Saturday, 28 February 2015

東京 | Tokyo (3) - Sumo and Akihabara!!

Intriguing post-breakfast drink. Bought it solely because it looked carbonated but it told me I should shake it?
On day 3 we decided that our punishing schedule had been enough to keep jet lag at bay a little longer, and took a slightly more relaxed day out. We went to check out the sumo as there's only a handful of official tournaments in Japan each year, and even fewer are in Tokyo. So the fact that one happened to coincide with the dates of our trip was quite serendipitous indeed.

We headed off to Ryogoku, home of the Ryogoku Kokugikan (try saying that 5 times fast) bright and early to get ourselves some day tickets, the cheapest but also the most likely to sell out.

The whole station seems to have been dedicated to sumo.
Once we were through the ticket barrier, we could see all kinds of old paintings of sumo tournaments, as well as what we later found out were probably photos of the current yokozuna or 'Grand Champions'. To become Grand Champion you have to win 2 tournaments in a row. There are a lot of stages to each tournament and a lot of participants, so to win once, let alone twice, is an intense feat in itself. Testament to this is the fact that there are currently only 2 or 3 Grand Champions still competing and only 71 have been named in the last 300 years!

Yokozuna handprints. They are HUGE. Interesting to see how they get bigger over time.
There's also a cute homemade height chart, so you can see how you measure up to previous yokozuna. Annoyingly, I'm taller than all but one of them. Sigh. Again, it was interesting to see how obviously genetics, diet and environment have made increasingly bigger contenders.

67th yokozuna Musashimaru Koyo and Ann-Marie. 6'3", 518lb vs a kitten. Beast. 

As we headed out of the station, it was easy to spot the Kokugikan, despite the distinct lack of people, because of all the bright coloured flags fluttering around a large compound. I think these are each participants' personal banner, a bit like in jousting? Haha. Maybe not. Either way they were lovely to look at and really brightened up the place.

We headed into the box office, bought our tickets with ease, and were given a few pamphlets with times and other information. Nothing would actually be starting for a fair few hours, and we couldn't see much else to do in the area aside from a museum.

So we went to Akihabara.

dreams come trueeeee
Akihabara is Tokyo's "nerd district". It's packed to the gills with shops selling comic books, anime, manga, fan-made comics, video games, merchandise, costumes, collectibles, model making kits, photo booths, electronics and specialist stores for quite possibly any hobby you could think of, no matter how niche.

It was also undeniably closed.

It turns out Akihabara doesn't really welcome guests until much later in the morning than one might usually expect. We saw some people waiting outside to be let in, presumably those with a similar busy-daytime schedule as ours. Or maybe they're just keen.

Photo stolen from Ann-Marie

We wandered around outside looking for somewhere that might open early and tried to refrain from spending all our money on Gacha machines. Finally, we just decided to wait with a small, quiet group of Japanese guys outside a store that looked very similar to Animate.

After spending a while trawling the shelves mostly in awe of the sheer volume of stuff available (having previously only been to shops like Forbidden Planet) and just finding merch for pretty much everything I'd watched whilst growing up and wishing there was merch for.

There was even a whole room dedicated to trading cards. Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon, Cardfight, and plenty more that I had no idea of. And I won't go into any detail, but card games like these definitely aren't just for little kids. Goodness.

You can tell what shows are REALLY popular by the amount of odd tie-in products you can find. For example, these nail art decals for the very popular swimming anime 'Free!'. Yeah.
Anime babes. Anime babes, everywhere. (Photo stolen from Ann-Marie)
We went into a few more stores, including one that felt like an Aladdin's Cave of treasures. The shelves were so tightly packed together it was a little hard to even sidle through without bumping something, and each shelf was so crowded you could dig back several layers and keep finding new things. A lot of shops seem to have pre-owned items, or at least rare and unusual things that have been snapped up to sell on later. In shops like this there were usually only 1-10 of each item, for varying prices and in varying conditions that make it seem like they get their stock from anywhere and everywhere. It also means it takes a lot of effort if you want to find that perfect item for a great deal.

After killing plenty of time and very likely spending a lot of money on stuff we just couldn't live without, we grabbed some lunch and snacks from 7-11 and headed back to Ryogoku for the start of the lower tier fights.

At Akihabara Station I did spot this sign. Hm.
Back at Ryogoku, the atmosphere had certainly changed a lot. There were suddenly people everywhere, and small vendors had set up in the open space outside the station. Although they weren't selling anything sumo-related, which I was a bit disappointed and confused by.

However, inside there were a few official vendors whereupon I bought a pack of tea-towels. I say tea-towels, a little label on the desk showed the many different ways you could use the cloths. As a hand-saver when carrying bags, as an identifier for luggage, wrapping up your bento, a scarf, a sweat towel for hiking, all sorts. Either way, they'd been silk-screened with a few lovely Japanese-style patterns of sumo paraphernalia.

