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The morning after the bon-en-kai, I was sitting in my usual spot behind the Kashira when the Oyakata came downstairs and sat on his cushion. He nodded off the wrestlers' deferential greeting and leaned toward me.

"You're leaving today?" he asked.

"That's right," I said.

"You know, you're welcome to stay," he said. "You know that, right?"

The Oyakata had offered to put me up for as long as I wanted, but I never thought he really wanted me around any longer. I assumed he was just being nice, and that I was expected to decline the invitation. I'd already been there 13 nights and was afraid of wearing out my welcome. It wasn't just the Oyakata I was wary of imposing on; I'd also been cooked for and cleaned up after by all but the most highly ranked wrestlers and I figured they must be tired of having an extra, idle body around the house as well.

But even if he didn't mind me hanging around, it was too late for me to stay now. I'd already found a place to live for the next couple weeks, since I planned to stay in Tokyo for some of the January tournament. And I was looking forward to eating breakfast and having a ready supply of coffee again.

It took me so long to pack my bags that morning that I didn't get down to lunch until most of the wrestlers had already eaten. I filled my plate with the remaining scraps and munched as the wrestlers gradually left the table with their empty dishes, eventually leaving me alone. I finished and handed off my plate in the kitchen—they still wouldn't let me do my own dishes—then grabbed by bags, said my goodbyes, and left.

I stopped back over a couple days later, on New Year's Eve. Murayoshi had told me the wrestlers would be eating soba noodles together for the occasion—an auspicious way to start the year—and invited me to stop by.

"Do you eat them around midnight?" I asked him over the telephone.

"Yeah, midnight," he said. Or at least that's what I thought he said. Around 9:30 on New Year's Eve I was on my way to the stable, when my phone rang. It was Murayoshi.

"Where are you?" he asked.

"I'm at Shinjuku station," I told him. "I'm on my way."

"It's been time to eat," he said.

I was worried that the guys at the stable might be waiting for me to show up before eating their noodles. But when I arrived, everyone had long finished. They were lying on the common room floor, watching wrestling matches on television and playing video games. Iki was there too, dozing on the floor with his face resting on an open comic book.

Hiroki disappeared into the kitchen and came out about 10 minutes later with a bowl of course, dark buckwheat noodles in a salty broth of stewed daikon and carrots, with a piece of shrimp tempura resting on top. Haruki rolled out a table for by benefit and I ate my noodles, feeling bad for putting them to the trouble of preparing another round of noodles especially for me. Plus, I regretted missing the communal noodle eating.

While I ate, I watched the Pride wrestling matches on the television, which were being broadcast from Saitama, the next prefecture over from Tokyo. Pride, like the K-l matches being broadcast from Osaka that same evening, features no-holds-barred wrestling matches fought between combatants of various fighting disciplines. You might get a Thai kick-boxer fighting a Korean tae-kwon-do practitioner, or an American boxer fighting a Chinese martial artist.

These sorts of matches have their followings all over the world, but they're hugely popular in Japan, as is U.S. pro-wrestling. Japan also has its own pro-wrestling league, which some of the guys in the stable followed closely. One day while I was there, Murayoshi disappeared after practice and spent the afternoon mixing with professional wrestlers at an end-of-the-year party for the league's biggest fans. He came back star-struck.

I was surprised they were watching Pride instead of K-1, since K-1 was featuring a special New Year's match between a high-profile former sumo wrestler and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu-ist. The sumo wrestler was the Hawaiian former yokozuna Akebono, the first non-Japanese to reach sumo's highest rank. He joined K-1 a couple years after retiring from sumo; it was rumored that he had debts to pay off. But he had yet to win a match (and indeed did not redeem himself that night), which may have explained why the wrestlers weren't watching him fight.

I was almost done my noodles when Murayoshi, in his boxer shorts, poked his head into the common room and said, "You're late, Jacob."

I apologized and, when I finished my noodles, went up to visit him in the second-floor room. He was alone in the bedroom and was also watching Pride, which ended about 15 minutes before midnight. Then he switched between countdown programs, spending just a few seconds at each one.

"Which one should I be watching at midnight?" he muttered to himself.

He finally settled on a program featuring "99," the same comedy duo that exposed pop-star Nakai to the series of practical jokes on Christmas. For New Year's, the sillier half of the duo, a short guy whom many say resembles a monkey, was dressed in a traditional Japanese short coat with a bandana on his head. I'm not sure what Japanese archetype he was emulating; to me he looked like a waiter at a restaurant that affects a traditional ambience.

The comedian shook his shoulders doing some sort of macho dance as a row of percussionists beat on taiko drums and the counter in the corner of the screen marked off the seconds until midnight. When it hit zero, the comedian hit an enormous temple bell with a long pole that hung suspended horizontally in front of it, while fireworks exploded on the horizon. Murayoshi and I exchanged New Year's wishes and I left for my new temporary home, anxious to get there before the trains stopped running for the night.

The following Sunday, I got a call from Miki. I'd written him an email before New Year's to thank him for arranging my stay at the stable and to tell him that I'd left.

"The Oyakata said you could have stayed longer," he said.

I was about to respond that I thought the Oyakata was just being nice, but then stopped myself, thinking such an answer might sound ungrateful. "I stayed as long as I needed for my project," I said instead.

Miki invited me out for dinner in Ryogoku, where the sumo association has its headquarters in the National Sport Hall, the following Tuesday. He said he'd call me that day, then hung up.

Now that I knew for certain that the Oyakata genuinely would not have minded me staying longer, I deeply regretted leaving the stable. I was especially sorry that I wouldn't be there for any of the tournament that was soon to start. A wrestler's performance in the tournament determines his rank, which has a tangible bearing on the quality of his life. I wanted to know how the stable's atmosphere would be different with so much on the line, and now it seemed I never would.

Maybe I should try to go back, I started thinking.

NEXT: Morning in Ryogoku