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Nagoya was the first – and last – place I arrived on my trip without any idea as to where to stay. Hostelworld was letting me down in Japan, partly because Japan doesn’t really do budget accommodation. But it does cater for those who suddenly find themselves in need of a bed for the night. At the info desk in the train station, I asked after the nearest capsule hotel, and was directed to the fourth floor of a shopping centre ten minutes’ walk away.

The Well-Be Meieki charges 4,100¥ (E42) for a night in no more than 70 cubic foot. After clarifying that I do want to stay for two nights – capsule hotels don’t really see many round-the-world travellers – I’m given the grand tour. A small locker isn’t wide enough to hold the larger of my two bags, but does contain a fetching pair of olive green pyjamas – short sleeves and short trousers – for wear about the place. You change at your locker; personal modesty isn’t too much of an issue as the Well-Be, like most capsule hotels, is men only. Beyond, an open plan contains maybe 30 individual reclining seats, each with a DVD player attached to the armrest. Each is occupied by an olive-clad Japanese businessman watching golf or a DVD from the bookshelves which line the walls; a wide selection of anime comic books and free internet is also available. A door opens to a smoking room with yellowing walls.

To the other side of the open plan is the washing area; a jacuzzi and sauna take pride of place, while showers are taken sat down on an upturned bucket in front of a mirror. Massage therapy is on offer – and about the only thing that you have to pay extra for – while there’s a small restaurant before, finally, we come to the rooms themselves –

I’ve a ground-floor capsule, and it has pretty much everything you’d need – mattress, blanket, TV, radio and torch. A beaded shutter provides the only protection from the outside world. Alas, insane Japanese game-shows are almost a passing fad these days, being replaced more and more by bland variety shows. I switch off the TV and head off to one of the reasons I came to Nagoya in the first place – the football.

Given Japan’s insular history, it can be no surprise that football passed Japan by for a long time. The popular sports here are the traditional ones – sumo and martial arts, as well as baseball, strangely – it was imported in the 19th century and is absurdly popular here. Even chess is overlooked for the more traditional board games of go and shoji; in 2009, the Japanese national chess champion was an Irishman, Sam Collins. To put that in perspective, in 1996, Sam was the Irish novice champion, beating me into second place. (In the interests of balance, I should point out that Sam has come tantalisingly close to becoming a Grandmaster over the past couple of years, whereas I haven’t…)

Japan didn’t have a professional football league until 1992, when the J League was formed. Nagoya Grampus Eight were one of the founding clubs of the professional era, and early on in their professional history, they could boast Arsene Wenger and Carlos Queiroz as managers and players like Gary Lineker and Dragan Stojkovic. Because a professional league was so late in coming on the scene, of course, Nagoya’s current ground isn’t exactly in the city centre. It’s 25 miles and two trains out to Toyotashi station, from where shuttle buses take us the rest of the way to the Toyota Stadium –

At the ground, I get out my ticket and look for something that might resemble a block reference or an entry gate. There’s nothing; just a jumble of Japanese characters. I point the ticket at a couple of stewards, who just wave me in the general direction of the ground. Inside, there’s no indication at all as to where my seat is supposed to be. I’m pointed to one end of the ground by one steward, and there, I’m pointed back up towards the other end by another steward. I give up and watch the game standing in the open area behind the home support – regimented, ordered and fiercely company-loyal –

Of the 36 players in the two squads, only five are foreign – a token Brazilian each, two Koreans (one North and one South) and one Australian. Everyone else is Japanese and, to descend once more into national stereotypes, it does seem that crosses into the box are always just that bit too high above the heads of both sets of players. It ends 0-0; the first scoreless game of the trip.

Nagoya Grampus Eight’s strange name derives in equal parts from superstition and local culture. Eight is an auspicious number in Japan – the Chinese character is wider at the bottom than the top, indicating gradual, continuous growth and prosperity. In 1936, Kiichiro Toyoda formed an automotive sub-division of his father’s industrial loom company, based in Nagoya, and changed the name from Toyoda to Toyota as the latter required eight brush strokesBy the 60s, the company was well on the way to becoming the largest car company in the world – helped by the fact that half of Nagoya now drives a Toyota – and you’d be hard pressed to argue the number wasn’t lucky for the company. Nagoya Grampus Eight were formed in 1939 as a Toyota works team. The Grampus part comes from Nagoya Castle –

