Scoring a Kinboshi at Azasu in New York

Sumo Merchandise at Azasu New York
Merchandise on display at New York’s popular Lower East Side izakaya Azasu

The growth of sumo in the western world has led me to a few interesting and exciting spots over the years. Here at Tachiai we have covered the Sumo Stew event that has dotted various parts of America – so when a friend asked if I’d like to check out the sumo-themed izakaya Azasu on a recent trip to New York, I jumped at the chance.

Banzuke at Azasu New York
A framed banzuke from a past Nagoya, on display at Azasu

Azasu is located on Clinton Street in NYC’s Lower East Side, and is the sister restaurant to New York sake bar Yopparai. A fairly unassuming locale from the outside, one step inside vaults you into a world of ozumo-related goodness. The walls are covered in tegata from famous rikishi past and present – including famed Yokozuna such as the great Takanohana – and the front of the store boasts a merchandise store that practically doubles as a sumo shrine.

Tegata at Azasu New York
Just some of the many tegata on display at Azasu in New York

The restaurant presents ample opportunity for novice banzuke-readers to practise locating the names of favourite rikishi. An old banzuke from a Nagoya basho past hung framed in the front of the venue, which provided a nostalgic moment to see retired Yokozuna Haramafuji’s shikona on the rankings list once again. But even the toilets at Azasu provide this unorthodox type of reading material: indeed, the bathroom walls are lined with old banzuke!

Banzuke Bathroom at Azasu New York
Old banzuke line the walls of the toilets!

I’ve been told that Azasu also doubles as a venue for viewing live sumo. Unlike the Sumo Stew events which sometimes display replays (owing to the hour of the event), Azasu apparently has a commitment to live sumo for patrons. During my visit, the restaurant happened to show highlights from the latest Nagoya basho – which was a great time to discuss the physics of Enho and Chiyomaru with fellow diners.

As for the menu staples, I have to say I walked away impressed. While I swerved on the chankonabe options, this izakaya offers a number of hot pot selections to cater to punters with various dietary needs and restrictions, and the nabe comes recommended for parties of 3 or more.

Kinboshi Tofu at Azasu New York
A real treat: Azasu’s “kinboshi tofu”

My dining companions and I opted for a kushikatsu-forward selection and were not disappointed by the perfectly grilled and fried skewers which came accompanied by a heavy miso-dipping sauce which reminded me of the famous Osaka chain Daruma. We topped it off with the restaurant’s “chanko salad” – a very liberal interpretation on the “everything but the kitchen sink” concept that was notable more for its sumo size, and the intriguingly named “kinboshi tofu,” a wonderful tofu dish topped with an egg yolk and copious piles of bonito shavings.

Visitors who enjoy engaging in alcoholic delights will also be keen to note the izakaya’s extensive library of whiskey, shochu and sake.

All in all, as somewhat of a washoku connoisseur and a committed sumo fan, I have to say I walked away impressed and fulfilled by the visit. If I’m ever in New York during a basho I plan to make Azasu a staple of my trip – and our readers would be remiss not to do the same!

Azasu is located at 49 Clinton Street in New York City. Hat tip to Tachiai reader Lydia for the recommendation!

Takakeisho’s Bento Box: A Tachiai Review

Takakeisho's Bento Box at Kokugikan
The Takakeisho Bento Box

The last day that I visited Kokugikan during the recent Natsu honbasho was actually also the first day I had ever had the fortune of sitting in one of the “masu” boxes on the ground floor. It felt appropriate to celebrate the moment by engaging in one of the time-honored sumo and uniquely Japanese experiences: purcashing a proper bento box for lunch and enjoying a meal while watching some feisty lower division matches.

Given that Natsu was the first basho following the promotion of Takakeisho to Ozeki, it was a good moment to explore the Takakeisho bento box. As covered previously on the site, there are bento boxes for sale which contain selections from all of the Ozeki and Yokozuna (as well as some other generic boxes). This also means, that following the demotion of Tochinoshin to Sekiwake before the Natsu basho, that the previously available Tochinoshin bento was no longer available (and presumably, as the man himself resumes Ozeki duties, will be making a return for Nagoya).

Takakeisho Bento Box Interior
Takakeisho’s bento is rich with both flavour and detail

The Takakeisho bento included the following:

  • Umeboshi rice with black sesame seeds
  • Katsu pork with sauce and mustard
  • Soy sauce egg hard boiled
  • Tempura thing which seemed to be a fish cake
  • Broccoli and corn
  • Mushrooms (buried under the egg – they really pack a lot of stuff in there)
  • Carrot cut into the shape of a flower

At ¥1150, it’s an insane bargain (as much food is at sumo), especially by western standards. The box feels like it would easily be a $20+ package here in the States.

It should be pointed out that if you want to get your hands on one, then you’d better arrive well before Juryo: all of the sekitori bento typically sell out on a normal day at the basho, and the new nature of the Takakeisho box and popularity of its curator meant that his were flying off the shelves quicker than usual. A further pro tip for our readers: if you’re seated on the ground floor and all of the bento have sold out, more may be available in the gift and snack stands on the second floor of Kokugikan.

