Watching sumo is like watching cargo trains crash, except the trains are made of flesh and covered with silk nappies rather than industrial waterproof paint. It is a rather unusual choice of national sport, being rather more religious than most sports, slightly more violent than a small number of religions, and far less popular than baseball. Nevertheless, it’s something you have to see whilst in Japan. As a result, me and Lune are stood, rubbing our hands and stamping our feet, at 7 30am on a Saturday morning, waiting for the cheap seats to go on sale. A taiko drummer in a tragically thin yukata pounds out a rhythm from the top of a wooden tower in honour of the coming fights. The arena is a huge rhombus balanced on its point, with the ring (dohyo) at the base, the back row of seating at its wide waist, and a seemingly needless void above that. We snacked and slept on the back row, which wasn’t as far from the ring as I’d feared. The half of the seating closest to the ring is made up of boxes, with tea and cushions for kneeling, the rest are comfortable folding seats, like those in an old theatre.
Bouts begin with the fighters (rikishi), climbing up onto the raised clay podium which contains the ring. This clay is dried and looks about as soft as concrete. The referee, dressed in a ceremonial kimono in the style of the Kamakura period, holds a spread fan in front of him and announces the fighters from each corner (East and West) in a wailing song, somewhat like a call to prayer. The rikishi stomp (to drive out spirits) in the corners: those who are slightly built manage to swing their legs up into the splits, while the largest fighters only manage to swing bent legs up to knee height. In higher divisions the fighters spread salt over the ring to purify it, returning multiple times in order to psyche out their opponents. This pre-match period can take up to four minutes, far longer than any bout. When ready, the wrestlers face each other, and raise and lower their fists to the ground. When all four fists are touching the ground, the bout begins, so there is an advantage to be gained by tricking your opponent. The fists swing slowly, flutter, then punch the ground.
The wrestlers explode forwards and upwards, meeting with a slap then wrenching, driving, and slapping some more. Most bouts are done in about ten seconds, and often end with a fighter hitting the clay hard or being ejected from the platform entirely. In this case those kneeling in the front rows have to move fast or suffer embarrassing eulogies at their funerals. The most common techniques, slapping, driving and thrusting, are very common, but there are occasional moments of balletic grace that stand out. My favourite was a small rikishi who was having his right elbow forced under his body, twisting his torso clockwise. When he was about to be flipped round, his right knee bent, dropping his weight, and his right arm snapped straight, delivering a karate chop to his opponents left foot, and knocking him splay-legged to the floor. There was also amusement when wrestlers showed individuality. A second division fighter beat his chest and roared at the crowd, whilst another grabbed a huge handful of salt, and the crowd began cheering louder and louder in anticipation, cheering wildly as he unleashed a white wave across the ring and the spectators. The yokozuna (top rank) Haramafuji performed a slow motion press-up on his fists to great acclaim. He also won the tournament that day (the second last one). We had notice throughout the day that the hugest sumo were too slow and too weak (relatively speaking) to be effective, which is a little surprising given the stereotype. Haramafuji is also the lightest fighter in the top division, at a feather-like 120kgs…
Kusatsu is a typical alpine town that seems lost, dropped in Japan rather than Switzerland. Log cabins with snowy sloping roves jostle with those ugly multi-storey hotels which spring up everywhere. Ski-hire shops are still manned by smoking youths with long hair and low trousers. It was popularized by a German who was impressed by the quality of the hot springs, hence the continental influence. My boss (K, just like in MIB) has a holiday home in the mountains nearby, and kindly invited me and Lune to visit just after new year. We took a coach from Tokyo station and had candied sweet potatoes for lunch, which are delicious but a bit too sweet. Winding north on the mountain roads we could see an alien green river below and freakishly steep slopes above. Skeletal trees were somehow managing to keep hold, but the snow couldn’t settle on such steep ground, leaving the hills bristling and lightly dusted with white. Kusatsu is a spa town which produces copious amounts of boiling water, courtesy of the huge volcano nearby. We were reassured to hear that the last major eruption was only 30 years ago. In Yudanaka the sides of the streets had spa water running underneath them to prevent the footpaths freezing, but here there is enough hot water to de-ice all the roads in town, all year round, plus fill over 100 onsen. It also has the first ‘singing road’ that I have ever experienced: strips cut into the road at variable distances produce the town anthem if you drive at the speed limit. The sound was strangely haunting, and reminded me of an echoing organ.
The water emerges in the centre of town at about 99 degrees, belches steam, and runs down wooden boxes which are used to extract sulphur to sell as bath salts. People took photos in front of the backlit steam, while a community minded chap held a silvered reflector for all the people having their photo taken. Onsen are immensely popular in Japan. To illustrate, here is a conversation I had with a (Japanese) friend in Shinjuku a few months back:
‘What do you recommend that I do while in Japan?’
‘You should do onsen! Very Japanese, very relaxing’
‘Cool, and where should I go in Japan?’
‘You should go to Beppu, it has very many onsen’
‘OK, and what do you like doing in your spare time?’
‘ahhh, my favourite is onsen’ *grins*’
So Lune and I headed off to the onsen to bathe with K and her family. Sexes are segregated, so K2 and I (K’s husband) sat outside in a sulphurous pool with our heads cool and our bodies too hot. The locals sit silently, eyes closed, with towels on their heads, folded into neat squares. The water is pH 2, so if you feel a nibbling on your skin you should get out and shower. This is what being dissolved feels like. Although unnerving, the chemical exfoliation leaves you with pleasantly smooth skin.
Their house is a fusion of Japan and European alpine, with a tall pine living room/kitchen, with tatami bedrooms leading off it. We entertained ourselves by playing Uno and Othello with their kids. I was beaten about 10 times in a row by their adorable five year old son. There’s something humbling about taking a minute and careful thought over each move, only to have your opponent briefly stop running around/making faces/playing, glance at the board, and make the move you should have blocked. Later, we saw their daughter practicing Karuta. In this game you must identify one of 100 poems as they are read out, and grab the corresponding card faster than your opponent. Those without formidable memories need not apply.
The temperature was around -15 the first night, so we woke up with ice inside the windows and no water; the pipes had frozen. Thankfully the plumber came to sort it out that day. The view from their balcony is brilliant, with crumpled forest stretching down to a wide plain, above which stands the slightly ominous volcano.
Lune learnt to ski very rapidly, and had done a stretch of red by the end of her first morning, albeit mainly due to the design of the park. She rapidly picked up the most essential element of skiing: a fervent hatred of snowboarders. Soon enough, the stuttering scrape of an incoming board stimulated hunched shoulders, bunched fists, and a hiss of “douches”. There is only so much you can teach a Scot, so by the end of the day tempers were frayed slightly, and I was compelled to use a more distant teaching approach…
K suggested we paint a new year kanji, which is similar to making a resolution except it’s much prettier and stays on your wall (if not in your mind) all year. Lune chose ‘flight’, while I went for ‘power movement’ (exercise). The lovely kanji kit made me nervous about making mistakes, but I enjoyed the painting, felt very Japanese, and ended up with a good souvenir. We then went sledging on the nearby golf course, laughing and falling and running up hills. All too soon we were getting the bus back and thinking about work the next day. I think I’ve written enough this week, but next week there will be a picture of a cat reading a dinosaur book. I promise.