Originally dating from 1612, it was almost totally destroyed during the war and re-built afterwards; there’s still building work going on. On top of the castle roof are two golden grampus dolphins –

There isn’t much in Nagoya Castle to divert – a few relics and notes about its construction, destruction and re-construction, and some exhibits on life in late mediaeval Japan. In the grounds is a typical Japanese restaurant – a machine stands at the entrance, and you’re required to make your meal selection by pressing a button and bringing the resulting ticket to the counter to be served. I’m far too fussy an eater to leave my dinner to chance like that! Elsewhere in Japan, plastic models of the meals stand outside the entrance –

– but all too often, it’s impossible to tell what the models are supposed to represent. The menu in the Peat Irish Tavern was almost exclusively fish – the Japanese will eat practically anything that swims, but I hate seafood. There are more three-star Michelin restaurants in Japan than anywhere else in the world, but they’re slightly outside my budget. I end up thankful that my capsule hotel is located directly above a McDonald’s, but even that’s not straightforward. Japanese English is so bad that at the first sight of a foreigner, the staff whip out a picture guide to all their meals, and I order a Big Mac meal by pointing.

My last day in Nagoya is the main reason I came in the first place. It’s day nine of the Nagoya honbasho, one of the six major sumo meetings held each year. It’s held in the Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium, just around the corner from Nagoya Castle in the city centre, and is hugely popular – this is a national holiday to boot (Marine Day, a day of thanks to the bounty of the seas that Japan keeps raping). Saturday and Sunday’s bouts were sold out completely, so I arrive at the venue at 8:30am to try get my hands on one of the discounted general admission tickets, only available on the day and if they haven’t been sold out beforehand. I’m in luck, and 2,800¥ later, I take my place right at the back of the arena –

Not quite the thronging crowds I’d been expecting.

As the first couple of fights get underway, I read the tourist booklet outlining sumo that I’d been handed on my way in. There are about 700 professional sumo wrestlers, split into six categories according to ability. Things won’t start getting interesting until after lunch; for now, I’m watching the lowest-rated category, the jonokuchi, which explains why the crowd is limited to a few parents and friends. They’re nominally professional, but for the moment earn little more than a subsistence wage while they train to reach a higher level. A sumo meeting takes place over 15 days; all the top-level wrestlers will have one fight per day, while those in the bottom sections often have a day off. Still, you’re looking at maybe 250 fights in any given day.

That this many fights can be accommodated in a day is explained by the fact that a single fight can last for as little as two seconds – plus all the traditional pre-bout ceremony. At ringside for any given fight will be sitting the next four contenders; as one fight ends, the two wrestlers leave and two more arrive. Meanwhile, a man summons the two next wrestlers into the ring by holding a fan aloft while singing their (sumo) name in a high-pitched intonation. The sumo name, called a shikona, is completely different to a wrestler’s birth name and may incorporate their home town, or perhaps some revered geographic feature or ancient tradition. If your name turns out to be unlucky, you can always change it.

Before the fight can get underway, the ring needs to be purified. The wrestlers clap to call attention to the gods, and raise their upturned hands to the gods to indicate that they are carrying no weapons. They then theatrically stamp the ground with each leg to drive out any evil spirits. They then turn to face each other, squatting at either end of the dohyō – a raised clay platform about 2ft high and 18ft across, with a circular ring 15ft in diameter marked out by bales of rice embedded into the clay; these also allow the wrestlers something to grip and push against if they get too close to the edge. The wrestlers move in towards the two white lines towards the centre of the ring, where they squat, fist on the ground, and try to gain an initial psychological advantage by out-staring their opponent. The referee stretches out a dainty leg, holds a fan aloft –

– and the wrestlers decide they’re not quite ready and get up again.

