Saturday, March 10, 2012

Shiatsu and sushi with sumo wrestlers

A sumo line-up before the tournaments

The entrance to Ryogoku stadium in Tokyo

Some years back, we were invited to watch a sumo tournament in Tokyo as guests of one of the sport's very important patrons. This meant getting to the sumo stadium in Tokyo's Ryogoku district just a little past mid-afternoon, and then preparing to sit in a small floor space cross-legged (if you were a guy) or in a semi-kneeling position (if you were female). Basically, it's a box for eight, six or four, and you can think of it as the squares in a chocolate bar in terms of position. If you have a chocolate bar with six squares, that means three rows of two.

The tournaments themselves are pretty short jousts, but there are so many jousts that in total it takes a long time. The day's jousts will start with the most junior sumo wrestlers and then eventually work itself to the most important bouts, which are the wrestling bouts between the champion yokozuna (the highest rank for sumo).

If you're seated in a VIP area, you still have a pretty small floor space -- still the chocolate bar arrangement -- but an attendant from one of the service companies taking care of you or your general area will bring a paper bag of goodies for each person.


Inside, you'll find a boxed meal of Japanese delicacies that can be eaten cold, some snacks, perhaps a can of beer or a small bottle of sake, and little souvenirs like key chains, tiny sake cups with sumo wrestler images on them, or a hand towel with the name of the stadium.

The sumo goodie bag

Japanese boxed meals are eaten by everyone so catering companies have perfected the art of choosing and making a boxed meal that can be eaten cold -- even the rice. The box will usually have rice rolls, pickled vegetables, grilled fish, simmered vegetables and perhaps cold chicken. It's okay, but I personally prefer a hot meal. The attendant may also pour everyone some hot tea to go with the meal.


As you're eating, the tournaments go on, and sometimes people watch, and other times they just chitchat. No one really pays attention to the minor wrestlers except for their relatives and perhaps some stable groupies; but when it comes to the major wrestlers, the atmosphere can get pretty intense with people shouting words of encouragement.

That's how cramped the stadium is -- even from the VIP seats

It's fun to watch a couple of times, and I can understand that it can become pretty engrossing, especially if you decide to follow the career path of a famous wrestler. But it's those cramped seats I just can't take.

The panel of sumo referees


However, I have had two "run-ins" with two of Japan's top yokozuna, and interestingly, both at the very peak of their careers when they were the equivalent of rock stars in Japan.

One yokozuna was a great favorite of everyone since he was very young and he had just won at the top place at the season's grand tournament and become a yokozuna.

Now when I was living in Tokyo, I was going to this famous shiatsu sensei's home for some shiatsu treatments. Ordinarily, I like having a shiatsu master come over as home service is infinitely more comfortable; but this particular master was very skilled and famous so many important people came to see him and he had no time whatsoever for house calls.

The sumo version of the umpire


His treatment room was good for two, and for some reason, no one ever minded having a stranger next to them. Or perhaps no one had a choice if they wanted to see him. Well, one day, I came into the treatment room for my appointment and who did I see, but this famous yokozuna whose face was plastered all over the magazines and television gossip shows for having won the grand tournament and for having a couple of dates with a pretty young actress?

He was actually very nice in real life, though, and we did some small talk while we were both having our treatments. He was pretty curious about the Philippines and expressed an interest to go; although I don't think he ever went.

Someone loses a joust


My other yokozuna run-in happened at a famous sushi restaurant in the southern city of Fukuoka, where sumo tournaments are also held. My Japanese friend -- a big-time businessman who was (and is) very nice but he had (and still has) an ego almost as big as his fortune -- was getting married for the fourth time and I had traveled all the way from Tokyo to attend his high-profile wedding. There were over a thousand people and I found myself seated across two of Japan's future prime ministers and the future editor in chief of Japan's most influential newspaper.

Sumo wrestlers before the bout

Anyway, the night before the wedding, he held a very small pre-wedding dinner at a sushi restaurant for some friends and I had gone. Perhaps because it was just a sushi restaurant, I'd chosen a simple black dress which I'd worn together with a very striking snake belt that I'd bought off an artist in Venice. It looked very nice, actually, and I was very pleased with this combination.

Anyway, the pre-wedding party went the usual way of pre-wedding parties, even if it was in a sushi restaurant. But midway, someone burst into the room and said: "So-and-so is in the next room!"

Someone wins a joust


So-and-so was then Japan's top yokozuna and we all knew him because he'd just won the Fukuoka Sumo Tournament that very same night. He'd probably gone for sushi right after to celebrate.

Of course we all wanted to see him and congratulate him, but only a couple of people stood up to have a peek and I was one of them. I stepped into the private room next door where he was holding court with about eight people around a private counter with their own sushi chef. When he saw me, he said in Japanese: "Oh no. That's a snake." He looked like he had seen a ghost and he was referring to my belt.

Those are the sponsors' advertisements, would you believe?

He'd just won the highest prize for sumo but apparently he considered snakes his personal ill omens -- and thus, a bad tiding for his future tournaments. Needless to say, I went back to my sushi as fast as I could. And, as he was never really one of my favorite sumo wrestlers, I never really kept track after that as to whether the snake brought him ill tidings in future tournaments or not.

Just another story from a never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.



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