Sumo is one of Japan’s more internationally famous sports, probably because the spectacle of two exceptionally fat men – in a nation of exceptionally skinny people – wrestling one another, clad only in loin-cloths shaped like sexy G-strings is, well, hilarious.
What most accidental spectators don’t realize is that there’s so much more to the sport than its remarkably hefty rikishi (wrestlers).
Behind the bulldog bravura of cataclysmic grappling that goes on in the ring are centuries-old traditions like the Shinto-related throwing of salt (that one’s for purification).
And sumo competitors’ hair – which is precision-slicked into top-knots – is coiffed using a waxy substance called bintsuke abura, the main ingredient of which comes from the berries of the Japanese wax tree, Toxicodendron succedaneum – a member of the same family as poison ivy. It’s been used cosmetically and in hairdressing in Japan for around a thousand years, and is also used by geisha as a waxy base for their make-up.
Incidentally, in July 2008 the Japanese newspaper Nikkan Sports reported that a 15g container of the oil rose from ¥685 to ¥735, prompting sumo stars to demand a pay raise.
Even that remarkably revealing loincloth, known as the mawashi, has a story: it’s made of silk, approximately 30 feet long, weighs up to 11 pounds (about 5kg), and sometimes bears the name of a sponsor.
Ryōgoku, located here in Tokyo near the historic centre of this monolithic metropolis, is the home of the sumo. Right outside the west exit of Ryōgoku JR station stands the mammoth Kokugikan, the Sumo Hall, with a capacity of 13,000 people. Three of the six national Grand Sumo tournaments happen here.
Unlike ogling geisha in Kyoto, train spotting sumo sorts in the streets around Ryōgoku is relatively easy, especially since the practitioners of the sport aren’t exactly the waif-like types that geisha or maiko typically are.
But sumo wrestlers would be nothing without their diet, and – yes – we dangle the word “diet” here in its most strictly ironic sense. You won’t find these people anywhere near a Diet Coke or low-fat mayonnaise.
Chanko-nabe (ちゃんこ鍋) is the food of the sumo – a huge, simmering hot-pot that’s chock-full of meat, fish and vegetables, best mixed with soy sauce, but sometimes also blended with mirin, miso, sake, and dashi stock (shavings of dried skipjack tuna mixed with edible kelp).
Leftover broth is often then consumed with a hefty plate of noodles.
It’s as highly nutritious (think protein city) as it is gut-busting, and is the principle dish gorged by sumo wrestlers to extend their hefty waistlines and add to already impressive girths.
Some wrestlers enjoy the concoction so much that they quit the ring and instead become the chanko-cho, or chief chanko chef, for their wrestling stables, and eventually open their own restaurants – often with sumo memorabilia from their workhorse days adorning the walls.
And, to my blinkered eyes at least, there’s no finer chanko-nabe to be had in Ryōgoku, than at a fine establishment called Yoshiba.
The building that houses Yoshiba was erected in 1948 as a prominent sumo wrestling club and practice stadium for the famous, 200-year-old Miyagino stable, and nine years later the premises were handed down to the stable’s coach, former distinguished yokozuna (sumo grand champion), Yoshibayama, who passed away in 1977.
After that, the building was recast as a restaurant (in 1983), maintaining the sumo ring and the practice rooms in their original state.
Kappo Yoshiba, named after the aforementioned yokuzuna, is hardly a small place itself. The restaurant can seat up to 250 people, it boasts a sushi bar and a voluminous fish-tank, and while the place is invariably busy, the service from the staff is brilliant – so much so, it leaves you despondent that the custom of tipping is a foreign one in Japan.
There’s also daily entertainment in the sumo ring in the center of the restaurant, which veers from guys in yukata (summer robes) singing traditional sumo songs, to a group of rowdy musicians strumming away on a shamisen in a more quirky, contemporary style.
But the focus here, of course, is the chanko-nabe, and the seriously skewed attempts to finish this herculean dish. Give yourself a day or two to recover – and try not to remember that sumo champions and their lesser ilk guzzle gallons of the chunky nectar on a daily basis.