11 Amazing things you probably never knew about sumo wrestling

Everyone thinks they know what sumo wrestling is. It’s about big fat guys slamming into each other, right?

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Well, yes and no. Sumo may seem comical to you and me, but it is actually a very serious business – there is an awful lot more to sumo wrestling than most outsiders ever realise.

It wasn’t until I attended a sumo tournament in Osaka earlier this year that I began to realise just how fascinating Japan’s national sport really is. Here are a few of the amazing things I learnt about sumo – I hope they will encourage you to go to go and see a tournament for yourself!

 

1. Sumo is a religious ritual

Compared with most sports in the world today, sumo originated a heck of a long time ago. About 1,500 years, in fact. From the very beginning it was entwined with Shinto ritual, when it was performed at shrines to ensure a bountiful harvest and to honour the spirits – known as kami.

Sumo wrestlers throw salt before a match to purify the ring

Sumo wrestlers throw salt before a match to purify the ring

Sumo is still very closely associated with its religious origins, and Shinto principles continue to govern the everyday life of today’s sumo wrestlers. Each of the ring-entering ceremonies is a Shinto purification ritual, and every newly promoted yokozuna (the highest rank in sumo) performs his first ring-entering ceremony at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. The canopy that hangs over the ring is modelled after the roof of a Shinto shrine, indicating that the ring itself is a holy place.

Ring-entering ceremony at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo

Ring-entering ceremony at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo

 

2. The rules of the match

A sumo match doesn’t start until both wrestlers have placed both hands on the ground at the same time. This leads to quite a lot of fannying about whilst each wrestler tries to psyche the other out, pretending to put his hand down and then getting back up again.

Once they finally do begin, it is very rare for sumo bouts to last longer than a few seconds – although occasionally they can up to four minutes. This means that the action is very fast-paced and exciting. A match ends when one of the wrestlers is either thrown out of the ring, or if any part of his body apart from the soles of his feet touches the ground.

The following video of a sumo match (plus superb commentary, it has to be said) is a great example of just how long it takes for a bout to begin:

 

Interestingly, the match can also end if one of the wrestlers loses his mawashi, or loincloth – in which case the de-loinclothed wrestler is disqualified. More interestingly still, this rule was only adopted after Japan began adopting European (read: prudish) attitudes toward nudity.

This outcome is very rare in sumo, but a wardrobe malfunction did occur during a match in May 2000, when the unfortunate wrestler Asanokiri exposed himself and was disqualified immediately.

 

3. Sumo life is really, really hard.

I once met a retired sumo wrestler who ran a chanko nabe restaurant in Hakuba. He was very keen to talk about his life as a rikishi (wrestler), but when I asked him if he enjoyed it – if being a sumo wrestler was fun – he looked at me as though I’d just spat in his food. Now I understand why.

It would be easy to assume from their famously substantial girth that wrestlers live a life of excess outside their training schedule. In reality, sumo wrestlers’ lives are possibly the most rigidly regimented and disciplined of any athletes in the world, and life in a sumo stable is incredibly hard.

The sumobeya, or ‘stable’, is where the wrestlers live, eat, train and sleep throughout their career – unless they get married, in which case they are allowed to live in an independent dwelling. An average stable will contain around 15 wrestlers, and is arranged according to a strict hierarchy.

Morning practice at a sumobeya

Morning practice at a sumobeya

Life is hardest for the lower ranked wrestlers, who are expected to get up earliest and cook, clean, serve food and generally wait on the higher ranked wrestlers. They even have to bathe last after training, and get last pick at dinner time – after their more senior peers have gobbled all the choice morsels!

If this sounds hard, it gets even harder. It is a fact of sumo life that the younger, inexperienced wrestlers endure systematic hazing and physical punishment in order to toughen them up. This is part and parcel of sumo culture and something that young wrestlers know to expect, but it can sometimes go too far – resulting in injury and very rare cases even in death.

Hakuho, a very popular Mongolian-born sumo champion, has spoken out before about the brutality of life as a young wrestler in training – you can read some of his comments here.

