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
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
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
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
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
We explored the sumo museum, then head down to the basement
to join a queue for our first bowl of
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
Every stable has its own
recipe. Typically, a broth of dried kelp
and bonito flakes (
flavoured with miso paste, sake, mirin and soy sauce, before pork, chicken, fish
and vegetables are added. The young
help prepare it. The most senior eat their fill first, the most junior
‘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
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/
2-13-7 Ryogoku, Sumida-ku, Tokyo 130-0026
(+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.