Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Kokutai: Sumo

Yep, there's Sugichi again. Now, when your friends ask you if you've ever seen a sumo wrestling cedar tree, you can confidently answer, "Yes."

I've been lazy about getting this post up for no good reason, except that it means I have to look through the dozens of pictures and videos I took to choose the best ones-and I took a quite a lot of sumo.

Sumo was great! I think I'd have to say it was my favorite of the Kokutai events I saw (I liked Karate, but it didn't have the energy of sumo). For one thing, everyone's attention is focused on one center ring (dohyo), so when a match ends (and some did so spectacularly) the whole crowd reacts at the same time. In the meantime, people shout to their favored wrestler to "Go for it!" or say "You got it! You're all right!"

Teams of three wrestlers from each competing prefecture are welcomed by applause as they enter the arena. The dohyo had to be constructed for the event, according to official specifications. Every dohyo has a shrine-like roof suspended above the ring, with four different colored tassels hanging from each corner, representing the respective spirits of the four cardinal directions.

The beginning of a match seen from where we sat. Frank from Noshiro joined me in what we discerned to be the Akita section of the crowd on the second level.

Now, part of being a tall, light-haired foreigner in Japan is attracting curious, surprised, or suspicious glances, hearing the people nearby mutter things about you, or even burst into giggles for no other reason than the obvious. It should be no surprise that us gaijin get treated differently. Some love the attention. Personally, I think it gets a little tiring sometimes. Still, I'd be a hypocrite if I complained, since I can't honestly say that I've never taken advantage of being a foreigner when it's beneficial for me to do so:

"How much is this fruit?... Free? Oh, you shouldn't have!"

"What's that? It's OK that the machine ate my ticket? Thank you!"

-which brings me back to sumo. After a couple full tournaments, Frank decided to call it a day and left. I was about to follow suit when I decided I'd first check out the view from the standing area on the ground floor. Not twenty seconds after walking in was I approached and offered a place on one of the "benches" where some people sat and an unopened can of tea. So, I decided to stick around a bit, watching from my new viewpoint:

I conversed casually with the guy sitting to my left, asking him a few questions about sumo now and then. As it turned out, he lived just down the road, and was supplying lodging for the Hokkaido sumo team. I ended up staying to the end, after which he invited me to his house for dinner. My sense of modesty said no, but my desire for a unique Japanese experience said yes and we drove over to meet the rest of his family. I immediately felt guilty about accepting after entering their house. I found myself really wishing I had brought some nice gift with me to give them, but anyway, I tried to be a nice guest, enjoyed talking and eating with them, and made sure to get their address so that I can look them up in the future (and bring something to thank them).

Most matches ended with someone being pushed backward out of the ring, while others (like this one seen here) ended with someone just being completely thrown out. Some others ended with people falling forward on their face, backward off the stage, or being lifted up in a giant bear-hug by the other guy and just carried out (which always got a good reaction from the crowd!).

Some more pictures:

Sumo matches being as short as they are, I took over 40 videos of individual matches with my camera. Here's a few selections (linked to google video because there's a bunch):

Video 1 - The smaller guy manages to squirm around to get behind his opponent, making it easy to lead him out of the ring.

Video 2 - This match ends quickly when both guys fly out of the ring together. Notice that the match begins only when both opponents are touching the ground with both fists.

Video 3 - This guy was by far the smallest competitor there. All of his matches pretty much went like this one. We think maybe he was supposed to go to the athletics event and got lost.

Video 4 - Here's a pretty close match that Akita won. If you watch it, I think it's pretty clear that Akita wins as a direct result of Frank's and my cheering.

Video 5 - Another close match. This time, Akita lost.

Video 6 - There were a couple sections of bleachers occupied by kids on a field trip or something. They cheered for whoever was on their side of the arena, and pretty much didn't stop doing cheers the whole day.

And finally, here's Keiko and Tomomi, the mother and daughter of the family I visited. Tomomi must be the only Japanese person alive who can play the accordion.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Kokutai: Karate

I spent my first day off from work down in Kisakata, watching the karate events. Matches were held in four different rings simultaneously, and went on all day. First was men's kata (one person performing a predetermined array of moves on their own), followed by girls, boys, and women's sparring, as well as the first round of men's sparring at the very end.

