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5 posts categorized "Sports"

06/22/2015

SEEING SUMO WRESTLING MATCHES LIVE IN JAPAN, UP-CLOSE AND PERSONAL

On the topic of Japan’s most iconic indigenous sports, I’m sure many would agree that one is most likely to think of sumo wrestling. For me, just hearing the word brings to mind the image of two gargantuan human beings battling each other upon a clay ring, and since the last time I went to see a sumo wrestling match in Japan, that image has grown extremely clear.

               The first sumo wrestling match I ever saw live was at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, on a CIEE-organized event in December 2014. I remember feeling extremely pleased at the prospect of finally seeing in person something which I had thus far only had a very storybook image of in my head. We were seated on the second level, looking down as pairs of very large men entered and exited the stage. Too preoccupied with excitement, I failed to understand anything about the art of sumo wrestling. My knowledge of sumo wrestling, however, was to become much more profound the next time I were to visit the Ryogoku Kokugikan.

               I had the chance to become acquainted with the mother of one of my friend’s students at the international school where she teaches part-time – turns out, the mother’s what they call an “okamisan,” the master of a “sumo stable.” Indeed, sumo wrestlers train, eat, and are housed in what is called a sumo stable, and I was lucky enough to have met the master of one. Apparently, being the acquaintance of an okamisan comes with a few perks, as I eventually found out when my colleague and I were presented with free front-row tickets to another sumo wrestling match at Ryogoku Kokugikan.

               Here’s how a day of sumo wrestling matches works: The spectator area remains open, meaning you can go in and out whenever you want, thus facilitating the processes of getting a snack or going to the bathroom. Matches are held throughout the day in procession, beginning with the lower-ranking (not-so) small-fry sumo wrestlers. On average, each match lasts just a few seconds, so it’s easy to become familiar with the process after a few matches. A pair of sumo wrestlers enter the ring, and each wrestler bows to the other. Then, each wrestler begins to cycle between the motions of squatting at the starting line, performing a few motions (slapping their bellies, stomping on the ground, etc.), and throwing salt across the ring. Then, the fight begins. It usually only takes two to three seconds for one sumo to ring-out the other. This is a simple enough process, to say the least, and I was able to enjoy the matches my first time at Ryogoku Kokugikan. However, it took the okamisan explaining to me the significance behind these motions for me to really appreciate the art.

               As I watched from one of the front-most sections, the okamisan explained to me that the wrestlers wrestle each other when they feel like it, without exchanging a word. The cycle of motions and throwing salt serve to pump up the Japanese fighting spirit of the wrestlers themselves, as well as to excite the audience. When both wrestlers are ready to take on the other, they will communicate their readiness with a mere look – the referee is just there to make sure they don’t go over the time limit.

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               Apparently, there are both honorable and dishonorable ways for a sumo wrestler to win, and a wrestler is not liked simply for his fighting ability, but also for his “nihonseishin,” or “Japanese spirit.” I remember the okamisan expressing particular distaste for one wrestler who had won by tricking his opponent to come at him, then dodging out of the way.

               Occasionally, a match would be preceded by several people in robes walking onto the circular stage, and circling around the wrestlers whilst holding up flags with advertisements on them. It was a sight I had seen my first time at the stadium, but had yet to understand. The okamisan explained to me that these were sponsors for either one of the sumo wrestlers on stage, and that each flag was worth about six hundred US dollars. The victorious wrestler would be given six hundred dollars for each flag as reward money, a discovery which had me gaping for several minutes straight. Some matches were preceded by about two or three flags, others by over thirty, and most with none at all. I remember counting a total of over thirty flags for the final match, and watching with great envy as the victor left with literal handfuls of money.

               To me, the most interesting part of this experience was seeing how the wrestlers who were popular for their “Japanese spirit” weren’t all Japanese, but mostly Mongolian. There was even one Russian wrestler amongst the top-division sumo who was received with quite an uproar after winning his match. It goes to show that being Japanese isn’t a prerequisite to possessing the moral values which the Japanese people uphold, which gives me hope, as after seeing all those six-hundred-dollar flags, I am currently considering a lucrative career in sumo wrestling.

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04/23/2015

SPRINGTIME FUN IN JAPAN ON A TIGHT BUDGET: WHITE WATER RAFTING IN SHIKOKU

                In one of my previous blog entries, I wrote about how pretty the autumn sky looks on a clear and sunny day in Tokyo. Well, it is around the middle of March that spring begins in Japan, and as though to tease the famous springtime saying “April showers bring May flowers,” I got to enjoy many sunny days in Tokyo as the new season slowly arrived. In fact, the number of consecutive sunny days grew so great that I eventually found myself inspired to take a trip down south to Shikoku, one of Japan’s four major islands.

              The end of March was approaching, along with the final day of the 2-month interim break. Fearing that the good weather would soon leave me as well, my friend Chieko (a fellow CIEE student) and I decided we wanted to do something that would make the most of the remainder of our holiday – but it couldn’t be just anything. It had to be an outdoor activity, something fun and exciting, preferably in a location close to nature, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, and most importantly: something that could be enjoyed particularly in Japan; a few minutes of internet research revealed that white water rafting in Shikoku was to be our next adventure. We packed our bags, booked budget airline tickets, emailed our study abroad program coordinators, and were on our way down south faster than you could say “rapid.”

