July 12-13, 2009
We left Tokyo and started heading west towards Kyoto. Our first stop was the town of Nagoya.
Nagoya is definitely not a typical tourist stop, so how did we end up there? Well, before we reached Japan we made a list of places we wanted to go and things we wanted to do. I really wanted to attend some kind of Japanese sporting event. My first choice was to watch a taping of the TV show Ninja Warrior (which is called Sasuke in Japan), at Mount Midoriyama, a bit south of Tokyo. Unfortunately they weren’t shooting new episodes while Pnina and I were in Japan (and even if they did it would probably be very difficult to get tickets). My #2 choice was to attend a sumo tournament. We went online to look up the info and we found that the sumo tournaments rotate from one city to another, and that during our stay in Japan there was a tournament taking place in Nagoya. So, there we went.
We wanted to buy tickets ahead of time, but we were unable to do so. In order to book tickets online, the sumo tournament’s website required a local Japanese address to which the tickets would be sent. We didn’t have such an address, so we had to take our chances and simply show up at the box office of the Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium. We arrived on Sunday, July 12th, which happened to be the opening day of the sumo tournament (plus a weekend), so the tickets were sold out for the day. Bummer. Reluctantly, we bought tickets for Monday, the next day. Accommodation in Nagoya was particularly expensive (the cheapest dorm bed we found was $46/person!), so we actually ended up taking a train to Nara, sleeping there, and coming back the next day. It was a bit of a hassle, but at least the trains were free (with our rail pass) and relatively quick.
Anyhow, the sumo match was a very interesting experience (even Pnina says so!).
As we exited the subway station near the stadium, we already saw a few of the sumo wrestlers walking around. This guy was nice enough to be photographed with me. Notice that I’m wearing two big backpacks and one small one, and this guy is still clearly so much bigger 🙂
We bought the cheapest seats available. The price was about $30 each and we sat way in the back. The only benefit of sitting back here is that we actually had chairs to sit on. The people who shelled out money for the expensive tickets didn’t actually get seats – they sat cross-legged on a thin mat (ouch):
The whole sumo tournament lasts about two weeks. Each day’s matches start early in the morning and end around 6 PM. Early in the day you see the rookies compete, and as the day progresses you see more of the famous wrestlers, which also means that the gymnasium doesn’t really fill up until the afternoon. We arrived around 3 PM and the stadium was still filling up.
Before each round of bouts, the two wrestling teams (“stables”) marched onto the platform and stood in a circle:
The majority of the wrestlers were Japanese, but there were also a few other Asians (e.g. Mongolians – apparently they are quite good), and we even saw a couple of white guys:
Each bout took about 5 minutes, but nearly all that time was spent in a slow ritual. The two wrestlers stood on the platform, smacked a thigh, lifted a leg way up, stomped it down, repeated with the other leg, and back and forth a few times:
The pre-bout ritual also included tossing salt onto the ring:
Then the referee gives the signal and the wrestlers launch themselves forward trying to knock the other guy down to the mat or out of the ring. Most of the time the bout is over in less than 10 seconds:
After the match there’s another quick ceremony where the referee announces the winner in song. The bouts at the end of the day included prizes, so this ceremony was also where the winner collects his prize.
Some of the wrestlers we saw that day were clearly famous, though of course we didn’t recognize any of them. The two ladies sitting next to us explained that one of these wrestlers appeared in a Japanese TV commercial with Brad Pitt. There was also a semi-famous superfan sitting just a few rows from us. He wore a gold hat and he was definitely the loudest guy in the auditorium 🙂
All in all it was great fun.
Nagoya Castle is located next door to the Aichi Prefecture Gymnasium, where the sumo tournament took place. Since we were right there, we decided to check it out. The original castle was built in the 1600’s, but it was destroyed by US bombers in WWII (along with about 25% of Nagoya – it’s an industrial city so it was a natural target). The castle was rebuilt in 1959 using modern materials (metal and concrete), but despite the materials it still looks just like the original. Inside the castle there’s a small museum, and the focal point of the museum is a pair of 3-meter statues of a dolphin-like creature, fully covered in gold, that at one point were placed at the two ends of the roof. But it turns out that the ones on display today are also replicas.
The castle and the gymnasium share an entrance. Here you see a castle wall and flags for the sumo tournament:
One of the buildings of Nagoya castle:
There were some enormous stones in the castle wall:
Really Good Food
We didn’t expect it, but we had some of the best Japanese food in Nagoya.
This is possibly our favorite Japanese dish: hitsumabushi. You get a few pieces of unagi (eel) on rice with a teriyaki-style sauce, and a couple of side-dishes:
This one was asparagus wrapped in pork, then breaded and fried. The traditional dish is called miso-katsu, but we’re pretty sure the chef took some artistic liberties with this one. We got this in a famous restaurant called Yabaton:
This was a special kind of noodle called Nagoya Miso Nikomi Udon, which is basically udon noodles cooked in miso broth. Before serving the noodles our waitress gave us a laminated sheet with a big “don’t burn yourself” warning translated to English 🙂
International Design Center
We had a little extra time on our first day in Nagoya, so we spent an hour wandering through the International Design Center. It’s a small museum located on the 4th floor of a modernistic mall. It wasn’t very big but it was reasonably cheap for Japan (300 Yen), and they had a couple of interesting displays.
Posters of Japanese designs from the last few decades: