Posts Tagged With: arena

Giants in Diapers

We are talking about sumo, of course. It is Japan’s national sport, 1500 years old with roots in the Shinto religion. Indeed, many of sumo’s rituals are religious, including sprinkling salt around the ring and that peculiar one-leg-at-a-time stomp that is so often parodied. Both are purification rituals designed to demon-proof the proceedings. (And there must be a lot of demons in the vicinity, judging by the amount of salt these guys throw around. More on that in a moment.)

We were lucky to get tickets. There are only six matches a year held throughout the country, and only half of those are in Tokyo. Each match is 15 days long, which means that there are only 45 days during the year when you can see professional sumo in Tokyo. Happily, one of those 15-day windows falls in mid-September, so here we are. We booked a sumo-plus-traditional dinner tour and were fortunate to have a knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and generally adorable guide named Nao to give us the skinny on the fat guys. Nao was something of a sumo groupie, so she even had cheat sheets made up for us with the names and stats of the players, plus some handicapping information in the bargain. It is all a very big deal, and the players themselves — of whom there are only 660 in the country — are highly venerated as a result.

This led us to our first bit of surrealism, in fact, as Nao lectured us on the unapproachability of these 350-pound demigods. We might see one of them in his robe outside the arena, she cautioned. If we do, do not approach him! (What, will they attack unprovoked?) I’ll do the talking, said Nao, and if we are very, very lucky and very, very polite then he may consent to have his picture taken with us. She proudly added that she had last succeeded in this quest a week ago.

Well, we exit from the train and who is wandering around the station in his bright yellow robe but one of the behemoths in the flesh. Nao approaches him as obsequiously as possible — and in Japan that is very, very obsequious — and after a few moments of conversation the giant consents to a photo op, to everyone’s delight. He does this gamely for a few minutes and most of our group — but not us — managed to get into a shot by the time he turns away to buy a train ticket. Our bad luck, it seems, until Nao imparts out of the blue the biographical nugget that this particular guy is originally from Hawaii. That’s all I need.

As Nao looks on in horror I march over to the ticket machine next to him and say, “Hey, I hear you’re from Hawaii! I used to live there!” It turns out that he is, well, just a guy after all and he says, “No kidding. Where?” So we chat for a minute or two and shake hands and I ask if we could squeeze in one more shot of Alice and me. He says, “Sure,” and here is the result:

sumo-001

So we are once again officially awesome.

The sumo arena is square and holds roughly 4000 people. The sign at the ticket window said that the match was sold out, but as you can see from the photo below it seemed far from that while we were there.

sumo-013

That’s Nao on the far right. In the corridors outside the seating area there are a number of snack bars selling a rather interesting variety of stuff: ice cream and popcorn like stadiums the world over, but also bento boxes and alien Japanese snacks.

After some preliminary bouts the big-time players marched in for the top-of-the-card matches. The overexcited announcer named them one by one as they formed a circle, clad in ornate, colorful upscale loincloths, and the crowd went wild. Here are the top-ranking champions on display.

sumo-007

Speaking of “alien” this is probably a good time to note that it was only in 1993 that a Hawaiian fellow named Chadwick Haheo Rowan broke the “nation barrier” by becoming — amidst an enormous amount of controversy and hand-wringing — the first non-Japanese yokozuna, the highest-ranked sumo wrestler. His sumo name was Akebono Taro, and he pretty much opened the floodgates for non-Japanese participants. Today, in addition to our Hawaiian guy at the train station, we saw wrestlers from China, Georgia (the country), Brazil (which has a large ethnic Japanese population), and a veritable Mongol horde. (Literally: a disproportionate number of the top ranked guys are from Mongolia.)

