K- In his last blog Mark stated that he could hardly believe how much we had done in the few days since arriving in Japan. Our trip to Osaka took that statement and quadrupled it.
We went to Osaka purely to try and attend a Sumo tournament, six of which are held each year, each of 15 days length. We were therefore lucky that one was in progress. However the tournament was in Osaka and we were in completely the wrong end of Japan – in Aso, Kyushu, 450 kilometers away. Fortunately our JR pass and the bullet train meant that we could take a quick side trip to Osaka to try and see the Sumo.
I say try because it is very difficult for foreigners to buy advance tickets – you need to purchase in person or have a Japanese address and our mode of traveling makes that virtually impossible. However every day they sell 350 of the cheap seats on a first come, first served basis so our plan was to get up early on Sunday and try and get the tickets. However as this would be the final day of the tournament it would mean a
very early start with no guarantee of a ticket.
On arriving at Osaka on Saturday we dumped our big bags at left luggage and headed straight to the sumo venue to suss out what we would need to do the next morning. We realized that a 6am start might get us tickets but, to our surprise we saw that we could buy some seats for that day’s matches. These were vastly more expensive than the seats we had planned to buy but we had come all the way to Osaka for Sumo and these seats guaranteed we saw it whereas the other option could leave us stranded.
So with one swipe of the magic Visa card we were seated in our Tier C seats on cushions on the floor. We were provided with an excellent “Idiots Guide to Sumo” leaflet, a list of the rikishi (the Sumo wrestlers) with a summary of the win / loss position to date and a schedule of today's bouts - enough information to understand what was happening and who to cheer for.
The event starts at about 9am with bouts between the very junior rikishi. We arrived at 3.30pm just as
the final juryo bouts were finishing and just in time for the main event – the maku-uchi. The 40 top guys in sumo. We had planned to come at around this time the following day so this was perfect. We also arrived in time to see the dokyo-iri ceremony when the maku-uchi rikishi come on to the dohyo wearing their ceremonial aprons of silk and gold thread (see pictures).This was followed by the dohyo-iri ceremony where a yokozuna (the most senior rank of rikishi) performs a traditional stamping routine. All very impressive and had we had been 15 minutes later we would have missed it.
The atmosphere in the stadium was wonderful and the ritual stomping, staring and salt throwing all seemed far more logical and obviously important than on TV. These guys really psyche each other out! Mark and I confessed to each other later that we had both expected to enjoy the experience but be a little bored by the actual sport. That was so not the case - we really got in to it and enjoyed each bout thoroughly!
After a few bouts we asked some locals behind us a couple of points of clarification
The Morning after....
Mark & Pole - Dotombori - Osaka. Note Pole's Union Jack hat!
about the bouts. It turned out that the gentleman (Pole) knew a couple of the rikishi so Mark joined him in shouting (very loudly) some encouragement. I knew those days on the Holt End were not entirely wasted! A little while later one of Pole’s companions appeared with a beautifully wrapped box of chocolates for us.
We had known of the Japanese tradition of gift giving but obviously this blew us away. A little embarrassed that we could not reciprocate we shared the chocolates around and continued watching the bout. By this time we were thoroughly in to it and were supporting our favorite rikishi (or Pole’s friends) with vigor.
Translation was tricky as we speak no Japanese, he speaks little English. Thankfully his companion, Natsumi, spoke a little English (a LOT, better than our Japanese) and after establishing that we like spicy food and can use chopsticks Pole invited us to have dinner with him. – he was a great guy so of course we said yes.
On leaving the stadium Pole introduced us to the tournament announcer and a couple of rikishi – I am afraid we don’t know their names or ranks but they
were big lads and looked very impressive in their kimonos which they are apparently obligated to wear when in public. It’s a good look in my opinion!
Pole’s wife collected us from the stadium and we drove off for dinner. At which point I suddenly thought and said to Mark “only in Japan would I just get in a car and drive off with a strange group of people”. A new friend, Rie who had joined us to act as translator laughed and said Pole had asked her to keep talking to us so we did not get scared! There is something about Japan and Japanese people though that makes you feel OK about decisions that might seem barmy elsewhere!
Pole’s wife delivered our group safely to a house somewhere in greater Osaka and we entered the house to find ourselves in the Osaka base of the top ranked Tokitsukaze stable. We were actually eating in a rakishi house and were being served by the apprentices! The meal was chanko - a traditional soup served after bouts and it was delicious – pork, noodles, cabbage, scallions and tofu in a slightly spiced broth. There were several other visitors
– apparently visitors are served first and then the rikishi eat – not exactly fair but I should say pretty practical given the size of these guys!
