Georgian Wine Review (Part 2)

For a review, and a look into the disjointed way Andy’s mind works:

My wife also bought a Georgian Red Wine the other day along with the sparkling wine we had the other day. (See Post 1) Tonight, we are having the red. I enjoy it. It’s not too dry. I’m not a big fan of Cabernet Sauvignons. Granted, we’re not having it with steak but I asked for pork kimchi. My wife was not pleased with my choice of dinner but I got hooked on buta kimchi when I used to live in Hodogaya.

Tsinandali, home of Georgian Poet Alexander Chavchavadze

This particular wine was from the Teliani Valley winery. This was $12.99 and will be a regular in our house. Not too tart, or green, or too dry…my wife says the word is “balanced.” I smell a bit of black pepper. And while I wouldn’t advise eating it with kimchi, the cheddar cheese that my wife picked out was really nice. Both the wine and the cheese were smooth. The wine comes from grapes grown at the Tsinandali estate, pictured. This Mukuzani wine is apparently an international award winning wine. For 13 bucks?

I’ve got to visit Georgia. And that’s not because there was some big fancy neo-conservative pow-wow along the beach. It seems like a beautiful country. It’s perhaps fitting that Tochinoshin is doing so well, the round, Georgian script reminds me of Mongolian. I should probably start learning both languages. If I could read Georgian, then I’d be able to read the rest of the wine bottle.

My fond memories of buta kimchi come from this izakaya below, “Yume.” It’s about half a block from the Hodogaya JR train station, I believe along the infamous Tokaido where I used to watch the awesome customized Japanese long haul semi trucks. I hope Yume still there because my bottle of shochu should still be on the wall. I think it’s bottle #4 and should be about half full. Downstairs is a little bar with maybe 6 seats. It wasn’t until I’d been there a dozen times that I learned there’s an upstairs with tables with hibachi grills.

Yume

When I came home from Japan, I learned that the sushi chef at the new Japanese restaurant in my parent’s home town was from…Hodogaya. Then when I moved to DC and started working for FRA, we had an intern from JR. His wife was from Hodogaya and was living there when I was there. I just have a feeling there’s some Murakami portal to a different world there in humdrum Hodogaya. 懐かしい。

*Wow, I put this together quickly before dinner last night and didn’t have time to edit. Geez…what a disjointed mess. I did some editing but left the bit about Yume at the end because I miss that place.

Georgian Wine Review (Part 1)

 

Georgian Sparkling Wine

Yes, it’s been a while since Tochinoshin won his yusho but I finally have an opportunity to write about Georgian wine. You see, here in Montgomery County, MD, we have weird alcohol laws. Our town was actually dry for a long time after prohibition and even now there are strict laws that limit the sale of alcohol. My wife was in DC the other day and picked up a Georgian sparkling wine and a Georgian red wine.

Dinner

 

I’m no oenophile so I’m not going to talk about fancy tasting notes. I did pick up a bit of a yeast-like smell that I often smell with sparkling wine and champagne. My wife is a certified wine expert in Japan and her only issue with it was that the bubbles were not quite as active as she likes, particularly the next day. I must say, it was not flat and seemed pretty active to me. But today it is noticeably less “bubbly” than other second-day sparkling wines I’ve had. Anyway, I liked it. It tastes good and only cost $11 for the bottle.

She also bought a red wine so I’ll post about that in the next few days after we drink it. But tonight we had gorgonzola pasta with our bubbly.

Natsu Banzuke Crystal Ball

I started writing these prediction posts exactly a year ago, so this will be my seventh banzuke forecast for Tachiai. The accuracy has varied from basho to basho, though I think it’s fair to say that the forecasts give a very good idea of roughly where each rikishi will land—in most cases, within one rank or closer.

Upper San’yaku

Y1

Kakuryu

Hakuho

Y2

Kisenosato

O1

Takayasu

Goeido

No changes here from the Haru banzuke.

Lower San’yaku

S

Tochinoshin

Ichinojo

K

Endo

Mitakeumi

With his 7-8 record, Mitakeumi will lose his Sekiwake rank, but should only fall to Komusubi. Tochinoshin moves over to the East side, while Ichinojo moves up to Sekiwake. Endo finally gets his San’yaku promotion, and is a sufficiently strong candidate with his 9-6 record at M1e that I have him on the East side, although the banzuke committee could certainly switch him and Mitakeumi.

