I’d like to improve my grip on sumo wrestling, so when a friend invites me to watch the big boys tussle through a morning practice, I jump at the chance. I get off at Uguisudani (Bush Warbler Valley) Station on the Yamanote Line, where the station-identity jingle is of this warbler’s mellifluous chortle which heralds spring in Japan.
A flock of uguisu (aka Japanese nightingales) are said to have been brought from Kyoto in the late 1600s and released into this present-day Taito Ward neighborhood by the head priest of nearby Kaneiji Temple, west of the station. But my friend takes off to the northeast, through an orgy of concrete love hotels that cozy up around Moto Mishima Shrine. I gallantly resist any easy quips on birds in the hand versus in the bush, etc.
It is early yet. Though once shaded by the Ogyo no Matsu, a massive 13-meter pine tree mentioned by local haiku poet Shiki Masaoka and designated a National Living Monument in 1915, the street is now virtually treeless and, at this wintery hour, still bleak. Only Sasanoyuki, a 300-year-old tofu restaurant, adds character.
Entering the neighborhood of Higashi-Nippori in Arakawa Ward, I smell Musashigawa-beya before I see it: even from outside the stable’s handsome wooden doors, the fragrance of bintsuke, a camellia-oil hair treatment used to coax the wrestlers’ locks into a topknot, is pungent. Special arrangements are required to visit most sumo practice sessions, and once inside, there are rules. One must stay well back from the dohyo (clay ring), keep feet from pointing toward the wrestlers, and refrain from making any noise at all.
Eyeballs in stealth mode, I take in the steamy stable filled with fierce hissing, grunts, and the slamming bodies of wrestlers. After each bout, sweat-slick juniors in black keiko mawashi (practice belts) clammer to be chosen to spar with one of the senior wrestlers in white belts. The system takes no prisoners, and the workout is punishing, designed to test thighs, balance and psychological mettle. Hours later, steam rises from the wrestlers’ shoulders, their bodies covered in dirt and welts, their breathing labored. A series of calisthenics — including a rigorous conga line round the ring — finishes the session for the day.
Outside the stable, I meet its head coach, and former yokozuna (grand champion), Koyo Musashimaru. He is affable and easy-going, so I ask him to demonstrate the upward hand thrust that won him so many bouts. Sweetly, he agrees, but as his massive hand moves toward my jawline, I realize this is a bad idea and call off the demonstration. I ask him instead where to get good grub.
“There’s a famous hamburger shop and a great traditional sweet shop,” he tells me, pointing in opposite directions. Since it’s still midmorning, I go off in search of the latter. Heading south into Negishi, Taito Ward, again, I locate Chikuryuan Okano, home of the rotund kogome daifuku (sweet bean-filled rice cake).
“My boss, Masayuki Takeda, took over the business from his father, who apprenticed in the skill of making traditional cakes, but his goal was to make something unique,” 42-year-old employee Isao Ishibashi tells me. “So Masayuki’s father read up on the history of this area and learned it used to be covered in rice fields. The farmers were really thrifty, and after winnowing the rice, they would pound the chaff and broken grains into mochi (rice paste), then add salt for flavoring as sugar was scarce.”
Ishibashi sets in front of me a fist-size cake and a side of green tea. Biting into the soft mochi exterior, I taste salt. “He took a pinch of that from the history books,” Ishibashi laughs. “Of course, we also add sugar now.”
Full of sweetness and not so light, I quickly tour some of the area’s many temples. Senjuin, founded 1595 in Ueno, and moved to its current location in 1696, is the prettiest, with Mondrian-like shoji (sliding paper screen) windows and plantings meant to flower every season. A tree heavy with yuzu (Japanese citron) and a plum in blossom scent the air.
Across the street, I peek under a bright blue noren (entrance) curtain to find giant glass jars of sembei (rice crackers) at Tekona Sembei. Named after Tekona, a legendary beauty from Japan’s oldest collection of poems, the “Man’yoshu,” the shop has offered handmade sembei for the past 57 years.
Owner Katsuko Sato, 67, has been baking sembei since she was 10, and clearly loves it. “Where there are temples, there are sembei,” she says, as she flings open the oven doors to show me precisely how her distinctive turtle-shaped crackers are made. She pulls out wooden trays and rustles through her wares. “The fresher, the thinner,” she says. ” Sometimes people think they’re getting cheated when I sell them thinner ones, but the fat ones have expanded with moisture and are older!”
I buy some of each to compare, and as I wander north again, I nibble on the fresh ones, so crisp they resound like building demolition. I stop abruptly. Before me, the largest cactus I have seen in Japan appears set to bring down a three-story building.
“This night-blooming cereus was here when I moved house 25 years ago,” says 72-year-old upholsterer Tetsuro Taninaka. “It was about 5 years old then, and only 3 meters high, but I felt sort of responsible for it.”
Today, the multibranched cactus — the result of careful trimming and regrafting — towers over his building, though Taninaka is disappointed I am visiting in winter. “You should really see it when it blooms in summer,” he insists, showing me photos of the pink-tinged 15-cm flowers. “We get more than 100 blossoms at a time. As long as my eyes are black, I’ll take care of it.”
Taninaka hands me a few souvenir photos of his prickly baby in bloom, and points me toward the “hamburger joint” Musashimaru recommended. Restaurant Kamiya is unlike any hamburger place I’ve ever been to. It has lace curtains, a maitre d’ in tuxedo, orchids on the tables — and a muzak rendition of a Carpenters song about “no getting over that rainbow.”
“Does Musashimaru come here often?” I ask manager Kenji Nomura. Nomura allows that the Musashigawa stable often orders delivery from Kamiya.
As I slice through the crispy exterior and juicy meat of the minced-beef cutlet I’ve ordered, Nomura fills me in on the 82-year history of one of Japan’s first Western-style restaurants. “We started out as a place to bring geisha after a rendezvous, with coffee, snacks, perfumes and small gifts,” Nomura says. “In the Taisho Era (1912-26), a lot of wealthy patrons brought their dates here, to Yanagi Dori,” he continues, pointing to the street outside. “We just kept adding items to our menu.”
I remark in complimentary vein on the restaurant’s elegant, Taisho Era wooden chairs, and Nomura pipes up that they have been upholstered by none other than Taninaka, the Cactus Man. Typical, I think, that Taninaka refrained from bragging about this. Then, when I ask about desserts, Nomura sends me across the street. “Many guests just prefer to buy those sembei,” he says.
I pay my bill and visit Fukusuke Sembei Tokiwaya. The shopkeeper is tickled to hear of Nomura’s recommendation. “We’ve always taken care of each other around here,” she says. I buy an assortment of laver-wrapped crackers, and try to imagine the beautiful women who wrapped up a night of pleasure on this street.
As afternoon approaches, I head north toward Minowa Station, through narrow alleys that once secreted ryotei (rendezvous tea houses). I am nearly at the station when I stumble on a final sweet topic.
Kintaro Ame Honten has been fashioning traditional candy logs — the kind that no matter how you slice them, you get the same face — for 140 years. Akio Watanabe, 41, offers up 60 different images in the candy in addition to the traditional one featuring Kintaro, the folkloric “Golden Boy.”
“You can order them designed with your own face,” Watanabe says. The cost? ¥35,000 for about 1,500 pieces. I suck on that figure for a bit, buy a bag of seconds filled with tigers, manga figures and kanji characters, and decide to roll out of the ‘hood before I start to resemble a sumo wrestler myself.