David Notkin's and Cathy Tuttle's "Japan Stories" (1990-91)

Japan Stories #14: Sumo, Bikes, Ninja, and Buckets

In late January Cathy and I went to Tokyo for a week. She had a couple of appointments, and I had a workshop to attend. Although our first meetings were on Monday, we left our apartment at 5:30AM on Sunday to get a 6:30AM bullet train. Why? Because the sumo tournament was on, and it was time to go in person! We were worried, though, since we knew that the few tickets available on the day of the match would probably be sold before we even reached Tokyo. But I figured that there would be scalpers, as there are at every popular sports event I've ever dealt with. So we snoozed on the train ride, waking up only to goggle at the snowcapped, crystal-clear view of Mt. Fuji. Somehow, we weren't inspired to think about climbing it again, at least not yet.

We put our luggage in lockers in Tokyo Station and headed off to the sumo stadium. We got there around 10AM, which is when the first matches start. The main matches don't start until past 3PM, though, so we were quite surprised to see the area bustling. Underneath colorful banners over 20 meters high there were people handing out free sumo calendars, sumo wrestlers (in top-knot and wearing yukata) walking from the train station and getting out of taxis, as well as lots of people just milling around.

As we expected, there were no tickets available at the gate. We had heard (from several sources) that sometimes there are tickets available inside the main gate, but that you have to talk your way into this area before you can buy those tickets. Yes, this is as confusing to us as it is to you, and we couldn't work out what was really meant. (To me, this is just a reasonably straightforward instance of the problems I often have about understanding what is happening here in Japan.) We were a bit disappointed, but it was a beautiful day, we had nothing else planned, and there was a lot of activity that was fun to watch. So we started milling around with the others.

Cathy soon came up to me and said, "There's a sleazy-looking guy on the corner who keeps mumbling something to people who are walking by." Bingo! Scalpers. Dafuya, if you prefer Japanese. We moseyed on over and watched a little bit, and then Cathy went over and said we needed two tickets. He was a little skeptical of dealing with a gaijin, but he finally quoted her a price of 15,000 yen (more than $100) for each ticket. Well, this was steeper than we had planned for, so we talked it over a little. Cathy then offered 10,000 yen (yeah, we *really* wanted to see sumo). He wandered off to his boss. Quite a while later, he came back and said, "No, 12,000." We thanked him and backed off for a little more discussion. In a few minutes, Cathy countered with 11,000, and he said, "No, 14,000." It's hard to tell how much of the trouble was language and how much was outright haggling. Cathy suggested that we actually pull out the money, since that often makes negotiations like these smoother. (How she knows all this, when I'm the guy who misspent a portion of my youth wheeling-and-dealing in Knicks and Rangers playoff, and Pittsburgh-Baltimore World Series tickets, I still don't know. But I was impressed. They are skills that I hope are treating her well during her visit to India.) After we pulled out wads of yen, he checked once more with his boss, gave us the tickets, and then took our money. I tried to count it out for him, but he was clearly worried (about the police, I assume, not the safety) and just took it and shoved it in his pocket.

Tickets in hand, we went right into the stadium. During the early matches, the arena is nearly empty. One benefit of this is that you can go and sit as close to the ring as you want. We sat down about 10 meters away. Not only are the early wrestlers young and generally scrawny, but the referees, the announcers, and the other attendants are all younger and clearly in-training. In contrast to the later matches, where there is three or four minutes of foot-stamping, salt-throwing, toweling-off, and staring-down the opponent, the early matches (after some ceremonial foot-stamping) start immediately. We must have watched over 100 of these, some of which were between kids that couldn't have been 15 years-old, and many of whom weighed less than my 185 pounds. (We just read in the paper that to move to the two highest divisions, you have to be 173-cm tall. A guy who was to be promoted to this rank was only 170-cm, so he failed his physical. A few weeks later, he passed it, having---and (in the immortal words of Dave Barry) this is the truth---injected 3-cm worth of silicon into the top of his head.) Of course, a couple of these kids had bellies that Santa would be proud of, but few of them could move very effectively. We each took a few minutes on the mats right next to the ring. It was a little scary when the bodies came crashing down in our direction.

As it came closer to the main matches, the wrestlers were bigger and bigger, and the referees and attendants were older and more confident. We were finally kicked out of our ring-side seats and relegated to our assigned places in the very last row of the upper level. (The people sitting in the seats near the front were of all kinds, ranging from sleazy guys to little-old-ladies to business men in suits to a girl, around six-years-old, wearing a full length, beautifully tailored mink coat.) Although the view from upstairs wasn't nearly as good, the excitement started to build as the two top divisions started. Wearing their incredible aprons, the performed the special ring-entering ceremony. And then they started briskly bumping bellies. From watching TV, we've developed a couple of favorites, and we were pretty good about knowing what to watch. Indeed, a couple of times we each ducked downstairs and watched from the back of the lower-level, getting an eyeful of some of our favorites from closer up. This was the eighth day of the 15 day-long tournament, and the likely winners were starting to be separated from the likely losers. Fans made their feelings known, usually by simply shouting the name of their favorite. But all in all, it was quieter than most sporting events I've been to. There were a couple of great matches, although we were disappointed that Konishiki (the biggest wrestler, at well over 200 kilos) and Chiyonfuji (the wrestler who is one away from tieing the all-time record of 32 tournament wins) were out of the tournament. But when we got back to the hotel and watched the highlights on "Sumo Digest", we were happy that we had gotten to see sumo up-close & personal.

A couple of weeks later, back in Osaka, we decided to try to buy *regular price* tickets for the tournament that is here in March. The tickets went on sale at the prefectural gym at 9AM on a Saturday morning. On Friday afternoon, Inoue-san found out that there were already some people queued up, ready to stay the night. So, he and I met at Umeda Station at 7AM Saturday and headed to the gym in Namba. The line was incredible, in length, in diversity of people (well, for Japan), and in the small campsites some of the early folks had set up. Oh yeah. And it was orderly. Incredibly orderly. And cold. Incredibly cold. Well, we finally got tickets. At 1:30PM. After about six hours in line. The tickets aren't great: they're for the fourth day and for the third tier of boxes. But they were "cheap" and we earned them.

Because Cathy spends so much time in Kyoto, she decided to rent a place there, too, to reduce her commuting time. She's found an apartment-share with another American woman. Although the place is tiny for two people, it's convenient and is working out well. One night when I went to visit her we were pretty hungry. We went out wandering to find a restaurant. Along a couple of rice fields, we came across a ramen (Chinese noodles in soup) restaurant that Cathy hadn't seen before. It turned out to be just a small van that they park each night and transform into a restaurant: open the sliding side door, put down a single long table, and drop a canopy over the whole thing. The kitchen, including propane stove, is in the van. So we sat down with the neighborhood locals (including a guy dressed in his yukata, clearly on his way home from the local sento) and had a couple of wonderful bowls of hot ramen. Yum.

Cathy wants to tell you about her new Japanese bicycle: "It's a standard housewife/high school student special. Except for the color (black or dark red), they all look the same: one speed, reinforced "girl's" style, so you can wear skirts and get on and off with dignity. The standard features are well-designed. A sturdy wire front basket, raised handlebars and seat angle that makes riding comfortable, a bell convenient to the fingertips, a kick-on front light protected by a wire cage, an easy locking kickstand, and a quick lock front wheel. All this for 19,000 yen (less than $150)!" Now Cathy wants to bring it home. Oh no.

Since bike lanes are unheard of, despite a large number of bikes, you usually ride on the lefthand side of sidewalk (just as cars ride on the lefthand side of the road). Riding on the left isn't a problem, of course. Until people see that you're a foreigner, that is. Then they immediately expect you to ride on the right (even if you are already on the left), so they move to their right. Then you play a game of chicken. (The same kind of thing happens with umbrellas in the rain, when people see you're a foreigner, assume you're tall, and then raise their umbrellas up high. Usually exactly high enough to ram right into your umbrella.) Most intersections with little streets are blind, and people slow down and ring their bells when approaching. Amid the cacaphony of bells, when you yield to pedestrians and other bicycles, you learn the acrobatic feat of bowing while on your bike. The worst obstacle is the same as the world round: little boys. They don't stop at intersections, they careen madly around blind curves, and they never even bow when they cut in front of you. Despite this, people don't wear bike helmets here. In fact, you can't even buy helmets in bike stores. (The few times we've seen a helmet, there's been a foreigner underneath it. This is somewhat true with mountain bikes, too, although these seem to be becoming somewhat more popular.)

