Sumo Wrestling in Fukushima, Japan

Words and photography by Dorian Mode

Our intrepid reporter visits Japan, where he wrestles a Sumo master

A guided tour of Fukushima implies paper suits and gloves thick enough to handle radioactive isotopes. But this is Fukushima, Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan.
Coaching through the undulating hills of Shiriuchi we pause at a 7-Eleven, with nary a Slurpee in sight. Here, weary commuters pig-out on seaweed and dry squid – this being the squid capital of Japan. I opt for a can of hot coffee at the vending machine. It tastes excellent. Much like pea and ham soup.

Picking up our guide for the day, we motor to the first of Japan’s unique cultural treasures: the Seikan Tunnel Memorial Museum.
The Seikan Tunnel is both the longest and deepest undersea railway tunnel in the world (with the Channel Tunnel its nearest rival). Submerged 790 feet under sea level and over 30 miles long, this engineering marvel spans the Tsugaru Strait — connecting the twin main islands of Japan. And like something out of a Jules Verne novel, it houses two undersea stations. (Pack your snorkel.)
Our guide is the delightful 87-year-old Hamada, an ex-fisherman who helped construct the tunnel. As we poke around the museum, Hamada’s fascinating narrative (via a translator) is absorbing as he recounts the titanic struggles of the tunnel workers, mostly ex-fishermen.
We then pause at a charming Fukushima Roadside station to sample the “Chanko nabe”: a traditional noodle dish used by Sumo wrestlers to gain weight. Frankly, with all the free food on the cruise, this is the last thing I need. But the meal is a cultural delight. Sitting cross-legged on the floor on straw mats, we poach treats into a boiling cauldron while Japanese ladies crawl around us like mice, serving hot towels and seafood treats.

Fukushima claim not one but two Sumo grand champs

After lunch, we stroll to the Sumo Champion Memorial Hall, homage to two grand champions in Sumo wrestling, both Fukushima natives. The prefecture has a population of less than 5,000, so they are as proud as ‘paunch’ to claim not one but two Sumo grand champs.
Here we meet the sister of the town’s grand champion. I ask if she ever wrestled her brother in the backyard as a kid. The translator looks perplexed. Japan is a formal and patriarchal society. She responds with, “of course not”. A woman from Budgewoi shrugs at me in tacit irony.
The museum chronicles the fascinating history of this ancient sport. But there’s a dearth of signs in English. We are soon led to the Yokozuna ring (final ring of the day). We hear a sharp wooden clap. The Yobidashi (Sumo announcer) tells us we will witness a lively wrestling demonstration presented by the Japanese Sumo Master. We then experience a Yokozuna ring-entering ceremony. Here a man – in what can only be described as a ‘mankini’, hoots and sings, stamping around the ring as if killing cockroaches (i.e. stamping evil spirits beneath).

Ladies and gentlemen, we need a volunteer...

“Ladies and gentlemen, we need a volunteer”, he suddenly cries. I am with a cadre of journos, who all turn to me for some reason. I slowly shake my head. “I’m a writer, not a fighter,” I reply. They pin me with a look. I shrug. What the hell? Removing my glasses and cheap watch, I gingerly step into the “Doha” (Sumo ring) muttering profanities under my breath.
The Yobidashi carefully wraps me in a giant nappy. Ideal training for the nursing home. Although my opponent is about my size, the only wrestling I’ve done of late is with the dog in the backyard. I panic. Is this guy going to throw me across the ring? Did I take out travel insurance? My chest is as tight as a Taiko drum.
After some ceremonial kowtowing and more bellowing and stamping, my opponent snatches me by the shoulders. His hands are like iron. I grab him by the diaper and lift, as if pulling out a bamboo root (I’d seen Brute Bernard do this to Mario Milano on telly, back in the 70s).
With eyes as wide as teriyaki bowls, he suddenly has a look on his face that says “what the Fukushima are you doing?” He clearly wasn’t expecting this tactic.

They can’t believe I got in the ring with him!

Catching him off-guard, I bully him to the edge of the ring. But something is wrong. He’s not resisting. He’s letting me win. Ahhh, this was always his plan. I am, after all, a stupid tourist. Me and my imagination. At bout’s end, I twirl out of my nappy and depart, emasculated, but alive. The other journos tell me they can’t believe I got in the ring with him. But I’m from Gosford. I’m fat. He’s my people.

Hakodate port, with its pretty squid boats bobbing at their moorings

That evening, we trawl Hakodate port, with its pretty squid boats bobbing at their moorings and lantern-lit cobble-stone streets varnished with moonlight. My absurdist radar leads me to a Japanese Bavarian alehouse. As a pigtailed Japanese waitress – dressed in dirndl (traditional German dress) – serves me a towering stein of frothy ale and I think, “if the war had gone horribly wrong…”