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Fukuoka – Rise and Shine It’s Sumo Time!

December 2, 2011 by Chelsea Slone

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Konichiwa Japan! We have finally made it here and I couldn’t be more excited to share with you our journey throughout the way. We have been here only two days and I’ve already seen and done so many new and unfamiliar things I decided it would be best to share every little stop along the way as we make them in order to not leave anything out. So pick up some sushi and/or sake, whatever you fancy, and sit down to travel with us through the fascinating country of Japan.

After arriving at the Tokyo international airport, Tyler and I hurried through customs and went straight to the airport JR desk to activate our Japan Rail pass and book our train seats to Fukuoka the next day. Our plan was to begin in Tokyo and work our way down the country, but when we found out their was a sumo wrestling tournament we decided to take a train immediately south to the tournament and work our way back to Tokyo. Worth changing our trip over? I think so! Within only a few minutes we were done booking our tickets and were boarding our train to central Tokyo to spend one night and be on our way. From there we checked into out Tokyo hotel in the Shibuya area and that’s when the discoveries began with smart toilets! Beside the toilet was a smart pad that had about ten buttons all written with Japanese characters. Of course I had to experiment, and not only did they have the heated seat everyone always talks about, but water could come out from about any direction you wished and then, of course there was a dryer to complete it all. That was just the beginning of my Japanese technology discoveries!

We set out to explore the Shibuya area of Tokyo for a while before finding a place to eat Thanksgiving dinner. After about twenty minutes of walking around with our eyes wide open in silence Tyler finally said “This is sensory overload, my eyes have yet to focus on one thing”. It was the absolute truth. It was like Times Square everywhere you went. Then we walked up on a massive intersection when the little walking man turned green and people began crossing from all six directions as quickly as they could while we just stood in disbelief as the people scattered. We later found out this was the famous six way intersection and tourists sit in the massive Starbucks in one of the highrises just to watch is madness happen from above.

We finally decided it was time for our Thanksgiving dinner. Knowing we weren’t going to find turkey and stuffing easily we decided to make up for it next year by eating double and settle for Japanese food this year. I saw an adorable little doorway with a menu written in all Japanese set out in front before two red curtains and for some reason I really wanted to try it out. Tyler said “you know they won’t speak English here, this looks like a local hole in the wall.” I was of course fine with this because little did he know I knew one other Japanese word than Konnichiwa (hello) and that was Osusume (whatever you recommend). =)

We made our way down into the hole in the wall to find a charming little restaurant with only a few tables all full except one. The young Japanese man smiled and when I held up two fingers he smiled even bigger and showed us the menu while saying “Japanese”. I nodded and said “osusume”, he laughed while nodding and seated us at the table with a small hibachi grill in the middle. After our drinks were served and he pointed as his suggestions to make sure the prices were ok with us and when we ok-ed his recommendations an older lady came to turn on the hibachi grill and bring us chop sticks and a bib. She motioned for us to tie the bib around our necks and walked away. We looks at the two girls sitting at another hibachi table right next to us and they had their bibs still folded on their table while eating so we decided to put them aside as well. In a few minutes the older lady returned and placed on the grill a giant leaf topped with fish, shrimp, vegetables, and sauce. Then insisted on tying the bibs around our neck for us with the biggest smile on her face as she spoke Japanese to us. When she finally left we couldn’t stop laughing. We noticed the girls beside us cooking their food on their hibachi by flipping it and chopping, but we didn’t have the same dish so we of course had no idea what to do. The older lady came to bring us more and realized we were lost so from then on she did everything for us. Every time I would try to reach in a stir she would run from the kitchen and shake her head no with her big smile, I decided it was best to leave it all to her.

We had some of the most amazing dishes with not a clue to what they really were. Our first was as I said the shrimp and fish on a giant leaf, our second was a potato cornbread type dish with crayfish maybe, and our third was a type of noodles with pork. It was truly the most fun dining experience we had all year and we had only been in Japan for a few hours at most. We knew we were in for a treat.

In the morning we woke up early to enjoy our first Japanese fish breakfast before boarding our first every bullet train to Fukuoka. They say in Japan if a train is more than eight seconds late, the driver will be fired, and so far I believe it! While we sat on the train reading and looking through picture Tyler and I would occasionally look out the window to see what it was like outside of the city. All the sudden Tyler and I were both found ourselves staring out the window at the huge mountain we were passing by and finally he said “Is that Mount Fugi?” I was thinking the same thing for it looked exactly like every picture I had seen, but were we really passing right beside one of Japan’s most famous mountains… Looks like we were! It was incredible.

After our five hour train ride down to Fukuoka we threw our stuff in our room and made our way down to the popular Yatai (food stalls) to grab something to eat and get some sleep for our big sumo tournament day the next morning. These little food stall seat up to eight people and serve simple but delicious local Japanese cuisine. We found a two seats at one of the Yatai by the river and sat down to enjoy some of their famous yakitori (grilled skewers) and Hakata Ramen (a noodle dish they are famous for here). The atmosphere was really neat, we were surrounded by Japanese people enjoying the local dishes themselves instead of tourists like you would imagine. Our dishes were amazing. I felt like I was like having my two favorite Asian NYC establishments, Momofuku and Yakitori as street food in Japan… Thats when I realized poor quality just doesn’t exists in this country.

