Get To Know a Shusshin: Toyama Prefecture

Toyama in orange; Previous sites in green

I chose to revisit Kochi last time because of Toyonoshima and his retirement. This time, I chose Toyama prefecture for news of Asanoyama’s promotion to Ozeki. While there are several top rikishi from neighboring Ishikawa, Toyama has had very few. Asanoyama, who shall be known as Baiyaku-zeki (売薬関), is the first Ozeki from Toyama in more than 100 years. While I loved Kochi and hope to visit again on my next trip to Japan, I think Toyama will be first.

Industries

Pharmaceuticals

The top ranks of makuuchi, (Yokozuna & Ozeki) have been getting beaten up lately, as we discussed in our latest podcast. Perhaps it’s appropriate that a rikishi from Toyama would come knocking with his first aid kit to save the day! The area, particularly the region of Ecchu, is known for its pharmaceutical industry. It did not get famous this way because it sounds like someone sneezed. “Ecchu!” (I’m here all day, folks.) Traveling salesmen from Ecchu (gesundheit) would roam Japan selling their kusuri-bako (薬箱), lit., “medicine boxes.” These salesmen were known as baiyaku. There’s a great history written (in Japanese) at the Toyama prefectural government website.

First Aid Kit-styled soba set

Early in the Edo period, the Toyama domain had come under financial strain and its daimyo, Maeda Masatoshi, turned to traditional medicines as a novel way to boost local output. The area is still known for it today, though the kusuri-bako now look much more like the common first aid kits we know today.

Granted, this article is more than 20 years old but the packaging of this Toyama soba noodle maker hearkens back to the wares of those traveling baiyaku. The description in the article gives a bit of the historical context and describes the soba. Surprise, surprise! Maruzen soba still exists and they still sell this Kusushi Soba set, in the kusuri-bako packaging. According to a blog post from the middle of last month, they’ve reopened a part of their restaurant to try to meet demand from their customers that they reopen. They had been doing only take-out because of the SARSv2 outbreak.

Fishing

Sometimes, I wonder if the universe is somehow reading my mind. While drafting this article, a #SumoTwitter account that I follow posted this, featuring the firefly squid of Toyama prefecture. She also mentions a friend from Toyama prefecture who claims residents and fishermen are able to catch them with buckets.

As the kids say these days, “I’m shook.” The harvesting of firefly squid from Toyama bay is a huge annual event that is featured in the first episode of this amazing series called, “Prime Japan.” It is included with Amazon Prime but worth a watch even if you don’t have it. During the plague-era we’ve been catching up on our movie-viewing. We were inadequately prepared for such full-on food porn so my wife had to grab fresh sushi for us for lunch from our local Japanese market. That only fanned the flames, however.

The firefly squid is bio-luminescent and these massive schools come close to the surface in Toyama-wan to spawn at the same time each year. The documentary showed what the friend of @OneLoveLulit described: massive shoals of squid and fishermen catching them en masse. Later in the episode, the host got to try some at an awesome looking sushi restaurant in the Nishiazabu area of Tokyo. This particular establishment featured a unique aged sushi. Personally, I love squid but I have never tried firefly squid. It is on my list for next time we’re there. Despite Asanoyama’s bio-luminescent personality, I do not think hotaru-iku is a catchy nickname.

Sites

Handmade Work In Progress

Sites to go see in Toyama prefecture include the Toyama Glass Art Museum. This is beckoning me, personally, because I have been learning how to make stained glass and fused glass artwork. After this heap of broken glass pictured above gets put in the kiln, it will be the first annual Tachiai Award, which I hope to present to the winner sometime after we’re allowed out.

There is somewhat of a sumo connection to glass art and glass-making that I plan to explore in a future post. As you know, I usually only need some tangential relationship to sumo to post about something. In and around the Sumida-ward home of Ryogoku and the Kokugikan are many Edo-kiriko workshops. The Edo-Kiriko Co-operative Association is in close-by Kameido. The tweet below shows a great example of an Edo-kiriko glass….that sure makes my attempt look amateurish. Wow, I have got work to do.

Back to Toyama prefecture…Another site of interest is the Toyama Prefectural Museum of Art and Design. The building and grounds themselves are worthy of a visit but many of these exhibitions look fascinating. I take it as my life’s mission to be “seriously unserious.” Or is that funnily unfunny? Probably just unfunny.