Upper Maegashira

M1

Tamawashi

Kaisei

M2

Abi

Shohozan

M3

Daieisho

Yutakayama

M4

Chiyoshoma

Ikioi

M5

Shodai

Kotoshogiku

What’s certain is that there will be a lot of turnover in this area of the banzuke, as with the exception of Shohozan, everyone in the M2-M5 ranks checked in with a losing record, and only Shodai limited his losses to 8. Many in the ranks immediately below this group also did not distinguish themselves, meaning that we have to reach far down the banzuke for viable promotion candidates. Exactly how this will play out is much less certain, as there are many possible scenarios, and the considerations going into them are complex.

Let’s start with the easy part. Both Tamawashi and Kaisei did well enough to earn promotions to San’yaku, but since there are no open slots for them, they will have to be content with the top maegashira rank. Abi and Shohozan are the only plausible candidates for M2, although their ordering is uncertain. Abi will jump 5 ranks, and will join the joi in only his third top-division basho after earning 10-5 records in the first two. Similarly, Daieisho is the only plausible candidate for M3e. He will also jump 5 ranks, matching his highest career rank.

From here, things get complicated. The next best numerical score belongs to Shodai, but he can’t take the M3w slot due to his make-koshi record at M4w. The best he could do would be to remain at his current rank, though it’s more likely he gets a minimal demotion to M5e. Kotoshogiku could technically  be only demoted from M3e to M3w, but given his 6-9 record, this seems overly generous, and he should really be ranked below Shodai. The next best candidate for M3e is none other than Yutakayama, whose 10-5 record could vault him 8 ranks up the banzuke, all the way from M11.

If we put Shodai and M5e and Kotoshogiku right below him at M5w, who fills the M4 slots? The choice is between the next two strong kachi-koshi records, which belong to Chiyoshoma (9-6 at M10) and Ikioi (11-4 at M14), and the other two high-rankers due for big demotions, Komusubi Chiyotairyu (4-11) and M2 Takarafuji (5-10). My forecast favors the guys moving up the banzuke over those moving down. If the banzuke committee agrees, six out of the ten rikishi in this group would be moving up at least 5 ranks!

Mid-Maegashira

M6

Chiyotairyu

Takarafuji

M7

Chiyomaru

Ryuden

M8

Yoshikaze

Hokutofuji

M9

Kagayaki

Daishomaru

M10

Okinoumi

Daiamami

M11

Chiyonokuni

Takakeisho

At Natsu, this area of the banzuke will serve primarily as the landing zone for higher-ranked rikishi who achieved make-koshi records ranging from just below .500 (Yoshikaze, Kagayaki, Okinoumi, Chiyonokuni) to horrific (hello, Chiyotairyu and Takakeisho). The only bright spots are Ryuden, who moves up from M9 with a minimal kachi-koshi, and the Oitekaze stablemates Daishomaru and Daiamami, who vault up and out of the demotion danger zone with their 9-6 and 10-5 records.

Lower Maegashira

M12

Asanoyama

Arawashi

M13

Ishiura

Sadanoumi

M14

Takekaze

Tochiozan

M15

Aoiyama

Kyokutaisei

M16

Aminishiki

Kotoeko

M17

Gagamaru


The bottom of the banzuke is complicated by the fact that there are 6 Makuuchi rikishi who earned demotions by the usual criteria (in order from most to least deserving of demotion: Hedenoumi, Kotoyuki, Sokokurai, Onosho/Nishikigi, and Myogiryu), but only 3 Juryo rikishi who clearly earned promotion: Sadanoumi, Takekaze, and Kyokutaisei. Aminishiki is borderline, and the next two best candidates, Kotoeko (10-5 at J8) and Gagamaru (8-7 at J5), are ranked too low to be normally considered for promotion with those records. Obviously, the numbers moving up and down have to match. What to do?

My initial inclination was to demote Nishikigi in favor of Aminishiki, and save Onosho (who was kyujo) and Myogiryu. Over on the sumo forum, Asashosakari suggested that they could instead demote Onosho and save both Nishikigi and Myogiryu. The solution I’m currently favoring, given how poor their records were, is that both Nishikigi and Myogiryu will be demoted, as will Onosho. I’m guessing that the banzuke committee will be more likely to promote kachi-koshi Juryo rikishi with insufficiently strong records (after all, this has happened in the past) than to keep in the top division rikishi who failed to defend their places there. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see this play out in any number of ways. We’ll find out on April 26th!