Here's a wide shot of the whole place.

Halfway through the day, they took a break from the matches and presented the "Sugichi Dance," performed by a whole bunch of little kids and a guy in a Sugichi costume. Very cute. Here's a video:

Go team Akita! You're the best... around...

This is a video of one of the kata entries. Performing a kata is not unlike performing a piece of music. In both cases, you have to do a specific sequence of actions in order. This sequence can be written down, but ultimately must be memorized, or at least internalized through muscle memory (but it's not like karate practitioners can read a list of moves while they do them). The choice and order of the notes or moves isn't random (aleatoric music aside), but has a relative sense of progression. Also, there is a certain level of skill and exactness required to articulate notes and phrases just right, or to have a good stance and body movements. The whole performance has inherent dynamic variation, which it is the performer's job to emphasize and communicate in their performance. Still, there is plenty of room for creative interpretation- how fast/slow to perform certain moves, when to pause, when to kiai (shout), etc. Ah, I miss karate.

And finally, here's a clip of some sparring, or "kumite" (no, not the secret freestyle martial arts tournament in 'Bloodsport'). Sparring is pretty much a game of tag. Points are scored by striking the front torso above the belt, or the face. It's not really fighting, and it's not about hitting hard. Still, a few kids managed to get bloody noses, despite those clear face guards.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


(enormous dragon head at the Tazawa-ko train station)

About 45 km east of where I live is Lake Tazawa (Tazawa-ko), the deepest lake in Japan. It's kind of Tahoesque, with its clear water, surrounding mountains, and ski resorts in the winterdefinitely one of Akita Prefecture's most photographed and visited sites. I was really looking forward to going, and was glad when Rob, another ALT, organized a camping trip two weekends ago. I was even more glad when the typhoon approaching us at the time shifted northward leaving us with great weather for the weekend.

A (blurry) picture of the bungalows we stayed in.

On Saturday night, we had a wonderful potluck barbecue, thanks very much to Tristan, an ALT from Utah, who didn't stop chopping and grilling until everyone was eating. Then, we all went down to the lake's shore for a nice campfire. A few of us tried out the cold waters and experienced Lake Tazawa firsthand. It was incredibly peaceful just floating there, surrounded only by a starry gray sky and black mountains, reflected in the water all around.

A visitors' center near the campground.

The lake was just down the road.

On Sunday morning, we all split into separate groups. I went hiking with Rob, Tristan, Rheanna, and Mike, because I wanted to try out my new hiking boots, and because I was determined to get to the top of a mountain this time. As it turned out, we didn't need to do a whole lot of hiking (the bus took us most of the way up), but we got in some good exercise, saw some views, and had time for dinner and onsen (hot springs) afterward.

A deposit of volcanic rock or perhaps an alien landscape from Star Trek TOS.

Tazawa is surrounded by rows and rows of mountains, completely covered in deciduous trees and shrubs. Just imagine this view in the fall, when all the greens, blues, and purples turn red, orange, and yellow.

A channel carved out by lava on the side of a hill

A nice view of Lake Tazawa from a distance.

Some fall colors making an early appearance.

Some people hiking up a peak opposite from ours.

Making our way back down.

After hiking, we went to a cozy little spaghetti place whose walls were decorated with musical instruments. Then, three of us finished off the day with a trip to the onsen (my first!).

An onsen is a sort of bath house that uses the naturally heated water from local hot springs. First you undress (men and women are usually separate, but not always), then shower off, usually with a detached shower-head, sitting on a wooden stool. Then you go soak in the onsen, usually outside. You get a little towel to preserve some bit of modesty on your way to the baths, should you care.

The water in the onsen often contains minerals from the hot springs, which are supposed to be good for your skin. Ours was white and cloudy so that you couldn't see below the surface, and it had a faint odor (I hear some of them are pretty stinky!) The whole time, we were completely open to a cool breeze and a wonderful view of Lake Tazawa and the surrounding mountains, just as the sun was beginning to set.

This is from the bus ride back from the onsen. At this point, we were all too tired and relaxed to say anything. It was a nice way to end the day.