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Mawashi Redux

On Saturday, the eve of Christmas day, I was watching television with some younger wrestlers in the common room. On the television, a comedy duo called "99" was taking Nakai, a member of the pop group SMAP, on a tour of Japan, setting him up for a practical joke or placing him in an absurd situation at each stop along the way.

At one point, they brought him to a hot spring, where he sat in an indoor bath as four beautiful women served him hot sake. Then the comedians slipped outside, where you could see that the bathhouse was actually on stilts, with a rubber slide coming out from underneath and ending in a curl. When the counter that had been ticking away at the corner of the screen reached zero, the bottom of Nakai's bath collapsed, washing the pop star down the slide in a torrent of hot water. The curl at the end of the slide tossed him into the air. Once back on the ground, he scuttled to his feet, bewildered.

The wrestlers and I were still laughing at this, and its string of slow-motion replays from different angles, when the Oyakata walked in through the sliding front door that he and a few other distinguished members of the stable's community use. (The wrestlers and I enter and exit through a more modest hinged door set off to the side.)

Everyone in the room stood and greeted the Oyakata, "Otsukarisandegozaimasu," and I followed their lead. He asked the wrestlers to fetch something from his car; Tatsuya and Ishikawa obliged.

Then the Oyakata noticed the plastic bag that Mitsui had just brought back from the convenience store, and which now rested on his futon. "What's this," the Oyakata asked.

"Snacks," Mitsui responded deferentially, and the other wrestlers chuckled under their breaths. The bag was indeed overflowing with goodies: cans of apple juice and grapefruit soda, rice crackers, chocolate bars, yogurt-dipped pretzels.

The Oyakata wrinkled his face with disapproval. "And what's that?" he asked, noticing Mitsui's DVD player, which he stores in its box.

"It's an appliance," responded Mitsui, eliciting giggles all around.

"What kind of appliance?" the Oyakata asked impatiently.

"It's a DVD player," Mitsui answered, and the wrestlers laughed again, this time out loud.

The Oyakata grimaced.

"Did you eat that instant ramen too?" the Oyakata asked, pointing to the Styrofoam bowl next to Mitsui's futon.

"No, it was oden," naming a sort of Japanese stew that convenience stores serve in bowls identical to the ones that hold servings of instant ramen. This time the wrestlers burst out into hysterical laughter.

The Oyakata was grinning now too, but only barely. He kneeled down by Mitsui's bag and fondled the items inside suspiciously. Then he stood and headed for his apartment.

I caught him at the bottom of the steps.

"Oyakata," I said. "I've been meaning to ask you. There are a lot of wrestlers coming to practice each morning now, and there's not much extra space. But would I be in the way if I joined in?"

"Of course not," he answered, which is what I wanted to hear. I'd started to feel like a failure for having spent so little time in a mawashi, and was glad I'd have a chance to train along again. I wasn't exactly sure what purpose it would serve at that point, since I'd probably collected all the sensory data that standing next to the dohyo in a mawashi was going to provide, but I felt obliged to do it, if only one more time. After all, when I checked into the stable, I thought I'd be wearing a mawashi every day.

I assumed the next day, Sunday, would be the wrestlers' vacation and that I'd be able to participate on Monday. But when I woke up on Sunday, I was shocked when the wrestler cutting his toenails next to Murayoshi's rolled up bedding looked up at me, and wasn't Murayoshi. It was Akiyama, a wrestler from one of the other stables, who has a lump on his shoulder that looks like a partially buried bocce ball from years being collided into by opponents' heads. It was odd that he'd be there on the wrestlers' day off.

"Are you training today?" I asked, and he said that they were.

"Oh," I said, "I thought you guys have Sundays off." But I was wrong. With the distractions of the New Year's holiday approaching and the January tournament on the horizon, the wrestlers apparently could no longer afford their rest day.

I was a little disappointed, because I'd hoped to use the day to get to know some of the wrestlers a little better. I haven't been formally interviewing wrestlers; instead, I've been engaging them in conversations that I rush to recreate in my notebook as soon as they're finished. I don't feel sneaky about this because I do it openly. The wrestlers, I think, are used to having their chats with me punctuated by me taking out my notebook and scribbling away.

Yet, since my exchanges with the wrestlers have been friendly, rather than reportorial, I've been reluctant to push them too hard for information about themselves. But I thought that if I could catch them relaxing with time on their hands, I'd be able to get more out of them. Now I clearly wasn't going to.

Also, after getting the okay from the Oyakata to join practice, I'd hoped to do so on the first possible occasion. But I'd slept past the time when it would be acceptable for me to start, so I blew that chance too.

So I was absolutely determined to practice on Monday. Before I went to bed Sunday night, I told Murayoshi that I'd be joining practice the next day and asked him what time they'd be starting.

"5 a.m., but you can start around 6:30," he answered, which was fine with me. "When you wake up, find someone to help you into a mawashi."

In the morning, I started getting woken up by the wrestlers' stirring around 4:30, when I checked my watch and was glad to see that I could sleep for another couple hours. I woke up a few more times before finally staying awake when I heard Moriyasu and Saita on their way out the door and saw that my watch read "6:20." As highly ranked wrestlers, they were permitted to start practicing at that late hour. As someone who had no business there in the first place, I was too.

Downstairs, Fuchita helped me into a mawashi. While he was twirling it around my waist, Ishikawa walked by and muttered to him, "He shouldn't practice today."

The atmosphere in the practice room was palpably different than the first time I trained along. With the January tournament a week closer, the practice sessions had gotten longer and more brutal. Once during practice, Hiroki lost his balance at the edge of the ring and was tossed out by a wrestler from another stable that he was just about to defeat. Murayoshi, shouting insults, marched over to him and slapped him with his full open hand on the right cheek. Then, still shouting, he slapped him again on the right cheek, then even harder of the left, with the sound of the blows echoing through the room. Hiroki just stood there, taking the whacks and apologizing for losing the match.

With the practice session having reached this level of violence and intensity, no one seemed interested in humoring me this time around. Nobody was keeping an eye on me to make sure I was doing my shikos, and doing them right. Last time, Murayoshi had fussed over me, pivoting my back forward to make sure I got a got in a good forward-leaning split, and asking me if I was cold. The most concern I got from him this time is when the Sekitori sent the other stable's Mongolian hurtling out of the ring at me, pinning me briefly against the wall and covering me with the sweaty dirt that coated his body. Murayoshi pulled me aside sternly, as though I were a child who'd been playing in the street, and stood me in a less vulnerable spot on the practice floor.

I never got a chance to wrestle that morning, or even to try to Zamboni someone across the ring. I didn't get to count off fifty squats at the end of the practice session, like I had last time—there wasn't even room for me to join the circle around the dohyo, so I did my squats outside the ring. In fact, all I did all morning was shiko to stay warm while feeling foolish for being on the practice floor at all.

I did, however, compose a little song in my head:

If you're feeling kind of chilly,
and are afraid of getting sick-o.
Then it's time to bend your knees,
and sink into a shiko.

It's just a kick to the left,
then you squat on the floor,
then a kick to the right,
when you're ready for more.

From Maine to Puerto Rico,
everybody's doing the shiko.

NEXT: Iki Returns