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!

Natsu 2019 – Tachiai’s Experience In Tokyo

Ryogoku JR Station and Kokugikan at Sunset
The sun sets on another honbasho

The Natsu basho is always a special time for me. Both this year, and last year, I’ve spent a significant amount of time in Tokyo around the May tournament, and been fortunate enough to enjoy some fantastic sumo experiences and meet with some great people. In this post, I’ll share a bit about what I encountered over the past several weeks in Japan’s capital city.

New Tachiai experiences

First of all, I’m happy to share that I will be bringing a number of pieces of new content to the site in the coming weeks before the Nagoya basho. I attended keiko at Onoe beya with John Gunning, and later met one of Onoe’s new oyakata, and former sekitori Satoyama, who asked me to share some news with our readers, which will be coming in a later post.

Onoe beya Keiko
Keiko at Onoe beya. Former sekitori Tenkaiho (Hidenoyama oyakata) looks on.

Additionally, backed by some fantastic questions from our readers, I spent an hour and a half with one of the voices of NHK’s sumo coverage, none other than popular broadcaster Murray Johnson. We had an amazing conversation, and I’m excited to bring it to you soon. And as a surprise for our readers, I met up for coffee and chocolate cake with luminary of the digital sumo world, the one and only Kintamayama. We had a similarly in-depth conversation that will be making its way to these pages soon (and we may even sneak some audio snippets into a future Tachiai podcast, so if you haven’t subscribed now, do it). I also, of course, got to visit my first sumo art exhibit, and my first dohyo consecration ceremony, the dohyo matsuri. Check out this post if you want to learn more.

Finally, I’m happy to say that I got to meet so many members of the Tachiai community. Natsu is a very popular tournament for sumo tourism – the weather is fantastic and the early summer time makes it a convenient moment for many fans to visit Tokyo. Jason Harris of Jason’s All Sumo Youtube Channel hosted a brilliant meet up during the tournament, where many Tachiai community members were present. Our reader and friend El Zeno produced fantastic Black Panther movie inspired Wakaichiro shirts, and it was a great chance to meet up with our friends at BuySumoTickets, who continue to provide so many of our readers with access to live sumo.

It was also wonderful again to link up with Tachiai contributor Nicola – please follow her work on the Tachiai instagram! – who has shared literally gigabytes of original photos that we are working to bring to the site in the near future. And I’d like to give a special shoutout to friend of the site Melissa, who along with her partner shared a box with me at my final day of the tournament – it was wonderful to have some great conversation and take in the basho with some very serious sumo fans!!

Ryogoku Kokugikan Panoramic View from Box C masu
A panoramic view of Kokugikan, from the “Box C” masu section.

The Live Experience

I could probably write several posts on this, so I’ll keep it somewhat short. The live experience at Kokugikan continues to be the reason why so many folks make the trek from far and wide. There simply is nothing like experiencing sumo in the building that goes some way to making the sport as special as it is.

Special new “Reiwa” era merch has been produced, featuring the san’yaku of the first basho of the Reiwa era. Tochinoshin’s upcoming re-promotion has rendered these immediately out of date, but the NSK is clearly working to capture the enthusiasm of this new period. I would also add that like many of our readers who visited Kokugikan during this basho, I wore a Tachiai t-shirt with pride, and many locals (including vendors!) were very interested to find out where I got it. The well-received shirts can, of course, be purchased from Tachiai’s shop!

Kisenosato / Araiso arrives at Kokugikan
Kisenosato / Araiso arrives at Kokugikan

The Kisenosato exhibit at the Kokugikan drew massive numbers – and also as much enthusiasm as the man himself when he made his way into the public areas of the arena, as he did on several occasions. I witnessed mass hysteria greet the 72nd Yokozuna as he entered the building, and he continued to make a string of increasingly popular media appearances. His commentary has been praised from many quarters.

Natsu was the first tournament where I was able to watch from one of the “masu” box seats on the first floor. It was a very new experience for me, as I managed to score seats in the “Box C” section. The sight lines were still very good, though if you’re looking for a pure view and can’t manage to obtain the very rare and expensive seats nearer to the dohyo, I might recommend the Arena A seats on the second level.

For me, the box experience was almost less about seeing sumo and more about living the live sumo experience. It was the first time I had been at a basho where I hadn’t been surrounded by folks who look or talk like myself, and whether that’s good bad or irrelevant, there can be no denying that it created an incredibly different atmosphere for me and a very different experience on the whole. A year ago, I hadn’t even taken my first Japanese lesson, so it was a very rewarding feeling not only to be able to have basic conversation with the Takayasu-loving locals in the next box at points throughout the day, but also to be able to cheer for and share the rikishi that I love to follow (even if those were in some cases met with quizzical looks!).

