Sumo Spectacle

Seeming as most people in Japan are of small stature, you can’t miss a two metre tall man, weighing about 200kg walking pass you on a pavement. So after passing a few of these giants, my friend and I knew we were getting close to my destination, Osaka’s Prefectural Gymnasium for Osaka’s 2013 Sumo Tournament.

As well as their heavy build, a sumo wrestler is given away by his long hair tied up in a top knot, oiled and pinned down. Outside of the gymnasium, when they are picking up a snack or something from a combini, the wrestlers wear a yukata and Japanese flip-flops, keeping their money and mobile phone tucked in their sleeves. Once they are inside the gymnasium and are getting ready to fight, the dressing-gown comes off to reveal a body shaped like no other athlete. With bellies rippling with fat, bum cheeks the size of award-winning pumpkins and thighs like tree trunks, the men are not your average body-builder shape. I imagine getting a hug from a sumo wrestler is as close as you’d come to a real ‘bear hug’.

As my friend and I made our way to our seats, we watched a sumo wrestlers warm-up away from the crowds. The floor vibrated beneath us as he raised one his leg high, only to thump it down again as to threaten his opponent. I had to dodge one wrestler as he came down the corridor towards me and at half his height, and a quarter of his weight, I was dwarfed by him. I can’t even imagine the adrenalin rushing through the wrestlers bodies as they eye each other up at a beginning of a fight.

From our seats, which cost about £30 and were furthest from the ring, the wrestlers looked in proportion to their surroundings. The action takes place in a raised ring, one metre off the ground, meaning that if a wrestler is thrown out of the ring, he often falls down and lands on some official looking person’s lap. So I was glad I wasn’t in the front row!

It’s possible to see the whole variety of sumo wrestlers when they parade into the ring, stand in a circle and throw their arms in the air to start the tournament. During the ceremony, the men wear ceremonial colourful sashes which match their thong-like attire. Once all have been introduced, the men in unison lift their hands high to symbolise respect for the rules and fair play. Then, the fights begin.

First, the lesser-known wrestlers, then the famous top wrestlers in Japan take to the ring. By the time the best wrestlers were fighting, the gymnasium had filled up and the crowd were enjoying the spectacle and shouting “Gambare yo” (go for it!) A man in front of us who was happily drinking ‘One cup sake’ and munching on some disgustingly smelly dried squid. He excitedly told us that there were no weight categories in sumo, so a 200kg man can be matched against a 100kg man. Yet weight, we found isn’t everything and the most exciting matches were when two different sized men were matched together. Agility, speed and quick-feet usually won over strength and sheer force.

Nearly all sumo wrestlers are fabulously obese, but one man looked very different. He was from Estonia and had well-defined muscles and zero-fat, the ‘David’ of the tournament. We waited with anticipation for his match, and when we saw he was against one of the heavier Japanese wrestlers, we didn’t rate his chances. Yet as soon as the fight began it was clear that he was playing a different game, moving quicker than his giant-bellied opponent ever could. With quick pushes and then a pull to the side, he made the ‘Goliath’ off-balanced enough to step outside the ring. Foreigners and Japanese fans alike cheered for him, the underdog of the tournament who had defeated someone twice his size!

The afternoon breezed by and soon it was time for the final match. Just like western wrestlers in UFC or WWF competitions try to psyche each other out with threats and arrogant remarks at the weigh-in, sumo wrestlers play mind games too, but through completely different means. The two men are allowed four minutes to prepare for the fight and this is often the most exciting part of the sport. The men enter the ring, squat low and do a hand signal that again symbolises fair play to the referee. Outside the ring they rinse their mouths with water and roughly rub their face and bodies with the flannel. Next they grab a handful of salt, meant to purify the ground, and throw it across the ring. They then commence in slapping their thighs, bums and even faces as they prepare to battle with their opponent. This is all leading up to ‘toeing the mark’ where they face each other and squat down, with their fist on the ground before slamming into each other. Just before they sat, one of them will turn away and start the whole commotion again, gearing the crowds up with their mind games and warm-ups. A match often lasts only twenty seconds, stopped when a man steps out of the ring, or puts any other body part but their foot on the floor. After this, the champion does not put their fist in the air, or any such behaviour seen in western wrestling, but squats down to receive the judge’s indication of his win, with ceremonial humility.

After the last match, the final winner of that day’s tournament is given a two metre long sword to perform a ceremonial dance with. He swirls it round, twirling it above his head and behind him. He then is given the job of finishing the tournament by raising each leg in turn and slamming it to the ground as the crowds shout “Yasho”. He will have to defend his title the next day, as the tournament comes to a finale on the 14th day.

Sumo wrestling is definitely something I can recommend as a spectator sport, I’ll be going back next year!

