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!

Tachiai Enjoys Sumo Stew in Brooklyn

Sumo Stew - July 2018

As Bruce shared with Tachiai readers earlier in the month, our friends at Sumo Stew hosted their 22nd event during the Nagoya basho. This event took place at Arrogant Swine in Brooklyn, NY. As I coincidentally happened to be in New York at the time, I decided to check it out with a couple of friends who were new to sumo!

Menu

For the latest event, Sumo Stew founders Michael Harlan Turkell and Harry Rosenblum teamed up with Arrogant Swine’s Tyson Ho to deliver what they called a “North Carolina BBQ-style Whole Hog” chankonabe. Arrogant Swine is a barbecue restaurant and bar located in Brooklyn’s industrial East Williamsburg neighborhood, and so this take on chanko was a fusion of traditional chanko flavors with a falling-off-the-bone pork twist.

Sumo Stew - July 2018 Chankonabe
The Chankonabe of Sumo Stew 22

While the chanko is perhaps the main event of Sumo Stew, it is far from the only item on offer. Upon entering the venue, attendees were given a bento box full of items from four different local vendors:

  • Spicy beef shank & yuba salad from Junzi
  • A mushroom and umeboshi onigiri from Momo Sushi Shack
  • Seaweed salad with ikura and fried potato from Juku
  • Cold ramen from O Ya

This menu was further augmented by the presence of a number of whiskey, wine, and sake vendors. A number of representatives from the enormously popular tea brand Ito En were also on hand doling out bottles of Japan’s favorite Oi Ocha.

Vendors

Besides the sumo and the amazing food & drinks, one of the aspects of Sumo Stew that shouldn’t be overlooked is that the organisers bring in all sorts of vendors with specialties that run the gamut of various facets of Japanese culture.

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All sorts of hand crafts were on display for sale, and there was also representation from the US branch of Japanese cutlery brand Kikuichi Cutlery (their stateside headquarters are located not far away from New York City in nearby Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey). They had an impressive array of knives on hand for demonstration.

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One brand I hadn’t been aware of before attending was NYrture, a natto company based in New York City. For Western palates, the fermented soybean can perhaps be an acquired taste, but this vendor did a great job of pairing what is often a divisive ingredient with incredibly interesting flavors to create a really cool snack. I especially appreciated the combination of black natto with coconut milk yogurt, honey, and blueberry.

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Sumo

Owing to the time difference between Tokyo and New York, it was clearly difficult to line up live sumo with the evening dinner hour. The folks at Sumo Stew had a playlist of videos from the first several days of the Nagoya basho projected onto a big screen inside of the venue. From time to time they cut in trailers from various features from an upcoming film festival put on by the event’s partners at the Japan Society in New York.

There were quite a few regular attendees on hand, and many of the folks I talked to seemed newer to sumo and were somewhat more connected to the food and cultural elements of the event. In that sense, Sumo Stew is doing a really great thing by bringing members of the local food community together to get an initiation into the ways of a sport that many of us have come to dearly love. On the flip side of the menu which all attendees were given was an overview of how the sport works, its rules, traditions and key vocabulary words to help newcomers understand a bit more about what was happening on the big screen.

I had a chance to speak briefly with the event’s organizer Michael Harlan Turkell during the event, and he mentioned that the Sumo Stew team are looking to continue bringing the event to other cities around America in the near future for forthcoming basho. So if you’re interested in attending, perhaps there will be one nearer to you in the future, and of course we’ll continue to share news of this unique Sumo-themed event here on Tachiai.

For more info on Sumo Stew, check out sumostew.com.

Enjoy Hawaiian BBQ with Konishiki

Konishiki's Hawaiian BBQ Stand

Earlier this month, Andy tipped off readers via the Tachiai twitter account that sumo legend Konishiki would be hosting a stall at the BB (“Beer & BBQ”) Fest, which takes place from now until May 6 in Odaiba:

The festival is taking place out on Symbol Promenade Park in Odaiba, and I decided to head out there today to check it out. Getting there took about 15 minutes from Shimbashi station in central Tokyo on the unique Yurikamome line (a must-ride for transit enthusiasts, owing to its looping track that goes out over the Rainbow Bridge).

There are three festival areas running concurrently during Golden Week on Odaiba: an Oktoberfest, a large section of the BB Fest that is dedicated to Japanese-style BBQ vendors, and then a section of the BB Fest on the eastern part of the island featuring international BBQ food and craft beer. Konishiki’s Hawaiian BBQ is located in the latter area.

Konishiki's Hawaiian BBQ Menu
Konishiki’s Hawaiian BBQ menu board

As for the menu, Konishiki offered a couple selections: a meat plate (featuring BBQ pork, spare ribs and chicken) and then a combo platter which contained all of the meat items plus rice, slaw and the classic Hawaiian macaroni and egg salad. Obviously, I opted for the latter choice:

Konishiki's Hawaiian BBQ Plate
Konishiki serves up a meat lover’s Hawaiian BBQ paradise, replete with Mac Salad

Konishiki has long been one of the most flavorful names in sumo, and puts out a dish to match. All of the meat selections were very succulent, very moist and well coated in the right amount of marinade and sauce. The macaroni salad was delicious as well. I opted to wash it all down with a bottle of water from Konishiki’s stand owing to the hot weather, but there were a number of craft beer vendors also in the park and Konishiki’s BBQ would surely make a great pairing for many of them. When he says he knows how to have a good time cooking up Hawaiian BBQ, he’s not joking.

