Friday, May 29, 2009

More on Sumo

P5240182The competition itself is a pretty long event. It takes place over the course of 15 days and each competitor competes only once on a given day. There are many, and I mean many competitors, divided up into different classes. At the top of the class, and competing towards the end of the day (close to 6 pm) are the Yokozuna – only one or two Sumo wrestlers can have this title at a given time. Other wrestlers compete earlier in the day, based on their ranks. Given that each match takes about 6 minutes (5 minutes of which is preparation time and the wrestlers sizing each other up) and that each day of the competition starts at 8 am and lasts until 6 pm, one can make an educated guess about the size of the competition.

  P5240183The top 5 class of wrestlers start competing after 3:00 pm which is when most of the crowd comes in. The scoreboards in the arena (the white strip in the picture above) lists each match with the winner highlighted with a red line. The current match has two red lines, one of which disappears after the conclusion of the match.  Between matches there can be other short events like the Yokozuna performing a traditional ceremony or all of the wrestlers in the top category coming out to be introduced. One interesting thing to note is that the wrestlers are divided into two groups – east (東) and west (西) but these merely denote which side of the arena they will start from (of course they also limit who can compete against who since two people cannot start from the same side). People do not cheer for the groups but rather for their favorite wrestlers. As the day goes on and the ranks of the wrestlers increase the amount of passion and number of people screaming the wrestlers’ names also increase.


Even though Sumo is the Japanese national sport, today there are many “foreigners” competing in the sport – quite successfully too I might add. For example both of the “Yokozuna” are actually from Mongolia and in the top two classes of wrestlers the number of Japanese wrestlers is in the minority. In the top classes of Sumo one can see wrestlers from Mongolia, Bulgaria and even Estonia. Of course all of these wrestlers adopt a Japanese name (the names of Sumo wrestlers are special in Japanese. They are not names used by any Japanese person who is not a wrestler himself. This is a bit similar to how a priest has to change his name if he is chosen to be the Pope) so it is a bit difficult – ok, impossible - to guess where they are from just based on their name.

Ok there is still more to come and it looks like this will be a 3 parter… Hey it is almost 1 a.m. in Tokyo and I have work tomorrow. Time to say good night!…

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sumo – Summer Tournament Finals

P5240169As I mentioned before I was lucky enough to be invited to the day of the tournament finals by my Japanese teacher Ms. Uchida and I thoroughly enjoyed the watching the matches, listening to the crowds reactions,… the whole experience. I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone and everyone who may be in Japan during any of the tournaments. If you are lucky you might see the emperor (he shows up for 1 of the 15 days of the tournament though no one knows beforehand which day, I am told) or the prime minister (like on Sunday ;)). I am getting ahead of myself, let me take a step back and try to cover this in a bit more chronologically proper fashion. This is likely to be a multi-part deal as well since well, I am lazy :P

P5240168 So, let’s get started. The big Sumo tournaments in Tokyo take place in Ryogoku Kokugikan (両国国技館) which is, well, in Ryogoku. Getting there is pretty easy – make your way to Ochanomizu using either Chuo Line or Yamanote Line. From there on, it is just 5 minutes on Chuo-Sobu Line (中央総武線). The station itself is pretty small but you immediately know you are in the right place since you can see the tournament hall as soon as you get off the train and it is impossible to miss the huge posters of famous Sumo wrestlers inside the station. The tournament hall is very close – about 30 seconds on foot. There are a lot of signage; not that you would need it though. On Sumo days you just need to follow the stream of people to get you there.

When you get in you show your ticket and they point you to a little “store” inside with a number matching the back of your ticket. These little “stores” are basically pickup points for food and drinks that are included with the ticket. Inside, ticket holders, save for the last minute buyers who don’t get to pick a reserved spot, each get a little square of their own, with enough size to fit four tightly packed people. In fact, all tickets correspond to one of these squares and they are sold as a set of four. Well, I will end this post with a panorama of what I saw when I walked in. I think it gives some idea as to the atmosphere inside. To be continued in the next post in a couple of days :)