 

4. Sumo wrestlers haven’t always been fat

In fact, it was only very recently in the history of sumo that the wrestlers developed the chubbiness they are now famous for. Since there are no weight divisions in professional sumo, every wrestler basically just wants to get as big as humanly possible so that he can use his weight in the ring. It wasn’t until well into the twentieth century that the modern image of the whale-like sumo wrestler really emerged – with earlier wrestlers typically much more wiry and muscular.

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A famous exception to the general fatness is Takanoyama Shuntaro, known as the “Skinny Sumo”, a Czech wrestler distinctive for his diminutive size. Despite being comparatively minuscule, Takanoyama has had impressive success in the rankings, reaching the makuuchi division in 2011. Read more about him here.

Takanoyama Shuntaro: "The Skinny Sumo"

Takanoyama Shuntaro: “The Skinny Sumo”

If you’ve ever wondered just how modern sumo get so fat, it’s all thanks to something called chanko nabe. This is a special kind of (delicious) hotpot packed with meat, veggies and noodles that is specifically associated with sumo wrestlers in Japan. This alone doesn’t do the trick – wrestlers have a special routine of exercising on an empty stomach and sleeping after eating to help turn the calories they consume (purportedly up to 10,000 per day) into bulk.

Unfortunately this increase in weight, combined with a high consumption of alcohol, means that modern sumo wrestlers’ life expectancy is more than ten years shorter than that of the average Japanese male.

 

5. Sumo wrestlers aren’t allowed to drive cars

 It sounds absurd, but this is actually true. After a serious car accident involving a sumo wrestler, the Sumo Association banned wrestlers from driving their own cars. Just ‘cus they can, I guess.

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Perhaps that’s why this guy looks so fed up.

 

6. The last night of a sumo tournament is called the ‘pleasure of a thousand autumns’

This rather poetic epithet echoes the words of 14th-15th century playwright Zeami Motokiyo, and is meant to convey the excitement of the decisive bouts and the celebration of the victor – who receives all kinds of elaborate prizes for his success. And a fat wad of cash, of course.

 

7. Sumo referees live on borrowed time

 Sumo referees, or gyoji, are as interesting as the wrestlers. Like the wrestlers, they enter the world of sumo at a young age (about sixteen) and remain in their profession until they retire. The traditional clothing they wear in the ring is strictly graded according to rank, and as they progress up the ranks they earn honorific names by which they become known. The top ranked gyoji (the equivalent of yokozuna for wrestlers) takes the name Kimura Shonosuke but, unlike the rank of yokozuna, it can only be held by one person at any one time.

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Perhaps most interestingly, the gyoji also carries a sword, or tanto, of about six to twelve inches in length. The significance of the sword is to show that the gyoji understands the seriousness of the decisions he has to make – and is prepared to commit seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment) if he makes a bad decision!

Talk about pressure. Thankfully, in these cases today the gyoji usually just submits his resignation papers instead as a gesture of contrition. In most cases the gesture is just that, and the erring gyoji’s resignation is very rarely accepted.

Try as I might, I can’t find out when (or if) a gyoji has ever actually committed seppuku as the result of a mistake – if anyone can tell me, please do!

 

8. Sumo wrestlers have to wear traditional clothes

 In accordance with the strict rules governing their lives, sumo wrestlers aren’t even allowed to choose their own clothes. As soon as they join a stable they are expected to grow their hair in order to form a topknot, or chonmage, similar to the samurai hairstyles of the Edo Period. They are expected to wear this hairstyle and traditional dress at all times when out in public – which means that sumo wrestlers are pretty easy to spot on the subway! (That and the fact that they’re easily ten times the size of anyone else).

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Not only must they wear traditional dress, but the specifics of that dress is also closely controlled. The less experienced wrestlers must wear lower-quality, thin yukata (a cotton robe) and geta (wooden sandals) even in winter, whilst higher ranked wrestlers can wear increasingly swanky robes and even – shock! horror! – get to choose their own!