Parking bicycles is a problem in Japan. The most crowded spots are at train stations. In general, you must park legally or the police will impound your bike. In Kyoto, if you don't retrieve an impounded bike within two or three weeks, it is literally crushed and thrown out. (You might think that they'd resell them at least, but people generally avoid buying anything "used" in Japan.) Some legal spots are free, but many are paid for, either by the day or by the month. I think a monthly fee for Ishibashi Station, near our place in Osaka, is 1000 yen (about $7). Lots of foreigners have figured out how to beat this problem: kryptonite locks. Since they aren't common here, the police just leave bikes locked with them alone. I wonder how long this trick will survive.

A couple of weeks ago Cathy made reservations for us to go to a 350-year-old Ninja house near Nijo Castle in Kyoto. We showed up about 10:45AM for the 11 o'clock tour. There were some folks already waiting in the uninsulated, unheated anteroom, huddling around a big ceramic pot with hot coals. A dozen of us took the tour, which was entirely in Japanese. Although this caused us to miss a thing or two (Cathy is still puzzling over what she thought was a discussion about "red water"), most of it was pretty clear. There were special locks on the shoji (sliding screens). For advanced warning of someone entering, the floor boards were made intentionally squeaky, and little metal pendulums went click-clack when the shoji were opened. There were lots of hidden rooms and compartments, and many of them had several unexpected entrances (often used for eavesdropping). In addition to several trapdoors, there was an incredible hidden ladder to the second floor, which was a little hard to find even after it had been exposed for us. The second floor contained special pipes for water, perhaps to drink if under siege and perhaps to boil and pour on enemies who were attacking. We understand that there is even an escape tunnel that runs underneath the pond in the garden, but it wasn't on the tour.

From there we dashed over to Nijo Castle. The castle itself seemed less impressive to us than Himeji (or even Osaka) Castle. This was in part because it is not a defensive castle (with the associated ramparts, etc.) but was instead a place for the Shogun to meet visitors and for troops to stay. Also, the decorations were much fancier and less consistent, which didn't seem as castle-like as the others we've seen. The associated gardens were quite nice though, and will likely be quite beautiful when they bloom in spring.

About two kilometers north of the castle is a tiny little shop run by Tomii-san, one of the last traditional bucket makers in Kyoto. It's a one-man operation (unfortunately, with no apprentice in sight). Immediately upon our arrival, he stopped carving a bucket, jumped up and pulled out several English language stories about him and his shop. (We had seen one of these, which is how we found this hole-in-the-wall.) He also pulled out a large pad of paper covered with English language business cards, addresses, and comments about the shop. Among these were quite a few names from CBS news, including Bill Whitaker. Cathy signed his book with our names and, "All other bucket shops pail in comparison." Tomii-san had buckets for Japanese-style bathing (which is what Cathy wanted), for sushi, for drinking sake, and lots of stuff we couldn't figure out. Apparently a great deal of his business is making props for the samurai movies made nearby. After a few minutes, he took us to the back of the shop and plopped us on cushions in front of his TV, and he started showing a CBS newsclip about the ongoing disappearance of the old trades in Kyoto. Of course, there was a short clip of Tomii-san, and he was thrilled to see himself again. On American TV! Walking back to the front of the shop, Cathy noticed that he had a well inside the house. He gets all his water from this seven meter deep well. We bought a bath bucket and a sushi tray (he's a good salesman, too!), and he threw in a small sake cup, which he signed and stamped. Watching him carve buckets and draw water from his well gave some perspective on how Kyoto used to be, and on what might well be disappearing now.