Saturday, May 23, 2009

Invitation to Sumo


I just wanted to drop a line about the invitation I got from my Japanese teacher, Ms. Uchida, to the final day of the Summer Sumo Competition. I will be attending it tomorrow and I will be sure to take a lot of pictures to post here. It should be a lot of fun. I watched sumo on TV before but I expect the experience to be quite different in person…

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The song that just got stuck in my head

J-Pop, Japanese Pop Music, is pretty popular in Anime circles as well as in a lot of Asian countries and one can try to keep up with all the new Anime songs or try to follow the Japanese Billboard charts online but I think nothing quite matches the exposure one gets from living in Japan. One not only can hear about the chart topping songs online or on TV but you might also hear something completely unexpectedly and fall in love with it instantly. Case in point – the song that plays as the credits roll for 婚カツ – a new, very popular Japanese TV drama that I started watching from the first episode (it’s on the 5th episode as of now). I finally found a video of the credits with English subtitles so I finally get the song. The lyrics are pretty cute and the song has a nice feeling to it (though granted, reading the lyrics does change the perspective one would have about the content when oblivious to the language.) The song also goes really well with the subject matter of the series. I read that the song itself is actually a “re-interpretation”/cover of a song of the same name - “Wedding Bell”. This new version is by the Japanese duo, Puffy and I just can’t get it out of my head….

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A strange Pringles ad


This one comes the courtesy of Pringles. I saw this ad on a train in Tokyo. I guess the guy on the right could not have been any more “white” – he is extra white, blonde, tall, wearing a cap backwards and to top it off wearing a US flag design top. A bit strange? I think so…

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Kanda Festival / 神田祭 (cont’d)

P5100209 So how was the actual procession you say? Well, other than being tiring and the fact that we were being cooked a little because of the unseasonably warm day, the actual distance covered is not so much. That’s of course complicated by the weather conditions, the weight, and the aforementioned traffic jams among other things but by no means are you expected to carry the whole distance in one go. Far from it – you get about 15-30 minute breaks every 10 minutes or so where you can grab as many helpings of cold tea as you want. You also get served lemon slices which people eat including the skin (something that was new to me) and are surprisingly refreshing under the hot sun.

P5100220 The final destination is the big temple which lies close to Akihabara. In fact, we passed through streets of the same. The big temple at the end of the road was completely filled up to the brim with people. Of course this meant more traffic jams. We (all the carriers) also managed to attract lots of attention at this point with photographers flanking both sides of the road. Normally they were not allowed in the road but we did have one blonde guy really getting in the faces of carriers, taking pictures from inches away as people were grunting, trying to carry the portable shrine. A policeman finally got him to the side of the road but he was back pretty quickly.

Next, the inside of the shrine…

Monday, May 11, 2009

Attending Kanda Festival / 神田祭

P5100204 Kanda Festival or Kanda Matsuri (神田祭) is one of the most important festivals in Tokyo. It takes place in Kanda which is one stop away from Tokyo Station and about 5 minutes from Shinjuku. I was lucky enough to be invited to this festival by my boss whose wife is originally from the area and her family still lives there. My boss’ father in law was kind enough to invite us and I spent the better half of yesterday in Kanda, attending this amazing and yet chaotic event. Since this is a huge event, deeply rooted in tradition, there are many, MANY details to give so I will separate this to multiple posts. Let me start out by first describing the overall idea.

P5100193 The basic idea is carrying a portable shrine from a local shrine to the main shrine in Kanda. Of course the way this basic idea gets executed is not so basic – there are rules  to be followed and certain complications, some of which arise from the rules. First of all, the “portable shrine” is not so portable – it weighs quite a lot (no one seemed to know the exact weight but the guess was about a metric ton). You might say “But hey, it gets carried by so many people” but even then the weight per person can be a lot since the number of people carrying the shrine can change over time as the tired people constantly switch out and get replaced by others from the same group if they are available which they may not immediately be. To make things more fun, the shrine is not carried just quietly and steadily. It is constantly shaken up and down as this is thought to bring good luck. Average height of the people carrying the shrine in relation to one’s height is also a big factor as being taller than average (which is the case with me) means constantly getting hit by the shrine  going up and down on one’s shoulder. One very quickly learns the importance of holding the shrine tightly and moving up and down with the shrine to minimize this constant hitting.