 

9. They’re not even allowed to behave how they like

 In addition to the strict routine governing their training schedule, sumo wrestlers are even expected to control their demeanour and personality in public. Rules delineate that when out and about, wrestlers must be self-effacing and softly spoken, and during tournaments they should refrain from showing joy at winning or disappointment at losing. No amateur dramatics or self-congratulatory gloating here, and quite right too.

 

10. Only one foreigner at a time, please!

Sumo stables were once allowed to recruited as many foreign wrestlers as they like. Then, after one stable recruited six Mongolians at once, there was a mass gaijin-induced panic, and today stables are only allowed to have one foreign wrestler (defined as somebody born outside Japan) at any one time.

These foreign wrestlers are expected to speak Japanese, and must be well-versed in Japanese culture – meaning that foreign sumo face all the same challenges that Japanese sumo do, but with the added anxiety of having to learn to live and breathe like a Japanese. And that, my friends, is no mean feat – as you can read a little more about here.

 

Akebono Taro, born Chad Haaheo Rowan, became the first ever foreign-born sumo grand champion in 1993.

Akebono Taro, born Chad Haaheo Rowan, became the first ever foreign-born sumo grand champion in 1993. He is a native of Hawaii.

11. Women can’t be sumo wrestlers

 It is a sad fact that men’s sports are almost always more popular than women’s (except perhaps beach volleyball) – but there aren’t many sports from which women are actually forbidden from participating. Sumo, however, is one of them – the Sumo Association doesn’t even allow women to enter the sumo ring, as it is considered a violation of the purity of the ring.

This caused a bit of an issue when there was a female Governor of Osaka – Fusae Ohta, governor from 2000 – 2008. The Governor traditionally presents the Governor’s Prize in the ring at the end of the tournament, but obviously this is a bit tricky when the Governor is banned from the ring. Ohta wasn’t all too impressed by this ruling, and she repeatedly challenged the Sumo Association to allow her to fulfil her traditional role as Governor. She was repeatedly turned down until she eventually stepped down from office.

It wasn’t always the case that sumo was so hostile to women, however, and as early as the 18th century there was a form of female sumo commonly performed in some areas of Japan. Most of the time this was just a form of entertainment, but in some areas of Japan female sumo did have a serious role in Shinto rituals. Today it is prohibited from taking place in anything but an amateur setting.

Female sumo wrestlers

Female sumo wrestlers

So there you have it. The next time you’re tempted to laugh a sumo wrestler’s man boobs, just remember that those wobbly abs and thunder thighs conceal an incredible discipline the likes of which you or I can hardly imagine.

Sumo is a fascinating sport with an uncertain future, as the harsh lifestyle makes it more and more difficult to attract new recruits. I would urge anyone visiting Japan to go to see some if they can – we can arrange tickets to sumo tournaments and visits to watch morning training at a sumo stable in Tokyo. 

Taking part in a Japanese festival

Japanese festivals – matsuri – are an important part of life in Japan. You will find them in every region of the country during every season of the year. But the best time for catching matsuri is undoubtedly in summer, when festivals are so plentiful that it’s not uncommon to come across them by chance as you travel through the country. Even in Tokyo, a haven for fashion trendsetting, young people are seen on the underground heading off to fireworks festivals and other matsuri in yukata, a sort of light cotton kimono. Yet amongst the thousands of matsuri, there a handful that stand out among the rest. One such matsuri is the 350 year old Fukagawa Matsuri.

Fukagawa Matsuri from above

The great Fukagawa Matsuri!

Once every three years this huge water throwing festival is held in downtown Tokyo. Over 100,000 people gather to watch as 53 mikoshi (portable shrines) weighing from around 2 tons to 4.5 tons are boisterously carried 8 kilometers through local neighborhoods on the shoulders of men and women in traditional costume. This alone would be a site worth coming to Japan for but what makes this festival particularly special is the fact that water is being thrown on to the shrines as they slowly move through Tokyo’s streets. While some of this comes in the form of children with buckets and water pistols, the fire department also joins in at tens of locations to dowse the participants with fire hoses!