The next morning we woke up excited as ever for the Sumo Tournament we would be attending. There are six tournaments held every year in Japan and without planning on it we were lucky enough to be here during one. According to Japanese legend the very origin of the Japanese race depended on the outcome of a sumo match. The supremacy of the Japanese people on the islands of Japan was supposedly established when the god, Takemikazuchi, won a sumo bout with the leader of a rival tribe. However, apart from the legend, sumo is an ancient sporting dating back some 1,500 years.

The tournaments begin early in the day with the lowest ranked fighters and ends with the highest rank. We were told there is no crowd until around three in the afternoon, but we were too excited to wait and decided to go for the whole day. When we got there we were shown to our seats, which was a mat on the floor and we were told to put our shoes in the cubby before getting onto the mat. We did just as we were told and when we sat down and tooled around we saw that the lowest rank fighters were still fighting and we were sharing the stadium with only about 20 other people. Together we read the rules, figured out the game, and watched the armatures fight against one another for an hour or so until the opening ceremony began for the juryo ranking matches.

There are around 800 rikishi, or fighters, in professional sumo from the lowly trainee to the yokozuna at the top. After each tournament the ranking will change according to the rikishi performance. The most popular fights to watch are the upper division rikishi, known as maku-uchi. In the maku-uchi group there are five rankings. In accenting order the Maehashira, Komusubi, Sekiwake, Ozeki, and Yokozuna. The Yokozuna title is a very privileged title to hold, and since it was founded 300 years ago only 69 men have received this title. Presently, there is one Yokozuma named Hakuoho.

Right before the opening ceremony for the juryo more people began to make their way into the stadium. As we watched the fights now we realized they rikishi were getting bigger and had better form. They also began participating in some of the pre fight rituals like throwing salt on the ring. We quickly realized the good fighting was about to begin. The juryo division is ranked just below the maku-uchi, so when they concluding their matches the final opening ceremony for the maku-uchi began.

In the opening ceremony the rikishi walk out onto the dohyo in an ascending order according to their ranking while a gyoji (referee) is chanting and the announcer is announcing their names, ranking, and where they are from in Japanese. There are different rankings for the gyoji similar to the rikishi. Each gyoji will have a different color tassel attached to their fan representing their ranking. The top gyoji who escorts and announces the yokozuna will have a purple tassel, the rank below will have red, and so on. Each rikishi is dressed in a colorful kesho-mawashi (ceremony apron), which is make of pure silk and costs anywhere from $5,000 to $6,500. Once all the rikishi are on the dohyo they do a ritual where they raise their arms up in the air all together and then exit the ring the same way they came on.

Once they are out of the stadium the yokozuna will then come down the isle attended by a senior gyoji and two maku-uchi rikishi one of which bearing a sword. The yokozuna wears a massive braided hemp rope weighting about 30 pounds tied in the back with paper hanging down in zigzag patterns. This is a religious symbol in Japan and can be also seen having over Shinto shrines. He then preforms the dohyo-iri ceremony with the greatest dignity. He first claps his hands together to awake the gods then extends his arms to the sides and turns his palms upwards showing he has no weapons. Then he will lift one leg to the side in the air, then the other, bringing each down with a resounding stamp on the ground symbolically driving out evil from the dohyo or the ring. After this the fights are ready to begin.

The fighting ring called the dohyo is made of hard clay covered on sand and is 18 square feet and 2 feet high. Suspended over the dohyo from the ceiling is a roof resembling a Shinto shrine with four giant tassels in each corner to signify the seasons of the year. A fight is won by forcing an opponent out of the inner circle or throwing him in the dohyo. However to lose the match you don’t necessarily have to be thrown down or out of the ring, because if any part of the body touching the ring, a knee or even a finger, you lose.

As each rikishi enters the dohyo he goes through a series of symbolic movements. To cleanse his mind and body he symbolically rinks his mouth with water, the sour of purity, and wipes his body with a paper towel. He then also repeats the yokazuna’s motions by raising his arms and stomping his feet. Then each rikishi scatters a handful of salt to purify the ring, this is further to insure him against injuries. The rikishi then face each other in the center of the ring and get in position, crouching forward with their fists on the ground to behind their fight. Once the fight begins it can be over within a few intense seconds. The crowd goes crazy during those few seconds and then when the fight is over each rikishi bows and the winner is announced before they exiting the dohyo.

We had so much fun during our day at the sumo tournament. It was truly a fascinating experience and we learned so much about the Japanese culture throughout the day. I can’t believe we’re just days into our three week trip through Japan and we’ve already experienced some of the most amazing things, I can’t wait to see the rest. So get ready to join us on Miyajima Island for our trip to the infamous floating tori gate.

Until Then,


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