Saturday, May 29, 2010

How do you say...?

I know I hate reading along and coming across a word in a different language and not knowing how to pronounce it. Ugh!

So, I think I will post a little bit about how to pronounce vowels in Japanese.

There are basically 5 sounds. A I U E O. They're pronounced ah, eee, ooo, eh, and oh.

Each vowel gets its own syllable. For instance sake. We don't pronounce it sake, as in "Oh, for Pete's sake!" It's pronounced "sah-keh." The letter "e" is a trick for us English speakers. We expect it to be pronounced eee, or else to change that middle vowel.

Another example is my name. Hana Bijin. Hana isn't the same as Hannah Montana. It's Hana, (which means flower) and pronounced Hah-nah. Neither syllable seems to have a stronger emphasis than the other, if that's possible. Then my last name Bijin doesn't rhyme with Bert's favorite bird, doin' the pigeon. It's more like Barry, Robin, Maurice (and Andy before his untimely demise, so sad, he had such magnificent hair). Bee-jeen.

The letter o sometimes has the "long o" sign over it when its written out in romaji (or the English alphabet.) That "long o" is sometimes written out differently as "ou." It means the same thing. Tokyo, for instance. If I could figure out how to make the "long o" line over the o's on this dumb blog I'd put them on both o's in Tokyo. It would also be correct to spell it Toukyou. Of course, that looks kind of weird, correct or not.

So the letter U sounds like "oo." Think Mt. Fuji. It doesn't sound at all like fudge.

So this might be a good guide for pronouncing the sumo wrestlers' names. Akebono. It has 4 syllables. No aches. And the long o keeps him from being connected to any Irish politically vocal pop stars. (My sister would argue that U2 isn't really "pop." But I was there in the 1980s when they sang "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." Fairly poppy, I think. They played it on our cutesy pop station. I sang along. Feel free to disagree.)

Ah ee oo eh oh.
Kah kee koo keh koh.
Sah shee soo seh soh.
Tah chi tsu teh toh.
And so on, as the kids learn to say their alphabet. It's so cute!

And the (May 2010) Winners Aren't....

Or, as the Japanese word for it is, "Shokk-ku!"

Of the three featured winners for the 2010 May Tournament in Tokyo NOT ONE OF THEM IS JAPANESE!

I find this very surprising. As a pretty new follower of the sport, I don't know how many times this has happened in the past. All the big sumo-stats fans probably could set me straight on this, but for now I'll just sit here with my jaw dropping open and eyes peeled  back, bugging out.

In FACT, these guys barely look like sumo wrestlers. The two who won the fighting spirit prizes look a lot more like pro wrestlers in the fashion of Jesse Ventura and Hulk Hogan. Aran is from Russia, and Tochinoshin is from Georgia. Check them out here on the official page of the Goo Sumo Grand Tournament. (I just love that the first word in their title looks like goo. I'm pretty sure it's pronounced "go" with a prolonged long o. Less chortle-inducing; too bad.) If you have QuickTime you can watch the clip of their interviews. Funnnn!

It looks like it would be pretty inevitable for the champs these days to be foreigners. Out of the Makuuchi ranks (of which there are about 42 total unless I miscounted) eleven (count 'em, eleven) are from Mongolia. That's a hefty chunk.

And that Hakuho! He's the man these days. He walked away from the May tournament with his 6th win of 15-0. That means he never lost a bout. Not one. Whewee. He's tough.

So, why all the gaijin? If this is the national sport of Japan, why aren't the Japanese men dominating this sport? Shokk-ku, right?

I guess I'd better do some digging, so I can relieve some of this shock. Meanwhile, here's a link to the results of the whole tournament. And here's a link to a video of highlights of the matches on day 9 of the tournament, along with some great commentary involving the phrases, "Hakuho keeps his cool," and "Baruto avoids biting the dust." Lovvve it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How do you stay so un-slim?

Because of the size of the sumo wrestler, I would think that the men eat better than pretty much anyone else in the country. When I lived in Japan, I almost never saw anyone overweight. In fact, I think I lost about 30 pounds while I lived there myself, possibly because I had to ride a bike everywhere for 18 months and didn't have a lot of time to sit around and eat brownies and ice cream like I do nowadays.

But sumo wrestlers are definitely the exception, as everyone knows. So, how do they do it? What's their "weight gain secret?"

(Ha ha, I have to say, wouldn't that just be the most shocking headline on a magazine cover as you stand in line at the grocery store?)