Our mikoshi being "cleansed" by some of Tokyo's finest!

Our mikoshi being “cleansed” by some of Tokyo’s finest!

Here is a brief description of what it is like to participate in one of Tokyo’s three “great” festivals. I awoke at 4:30am and took the train to Monzennakacho, a station that is truly at the heart of the Fukagawa Matsuri. Although there was no traffic at this early hour, there was plenty of activity. Hundreds of locals could be seen scurrying around the streets in their happi Japanese tops, white shorts and split-toed shoes. As not just anyone can participate in the festival, I was met by the family who gave me the “introduction” to partake. Each of the giant mikoshi (portable shrines) is associated with a particular district of the local area. There are 53 in total.

Dressed for the festival

After quickly changing in to my costume I gathered with the other participants and we ate onigiri – rice balls with different fillings – and got ready for the days event. At 7:30am we moved down the street to where the mikoshi for our district was set up and waiting for us (see below).

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We carried this float 8 kilometers through Tokyo and back to the local neighborhood.

As our turn came, around 40 of us heaved the 2 ton float up on to our shoulders and began the 8 kilometer walk through Tokyo. Slowly marching through the streets as we chanted “washoi!!” and bounced the float up and down. But what really made this festival a day to remember was the water that was poured on our mikohsi – and us! – as we walked about. Kids and adults alike splashed us from all angles. Any spectator is able to join in on this aspect of the matsuri and so the day ends up feeling like a giant water fight!

IMG_1480Water!

At splash stations like the one above we lift the mikoshi above our heads so that other participants can drench the mikoshi and us below with cold but refreshing water. But the 53 shrines being paraded around are not the only thing that this festival has going. There are multiple places where traditional Japanese music is being played and even several large taiko drumming areas where the loud drums set the pace of the chanting of the shrine bearers like myself. In order to show respect to the musicians we lift the mikoshi above our heads as we pass. There are also floats along the route selling beer and shaved ice for the onlookers, those of us carrying the shrine have to wait till the afternoon.

Taiko drummers at one of many stations along the festival route.

Taiko drummers at one of many stations along the festival route.

We all take turns carrying the float and there is a morning rest stop and a midday break for lunch but even so by the afternoon my shoulders are bruised and battered. And my feet are sore from the massive weight crushing down on them.

Yours truly at the head of the pack. My shoulder and arms sore from a long but fun day.

Yours truly at the head of the pack. My shoulder and arms sore from a long but fun day.

Of course, my personal favorite part of the matsuri is after we finish and I can sit down with my friends for a few well deserved beers.

A long time friend. The man who allowed me to partake in the festival treated me to lots of shochu and beer after we finished. He also brought me some Otoro tuna sashimi from Tsukiji Fish Market to help replenish all the energy spent walking through Tokyo's cordoned off streets.

A long time friend. The man who allowed me to partake in the festival treated me to lots of shochu and beer after we finished. He also brought me some Otoro tuna sashimi from Tsukiji Fish Market to help replenish all the energy spent walking through Tokyo’s cordoned off streets.

Seeing matsuri in Japan is truly a “once in a lifetime” type experience. The friendly and fun-loving nature of such festivals ensures that all are welcome. Aside from some fantastic pictures, you are likely to go home with some new friends as well!

There are thousands of festivals all over japan throughout the year. You may just stumble across a small festival on your travels in Japan, but if they are on and we know about them, we can help you catch a Japanese festival during your trip.

 

Rediscovering Nikko (Part 2 of 2)

As I touched on in the first part of this post, Nikko National Park is not far from Tokyo and so with even a one night stay here you can pack in two full day’s of “off the beaten path” sightseeing. Sure, you’ll see a good number of tourists at the most famous sites in Nikko (like Kegon Waterfall or the Unesco World Heritage listed Shrines and Temples) but if you dare to put in just a little bit of extra effort to get beneath the surface of Nikko’s natural and cultural history you will be amply rewarded. Continuing on from part 1, here are some more can’t miss sites that aren’t in the guidebooks just yet.

