Tokyo-Kyoto bullet train

Journey to Japan v.2: Sumo & Bullet Trains

From Tokyo Sumo To The Kyoto Bullet Train

IT’S SUMO DAY!!! And, yes, it was every bit as awesome as it sounds. But, of course, the day didn’t start there.

The Gaijin Education Continues

It started with yet another curious Japanese modification to a standard American item, the Q-Tip. I was looking to do the standard cleaning of ear canals you’re not really supposed to do and I grabbed a free Q-Top toiletry pack. Um, their Q-Tips have “scoopers” on one side and cotton swab on the other. That sounds problematic for whomever makes use of it. They also have Q-Tips that have one super pointy side and a standard cotton swab side. No idea what that’s for, but I’m not putting either unfamiliar Q-Tip end in my ear.

Continued to breakfast where we found it slightly ironic that our Japanese hotel was having some kind of 100th Hawaiian celebration coming up. It was advertised everywhere, including on our placemats. I mean… #SorryNotSorry? Let bygones be bygones? Or a mandate by the American government after we nuked them? I should’ve used the Google sign translator to get the full scoop on what this was all about, but it got a bit of a chuckle out of both Jeff and I. After an otherwise unremarkable meal, Boy Scout Jeff told the waiter we didn’t have a voucher when he assumed we did and were about to get another outrageously overpriced breakfast for free. I guess we wouldn’t be representing American gaijins very well if they later found out we didn’t have a voucher.

Chaos at the Tokyo Metro

After yesterday, we thought we were total Tokyo metro pros, but God humbled us with a complete slap in the face today. Story of my life since that’s usually what happens when I get too confident. First, we couldn’t find which machine to buy the tickets we needed from. A random guy left his newspaper kiosk to help us. Then, when we inserted cash, an alarm went off at the machine, which caused us to just stand there in utter confusion and mild panic. So another guy came to our aid, plus the guy from the kiosk, and eventually a machine operator to turn the alarm off and give us our money back. three people were assisting us. We broke the Tokyo metro system. Finally, we got on the metro, but needed to switch lines. The way they have the lines set up, it seems you lose your ticket at the turnstile for one line, have to buy another ticket for the next line, and then enter that turnstile. Well, who knew Tokyo’s metro system was privatized? We bought tickets for the correct color line, but for the wrong company line. Makes total sense, right? Turns out, Tokyo has a “metro” and a “subway.” (This doesn’t include the thousand JR train lines and Bullet Train lines, all different systems.) In the end, we made it to our sumo meeting place, of course. And on time, actually.

Sumo, Sumo, Sumo!

Yes. We are witnessing the Japanese tradition of sumo today. Fortunately, our tour was pretty small, but there always has to be that one annoying couple in every group. This time, it was a young couple who arrived late (and we were all there just waiting for them), but then they request to stop for food at a shop when we’re not allowed to bring food or drink into the sumo stables anyway. Yep, let’s all stop for you guys. Please, by all means; I love this. The girl got an orange juice and Nice Guy Jeff suggested she had a medical issue. If you have a medical issue that requires sugar or sustenance of some kind, maybe you should wake up early like the rest of us and make that happen for yourself. Or don’t, but plan ahead and bring a bottle of OJ in yer bag, right? So, yes, the whole group was late to the practice. Thank you, staple annoying tour group couple. Side note that the girl also didn’t wear (or bring) socks and we had to take our shoes off. Japanese faux pas. …But now I’m just building my case. (Because I’ve been totally aware of every cultural rule here… shaking my head “no.”)

Anyhow, on to our arrival at the sumo stable. We stood outside on the corner while the guide briefed us on the dos and don’ts of our tour. No shoes, no food or drink, must sit cross-legged, can’t leave in the middle of practice, no camera shutter clicks or flashes, etc., etc. Oh, no talking. (Can you imagine me not talking for two hours? My parents would be ecstatic. I’m sure Jeff was.) I’m beginning to space out when I suddenly see a gigantic man in what can only be described as a traditional Japanese diaper walk out into the street and look around. He’s mostly naked also. He was pretty casual about it. You could also start to hear the slapping and grunting and yelling from inside the “stable” clear over to the corner of the street. Yep, let’s do this. This could be interesting.

Sumo wrestling takedown

The stable is a building with what’s basically a gym on the main level. One room, small-ish, with a pit in the middle. Some kind of dark dirt floor. The sumo wrestlers train six days a week from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. And literally live at the stable during the span of their training and careers. They begin sumo as early as 15 and typically retire in their early to mid-thirties, and they’re asked to be part of a specific sumo team. Some of them have girlfriends and wives that live on their own outside of the stable. They actually only eat twice a day, but they eat three large bowls of rice, in addition to a large bowl of miso beef stew. They’re not allowed to leave the table until they’ve eaten all of it. Wikipedia says there’s a height requirement of 5’8″ and that some guy actually had a surgical implant placed in his forehead once to make the requirement, which made the association rethink their regulations. When I asked our guide about height requirements, he generalized around 5’5″. (And some of the guys did seem fairly short from a distance. …That’s me saying that, though. I have terrible depth perception particularly when it comes to looking up simply because I’m fairly petite. Okay, a lot petite.) There are six formal tournaments per year and the highest paid wrestlers make around $150,000 annually. Also, there are no weight classes. They all wear top knots, of course. Even the guys who are prematurely balding.

