Sumo - the first taste

The following article was published in Condé Nast Traveller, December 2013

There comes a point in every holiday, when I feel distinctly jaded or, to put it another way, as fat as a stuffed pig.  As I step into the Tokyo subway with my husband, I realise I’ve reached that point.  Why, I wondered had I suggested that we should go to a sumo match, let alone follow it by visiting a chanko-nabe restaurant to try sumo food?  I’d been eating non-stop since we arrived in Japan.  But it’s one thing to taste delicate Michelin-starred morsels and quite another thing to launch into a high-protein Japanese hotpot, designed to fatten you up so you can flatten your opponents.

Grand Sumo Tournaments are only held three times a year in Tokyo and we’d managed to get tickets for the penultimate day of the May Grand Tournament, followed by dinner at Chanko Kirishima – a post-sumo match institution. The added promise of a Japanese-speaking guide who was himself both an amateur practitioner and a writer on the subject of sumo wrestling, namely Mark Buckton, made the prospect irresistible.

It was a perfect Saturday afternoon, warm and soft under the bright green gingko trees.  All of Tokyo was out and about, enjoying itself.  The train rattled across the Sumida river into Ryogoku, where sumo tournaments have been held for centuries.  As we drew into the station, excitement mounted: was that a well-known sumo wrestler stepping off the train in his yukata and sandals? The crowd parted before him as he strode, head down, to the nearby Ryogoku Sumo Hall.  I couldn’t imagine Wayne Rooney getting the tube to Wembley, but sumo men follow a strict code of behaviour from dress to lifestyle.

Ryogoku is a lively, working-class area full of restaurants where you can drink snapper turtle’s blood or robust flavoured junmai sake.  Its back lanes are home to many of the sumo training stables, where wrestlers eat, sleep and train together. Only senior wrestlers can live outside.

Brightly coloured banners carrying the names of the contestants fluttered outside the stadium.  ‘The highest ranked are nearest the entrance and they’re never black as that is the colour of defeat’ Mark explained.  Symbolism is very important in sumo, whose origins lie far back in early Shinto practices.

We watched the senior contestants walking in.  Sumo wrestling is based on a ranking system that dates back to the Edo period.  The lower divisions ( rikishi) fight each other in the morning.  The top two divisions ( sekitori) end the day. The crowd clapped and snapped photographs as each sekitori strode in with his attendants. They have a serious presence – it’s not purely physical, they exude a steely inner strength. 

‘Most start their training here at the stadium when they’re about 15 or 16.  They have to be a minimum of 175cm in height and 73kg in weight’ said Mark, before recounting tales of surgical scalp implants undertaken by would-be rikishi (wrestlers) to ensure that they reach the required height. A female voice came over the public address system.  ‘She’s politely asking any yakuza members to leave the stadium,’ said Mark.  It was a message repeated throughout the afternoon.  In the past, it was thought that the gangs passed on messages to colleagues in jail by sitting in view of the cameras and using a secret sign language.

We explored the sumo museum, then head down to the basement to join a queue for our first bowl of chanko-nabe.  A tiny old lady stands at the door hatch, dishing out plastic bowls brimming with aromatic chicken broth, vegetables and melt-in-the-mouth tender chicken balls.  Behind her, I caught a glimpse of more diminutive grannies, tending vast vats.  During non-match weeks, they cater for the students who attend so school here.  We grabbed our chopsticks and sat at a communal table.  I peered nervously into my bowl.  I’d heard stories of strange bits and bobs being simmered in the pot, but this looked safe.  It tasted delicious so we slurped up the broth.

Every stable has its own chanko-nabe recipe.  Typically, a broth of dried kelp and bonito flakes ( dashi) is flavoured with miso paste, sake, mirin and soy sauce, before pork, chicken, fish and vegetables are added. The young rikishi help prepare it. The most senior eat their fill first, the most junior last. 

‘That wasn’t very fattening,’ whispered my husband.  ‘No’ I replied, ‘but it was a very small bowl, and unlike sumo wrestlers, we didn’t add lots of udon noodles or rice to the broth.  That’s what fattens them up: that and a post-nosh nap.’  Mark later tells us that most sumo wrestlers now have around 17 per cent body fat.  It’s technique and strength that counts.

