SUUUMOOO!!!

img_5026Sumo! Last week we all headed into Tokyo to check out Sumo for ourselves. We arrived at the sumo arena called the Ryōgoku Kokugikan and (eventually) found our seats. Which wasn’t so easy, at least for me.

I had two seating options when purchasing tickets. The first tier seats offer better and closer views–but also the chance to sit cross-legged on a backless cushion for hours, which thrilled me not at all. I opted for the higher seats in the second tier. While we sat a little further away, I appreciated the actual seats with backs.

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Close up, tier one seats. No back, just a cushion on the floor. For hours. No thanks!
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The view from our second tier, actual-seats-with-backs seats

Sumo goes back about 1500 years, making it the world’s oldest sport that is still played. Unlike the complicated rules of sports like American football, cricket, or baseball, sumo’s rules are pretty simple: the first wrestler to exit the ring or touch the ground with anything but the bottoms of his feet loses. Of the roughly 30 bouts we saw, most of the losing wrestlers either touched down inside the ring or stepped just outside of it. I only saw one or two really dramatic, get-thrown-into-the-audience losses. These straightforward rules made it easy for us to follow the bouts, even without any Japanese.

img_4033That said we rented radios to listen to English commentary by Murray Johnson, an Australian journalist who has been the English voice of sumo for over 20 years. He called the bouts in a play-by-play manner that immediately reminded me of horse racing–and sure enough, that’s where Johnson got his start. He introduced the wrestlers with information that clearly showed his familiarity with the sumo scene. I followed along with a program of bouts, but unfortunately I couldn’t really tell which wrestler was which because they’re wearing silk loin cloths and nothing else. So the commentator would talk about, say, Myogiryu versus Nishikigi without mentioned which guy was in blue silk and which was in red.

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Obviously the wrestlers are not matched up by size. I’m guessing that the dude on the left is pretty bummed right about now…

We saw a few recognizably-foreign wrestlers who looked possibly European (I later learned that Bulgarians have dominated for several years now). Out of curiosity I wanted to look these dudes up online, but since they all take Japanese wrestler names I couldn’t tell who was who. Remember, no numbers, and just silk loincloths. While I recognized a few non-Asians, there were likely more non-Japanese wrestlers than I realized at the time. The Japanese word gaijin means non-Japanese foreigner–so those Mongolian wrestlers are gaijin too. Japan’s sumo fans have lamented for years the steady decline of Japanese dominance in their own sport.

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An announcer sings the wrestlers names before each bout

In the following photo, what do you notice about the spectators right in front? How about the fact that a 200+ kg wrestler is splayed out on his back right in arm’s reach, and may have landed right on them? Even while watching through a zoom lens from about 27 kilometers away I flinched when I saw a wrestler get tossed from the ring. Not those spectators, though. They are as calm and collected as if they were waiting for the bus.

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The matches started in the morning with the lowest divisions going first, and our tickets were valid for the whole day’s matches from 8AM to 6PM. I had heard that the best matches and highest divisions occur late in the day, so we arrived around 2PM and stayed until the end at 6PM. I guessed that four hours of sumo was plenty, and I was right. The first dozen or so matches were of the Juryo wrestlers, the second highest division.

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The previous bout’s winner and the wrestler’s trainers presents the upcoming wrestler with water and…a piece of paper listing their opponent? Don’t know, and neither does the Google, apparently

Each bout begins the same way. The next wrestlers receive a ceremonial ladle of water called a chikaramizu and rinses his mouth with it. He also receives a slip of paper–perhaps  with the name of his opponent? The winner of the previous bout and the sumo’s trainers handled the paper and water. Then the wrestlers grab a handful of salt to scatter and purify the ring.

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Reaching for that purifying salt before each bout
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Only a few wrestlers rubbed the purifying salt on themselves
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The higher the wrestler’s division, the higher he is allowed to toss the salt into the ring

Around 3:40 the real action began. The wrestlers of the highest division, Makuuchi, paraded into the arena with great ceremony wearing colorful cloths around their waists. They slowly turned around, gave those colorful cloths a wave up and down, then performed what I called the Sumo Hokey Pokey.

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That’s What It’s All About!