Just as we sat down we were joined by Toyonoshima Daiki , a senior rikishi of the stable. We had watched his bout (one of the best of the afternoon) and he kindly had his photo taken with us. He is 5 foot 6 (168cm) - and actually below the official sumo height requirement and weighs 300 pounds (137 KG). He rested his hands gently on our backs and wow, he had strength like a bear. Believe me, its not many people that make Mark feel / look like a weakling!
Toyonoshima is has reached the level of sekiwake during his career but is currently a maegashira. He is likely to go higher again and had a great Osaka tournament, finishing fifth and sharing the technique prize.
After Toyonoshima left we ate dinner and then retired to a side room where we were joined by the head of the stable, Tokitsuumi Masahiro. He kindly gave us a copy of the banzuke, the official sumo program for the Osaka tournament and
2 signed Toyonoshima handprints. We had no gifts to reciprocate but gave our email addresses and insisted that we would love to host any rikishi or coach who fancied a break in California – cross fingers that they take us upon that offer.
What a great evening……and it wasn’t over yet. Pole owned a bar which was about 5 minutes from our hotel so we accepted his kind invitation to visit. It was on the 4th floor of a building and Rie described it to us as a businessman’s sports bar. This description made me a little nervous but it was a very nice place - sports, karaoke and yes, hostesses. However, fortunately it was not a skimpy clothing bar - all the girls were dressed very casually and with a lot of clothes! Customers had booked tables and when they arrived they would be greeted by Pole or the girls and escorted to their table (spirit bottle in place with name tag in lieu of a reservation tag) and I guess geisha style the girls would pour drinks, replenish and generally chat if they wanted. I confess I found it a little strange as I was the only
An Advert break Sumo style
Fees go to the winner - up yo Yen 2 million a bout at the topl level (we were told)
woman there (except for our lovely translator Rie) who was there socially and it was a little weird to have someone attached to us, pouring drinks etc however pleasant they were.
Embarrassingly we didn’t buy a single drink as one of the other guests at the sumo house was a regular visitor to the bar and he paid for the whole evening. To be honest the travel budget could not have reciprocated adequately but we did offer and were firmly refused. They even organized for us to taste the Osaka food specialty of takoyaki (Octopus balls) which made a great bar snack.
But the drink must have flowed because after about an hour I founds myself doing the one thing I have never done, no matter how drunk, and had vowed I would not do even in Japan. I once left my best friend high and dry in a ski bar because I just couldn’t do it……sorry Jane…..last night Darryl, I sang Karaoke!!! And not once but perhaps 8 times (including duets). From Kylie to the Beatles - I was banging out the tunes! Mark also paid for his supper with a song or 2 and I doubt
the rikishi will forget his Angus Young air guitar in a hurry!
Obviously hearing about the new karaoke sensation in town a further 3 rikishi passed through the bar during our time there – and obviously they insisted on having their photo taken with us. OK – maybe that bits not entirely true but we do have photos!
After a lot of bowing and arigato (thank you) we left the bar and made our way to our hotel. And the Japanese experience continued……because tonight we were staying in a capsule hotel! These are (I believe) a unique Japanese invention, designed originally for salaryman who has spent too much time at the office / businessman bar and needs a bed for the night. You sleep, literally in a capsule with a TV! It may seem a bit of a bizarre choice for 2 people with claustrophobic tendencies but we had researched it on youtube and figured it would be OK because there was no door at the end of the bed – just a pull down screen. And we were right – it was great.
Traditionally the capsule hotels are men-only but this one had a female floor
Capsule Hotel in Osaka
Actually very comfortable and pretty cheap given that the town was full of sumo fans!
so on arrival Mark & I said goodbye and headed off to bed. My capsule was very nice with a lovely spongy mattress and a white cotton duvet, and easily accommodated my 5’10”. The showers etc were immaculate and lockers, (short) pyjamas, shampoos, hairdryers etc. were all provided. My only complaint would be that that the onsen (hot baths) and sauna on the top floor were still men only (Mark went there twice).
After a pretty good nights sleep we headed off in to town to meet Pole at Hozenji, a tiny temple which one of the guests the previous evening was associated with. He was unavailable to show us around but had asked his wife to meet us and we were again touched and embarrassed to be given more gifts – this time 2 buddhism bracelets and a beautiful fan with the calligraphy of the temple on it. We threw some water at the moss shine (perfectly appropriate!) and Pole took us out for a lunch of Kushikatsu (skewered breaded and deep fried meat or vegetables). He again refused our sincere offer to pay and much embarrassed we simply made him promise to come to
California so we could reciprocate.
After a visit to the Osaka Aquarium where we saw another Whale Shark, some amazing rays and a few wierd things such as huge spider crabs that normally live at 400 meters we took another Shinkansen to Hiroshima – 80minutes and 280 kilometers backwards but what a worthwhile diversion!
A final big thank you to Pole, Shinko Kanda, Rie and Natsumi for their generosity. It was lovely to meet all of you- please come to California soon! Scroll down for many more photos.
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