Wrestlers

When Asanoyama, aka 売薬関, debuted in early 2016, there were only three other wrestlers from Toyama prefecture in Ozumo. One, Kazunofuji from Isegahama-beya joined at the same time but did not last the year and did not get out of Jonokuchi. So, until 2018 it was Asanoyama and two sandanme grinders from Arashio stable, Hidano and Tsunekawa. Because Asanoyama began his career with a privileged spot in Sandanme, he actually began his career as the top-ranked Toyama wrestler of the time.

Sakabayashi joined in 2018. After a streak of five successful kachi-koshi tournaments to start his career, he seemed to hit a wall in Sandanme and fell back to Jonidan. He has recently climbed back into the Sandanme. Tomiyutaka joined Tokitsukaze-beya in 2019 and also reached Sandanme but was kyujo from the silent basho in Osaka and will be in Jonidan if he (and sumo) come back for the next tournament. Lastly, Kirinohana made his maezumo debut during the Silent Basho for Michinoku-beya. Now is a much less than ideal time to begin a career in sumo so I hope these young men (Kirinohana is 15) do not become disheartened and leave the sport. We will be keeping an eye on their progress.

Get To Know A Shusshin: Shimane-ken

Shimane Prefecture (orange) in Japan

In this new feature we will travel virtually around Japan (and abroad) to get to know where our favorite wrestlers are from. Since the impetus for this series of articles was a Twitter conversation with Jason Harris about his favorite wrestler (Harumafuji) and his local fave (Okinoumi), let’s begin with his home Shimane Prefecture (島根県). [As is my wont, I was going to make a snarky, self-deprecating joke about how I wouldn’t even be able to point to Shimane on a map — but instead decided to learn where it is.]

Peaceful video of Sunset from the Capital, Matsue

Geography (地理学)

The prefecture is located in Western Japan along the Sea of Japan, opposite Hiroshima-ken which lies on the other side of the Chugoku mountains, along the Inland Sea, and in between Yamaguchi at the Western tip of Honshu and Tottori. Yamaguchi, Shimane, and Tottori form the San’in Region of Japan. Tottori is the least populous prefecture in Japan while Shimane is the second-least. Since Shimane is quite a bit bigger, however, it is very sparsely populated next to my beloved Kochi toward the bottom of the population density league table…above only Hokkaido, Iwate, and Akita. However, because of the mountains, there is not much agricultural production from Shimane.

The Kankou Shimane website has helpful information about the Oki Islands, and this stunning view of the Kuniga Coastline

The Oki Islands, or Okishoto (隠岐諸島), are a cluster of Islands off the coast which are home to several current and former rikishi. The islands are due north from the northern end of the prefecture. The Sea of Japan is famous for its fishing and natural resources…and thus occasional disputes between Japan, North and South Korea. The islands themselves have amazing views and coastlines. There’s a great blog post about the Kuniga Coast Walking Trail.

Off the beaten path, literally in the nearby Sea of Japan, is the Oki islands, home to sumo wrestler Okinoumi, and worth a visit if you have a day to spare. It’s a 2-hour ferry ride from the port near a Matsue city to get to the islands, but well worth the trip. The nature and views and wild roaming horses are magnificent and the local people are super friendly and so grateful to tourists that visit their islands. They have bull fighting and scuba diving and hiking and lots of good seafood.

– Jason Harris

Sites

In Japan, and across the world, we’re basically stuck in our living rooms, traveling vicariously by watching travel shows or online. I’m not doing this series to be cruel, I’m doing this to hopefully point out many sumo-related sites to visit when these restrictions are finally lifted. Believe me, when these restrictions are lifted, these “off-the-beaten-path” places will be STARVING FOR SOME LOVE.

Izumo-Hinomisaki Lighthouse

Coming back inland from the Oki Islands which I mentioned up in the Geography section, we get to Jason’s top pick, the Izumo Taisha Shrine (出雲大社). The famous shrine itself has a sumo connection as it hosts wanpaku sumo events (kids’ sumo). According to Japan’s Tourism Bureau, Izumo soba is a famous variety of fresh soba noodle that is served in round lacquer-ware instead of square because in the early 20th Century, the police department banned the rectangles as the corners were too difficult to clean. The shrine and temples of Izumo Taisha are close by Jason’s second pick, the Hinomisaki Lighthouse (日御碕灯台).

Also in the Northeast, near the capital of Matsue is the Adachi Museum of Art which has several gardens along with its collection and current art exhibitions. Another really cool feature of the art museum, and keeping with the theme of virtual tourism, is this Live webcam. You can enjoy the garden from your living room…or desk…or phone while sitting in your own garden.

Matsue itself has some amazing scenery. The video at the top of the post of the sunset from Matsue features Nakaumi — a big lake which forms part of the border between Shimane and Matsue. Shijiko (宍道湖) is another large lake to the West of the city. In August, the city hosts a fireworks or hanabi celebration.

