Tourism

Do You Even Sumo, Bro?

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Mark Guthrie Gets to Grips with Some Sweaty Summer Sumo

The sun has been up for barely an hour as I cycle into a northwest suburb of Nagoya, but the mercury has already hit the high twenties, with the humidity making it feel a lot more. From the park behind me comes the steady buzz of cicadas in the trees, and as I corner a meandrous road I almost collide with a group of chattering sailor-uniformed schoolgirls carrying brass instruments on their way to early morning practice.

But despite the insects and the kids, the most prominent sound is a slow, mournful, counting. “Ich’, ni, san, shi, go.” One, two, three, four five. It’s purposeful yet casual. “Rok’, shich’, hach’, kyu, ju, ots’”. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, done. As the road winds past the modern new-build houses and old wooden homes, the counting grows louder until I arrive at Goshosha shrine, the temporary home of the Isenoumi Sumo Beya.

The Isenoumi beya [literally ‘room’, but in sumo commonly translated to ‘stable’] is an old and storied one. Though its current incarnation dates from 1949 it has origins in the mid-eighteenth century, with one of the first yokozuna [top-ranking sumo], the legendary Tanikaze, and his protégé Raiden, considered to be the greatest rikishi [sumo wrestler] of all time, its early champions. Today, the stable is not quite as illustrious as its glittering past, though on the day that I meet them I see Nishikigi Tetsuya, a mid-ranking maegashira [fourth-level rikishi], putting the younger men through their paces 

And they are some paces. As the morning ages, even stood in the shade of the shrine I am sweating like a rabid dog at customs, but to step closer to the training ring, with the sun hammering on its corrugated-tin roof, the heat radiating from it is choking. And in this extreme temperature these huge guys are stretching, pumping iron, practicing manoeuvres and undergoing grueling sparring bouts. It seems like utter madness.

Yet there is reason for this madness. For, while the Isenoumi Beya are based in Tokyo, each summer they, along with the other major stables, travel south to Nagoya in order to train and acclimatise for the intense humidity of the city’s Grand Tournament, the Nagoya Basho.

The Big Six

There are six such annual honbasho [professional sumo tournaments] – three in Tokyo, one in Osaka, one in Fukuoka and the Nagoya Basho, each lasting 15 days. Rikishi ranked in the top two divisions compete once each day, while those of the lower divisions wrestle seven times throughout the tournament, and the cumulative results of these bouts determine whether they will rise or fall in the rankings. While some honbasho are considered more prestigious than others, Nagoya’s intense summer humidity makes it perhaps the most demanding. It’s also a great spectacle.

The day starts at around 8:30 with the first low-ranking rikishi bouts, as the early spectators arrive. These are mostly families carting cool boxes of picnic food piled on top of the contraband beer and sake that the guards blatantly ignore (unless you happen to be a foreigner with just a couple of cans in your backpack, and then you can guarantee that they will be discovered, meaning that you have to either toss them – let’s face it, not gonna happen – or stand out in the car park necking both before you’ve even had breakfast).

Inside you make your way to your seats which range from the corporate boxes, the ringsides, mid-level tatami or the stalls in the gods, and all but the first and last consist of zabuton [seating cushions] on tatami mats. These vary in price (though are cheaper if you’ve got mates in a top company or decent yakuza group), but no matter what, you want the cushions. More on which later.

Ready? Fight!

In the first few hours the hall is pretty empty, and you can roam as you please, getting right up close to the dohyo [ring]. Within the dohyo the action is fast. Rikishi enter, and CRASH-BANG-WALLOP it’s all over and the next pair appear. It goes so quickly that, if you look down to open a can of beer (costing 800 bloody yen!) a fight has been and gone.

Few people are interested in this lower-level competition, however, instead choosing to wander the hall, meeting up with friends, getting drunk and hanging around the smoking area that is so heavy with smoke that it looks like a genie convention that all turned up at once. 

