Japanese Culture 101: Sumo

The beginning of a sumo tournament.

In the last few weeks not much has been happening. Fall has arrived which is great. Japanese summers are full of activities but the weather becomes insufferable by the end. I actually get exasperated by the heat, can’t think clearly and begin to make mistakes at work and at home. One day this past summer it was so ridiculously hot that I couldn’t think of anything else besides how hot I was, and I forgot all of my textbooks for my classes. I arrived at work without books! I also left my house keys in different stores a couple of times and because it was so hot all the time I didn’t sleep very well from mid-May to mid-September. Therefore, fall is a much needed change.

Since not much has been happening lately today I am writing about Japan’s national sport: sumo.

Sumo is an odd concept for everyone, that includes Japanese people. Nowadays. sumo is nowhere as popular as it used to be way back when. Young Japanese are not interested in sumo at all, so for many it is considered a sport for grandpas. I guess my boyfriend is a grandpa because he loves it! As such, I have been acquainted with the sport and had the most fantastic time when we went to see the Osaka tournament back in March.

In the middle of a fight.

Sumo wrestlers begin their career once they graduate jr. high school as high school is not mandatory in Japan. Some others go into universities with a sumo program in it. Sumo wrestlers get head hunted and once that happens they belong to certain stable. A stable is a training ring and all wrestlers belong to specific wrestling rings. They train and live in the stables with other sumo wrestlers as their team members. Lately there has been a lot of scandals between stables along the lines of fixing games and gambling, but that’s a whole different posting.

There are six divisions in sumo: makuuchi (maximum 42 wrestlers), juryo(fixed at 28 wrestlers), makushita (fixed at 120 wrestlers), sandanme (fixed at 200 wrestlers), jonidan (approximately 185 wrestlers), and jonokuchi (approximately 40 wrestlers). The makuuchi division is the one that receives the most amount of attention from the media and at the top of the division is the yokozuna (champion). The current champion is Hakuho who has been yokozuna for the whole time I’ve been in Japan. During the last tournament a new yokozuna was named Harumafuji. The promotion criteria for yokozuna are very strict. Hakuho has won most of the tournaments in the time I have been living in Japan, but when we went to see the tournament we saw Hakuho loose, which rarely happens. This was a huge upset and people in the crowd began to throw their seat cushions into the rink. It was great!

Life as a rikishi (wrestler) is not easy, it is highly regimented, with rules laid down by the Sumo Association. Breaking the rules can result in fines and/or suspension, not only for the offending wrestler, but also for his stablemaster. The junior rikishi must get up earliest, around 5 am, for training whereas the most senior rikishi may start around 7 am. When the senior wrestlers are training, the junior rikishi may have chores to do, such as assisting in cooking the lunch, cleaning and preparing the bath. The ranking hierarchy is kept for the order of precedence in bathing after training, and in eating lunch.

When we went to Tokyo over Golden Week holidays we walked around the sumo neighbourhood and had lunch in one of the local restaurants. We were all excited because we wanted to try out what sumo wrestlers eat on a regular basis. We ordered our own lunch set, but it was way too much food!  The portions were huge and by the time we finished it looked as if we hadn’t touched our plates. We ate something called chankonabe which consists of a simmering stew that contains various fish, meat, and vegetables. Is very fatty and beside the stew you also get rice, soup and other things in between. After the chankonabe, wrestlers usually take a nap and this helps them put on weight.

Going to the tournament was a ton of fun! We went to Osaka and spent some time enjoying the city. The day of the tournament we passed to the convenience store and stocked up on beer and chips. Is pretty awesome that they allow you to go into the tournament with outside food. We had a great view and the tournament was very exciting and we just enjoyed screaming and booing with all the people around us. Thomas was so excited to be there and pretty much gave me the whole English commentary. We were so excited when we came out that when we went to Tokyo we spend half a day just walking around the sumo area and was lucky enough to get a picture with one of them.

Walking around Ryogoku (sumo neighbourhood) during our holidays in Tokyo.

A sumo rekishi.

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Golden Week!

For Golden Week holidays I went to Kyoto and Tokyo. It was my 5th visit to Kyoto, which has become my favourite city in Japan. It has everything you would expect to see in Japan, temples and shrines, geishas, modern buildings, great food and lovely, kind people.

I went with my friends Jen who was visiting from Australia on her way back to Canada and my friend Rachel who lives in the same town where I live. Then Thomas joined us for the Tokyo leg of the holidays.

I will try to write as much as  can about the places we visited and the things we saw, or at least as much as I can remember.

The end of the cherry blossom season at Kiyomizu-dera temple, Kyoto.

Golden Week: Malaysia

Petronas Towers in KL

This year for Golden Week I went to Malaysia for 10 days. I wasn’t sure where to go and booked my flights quite late, but was glad to find a great country to go to for a low price. Perfect!