Kokonoe Beya Variety Chanko - Natsu 2019
Kokonoe beya’s “variety chanko,” served during the Natsu basho

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about sumo without talking about food. Kokonoe beya delivered the tournament’s helping of tasty “Variety chanko” for fans to sample. This tournament also marked the debut of the new Takakeisho bento box, which I experienced and will review in a later post. Of course, with Tochinoshin poised for an ozeki return, there won’t be a shortage of rikishi-inspired meals for us to continue to indulge at the venue in future.

Asanoyama arrives at Kokugikan
At the end of it all, one man stood alone.

The Tournament, The Trophy, The Winner

I can’t say that on the days that I attended it really felt like there was a momentum or a story building behind Asanoyama – it was still early enough in the tournament that his first week, like that of many other well performing Maegashira every basho, could be corrected with a gruelling week 2 dance card. But he does have a growing number of die-hard fans in attendance at the tournament, and his cheer towel is one of the better sellers.

I have to say I agreed a lot with Bruce’s thoughts on the presidential visit and the trophy. It was impossible to escape conversation about this with virtually any english-speaking sumo fan or pundit in Tokyo. It was a moment of intrigue that has to do as much with the person as the politics – that is to say everything and nothing. This is because frankly, wherever you sit on the political spectrum or what you believe – everyone just didn’t know what would happen. How would it work? What would it be like? Kokugikan is a very security-free venue, which makes it part of the charm. So, this conversation piece certainly added to the sense of occasion.

Hungary Tea Cup trophy
The great tea cup of Hungary: unique, and staggering

I also concur with Bruce that I am happy for there to be some kind of American trophy. It’s not the one I would have made – personally, I long for the creativity of the giant macaron or the tea cup, I love those things. But, we have seen such a growing affinity between Americans and sumo over the past few years – this site is testament to that. So for there to be any trophy from America, well, it’s a nice feeling. Perhaps in future years America can do something like contributing a gift from the home state of the president, much in the way other countries supply yearlong supplies of beer or gasoline.

It’s important for us to keep the focus on sumo though, and I’m happy and relieved that we experienced a tournament that delivered that yet again. To our new followers who may have just discovered this world: welcome! We’re happy to have you. And to our friends of the site and long time readers, I’m excited to continue partnering with everybody else to create more content for the site! Thanks for sharing the experience with us.

Jungyo Newsreel – Day 5

🌐 Location: Toyooka, Hyogo prefecture

Today was the second day in Hyogo prefecture – but right on the opposite side of it than Day 4’s event. Early morning, the dohyo is already consecrated from the day before.

And… what’s this parking right in front of the entrance to the venue?

Why, it’s Ryota Hama’s Chanko Nabe bus!

While in Tokyo or Osaka honbasho you rely either on the food supply inside the venue or the regular restaurants around it, events in small towns rely on mobile stalls. So as yobidashi Hiromasa calls the townspeople with his drum, a little matsuri is being set up around the venue.

And early-bird Hama got the most lucrative location, right at the entrance! Mmmm… chanko!

But not yet, the stalls are just being set up. First, it’s time to shake hands with some favorite rikishi. For example, Hyogo local Terutsuyoshi.

Ah, the contrast between the beautiful kimono of those ladies gathering around him, and his own ratty yukata…

Yokozuna in the house!

Low-ranking rikishi practice on the dohyo, while around it some sekitori are starting to stretch and exercise:

Very entertaining squats on the left side there.

On the sidelines, Sadanoumi practices his oshi:

Ando is doing suri-ashi:

And so does Aoiyama, though in a totally different style:

It’s time for the Juryo rikishi’s practice on the dohyo. We have Kyokushuho with Wakamotoharu, then Kyokushuho with Azumaryu:

And in the session’s closure, Takakeisho gives butsukari to Wakamotoharu:

Then Makuuchi gets into the picture. Aoiyama faces Meisei, then Okinoumi, then Asanoyama, then the latter takes over and faces Ryuden.

This is not the end of the road for Ryuden, who later gets Mitakeumi (for some reason this bout appears twice in this video). Then we can see Mitakeumi vs. Tochinoshin:

Practice time is over, and we can relax and enjoy Shokkiri. Here is the full performance.

Apparently, in this Jungyo, the gyoji is getting creative. When the two performers fall down together, he leaves the dohyo, and consults with some spectator – preferably a child: “I should call that dotai, right?”.

“Dotai” is when both rikishi touch ground at the same time. In a normal bout, the gyoji doesn’t call it – the gyoji always has to point the gunbai one side or the other – and this is settled with a monoii and a torinaoshi. In shokkiri, of course, the gyoji makes all the decisions himself. Or with the help of a child, as it turns out.