Sometime around lunch, as people start pulling onigiri [rice balls] and packets of dried squid from on top of the quickly-depleting booze caches, more and more people file in. At about three o’clock an appreciable buzz fills the air, and within the crowd can be seen pockets of beautiful women in exquisite kimono. These are the sujo [short for sumo joshi, sumo girls] who admire the rikishi for more than their athletic prowess, making me wonder where they were when my university-days’ diet of donner pizzas and Greggs pasties caused my weight to balloon to near-sumo stature. I would’ve been well in.

By half-past three the hall is packed and the atmosphere is as palpable as the insane heat, rising to a crescendo as the makuuchi [top-ranked] and juryo [second-ranked] rikishi are paraded into the ring for their dohyo-iri [ring-entering ceremony] clad in gorgeous, ornate loincloths. The yokozuna then perform dohyo-iri of their own, thunderous applause accompanying every ritualised stamp of feet and clap of hands, as they expel bad spirits from the ring.

Getting Down to Business

Whereas the earlier bouts are undertaken with relative abruptness, for these high-level rikishi posturing is a key element. The battle does not begin until both fighters touch their knuckles to the dust of the dohyo, but before this can happen they cast huge fistfuls of purifying salt around the ring. The rikishi face each other, but time and time again one may stand up, toss some more salt and stretch, before returning to starting positions; Alex Fergusson-level mind games.

Then, in a flash, all four fists have touched the ground and they collide. There are eighty-two sanctioned winning moves in sumo, but most bouts end with one rikishi forcing the other out of the ring. It is then that, if you were lucky (or rich) enough to have acquired a front row seat, you may begin to regret your decision, as the wrestlers regularly topple into the crowd. It’s like one and a half sweaty baby elephants falling ungraciously into your lap. 

Finally, the day reaches its climax, with the final bouts usually involving one of the yokozuna. There are currently only two yokozuna in action, and as such, the basho often ends with one taking on a lower-ranked wrestler, which is where the drama really heightens.

Commonly the Yokozuna are victorious – they’re the top guys for a reason – but on occasion the lesser-fighter overcomes his more esteemed competitor, which is when the whole place erupts. To show their gratitude for the performance, the fans hurl their cushions in a cavalcade of padded seating into the ring. I told you you’d need the cushions.

With the fight concluded the two men return to the ring, neither showing such undignified emotions as joy in conquest or dismay in defeat, and the victor is handed envelopes stuffed with cash from sponsors and admirers. After the final fight of the honbasho an elaborate ceremony is held to announce the champion, complete with prizes that include a trophy so big you’d need to strap it to the roof of your car to get it home, ¥2 million [£16,000] as well as other gifts from sponsors sometimes including cars: which is handy what with the trophy transportation issue.

All of which makes me wish that there was a sumo team at my uni when I was at my Greggs-induced fattest. It sure pays better than journalism, I can tell you!

Originally published in NEO Magazine

Legoland Japan in Nagoya

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Theme parks are one of the best ways to entertain the family all day, leave them enthused and exhausted, and talking about their adventure for many years to come. Of course, Japan has its fair share of amusement parks, however most of these cater to older children and even adults.

Thankfully, LEGOLAND Japan is a theme park tailored to families with young children aged two through twelve with over 40 attractions, meaning that those of us with younger kids can get in on the action. And what’s more, it’s right here in Nagoya!

What You Can Do at Legoland Japan

LEGOLAND Japan is an expansive theme park with a number of zones filled with fun activities for all of the family to enjoy.

Factory

Ever wondered how LEGO is made? What better way to see the famous building blocks being built than a tour of the factory, and watch the magic take place for yourself.

Learn about the history of how LEGO began and developed, see the machinery it takes to make the different pieces, and at the end of the tour, receive a fresh piece of LEGO right off the production line as a souvenir to take home.

Knight’s Kingdom

This medieval land is chock-a-block with rides and amusements to thrill, terrify and exhilarate your children of any age.

Pedal your way into the air with Merlin’s Flying Machines, get in a spin on Merlin’s Challenge carousel, and scream to go faster on the climbs and falls of The Dragon rollercoaster.

