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Morning in Ryogoku

When the Oyakata was born about a half century ago on the south end of Japan's main island, his parents named him Teruyuki Nishimori. As a wrestler, he adopted Kaiketsu as his shikona, or ring name. Soon after retiring from wrestling in 1979 as an ozeki, he started Hanaregoma stable and began to be known as Hanaregoma-oyakata, literally "Master Hanaregoma."

One man. Three names. Like geisha, kabuki performers and other practitioners of Japan's traditional arts, sumo wrestlers can go through numerous names over the course of their lives and careers. A wrestler might change his name to mark his ascent to a higher rank, or to make a clean break from a rough patch in his career. He might take on a mentor's name as a gesture of respect. Or, in the Oyakata's case, he might relinquish his shikona and take on the name of his stable when he becomes an oyakata.

So two Tuesdays ago, when I called the Oyakata's office to make an appointment to drop by on him, I didn't ask if I could speak with Mr. Nishimori. I asked if I could speak with "Master Hanaregoma." This nameshifting fascinated me. I wondered what his family called him. Do his kids call him "Oyakata" too?

I wasn't really able to talk to the Oyakata much during my stay at the stable. The wrestlers rarely entered his apartment, other than to pay him brief deferential visits. And while I wasn't really bound to all the rules and conventions of the stable's real residents, I didn't feel comfortable intruding into his home for a chat.

But I wanted to talk to him about how the sport has changed during his time in its orbit, and what it was like to run a stable. So right before I left, I asked for the phone number of the public relations office he supervises in Ryogoku at the Kokugikan, the stadium complex that serves as the sumo association's headquarters.

When I called him, he invited me to come by the next day, the same day that Miki had invited me to the meeting of the yokozuna promotion council. At this gathering, the sumo association's "elders" and prominent associates watch the sport's highest-ranked wrestlers train together to get an idea of how they'll perform in the upcoming tournament. This gathering would also be held at the Kokugikan, so I figured I'd hang around Ryogoku from the time it ended until my meeting with the Oyakata.

The next morning, while I was taking the train to Ryogoku, I got a call from Miki's colleague Usuda (whom I misidentified in a previous posting as "Usaoa"). I couldn't answer his call because people don't talk on the phone on buses and trains in Japan; it's bad manners. But when I listened to the message he left, I learned that Miki couldn't make it that morning, so Usuda would meet me at the train station and take me into the Kokugikan instead.

I met Usuda at the same spot as when he brought me over to meet the Oyakata a few weeks earlier. "How's the stable?" he asked me while we walked toward the stadium building.

"I had a good time there," I said. "It was interesting."

"Oh, so you already left," he said, sounding surprised.

We climbed a flight of steps set into the exterior of the building and entered a large dirt-floored meeting hall with a dohyo on each end. The dohyo to the rear of the room wasn't being used, but there were rows and rows of chairs on a long plastic tarp, all full, facing the front dohyo, around which stood about two-dozen wrestlers. Their mawashi were white like the Sekitori's, indicating their advanced rank.

Before the first row of chairs, directly in front of the dohyo, important looking men sat at a long table with a white tablecloth. There was another row of seats facing the dohyo from against the wall; the Oyakata sat in one of them, but I didn't notice him at first because he was wearing a suit. Photographers were packed onto a raised platform across the dohyo from the rows of seats, shooting pictures under an elevated shrine identical to the one in the stable.

Usuda and I took what looked like the only remaining seats, in the front row behind the men sitting at the table. The wrestlers in the dohyo faced off, threw each other out of the ring, dropped one another on the floor. I knew that these were the sport's absolute top wrestlers. I'd gotten used to seeing the Sekitori as a figure of almost incomprehensible prestige because that's how he was treated at the stable. But at the stable, I now realized, he was a big fish in a little pond; these guys were the biggest fish of all.

Yet, embarrassingly, I didn't know who any of them were. The last time I'd really followed sumo was when I lived in Japan about five years ago, when there was an entirely different cast of characters at its highest echelons. And even then I didn't follow it very closely, at most watching the highlights of the day's matches on NHK during the tournaments.

I knew who the yokozuna were at the time: Akebono, from Hawaii, and the brothers Wakanohana and Takanohana, whose Futagoyama stable was about two blocks away from where I lived. I used to see that stable's wrestlers shopping in the local 7-11, and we frequently washed our clothes together in the Laundromat. In fact, when I first walked into Hanaregoma stable a few weeks back, the smell of their fragrant hair oil brought on a wave of nostalgia.

But I'd failed to get myself up to speed on who the current sumo stars were and was embarrassed to ask Usuda, who was busily scribbling down who won each match and what maneuver, or kimarite, he used to beat his opponent. Which one was the Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu? I wondered. And which one was Kaio, whom I'd read was a contender for promotion to yokozuna?

But the most puzzling question of all was: Where did all these white guys come from? It seemed like about a quarter of the wrestlers in the dohyo were big, burly Caucasians. I'd heard that there was a contingent of wrestlers from the former Soviet bloc, but it was still a bit of a shock to see them for real. With their double chins and big bellies, a few looked like American truck drivers in loincloths with topknots on their heads. One was a blonde-haired giant with a fierce pockmarked face. Another dark-haired, pale-skinned wrestler looked almost as broad as he was tall and wore what I guessed was a terminal five o'clock shadow. It was disarming at first to see these guys in the ring with the Japanese wrestlers and their less conspicuous Mongolian counterparts going through the exact same routines I'd seen performed each morning in the stable.

But as I watched, I stopped noticing anything different about them. They fought as well as the Asian wrestlers and their repertoire of kimarite was just as advanced. Every match—whether or not one of the white guys was a contender—seemed to end differently. Sometimes the victor would push his opponent from the dohyo with brute force. Sometimes he'd get him near the edge and lift him out by his mawashi. Sometimes he'd kick his opponent's leg out from under him and drop him to the ground.

Distressingly often, though, I couldn't even tell how the matches ended. The frequently finished in a matter of seconds, leaving me wondering what had happened. Sumo, I've heard said, is a sport for connoisseurs. A true sumo fan knows the full gamut of kimarite by name, and understands which wrestlers have the greatest mastery of the various maneuvers. Usuda was writing down the kimarite that ended each match because that's something his readers wanted to know.

Just like in the stable, the practice session between these elite wrestlers ended with a few rounds of butsukarigeiko. Then the seats started emptying out and Usuda ran out of the room, presumably to catch up with a wrestler he wanted a quote from.

I wandered outside, passing a row of reporters standing by the entrance to a locker room. Down the steps, a crowd of reporters, photographers and cameramen were laying in wait. One wrestler came down and was quickly surrounded by reporters. I joined the huddle, trying to listen in on what they were asking him and what he was saying, but I couldn't get close enough. Then a second wrestler came down the steps and most of the reporters shifted over to him. In the meantime, chauffeured black luxury cars were passing by; behind tinted glass, I could see the men who had sat at the long white table in front of the dohyo.

I kept my distance from Usuda while he jockeyed for quotes. He followed a wrestler out of the stadium compound and onto the sidewalk, where he stood trying to hail a cab. It was cold—I was bundled up in a wool coat and a heavy scarf, but the wrestler was just wearing a thin robe and a pair of sandals, with his knees and calves completely exposed. When the wrestler gave up on the cab and took off toward to train station with Usuda in tow, I backed off and watched them disappear down the street.

I needed to figure out who these guys were.

NEXT: Afternoon in Ryogoku