Anna P Spr09


(Continued from “Week 5 (part 1)”, see below)
The next morning—this Sunday morning—we had breakfast in the hotel with the family of one of my otoosan’s non-sumo friends. They have a daughter who’s in middle school, I believe, and it was nice to have someone closer to my age to talk to. We ended up spending the whole day with them. We first went to Asakusa, a district in north-east Tokyo where there is a famous market and temple (Senso-ji). We made our way down the crowded main street toward the temple, sampling various street sweets and stopping in souvenir shops. We prayed at the temple before going to the shrine next to it to watch a small show with a trained Japanese macaque. In Japan, the religions of Buddhism and Shinto are not exclusive, and you can often find temples and shrines in the same complex. The people of Japan often practice a mixture of religions throughout their daily lives.

The taxi ride brought us to the sumo building, called Ryogoku, where I thought we would just walk by before heading to lunch—was I ever wrong. As my otoosan hailed one of his retired sumo friends, I realized we would be going in, with special permission. We briefly looked in to the main arena before heading to lunch. While it was exciting to see a sumo match live for the first time, that’s not really what we came for. At the restaurant, we met up with the groom from the day before, who was apparently working even though he just got married the day before. This newly hitch sumo-san escorted us downstairs, to the backstage area of the sumo ring where few Japanese are allowed to go. This is how incredible my otoosan is.

I was privileged enough to go into the rooms where the sumo-san from the East and West divisions hang out and have their hair done in the traditional styles, before they go to the ring. The entire area smelled of the waxy stuff that’s rubbed into their hair to keep the unique shape—a hair style that sumo have worn for thousands of years. I took a few more pictures with various sumo, including Baruto-san again. I thought that would be all we were allowed to do. After all it was already a bit of a stretch, since I’m not Japanese and foreigners are rarely allowed. However, my otoosan whispered to his friend, asking if Asashoryu-san would be coming. The answer was that he would but a little later.

So we waited. And waited, in a hot room or in the hallway, with the kids getting more and more impatient. Needless to say, this was worth the wait. Soon the loud clop of the traditional wooden blocks signaled that all non official personnel needed to leave because the sumo were about to change. When we were allowed to go back in, the place had nearly emptied, but for a group of anxious, picture-wanting fans, like ourselves, and Asashoryu-san et al. My breath caught in my chest as I saw the Yokozuna—the man I had seen on television just the nigh before, the man I had seen win the tournament only weeks before. Before I got a chance to take a picture he rushed out to the main ring for the ceremony. We then rushed to the opposite side (i.e. the East side) to catch Hakuho-san as he returned from the ring.

At this year’s Hastu Basho, Hakuho was the yokozuna of the East Division, and Asashoryu was the yokozuna of the West. With the conclusion of the basho, Asashoryu came out on top, beating Hakuho in a tiebreaker match. An interesting fact about both yokozuna is that they are neither of them Japanese, but both from Mongolia. It would seem that there hasn’t been a Japanese yokozuna in quite some time. In the 1500 year history of the sport, Asashoryu is only the 68th out of 69 yokozuna (the 69th is Hakuho, who is 5 years younger than Asashoryu). Yokuzuna wear a thick rope (tsuna) around their waists for ceremonies, a rope that is similar to the rope tied around sacred Shinto areas and objects.

I quickly got a picture with Hakuho-san before he was swarmed by other hopefuls, before running back to the West side in the hopes of getting a picture with Asashoryu-san. I don’t mean to seem like I have just jumped on the winner’s bandwagon, because I don’t think that’s the case. He’s had his share of controversy in his career, and is not always a favorite. For me, he was the first sumo I became familiar with as I watched, the first name I could recognize on the screen because I know all the kanji in his sumo name (朝青龍=”Morning Blue Dragon”), and when he won the match against Hakuho-san, I was moved by the emotion he showed. So even as he passed me again in that crowded hallway to go to an interview, without an opportunity to snap a photo, I remained determined to get my picture, no matter how long it took.

My otoosan and his sumo friends quickly set themselves up in positions so they could take pictures, and as Asashoyru-san cam striding down the hallway, they made their request heard. Asashoryu-san laughed as he saw the crowd waiting for the chance to take a picture of him. So still in his sacred regalia, I quickly stepped in to have my picture taken with the yokozuna-san, thanked him as politely as I could, bowed, and moved out of the way for more pictures to be taken. Turning to my okaasan afterwards, she was happy to see the big smile on my face. I had stood inches away from one of the most famous sumo in Japan, and my personal favorite. I later learned that it was quite a special thing to get a photo with both yokozuna still wearing the sacred ropes. I feel truly lucky and honored.

The rest of my day is somewhat hazy, but included watching some more sumo (including a Hakuho match), riding the shinkansen back to Nagoya, and finding Skippy peanut butter when I went shopping with my okaasan. One other miracle of the day was seeing Fuji-san (“san” here is not the honorific attached to names meaning Mr. or Mrs. but rather another reading of the kanji for mountain: 富士山, “Fu-ji-san”) clearly from the shinkansen—something that does not often happen, it seems to me, at least it didn’t when we first went to Tokyo. I first saw it as a large shadow on the horizon when I turned to see what some other passengers were taking pictures of. But we soon reached it, and it loomed beside the train with snow covering the sides.

