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.


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.

The Roof of Japan – Nagano

Happy New Year’s everyone!!  A new decade, how exciting is that?

I spent my New Year’s in Nagano. To be exact I was in Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort approximately 1 hour outside of Nagano. I went on a 4 day snowboarding trip with some of my co-workers and had a fabulous time. The resort had amazing hills and I took full advantage of them all (except black diamonds, they still scare me). My favourite run was one that took you on a 5K ride along the forest of the Japan Alps. It was so beautiful and so much fun!

Is also very interesting to be in a country that experiences the same kind of climate as your own, but they deal with things in a much different way. For example, there are no trucks to clean up the snow, instead there are all these little canals on either side of the sidewalks and that’s where the snow eventually ends up. Also the roads are heated so the snow melts much faster than back at home, but somehow while the roads are heated, the houses are not! So every room has a heater that keeps your room nice and toasty, but still no central heating.  The town was beautiful and very different from the town where I live. I have truly loved the experience of seeing different parts of Japan and how each Prefecture is so unique in its own way.

After our snowboarding trip I went on my own to Nagano where I spent 1 full day just exploring the city. Nagano is a super cool city! I can totally see why it was chosen to host the Olympic Games back in 1998. It is both cosmopolitan and traditional and is easier to navigate than let’s say Osaka. I joined hundreds of Japanese people at the Zenko-ji shrine for the New Year’s festivities and had a great time doing so. First of all there were hundreds of people there! So you walk all the way to the entrance of the shrine and wait to be allowed in. Once you are allowed to go in, you push your way through to the very front, where you throw your coin (or in some cases  1000 Yen bills) and say a quick prayer… and I say quick because the whole time you are being pushed from all sides. Afterwards I walked around the temple and went into a New Year’s service. I had a bit of a mishap in there though; a monk came up to me and told me something I clearly didn’t understand, but I did get the fact that I was doing something wrong, but I didn’t know what. Yet, all the Japanese people around me kept staring at me, but not one single one of them could explain me what was the matter, so I came to the conclusion that I probably shouldn’t be wearing my hat inside the temple, so I took it off and hoped for the best. I totally guessed, but the monk never came back.

Now I’m back home and tomorrow is back to work, but I feel refreshed and ready to see all my students again.

Keeping you posted!

Matsuri! (Day 4)

By the time the last day of Matsuri came around I was exhausted!

The last event of Matsuri took place on Sunday evening. I went to Niihama and a couple of us made our way to Ikku Shrine in Downtown Niihama. This last event is also a Taiko Competition and the event in which taikos get into fights with each other.

To be quite honest by this point I was pretty tired, so I decided to go see the competition because I felt like I needed to see everything during the festival, something that I might need to reconsider if I decide to stick around for another Matsuri. The competition was super exciting! Basically the Taikodais come into the shrine and then the men lift the taikodais and the men standing on the poles that support the taikodais, start jumping up and down while trying to keep their balance. Is crazy difficult! and I still don’t knowhow they do it. That part of the event was really cool, but most people show up to Ikku Shrine to see the fights between the Taiko teams.

I personally found this extremely boring. First the members of each taiko team start shouting at each other and just try to build up the whole atmosphere for a fight. Then they move the taikodais so they face each other and after much fanfare they eventually run full speed towards each other and try to either break the taikodais (or some part of it), injure the members of the taikodais, or get on the other teamn’s taikodai and do some sort of damage. All that sounds pretty exciting in theory but for them to actually run towards each other takes forever! I must have been standing there for at lest 20-30 minutes before anything exciting actually happened, and then I couldn’t see anything because I was being crushed by the crowd! The funniest thing however was seeing all the people take out their cellphones the moment they heard that a fight would start. I wish I had taken a picture of hundreds of cellphones up in the air with their video cameras ready to capture the action. Japanese culture at its best.

Since I really couldn’t see anything, and I was falling asleep standing up I decided to call it a day and drove home, got into my pj’s and slept for 12 hours straight. Matsuri came to an end, but I definitely had the most amazing time and just as I was told they would be, those 4 days were probably the most exhausting but fun days in the last 6 months.

Keeping you posted!

Matsuri! (Day 3)

The third day of Matsuri was probably one of the best days in the whole time I have been living in Japan.

The night before we all went out for raman and we didn’t get home too late, so we actually got a decent night of sleep. This was surprising since I had visitors at my house for 5 nights straight and we all had to share beds, futons, blankets, etc… but as per usual we all managed just fine!

On Friday night Dani, Heidi, Joe and Liz stayed over. We all woke up and got ready to go to Niihama for the Taiko competition. Traffic was pretty bad, but because I work near to where we needed to go, I managed to find some parking pretty close to the place of the event. Unfortunately as we arrived and I tried to take a picture I realized that I had left my battery charging at home. I wanted to go back home and pick it up but knew that if I tried to do that I would miss the whole competition. Thankfully Ty was around to save the day because he very graciously offered me his camera for the day. I guess that since he has been around for a couple of Matsuris it wasn’t a big deal if he didn’t take pictures this time. So I grabbed the camera and basically disappeared for the rest of the evening.

First I walked up the mountain and pushed and shoved my way through throngs of people to be able to get a decent view. We arrived just as the event was about to begin so I couldn’t be too particular about where I got to sit and because I’m small I think I got pretty lucky. So I took a lot of long-shot pictures from up there and then moved my way down to the middle of the action.

Now Taikodais are huge structures, so one needs to be super careful when they are around as the men get tired and drop them since they are so incredibly heavy. Also when they turn they make wide-angle turns, so people really need to get out of their way. Dani almost got trampled by one the day before while she was trying to eat her breakfast and I had to literally pull her back because she wasn’t paying attention. But no pain no game right? So I decided to be adventurous and just ran the whole afternoon between taikos taking pictures. I have too many to post, but I have selected what I think are some of the best shots of the day. I had a fantastic time getting all of these photos so I wanted to share them with you.

Keeping you posted!

Matsuri! (Day 2 Continued)

The second day of Matsuri went on forever!

So as mentioned on Matsuri (Day 2, see below) the second day of Matsuri began at 3am in Niihama. We  finished at around 7am and went home to sleep. To this day I do not remember arriving home. All I remember is getting home and dropping on my bed. We slept for a couple of hours (not nearly enough) and got ready for the finale of Saijo Matsuri.

On Friday afternoon we headed down to Kamogawa River to see the end of Saijo Matsuri. On this evening all the danjeres gather at the bank of the river and only the best get to actually go into the river. I’m not quite sure how it is determined which danjeres are the best though. Must investigate. Anyways the best go into the river and there is a special portable shrine which is believed to carry a god. The danjeres begin to chase this shrine while in the river and once it is believed that the god has escaped, the festival comes to an end. Is somewhat difficult to explain as I myself was quite confused, and it was difficult to really see what was going on because there were so many people and I quite honestly had a difficult time watching what was going on, but to see all the danjeres in the water is quite something, with all their lanterns lighted as it becomes dark .

During this time we were lucky to have Olivia’s parents here who were visiting from Toronto. They were an absolute blast to have around and total troopers as they were up every night, attended all the festivities and put up with all of our craziness!

For me the best part of Matsuri was being able to hang out with everyone. Because we have such different schedules from those in the JET program we don’t get to see each other during the week, but during the length of the festival we were all around each other and quite simply had a great time!

Keeping you posted!