Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sumo Sugoi

(Sugoi is the Japanese word for "Wow!" I will conquer this language, one semi-useful word every few weeks!)

Sumo is probably one of the first things that comes to mind for a Westerner thinking about Japan, but all I really knew about it was that the men were really large, and that Freakonomics had a chapter about sumo match-fixing. So when we had the chance to attend a honbasho, or major sumo tournament, right here in Fukuoka, we went to become culturally enlightened. I didn't expect that I would really like it -but I actually had a great time. Sumo is a lot of fun!

First, some background. In sumo, wrestlers move up in rank based on their performance in major tournaments, of which their are six per year. Three happen in Tokyo, one in Osaka, one in Nagoya, and one here in Fukuoka. The ultimate goal of every sumo wrestler, or rikishi, is to be granted the title of yokozuna ("horizontal rope," from the rank belt a yokozuna can wear), and the minimum requirement is generally to win two of these tournaments in a row.

Some things about yokozuna I did not know:

-there can be an unlimited number at any given time (right now there is just one, the Mongolian Hakuho) and there can even be no yokozuna at all
- there have been four foreign yokozuna: two Americans (Akebono, from Hawaii, and Makuuchi, from American Samoa), and two Mongolians, Asashoryu and Hakuho.
- yokozuna is a title for life, and cannot be lost. The yokozuna is expected to retire when he can no longer compete at a top level.
- yokozuna do not have to be that huge: the man we saw, Hakuho, is 6'4 and 340, which means you have at least four guys his size or bigger on a D-1 offensive line. Akebono, however, wrestled at 6'8 and 517. Good NIGHT, that's a large man. And there are no weight classes, so any rikishi might find himself faced with a man that size at any point.

We sat in the nosebleed section, which nevertheless costs over $30 a ticket. And, ironically for a sport involving men the size of Akebono, the chairs are so tiny that Justin and I could not fit side-by-side without one of us sitting forward or putting an arm around the other.

These flat seating areas are much more comfortable, but at the starting price of 9,200 yen, or over a hundred bucks at these exchange rates, I will go with the tiny chairs. The fact that so many are empty doesn't really mean much: a tournament begins fairly early in the day (maybe 9 or so; I don't remember) and goes until 6 PM. So these fans might have been and gone by the time we got there around 4:30.

This picture shows the wrestling area:

The sandy-colored area, made of clay, is called the dohyo. There is a raised ring on the clay, which represents the "in" area. A rikishi wrestler has to either shove the other guy out of the ring or cause any part of his opponent's body other than the feet to touch the ground.

Above the dohyo is a roof to represent a Shinto shrine (the sumo salt-throwing that happens before matches is a Shinto purification ritual). The tassels represent the four seasons, and the dohjo is oriented east-west, with those serving as the sumo equivalents of "the blue corner" (i.e. "Wrestling as the east yokozuna - Hakuho!")

And the equivalent of the ring girls: sponsor banner boys.

And now what you've been waiting for... actual wrestling!

Matches don't have to start right away. The wrestlers line up on and try to intimidate each other, and then break apart and walk around for a bit. There used to be no time limit on how long they could go before starting the match, but now they have a three-minute play clock. This can seem a bit dull, but you have to think of it the way you think of the time in football before the ball is snapped: it's time for strategy, time for giving signals to your opponent and trying to out-think the signals he's giving you back, and time to build dramatic tension for the audience. And since I'm constantly annoyed by people who say football is boring because of the time when "nothing happens," just because they can't perceive the things that are happening, I am trying to reserve judgment on sumo pauses until I can learn to appreciate them.

Matches, like downs, go quickly:

Now, how cool is that?

The last match of the day was between the yokozuna Hakuho and the ozeki, or second-rank, rikishi Kaio (the wrestling names, by the way, are noms de sumo, and not the real birth names of the rikishi). My shoddy Japanese was just good enough for me to catch the word Fukuoka and deduce from the cheering that Kaio is a local boy - which Wikipedia confirms. He's apparently had a rough few last tournaments, and has been an ozeki longer than all but one other wrestler without retiring or being promoted to yokozuna. He was tied with Hakuho at 11-1 (a tournament is fifteen matches) on the day we were there, so that was a big-deal fight. The crowd was firmly on his side - as a sentimental favorite, hometown boy, and possibly also because he's the only Japanese ozeki at the moment so he might represent the only national hope for a Japanese yokozuna. (the other three are Mongolian, Bulgarian, and Estonian - the Estonian, Baruto, was also very popular at this honbasho.) Much clapping and cheers of "Ganbatte (Let's go!) Kaio!" ensued. Unfortunately for Kaio, he lost a hard-fought match, which lasted a surprisingly long time.

According to Wikipedia, Hakuho ultimately won the tournament with a record of 14-1, his fifth honbasho tournament victory in a row, and Kaio finished at 12-3.

I had a great time despite the tiny chairs. I hope there's more sumo in my future!

Thanksgiving Dinner

To help us homesick expats celebrate the holiday in style, the FIS school culture committee organized a special Thanksgiving dinner at the Hilton. Nana and I weren't really sure what we'd be eating, but we had our hopes up for some traditional Thanksgiving fare.

And we weren't disappointed! We had a private room at the Hilton buffet stocked with turkey, stuffing, potatoes, pumpkin soup, and cranberry sauce.
The only thing missing was a good old-fashioned pumpkin pie: we had to settle for an odd pumpkin tart and some pumpkin pudding.
In addition to our private buffet, we also had free range over the main buffet, which included mostly Japanese or pan-Asian dishes, as well as enormous piles of crab legs.
It took a little bit of work to get that melted butter (in Japan, they serve crab legs with ponzu sauce), but according to Nana the result was well worth it. I, in the meantime, spent most of my stomach capacity on the old-fashioned Thanksgiving fare, which was delicious (but, it must be said, not quite like Grandma used to make), and on red meat, which can be hard to come by in this town.

Edited to add: Go team Crab!