 

A Biking Tour of Aichi

This NHK World video features a biking tour around Aichi prefecture. Nagoya is the largest city in Aichi prefecture, so it is very important to sumo fans as the home of the July Honbasho. As the video shows, Aichi is also important to the production of “Tai”, sea bream, that wonderful red fish we associate with yusho, promotion, and celebration. Anyway, if anyone out there is planning a trip to Nagoya to see the tournament, chances are you’ll be looking for other stuff to do off-hours or on days that you aren’t able to manage tickets, so this video may give a few ideas.

Bike Around Aichi

Another important feature of this video is its focus on “craft”, monozukuri 物作り…literally “making stuff.” The concept is central to Japanese industry and life. We’ve seen that with the recent video Herouth pointed out that showed (among other things) how sumo wrestlers’ combs are made. I’ve been particularly interested in it lately, playing around with making whisky. My favorite part is malting barley. The smell of germinating barley is nice. In this video, there’s a factory making hamanatto…in a woman’s house. It’s so awesome.

As I find things like this around sumo venues, I’ll try to bring them to your attention so you find things to enrich any trips you make to Japan. I’d like to help others avoid “Lost in Translation” syndrome, having experienced it myself when I first moved there.

Booking Your Trip to Experience Sumo in Osaka

EDION Arena Osaka Exterior
The EDION Arena in Osaka

Wherever you are around the world, you’re probably fortunate enough to catch at least a few of the day’s sumo highlights from NHK World. But as many of us here at Tachiai have been fortunate enough to experience, there is no comparing the highlights (or even the extended live broadcast) to actually being in the arena. But sometimes, just planning the trip is unbelievably exhausting! So I put together, as part of a new series on Tachiai, a walkthrough to cover the essentials of planning your trip.

Each of Grand Sumo’s four tournament cities provides a unique and interesting experience. Today I’m going to tell you, in painstakingly explicit detail, how I put my trip together to Experience Sumo at the EDION Arena in Osaka. If you have more questions, please don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments section below – your questions will help other Tachiai readers experience sumo as well! Click through to read more after the jump… Continue reading

Haru Jungyo!

With Haru Basho now in the rear view, time for Jungyo! The Iki Thump tour officially kicks off on April 1 at the Jingyu Kaikan in Ujinakanokiricho. No, I did not just step on my keyboard but thanks for asking.

So, for those of you unable to get your fill of sumo during the last fortnight in Osaka, there are still opportunities to watch your favorite wrestlers in action…maybe. There have also been a lot of injuries, including those to Nelly, I mean, Ikioi so we do hope they get a chance to recover. For those on the path to recovery – Onosho? Ura? – I wonder if this may be a nice way to ease back into the routine, though with Ura now in the depths of Makushita, I doubt it. But wouldn’t that be a way to keep the sport in the headlines and off the “other sports” tabs on Japanese news sites? A full list of dates is available on the Sumo Kyokai website.