              Shikoku is divided into four main prefectures: Kagawa, Ehime, Tokushima, and Kochi. We arrived at Matsuyama airport in Ehime prefecture, probably the furthest prefecture from our destination (a rafting company called “Happy Raft” in Kochi) early on a partly-cloudy morning. Grumbling at the fact that our budget airline didn’t service a closer airport, we hopped onto a limited express train down to Oboke Station, our only solace being the opportunity to stock up on sleep on the 4-hour ride. The excitement at the prospect of riding down the rapids of the Yoshino River however, kept us awake.

              When we arrived at Happy Raft Headquarters (a little hut built by the bank of the river), we were warmly greeted by our guide for the day, a Japanese rafter named Toru. He gave us a safety briefing, lent us wetsuits, and drove us to the starting point of our journey along the river.

 

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              Happy Raft really gave us a full experience. Strapped in our rafting gear – a helmet, three layers of wetsuits, a life jacket, and even special rafting sneakers – we fully inflated the raft on our own, placed it upon the surface of the water, and embarked upon the rapids of the Yoshino River with Toru. My recollection of the next part of this adventure is comprised of mainly auditory elements: splashing water, wooshing white rapids, laughter, and excited screams. Toru told us that we had been blessed with a perfect water level that day, as he steered us into the river’s fast currents. We were followed by another employee of Happy Raft, Mark (a rafter from Australia), who was equipped with a waterproof camera to capture the moments. Our boat capsized once as we were traversing the fastest rapid on the course, and according to Toru, we’d been his first capsized group of the season. Fun fact: it’s a tradition amongst the rafting companies in the area that if a guide capsizes the tour boat, then he or she must buy the entire company beers at the end of the day.

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              At the end of the tour, we were sent off with warm lemon drinks, and even warmer sentiments.

              This adventure in Shikoku was probably one of my favorite moments of my experience in Japan. For those looking to travel around Japan on a tight budget, I strongly recommend this island as a destination. Not only was the travel fare cheap, the people we met were extremely kind and helpful; after the tour, Toru personally delivered us to the train station, and even helped us figure out cheap routes to the few tourist destinations we had decided to stop by before our flight home. I will definitely be returning to Shikoku before the end of the CIEE program. Also, I think Happy Raft gives you a free shirt on your third visit, which is nice.

06/10/2014

Sumo

    One of my favorite experiences so far has been going to see Sumo at Ryōgoku Kokugikan. Upon stepping out of Ryōgoku Station, you are immediately greeted by large paintings of famous yokozuna (the highest rank in sumo) wrestlers with their signature horizontal rope belts. The top ranks after yokozuna are, in descending order, ōzeki, sekiwake, and komusubi. The sumo tournament CIEE took us to was the 11th day of the 2014 May Grand Sumo Tournament, one of the most important sumo tournaments in Japan. The objective of the match is to push your opponent out of the ring or to have them touch the ground with a body part other than their feet. This is usually done in one of two ways; using brute strength against your opponent or by manipulating your opponent’s strength against them. There are often times when a far smaller player defeats a much larger wrestler due to superiority of groundwork and speed.

    First up were the jūryō (second division) matches and then came the makuuchi (first division) matches. The atmosphere inside the arena was incredible. Both the wrestlers and the fans were full of passion for the sport. It seemed that everyone was having a good time. Spectators would scream the names of their favorite wrestlers and shout encouragements during the preparations for each match.

    The most memorable and intense moment was the match between Hakuho, the top ranked yokozuna, and Goeido, a sekiwake. As the best ranked wrestler in the competition, Hakuho was the sure favorite to win the match. Before the match began, various banners were paraded around the arena, each banner signifying sponsorship money the winner of that match would receive. This match had an especially large amount of prize money. After the traditional throwing of salt into the ring, the wrestlers squatted facing each other, poised for battle. However, the match did not begin. In sumo you can only begin the match once both players say they are ready, therefore, there are often instances where a match is about to begin only to have one player stand up and stretch or wash their face. This also serves to increase suspense and hype up the crowd. Finally, after what seemed like forever but was only a few minutes, the match began. Typical sumo matches only last a few seconds, and rarely do they ever last more than a few minutes. Preparation usually takes longer than the match itself.

    After an intense few moments filled with scrambling hands and feet and lots of sweaty flesh, Goeido was victorious! The crowd went wild, throwing their zabuton (seat cushions) at the stage and onto the wrestlers! A completely unexpected outcome: the top wrestler defeated by someone two titles lower than him! Although technically prohibited, it is customary for the audience to throw their zabuton whenever a yokozuna sumo wrestler is defeated by an opponent of lower rank.

    The spirit of sumo thoroughly consumed me during the matches that day and I would gladly jump at the opportunity to go see sumo again. Despite the danger in sitting in what I call the “splash zone,” the first few rows in front of the ring, I would gladly risk being crushed by a sumo wrestler thrown out of the ring for a front row view of the action.

