Sumo-size Me

If you’ve ever wanted to take a peek inside a sumo’s fridge – and even if you haven’t – here you go:


Back when me and my family were travelling through Japan researching Sushi and Beyond, we were lucky enough to be invited to spend some time at the Onoe sumo stable in Ikegami, Tokyo.


(The noise as the two wrestlers slammed together was horrendous).

Sumo stables – or Heya – are semi-sacred places. Sumo essentially grew out of shinto rituals, so many elements of training and tournaments have a semi-sacred meaning. And this is also where sumos live, eat and sleep as well as train train, so we really felt we were getting a glimpse of an intensely private domain.


Our visit was especially unusual in that, a) the week before a young sumo had died in a vicious hazing incident in a Tokyo stable, where he had been beaten to death by other wrestlers, so the sport was very much under siege by the media, b) that I was allowed to bring my wife and two young sons along (and, in fact, I think their presence somehow created a more relaxed atmosphere between us, the trainer, his family and the wrestlers), and c) one of the season’s major tournaments would be kicking off in a couple of days, so the training was particularly intense.


Anyway, back to the food, which was why I was there.

When you think about it, the Japanese could not have chosen a sport less suited to their national physiognomy than sumo. This is a country of uniformly slender, small people. I was fascinated to find out what they did to transform themselves into these dirty great mountains of blubber.

I had a preconceived idea of the life of a ‘rikishi’ as one filled with chocolate, candy, ice cream, dairy and t-bone steaks, followed by a little light training, plenty of naps and the David Beckham-style adulation of millions of women. For many years it had been a source of comfort to me to know that someone, somewhere had been living my dream life.

Sadly, their diet is surprisingly healthy – lots of tofu, vegetables, rice of course – and not a Milky Way to be seen. They do eat a vast amount, it’s true – one famous sumo was known to be able to consume 100 beers and 70 nigiri in one meal (although, admittedly, he retired recently due to gout and stomach problems). The lunch of chanko nabe, the classic sumo hot pot with noodles, tofu, and anything else they fancy (ours had Spam, of all things, even though sumo are supposed not to eat anything with four legs as it symbolises losing), the world’s heaviest sumo, Yamamoto (seen here), prepared for us was delicious. 


And as for the training, well, put it this way, when one of the sumo’s misinterpreted my constructive criticism of his cellulite, I was forced to send a six year old in to battle on behalf of the Booth family honour.



Fortunately he has inherited his father’s impressive upper body strength.

Of course, contrary to appearances, the sumo’s bulk is not all fat. They are tremendously strong – they have to be to carry that weight without risking injury – and, more surprisingly, very supple, as the famous Latvian sumo, Kaido Höövelsen (one of many overseas wrestlers who have taken sumo by storm in the last decade – nicknamed by the Japanese Baruto, as in ‘Baltic’), demonstrates here.


What a very sweet man, I have to say, and very glad to hear that his career has gone from strength to strength since we were there.


A couple of days later we went along to the tournament. When I’d watched coverage on TV, sumo had seemed to be pretty absurd – the only sport in which walruses might participate successfully – but in the flesh I can’t tell you how thrilling it is. The best bit for me is the preamble before the two wrestlers clash, when they play a game of sumo tease with each other, pretending to get into position for the fight, before abruptly standing up again to go through the whole thigh-slapping, salt throwing pre-fight ritual again.


Champion’s League? Pah!

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