The Makuuchi wrestlers definitely cranked up the drama and showmanship in the arena. As soon as both wrestlers assume the crouch with one fist on the ground, the bout can begin. The Juryu (second highest) wrestlers got to their matches fairly quickly and without too much delay. Not the Makuuchi. Every time the bout looked about ready to begin, one wrestler would almost-put his fist down, then stand up, stretch, pose, preen, posture, and go through the salt and water rituals again. Some of the wrestlers went through three or more cycles of almost-starting before getting down to business. Makuuchi are allowed up to four minutes of preening, glaring, and almost-starting; in many cases, the lead-up to the bouts lasted far longer than the wrestling itself. The crowd loved it, though.

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The higher the wrestler’s division, the higher the arc of salt-throwing

We did too! I’m so glad that I had the chance, and four hours is just about enough. I hope to go back at least once more before we leave Japan.

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Supporters of individual wrestlers in their oranges jackets with the wrestlers’ names on them

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I’m pretty sure that this choke hold is totally illegal
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Tending to the ring itself from time to time–just like the grounds crew at a baseball game!

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Again With the Shower Shoes in the Kitchen: Or, a Weekend at Iijima Sushi Resort in Chiba Prefecture

A long weekend in late September means a quick getaway to Chiba Prefecture! Most Yokohama expats know Chiba for surfing beaches around Onjuku and Kutsuura, but unfortunately those hotels booked up before I found a spot. So we ended further south in Minami Boso, a quieter area better known for farming, fishing, and growing flowers for the big city. We arrived at Iijima Sushi Resort on Friday night and met the proprietor and sushi chef, Iijima-san. He showed the sushi restaurant on the main floor and our suite of rooms upstairs, then bid us good night.

Saturday morning we awoke to a traditional Japanese breakfast: fish, vegetables, pickles, and rice. Mark, Cy, and I gamely tried everything while Tessa mostly pouted.

After breakfast we explored the tidal pools across the road, then started driving north in search of a beach to spend the day. I booked the trip a month ago hoping for still-beachy weather, and we lucked out. Despite the cool drizzle today (another typhoon on its way!), this past Saturday’s heat made us eager to jump into the surf. The kids splashed, Mark built a sand village, we packed Cy in sand–the usual.

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We found a ramen joint for a quick lunch, then headed back to our hotel for our sushi class at 4PM.

Before leaving home I considered bringing my own knives with me, thinking back on the whole left-handed fiasco at the Yokohama Fish Market last spring. I decided not to bring knives. Mistake.

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Again with the shower shoes in a kitchen. And yes, I have Fred Flintstone feet.

After donning yet another pair of shower shoes in a kitchen, my first words were along the lines of “By the way, I’m left handed….” and the chef’s reaction could only be described as…dramatic. Sushi chefs use a knife called a deba bocho for filleting fish. The deba is sharpened like a chisel with a sharp angle on one side and a flat edge on the other. This makes it right-hand-only, which is the story of my life when it comes to a lot of kitchen equipment (I’m looking at you, gravy ladle).

So instead of the gorgeous deba, Iijima-san handed me a sad santoku knife that looked it was used mostly to open cardboard boxes. I gamely cleaned my first fish with it, though rather poorly. Then I decided to take my chances with the righty deba, figuring that an excellent but opposite-sharpened knife was still better than a sorry santoku. So much better! I redeemed myself and perhaps gained some props for cleaning fish fairly well despite the right-left thing.

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Cy’s takes a turn and does great! Notice his proper grip on the knife.
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Tessa’s pretty bored, in case you couldn’t tell

Meanwhile Mark killed it with his fish, being right handed and all.

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After our cleaning session we headed up to our rooms for a break while the chef and his family finished preparing our dinner. The sushi counter seats only four people, so we were the dining party for the night. The food started coming…and coming. We finally called uncle after I-don’t-know how many dishes.

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Our hosts–aren’t they the cutest?

Sunday morning we awoke to another fish-veggie-rice breakfast (and more pouting from the girlchild). We hoped for nice enough weather for a quick hike to Mt. Daisen, but unfortunately a steady drizzle foiled those plans. Instead we meandered around the southern tip of Chiba and up the Tokyo Bay side. The rain slowed enough for a quick stop at Sunosaki Shrine.