Takakeisho has done a great job on the whole of choosing very attractive – especially for sumo – and filling ingredients. As a very hearty bento, I actually think it is a box that would be very suitable especially for the Hatsu basho in January.

Katsu, Tempura and Egg inside Takakeisho's Bento Box
Beside the katsu and underneath the perfectly cooked egg, delicious mushrooms are revealed

Let’s get into the taste. The dried marinated fish element is probably better suited to the start of the meal. And if we’re talking tactics, I’d probably eat this from the left, the right then the center.

The broccoli and corn were surprisingly flavorful – moist and incredibly well seasoned, very peppery. These were among the standout items of the dish. Conversely, if I have one complaint, it would be that the rice was somewhat cold and hard, although I don’t know that that can be helped in the bento format. The egg was extremely delicious and a perfect caramel shade.

It was a bit a bit early in the day for me to imbibe when I was eating it, but Takakeisho’s bento would be a very nice accompaniment for any beer. The tempura item was a bit bland, but the mustard packet helped.

Four very generous cuts of katsu were included, and the accompanying sauce was very rich. I recommend using it sparingly.

No wonder Takakeisho came back early from kyujo! if I knew this was at Kokugikan…

Tachiai’s Rating: ⚪️⚪️⚪️⚪️⚫️

An Eventful 24 Hours in Fukuoka

Fukuoka - Naka River
Fukuoka’s Naka River: a lovely place to stroll

Hello sumo fans! I’m here on the ground in Fukuoka, where I will be providing some coverage from Days 6 and 7 of the Fukuoka basho. I landed about 24 hours ago, and have been spending some time enjoying the city as I get fired up for a couple days at the Fukuoka Kokusai Center.

Auspicious Beginnings

I did manage to catch the final bouts of Day 4 live, and the withdrawal of Kisenosato wasn’t half as shocking as the manner of his defeat to Tochiozan. The Yokozuna’s total capitulation has been the only thing I’ve seen this trip more stunning and surprising than what awaited me as I entered Fukuoka Airport’s arrivals hall: the camera and interview crew of TV Tokyo’s Why Did You Come To Japan?, which chased me down for an impromptu interview. We spoke for about 10 minutes about why I love Ikioi and how I was looking forward to Tonkotsu ramen and hanging out with my friends, but apparently that wasn’t interesting enough for them to follow me around for the rest of the week. Given that I spent 3 days flying to Fukuoka, I acquitted myself very poorly, but it was still fun to get what felt like the paparazzi treatment upon my arrival.

Chashu, Coffee & Conveyors

Chashu Ramen at Hakata Issou
Chashu Ramen at Hakata Issou

After this, it was time to check out some ramen at Hakata Issou. I chose this location first based on its proximity to Hakata Station, as I had to kill some time before checking into my nearby Airbnb – and what better way to kill time than crushing a bowl of tonkotsu ramen for the first time in Hakata? I discovered this spot through Ramen connoisseur Ramen Beast‘s mobile app. If you don’t follow Ramen Beast on Instagram or have the app, you are missing out on a good way to upgrade your Japanese culinary experience, as he’s done a lot of the hard work for you. According to Ramen Beast, Issou’s master is a former Ikkousha trainee whose “pork bone based soup is constantly mixed as it simmers, which mixes the animal fat and water and creates bubbles, almost frothing like a cappuccino.” Afforded a seat at the bar, I got a live chashu slicing show, which I’d have paid to watch all day, frankly. It was a worthy bowl.

Rec Coffee Fukuoka
An award-winning brew at Fukuoka’s REC Coffee

The next morning, I ventured out early in search of coffee and ended up at REC Coffee‘s tastefully appointed Kencho Higashi shop. According to HereNow, the shop is home to the two time back-to-back Japan barista champion. One of the many things I love about Japanese food culture that sometimes misses headlines in other countries is the extreme love and attention to detail from the coffee shokunin. Make no mistake, this is a country with an incredible coffee heritage, and I enjoyed their brown sugar latte with a thick slab of buttered toast.

Hyotanzushi Fukuoka
Hyotan-zushi in Fukuoka: a bustling, packed restaurant where you will stack your plates high.

Finally, today I took in lunch at an incredibly popular sushi spot with the locals, Hyotan-zushi near Tenjin station. Hyotan has two locations, and I opted for the earlier-opening conveyor belt-powered spot at Solaria Stage. Despite rocking up not long after the 11am opening time, it was already completely full and a line soon formed out the door. It was however worth waiting for: despite the conveyor belt containing a large variety of excellent catches, it was an old-school style venue with the chefs in close enough proximity to call out quick custom orders. The shop served up possibly two of the best pieces of anago I’ve ever had and it was a nice treat to enjoy a buttery, luxurious otoro at a much more affordable price point than I’m accustomed.

Shopping & Shrines

It’s clear to me already that Fukuoka is a city that over-indexes on shopping options, given its population relative to other places in Japan (certainly Nagoya, for example). I’ve had enough time to visit a few of its mega-malls, and the shopping around the main Hakata and Tenjin stations, both in the large depato as well as the underground walkways, is fairly remarkable. I also managed to check in at the city’s impressive Canal City shopping district, home to numerous shops, arcades, a Bellagio-esque choreographed water fountain display, and the ominously titled Ramen Stadium – a venue which promises to showcase several different varieties of ramen, and one I may yet take in later in the trip.