 

 

05/11/2014

Climbing Adventures

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Last week was my first trip with the ワンダーフォーゲル部 (Wondervogel Club)! At first I did not understand their name. The club is first and foremost a hiking club. They do activities like weekend hikes and day trips to climbing gyms. After spending some time on Wikipedia I discovered the reason for their name.

“The name can be translated as rambling, hiking, or wandering bird (differing in meaning from ‘Zugvogel’ or migratory bird) and the ethos is to shake off the restrictions of society and get back to nature and freedom.” Wikipedia

The club itself is really old. The earliest photos of the club posted on their website are in black and white and capture young men climbing mountains together. I am so happy to join such a historical club. It makes me feel a part of something culturally significant at Sophia. Today I was especially excited because we visited a bouldering gym. Rock climbing and bouldering is a long time hobby of mine. I was especially excited to meet some new friends to share their own experience climbing. In the past month, I have visited two rock climbing gyms in the Tokyo area. One was called B-Pump in Akihabara (秋葉原) that was strictly a bouldering (short wall) gym. The other gym was called Runnout in NishiKokubunji (西国分寺). With the club, I went to a gym called Apex about 20 minutes walking from Sophia.

As a climber in America, I already know a lot about the climbing culture. However there are many things in Japan that are completely different in terms of climbing etiquette and routine that caught me off guard. Most of it can be related back to the history of Japanese culture and how they approach sports. When inside the locker room, I was not allowed to open my chalk bag or put on my climbing shoes. Shoes must only be worn in the climbing areas. This of course is understandable and relatable to my life in the homestay where shoes are never worn in the house. Also, the rating of climbs is completely opposite of U.S. standards.

The Japanese use the Dankyu (Dan and Kyu) system which resembles that of martial arts. Climbs that are rated 1 are the hardest and get easier as the numbers ascend. Unless, the climb is labeled as 足+手 (hands and feet), you are only to follow the holds that are colored with your hands. Feet can be placed on whatever hold you choose, very strange in terms of U.S standards.

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The entire club was extremely nice and patient with my lack of Japanese speaking skills. Although some clubs at Sophia can be very demanding, this club is very kind and very relaxed. They are also very nice about having study abroad students join events. I made a lot of new friends and cannot wait for their next hiking trip!  

12/19/2012

Running in Japan

I really love running. Please do not mistake me for an extremely dilligent, somewhat crazy, every-dawn-a-day running machine. I wish I was that motivated. Instead I run when I manage to get myself out of bed or decide to not waste my evening online.

You will not find many people running throughout Tokyo at various times of the day because everyone is either taking care of their children, working, or a tourist (sorry, that's a completely untrue generalization, but is part of the reason I think random runners are not common). I have seen the occasional snazzy-sports-wear-clad runner running around the city in the morning or evening, but compared to my experience living in Hillsboro (OR) and Cambridge (MA), it's not that common.

My host family luckily lives between two rivers, and there are lots of parks/public space around rivers in Japan, so I have been able to go running whenever I choose and am rarely alone. Bicyclists far outnumber runners/joggers/walkers, so there's an unspoken law that slow, non-wheeled people stay to the far left so that speedy cyclists can zoom past.

Sometimes my host mom joins me on a run. Here's a photo of us (more like a photo of the running path + scenery):

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Sometimes my host sisters join us with scooters or skate-boards, though not recently as it's really cold out. Here we are when it was not cold: 

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One thing I do recommend, whether or not it is socially common, is to run in places you vacation to (or just new places). I find getting up early for a run on vacation is much easier than a regular school/work day and when you get yourself out and exploring early, you can scout the scenic places and basically have the town/city/local to yourself. 

About three weeks ago (I think) CIEE went on our big fall trip to Hiroshima and Miyajima. I got up Sunday morning to run through the Peace Park of Hiroshima and it was so much more thought-provoking than walking through with tons of people milling about and taking photos (I get distracted people watching). I stopped a few times to look at details on memorials that caught my eye or to offer some silent wishes for peace to the young, innocent victims and their families.

Monday morning I went on a fabulous run through Miyajima. I went running around 6 AM, which is not that early compared to city life, but the entire place was deserted when I started out. It was so quiet. The sun hadn't risen yet and as I approached the 厳島神社 (Itsukushima Shrine, a very famous shrine in water - if you google it you'll be like, "oh yeah! I've seen photos of that before." Probably.) the flood-lights that lit it through the night went out. And I noticed monks walking around the base of 厳島神社 (normally not possible because the tide comes in the whole day and surround it with water) which made me realize how giant that Tori gate really is. I watched the sun rise accross the bay waters which was beautiful, then ran up to the near mountain where red Momoji leaves covered the ground and I felt like I was running through streams of blood (but in an unreal, beautiful, artsy way... not real blood). As I ran back to the hotel, the few locals trodding through their morning duties looked surprised as I ran past, but we still bowed to each other with the greeting, "おはようございます。" (I, a little breathless and awkward while trying to slow down but not stop running).

All in all, it was a great trip and I am very glad I went running each morning there!