LocationDateVenueLatLong
伊勢神宮奉納April 1, 2018三重県伊勢市宇治中之切町15234.462801,136.7185575
中津川市April 2, 2018岐阜県東美濃ふれあいセンター中津川市茄子川1683-79735.4579753,137.4655545
堺市April 3, 2018大阪府 堺市金岡公園体育館 堺市北区長曽根町1179-1834.570691,135.506387
舞鶴市April 4, 2018京都府舞鶴文化公園体育館舞鶴市上安久420番地35.4550923,135.3378189
姫路市April 5, 2018兵庫県 姫路市立中央体育館 姫路市西延末9034.8212194,134.6699379
宝塚市April 6, 2018兵庫県 宝塚市立スポーツセンター総合体育館 宝塚市小浜1-1-1134.8022502,135.3606516
刈谷市April 7, 2018愛知県 ウィングアリーナ刈谷 愛知県刈谷市築地町荒田1番地35.0193854,137.0078769
静岡市April 8, 2018静岡県 草薙総合運動場体育館(このはなアリーナ) 静岡市駿河区栗原19-134.9883592,138.4245477
掛川市April 9, 2018静岡県 東遠カルチャーパーク総合体育館 掛川市大池225034.7854244,137.9991479
伊那市April 10, 2018長野県 伊那市民体育館メインアリーナ 伊那市西町5834-835.839454,137.9414958
東御市April 11, 2018長野県 東御中央公園第一体育館 東御市鞍掛177-236.3623777,138.3453912
草加市April 12, 2018埼玉県 草加市スポーツ健康都市記念体育館 草加市瀬崎6丁目31-135.8126413,139.8168489
川崎市April 13, 2018神奈川県 川崎市とどろきアリーナ 川崎市中原区等々力1−335.5873118,139.6453032
藤沢市April 14, 2018神奈川県 秋葉台文化体育館 藤沢市遠藤2000-135.3887615,139.4420105
高崎市April 15, 2018群馬県 高崎アリーナ 高崎市下和田町4丁目1-1836.3160485,139.0106099
靖國神社奉納April 16, 2018東京都 靖國神社相撲場 東京都千代田区九段北3-1-135.6945115,139.7405352
柏市April 18, 2018千葉県 柏市中央体育館 柏市柏下73柏市民文化会館横35.8675563,139.9833309
柏市April 19, 2018千葉県 柏市中央体育館 柏市柏下73柏市民文化会館横35.8675563,139.9833309
町田市April 20, 2018東京都 町田市立総合体育館 町田市南成瀬5-1235.5359736,139.4770061
八王子市April 21, 2018東京都 エスフォルタアリーナ八王子 八王子市狭間町1453-135.6397614,139.2903041
青梅市April 22, 2018東京都 青梅市立総合体育館 青梅市河辺町4丁目16-135.7807013,139.2821679
取手市April 24, 2018茨城県 取手グリーンスポーツセンター 取手市野々井1299番地35.9191301,140.024319
笠間市April 25, 2018茨城県 笠間市民体育館 笠間市石井2068-136.3853014,140.2442122
越谷市April 27, 2018埼玉県 越谷市総合体育館 越谷市増林2丁目3335.9026965,139.8114681

節分 – The Japanese Setsubun Festival

Setsubun is a Japanese festival to celebrate the coming of Spring. It falls on February 3, which should be easy for Americans to remember as the day after Groundhog Day. For non-Americans among Tachiai readership, let’s just say Groundhog Day is a great movie by Bill Murray and leave it at that.*

The ritual at the center of setsubun is the bean throwing, mamemaki (豆撒き), shown here in this tweet found by Herouth (@SumoFollower).

Continue reading

Tachiai 忘年会チャレンジ

Long ago, in an 英会話 far away, your correspondent was a terrified, socially awkward foreigner in 日吉. I was plopped into a classroom with virtually no training in the middle of October 2003. After a few fits and starts, I was able to grasp the gist of the our school’s methodology: keep the students entertained and help them learn something. There were amazing days and quite a few challenging ones. In this context, when December rolled around I was introduced to the wonderful Japanese custom of the Bonenkai.

Japan has many New Year customs which this blog will highlight with several posts in the coming weeks. Do not worry, their relevance to sumo will be apparent. In this post, I will highlight the Bonenkai. A literal translation of the kanji is “forget the year gathering”. Unlike the many customs, like setsubun, which are family oriented, the Bonenkai is different because it is oriented toward business and friends. This is more similar to “the company Christmas party” in the West. Many businesses will be closed for the first week of the new year so these parties are generally held before that break.

So, for a business person in Japan, December can be a super busy month. Often there will be a Bonenkai with your section or division, then there will be another one with clients, others with friends. This party is generally an alcohol fueled gathering at a local izakaya where colleagues and friends will celebrate the end of the last year. At an izakaya there are no photocopiers, though, so our grand tradition of getting drunk and photocopying our butts is sorely missed. Instead, many izakaya have a karaoke machine which lend themselves to my horrible renditions of 90s grunge classics.

While the name may demonstrate the reason for the party, these gatherings are not dismal affairs. Rather than dwelling on the challenges of the past year, colleagues and friends focus on appreciation for their support and look forward to the new year.

So, with December upon us, I urge Tachiai readers to go out and have your own Bonenkai where we can put this horrible 2017 behind us. Yes, we were blessed with a new Yokozuna and Ozeki only to quickly lose both to the disabled list. We quickly lost two ozeki and our electrifying youngster, Ura, went down to injury. Adding in the fallout from the fight in Tottori, we can see the reasons for our Bonenkai. If you have your own Bonenkai, take pictures and if you share them on Twitter, I’ll retweet and like them.