Inside, we found (what we thought) were our seats and settled in for the long haul. The room was filling in slowly and while the lights were up we had a good chance to look around.
The roof is meant to look like a Shinto temple and the 'stage' is clay, specially built for each tournament.
Before long, the lights dimmed and the opening ceremony began, with the contestants in their special ceremonial belts parading around the podium and posturing in various ways. It was really interesting to see and they definitely looked intimidating. This happened twice to let in both sides of the 40-odd men from the stables, and then the matches began.

Throwing salt to spiritually purify the ring.
Ritual poses and actions with the umpire watching.
The men in black are judges, accompanied by previous champions. In the event of a disagreement (which we did see once!), they all have a discussion in the ring as to who actually won and why.

After a few split-second bouts, and other inexplicable moments where the audience cheered and we weren't sure how many contestants had actually passed through, it dawned on us that we had no idea what was going on.

Enter Pocket WiFi, stage left.

I googled the rules and it turns out there are surprisingly few. Basically if any body part other than your feet touches the ground, or God forbid you get a 'ring out', it's game over. And that's that, onto the next pair and the next fight. There's a few rules on where you're allowed to grab and there are official 'finishing moves', but they're never taught, only learned by watching and doing.

So actually, the rituals that go on beforehand usually take longer than the fights themselves. Turns out sumo is a traditionally religious activity, to amuse the Shinto gods and scare off demons, hence the intimidating stretches and poses they do, and wide arcs of salt they throw around.

At the end of each fight, the umpire (there's a few of them, I think one from each stables), dressed as an old Shinto priest, will come to the centre of the ring and explain to the audience the finishing move used to win. Through the medium of song.

Once we knew the rules it was actually pretty easy to get involved with each bout and really enjoy it, so if you intend on going to see it yourself I'd recommend reading up on it. There's a lot more info that I can be bothered to write but it's all fascinating.

The fact each fight is so short ends up making it more tense and thrilling, especially when you get a ring out like these two in the photo above. There's one older woman in the audience who looks absolutely ecstatic to have been sat on by a 500lb man wearing nothing but a strip of fabric.

It's one of the more cultural things I've experienced in Japan and it was really enjoyable. "Intangible Cultural Properties", as they say. Many of which are sadly dying out.

"Smile! Keep smiling! Hang on these people need to go past. I know it's cold. Ah, stuff it."
"Oh, it's so cute!" "Those are the betting windows." "Oh."

Drawing a small crowd of amused ladies with these cardboard cutouts, we left Ryogoku and went back to Akihabara for some food and another round of those ridiculous shops.

Looking for somewhere to eat, we were caught by a wave of holiday daring and ended up...going to a maid cafe. When in Japan, eh.

They're strictly "no photos", presumably to fend off the slightly more...avid fanbase (one guy came in and browsed through a stack of maybe 50-100 different polaroids of the staff 'maids', poring over each one for ages before deciding which ones to buy. He seemed to be a regular?)

Anyway, I've never been so amused and simultaneously mortified as I was in Maidreamin'. The girls were very sweet and polite, and reassuringly when we arrived the only customers were a group of girls chatting. Nothing untoward going on here.

It got a little weird when they gave me and Ann-Marie cutesy headbands to wear and referred to us as 'Princess' and the guys as 'Master', and informed us that when we were ready to order we should summon a maid by putting our fists either side of our face (see my ridiculous photo below) and "revving" our hands whilst yelling "MEW! MEW!" in our cutest voices.

Guess who had to summon them :p

We ordered some dessert sets, which were fine, not bad but nothing special. Tom ordered an alcohol set and unexpectedly had to join our maid in a sort of "magic cute dance" in order to make his drink extra delicious. Apparently.

I'd always heard of maid cafes but never really knew how they ran, so this was kind of odd even to me.

Someone apparently also ordered a side dish of "pop performance", where one of the girls got up on a stage and did a very energetic dance routine to an even more energetic electro-bubblegum-J-pop track while a lanky older man (possibly a manager or friend of the owner?) raved out with glowsticks to one side like he was front row at the most hoppin' shindig in town (I'm a cool dude, I can use that cool kid slang)

I'm not even kidding, it was almost exactly like this.
Despite the reputation it seems to have, the maid cafe wasn't particularly "adult" in any way. Their outfits weren't skimpier than anything you'd find on a rack in Forever21, the way they talked was sickly sweet, yes, but there were no cheeky undertones, nothing flirtatious in their mannerisms or gestures. I'm sure some less mainstream cafes might be very different, but for this one and many others we passed, aside from, I suppose, the connotations a maid outfit has and the titles they use with customers, you could say it was perfectly lily-white innocent. A novelty cafe where you can live it up like the rich and elite who really do have maids to wait on them hand and foot, and where everything has a heavy sugar-coating like a lot of Japan's "kawaii culture".

So why did it feel so seedy?

Anyway, we finished up and got our complimentary keychains and polaroids in a variety of "kawaii" poses (Nick the aegyo King excelled at this), all hand signed and decorated.

Finally, we paid up and headed back to Ikebukuro with our bags full of treasures, and went to sleep early ready for tomorrow's exciting early start.

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