How do they stay so un-trim? They eat a heavy stew every day. It's called chanko nabe. It is made of vegetables and meats, including eggs and seafood. Having lived there, I will just bet a bunch of soybeans get in there in some form or other. Here are a couple of possible versions.

There is no set recipe, but during tournaments, they supposedly only serve it with chicken, because a chicken goes about on two legs just as a sumo rikishi should, not on all fours as with beef cattle, etc. They cook the chicken with the skin still on it for an extra calorie punch.

The food itself isn't that fattening. Yeah, there's protein and a little fat, but it's soup. The key is portion control, and I mean BIG portions. Quantity is key. They serve it with rice to amp it up, too, and the guys pair it all with lots of beer. So, yes, in a way, they are beer bellies they are sporting, hanging over that diaper.

Strangely to me, the guys skip the most important meal of the day. Breakfast. Then they go hog wild on lunch and then take a long nap. Siesta to let all that food settle into them. Makes me never want to skip breakfast again.

One thing I've heard is that most of the champs didn't start out really heavy. They started out strong and with excellent balance. Then, as they joined sumo and advanced, they put on weight during their career. Balance is the main asset, and then weight. But who can deny that in a shoving match a guy who weighs 450+ pounds is going to have an advantage over a guy 130 pounds dripping wet, no matter how good the little guy's balance?

The neighborhood in Tokyo where the Kokugikan is located is called Ryogoku. It's the sumo epicenter (of the world, right?) and supposedly the best place to go if you want to try a steaming bowl of chanko nabe yourself. Restaurants serve it steaming hot, and it's possible to get a glimpse of a favorite rikishi.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

White Collar Sumo

My brother in law sent me this. Does it prove sumo is a bigger part of American culture than I thought?

The link to it is here. 9GAG also has lots of great sumo pics here, including a fantastic one of Asashoryu receiving the Emperor's Cup (enormous) from the Prime Minister.  Good times. Good times.

This is my favorite.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

'Tis the Season

In America it's like apple pie: baseball season, football season, basketball season. The sporty minded folk all get their hearts pumping about the season of their favorite players and plays.

In Japan, for the sumo fan, it's more like those elementary schools who don't have the traditional, agrarian-minded "summer vacation" break. It's year-round, baby.

The Nihon Sumo Kyokai, or official Grand Sumo organization, runs the show. They schedule tournaments every other month during six months of the year. It's pretty set. January is Tokyo. March is Osaka. Then in May, it's back to Tokyo. July takes the big guys over to Nagoya in western Japan. September is Tokyo again. And in the fall, November's tournament is held in Fukuoka. And the next year it starts all over again.

Tournaments are 15 days long, and each wrestler (in the upper tiers) wrestles once each day of the tournament. The lower ranks often will just wrestle every other day. Events are televised and radio broadcasted. As a gaijin, I found the play-by-play announcement on NHK (radio) of the sumo match fascinating. I didn't understand a ton, but it was great!

It seems to me that the Tokyo dwellers get the lion's share of the sumo fun. Their arena is the national arena, the Kokugikan. (Which means national arena.) It is in the Ryogoku neighborhood of Tokyo, kind of in the south and east quadrant. There's a train station (Japan Rail Sobu Line) right near the arena for fans to arrive via. The building is square and has a traditional Japanese tile roof. You can see it on Google Earth if you zero in. Here's a picture of the outside, then what it looks like inside. And the seating is all square inside, with the dohyo, or ring, in the center.

I just looked it up here and all the ringside tickets are sold out for the May tournament in Tokyo. If somebody is lucky enough to be going to Japan (I wish it were me!) tickets are available by phone, internet (both with English options), and in various stores like Circle K (in Japan, of course), and at the box office of the Kokugikan. ii naa. (Which means, "I wish...")

In spite of the fact that the Tokyo folks get a lot of sumo there, the outlying prefects do get the blessing of the sumo show in the off months. This is called Hana Sumo (or flower sumo.) Rikishi (wrestlers) travel to the various geographical areas of the country. For instance, the northern/eastern part of Japan is called Tohoku. The rikishi will take a couple of weeks and do exhibition tournaments in Tohoku prefectures like Aomori and Akita and Miyagi prefectures. Then a different interim month they will travel to the Kanto region and tour Chiba, Gunma, and Tochigi prefectures just for show. The champions draw the crowds, but it is also a time when the newbies can debut in the ring. These tournaments don't count toward ranking, but they are great for practice and experience for the younger ranks. Sometimes the champs don't take these very seriously, and it's just for show. The fans don't have to wait long, however, for a real display of sumo power. In Japan, sumo is never out of season.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

King of the Ring

Hakuho has been a professional sumo wrestler since he debuted in 2001 at the age of 16. That's SIXTEEN. Whoa. He achieved the highest rank (yokozuna/grand champion) in 2007 at the age of 22.