Even though the ritual for the bottom four sections is significantly curtailed, you’re still allowed to hold off on the start of a bout a couple of times purely to mess with your opponent’s head. When the fight does get underway, the two wrestlers spring towards each other for the tachi-ai, the initial clash –

Generally, the two wrestlers will grapple like this, but other opening moves include slapping your opponent’s face (banned at amateur level), jumping over your opponent’s charge or trying to surprise him by, say, clapping in his face. Regardless, the aim of the fight is always the same – if you touch the ground with anything other than your feet, or if you leave the ring, you lose. These are two fairly broad means of winning, which means fights rarely last beyond a minute. Once the fight is over, both wrestlers return to their starting positions and the winner squats so the referee may raise a fan in acknowledgement of victory. If the referee can’t make a call, there are five judges positioned at ring-side, who can hop into the ring for a discussion if needed –

And then it’s onto the next fight, and more singing and stamping and clapping, and even a brief few seconds of action. Over the course of the 15 days, your win-loss record decides whether you get promoted up to a higher rank or relegated down to a lower one.

As the morning progresses, so the fights keep coming. Size is an advantage, but not an absolute one; the guy on the right here lost –

– but in another fight, a fairly normal-sized fighter was defeated with ease after his opponent reached around him, grabbed him by the mawashi (the belt), hoisted him up onto his belly, walked to the edge of the ring with him and dumped him out to “oohs” and an appreciative round of applause from the growing audience. Some of the longer fights – and we’re talking a good 90 seconds here – can be genuinely entertaining; one wrestler can be on the point of being pushed out of the ring before pushing off against the rice bales, perhaps spinning his opponent around while the referee, who keeps a close eye and shouts encouragement throughout, has to nimbly hop out of the way. Then the second launches a comeback of his own, the two are deadlocked against each other for a few seconds before finally, with a flash of movement, one wrestler is thrown to the ground while the other goes off to receive the victor’s plaudits. It has to be said that, although your average sumo wrestler is considerably overweight in conventional terms, they can move quite nimbly when they have to. Of the two hundred and odd fights I saw, only one ended with a wrestler being taken off injured (though God knows, I would not like to be on first aid duty at such a gig…)

As we progress through the divisions, subtle changes are noticeable. From about the fourth level, the referees are allowed to wear shoes, for example, although an every level, they are always very dashingly dressed –

The world would be so much more interesting if people dressed like this more often!

However, there is a limit to how long you can sit watching sumo, and after a couple of hours, I head off to explore the rest of the venue. In the corridors just outside the main arena, the usual network of stalls are in place, selling souvenirs and snacks; I settle for some kakigōri – shaved ice, which is basically flavoured ice eaten frozen so solid that you have to scrape little shavings off it to eat it. For lunch, I can head down to the Restaurant Orympia (and I’m not making that up -)

– for some pork fried rice, eaten in the company of some of the sumo wrestlers, who, thankfully dressed in their colourful gowns, hulk over large bowls of rice.

On my way back to my seat for the afternoon session, I realise why the arena is still fairly sparsely filled –

The top wrestlers are just arriving, and everyone wants to get a photo of their favourite as he arrives.

Things start to ramp up at 2:30, when the second-highest class, the juryo, enter. There’s only 28 at this level, and each has one fight per day, every day. At this stage, the ceremony is upped another notch as well. First off, all 28 wrestlers enter the ring in a line behind the referee, to be introduced to the crowd one by one –

As they’re called out, they line up around the edge of the ring –

– and when the last has joined, they all turn inwards, clap, raise their hands and flick their silk aprons for some reason before dispersing to be called in for their own fights. Now that we’re getting towards the big boys, the fights are more drawn out too. Now, after stamping the devils out of the ring, each wrestler grabs a fistful of salt and throws it into the ring to purify it. Any remnants left on his hand are removed by slapping his hand off his great, wobbling belly. The two wrestlers approach each other, glare in each others’ eyes in passing, turn around and go for more salt. Again, it’s thrown into the ring, again, the slap of the belly. The crowd take the chance to roar encouragement for their favourite fighter. One or two even draw cheers from what can only be a trademark style of throwing the salt. The two return to the centre of the ring and squat. Lean forward and back on their fists, getting ready. Glare across at each other like two pug dogs…and then get up, wander over to the edge of the ring and take a cloth to wipe themselves down, their face, their belly, their armpits. More salt. A swig of water. This is all psychology, waiting for when the moment is right to catch your opponent off guard and strike. You can delay like this for up to four minutes, but the fight can be over in five seconds of clashing flesh, slapping hands and flying limbs.

If you don’t have a programme, a scoreboard on the walls helps you keep track of progress, and who’s been winning in the top two sections –

One couple wander over to take a picture; I can’t tell if they’re proud parents or if this is akin to seeing your favourite player’s jersey hanging up in the dressing room.