We take our seats upstairs.  The enormous arena was soon packed.  Fans cracked open beer (bottle openers are attached to the seats) and dug into bags of dried squid and vinegared octopus tentacles.  The spectacle below is gripping and fast-moving. As each wrestler entered the small clay ring floor ( dohyo) and started to stamp the floor and slap his thighs to rid it of bad spirits, his supporters cheered and called his name.  There is much psyching out of the opposition in this pre-match ritual, even in the formal greeting and throwing of purifying salt.  Each bout only lasted a few seconds, but was mesmerising. 

Just after 6pm, we spilled out into the warm evening air.  A drum beat above the crowd. We strolled across the street to another restaurant Chanko Kirishima owned by Kirishima Kazuhiro (currently known as Michinoku-oyakata), a retired champion sumo and now head coach of Michinoku stable.

All six floors were heaving with customers and we have to squeeze past the fish tanks filled with assorted molluscs, a lone squid and a shoal of black-striped fish. Upstairs, it was uncharacteristically scruffy for a Japanese restaurant.  We slipped our shoes into some beaten up lockers and edged past a life-size cardboard cut-out of the great Kirishima. A waitress pointed to a free table amid a lively post-match crowd.  ‘If any of Kirishima’s stable have done badly in the tournament, it’s rumoured that they’re sent to work in his restaurant’ Mark confided.  It’s hard to imagine how a young rikishiki would fit between the Formica tables, but perhaps they’re made to work in the kitchen.

Mark ordered two special chanko meals for about £46 and some beers.  ‘I don’t think we’ll manage one each’ he said.  We nibbled oboshi, a cold fish and spinach taster, while we waited.  A large plate of boiled crab appeared with rice vinegar to dip it in.  We cracked open the legs and ate the sweet meat. A plate of chunky-looking sashimi followed, garnished with peppery edible chrysanthemum flowers. We dipped slices of tuna, squid and shrimp into soy sauce seasoned with wasabi, as Mark sampled the side-order he’d requested of horsemeat sashimi.

The waitress then set a portable gas burner on the table, before returning with an enormous pot.  It was packed full of raw sliced pork, Chinese cabbage, long leeks, prawns, tofu, glass noodles, enoki and shitake mushrooms, all floating in restaurant’s special chicken and white-miso-paste broth. The gas was lit and she left us a small tray full of utensils. As the mixture bubbled fiercely, the restaurant erupted with excitement on the arrival of an incredibly muscular man with oiled black hair.  I looked at the pictures on the walls and realised it was Kirishima. He towered above his customers who politely asked if they could be photographed with him.  Giggling women, children and old sumo fans all take their turn, before he moved on to work the next floor.

We refocused on our furiously boiling chanko-nabe.  My instinct is to turn down the heat, but Mark gently pushed the ingredients back into the boiling liquid.  The waitress returned with an abalone shell filled with minced chicken.  She dropped spoonfuls of the dumpling mix into our pot and gave it a stir.  Ten minutes later, the broth looks unappetisingly cloudy, but Mark deemed it ready, so we helped ourselves – again and again.  It’s hard to tire of succulent vegetables and juicy pieces of meat.  

Once we’d taken our fill, the waitress wanted to add udon noodles into the mixture.  ‘The Japanese hate wasting any broth, so they’ll add noodles to finish a dish’ said Mark.  We were all too full, and much to her disappointment declined the offer.  My girth had expanded far enough.


Further information for my website readers:

Sumo Grand Tournaments are held in Tokyo in January, May and September, Osaka in March, Nagoyo in July and Fukuoka in November.  They each run for 15 days.  www.sumo.or.jp/eng/


Chanko Kirishima

2-13-7 Ryogoku, Sumida-ku, Tokyo 130-0026

T:  03-3632-8710

 

InsideJapan Tours (+44 117 370 9751; www.insidejapantours.com) offers a 10 night trip, including a sumo experience, accommodation, flights from London to Tokyo, all travel between destinations, breakfast and some evening meals, from £2,594 per person.

 

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