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Six basho are held every year, three in Tokyo, one each in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka. Since all 29 stables are based in Tokyo, each must find temporary accommodations in the other cities. In Fukuoka most were welcomed into Buddhist or Shinto shrines, where bright banners on poles announced their presence. One morning before the tournament the foreigner was taken to the stable of Hanakago, housed in a beach hotel 15 yards from the bay. The way in was between sides of pork hanging in a drafty kitchen. The practice dohyo was set in a dim room only three or four feet wider than the ring. Sixteen wrestlers, wearing canvas belts, were grunting through the basic exercises of sumo, shiko (stamping) and teppo (slamming the heel of the hand against wooden pillars). Inside the ring two sumotori Hailed and lunged until one was out or down, then squatted until breath returned, while apprentices, shaggy-haired because they had not attained a high enough rank to wear the greased topknot, brought wooden dippers of water. The stable boss, Hanakago, sat smoking a cigarette on a platform along one wall, one foot dangling, disdainful, leonine.
Each man wrestled until he lost. The range of physiques was arresting. There were no thin men, but some were hard with muscle while one or two were obscenely fat, with pendulous breasts and quivering, watery thighs. It was disconcerting to see these obesities win, but they forced recognition of the special demands of sumo. It is easy to grow fat, to add mass and inertia. It is hard to build the strength to lift that fat out of the ring. So long as the rules of sumo stay as they are, it will seem to the Westerner a sport in which the worst side of man's nature is turned to his advantage.
The leaner men paid, too, in bruises and cuts sustained when they were thrown upon the ring's raised edge. The larger wrestlers seemed to have enough subcutaneous give to escape such minor injury, though all had poor complexions, no doubt from having their faces ground continuously into the sand. No one cried out when a knee or ankle cracked down on the dohyo rim. No disgust was shown by losers. One wrestler's jaw was injured in a stunning collision. He favored it, keeping it tucked against a shoulder, holding it between bouts, yet continued to win. It wasn't enough. Another wrestler darted in and slapped him on the swelling jowl, a reprimand for showing pain.
Hanakago rose suddenly and all action ceased. He sauntered across the ring and out of the room. The wrestlers warily exchanged glances. In a moment he returned with a broom and brought down its handle hard across the back and shoulders of a man in the ring, telling him in a low, menacing tone that he had not been tense enough. To relax was to court injury.
The rituals of servitude were consistent. Those in the lower divisions served the sekitori (members of the top ranks who are entitled to a salary and servants of their own), and the sekitori waited on the boss, bringing around a dipper of water occasionally. The oyakata merely sipped and spat.
A door of paper and sticks scratched open, and from the beach stepped the pride of Hanakago stable, Yokozuna Wajima. He had been doing wind sprints and was sweating heavily, but accepted no towels. Instead he continued jogging in place, shadowboxing, stretching, making a golf-swing gesture. A good blend of thickness and speed at 6'1" and 270 pounds, he seemed less inscrutable than the others. He trained with more purpose, shaking the house with his pole pounding, leapfrogging around the ring with an apprentice clinging to his back.
At 11 a.m. the dank atmosphere of seaweed and cigarette smoke and hair grease began to be penetrated by a salt-savory aroma. The high-calorie stew, chanko-nabe, that is forced on all sumotori was cooking. The oyakata and sekitori wrestlers took their body servants off to the bath, then went to an airy dining room where they sat around hibachis on a green carpet. The junior grades, sand caked on their backs, scabs forming on elbows and brows, served from a communal pot. The chanko-nabe is a mixture of proteins. "The boss eats first," said an observer. "Then sekitori. They get the beef and pork. The low people get the fish. The lowest have to take the vegetables and tofu [bean-curd cakes]."
Wajima poked through his bowl and tossed disagreeable morsels out the window onto the beach. Pork charring on a hibachi sent up clouds of blue smoke. Bottles of milk and beer were brought. The young wrestlers dished up rice from a steaming aluminum washtub. Wajima burned himself on a strip of pork that had come sizzling from the fire and threw it on the rug. A little pink octopus arm lay curled in a dusty corner.
The visitor slipped out through the kitchen and turned toward the sea. A fat boy stood in the cold, lapping water, scouring a kettle.
The day before the basho opened, the lower ranks of Takasago stable were working out in a jerry-built shed of canvas and corrugated tin on the grounds of Jodoji Temple, a Buddhist shrine. To sibilant words of respect from his inferiors, Takasago's best wrestler, Daigoro Takamiyama, entered. Originally Jesse Kuhaulua of the Hawaiian island of Maui, he is the only foreigner ever to win the Emperor's Cup, which he took at the Nagoya Basho in July of 1972. At 6'3" and 375 pounds, Jesse is the largest of active wrestlers.