Spring’s prelude with strong overtones of pollen and PM2.5

Last weekend Spring made a fleeting visit. It was 20’C, blue skies and a warm wind blowing from the south; perfect for bike rides, BBQs and playing sport. Except there was something else in the air…

Spring cleaning

On Saturday I did something I’ve spent the last three months dreaming of; de-insulating my apartment. Still in my pyjamas, I ripped all the bubble wrap and heat insulating sheets from off my windows, letting light and fresh air flood into my apartment. After breakfast, I continued my spring cleaning frenzy. Blankets washed, dust swept away and heaters piled into cupboards. Nothing has ever felt so satisfying. Good riddance winter!

IMG_0721

However, the weather changed drastically on Monday and the temperatures plummeted again, to 0′ at night that pretty much means 0′ in my apartment. I reluctantly brought out the thick blankets again and snarled at the weather gods for teasing me. If the weather gods’ are fighting over whether it’s time for spring or not, the Winter god is winning.

There is also another power in the skies, China. More specifically, it’s sandstorms and dirty pollution. When I tore down the bubble wrap I found my windows were filthy with an orange dust. My car windscreen also was covered with a thick film of something suspicious. Word-of-mouth quickly spread that pollution from mainland Asia, i.e. China, had blanketed many parts of Japan with a yellow haze of smog. So that’s what was on my window!

Air quality

Japanese people have an acute awareness of how clean the air is, outside and inside. They open all the windows of the school to let in fresh air during cleaning time. They have machines which give an index of how clean the air is, and often rinse out their mouths before eating. Like it’s common to in China, Japanese people wear white surgical masks when there is a high pollution risk outside. Ironically, kerosene heaters are still the most common type of heater even though they give off potentially toxic fumes!

They are right to be so concerned about what they’re breathing in, because at this time of year high amounts of microscopic particles of toxic waste are in the air, called PM2.5. It’s particle matter, smaller than 2.5 thousandths of a millimetre, that can be inhaled into the respiratory system. These particles are mostly generated by the burning of fossil fuels and vehicle emissions. When inhaled they can cause inflammatory responses, the thickening of artery walls and cause other unpleasant effects. So, not something you want to breathe in.

China is a ”pollution superpower” says a Japanese newspaper. Having spent seven weeks in China in 2008, I know how filthy the air in Chinese cities is. In Beijing I couldn’t see more than a kilometre because of the pollution, and many people were wearing masks to prevent inhaling it. What I didn’t know is how harmful it is.

China is thought to only properly process half of it’s 300 million tons of industrial waste a year, so the rest is presumably burn quickly and cheaply, giving off dangerous pollutants. As well as suffering from its own air quality, these pollutants are very easily blown to the rest of Asia. Obviously this does not help ease the already heightened tension between Japan and China. 

The results in Japan are that many people have taken to wearing masks outside, especially in cities in Kyushu, such as Fukuoka, where I’ll be visiting in just two weeks time! In Fukui, people have stopped airing their futons and clothes outside and my town seems like a ghost town on very hazy days. Families are just waiting inside for the smog to blow over so as to enjoy the expectant hanami ‘flower viewing’ season.

Mount Hino is obscured by the sunny, polluted and pollunated haze

Mount Hino is obscured by the sunny, polluted and pollinated haze

Yet, if that wasn’t enough to deal with there is something else in the air.

Pollen

Kafunsho ‘pollen illness’ is raging the country, another annual season which you don’t know about until you see people wearing masks, patches over swollen eyes and streaming noses. And it’s not just a few people either. It’s estimated about 33% of the 120 million population are suffering from hay fever in Japan!

Now the temperatures are above 10’C, Cryptomeria trees and Japanese cypress trees, which were planted in large reforestation programs after WWII, are scattering their pollen across the country. Since the trees were planted, the problem has got worse and worse. An unanticipated effect of the reforestation scheme was that the older the trees, the more pollen they produce. So now, they are producing about six times the amount they were in the 1960s when this first became a problem.

So I have decided to spend my day off inside, I’ll dry my washing inside and take a scarf if I go out. I don’t fancy a cocktail of PM2.5 and pollen in my lungs. Yet at least it’s warm enough not to have the kerosene heater on, and I can see a pink splash of colour in my neighbours’ garden, it’s an early blossoming sakura tree. A glimpse of what’s to come.

Camellias are already blooming

Camellias are already blooming,

as well as pink plum blossom trees,

White plum blossom

and white plum blossom too!

Caucasian hair meets Asian hairdressers

Warning: this is a post about hair, but boys don’t stop reading just yet!

