A byte of life from the Land of Sumos and Sushi

Friday, March 24, 2006

Giants in G-Strings

A sumo t-shirt as seen at the tournament, Osaka, Japan.

Last weekend, a posse of Fukui foreigners made the short train journey to Osaka city to behold the wonder of a sumo tournament. The small stadium meant that there really wasn’t a bad seat in the house, and though we were in the cheap stalls, we had a great view of the battling behemoths.

Sumo is said to have originated around 1500 years ago. In its early stages the sport was a rough and tumble affair that combined boxing and wrestling, and had few rules. For a long time it was regarded primarily for its military usefulness in hand to hand combat, and in the age of the samurai, the martial art of Ju-Jitsu was delveloped from sumo.

Now it is a highly ritualised affair, with strict rules of engagement and etiquette, and duties that extend even to outside the ring. For example, the top ranked sumos are only permitted to appear in public wearing traditional attire (kimono and yukata that is, not mawashi - the g-stings!). In fact, last year a sumo wrestler caused huge controversy when he showed up in public in a suit rather than a kimono, and the sumo association threatened to strip him of his status for not upholding the honour of the sport!

To Japan’s ongoing disappointment, the current sumo champion (termed the yokozuna), is not Japanese, but Mongolian. There are also a few other high ranking sumo foreigners, including two Russian brothers, and a Bulgarian, Kotooshu, who is a big crowd pleaser, and has been dubbed the “David Beckham of Sumo”, due to his dashing good looks.

The Bulgarian certainly put on a good show for us. As the bout started, he put in a nifty little side step, dodging his attacker. He then was almost forced out of the ring, only managing to evade a loss at the last split second, and then after some fierce grappling and "hundred hand slapping" (E. Honda from Street Fighter 2 style) came back with a sweet throw, depositing his opponent outside of the ring, and winning the bout.

A day of sumo is very much like a day of cricket, i.e. a lot of build up, but only short periods of sporadic action. Indeed, the average bout lasts less than 15 seconds, yet the watering and sweeping of the ring, throwing of salt, slapping of thighs and stomping the sand lasts for several minutes, and precedes each fight. The highest ranking fighters will put on quite a show before actually fighting, which serves to psyche up themselves, and get the crowd in a frenzy.

Tiny details are scrutinised here. By throwing the salt a little further into the ring, or by slapping the chest with the little extra pizazz, the crowd can been driven into yells of excitement.

In fact, originally, there was no limit to the length of this “psyching up” period, but when spectators were sitting around waiting for an hour for a fight to actually start, they decided to bring in a limit, which now stands at four minutes.

A tournament lasts for 15 days, during which each wrestler fights just once a day. The lower ranks start earliest, and the big boys of the sumo world enter the ring later on in the day. Promotion is granted if a wrestler wins more than 8 of the 15 bouts, but the top position of yokozuna is only granted to a sumo who is not only an exceptional wrestler, but also a man of great character, worthy of holding such an exalted position.

To finish off the day, one sumo is picked to perform the yumitori-shiki – or bow dance. Here, a specially made bow is twirled about the head and body, similar to a baton in a marching band, but somewhat cooler. This is said to have originated when a winning sumo was presented with a bow, and then performed the dance to express his satisfaction.

Overall, a solid afternoon of watching giants in g-strings, highly recomended, and well worth the £25 ticket price.

Let's get ready to rumble; the face off.

A model of the model; Kotooshu the Bulgarian or "The David Beckham of Sumo"

Battle of the big boys

Not a bad pair, for a bloke.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Winter is Winding Down

A traditional Japanese house, with a snowy icing, as seen in Kamisho Village, Fukui, Japan.

Dear Funky Drummer Fans, apologies for the lack of recent postings. I’ve been busy working on the Snow Sphere Project – which after only a month and a half since it’s official launch, is proving to be very popular with world wide web surfers.

Much has occurred in the last month, largely consisting of snowboarding, snow shoeing, and cross country skiing trips. Over the last couple of weeks, warm weather brought much rain, putting a serious dent in the snow, with thoughts turning to warmer times. However, just like last year when everyone was announcing spring had arrived, winter made a final parting gift, dumping over 40cm of fresh snow on us overnight.

Indeed, only last Saturday, I was shredding the heavy spring snow on a sunny backcountry snowboarding trip with local legend Yasu, yet yesterday, powder was back on the cards, which happened to coincide with a half day of work, meaning an afternoon on the slopes at local resort Ski Jam.

The day ended somewhat strangely. After firing though knee deep snow on empty pistes, fellow rider “Bran Pan Man” had a fall, which lead to a serious ankle sprain and the end to his snowboarding for 6 weeks. Luckily for him, the season is drawing to a close anyway.