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A working waterwheel in Nikko National Park. This is one of only a handful of waterwheels that is not simply there for nostalgia’s sake but actually working to produce incense.

What better place to start your journey in Nikko National Park than with a visit to the area near Takao Shrine (pictured above). Altering shades of green roll across the landscape of verdant evergreens and giant sheets of rice paddies divided by small ditches that can be walked along for an experience that will completely surround you.

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The proud and friendly owner of the incense producing water wheel.

A highlight of visiting this area is a small hut with a water wheel that is near the shrine’s entrance. You might even hear the clickety clank of the water wheel’s gears before the old shack comes in to view. Surprisingly, this isn’t simply a water wheel that has been leftover from more rustic times,an old man uses the power of an irrigation stream to assist in making incense – a ubiquitous good in Japanese homes and temples.

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Wooden gears spin as the waterwheel turns. The noise is unforgettable!

The nearby Takao Shrine is equally interesting. Like the shrines and temples seen in Japanese movies, this one is surrounded by nature and sees only a few dozen visitors each day so you can often get it to yourself. The beauty of architecture is complemented nicely by the tall cedar trees that line the entrance. But unlike some of the masterpieces that you’ll find in Nikko proper, it’s the small details at this shrine that are most likely to stick with you.

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It may not look like much but if you take a ladle of that crystal clear water and pour it over the rocks, you will hear a beautiful ringing as the water drips into a massive brass bowl that resonates the sound below. Magical!

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Before you leave the area make sure to stop at the small restaurant at the bottom of the hill for some naturally produced shaved ice. Before I had tasted it, I questioned whether there was much of a difference between this “natural” shaved ice and the stuff my refrigerator churns out back in Tokyo but after having a few bites of the green tea sweet I have become a convert for life! If you want to see what goes in to make such a treat for the senses, check out the process with this video from Youtube.

 

The hard work is a labour of love for the 4th and 5th generation ice makers that oversee this process. They are Nikko locals and run their operations in the National Park so, if you’re there during the right time of year you can go and see this ice making process in person. And if you’re there in the summer you can simply enjoy some of the best shaved ice (kakigori) that you’ll find anywhere!

Moving on, we head to Heike no Sato a place of cultivated and natural beauty that is full of history. This collection of folk houses from around the area recreates the atmosphere of 800 years before, when a battle between rival clans sent the Heike warriors into refuge in Nikko’s mountains. If you aren’t making it to any other folk villages over the course of your trip to Japan then this is a must-see sight in Nikko National Park. You will come away with a far better understanding of the type of lifestyle that was still common up until the 1900’s.

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The picturesque entrance to Heike no Sato.

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The world renowned Akiko Sakurai performs at Heike no Sato. In the background you can see a Torii gate where the Heike clan worshiped in place of the original in their homeland – which they couldn’t go to because they were hiding from the victors whom had driven them here.

There is great food to be found in Nikko and plenty of variety to boot. But the one thing that you shouldn’t miss is surely yuba – a tofu like sheet that Nikko has become famous for. A particularly tasty yuba dish is available at Heike no Sato (pictured below).

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Enjoying some yuba, green tea and mochi at Heike no Sato.

Having already covered some of Nikko’s best sights you could easily relax at a cafe overlooking one of Nikko’s lakes or head to an onsen (hot spring) but if you still have a bit of energy left, why not go for a walk through the wilderness in Senjogahara. The path here is an easy walk with sweeping vistas of the National Park. Best of all, if you visit in different seasons you will find entirely new seasons waiting for you.

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The boardwalk keeps you safely above the marsh beneath and, most importantly, protects the local habitat at the same time.

Trying to decide where to go in Japan is a difficult task to say the least. I’ve lived and worked here for nearly a decade and traveled extensively but there are so many places that I’m still longing to visit. But if you find yourself in Tokyo and your looking for a side of Japan that simply can’t be found in the city, head up to Nikko for a few days; you won’t be disappointed!