I have thanked my host parents profusely for the opportunity they gave me this weekend—memories I will surely tell my grandchildren to inspire them to explore foreign cultures. They could only say that they were happy to share it with me. To see the famous human-mountains, sumo, and the most famous mountain in Japan were fantastic experiences I will not soon forget.
fuji san

Fuji-san, as seen from the Shinkansen.

(Sorry, my computer doesn’t seem to want to post the sumo pictures I have. You’ll have to see me personally to get them. Gomen ne…)

Three words summarize my weekend: sumo, Fuji, and peanut butter. Well, that’s technically four words but you understand what I meant. For those of you who also read my Facebook status, you know that I had the best weekend ever. That means, ladies and gentlemen, that this is going to be a long edition (split between two posts), but it’s worth it, so stick with me.

Preface:

I came to Japan with what I now know to have been a very limited understanding of sumo. I will not claim that I learned very much even within my first few weeks, but with my otoosan being an avid fan (for reasons that will become clear), I came to watch sumo pretty much every day for the New Year Basho (i.e. tournament). The faces that I became the most familiar with were, of course, the Yokozuna* (plural, even though there’s no s—it’s Japanese), Asashoryu and Hakuho, and the foreigners, especially Baruto who’s from Estonia and one of my otoosan’s favorites—i.e. a friend. Yes, that’s right; my otoosan has friends that are sumo. Can’t believe it, well just wait. So to conclude this preface, my host parents had invited me to go with them to Tokyo to attend the wedding of a friend—a retired sumo. Of course I said yes, so with new shoes, borrowed and gifted clothes, I set off to Tokyo, with no idea what I was to experience

(*Note: for those who don’t know, Yokozuna are the highest ranked sumo in Japan.)

Here the story begins:

Saturday saw my okaasan and I begin our trip by getting our hair done together. It was truly a treat and a lot of fun. Once she was dressed in her kimono (which takes a long time, even though she said they were quick at the salon), we headed home to meet the kids and my otoosan to then head to Nagoya Eki (“station”) for a shinkansen (bullet train) to Tokyo. There were actually quite a lot of my otoosan’s coworkers who went with us, some of whom I recognized from the Ise trip—see previous post. (By the way, I now know where my otoosan works: Sony Life—a big time Japanese insurance company.) The train, traveling at about 200 mi/hr took about an hour and a half. Technology is amazing.

In Tokyo, we took a cab to the Hotel East 21—a very nice hotel, probably comparable to the Waldorf in New York: I was surprised, although I probably should have guessed that a sumo would not have his wedding in the backyard. As I waited for my okaasan to check us in, Taisuke suddenly yelled out “Osumo-san!” and I turned to see a real sumo wrestler striding to the reception desk. They really are human-mountains. I was awed, and quickly bowed as he passed without really paying attention to me.

After a quick run upstairs to deposit my bags, I returned for the pre-reception milling around where my otoosan quickly ushered me around taking pictures with various sumo (incl. Baruto-san) and introducing me to people. Needless to say, I was quite nervous; in Japanese, doki-doki shiteita, which is the onomatopoeia for the sound of a heart beating hard. We soon entered the grand hall, taking pictures of the bride and groom fresh from the ceremony in their traditional Japanese garb. The bride wore 3 beautiful dresses throughout the night: a kimono, a white wedding gown, and a lavender gown for the after party.

Through speeches of congratulations, thanks, and memories, 11 courses of Japanese and Western cuisine, musical performances ranging from the traditional to modern, the cutting of a towering cake (just for ceremony), conversations almost entirely in Japanese, and my otoosan again bringing me around to all his amazing connections, the reception progressed beautifully. Although it is perhaps cheesy, what I enjoyed the most was seeing how the couple at the center of attention looked so very happy. At a less formal after party in a 40’s inspired bar room on the top floor of the hotel, we played a massive game of Jakenpo (rock-paper-scissors) DJed by a sumo-san, and mingled. There, too, the bride and groom seemed to be having a wonderful time.

Before I wax too starry-eyed, I must interject here with my one major complaint of the evening: far too many people smoke in Japan. It was especially hard in that bar because there was no means of ventilation. There’s not much to do about it, but it’s something I wish would change about this country. That and the whaling and the bureaucratic system. But anyway.

At the end of the night we again congratulated the couple and then went our separate ways. After finally releasing my hair from its by then throbbing existence, I went to bed watching a CNN (the only channel in English) special on Asashoryu, thinking how I would write a post ending on that note.

But my story continues. See next post.
Sumo wedding

In my new pink dress, a gift from my okaasan, sanding with Yugo and my okaasan in her lovely kimono. Taisuke is out of frame, on the floor, pretending to be a cat.

Sumo wedding 2

Baruto-san!!!