I went to Malaysia via Hong Kong, however I wasn’t there long enough to see much more than the buildings in Macau from the airport. I have to say though that Hong Kong looks pretty interesting and modern. Having many friends working/living there I should definitely take advantage and go visit them. Anyways I made it into Kuala Lumpur, jumped on a taxi and made it to my hostel in the middle of Downtown Kuala Lumpur.

The first night I just crashed but the next day I woke up bright and early and just began walking all over. I did a couple of walking tours by myself. I walked around Downtown, I visited a couple of mosques, got lost more than a couple of times, found my way again and continued on my way. I also went to the market and began to fill up my suitcase! I think I can say that I am not a big shopper. Most of the times that I have gone to the shopping mall in Niihama, I have walked empty handed. I’m a pretty picky shopper, but every time I go to Southeast Asia I can’t stop shopping. I love how colourful everything is, and I love the fabrics, designs, and choice of the clothing and accessories. So, needless to say on my way back to Japan my suitcase broke!

I was also very excited about this trip because I would be able to meet with a couple of friends from my time in Niseko, Hokkaido. I met with both Yui and Michelle. It was fantastic to see them both, even if it was a little odd to see them wearing flip flops and shorts instead of our eternal ski jackets and toque uniform that we donned for 4 months straight. Yui’s family actually lives in KL, so she was our tour guide of sorts. We had lunch together and then we headed to Michelle’s place of residence in KL, the Hilton Kuala Lumpur. I asked her how on earth could she be there, but she reminded me about a friend’s of hers who are good customers of the Hilton and do they offered her the stay. Even better? Michelle offered me to stay with her too, so this is how I spent 1 night at the Hilton Kuala Lumpur and if I may say so myself, it was incredible! We went swimming on the pool, had dinner at the executive lounge (it was actually something similar to ‘happy hour’ but there was so much food, we decided to make it dinner), and the best part was the super comfy bed. I have to say those hotels have some very comfy beds… wait no the best part was the free buffet style breakfast. They had everything: fruits, juices, toast, french toast, pancakes, syrups, baked goods, the works. I ate so much I thought I wouldn’t have any more food for the rest of the day.

A market in Downtown KL

Yet, we had to say a big Thank You to the family who let us stay there for the night, so we went to visit them at their condominium right besides the Twin Towers. Well, we were to meet them for lunch, but we couldn’t possibly eat anymore! Yet, for round two we had steak, mashed potatoes, friend potatoes, gravy, it was like a Christmas dinner, and I felt terrible because I just couldn’t possibly eat anymore. That day we also went to the club and went swimming and ended up spending the whole day in their company. They were incredibly generous with us but at the end of a very busy day, Michelle and I got back on the subway and headed towards our own hostels. So the rest of my adventure continued.

Sunset in Langkawi

After KL, I took a plane to the beautiful island of Langkawi. Langkawi means eagle in Malay language and there are hundreds of eagles living here. Langkawi also has beautiful beaches, awesome food and relax feeling. Every morning I would buy fresh fruit, water, and walk down to the beach with my book and iPod ready to enjoy the sun. I went swimming, I tanned and I went on 2 tours. The first one I went on a mangrove tour, with a bunch of cool people. We went to a couple of fish farms, planted our own mangroves, went into a bat cave and never saw an alligator, but had the best meal of the whole trip. Fried fish that was caught just a few minutes earlier, a lot of fruits and veggies and a ton of local cuisine. I had a lot of fun! The second tour was not really a tour. A guy from Korea wanted to go up the gondola on the other side of the island. So I hopped on the back of a motorcycle and went up with him. We made sure to go early but the line was so long by the time we got there, but the wait was totally worth it. We got the best view of the island from up there and it was exciting to walk on the suspended bridge. Maybe a little scary, since some of the gaps were a little big and I thought I was going to fall right through. The funny part was some of the children looking excited going up but then as soon as they stepped on the bridge would begin screaming from how scared they were. Well, I thought it was a little funny.

Well holidays always come to an end, and soon enough I was arriving back in Osaka. Unfortunately I arrived on the last day of the Golden Week holidays and the highway was packed, so it took me an extra 2 hours to get back to Niihama. Once I was home, though I was happy to be back and relaxed after a 10 days holidays. Malaysia was lovely, and I would certainly recommend it as a place to visit. The people are warm and accommodating,  the food is fantastic and the culture is fascinating. A mixture of hinduism and Islam together with a big Chinese presence it was definitely a great learning experience.

A mosque in KL

The infamous fish foot massage. Don't think I'll be doing that again...

Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival)

In February we headed to Sapporo for Yuki Matsuri. The snow festival is famous throughout Japan and had heard about it so much that was really looking forward to experiencing it myself. The Hilton is a couple of hours outside of Sapporo so we had to book our days off well in advance, and luckily was able to take 2 days off.