My absolute pet-hate is having dry and split ends (boys who are lost already: imagine that Pantene advert with the conditioner that wraps its magic formula around each splitting hair). Every few months when start to that my hair is dry, I have a compulsive urge to get a hair cut! The only problem is that I don’t know how to cut my own hair, and going to a foreign hair salon is no doubt going to result in a surprising result! Yet a few time whilst I’ve been abroad my hatred of split ends always outweighs my rationality and I still search out a salon and surprise a poor hairdresser with my request. Here’s what’s happened

China

The first time I had a haircut abroad was in a small town in China called Pingyao. I’d been travelling for three months and my hair was feeling worse for wear. So when I saw an inviting-looking salon, I walked in. The salon seemed empty but as soon as I walked in, a whole school of trainee hairdressers appeared from behind curtains and from upstairs rooms to see the foreigner! None of them spoke enough English to understand that I ‘only wanted a trim’, but I pointed at the Hair page in my Chinese phrase book and they seemed to understand. I was led to a chair…

I’m not sure how they decided who was going to cut my hair, but it fell on one young-looking man, who had a gravity-defying hair. I also remember he had a cold, as after a shampoo, I distinctly remember him sniffing loudly as he cut my hair. The other eight or so trainee-hairdressers were standing round me and watching his every move. I didn’t know if all this pressure on him was a good thing or not, but I found the situation with all the tension and excitement in the room quite funny!

Fifteen minutes later he stood back and said something which I thought was “Is it ok?” I nodded happily in agreement, happy that my locks had been reshaped in a satisfactory way and I no longer had dry ends. But then he picked up the scissors again and started cutting my hair so more! “What’s going on?” I thought, and I looked shocked as people around me were smiling at me. I looked at the phrase book again, he was actually saying “Shall I cut some more off?” I walked out with curls around my ears, and immediately had to buy a clip to hide my less-than-satisfactory new hairstyle. I remember my travelling-friend enjoying the moment when I walked in with my hair tied up, “It didn’t go well then?”, he laughed.

My pinned back hair in China after I'd had it cut.

My pinned back hair in China after I’d had it cut.

Japan

Now that I live in Japan, I have no choice but to have my hair cut here. My host mum, Mayumi, offered to take me to the salon she’s been visiting for twenty years, and I agreed to go. You see, I am not over-protective about my hair, as even the worst haircuts grow out within a month or so. I always think: 

What's the worst that can happen?

What’s the worst that can happen?

So we went along to the salon and I was seated facing a mirror. A hairdresser put a large cushion on my lap and a fluffy blanket over it. “What’s this for?” I whispered to Mayumi, “To make you feel relaxed” she replied, and we laughed together at the randomness of it!

The first time I had my hair cut at Kiree (meaning beautiful), the owner who Mayumi calls Kiree-san gave me exactly what I asked for and just trimmed my ends. Firstly, and by far the best part of the whole experience, is the shampoo. The chair automatically reclines so there is no neck ache involved, then they lay a flannel over your face and spend 10 minutes caring for every inch of your hair. It could be utterly blissful, but as the cut was still to come I couldn’t completely relax. 

Secondly, my hair was blow-dried by two young assistants, making me feel like a poodle having a perm. Whilst the girls straightened it poker-straight, they acclaimed how thin my hair is! Yes, this is the crux of the problem of having your hair cut in Asia. Caucasian hair is typically much thinner, weaker and slower-growing hair than Asian hair. Therefore cutting Western hair is completely different from cutting Asian hair. Asian hair often is thinned by razors and happy-go-lucky chopping at the ends, where Western hair needs a more delicate approach. 

After my first hair cut in Japan. It stayed straight for all of three hours!

After my first hair cut in Japan. It stayed straight for all of three hours!

The second time however, I ambitiously requested a re-style: two layers and graduation around the front. Kiree-san hadn’t heard of ‘layers’, but understood I wanted it shorter around the sides. As Kiree-san was cutting my hair, she became engrossed in conversation about her favourite hobby, watching Western TV shows and movies. I assured her that Harry Potter, Doctor Who and Kate Winslet are indeed from England and yes, Colin Firth is handsome in an older-man type of way. It is always at the moment where the hairdresser is chatting away amiable, when I get worried about what she is doing to my hair. As she was in deep in thought trying to remember the name of a celebrity, she went a bit scissor-happy, like a six-year-old girl cutting their dolls hair! But I couldn’t ask her to stop, in case it made my hair look more uneven than when she started! So I just sat there waiting for her to remember the celebrity’s name and to stop snipping at my hair!

She never did recall who she was thinking of, but thankfully she did put the scissors down. Then, she put a large dollop of apple-smelling gel into her hands and scrunched it in to my hair, smothering my freshly washed hair into a dripping-grease state that took three washes to get out! Yet I paid the 3200 yen and thanked her for the haircut. It’s a bit shorter than I expected, but I can deal with it.

On reflection, I may just have to live with having a few split ends here and there. Western hair is just too different from what Eastern hairdressers are used to cutting. I’ll wait until I’m back in England for my next cut!