Konishiki has also provided a video that takes you behind the grill, in promotion of the event (in Japanese):

The event also has plenty of other food vendors offering BBQ from a variety of regions and countries. I was too full from Konishiki’s Ozeki-sized platter to take in any of the others, however a man at the Texas BBQ stand was offering free samples which were also delicious. Hopefully, up and coming Texan sumotori Wakaichiro can make it out to the festival to get a taste of home!

BB Fest International Vendors
Other vendors in the international portion of the festival included Spanish, Jamaican and Texan BBQ.

As for the man himself, Konishiki, he was off to the side of the stand, relaxing under a tent near the festival stage with family and friends. A number of his fans ambled up from time-to-time throughout the afternoon to request photos, which he graciously provided. I was able to get a few moments to chat with the man to let him know just how good the BBQ was, and ask if he had any words for Tachiai readers.

Konishiki says he wants everyone to come on down to Odaiba, and adds: “Bring your hungry on, and bring your thirsty on!”

Konishiki’s Hawaiian BBQ is located at the BB Fest on Odaiba in Symbol Promenade Park, located just off the Odaiba-Kaihin-Koen station on the Yurikamome line, and the Tokyo Teleport station on the Rinkai line. The festival runs through May 6 during the Golden Week. For more info, check out bbfest.jp

Additionally, for those readers who will be in Tokyo during the upcoming Natsu basho, Konishiki will be appearing at the Island Music Festival in Symbol Promenade Park on May 18 and 19. For more information, check out islandmusicfestival.jp

Eating Sumo: A trip to LA’s Sumo Dog

Sumo Dog Exterior

As we all know, sumo is a sport punctuated by ritual. I’ve created a new ritual for myself: I like to enjoy a trip around the start of every honbasho to Sumo Dog – a Japanese and quasi-sumo themed hot dog specialty restaurant in Los Angeles. In anticipation of the upcoming Haru basho, I did this again today. It is both odd and cool that a sumo-flavored restaurant exists and for those of you who are reading and are very near or very far from Los Angeles, please enjoy the following review of the Sumo Dog experience.

Overview

Sumo Dog is a fast-casual establishment which opened about a year ago on the periphery of Los Angeles’s Koreatown neighborhood. Opened by Chef Jeffery Lunak and Mark Stone, it’s an unassuming small shop on a block which has now come to be lined with ever more ridiculous dessert options (like cotton candy ice cream burritos). With that in mind, we’ll focus on the main Sumo Dog selection.

When you enter the restaurant you are created by an impressive sized statuette of a yokozuna. I believe this is Asashoryu in the below image (if it’s not, please correct me in the comments!), however when I asked one of the chefs one day (which may have been one of the owners) he said “that’s Sumo Joe.” For a sumo fan, it was not the most impressive response.

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The walls are plastered with Sumo Dog posters which comprise of a drawing of a rikishi and the Sumo Dog logo, as well as their admittedly very impressive and cool selection of merch, like t-shirts and hats. The atmosphere overall is casual and good and one can imagine it might not be out of place in Tokyo with a bit of work.

Menu

Sumo Dog Menu
Which of these Sumo Dogs sounds best to you? Leave a comment with your favorite!

Sumo Dog’s menu is where they really shine. Out of the 8 hot dog based dishes, several have taken very liberal inspiration from Japanese flavors. I’ll add a few photos of the menu below from several trips.

The Sumo Dog is their signature dish, and comes covered in wasabi relish, furikake and nori as well as pickled peppers, onion, spicy mayo and teriyaki sauce. I have never been much of a hot dog person, but I love Japanese flavors and they have captured some great – potentially even complex – flavor in this dish. It gives you the sort of satisfaction you get when you see a classically executed uwatenage.

Sumo Dog Classic
The signature “Sumo Dog”

The Miso Katsu dog is a spot on recreation of a classic dish in hot dog format, with a perfect panko crust giving a nice contrast to the miso and cabbage. At $13, the Godzilla is perhaps best suited to aspiring sekitori, and is a monster foot long hot dog covered with many of the same elements of their classic Sumo Dog as well as their togarashi cheese sauce and slaw. Perhaps they should rename it the kinboshi because it is simply so big that taking this hot dog down is like a rank-and-filer trying to knock off a Yokozuna: it’s hard work, and if you can finish it, people will be very impressed!

The menu also sports a number of more Angeleno-centric and traditional inspirations, but each one of the frankfurters has some kind of Japanese element, whether it’s the pickled daikon and togarashi on the chili dog, or the tempura crunch that’s been added to their “Romero” guacamole hot dog.

Sumo Dog Romero
The “Romero” – featuring tempura “crunchies” over guacamole

Finally, Sumo Dog is also known for its sides, especially the tater tots formed from sushi rice which are delivered with a generous helping of wasabi and the togarashi cheese dipping sauce. It’s a nice compliment for a Ramune, several flavors of which are kept in the cooler.

Overall Impression

Sumo Dog is a very good, fun addition to the food landscape in Los Angeles and a great place to enjoy an interesting take on Japanese ingredients. While the restaurant has done a great job capturing some sumo-themed elements in their branding and merch, if they can put some more work into paying homage to the sport in the restaurant’s overall design and staff’s knowledge, they will have a very special winner. As ever, I’m sure I’ll be visiting ahead of the Natsu basho as well.

Sumo Dog is located at 516 S. Western Avenue in Los Angeles – and you can check out their full menu on their website at eatsumodog.com.