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!

Creating a Trip to Experience Sumo in Fukuoka

Fukuoka
The Fukuoka Kokusai Center

Hello sumo fans! I’m on my way to Japan to experience sumo in Fukuoka. As you may be a person thinking about doing the same, I want to share with you the story of how I put this trip together. It may give you some ideas on how to construct your own trip! I’ll talk more about the basho experience itself in a later post.

Booking the flight

Typically, as an international visitor to Japan, you’re going to fly into one of the main international airports – for example Haneda, Narita, or Osaka Kansai – and catch a connecting flight to Fukuoka (it is less likely, but also possible that you may be able to fly into Nagoya). Fukuoka Airport is served by Japanese international carriers ANA and Japan Airlines, a handful of international carriers from around the region and world, and a number of low-cost domestic carriers such as JetStar, Peach and StarFlyer. It’s possible that the best, or lowest cost combination of flights includes multiple airlines or an overnight stopover in Tokyo or Osaka (which is never a bad thing). I recommend playing around with Google Flights in order to find the best result from your city. Before you book, however, I recommend taking advantage of one of the site’s best features – the ability to save and track a fare. While there is always a risk that your fare will go up, it’s possible also that you can take advantage of sales or trends to save money. I tracked my flight for the upcoming Haru basho for 47 days before booking it, and ended up saving $300 on the original fare – but more on that in a future post.

For the Kyushu basho, I decided I wanted to take a very unorthodox route. This will almost certainly not apply to you, unless you are a glutton for punishment and like obscure airplane routes that have you crossing the Pacific Ocean at among its widest points in a relatively small plane. I decided I wanted to cross-off a bucket list item and take United’s Island Hopper route, an old US government essential air service route that serves Micronesia and delivers things like mail and groceries and brings some of our friends in the military to their outposts. It even has an on-board mechanic that you can talk to. The Island Hopper travels from Honolulu to Guam, where United operates a hub which connects to several destinations in Japan, including Fukuoka.

After I spend some time at the basho, I’m going to hang out in Japan for another week with friends, so the overall super-hacked-together trip looks something like this, but still actually cost me less than I once paid for a normal nonstop flight from New York to Tokyo a few years back. This is the magic of Google Flights:

Island Hopper - Google Flights itinerary
The author is a crazy person, assisted by technology

Booking the stay

I have booked virtually every type of property there is to book in Japan, from western style hotels to Japanese style hotels to actually renting an apartment from a broker (which is not easy). This time, I opted for a local “business style” hotel I found with a cheap nightly rate on Kayak, before I cancelled said reservation and switched to a local Airbnb. The Airbnb is located in Hakata Ward and while it is slightly less accessible to the train (approximately an 8 minute walk), I ended up saving even more money and getting a much larger apartment that’s fit for 3 people – more spacious than the average Japanese hotel room. While a run of the mill hotel in Tokyo with a small room during the Natsu basho during tourist season could go for $200 a night (deals, certainly, can be had), the beauty of the Fukuoka region is that not only are hotels much cheaper, but you can stay in a Japanese style apartment, which can be had for less than $80 per night:

FukuokaAirbnb
c/o AirBnb

Again, it is possible to get even lower prices depending where you’re willing to compromise (area, amenities, etc).

Buying the tickets

As I have done in the past, I used BuySumoTickets.com for my ticket purchases for this tournament, and got a discount on international shipping for being a repeat customer. It’s no secret if you’re a punter in the sumo world that the demand for tickets has been incredible over the past couple of years, and BuySumoTickets has certainly felt the strain. I managed to score tickets to two days of sumo (Days 6 & 7), with one of my tickets being downgraded to a lower section. You should anticipate if you use a 3rd party broker that the section you request may not always be available due to demand. That being said, I am obviously very thankful for the BuySumoTickets crew, and their ability in situations of overwhelming demand to make sure those of us coming from areas outside of Japan, and who may not have the best Japanese language ability, are able to score tickets to the basho.