By 4pm, it’s the turn of the top grouping, the makuuchi. There are 42 of these, and it’s the only section that’s split into further ranks, as far as I can tell. At the top is Hakuho –

– a 27-year-old from Ulaanbaator in Mongolia and one of the greatest names in sumo history. He is only the 69th person to reach the rank of yokozuna in 250 years; no foreigner had reached the rank until 1993, since when two Hawaiians, three Mongolians and only two Japanese have attained it. In 2009 and 2010, Hakuho won 86 of 90 fights, both records. In 2010, he went 63 fights undefeated (all wins, as the last draw in sumo was in 1974), the second-longest streak in sumo history alongside that of Tanikaze in the late 18th century. He goes into today’s round on 8/8, and after the makuuchi all form a circle around the ring as the juryo did, has the honour as the only current yokozuna of stepping forward to perform a special ceremonial ring-stamping. With great dignity, he raises his left leg and, to cheers from the crowd, brings it down with a scattering of clay, to repeat the feat with the right. A clap and a raised arm later, and the top section can get under way.

By now, the arena is almost full, though not quite sold out –

Those in the front row have paid over 10,000¥ for the honour, although it’s not without its danger as wrestlers regularly tumble out of the ring and into the front row, and you do not want to be under them when that happens.

Hakuho himself is saved for the last fight of the day, hitting the stage at about 6pm, almost ten hours since the first fight. He’s up against Goeido, a sekiwake (the third-highest rank), who’s having an iffy tournament, standing on 4 from 8 and who only beat Hakuho for the first time in March after 13 previous defeats. From the tachi-ai, Goeido delivers a glancing shoulder blow which threatens to knock Hakuho straight out of the ring. The yokozuna recovers and, as Goeido goes in for the kill, it’s Hakuho who has the next chance to win, immediately spinning the pair around and pushing Goeido right back to the edge of the ring. Goeido gets a foot-grip on the rice bales and pushes back. Eight seconds into the fight, the pair are locked in equilibrium, strong grips on the other’s mawashi, which gives the crowd time for an appreciative round of applause. Two two struggle for a hand-hold, Hakuho twists his opponent around, but for the next 45 seconds, the two are locked together while the crowd roar encouragement and eventually erupt into spontaneous applause at this hard-fought battle. Then a shimmy from Hakuho, a pull from Goeido, the two spin around and Hakuho dumps Goeido on his back to huge applause. 9 from 9 for Hakuho; at the week’s end, he’ll finish second in the tournament, losing to Harumafuji on the last day, a day which had started with both wrestlers on 14 from 14. Haramafuji, also from Ulaanbaator, is promoted to yokozuna shortly after.

For me, though, it’s a run to the train station to catch the Shinkansen back to Tokyo (standing room only) for the last couple of days before heading off to America. In the Asakusa district, I come across a shrine with a giant swastika at the centre –

Inside, people draw their fortunes according to the instructions provided. “While praying for your wish, shake the box politely a few times. A stick marked fortune number will come out. Make sure your number and put the stick back. Take out a sheet of OMIKUJI [written fortune] from the drawer of your number and take it home.” The note ends in basically dismissing itself – “When you draw good fortune, you should not be careless and arrogant. Even if bad fortune, have no fear. Try to be modest and gentle. Whether in good or bad fortune, you should tenaciously do your best. You can carve out your own future.

Heading back to the hostel, I pass a properly Japanese shop –

I think he specialises in games, but I’m not really sure. Another shop allows you to pay twice the regular rate for a cup of coffee just for the privilege of having a cat to play with while you drink. Across the road, a giant flaming beer head stands atop the Asahi Brewery building –

It’s probably fair to say that the Japanese are a little bit eccentric.

I’ve time in Tokyo to try a bottle of sake –

– (it’s close on 20% ABV and reminds me (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) a bit too much of Moscow!) and to head down to the Nikkei –

Somehow I’d expected to see a floor filled with people shouting and waving frantically, but of course it’s all computerised now (since 1999), and the only signs of human life are some bored-looking employees at computer screens monitoring for insider trading.

As it gets dark on the final night in Japan (still not much later than 7:30), I head down to Electric Street for one last stereotypical look at a rather strange country –

I’m back at the hostel relatively early. The following day is quite literally going to be the longest of my life…


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