Next up is the Jinku performance. And once again I have the full version:

But hey, aren’t you hungry? It’s nearly noon and we haven’t tasted that chanko, yet!

Apparently they also serve Udon. But who cares? Chanko!

There is also a mobile Takoyaki stall if you’re tired of Chanko, as some rikishi are

Both lunch and Jinku over, it’s time for the Juryo dohyo-iri. And Sokokurai is arguing some point with Gagamaru:

Skipping the Makuuchi and Yokozuna dohyo-iri, right before Makuuchi, Takakeisho, the local hero, receives a bale of rice as a gift – and apparently, a large amount of beef.

The area of Toyooka is known for its stork-friendly rice. Apparently, Japanese storks have been on the decline, and the city of Toyooka is making an effort to bring them back, by raising rice that coexists with the creatures that storks feed on to sustain themselves. So Takakeisho got a bale of stork-friendly rice. I don’t know how stork-friendly the beef is, though.

So let’s see some bouts! Here we have a series of bouts from Juryo:

  • Daiseido-Kiribayama
  • Kyokushuho-Azumaryu
  • Daishomaru-Tokushoryu
  • Daiamami-Chiyomaru
  • Shimanoumi-Kotoyuki

This is followed by bouts from Makuuchi:

  • Ishiura-Yutakayama
  • Kotoeko-Toyonoshima
  • Tomokaze-Kagayaki
  • Shohozan-Yago
  • Sadanoumi-Terutsuyoshi
  • Aoiyama-Asanoyama
  • Chiyotairyu-Okinoumi
  • Kaisei-Nishikigi

Tochiozan vs. Endo:

Sanyaku-soroi-bumi, and Mitakeumi vs. Tamawashi

Tamawashi’s killer nodowa does it again.

Takakeisho vs. Tochinoshin:

I think Tochinoshin forgot that he was supposed to let the local boy win.

Finally, Musubi-no-ichiban, Kakuryu vs. Goeido.

I think I have yet to see Kakuryu win a bout this basho.

Finishing with our pin-up… How about Nishikigi for a change?

The arms are strong with this one

A Day out at the Ryogoku Kokugikan: Kisenopocalypse Edition

Kisenosato Flag - Hatsu Basho 2019
A flag that soon may never fly again.

In sumo there are no places more hallowed than the Kokugikan, and for me, it’s one of the most special venues in all of sport. Having completed my set of honbasho cities in 2018 and having last taken in the Kyushu basho in Fukuoka, I had been excited to get back to Kokugikan and the home of sumo.

And since I last visited, the NSK has been busy bringing in new features:

But despite the pleas of Sumo Twitter™, this is not why I came and I did not take part. This Friday, I’m back at Kokugikan for Day 6, so perhaps I’ll grab some #content then, if the Cat Cafe is still in business. I did, however, make a stop off at a different novelty, the dohyo mounted by the legends of broadcasting, the NHK Grand Sumo Preview team:

Sumida Information Center Dohyo
Why, yes Hiro, I do have a prediction for this basho.

There’s a Sumida information centre next to the Kokugikan with all kinds of restaurants (including chanko) and tourist info, and this dohyo is located there. The dohyo is roped off with signs clearly stating not to walk on it. As it is not (as far as I know) actively in use, it would be cool if fans could be chaperoned onto this dohyo at some stage. Perhaps one of our readers knows more and can point this out in the comments!

After a quick walk around, I headed into the arena, stopping with several other punters to snap a photo of the Kisenosato flag at the entrance (at the top of the post). Everyone attending the basho knows the end is near, and what was clear throughout the day is that in spite of the farce that has been his record-breaking losing run, Kisenosato’s fans are desperate for him to do well, and desperate for a final good memory.

Normally, I get right to my seat to check out some early, lower division matches, and calibrate myself with the torikumi. However, this alluring photo of Michinoku-oyakata beckoned me underground:

Michinoku Chanko poster
It’s an original blend.

Typically, a different stable will supply the recipe for the chankonabe that is served at the Kokugikan for each honbasho. The last time I was in Tokyo, it was provided by Oguruma-beya, and this time, it’s Michinoku’s “Variety Chanko” on offer. And as you can see above, you can wash it down with a cup of hot, steaming rules.

Michinoku heya Chanko
Everything but the kitchen sink.

The chanko is served in a small styrofoam bowl, and you get a pair of wooden chopsticks. There’s ichimi in the dining hall if you need it, though this had some good spice. I’d call it Kitchen Sink chanko as it had a bit of everything in there. For ¥300 it’s a nice novelty to be able to eat a small bowl of chanko, and the line moved quickly enough that I didn’t mind waiting. If you go later in the afternoon, maybe toward the end of Makushita, there’s usually less of a line.