Here's a link to a video (with English translation) to an awards ceremony in March 2007 where he gets the Emperor's Cup--possibly the most enormous trophy (fitting, eh?) in the world. It includes an interview with him after his big yusho (victory.)

I was wondering about their personal lives, and came across this great picture of Hakuho on his wedding day.

Isn't their wedding attire fantastic? I love it. Here's a link to an article about their 2007 wedding, complete with pictures of their pianist. She's a Japanese girl who was a college student in Tokyo. It's another world.

Finally, I wanted to include a link to a video of Hakuho. Here's one of the man beating his Mongolian rival Asashoryu before Hakuho also became yokozuna. The audience throws their seat cushions (zabuton) at the end of the bout because a non-yokozuna defeated a yokozuna. It's technically against the rules for the audience to toss them, but it's tradition and the rule isn't enforced.

There are a lot of interesting personalities in sumo today--although the most controversial rikishi took his final bow in March. I guess I'm like the Japanese and prefer a tamer champ. Hakuho is awesome. Look at that power.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Hakuho's Go

Alone at the Top
There's a new boss in town. With Asashoryu's departure in March, a different Mongolian now holds center stage alone. Hakuho.

Hakuho has been in sumo in Japan for a while, long enough to rise to the rank of Yokozuna, grand champion. However, because he has been less flashy (read: controversial) he's been overshadowed by Asashoryu. Now, though, he has the top spot alone, and despite the fact that he, too, is a foreigner he possesses much more of the expected demeanor of an honorable Yokozuna.

Picking Up the Language
I saw an interview with Hakuho. My Japanese is a little rusty, but his was pretty rudimentary, and so I could understand a lot of what he said. Partially he spoke through an interpreter. He said a lot of the things, basically, that American athletes say after a game or a match. It kind of sounded like, "Yeah, I just give 100% out there and do my best, and the other guys are giving 100% as well." Blah blah blah. The sports cliches. Fun to know there are some universal things.

It surprised me to see the limitations of his Japanese, I guess. I mean, he has lived there a few years. I saw in interview with another foreign wrestler (maybe it was Baruto, I can't remember now.) It was shaky Japanese there, too. How could they live there so long, surrounded by it, and not just pick it up eventually? In Japanese the word for their language is "Nihongo." For short, my American friends and I called it "go." If somebody got better at Japanese we told them, "Dude, you have rocking go!"

Then I got to thinking, as hard as it was to pick up the language when I lived there, it would be much harder as an athlete. My little life in Japan brought me into contact with loads of people, and I ended up talking with Japanese people in Japanese all day long most days. In their cases (Hakuho's and others') the job is physical, and the language jargon a lot less varied. He likely doesn't have to make a lot of small talk with a wide range of people. He just does his wrestling, tries to figure out what the coach said, perhaps has an interpreter for parts of it, etc. My situation required me to spend an hour each morning studying the language--on top of the idle chit chat I practiced all day long. Still, in spite of incremental improvement, there were dozens of entire conversations I never even began to follow. It was pretty isolating at times.

Hmm, I bet for a lot of those foreign guys there, including Hakuho, it's pretty lonely, even at the top.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Flock of Seagulls

I am like a giddy high school girl when I start talking about sumo. It's ridiculous. I think my eyes light up and I can't suppress a smile, my heart beats faster and my hands get all animated. It's just the coolest sport, and I feel like a member of a secret club because I like it so much, and no one else seems to have caught the fever yet, but I'm absolutely certain it's going to catch on and I'm going to be able to think with self-satisfaction, yeah, I was there and knew about it and loved it right from the beginning of this massive wave of popularity. It kind of reminds me of being a fan of new wave music in the late 1980s, when there was the stuff they played on the regular radio--pop, country, rock--and then there was the stuff all of us really listened to, the British synthesizer music. Erasure, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, OMD. Well, a few of those finally went onto the regular billboard charts and I thought to myself, I knew them when...

So, hang on, everyone. Sumo is probably the next wave.