Well Worth The Effort.
As many of the readers here at Tachiai know, I took the big step of taking a trip to Tokyo to watch sumo live at the Kokugikan. While I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and found the trip quite rewarding, I thought I would share some of the details of the trip to help anyone considering doing the same.
Flying To Japan – JAL 065
Although I have a large number of miles and some decent status on American Airlines, I chose to fly to Tokyo on JAL. There were a number of reasons why. Firstly, I was traveling over with a long term friend who lives in San Diego. The JAL flight left from there, and was on a Boeing 787, a composite body aircraft that operates at higher cabin pressure than the 777 alternative. This translated into less jet lag, and a more comfortable trip all around. It should also be noted that the JAL economy class seats are really very nice. Wider and with more space between them than any of the US carriers provide.
As you might expect, the Japanese flight crew were the acme of customer service, attention and all around professionals. The entire trip was a notch or two above my typical international flight on American. The food was very good, too.
Living In Japan – Air BnB
Hotels in Japan cost a fortune. Space is at a premium, and accommodations for westerners, who are usually looking for more space, tend to run $300 / night more more. My friend decided to try Air BnB, and scored what in my opinion was a major coup. We rented an entire house in Sumida, just 3 blocks from the Kokugikan for about half of what we would pay for a hotel. But let’s be clear. This house was small, no, this house was tiny.
The footprint was about 12′ x 12′. When we ended up meeting the neighbors, they were surprised that two full sized Americans were living in that house. One of them said, “My house is small, but that house is too small!”. One of them referred to it as the “Rabbit Hutch”.
We found the house to be a tiny delight. Yeah, there were several adjustments we had to make to the very limited space, but it was RIGHT THERE. Sleeping was on tatami mats, and for Americans used to sleeping on beds, it took a couple of days before one could feel comfortable sleeping that way. But once used to it, I will admit my back never felt better.
Due to the preponderance of convincence stores and everything else in this neighborhood, we wanted for nothing. In fact, we were next door to a really fantastic smelling curry shop, that we kept not being able to catch open and serving food. Until the last couple of days, and then it was “Jackpot!”.
Watching Sumo – Kokugikan
Being 3 blocks away from the center of the sumo universe has many advantages. Firstly, no train rides fighting the crowds to or from the stadium. Secondly, you see rikishi going about their daily lives everywhere. Yes. there is the language barrier, but the Japanese public are kind, friendly people who never fail to go out of their way to help you or try to make you feel welcome in their country.
The staff at the Kokugikan include guides who speak a variety of different languages, and they will not only help you find your seat, but can help you figure out where everything is. If you catch them in the morning before it gets busy, they may even take you around and show you the stadium if you want.
I purchased my tickets through buysumotickets.com. They were not cheap, but they did an excellent job, and we had some fantastic seat. One day we were sitting on the 2nd floor, in the “chair” seats, but I was 6 seats away from the Imperial box. The view was frankly unparalleled. But if you go for the early matches, you will find the Kokugikan largely empty until Juryo. So feel free to go downstairs and check out the view of the zabuton. But do take your shoes off. In fact, you may want to consider taking slip on / off shoes with you to Japan, as you will be out of your shoes and into house sandals or slippers all the time.
There were an impressive amount of non-Japanese folks at the basho. It gave me a renewed appreciation of the potential for Sumo to be a global sport. The other thing that surprised me is that large blocks of tickets seem to go daily to groups. One day it seems to have been the little old ladies club, the next day it was the Salaryman’s Drinking Union or something like that. Around the start of Makuuchi, big groups (200+) would stream into the Kokugikan and all sit together in the same section. The other group we could always count on were the high school groups. It seemed each day 3-6 groups of highschoolers would take up several sections.
The other thing of note. Between 1:30 and 2:30, the sekitori show up at the Kokugikan. Usually this is a public affair, and they walk right down the side alley between the train station and the stadium, with their retainers in tow.
Also, as they arrive, they stop by both he guard booth, where they check in, and this tent. At the tent, the drop off their mobile phone, which is placed in a ziplock baggie, and placed in a metal box. I am going to guess this is a rule that was put in place after the betting scandals from a few years ago.
I happened to be very lucky, and I encountered Wakaichiro in the Kokugikan on day 2 after his match. In person he is the nicest fellow you could ever meet, and I am quite delighted he took the time to say hello to one of his fans and talk for a few minutes. I am sure the he had many chores waiting for him back at the stable.
Living In Japan – Food
You can eat yourself to death in Japan. There is so much good food everywhere that you can’t really go wrong. The biggest challenge once again is the language barrier. I used two applications to help me augment my somewhat shaky Japanese skills:
VoiceTra – this is a voice to voice translator. Say something in English into it, it spits out a guess of what you said in Japanese. It also shows you a round trip transaction – it passes the Japanese back re-translated to English. This helps you figure out if it guessed wrong on what you meant. It also shows you the phrase it spoke in Japanese in Kana, which is even more useful. When I got stuck, I pulled this thing out and it really helped.
Yomiwa – This is your Kanji cracker. You can take a picture of something in Kanji (say a menu) and use Yomiwa to tell you what it says. You can use a live feed from your camera, or snap a still and detect the text a few glyphs at a time. Using this tool, I was able to figure out the menus of a few of local eateries. Very helpful
Some places to eat, you get a menu. Some places you have a vending kiosk that allows you to select your food and some options. You put in your money and it spits out a printed receipt that you give to the cook and they prepare you food. Actually very fast, easy and works well if you are not quite up to stumbling through some spoke Japanese to order.
Oh, and that curry place next to the tiny house? We finally caught them open. It’s an older couple who seem to only serve the lunch crowd. Their little place can seat no more than 15 at a time. We were treated to Katsu Curry of a most remarkable flavor that it’s worthless to try and describe it. It was well worth the effort to catch them open
In summary, the entire Tokyo trip was somewhat out of the ordinary, even for folks who want to go see sumo. But I will confess that my appreciation for the sport and it’s place in the culture has been greatly expanded by my visit. I encourage our readers here at Tachiai to consider doing the same, as it is a worthy aspiration.