Yesterday, with my host family and a busload of other Japanese people, I went to Ise shrine. It was as if we were reenacting the pilgrimages that people used to take to Ise during the Edo era, except here, it seemed to side more on the side of a western sightseeing cruise: you travel for a while, then you eat, then you travel for a while, then eat again, then see something humbling and ancient, then you have another lunch. I ate so much yesterday in so many sittings, that I don’t know how many meals I had, nor which meal when. First, I had a breakfast of egg sandwiches with ketchup at home–an item that is apparently one of my otoosan’s (host father) favorites. He was quite genki (“happy, lively”) the whole day through, which was good because it seemed to me that he basically ran the trip–a group that consisted of 14 full buses total. From what I understood of my okaasan’s (host mother) explanation, this was a trip organized for people involved in politics (I still don’t know exactly what it is my otoosan does, but I imagine this is somehow part of it.)

On the bus we were provided with a bag of okashi (snack foods) that Yugo promptly proceeded to devour (I saved mine for another time), with a comment from his grand mother of okashi-baka (“junk-food junkie”). We also got a mikan (mandarin orange) from the 19-year-old bus tour guide, and then another from these two nice obaasan (“old woman”) who sat behind us. As people filed onto the bus, my host parents greeted everyone. I wondered how many they really knew, and how many were merely chijin (acquaintance). There were a few I knew, like my otoosan’s parents, and some that I will probably meet again, like his best friend.

As we traveled along the highway, I tried to stay awake to watch the mountains grow as we approached them, but i soon dozed off, as I so often do when I’m in a moving vehicle. My sleep, however, was interrupted by a stop for lunch–a meal of miso soup, soba, rice, steamed tofu, the pink pickled vegetables that my otoosan loves, steamed crab cake/shrimp/pork/something like mashed potatoes (but not potato), and what I believe was egg custard with cubes of meat in it. This took place in a huge cafeteria that housed everyone who had arrived on the 14 buses. As I ate, I had a nice conversation with one of the people on my bus, who had lived in England for two years, but tolerated my stunted Japanese.

After eating, hurriedly–because it would seem that everyone in Japan is always rushed–my okaasan and I walked around the area downstairs, where you could buy everything from fancy mochi (sticky rice cake) to ika (squid) to some odd mush that I didn’t recognize. We had free samples wherever we could get them: mochi, red bean taiyaki (grilled cake filled with red bean paste…), cream taiyaki (…or cream), and random other products. I was able to stay awake and watch the scenery as we continued traveling.

The Grand Ise Shrine (伊勢神宮) is the most important in Japan, housing the sun-goddess Amaterasu Ōmikami. It consists of an Outer and an Inner Shrine, the latter housing the goddess herself, as well as her mythical mirror (one of the three sacred items). When we arrived at the Outer Shrine, I recognized the paths I had walked this summer. The whole day I passed by familiar places and remembered the conversations and thoughts I had had. We briefly prayed at the Outer Shrine, giving ¥15 (10 for the month and 5 more for luck), then bought omamori (Shinto amulets) for good luck in school. We then continued to the main shrine and prayed there as well, giving the same amount. The stairs to the shrine were packed with people, although not as many as would have been there for Oshougatsu (New Year’s) when getting to the shrine is a constant gridlock of people, according to my okaasan.

After buying the same omamori there (because that’s what people usually do apparently), we went to get more food. On the street near the shrine, where there are souvenir shops and street vendors, we found a restaurant that served Ise style udon, which unlike other udon is not in a bowl full of soup, but in a shallow soy-based sauce. My okaasan and I then walked around—she bought an oyster grilled in the shell off a street vendor (she loves oysters) and then we had grilled mochi in a bowl of oshiruko (red bean paste soup). Hurrying back to the bus, I decided that I would have to return on my own time to explore the streets further.

On the bus, the obaasan who had given us the mikan offered various street foods they had bought. Being overly full I politely declined, and turned to the window to take pictures of the setting sun as best I could. The rest of the bus either slept or watched the video of a famous Japanese comedian. We stopped at the same rest area we had when coming. I remained on the bus to avoid taking any more free samples I couldn’t resist, but my obaachan brought back a cup of corn soup because it was so cold. I drank it but tried as best I could to refuse all other food offered to me.

Even after most of us parted way back in Nagakute, my host family continued with another young family to Apita (a department store), because my otouto (little brothers) wanted to play a Pokemon game there. We had a small dinner (?) of yaki soba, which I apparently always have room for since I love it so much. Even after returning home, when the kids were in bed, even then, my okaasan pulled out akafuku (mochi covered in red bean paste, another specialty of Ise) which we ate with ocha (green tea) as we watched her favorite drama based on the unification of Japan before the Edo period (she loves the actor who plays Oda Nobunaga and will get very excited whenever he appears, to which my otoosan says, okashii—“strange”).

I went to bed quite full, but also quite satisfied with the adventure the day had brought.

Ise 1

Here are the people waiting to get to the main shrine. This is the closest you can take a picture.

Ise 2

Here’s the mochi and oshiruko.

Ise 3

The setting sun after a visit to the shrine of the sun goddess.

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