Rather than dwell on these past challenges, we raise a glass (with a few “Banzai!”) to Hakuho’s 40th, the resurgence of Uncle Sumo (Aminishiki), the continued growth of young talents from Asanoyama to Enho to Wakaichiro, and the comebacks of Endo and Okinoumi. Who will make the next Ozeki run? Takakeisho, Onosho, Tamawashi, Hokutofuji, or other?

Jungyo Tour: Ibaraki

 

Fukuroda Falls

Kisenosato and Takayasu had a bit of a homecoming today as the Fall Jungyo made a stop in their home prefecture of Ibaraki. Ibaraki is to the north-east of Tokyo and lies along the Pacific Ocean, south of Fukushima. The Fukuroda Falls are located in the Northern Ibaraki town of Daigo. The capital city is Mito. For those who like natto, Mito natto is supposedly “the bomb”. There’s a mountain called Tsukuba-san and one of the major cities is Tsukuba, home of the well-known University of Tsukuba.

There are two big lakes in Ibaraki called Kasumigaura and Kitaura. Ura means lake and you will recognize it from one famous shikona — no, not Ura (宇良). Ishiura’s “ura” (石) means “lake”.

The site of the Jungyo event was in Chikusei city. Chikusei City was created by the merger of several smaller towns with the city of Shimodate. The area is famous for its agriculture and produce, particularly watermelons, pears and strawberries. Chikusei’s website features a mascot (Chikkun) whose body is a watermelon and he has a pear and strawberry in his hat. For example, Tochiotome strawberries come from Ibaraki, as well as neighboring Tochigi and Aichi.

The more I read about Chikusei, the more I want to go. Unfortunately, the website is not really optimized for English. There’s a Google Translate dropdown menu at the top of the page. Look for the kanji for “translate” (翻訳). Hover over it and you’ll see many language options. So, basically you need to recognize the kanji before you can see the translation in your language.

Hi from Chikkun!

 

They have some great looking festivals and spas. There’s a summer festival where they take one of those big palanquins into a river that looks like a lot of fun. But for our rikishi, it’s quite a jaunt from Shizuoka, where they just had their Fuji jungyo and where they will return on the 11th for the Hamamatsu jungyo event.

On a tip from Nicolaah, I checked out Kyokara’s Instagram where he shared a map of their trip. お疲れ様です。I hope they’re able to spend tomorrow enjoying the sights and food. Ibaraki is on my list for places to go next time I am in Japan! It’s not far from Tokyo and there are JR Line trains that go out there. I don’t think it will be a little day trip, though.

 

富士山場所、お疲れ様でした。 気を付けてお帰りください。 、 、 、 、 、 巡業に参加されるお客様へ。 自分の立場で考えてください。 自分本意のノリと勢いで大切にしている物を汚されたりして何も思いませんか。 巡業は良くも悪くもお客さんとの距離が近くサインや写真を求めるのは当然だと思いますが、もう少し節度ある行動をよろしくお願いいたします。 あなただけが写真を撮りたい訳じゃないんです。 あなただけがサインを書いてもらいたい訳じゃないんです。 ここまでにしてくれと言われたらそれ以上求めないでください。 切に切に、誠に、何卒、よろしくお願いいたします。

A post shared by 寺尾綱剛#飯ペロ(´,,・з・,,`)ノ (@kyoukara_terao) on

Imperial Attendance At Aki Basho?

akihito-kokugikan

One thing that stood out to me was the lack of attendance of a representative of the Imperial household at day 1 (or any day) of the Aki basho. Typically the Emperor or the Crown Prince will attend a portion of day 1 of any basho held in the Kokugikan. To my knowledge, this was not the case for Aki. During May’s Natsu Basho, the duty went to Crown Prince Naruhito, who was warmly received by the crowd. Emperor Hirohito (Showa) was a massive sumo fan, and would regularly attend.

Much of this is likely due to the declining health of the current monarch, Emperor Akihito, who will likely abdicate the throne in favor of the Crown Prince, quite possibly at the end of 2018. While purely ceremonial, the presence of the Imperial Household at sumo and other public events is a foundation element of Japanese cultural and civic life.