P5100198 Of course there is more than one local shrine – in fact there are tens of local shrines. Each shrine has their own portable shrine and corresponding group of people carrying that shrine. There are a limited number of ways to get to the main shrine – the portable shrines are carried on one or two of the lanes of the road, closed during the matsuri – which means there are frequent “traffic jams” resulting in stops. Each local shrine has a different design/color happi/はっぴ, the traditional outfit you can see in the picture. On the back is the name of the shrine but what is written on the front can differ. For us, it was the name of my boss’ father-in-law’s store. Some shrines also had special outfits for a group of people – like the 8 girls in the picture. Under the happi, which is pretty thick, one can wear a tshirt type of thing or, if going for the full traditional outfit, something as thick as the happi itself. As Sunday happened to be one of the hottest days we had this year wearing the happi was not the easiest thing. As for the pants, there were multiple options. We wore long pants, similar to sweatpants but we saw people wearing shorts, and in the case of some men, something similar to what Sumo wrestlers wear which is pretty scary from the back since it looks like they are not wearing anything at all.

OK… To be continued tomorrow – I am still trying to recover from the physical aspects of the experience… :P

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Swine flu lands in Japan

It looks like the first cases of swine flu were diagnosed in Japan. Three Japanese, a school teacher in his 40s and two teenage boys – his students. They were on a trip to Canada it seems and they were identified to be carrying the virus at the airport here. The government put them in a quarantine but the government could not get a hold of everyone travelling on the plane. You can find more details here.

Getting this news before  I attend the Kanda Festival tomorrow is not something I was envisioning but anyway – I am hoping it won’t be so bad that everyone will be wearing masks…

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A visit from a neighbor

P1040154 Just as the Golden Week is coming to an end and the first day of work is merely hours away, I got my first visit from a neighbor since coming to Japan. Apparently a family moved into the apartment directly below mine and they (a nice lady and her daughter) knocked on my door to introduce themselves and drop off a little present – a box of cookies. See, there is a Japanese tradition which states that a person moving to a new house/apartment should knock on the doors of their immediate neighbors (left, right and up and down in an apartment if they exist) and introduce themselves while offering a small gift for any troubles they may give to those neighbors in the future. I think this is a great tradition especially considering how isolated people are becoming recently. It is always a good thing to know (and hopefully care about) one’s neighbors. Unfortunately when I moved in I did not do this and I feel very guilty now. I need to find a way to make this right I think…

Monday, May 4, 2009

Another big push for Suica

DVC00001 Starting in the last few weeks JR and no matter how indirectly, DoCoMo and other cell phone providers that support Mobile Suica, have been very aggressive in permeating the use of Suica (pre-paid touchless IC card, supported also in certain mobile phones). I have seen signs all around Tokyo  in more places ranging from convenience stores (FamilyMart already supported Suica but others are slowly picking it up as well) to taxis and buses (pretty much all of which seem to support payment by Suica by now).  I am a huge fan of the technology as you might have read in my previous posts so this makes me very happy. In a country where credit cards are still very hard to use in places like little convenience stores and international credit cards can randomly not work, a system like Suica is a lifesaver.  This picture is from a Summit (サミット) store, a big supermarket which started supporting Suica. The blowup penguin is a part of the campaign – he keeps showing up everywhere (oh and the little sign says “Use Suica!” in a friendly way). As a part of the push they were giving away little penguin faced puck shaped fridge magnets too.

ps. I took the picture with my new phone – a Sharp SH-04a which embeds GPA coordinates into the picture so if you want to know where this particular Summit is, you can ;) I will write a review of this touchscreen phone (DoCoMo released it around February I think, as a part of its new Pro Lineup) as soon as I have used it for long enough to be comfortable with all the features. 

Friday, May 1, 2009

A Super Mario statue made of crystals?

Where else could you find a statue of Mario but in Tokyo? I saw this little guy at a store in Ginza. See these days I haven’t been able to write much since I have my father and sister visiting me but there was a side-effect which I think is beneficial for this blog – I get to go to a lot of stores of all kinds and see things like this. Oh and if you are interested this guy is for sale – I believe the price is around $15,000 though don’t quote me on that. I unfortunately managed to miss a part of the price tag in all 3 pictures I snapped.