Sun 8 Feb 2009
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(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, 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…)