Does American Opioid Epidemic Influence Care In Japan?

 

Japan Times Opioid Article

Japanese taboo regarding the use of strong painkillers is the key difference in athletic injury care when compared with other countries. Many wrestlers with chronic joint injuries would face a life struggling with a delicate balance between managing pain and avoiding addiction. The United States’ well publicized opioid epidemic serves as a cautionary tale in how readily available and easily prescribed narcotics can lead to serious long term battles with addiction. This may be why some foreign wrestlers are seeking care in their home countries. It is notoriously difficult to obtain a prescription for the medicine and strict penalties hinder the importation of these medicines.

This is a very serious issue for athletes, even those in high school and even middle school. With athletics comes injury and often, surgery. When an athlete reaches the professional ranks, they often have numerous procedures under their belt to go along with any trophies earned along the way. A distant relative of Tachiai had a long, successful professional career in one of America’s four major sports. He continues to battle with his own addiction to opioids, a result of treatment for a score of injuries and resulting surgeries.

Two years ago, the Tachiai blog flew to Japan to visit relatives for a few weeks, just as news of the Julie Hamp scandal broke. Mrs. Hamp was just named as one of Toyota’s executives and as a female, her ascension brought wide news coverage. However, that coverage paled in comparison to the coverage of her fall when she was caught importing opioids hidden in jewelry boxes.

On the flight to Narita, my wife turned white as a sheet as she watched the news on the in-flight entertainment system. In our luggage was a bottle of opioids, prescribed to yours truly shortly before our travels because of another bout with kidney stones. Bringing these medicines into the country illegally carries very stiff penalties: up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. For Mrs. Hamp, it cost her a job, her reputation, and several weeks in detention while her case played out.

My wife was terrified when we landed in Japan. I joked that, “at least we’re not in Taiwan, the airports there have big signs pronouncing in bold letters that you risk the death penalty for bringing drugs into that country.” She didn’t find me funny. It was also very interesting to see how her friends reacted when they heard her tell the story. The taboo is certainly real.

In the US, however, it is quite easy for doctors to turn to the morphine genie. When another pebble pops loose from one of my kidneys and begins to meander down to my bladder (the last one looked more like a shard of glass than a “stone”) holy crap that hurts. When I make it to the Emergency Room, I am inevitably treated with a morphine drip, a quick MRI scan to see where it is and how big, then I’m sent home with a prescription for opioids. Thankfully none of mine have been large enough to remove surgically. Perhaps that should be “unfortunately,” though, as it means I must let them find their way out, naturally.

My kidney woes crop up every couple of years so thankfully I don’t have to dance with the devil in the medicine cabinet because I don’t keep it around. I know it’s dangerous to have that stuff, especially with the kids around, so I rely on those IV drips at the hospital when I get the pain, which isn’t often. But athletes face this kind of treatment on a continual basis, particularly with chronic joint or muscle issues. If Terunofuji, Kotoshogiku, Aminishiki, and Osunaarashi were athletes in the United States, they would certainly be provided opioids on an almost continual basis. As a result, they would be in prime danger for opioid addiction. I believe this aversion to opioid treatment leads to many of the ongoing injury issues we witness basho after basho.

This is conjecture, but I believe the NSK feels that if the rules were loosened for rikishi, this would not only lead to addiction among wrestlers, it would bring yakuza back into the sport. With the door opened for sumo wrestlers to be routinely treated with opioid pain killers, inevitably some of those pills would trickle out of the stables and into the general population as athletes supplement their income.

Is a few days pain worth a couple of hundred dollars? This isn’t fantasy. This tradeoff is happening here in the US every day and my dad’s cousin is an example. And if the pills and pain can be traded, is it necessary to begin with? To me, this is where the danger of socialized medicine makes itself known, unnecessary tests and unnecessary treatment – including OTC and prescription medication – become rife when someone else is paying. It’s already an issue for deep-pocketed insurance companies and it becomes a bigger one for deep pocketed sovereign governments. (Ask the NHS.)

The first time I had a kidney stone, I was lucky enough to be at home. When the doctor handed me the oxycodone prescription, my dad (also a physician) reached over and plucked it out of my hands, ripped it up, and threw it away. “You won’t be needing that.” My dad’s a smart dude. I didn’t need it. I passed the stone later that day and it would be two years before my next stone. The risk of addiction and abuse is high, and so is the temptation to make a few bucks in the black market. Who’s to say a sekitori won’t start cutting his pills in half so he can trade the other half away?