Big Kahuna in sumo practice

Needless to say, these guys are intense. There were two “white diapers,” as Jeff and I dubbed them. (I have no idea what these “uniforms” are actually called, and by no means intend to be disrespectful, so just bear with me.) Based on size alone and the fact that they mostly did their own things for the majority of the practice, we guessed these guys were the Big Kahunas. There was literally one training right in front of me, lifting a single free weight and sweating profusely. He was doing the leg lift thing (where they lift a leg super high to one side and drop it, then slap it.) This was a special treat when you’re only a few feet away, if you know what I mean. Supposedly, they save the biggest guys for last at practice, by the way. (Don’t mind the whack video preview; it plays upright. Dunno why I can’t fix this. Argh.)

They also had gray diapers and black diapers. Just guessing, but I think the gray diapers were all the younger guys. And they’re not all big guys, I should add. A few of them were just incredibly fit, stocky guys with exceptional wrestling skills. As the practice went on, you kind of started rooting for specific guys. There was a super young kid that was really good who kept getting advice from one of the Big Kahunas. I guessed he was the stable prodigy, but he just wasn’t my fav. Dunno why. He was good, but not my fav. There was another guy that, as it turns out after practice (since we couldn’t speak), Jeff and I were both rooting for. He was super scrappy, of slimmer, stocky build, and just seemed like he had something to prove. He had shorter, scruffy hair and no top knot and we saw the teacher repeatedly pulling his hair and tapping his head while speaking really sternly to him. We asked the guide after practice what the dealio was and he said the wrestler dishonored the sumo stable by staying out all night with his girlfriend, so the head honcho shaved his head. Now, that is some “Last Samurai” ish right there.

Which brings me to what I’m certain would be the best Japanese reality TV show idea everrr—like a “Real World,” but in the sumo stable dorms. Do all of these guys get along and have the utmost respect for one another outside of the gym? Do they ever argue and take it out on one another in practice? Do they interact so seldom with women that, when they see or meet another wrestler’s amour, things can go awry? What happens behind closed doors, anyway? I’m all about it. Just add it to my embarrassing list of bad VH1 reality shows. I shall pitch this idea to HBO, sit pretty, retire early, and travel the world at long last.

Sumo stretching

All I can say over and over is these guys were insane. Big guys, but incredibly flexible, and actually pretty quick. They do these exercises where they shove each other hard, grab one anothers’ necks (which made me cringe every time), and whoever wins stays in the ring for the next taker. They also basically do tuck and rolls, which is hysterical considering their size. It’s like a butterfly effect for Japan’s tsunamis. We got to watch a ring purification ceremony. And then, we got to watch one of the white diapers in action. There was literally not a single wrestler who could even make this dude exert any effort. He made it look easy. Like the Steph Curry of sumo, shooting three-pointers. Almost poetic. Two of the younger guys stood ringside and offered Big Kahuna White Diaper towels and little cups of water while the challenger (mostly the same guy the whole time) had to go take care of himself. They finished by doing a series of stretches as a group, and their flexibility is jaw-dropping. Near splits when doing the spread-eagle stretch. Every one of them.

If there was one complaint I had about the excursion, it was that it was just a little too long. And for someone like Jeff who’s had three knee surgeries, sitting cross-legged for two hours is very uncomfortable. I’m sure they would have made other arrangements had we asked, though. We were off to the side so he was able to stretch his legs out when needed. After practice, we were able to huddle outside and take pictures with the guys. They were all like big teddy bears, really. We learned one of the guys who posed for a photo with us was only 19. If you saw this guy, you wouldn’t believe your eyes. It was at this time that Jeff corrected his earlier comment to me about my gaijin breast size—there are indeed folks in Japan who’ve larger cup sizes than me, after all. Thanks, honey.

Finding Food in Downtown Tokyo

We took the train (correctly!) back to Tokyo station. There was still some confusion, but we didn’t downright embarrass ourselves this time. In this area of Tokyo, it seems there’s less English signage and this was the first time we needed to take the JR train. Took us some time to figure out pricing, stops, and changeovers. But we did it. Once there, we decided to walk down the surrounding streets to try to find lunch before we departed for Kyoto. I don’t even know what to say about this venture. We tried our darnedest, but it was just shy of disastrous. The streets are a total maze, there’s zero English on any of the restaurant menus, no photos, and there were just hundreds of options. Completely overwhelming. We had no idea what we were doing and we were both hungry, so sad to say, we retreated to the train station for a quick bite to eat. I say “just shy of disastrous” above because I was really looking forward to eating authentic Japanese somewhere (not at a tourist hub), but I was getting a little hangry and impatient. Slightly annoyed at myself to be retreating to the train station. Such a travel fraud.