After a quick stop at noted sumo artisan Daimon Kinoshita‘s stall for some beautiful postcards, and then to the BBM Sumo Card seller to pick up some cards from the new 2019 series, I did a lap around the arena and headed for my seat. Not far away from the Daimon Kinoshita stall at the front of the venue, newly retired ex-Satoyama was doing fan photos, along with NSK mascot Hiyonoyama.

Across from Hiyonoyama, the NSK social media team has launched a photo activation where fans can take photos with a variety of backgrounds to share on social media. Sadly, this seems to have replaced the incredible Purikura box which used to be available at Kokugikan, where fans could take pictures “with” any of the 42 top division rikishi. While the fan experience does tend to continuously improve at Kokugikan, the NSK has got this one wrong and I hope they restore the purikura booth soon (if only so I can continue my long and quite literally decorated history of taking photos with Ichinojo).

Once inside, I decided to stop off and see the newest addition to the Kokugikan rafters:

Takakeisho yusho portrait hanging at Kokukigan
Young man among legends.

Takakeisho’s yusho portrait was a great reminder that while we talk about the achievements and accomplishments of these rikishi as if it’s just part and parcel of the daily business, what we witness every basho is men writing themselves into history (usually the good kind).

Speaking of recent champions, one of them had a very prominent and popular supporter in attendance:

Others will cover the actual content of the days events on the site, so I want to focus the rest of this piece on Kisenosato, whose presence overshadowed almost everything else to take place on the dohyo.

Kisenosato dohyo-iri. Hatsu basho 2019.
“Something I wasn’t sure of, but I was in the middle of”

Kisenosato Dohyo-iri

Kisenosato’s dohyo-iri was greeted with a massive round of applause. It was clear from this moment that while yesterday was reported to have been a tense affair, the crowd was here to celebrate and cheer for the beleaguered Yokozuna.

While his nerves were visibly jangling when watching the ring entrance ceremony yesterday with the benefit of HD TV, today’s dohyo-iri at least appeared to be more authoritative from my viewpoint in the venue. The entire crowd was absolutely behind him and welcomed him into the ring and celebrated what could possibly be the last time we all saw him perform that ritual.

As an aside, I will say it was fantastic to see three Yokozuna dohyo-iri today. The last time I visited a honbasho, in Fukuoka this past November, Kisenosato had already withdrawn by the time I reached the venue, and so I didn’t get a chance to experience one of the more magical moments of live sumo on that occasion. I’m grateful that all three Yokozuna gamberized (or attempted to) for this basho.

Kisenosato vs Tochiozan. Hatsu Basho Day 3. 15 January 2019.
A penultimate stare-down?

Kisenosato vs Tochiozan

The atmosphere before this match was totally charged. This may have as much to do with Kisenosato as it did with the match that preceded it, Hakuho prevailing over Ichinojo in an epic contest.

As Kisenosato mounted the dohyo, what seemed like the entire arena spontaneously broke out in a synchronised clap in support of the Yokozuna. Kisenosato towels were being waved everywhere – absolutely everyone in the venue was behind him and I cannot state that enough. Were he to win, it seemed like the roof would come off the place.

It felt like Tochiozan took absolutely ages to get down and ready for this bout (he’s obviously a very seasoned veteran, just like the Yokozuna, but it’s clearly possible he too had nerves in that kind of abnormal atmosphere). It seemed possible that this may have had the effect of unsettling Kisenosato, who seemed very much ready to go.

By now, you probably know how this ends. Kisenosato lost a match it didn’t seem like he was every really truly in danger of winning, though it was clear he gave it everything he could. After the match, the disappointment of the crowd was immense, and so audible. After all of the energy everyone had put into it, the gasps, sighs, and exhales of the entire arena probably lasted about 5-10 seconds but it seemed like it went on for minutes, and it felt like a cloud had been put over the dohyo. The whole place just felt deflated after having been so charged up.

After that, the last match between Kakuryu and Nishikigi felt like a total non-event – which is sad, really, as it was a very good bout and a career-altering continuation of what has turned into a remarkable storyline for a rank-and-file rikishi. Having been emotionally drained, a lot of people simply walked out of the venue before the musubi-no-ichiban had started, and missed it altogether. Again, I’ll let others supply the match analysis, but it was a frankly bizarre end to the day, as there was a long monoii before Nishikigi’s kinboshi was confirmed. Zabuton had been flying everywhere both before and after the monoii.

With the festivities having finished for the day, and having seen a bow twirling ceremony in my time, I left Kokugikan in very much the same mind as many others, it seemed: thankful for being a part of the final moments of something, but not really totally sure of what to feel.