According to the Japan Times, Americans consume 243.79mg of oxycodone per capita. Japanese consume the drug at the miniscule rate of 3.63mg per capita. Much of that treatment goes to cancer patients. But this article claims that even among cancer patients, there is a strong taboo when it comes to the use of opioids while in the US it is standard “palliative care” for terminal diseases.

(Note: I also wonder if this plays into the low birth rate as Japanese women do not seem to have the same access for epidurals…but I digress.)

My Sumo Trip To Japan

Kokugikan Signs

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.

JAL Meal

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 Rabbit Hutch - Sumida
The House In Sumida

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.

Center of the Sumo World

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.

Endo Cutout

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.

Takayasu Arrives
Takayasu Arrives

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.

Wakaichiro
Wakaichiro – Talking To A Fan

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

Takoyaki and Beer
Takoyaki and Guinness!

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.

Ordering Kiosk
I recommend #4!

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

Katsu Curry

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.

Back From Japan – Thoughts On Sumo

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Why Can’t It Be A Global Hit?

As many of our readers know, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to travel to Japan for the first week of the Natsu basho this year. It was my first time back in Japan for 30 years, and it was quite a wonderful trip to make. I have promised Andy and others a recount of my adventures there, with tips for other sumo fans wishing to go. That should be posted soon.

But the first thing that hits me is the Japanese nature of sumo, and how it interlocks with the Japanese culture. Those of us who are not in Japan can get our sumo through both official and unofficial means. Official being the 25 minute daily highlight show on NHK World and the unofficial being the wonderful content on youtube.com from Jason’s All Sumo Channel, Kintamayama and One and Only.

Why is it the rest of the world only gets a subset of the bouts in Makuuchi? A hint came to me watching sumo live in the Kokugikan. The pacing is a tough sell to world sports fans that insist on rapid, continuous action. Most people who follow sports find things like baseball too slow, where nothing much might happen for minutes at a time. When the NFL recently started inserting more commercials into football broadcasts, it helped induce their catastrophic drop in ratings. When fans watch football (soccer) in Europe or rugby, the periods are non stop, no commercial festival of people running crazy on a big grassy field. Even then fans sometimes think it’s too slow and awkward – just give us the part where they try for a goal.

Sumo is a few seconds of combat surrounded by minutes of ceremony. Fans like those who read this blog are into the entire package, we dig the ceremony, we dig the build up to battle. We like that each day the intensity and stakes of the matches increase until we end our day watching the top men of sumo slugging it out for the championship.

Sitting in the Kokugikan, there were no announcers in Japanese or English. There is just you and sumo. No overlay graphics showing history, winning moves or the kanji if each rikishi’s shikona at giant size. This is what I would call “Actual” or “Organic” Sumo. Even watching the telecast on NHk with either english or japanese audio subtracts quite a bit from the organic experience.

I submit that this experience, either live or broadcast, does not translate well, and does not offer much appeal to average human beings or even average sports fans. If you “get” the ceremony, and feel the connection it has to the sport, you can and usually do become a sumo fan, and you chafe that these elements are removed from what is packaged and fed to us. It would be as if a great Western had cut out the story behind the gunfight, and just showed two men drawing their weapons in the middle of the street.

It is clear that sumo, as it is constituted right now, is made in Japan for Japanese people living in Japan. It’s not really exported in a form that would make it a world product. In fact, when discussing this with Japanese fans at the Kokugikan, they are completely baffled why foreigners want to watch sumo at all.

It was clear from the stands at the Kokugikan that Sumo has a global appeal, as the second floor chair seats were well populated with fans of European, African and Indian ancestry. But the men who run and control both sumo and the media spectacle that is packaged around sumo are only now starting to realize that there is a significant income and licensing stream possible outside of Japan.