A match begins, as you probably know, by the contestants strewing salt around the wring, then stretching and stomping around for a bit, then finally squatting down and facing each other. At this point you expect the referee to say “Go!”, and the guys go at it, but no. The referee does not start the bout; the players do, and only when they’re both damn well ready. So after squatting and glowering at each other for a few seconds, one or both will get up, walk around, towel off the sweat (from what?), and throw around more salt. Then they’ll squat down and face each other again, and one will decide, “Nah, not yet,” and the whole cycle starts again: stretching, salt, towel, a stomp or two, maybe a quick mani-pedi. This can go on for half a dozen cycles until there’s enough salt in the ring to de-ice your driveway next winter. At this point the audience is ready to storm the ring and finally things get serious…

sumo-011

…for about ten seconds, until something like this happens:

sumo-010

That “ten seconds” remark is not an exaggeration; many of the bouts are indeed that short. The rules state that a bout may last a maximum of four minutes, but it is hard to imagine that happening given what we saw today. A couple of the very top-ranked matches lasted noticeably longer, the longest being perhaps two minutes. Most of that time was spent with the guys locked together, leaning into each other like a rigid triangle, absolutely unmoving: the irresistible force meeting the immovable object.   Sometimes things get slightly out of hand, e.g.:

sumo-012

The deadly 350 lb Atomic Wedgie

…but mostly it’s wham, bam, sayonara.

The players are famous, of course, but not terribly rich. There are ten ranks of player and only the top five are paid at all; the lowest of these makes about $120K a year, the highest about three times that. Sponsorships provide a little extra money, though nothing on the scale of American athletes. In fact, it works rather differently. Companies will choose to sponsor particular bouts — generally the ones with the best known players — and pay into a sponsorship pool to do so. When that bout comes up the company reps get to march around the ring holding their company banners, and whoever wins the bout gets the pool. Bouts with top-ranked players will get a dozen or more sponsorships, leading to a scene like this:

sumo-009 …while bouts with low-ranked players will get no marching banners at all.

At the end of the bout, the referee hands the winner an envelope containing the sponsorship cash, right there in the ring. We should definitely adopt this system at home: when the Yankees are playing, at the conclusion of the game a pickup truck drives onto the field, filed with $50 million in cash from all of Alex Rodriguez’s sponsors, and the coach of the winning team gets to drive off with it.

You are now a sumo expert, and I have retired a minor bucket list item.

 

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Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

En Garda!

With great reluctance we took leave of our castle yesterday afternoon, pausing only to hand out pennies to the serfs who were throwing rose petals in our path. Well, no actually. We did however, get to chat with the owners, or more accurately the managers, Maria and Gabriele, a handsome thirty-ish couple with two small children who run the place (and several others) on behalf of Maria’s grandfather , who bought the place from an eccentric baroness (really) ten years ago. Turns out that we were only the second guests, ever.

Maria also told us a bit of the castle’s history. (She has done some research and is preparing a brochure which has not yet been translated into English.) The oldest part of the castle dates from the 14th century, with various parts being added and renovated all the way up to the 19th. Our apartment was originally part of the one of the older sections, though has obviously undergone a series of renovations. (14th century electrical wiring was notoriously unreliable.)

Our goal lay to the northwest towards the mountains, in particular the resort region of Lake Garda, with a stop along the way in Verona. And as in the previous couple of days we eschewed the Autostrade in favor of the proverbial scenic route, wending our sinuous way through an endless series of hairpin turns up and down through the hills so that we could enjoy the views of the countryside, e.g.:

Verona & Garda-1

 

Those are grape vines in the lower right, by the way. They are ubiquitous.

Scenes like this were a fine reward for taking this route, of course, but the driving itself was exhausting, a master-class exercise in heel-and-toe work on the clutch, brake, gas, and stick. It was one of the few occasions when I would have been happy to sacrifice my Manliness Points for driving a stick shift in favor of a good old pedestrian automatic transmission.

