawashi."

"Can I?" I asked.

"I guess you could," he hedged. "But there are a lot of people down there. There's really no space for you.

"The Kashira's down there now," he continued. "Why don't you go down and greet him."—the Oyakata, Kashira, Sekitori, and Tokoyama all must be greeted respectfully the first time one meets them each day—"Sit down and watch the practice and then we'll see."

I went downstairs and, greeting the Kashira, saw that there were, it seemed, twice as many wrestlers on the practice floor as usual. So I resigned myself to watching—rather than participating in—practice that morning. Soon the other two stables' oyakata arrived, entering within 15 minutes of each other through the door that leads from outside directly onto the practice floor. They each took a seat on the cushions that waited for them on the opposite side of the ledge from the Kashira.

One was a heavy man with short hair fading to stubble over his ears and neck. He looked like he belonged to the same organized crime syndicate as the Kashira. The other was tall and thin with gray-flecked hair, stylish in black Adidas track pants and a black warm-up jacket. He could have passed for a European soccer coach.

I later found out that these oyakata had once wrestled here under the Oyakata. They and their wrestlers come here to practice—instead of the wrestlers here going to them—out of deference to the Oyakata. One of the stables was way across town and its wrestlers had to wake up at 3 a.m. and take an hour-long bike ride to get here for practice.

The other stables' wrestlers were, on average, smaller and skinnier than our guys. One was really lean; barely anything distinguished him as a sumo wrestler at all, other than his substantial thighs and hips that let one know he'd been doing his shikos. By his hair—not yet long enough to remain in a neat topknot—it was clear that he hadn't been at the sport for long. Yet he beat a string of our wrestlers in quick succession. Even Torii, one of our very biggest wrestlers, had to struggle against this little guy to stay in the ring, and even lost to him a couple times.

After watching for a little while, though, my crossed legs started feeling stiff and I was having trouble focusing on the wrestling that I'd seen so much of lately, so I decided to see what was going on in the kitchen. I'd been wanting to see how sumo wrestlers' famous chanko nabe gets made.

I knew Takasaki would be in the kitchen by that point. Takasaki leaves the practice floor after warming up and getting in a few light tussles to start preparing lunch. He hasn't participated in a full workout for about a year and a half because of a shoulder injury that consigned him to being the stable's head chef. He's a squat, broad wrestler with a pinkish complexion, whose upper breast looked permanently bruised from absorbing head-on charges in the ring.

When I walked into the kitchen, Takasaki was cutting a chicken to pieces with a long, flat knife, with dirt from the practice floor still covering his back. Raw chicken slime splashed onto his mawashi—the only thing he wore—as he scraped everything even remotely edible off the carcass: fat, cartilage, tiny scraps of meat sticking to the bones. He piled it all into a colander he had in the sink.

Torifumi, the wrestler whom the Sekitori calls "Gu-Rauns," was in the kitchen too, grilling whole hokke—a kind of mackerel—that had been splayed out into enjoining halves. He left the grill for a moment to pour some sake into the two huge pots of water boiling over massive standalone burners that sat on a stainless steel table. Takasaki came over with the colander of chicken pieces and used a ladle to divide them between the two pots. One clumsy ladleful splashed boiling water onto Torifumi's bare thigh. "Och," he yelped.

The two had clearly been hard at work for a while. On the table opposite the burners, there was a colanders filled with chopped vegetables: carrots, a kind of long radish called daikon, onions. There was an enormous colander of cut cabbage, and another with spinach and mushrooms—brownish shitakes and long, thin bunches of enokis. Another bowl was filled with leaks cut into two-inch segments.

Side dishes had been prepared and set aside too. There were two bowls of natto—slimy fermented soybeans that smell like feet and have the texture of snot—mixed with cut scallions. And there were four small plates of raw squid cut into strips and sitting in its own pink goop.

Takasaki remained by the pots, skimming off chicken fat as it rose to the surface, with the mighty burners' wild flames dangerously close, I thought, to the wisps of pubic hair peaking out from his mawashi.

"Are you copying down the recipe?" he asked, seeing me scribbling in my notebook.

"Sure," I answered. "It's chanko nabe."

By this time a few other wrestlers had piled into the kitchen, presumably to seek shelter from the cold practice room. Torii sat on the step leading up to the common room. A flabby, balding wrestler from another stable sat on a towel on the dirty floor, looking in his topknot like an obese version of the buffoonish villager who enlists the Seven Samurai's help in the Kurosawa movie. Batto and Saita gathered near the warmth of boiling pots, covered in ring dirt. Even the Tokoyama—the sumo hair dresser—was there: he'd asked me if I minded if he smoked, then lit a Seven Stars and started blowing smoke rings across the kitchen.

They all laughed at me when I said, "It's chanko nabe."

"There is no dish called 'chanko nabe,'" Takasaki informed me, authoritatively contradicting countless Japanese friends who described the dish as a kind of carnivore's delight: a rich stew of beef, pork, fish and chicken, with a few chunks of tofu and some vegetables thrown in for good measure. I'd even read about the dish in books about sumo, and seen recipes for it. I'd seen—though had never eaten at—chanko nabe restaurants in Tokyo, which I'd heard were run by retired sumo wrestlers.

Yet, in the week I'd already been living at the stable, I never encountered this dish. Sure, the centerpiece of every afternoon's lunch was a nabe (pronounced nah-bay)—a kind of Japanese stew, usually kept simmering at the table, where fresh ingredients are continuously added. But there was rarely more than one kind of meat in it, and every day's base was different. Sometimes it was miso, sometimes soy sauce, sometimes it just tasted like chicken broth.

Still, I assumed that there was something about these nabe that made them "chanko," some special preparation or particular ingredient. But I was wrong.

"'Chanko nabe' is a nabe that's made by sumo wrestlers," Takasaki explained, as he continued skimming the chicken fat. "Anything that sumo wrestlers cook is called 'chanko'"

Next he shoveled a few little plastic scoops of salt into each of the pots, then a few scoops of black pepper. He poured in some mirin—a kind of sweetened cooking wine—and some spicy kim-chi soup base. Then he sprinkled in what I thought was sugar, but was again mistaken.

"No, it's Ajinomoto," said Takasaki, using the brand name by which MSG is known in Japan.

"Magic powder," added Saita.

Takasaki kept working on the nabe, little by little adding more salt, pepper, mirin and kim-chi base, before tasting the broth and sprinkling in another round of seasoning. When he had the broth where he wanted it, he dumped in the colanders of daikon, carrots, and leaks, dividing each between the two pots.

Waiting for them to boil, he gave Torifumi—who was still grilling hokke—an affectionate pat on his bare, round belly.

Then he added the shitake mushrooms. The rest of the ingredients—the enoki mushrooms and spinach—would be added once the nabe was set up on a burner in the common room, he said.

By this time practice had ended and the wrestlers crowded into the kitchen, picking at whatever little morsels they could lay their hands on. Murayoshi tried a tablespoon of the nabe broth and exclaimed, "This has no flavor," and poured in a few more hits of kim-chi base. Kitamura undid his topknot and stuck his head under the sink to rinse out his hair. I saw Moriyasu filch a loaf of unsliced white bread that I knew he'd take up to his room to toast; after 13 years in the stable, he couldn't stomach the chanko fare anymore, so he ate bread after practice to tide himself over until he could make it out to a restaurant.

Takasaki was still stirring the nabe. Saita lodged a finger into his armpit.

"Here's the secret ingredient of chanko nabe," Saita said. "Sumo sweat."

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