Less fortunate was the girl we met in first aid room. She had been skied down in a stretcher and appeared to be in a pretty bad way. This was confirmed when we later bumped into her friends at the local hospital and it transpired that she had broken her back, and will be in hospital for at least 3 months. This puts a sprained ankle into perspective.

Next week sees us taking to trip to the big bad city of Osaka to watch a national sumo tournament, and the week after we leave the shores of Japan to head for closest neighbour - Korea.

I’ll be back to report on those events soon.

Over and Out.

The intrepid explorers hike up the wooded slopes of Kyogadake, a mountain in Ono.

Local 'Man of the Mountain", Yasu, cooks up some "ton chan" or pig intestines, apparently one of Ono's famous food products and certainly a favourite of Yasu's. I'm not so keen on it though.

A snow covered hut, seen during a snow shoeing trip in Katsuyama.

Sam shreds the spring snow on a sunny Rokuroshi day.

Friday, March 10, 2006

24 Hour Pod People

My latest published work is a 2 page cartoon strip devoted to the capsule hotel experience. A collaboration with illustrator Neil Wade, it was publised in the print and online Feburary editions of the American magazine, Student Traveler.

Amusingly, somehow the "Japan National Tourist Organisation of America" picked it up and wrote to us to congratulate us on being "suprisingly funny and informative".

Click here to view 24 Hour Pod People.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Travellers Hit Town

Benito and Toby in seiza postion, Eiheiji Temple, Mastuoka, Fukui, Japan.

A couple of weeks ago, two uni friends, Benito and Toby made their way over to Japan for 3 weeks of snow, sushi and Nintendo products.

Lake many visitors to Nippon, their adventures began in Tokyo, where they sampled the scents and scenes of the pulsating capital. Then it was a quick train ride to rural Fukui, to enjoy a taste of local life.

Ben, being a big advocate of food, was most interested in trying the many different types of Japanese fodder. During their stay, I managed to introduce them to all the classic Japanese dishes, from stereotypical sushi, to okonomiyaki, nabe, sauce katsu-don, and Japan’s famous fast food chain - Hachi Ban Ramen.

Toby on the other hand, famed for his “sparrow belly” was less impressed by the culinary selection. However, he made up for this by being VERY impressed with every single capsule machine and Japanese toy that crossed his path.

What should have been a short trip to the local conbini became a drawn out affair, as Toby investigated every toy, model and figure that he could find. As the days passed, Toby’s bags swelled, as he continued to purchase the country’s supply of Nintendo key rings, transfomer merchandise and other general tat. In fact, even though the headmistress of my school found Toby’s love for Anpanman (a cartoon character popular with kids aged 10 and below) a little strange, she presented him with a home made Anpanman soft toy.

One of the high lights of the tour was the visit to my school where the boys were subjected to an interrogation by the students. The first question asked by the girls was always “Do you have girl friend?”; Toby had to break a few hearts, but Benito who is currently single was told he “looks cool”.

After lessons they got a taste of gaijin fame, as word quickly spread through the school that two new foreigners had been sighted, and everyone wanted to get a look. Gaggles of giggling girls asked questions and the special needs kids wanted autographs.

Despite some initial resistance to the Onsen experience, they managed to shake off the Englsih prudishness, and take a dip in the hot waters of communal spas, whilst the snow fell from above.

We also made a few trips to the slopes to sample Japanese powder and night riding. Ben managed to overdose on the local delicacy when he got completely stuck in the deep snow. I had done two and a half runs by the time he’d managed to free himself from his powder prison.

The final stage of the trip saw us head to the big city of Osaka, to take in some hussle and bustle. Meeting up with a friend of mine, (www.willspin.com) we visited shopping centers galore. Perhaps Toby’s favourite location was the Mario Cart game in the arcade, where he enjoyed beating me by a narrow margin on two occasions (I was robbed!). Once the Apple Store was sighted, it was inevitable that Toby would want a bite and he proceed to purchase some incredibly expensive headphones. For comparison, I also bought a pair of headphones that day; mine cost exactly 10 times less than Toby’s.

All too soon the week came to an end, and though we’d packed a lot in, it was time to break the fellowship. Early on Monday morning, I left the travellers sleeping in the hotel, and fully suited and booted, I blended into to rush hour throng of commuters, as I headed for a conference in Yokohama, Japan’s second city.

A big thanks to the Bentio and Toby for making the trip out here, I’ll be seeing you soon.

The old and the new; Toby and Benito outside the snow covered Eiheji Temple, infront of a vending machine.

Love at first sight - Toby's hero Anpanman (popular with under 10s) as seen painted on a garage door.

Benito and Toby meet Shiro, the school dog.

Benito: No girlfriend, but looks cool.

The results of the interrogation. Toby didn't want this information to get out, but I felt it was too valuble to keep to myself. (Sorry Tubs). Was I right? Comments please.

Toby chows down on some Okonomiyaki - a type of omlette/pancake.