Verone lay at about the halfway point between Vicenza and Lake Garda, so we stopped there for lunch and to look around. It’s a lively city of about a quarter-million inhabitants, dating all the way back to about 500 BC. It became officially Roman in about 100 BC, and as they did everywhere else the Romans left their architectural mark, in the form of high city walls that encompass the city center and, most notably, a large amphitheater that looks remarkably (and unsurprisingly) like the Roman Coliseum.

Verona & Garda-2

It is, however, in rather better repair than its big brother in Rome, because the choice was made to repurpose it for modern performances rather than preserve its full archaeological value. Hence the performance space, rather than being a field of collapsed columns, looks like this:

Verona & Garda-3

Great for Bar Mitzvahs

The bowels of the structure are a lot more historical looking, however:

Verona & Garda-6

Lions enter on the left, Christians please continue around to the right.

 

The arena has a seating capacity of 30,000 and is used for every kind of performance: opera, plays by Shakespeare through Tennessee Williams (“Gatto Sul Tetto Che Scotta” = “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”), and rock concerts (Mumford & Sons this June!).

As you can tell, the seating is a mix of folding chairs down at ground level, and both aluminum bleachers and the original stone steps above. The stone steps, though brutal on my poor arthritic knees, are beautifully preserved and beautiful in their own right, being a mix of different colored stone:

Verona & Garda-5

 

We climbed to the uppermost row of seats to get a view of the town, in particular the teeming square adjacent to the amphitheater. Verona is quite the tourist draw, in part because of its mention in a couple of Shakespeare’s plays, and of course for the amphitheater itself as well as other Roman architectural legacies.   The square is lined with restaurants and alive with tourists, strolling locals, tchotchke vendors, and political groups making their pitch from canopied folding tables.

Verona does not shy from its literary connection to Shakespeare, far from it. The local authorities will no doubt be forever grateful that Romeo and Juliet was set here, as that fact alone is probably responsible for a measurable fraction of the tourist traffic. And indeed, somewhere in the city there is a balcony that is advertised as the one that Juliet stood on for her immortal “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” speech. This of course is completely idiotic, Juliet being a fictional character and Shakespeare never having left England. I was ranting on this topic and complained, “Hey, if you have any friends in Missouri who live in a house with a white picket fence, tell them that they can make money by advertising it as the one that Tom Sawyer talked his friends into whitewashing!” Whereupon Elaine informed me that such a fence does in fact exist, in Mark Twain’s home town of Hannibal, MO. Which just goes to show that it is not possible to be too cynical. In any case, we did not seek out the pointlessly-famous balcony, so I cannot tell you what it looks like.

We left Verona, and our driver (me) having tired of hairpin turns, headed directly to the resort town of Gardone Riviera on the western shore of Lake Garda, in the foothills of the Alps about 60 miles from the Swiss border. The weather, alas, has been deteriorating, and so our view of the gorgeous multitude of orange-tiled roofs along the shore was hindered by low-hanging clouds and a very light drizzle.  Still, we found our flat, a modern two-bedroom affair, nothing compared to our previous digs but enjoying a beautiful view of the lake. Here are some shots taken from the balcony outside our bedroom:

Verona & Garda-7

 

Verona & Garda-8

Our flat is high on the hillside, nestled in a maze of the ever-present steep, narrow, winding cobblestone streets. (Navigating them by car is all sorts of fun.) The owner recommended a gourmet restaurant right down the street, where we enjoyed an excellent meal whose dishes included a rather unusual array of ingredients: Alice’s included spelt pasta with octopus sauce; mine was a fish mousse. If for some reason you ever find yourself in this particular town, by all means eat at Osteria Antica Brolo. Tell them that Fabrizio Pollini sent you.

The weather today is pretty bad, chilly and drizzly, and so we are setting aside our more ambitious touring plans. As it happens we are very close to a large and famously bizarre Addams-Family-style mansion, the Vittoriale D’Annunzio, whose eccentric owner decorated it with knick-knacks like gilded turtle shells that happened to catch his fancy. A more complete report later…

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