Bricktopia

Thrill-seeking kids can ride the Brick Party merry-go-round, the Wurlitzer-like Imagination Celebration or the Duplo Express train.

For your budding creatives there are a number of stations at which you can make your own LEGO creation, including flying contraptions and robots.

Pirate Shores

Yo-ho-ho and a barrel of, um, juice! In this pirate-themed world you can ride a spinning pirate ship, climb about in Castaway Camp and fire water cannons as you make your way through pirate-infested waters.

Miniland

Want to see Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya all in one day? Now you can, and so much more. Using more than 10,496,352 LEGO bricks, Miniland recreates ten landscapes and city skylines from all over Japan.

LEGO City

See your children grow up and become responsible members of society before your very eyes!

At LEGO City, kids can learn to drive electric cars at the driving school – picking up a license as they do – fly a plane, steer a boat, help the police and even save a “burning building”. There is also the Splash Pad water park, though it is seasonally dependent.

Anniversary Action

Until May 6, LEGOLAND Japan is celebrating its second anniversary, which means that there are a number of extra events going on.

NINJAGO Training Academy

In this event for children from 2 to 12 years, train to become a fully-fledged ninja! There are six challenges to undertake to attain your Ninja License. If you pass all six, you will be entitled to priority entry to LEGO® NINJAGO WORLD, due to open in July 2019!

Sea Life Nagoya

On Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 14:15 there will be a greeting show at Sea Life Nagoya, featuring underwater divers.

If you can find and take three pictures of Shark Guys hidden in Sea Life Nagoya and  LEGOLAND Japan (Submarine Adventure) you can receive a special Sea life Nagoya block when you show your pictures to staff members.

Things to See

Around the park there will be specially-built lego models, such as a beautiful cherry blossom tree. Behind Miniland, from 16:00 or 16:30, there is also a daily Feel the Emotion show, performed by all your favorite LEGO characters!

LEGOLAND® Japan

Legoland is accessible just a short (3 minute) walk from Kinjo-futo Station on the Aonami Line( Nagoya Station).

2-2-1 Kinjo-futo, Minato-ku, Nagoya, Aichi-ken (map)
050-5840-0505

Annual Pass

Children: From 6,500 yen *ages 3–12
Adults: From 9,900 yen *ages 13+

1 Day Pass

Children: From 3,300 yen  *ages 3–12
Adults: From 4,500 yen *ages 13+

www.legoland.jp/en

Image: By S.Brickman via flickr.com [CC SA 2.0] – Modified

Originally produced for H&R Group

Horsing Around at Tado Festival in Mie

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Japan has so many strange, eccentric and exciting festivals every year that it is sometimes difficult to keep track. However, few festivals are exciting and dramatic as Ageuma-Shinji, held every year in Tado, Mie. Also known as Tado Festival, Ageuma-Shinji has been held in this sleepy little town since the Nanboku-chō period (1336 to 1392) and is an incredible spectacle that sees powerful horses charged down the high street to predict the next harvest. Confused? Perhaps I should explain.

About Tado Festival

Though the festival takes place on May 4 and 5 each year, preparations commence a month before, when six local boys, between the ages of 16 and 19 are selected as divine representatives of their village, and they begin their Shojin Kessai, a month-long ritual during which they will abstain from eating meat.

Finally, the first day of the festival arrives. Down the length of Tado’s main street right up to Tado Shrine are built two long platforms from which spectators can watch the drama (and though it costs between 1,500 and 4,000 JPY to take a place on the platform, it is highly recommended, though arriving early to find a spot is a good idea). The space between the two platforms forms a run, at the end of which is a muddy, earthen ramp near the entrance of the shrine, and at the very top is built a two-meter-high jump with a narrow gap dug out from the top.

Then, one by one, the boys on horseback will charge down the street on their horses between the two long platforms, the locals cheering them on as they gallop down the road. Then, as they arrive at full speed, they come to the ramp, and the rider must bravely guide his horse up and over, through the narrow gap. If he is successful, the crowd will cheer hysterically, and his village can expect a good harvest in the coming year. If he fails, then he, horse and all, tumble back down to the ground, and the pressure builds on the next rider.