Japan as a culture is very slow to change any traditional institution, and sumo is a very traditional institution. But the time has come for the NSK and the NHK to embrace sumo for the world. I would suggest the following steps

  1. The NSK should appoint/hire foreign language/culture liaisons. These people would ensure that education, outreach and licensing for sumo and sumo merchandise are set up in foreign countries. This could and should open the door for fandom to grow and flourish outside of Japan
  2. The NHK needs to package and make available an expanded sumo feed. I would suggest everything from the Juryo dohyo-iri to the end of Makuuchi. As NHK is now turning more to streaming for global content delivery, this could and should be a value add subscription delivered over streaming content systems. This would allow both NHK and NSK to judge if there is a market for sumo, and it would also make Jason and Kintamayama’s hard work to bring us expanded sumo coverage redundant. And let’s be clear, both NHK and NSK are working to find ways to limit and eliminate Jason and Kintamayama.
  3. I urge them to take a page from the American playbook. If someone is beating you at what should be your own game, put them on the payroll, and let them teach you how to improve your product. Those world sumo liaisons? Jason is already in Japan, Kintamayama is fairly fluent in Japanese, and would be a great resource for advocating broader following of sumo world wide.

Are we likely to see any of this come to pass? Only if us fans urge NHK and NSK to start thinking bigger.

Nagoya Tip #1: Toyota Museum

Last summer, I had the distinct pleasure to travel to Nagoya to watch Harumafuji win on senshuraku. In response to several requests, I will definitely provide tips about Nagoya. But since I only spent a few days there, I don’t know nearly as much about places there as I do about Tokyo.

Nagoya was a great trip. Shinkansen was very fast, clean, and prompt. My wife and I had our two young children with us, so navigating Tokyo station with them (and luggage) was a challenge. But once we got to Nagoya, we were ushered around by either taxi or a friend of ours.

The sumo venue is right next to Nagoya Castle. I hear it is undergoing renovations in preparation for the Olympics in 2020. I will post about that soon. I have pictures. Also, I will post about the food. There are distinct culinary styles for Nagoya food. But first, I wanted to post about the real highlight of the trip: the Toyota Museum.

This was a fascinating experience. Some of you may know that Nintendo was actually started as a company that made Hanafuda cards. I actually have some Nintendo Hanafuda cards and will post pictures. Likewise, Toyota has a history in the textiles industry before making cars.

Toyota Museum Textile Machinery Pavilion

In the museum, you see the steady progression and advancement of the textile industry, starting with hand spun cotton and moving through modern automated spinning, weaving, loom technologies underlying cloth manufacturing. They have a hands-on demo where they take a ball of cotton and show you how it gets spun into thread.

From that huge room — which I spent far too much time in — they go to forging metal, then to pressing steel and making cars. It really is a great place to spend at least a few hours. I spent a whole day there with the kids. They’ve got more hands on demos of the manufacturing processes and little toys that the kids can make. We laughed when we found this giant piston with a museum staff member hiding, asleep, underneath. They’ve also got a robot band. There’s a restaurant there and a bit of an arcade for the kids.

Recommendations Threads: General Caveats

I want sumo fans to go to Japan and enjoy the sport (and the country) first hand. I also hope to expose more English speakers already in Japan to the sumo world. In that vein, I will offer my recommendations and encourage others to do the same. But, be open and frank with your relationship to the service and/or restaurant. Let’s face it, it’s very different to hear a recommendation from a customer, employee, owner or paid spokesperson. All I need to do is point at a supermodel and say, #FyreFestival, and you should get my point:

General recommendations and advise are always helpful, and I’ve got a few of those I’m going to share with you now. Don’t expect the same level of “food customization” that we have in the US.

Grilled Rooster Comb

The “Have it your way” philosophy just doesn’t seem to have taken off over there. In many cases, it’s easiest to do the “omakase” (chef’s recommendation), but have an open mind. And if you’re crazy like me, and open to eating stuff that even native Japanese don’t touch, like eel heads, 白子, 馬刺し, or grilled rooster comb, it should go without saying not to whinge afterwards. BTW, 馬刺し and grilled rooster comb are awesome. Just for the record.

So, I’m going to create a page for travel-related recommendations to focus on the four sumo venues: Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka. It will be in the menu bar next to the link to the Youtube video, for easy access. I know that finding posts on this site can be a bear, especially if the post was written a few months ago. But I want it to look nicer than what I’ve got for the “Japanese Lessons” page right now that’s basically just a series of links. It may start out that way but I’d love to have a way for people to share their own recommendations, and maybe even photos.

Also, Twitter is another great medium for sharing photos. Please Tweet to us or Instagram. I just signed up for Instagram on @tachiaiblog. I don’t have anything up there yet but will start sharing some of my sumo related pictures there.