Hakata Gion Yamakasa float
One of the Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival’s famous floats

Even more remarkable than the capital excesses of the city are its shrines, and I’ve visited two already: the Kushida Shrine and the Sumiyoshi-jinja Shrine. The Kushida Shrine, located near the famous Kawabata Shotengai, contained a float over 10 meters tall from the Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival, which started 900 years ago in “an attempt to secure protection from a plague.” Every year these famous massive floats are carried down a 5km course through Fukuoka. I always love walking around the grounds of a shinto temple and while I do not know much about the religion, there is a very overwhelming, difficult to describe feeling one gets while walking under a row of red torii, which can be experienced at the Kushida Shrine. The Shrine additionally features an omikuji stall, where fortunes can be purchased in many languages. I did this, and disappointingly retrieved a somewhat grim fortune!

Sumiyoshi-jinja Shrine Fukuoka
The tree-lined entrance of the Sumiyoshi-jinja Shrine

Finally, the Sumiyoshi-jinja Shrine is located about a ten minute walk from Hakata Station. The lovely tree-lined entryway called to mind the Shrine at Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park, where I welcomed the new year a couple years back. I arrived in time to see a Shinto priest conducting a number of rituals, many of which will be familiar to the casual sumo observer given the sport’s origin story, even if you do not know much about the religion itself. This shrine also featured an omikuji stall, where all of the fortunes were tucked into lovely wooden sea bream. It’s a lovely souvenir, however the fortunes here are only available in Japanese.

After all of this, I’m looking forward to tracking down a great yatai, even more tonkotsu ramen… and, oh yeah, experiencing some great sumo!

Wishes for a Trip to Fukuoka

kotoshogiku
“Sho” me the belly

Earlier this year, Herouth shared with us the Tanabata festival – where rikishi participated in the ritual of writing down one’s wishes to be hung from a bamboo. While the festival usually takes place on or around July 7, the rikishi largely wrote their wishes for what was then the upcoming campaign (and in many cases for life in general: my two personal favourites being Ishiura’s desire to create more children and Chiyotairyu’s “I need money” plea).

I’ve been fortunate to have some amazing experiences in sumo this year – from Golden Week to the Jungyo, meeting the legendary Konishiki and conducting some fun interviews for the site. As we head into the final honbasho of 2018, I’d like to share some of my wishes for the upcoming tournament. The Kyusho basho in Fukuoka will complete my “set” of all four honbasho locations. I think it’s fair to say it’s also – at least for westerners – probably the more obscure and difficult location to reach, owing to its distance from most major entry ports to Japan.

Reception for Local Heroes

There’s no question that sumo fans have their favourites, and the likes of Mitakeumi and Endo notably have massive cheering sections most days of each basho. Watching the Kyushu basho in past years on TV however, I’ve noticed that the locals from that part of the country – who aren’t all typically fan favourites – tend to get a fantastic reception in their “home” tournament. Of course, Yoshikaze’s head-first “berzerker” style is beloved by sumo fans worldwide, but I’m looking forward to experiencing first hand how the local crowd will receive #BigGuns Shohozan and Kotoshogiku. While it’s probably too much to wish for the famous back-belly bend from the former Ozeki, he’s not getting any younger and this may be one of the last chances (if not the last) to see him close to his hometown crowd.

Yatai

It’s impossible to talk about sumo culture without talking about food culture. In Tokyo, you can get anything you want, most anytime that you want it. In Nagoya, for me, well, it’s all about the katsu. Osaka is the nation’s kitchen and incredible delights of okonomiyaki, takoyaki, and shockingly, the best bowl of ramen I’ve ever had are within 3 minutes of sumo’s Kansai venue. But Fukuoka has a unique experience I’m looking to enjoy, which are the “Yatai” food stalls which line the city. Each stall has around 5 or 6 indoor seats and gets built up every day before being taken down every night, with vast ranges in the types of cuisine on offer. NHK World did a good piece on these Yatai which I highly recommend, as it has helped open my eyes to what promises to be a delicious local flavour I can add to my sumo experience.

Performance

As we touched on in this week’s Tachiai podcast (audio here, video here), I’m looking for some big results in Kyushu: An Ozeki yusho challenge. The return of low ranked Maegashira snaffling sansho special prizes. Storming returns to form from the local rikishi. Abi to continue to discover his potential for greatness if he can harness the reach of those long arms to go with his superstar personality and dexterity. Ishiura to henka Tokushoryu in the Juryo playoff and Tomokaze to join Enho, Wakatakakage and Mitoryu in the 2018 class of new sekitori to consolidate their status as the next class of top professionals.

But most of all, I’m looking forward to the experience of just being there. As many of our readers – and Bruce, from his last minute jaunt to Aki – can attest, there is nothing like the atmosphere and excitement of live sumo, and a day out at the arena with thousands of your newest, bento-box munching, shikona-laden-towel waving, chanko-devouring friends. Hakkeyoi!