On the first day of the festival, each boy will make two attempts to complete his jump. On the second day, they will each try just once, after which there are some traditional ageuma festival events, with various horse riding exhibitions performed by riders in samurai warrior clothes, including parades and horseback archery (yabusame). There are of course food and drink stalls.

Animal Rights Concerns

As a display it is an exhilarating spectacle; however there have to be questions raised about the danger posed to not just the rider, but the horse as well. When I visited last year, I spoke to one of the locals who help organize the event and raised my concerns. He assured me that he hadn’t known of any horse being severely injured (though he couldn’t say the same for the riders) and that there was no more danger to the animals than there would be in horse racing. However, you may feel otherwise, so it is certainly something to take into consideration if attending.

Tado Festival Details

When: May 4 and 5 annually.
Where: Tado Shrine is a 25-minute walk from Tado Station. Simply follow the crowds; 1681, Tado, Tado-cho, Kuwana-shi, Mie (map)
Websitekanko.city.kuwana.mie.jp

Tado Shrine

While you are in the area, it is an excellent opportunity to check out Tado Shrine. The shrine is said to have its origins in the 5th century, during the reign of Emperor Yūryaku, and is connected to the legend of a white horse that carried the prayers of the local people to the kami (god) enshrined on Mt. Tado. Unfortunately, the original shrine was destroyed by fire during the battles of Oda Nobunaga, but it was rebuilt by the feudal chief of Kuwana, Tadakatsu Honda, in 1606. From that time Tado Shrine grew to be of such importance that it was said of pilgrims making their way to Ise Jingu ‘When he goes to Ise, he goes to Tado.’

Tado Shrine is beautifully laid out, with numerous interconnected shrines and temples that climb up the mountainside. The shrines are all in perfect harmony with the natural surroundings, with wooden bridges crossing streams and over rocky outcrops, and small nooks and ponds here and there. It is certainly worth a visit.

Image: via wikicommons [CC 3.0] – Modified
Image: via wikicommons [CC 3.0] – Modified

Originally produced for H&R Group

Miso Katsu, Nagoya’s Number One ‘Soul Food’

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Ask anyone around the country what springs to mind when you think of Nagoya, and you might be surprised to learn that it’s not the castle. Nor is it Toyota or the TV Tower. No, when Japanese people think of Nagoya, many think of miso katsu.

From International Cuisine to a Nagoya Staple

Today, miso katsu is very much considered to be Nagoya’s soul food, but it has its origins in the ‘yo-shoku,’ or international-inspired, food movement of the late nineteenth century. The word ‘katsu’ has been over time shortened from ‘katsureto,’ taken from the English word ‘cutlet,’ and generally describes a two centimeter-thick, deep-fried breaded pork cutlet. Katsu (or tonkatsu, literally ‘pork cutlet’) can be found served all over Japan, and usually comes served with a thick, sweet sauce, which is pretty much just ketchup mixed with Worcester sauce. But this being Nagoya, the ‘sauce’ is rejected in favor of a miso-based flavor.

Make it Miso!

Ah yes, because Nagoyans love their miso, and not just any miso, but hacchoumiso, a red, thick miso that, when it comes to flavor, knocks all other misos out of the park. It’s only popular in this area, but in this area, it’s VERY popular!

Miso katsu is usually served sliced into strips on a bed of breaded cabbage, with the miso slathered on top. However, it may also be found in the form of ‘miso katsudon,’ in which the katsu is served on top of a bowl of rice, or ‘miso kushi katsu’, which is like a small, deep-fried pork kebab on sticks, with miso poured over.

However the katsu is brought to your table, for those who like their food full of flavor (and are not overly concerned with their waistline) it is a delicious example of Nagoya’s culture.

Where to Find Miso Katsu

With it being Nagoya’s best-known dish, restaurants all around the city serve up miso katsu, and when it comes to quality, you pretty much can’t miss. However, some places do it better than others, and the below restaurants are generally considered the Kings of Katsu!