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Then we headed for the Tokyowan Ferry–and home. Since we essentially ate two mornings of Dinner For Breakfast, we enjoyed Breakfast for Dinner at home: crepes with Nutella, jam, and bananas.

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A Rainy Tuesday in Ueno Park and Yanaka, Tokyo

img_3916Last week a friend invited me to join her and some others on a hike to Mt. Takao. The outing would last the whole day, so I booked doggy day care for Miss Ruby. This morning I awoke to steady rain and a soggy forecast for the rest of the day, which postponed the hike to a drier day. I almost canceled Ruby care when I decided to keep her occupied and take a day to myself, despite the many ways I could have filled my time with tasks in and around home.

So after getting the kids to school I set out for the train, Tokyo-bound. I decided to visit Ueno Park, home to many, many museums. I settled on Tokyo National Museum as my first stop. I headed for the second floor to see the Highlights collection, basically the museum’s Greatest Hits.

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After an hour of wandering I headed next for Yanaka, a nearby district with an unusually large number of homes and structures that survived both the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923) and the Allied bombings of WWII. A National Geographic walking tour spoke glowingly of the quiet charm of the streets, and the huge cemetery. I enjoyed both very much, but I soon realized that Yokohama has many similar streets, not to mention the giant cemetery that I visited last year. That’s right–a year in Japan and I’m already too jaded to enjoy the Nat Geo walking tours! Though Yanaka cemetery definitely wins with this giant, way-larger-than-life gold Buddha. It was behind a locked gate, so I only got this awkward angle.

I intended to visit Kappabashi Kitchen Town next, but time ran short and I headed home. Another time!

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The Absolute Worst Time to Visit the Ramen Museum

img_3862Pro tip: the absolute worst time to visit the Ramen Museum is on a weekend around mid-day.

OK, so calling it the Ramen Museum is a bit of a stretch–it’s really a collection of nine ramen restaurants clustered in a faux street setting, Disney-style. But still! They had us at ramen, so off we went this past Sunday afternoon.

The nine restaurants all offer half sized portions as well as full orders to give people the chance to sample their way around. Given the 45 minute wait at each restaurant, we opted for one full order at one restaurant and decided to save the Sample Your Way approach for a future weekday visit.

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A circa 1958 faux street scene in Tokyo
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No actual sauerkraut in the ramen! Just a prop can.

The Museum describes different types of noodles, broths, toppings, you name it. Several restaurants also feature ramen as served in several foreign countries, and we ate a “German” ramen joint. Given the displays of canned sauerkraut I expected some kind of recognizably German influence–not that I wanted sauerkraut in my ramen. Instead our ramen tasted like…you know, ramen. Accompanied with German beer, natch.

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The ramen ordering machine of mystery. The translated headings I could have deciphered even without English. The 90% kanji buttons–not a prayer.

Before we could select our food, we had to deal with the automated ramen ordering machine. No problem, we figured–we order from these all the time! Unfortunately this machine featured a rather common menu problem for the Japanese illiterate. While the headings like Toppings and Juice were helpfully translated into English, the actual choices were not. Normally we can will our way through the choices if they are written in either phonetic script (hiragana or katakana), but of course these buttons were mostly kanji with just enough katakana to make us think we sort of understood, but of course we didn’t. Without obvious choices like nori (roasted seaweed) and tamago (egg) jumping out at us, we gave up on toppings and ordered one of each of the three main ramens.

Here’s what we got:

 

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Cy’s Mystery Ramen #1. Tastes like chicken.
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Mark’s Mystery Ramen #2. Lots of pepper. Pork broth.
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Marta’s Mystery Ramen #3. Pork broth.

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After enjoying our hearty lunch we made an obligatory pass through the gift shop with the expected assortment of dishes, ramen ingredients to prepare at home. The not-so-expected gift shop category? The staggering assortment of model cars for sale. The menfolk also coughed up 200 yen each for a few minutes at the control of a slot car. “I’m not so sure that this has anything to do with ramen,” Cy wisely declared. While powering his slot car, of course.

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Note the back wall–all model cars for sale!

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