Dinner at Isegahama-beya with sumo wrestlers

(A scene from the dinner table)

The stall master Isegahama has just started with dinner. From left to right: chairman of the supporters group, Madam Isegahama, Master Isegahama, wife of the chairman and Aminishiki.

Chanko is cooking in the big pot. Guests are surprised by the variety of dishes. A huge thick board is placed on the floor and used as a table.

Young wrestlers are standing behind and taking care of the master, senior stable mates and guests. A young wrestler is asking Madam, how to do with the big citrus fruit, which is probably a present from a supporter. The doorway to the kitchen is half open.

After dinner this place is changed into a bed room for young wrestlers.
All professional sumo wrestlers belong to a "heya" or "sumo-beya" (stable). "Heya" is managed by a master and sumo wrestlers train and live together under his guidance. But, even for Japanese people the life in sumo-beya is full of unknown things.

Therefore, I accepted an invitation to Isegahama-beya with delight and curiosity. The stable master of Isegahama-beya is the former yokozuna Asahifuji coming from a fisher family in Aomori prefecture.

The formal loincloth "mawashi" used by Asahifuji
Asahifuji has left many interesting anecdotes which show us his highly self-confident personality and unique characteristics. As a stable master Isegahama, he fully displays his ability in management and is successful in training promising wrestlers.

The four story house of Isegahama stable
When I arrived at Isegahama-beya, I was surprised by its modern building and quiet surroundings, because I had had a fixed image of a stable with many wrestlers hanging around an open training space.

Because we arrived a bit earlier for dinner, Madam Isegahama guided us to the wooden floor next to the training ring. When we started sipping green tea, a young wrestler was making a small sand mound in the center of the ring. He then stuck there a pole covered with specially folded paper, cut a line on the surface of the mound and put there salt. This was made to keep the ring pure and clean till the training early next morning. A small portable shrine is built above the ring to worship the Sun Goddess.

A letter of recommendation for Asahifuji to become "yokozuna" (Grand Champion).
The wooden flooring where I sat is occupied by the master during the training and the same place is used to hold official ceremonies, for example when the stable receives official delegations from the Sumo Association or celebrates tournament victories of wrestlers belonging to the stable.

24 sumo wrestlers including three sekitori belong to Isegahama-beya. Taking into account the number of sumo wrestlers in total and of sekitori (*) (682 and 70 respectively in Jan. 2010) and the number of stables (52), Isegahama-beya is one of the most successful stables.

Sekitori are high-ranking sumo wrestlers ranging from juryo to yokozuna.
Among their sekitori Harumafuji is ozeki and the rang-highest sumo wrestler of Isegahama-beya. He came from Mongolia and promoted to ozeki in November 2008 and achieved his first tournament victory in May 2009. Aminishiki is sekiwake and his elderly brother Asofuji is juryo. They are from Aomori prefecture like the stable master and sons of a cousin of the master. Aminishiki is a very quiet person, but his brother Asofuji is very sociable. Harumafuji told us that he owes Asofuji for his lecture in Japanese language.

I heard that Prince and Princess Hitachi recently visited the stable and enjoyed the dining with wrestlers. In particular because Princess was born in the Family Tsugaru who reigned the Western part of Aomori during the Edo period, Tsugaru dialects of the master Isegahama and other wrestlers might have sounded familiar to her.

The ring after training. It is purified with salt and protected with the sacrid symbol in its center. There is a portable shrine of the Sun Goddes. Name cards of all stable members hang on the wall on the left side. A thick pillar standing in the corner is used for training of pushing.
The dinner took place in a hall on the third floor. The chairman of the stable-supporters club made special arrangements for five of us to dine with the master Isegahama and sumo wrestlers.

All guests were first surprised by the variety of foods at the dinner. We all had thought that sumo wrestlers eat only or mainly "chanko", special hot-pot dishes prepared in sumo stables. That might have been true decades ago. The master Isegahama explained us that he had only rice and hot water to eat when he was a young wrestler. I should not believe him too much, because he is fond of telling jokes. But, the difference between then and now is big, I believe. Anyhow, in addition to chanko there were fried pork in tomato sauce, deep fried sea food, green salad with ham, spicy pickled cod roe, cooked radish, cooked ganmodoki (fried bean curd cake) with glass noodle and so on. We could not try even a bit of all.

We were also surprised that chanko was served in a rather small bowl. Sekitori also used rather small bowls for rice and soup and did not eat much. Madam complained that Harumafuji doe not eat much and I agreed to her.

There are four groups in charge of cooking. Wrestlers have to participate in cooking groups so long as they are not sekitori. Therefore all sumo wrestlers have more or less experiences in cooking. Asofuji told me that he is good at cooking "niku-jaga" (*).
Sliced beef shimmered with potato and onion in soy-based sweet sauce.


Aminishiki (left) and Asofuji
It is a rule that only master and sekitori can sit on cushions and first start eating, while other young wrestlers stand around and serve them. There is a clear distinction between sekitori and others as for their status in sumo world, starting from their room, dress, fashion and salary. Apart from general distinctions, individual stables have their rules. For example, in Isegahama-beya, non-sekitori wrestlers have to sleep together in a large room - where we had dinner - and only Sekitori have their own private room. But, even sekitori including Harumafuji live before marriage in the stable house. In case of Isegahama-beya only Asofuji is allowed to live in an apartment outside of the stable.

Asofuji (left) and Aminishiki posing in t-shirts.
Madam Isegahama told us that their separate rooms are now fully booked and she was at a loss what to do with a new sekitori. In fact Takarafuji finished the last tournament with a good result and promoted to the third place in makushita division in the May tournament. If he shows a good performance in May, he is able to become sekitori in summer.

When we left the stable Takarafuji was still in the gym in the basement and continued muscle training. We strongly felt his eagerness to realize his dream. Isegahama-beya will have another sekitori in the near future and Madam will a head-aching problem in room allocation.