Yabaton

And Yabaton is very much the King of Kings. If you have been to the Yaba-cho area of Sakae, there is a good chance that you would have noticed Yabaton, with its massive mural of a smiling sumo pig towering over the area, and the line of hungry customers snaking out the door and down the street.

Established in 1947, Yabaton’s cutlet is made from high-quality pork from south Kyushu, and topped with natural-brewed bean miso that has been matured for eighteen months. Their large katsu is probably their most popular and is so big that you can have both sauce and miso on the same cutlet (see the main photo).

Where: 3 Chome-6-18 Osu, Naka Ward (map)
Websiteyabaton.com

Kitchen Matsuya

At fifty years old and still going strong, Kitchen Matsuya is for those who really love their Nagoya food. Open for lunch and evening meals, the small restaurant is known for its signature ankake miso katsu, a katsu dish that also takes on some of the qualities that you would find in ankake spaghetti (about which you can read more here).

Rather than being slathered all over, here the sauce is delicately added in a French style so that the breadcrumbs absorb it, meaning that not a drop of taste is wasted. And as it is French in style, it goes well with a glass of red wine.

Where: 1-20-22, Nishiki, Naka-ku, Nagoya-shi, Hirokoji YMD Building 1-2 Floor (map)
Websitekitchen-matsuya-nagoya.com

Tonpachi

Having been in business for over 30 years, Tonpachi is highly regarded for its tonkatsu. The pork used is kenkobuta from Gifu, famed for its tenderness, and is paired with Koshihikari rice from Niigata Prefecture.

The miso sauce differs a little from more traditional Nagoya dishes in that it is a bit lighter and sweeter, and if you aren’t keen on miso, try their cheese katsu. It’s pretty mouthwatering.

Where: 3 Chome-17-15 Chiyoda, Naka Ward (map)
Websitetonpachi.jp


Image: by bryan… via flickr.com [CC BY 2.0] – Modified

Originally produced for for H&R Group

Hanging Out at Forest Adventure Shinshiro in Aichi Prefecture

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Do you feel at one with nature? Do you prefer to be up in the trees than down on the ground? Or perhaps you have a little monkey who is climbing the walls this holiday? If you find yourself nodding along, or even just curious, get yourself along to Forest Adventure Shinshiro.

About Forest Adventure Shinshiro

Forest Adventure Shinshiro is an off-ground adventure facility, an “outdoor park in harmony with nature,” within Shinshiro City’s expansive, forested General Park.

Covering some 8,000 square meters of the park, Forest Adventure Shinshiro challenges visitors to navigate gang-walks and wires high into the tree line. With a total of 39 activities spread across five courses, it is one of only 25 facilities of its kind in the country, and the only one in Aichi.

The courses are divided into three levels of difficulty, with the hardest (and most exciting!) being the ‘Adventure’ course. Here you will be high off the ground for the longest of time, ride a thrilling ‘Tarzan Swing’ and finish by flying along a 100-meter zip line.

For those who are a little unsure about being suspended in the air for all that time, or just want to get a feel for it before graduating to the Adventure Course, the Discovery Course is a little easier, and easier still is the Canopy Course.

Safe Fun for the Family

Though it sounds like the domain of action men and women, or a grueling military exercise, Forest Adventure Shinshiro is, in fact, a great day out for all of the family, with the Canopy Course open to children from 110 centimeters (though children must be 140cm to enjoy the Adventure Course).

As such, safety is paramount, and there is a constant emphasis on personal responsibility. There is an extensive training course at the beginning of the activity, with training on the belay system especially important. As this may be difficult for small children, the Canopy Course has a continuous belay system that does not require uncoupling.

Forest Adventure Shinshiro Details

It takes between two and two and a half hours to complete the Adventure Course. While some basic level of fitness is probably advantageous, it is not strictly necessary as many of the activities are light work, and the safety harness supports your weight. However, the more you can do without their help, the more exciting it will be!

Originally for H&R Group