Getting around town

While not as expansive as the other honbasho host cities, Fukuoka does offer a somewhat significant local train service. The Fukuoka airport is located on the aptly titled Kukō line which runs east-west through the city from the airport through the main Tenjin and Hakata stations, and will be the main artery of my travel through town. As opposed to Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, the airport is actually incredibly well situated – just two stops from the major Hakata train station (compare this with Osaka and Nagoya’s airports which sit on man-made islands close to an hour outside the city).

Fukuoka’s venue for sumo (which, again, we will cover more in depth in a later post) is the Fukuoka Kokusai Center which is located about a 13 minute walk from the nearest station, Gofukumachi Station; and about a 20 minute journey from either Tenjin or Hakata stations (by various combinations of bus, train and/or walking). I’m excited to use this well situated network to explore the city, and fulfil some of my wishes for the trip (including Fukuoka’s famous food scene)!

Now that we’ve covered the journey, let’s cover some 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!

Kyushu Day 1 Highlights

kyushu-day1

Enough Oshidashi To Go Around

A good start to the Kyushu basho, with an odd prevalence of push-out wins (Oshidashi / 押し出し). Final bout featured Tamawashi (Komusubi) dispatching Yokozuna Harumafuji with ease.

It was great to see Hakuho in action once more, but today’s bout was not a great example of his fighting form. Goeido announced to the world he takes his Yokozuna run seriously, as once again we saw his total, near reckless commitment to offense, and some really nice work by my favorite:  Yoshikaze!

In Juryo Osunaarashi won, but Amakaze, Daieisho and Ura lost – as the second division train-wreck seems to have continued from Aki

A lot of the rikishi looked off balance and unprepared for their matches. Quite a change from most of the prior tournaments.

Notable highlights

Toyohibiki defeats Gagamaru – This was not much of a match, as Gagamaru looked weak and off balance from the Tachiai

Sokokurai defeats Ichinojo – Ok, we saw the smaller Ichinojo, but he looked weak and quite out of his element. He offered token resistance to Sokokurai, but Sokokurai kept the pressure up and just walked the big Mongolian out

Hokutofuji defeats Daishomaru – Fast match with some early slaps and a rapid exit by Daishomaru

Ikioi defeats Myogiryu – Myogiryu tried to pull Ikioi out of the ring, and Ikioi obliged by pushing Myogiryu out first. Myogiryu looked off balance from the start.

Takarafuji defeats Nishikigi – In contrast to many of the other men in action today, these two showed up ready to wrestle. It was a strength match with Takarafuji having the upper hand for most of the bout. Excellent strength and resistance from Nishikigi though.

Shodai defeats Kotoyuki – This is more like it. Excellent slapping / pushing match! Kotoyuki opened very strong, throwing Shodai back, and nearly out. Shodai recovered his balance but was back to the tawara, but Kotoyuki was off balance and Shodai pulled him into the spectators.

Takayasu defeats Endo – Endo was completely out-matched. Takayasu stayed low and just powered Endo out of the ring. There were some doubts about his readiness, but todays bout was completely one-sided.

Yoshikaze defeats Terunofuji – Yoshikaze took command straight from the tachiai, and never let up. Terunofuji made one attempt to throw Yoshikaze, but Yoshikaze countered by picking up Terunofuji and lifting him out of the ring, for a really welcome Tsuridashi

Kisenosato defeats Aoiyama – Aoiyama was completely out-classed, and Kisenosato seems to be back to his winning ways. It was over in seconds as Kisenosato just smoothly pushed the Bulgarian directly out in the blink of an eye.

Goeido defeats Tochiozan – Goeido maintains the form he showed during Aki. Near reckless commitment to pure offense! He overpowered Tochiozan who actually put up a solid effort, nearly pulling to Ozeki down moments before losing. Goeido is deadly serious about his Yokozuna run.

Hakuho defeats Okinoumi – Okinoumi is clearly injured, it’s kind of heartbreaking to watch him. Hakuho actually did not show strong sumo today, but instead pulled Okinoumi down early in the match. Is the Yokozuna trying to ease back into is sport?

Tamawashi defeats Harumafuji – The day finished with an upset as Tamawashi fairly easily dispatched Yokozuna Harumafuji. Harumafuji was off balance at the tachiai, and Tamawashi simply turned him, and marched him to the edge.