The festival was great! They had huge snow sculptures about pretty much everything from miffy (quite a popular character in Japan), to Mr. Potato Head (quite popular with the foreign crowd), to Darth Vader (quite popular with the guys). My favourite sculpture was a big replica of the Lion King. The musical is playing in Sapporo at the moment, so it was a great bit of advertising. There were also heaps of things to eat and drink. We went with a Japanese friend of ours so she was able to explain to us what everything was and not being one to say no to food, I tried everything that was given to me. It was quite cold though and my toes were the first thing to go numb, so after some festival activity we headed to the underground shopping district. I’ve been to quite a few Japanese cities, but Sapporo is great for shopping, and after living in a ski resort for 3 months, we went a bit crazy with everything around us.

After walking around the festival, we went up Sapporo Tower and were able to get great shots of the activities down below. It was great fun to be up there with many of the Japanese and foreign tourists that were in town, but what is a trip to the big city without some good ol’ karaoke? Sure enough, we headed to a karaoke bar at midnight and stayed there until 5:30am. We could have saved our hotel money because we clearly didn’t really need it after all. The 2 days went by WAAYY too fast and before we knew it we were back to Niseko to enjoy the last 4 weeks of work.

Sakura!

Well, the cherry blossom season came and went.

Cherry blossom season is already over in Japan (at least in Ehime). It went by so fast too! Just a few days of full bloom and then the fluttering began and there were no more cherry blossoms. I tried to take as much advantage of this beautiful time in Japan as I could, so I went to as many different parks as I could and tried to be outdoors as much as possible. My students say that this spring has been much colder than in many previous years, and I wouldn’t know any better, but it really has been cold all the way until now. So the cherry blossoms were beautiful for only a few days since the rain came and brought them to an end.

A lot of people ask “what is it with people living in Japan and cherry blossoms?.” My answer is that you got to experience a Japanese winter to be able to appreciate cherry blossoms. Japan in winter can be gray, cloudy, cold and rainy, and they tend to last a long time. So for me at least seeing the cherry blossoms reminded me that Spring is around the corner and nature knows best. Also in Japan the school year ends in March and begins again in April, right at cherry blossom season. So, all things put together remind me of constant change, nicer days and the reality that nothing really lasts forever, so you really got to enjoy what you have at the time.

I took hundreds of pictures, because I thought that everywhere I looked it was so beautiful!!

Keeping you posted!

Ishizuchi Shrine.

A few weeks ago I went with my friend Sarah on  a photo shoot adventure to Ishizuchi Shrine. Ishizuchi Mountain (Ishizuchi-San) is the highest mountain in west Japan and the main view from my balcony (as a matter of fact I’m looking at it right now as I’m writing this). At the moment is snow covered and at the top there is a ski resort which I  am yet to check out.

The shrine is beautiful and probably one of my favourites around the area. We had a really good time just walking around and taking pictures on a chilly January afternoon. There are quite a few interesting and beautiful things to visit around here and I guess it wasn’t until winter came that we actually took the time to go check them out. However, I do think is important to go around the neighbourhood for walks and bike rides as you never know what you might find, so I will try to be more pro-active in the next couple of weeks and go exploring more often. Anyways I thought I’d share with you some of the pictures that we took.

As there is not much going on at the moment I plan to write an entry on how we keep warm in these Japanese winters, as it’s quite different from back at home and I haven’t written anything about Japanese cuisine, so I’ll keep those 2 things as upcoming projects, but if there is anything that you would like to know or see, or are curious about, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to concede.

Keeping you posted!

Purikura Fun!

So I’ve become a Purikuraholic.

Purikura also known as print club is a photo booth machine, and there are photo booth machines all over the world but I don’t think anything comes close to purikura. In Japan, purikura is hugely popular. I have seen complete floors filled with purikura machines. They are all different and they offer you all sort of ludicrous things: from being able to add bubbles and stars to your pictures, to changing the colour of your eyes and adding extra long eyelashes! When I was in Hiroshima I saw a group of girls coming out of their purikura photo session wearing the highest heels, the most amount of makeup and the highest hairdos I have ever seen in my life!

My favourite machine is in the shopping mall in Niihama, and you can pretend to be sitting on a paper crane or you can pretend to be coming out of a watermelon. And as with anything in Japan even purikura can be a struggle as the machines ask you to choose from a number of options and since we don’t understand Japanese we just click all over the place or wait for the machine to choose for us, so quite often we finish with the oddest backgrounds. So although I really wanted the paper crane background, I am yet to figure out just how to get it.

My friend Alexa really likes to do purikura and at first I didn’t really see what the big deal was, but after spending over an hour at purikura last wednesday, I have come to the conclusion that I love it and will probably be one of the main things that I will miss once I leave Japan. I am posting some of our creations!

Keeping you posted!