In Western Shimane, there are also several cultural events of interest. Tsuwano is at the far southwestern end near Yamaguchi. Jason points out the Horseback Archery which occurs on the second Sunday of April each year. Then in late July, Tsuwano has its Sagimai (heron dancing) Ritual.

Central Shimane is home to the Iwame Ginzan silver mine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The video above describes why the site is important but in summary, the site was one of the largest and most advanced silver mines in the 1500s. It’s particularly known for using the “cupellation method” where silver is smelted with lead. The lead is then absorbed into the ash leaving high quality silver.

Wrestlers (力士)

Hakkaku-beya seems to have recruited heavily from the Oki Island (隠岐郡) district of Shimane. Until last year, six wrestlers from Shimane-ken called Hakkaku-beya home and all of them were from the Oki Islands. The retirements of Amanishiki (not Aminishiki) and Okinoiwa in 2019 have left four Shimane wrestlers active at the heya, the most senior being Okinoumi. All of their shikona incorporate elements from their hometown.

The largest of the Oki Islands is called Dogo, and is the home of Okinoumi (隠岐の海), Okinofuji (隠岐の富士), and Okinohama (隠岐の浜). Okinoiwa (隠岐の岩) comes from the small island of Nishinoshima. Current Makushita 40 Amanoshima (海士の島) and ex-Amanishiki (海士錦) come from the island of — you guessed it! — Ama (海士).

If I ever post a pop quiz about this kanji (隠岐) you’ll get it, right? Yes. That’s what I thought. If you’re still confused, though, about how on Earth 海士 yields Ama…you’re forgiven. Ama will always be written 安馬 in my book.

Okinoumi may be the most senior of the Oki Island rikishi but Amanoshima posted an excellent 6-1 record during March’s Silent Basho so he should leap up to a career high around Makushita 14-15. That puts him within sight of Sekitori status! More good news from Okinohama who may be close to Makushita promotion. He and Okinofuji posted excellent 5-2 records. Okinoumi’s 8-7 meant all the Oki Island boys had a kachi-koshi in Osaka — too bad there were no Senshuraku parties, eh? I wonder if that clique performs better when they all are doing well. Let’s keep the momentum going!

Naruto-beya has been picking up where Hakkaku-beya left off, recruiting from Shimane-ken. However, Naruto oyakata appears to be sticking to the mainland, specifically the northern area around the capital, instead of casting his eyes to Oki. He picked up a couple of teenagers last year who both had their maezumo debuts at Natsu 2019, Mishima (then 18) and Yamane (15!). Both wrestlers are still fighting under their family names and have yet to pick up a shikona. Will more Shimane talent follow?

A Little About Georgia

Welcome to Georgia, shusshin (birthplace) of Tochinoshin, Gagamaru, and wine. Yes, that bacchanalian beverage, perfected in the hills of France, was domesticated in the Caucasus. Georgian wines are a favorite among my Russian and Eastern European friends. I believe that is why it is such a prize for Vladimir Putin (as well as the resorts Crimea). The Russian Olympic venue at Sochi was a stone’s throw from Georgia. A quick visit to the website for the National Tourism Administration shows several pictures of cultural treasures and amazing vistas.

Mtskheta, Georgia

Tochinoshin is from Mtskheta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site was put on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2009 but removed from that list in 2016, noting work done and the commitment by the State Party to the preservation of the site. This month, a UNESCO monitoring mission is headed to Mtskheta to “assess current conditins at the property.” Tachiai will report on findings.

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I must admit, the description from the tourism company, VisitGeorgia.GE is enticing: “Situated at the confluence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari rivers, Mtskheta has been a site of human settlement since at least the second millennium BC. The town is named after Mtskhetos, son of Kartlos – the legendary progenitor of the Georgian people. Already a town of some significance in pagan times, it gained importance as the site of the first Christian church in Georgia. Today it is no longer the capital of the country, but it is still the spiritual capital and home to two of Georgia’s greatest churches – Svetitskhoveli and Jvari.

While I was growing up, Georgia was a part of the Soviet Union. When the Communist block dissolved, Georgia declared independence. However, that independence has been fraught with conflict as Russian loyalists, primarily in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, continue to try to break away with Russian help. The breakout of heavy fighting and war in 2008 has yielded to an uneasy peace as Western war correspondents have embedded themselves in other Russian proxy battles from Crimea to Syria. It’s difficult to get a sense of the status quo in Tblisi. The most recent article I could find was this from Politico: “Vladimir Putin’s mysterious moving border.”