Anyhow, we found a cafe with small eats in the basement. We’ve noticed that Jeff is way too big a guy for any of the tables and chairs at these cafes. His knees are usually at, or above, table height and the spaces are so small and cramped, he basically has to man spread at the table because he can’t back his chair up. Perfect size for me, of course! In the US, it’s not uncommon for me to sit at a restaurant where the table height is at my armpits. I feel like a four year old when this happens.

Coffee jelly in Tokyo, Japan

The cafe didn’t offer much in the way of food—an assortment of different “toasts”—so we tried our hands at “pizza toast.” Wasn’t the worst thing we’ve ever had, but certainly not the greatest either. The waitress placed two little dishes on our table after we ate. Seemed to be a desert of some sort with a dollop of whipped cream on the top. For some reason, Jeff went all in and almost immediately started convulsing. It was a fairly violent reaction. He drank every available drink on our table and choked out, “Don’t do it!” several times. When he finally composed himself, he said it tasted like an ashtray and insisted I don’t try it. But I did. Just a tiny bit. It wasn’t great, but I had this sense that I knew what the flavor was. Asked the guy next to me with my Google translator what it was… “coffee jelly.” Well, that explains it. Jeff is a freak of nature who never drinks coffee. And it did taste like coffee, just super, super strong coffee. Bitter. It wasn’t for me, but I could see why this would be a dessert at a cafe.

The Bullet Train to Kyoto

Continued on our way to locate our train platform for the bullet train(!!!) to Kyoto. We were directed into an elevator where a train station attendant spoke small talk with us and unrolled this adding machine tape of all the bullet trains departing for the day. Hundreds. Literally. A long ass roll of train departures. The Bullet Train basically departs every ten minutes from any given station and travels at speeds of 150-200 miles per hour. The fastest time ever clocked for this train was 275 miles per hour! It’s also ridiculously punctual. Four minutes to board, and the largest average delay for the year was only 18 seconds off schedule. The best was 7 second off schedule… for the year, folks. DC Metro, take note.

Day-to-day technology like this in Japan just seems to be lacking in the US. It’s truly impressive. To clarify: in the US, as in day-to-day tech, and in the US, as in from the US skills-wise. Our country’s MAGA folks need to get on the STEM bandwagon and get these skills in-house, because there’s really no reason we should be outsourcing technically educated people as the wealthiest nation in the world. Never mind manufacturing jobs. (No offense to those trades whatsoever, of course, it’s just that automation and robotics are gradually replacing manpower. It is what is.) If we want to stay on top of our game, we need more hard science education. And it needs to be affordable and available to the best of the best minds our country has to offer. (I feel I can say this as an art major—which I often say jokingly—because I did actually attend a technical university and earned a technical degree and have a technical job. Digital is one of my favorite parts of what I do. Plus, my husband adds for a living. Math = hard science, no?) At any rate, this is not a political post whatsoever, it was just a conversation Jeff and I were having while traveling to Kyoto. The technology here is just… awe inspiring.

Mount Fuji from bullet train

A quick 2.5 hours to Kyoto. Saw Mount Fuji from a distance on the way over. It’s like Mount Rainer… can’t miss it. Towers over everything else in sight. Got sufficiently lost in the Kyoto underworld, otherwise known as the train station. Took us over a half hour to find our hotel. For context, Google Maps said it would be an 8 minute walk. (Lies!!!) I was 100% repaid for laughing at Jeff over the coffee jelly incident when I tested out a Japanese “matcha confection” for dessert that evening. It was a small green cake (maybe an inch square). Looked gorgeous… but it tasted like seaweed and bad fish. In a beautiful little cake. Who could even see that coming? I guess it’s some sort of popular green tea powder that they put in, like… everything. When we settled into our room for the night, Jeff announced that he tested out the toilet sprayer and it was the greatest experience ever. He’s been adamant every time I use the restroom that I really need to try it out, too. Really adamant. Lol. I told him he just doesn’t want to be the only one of us to say we used the bum cleaner. (Retrospective update: the matcha confection incident happened well before the insane matcha craze made its way to the US.)

In other breaking news, I’ve been itching all over the place since the day I arrived and found I have some sort of random rash on my extremities. I been unconsciously scratching so hard that I’ve bruised my legs everywhere. It’s probably some sort of allergy or hives, but measles and rubella are still a thing in Japan, so… pray for me. I have no idea when the last time I got an MMR was. Are they lifelong vaccinations? No idea. I’m sure it’s fine. We’ll see how it plays out. Just annoying in the meantime.

Total walking mileage for the day = 4.48 miles.

Stay tuned for a tour of one thousand temples and shrines and Buddhas and deer tomorrow. I’m about shrined and templed out after, but it was still a pretty cool day. Our sumo experience still reigns supreme, if you ask me.

Kanpai signature


Today’s featured photo: Complements of Fikri Rasyid on Unsplash.com.

© 2019 Jordan Campbell. Some rights reserved.

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