 

Rediscovering Nikko (Part 1 of 2)

Kegon Falls in Nikko National Park

Kegon Falls in Nikko National Park

For me, there is almost nothing better than going to a part of Japan that I have never been to before and seeing yet another facet of this wonderful country. But I am always amazed at how much there is to be discovered even in destinations that I have been to multiples times before. As the title might imply, the place in question this time is Nikko. Less than two hours from Tokyo, the main draw for most visitors are Nikko’s spectacular shrines and temples, rightly deserving of their World Heritage status. But there is far more here than what most visitors ever get to see. This is partly because the ease of making a day trip from Tokyo is often preferred over the more rewarding but slightly more difficult option of staying overnight and getting out into the countryside to see a completely different side of Japan. This multiple part blog post is about some of the places worth visiting in Nikko National Park.

Serving up freshly cooked fish with style at the Ryuo Gorge

Serving up freshly cooked fish with style at the Ryuo Gorge

The Ryuo Gorge is not only beautiful, it’s also one of the easiest places in Nikko National Park to access by train. From the hot spring resort of Kinugawa Onsen, a jumbling little train whisks you through dense forests to a quiet little station near the entrance of a walking path that takes in lush scenery and will have you wondering if the bright neon of Tokyo was just a dream. But as the picture above can attest to, it’s not just the escape from concrete that makes this a deserved stop on your itinerary. The colorful locals and delicious freshly caught river fish make this an all-around cultural experience. Throw in a couple cups of sake and a dip in the hot spring at the end of a long walk and you can have a quintessentially Japanese experience all in an afternoon.

Just a taste of the wonderful scenery that can be enjoyed along the Ryuo Gorge.

Just a taste of the wonderful scenery that can be enjoyed along the Ryuo Gorge.

Speaking of sake, if you’re thinking of visiting a sake brewery, you’d be smart to be picky about the one who visit for, alas, not all sake breweries are created equal. But fear not, for Nikko has a sake brewery of unparalleled greatness. Not only are the brews here about as tasty as you’ll find, the owner is as nice a man as you’ll meet anywhere and will be happy to show in to parts of his brewery that most sake makers wouldn’t dream of letting tourists see. Although, if it’s busy you may well be asked to lend a hand! ;)

Katayama-san showing me and a few other visitors around his brewery

Katayama-san showing me and a few other visitors around his brewery

Katayama Brewery is named after it’s owner and is located not far from Shimoimaichi Train Station (a short taxi ride or a slightly long walk away). Here you can not only do tours of the brewery but you can enjoy free tastings of the sake that will have you seeing the brew more like fine wine than the rocket fuel like stuff that is often served overseas. If you are feeling like splashing out, try the specially made version of his best and most popular sake that has platinum and gold flakes in it. Though if you set off the metal detector at the airport upon your departure don’t blame me!

Slip into a yukata and enjoy some 'omotenashi' at one of Kinugawa's Hot Spring Resorts

Slip into a yukata and enjoy some ‘omotenashi’ at one of Kinugawa’s Hot Spring Resorts

At the end of a day of walking and sake tasting, I can think of few better things to do than relaxing in a hot spring and tucking into some Japanese fine cuisine. Luckily, there is no shortage of places to do this in Nikko’s National Park. The Kinugawa Grand Hotel (picture above and below) is just such a place. For a fraction of what a similar type of place would cost in Tokyo, you can be spoiled to your heart’s content. Though you aren’t likely to encounter many English speakers here, you can be sure that you will be welcomed with open arms and a deep bow upon your arrival. Enjoy some of Nikko’s craft beer and a big plate of sashimi and take in the beautiful surroundings in your Japanese style room.

Just one among many hot springs at the Kinugawa Grand Hotel in Nikko National Park.

Just one among many hot springs at the Kinugawa Grand Hotel in Nikko National Park.

 

AKB48: The Surprising Truth Behind the World’s Biggest Band

They’re one of the most successful pop acts in the world, and yet unless you’ve ever been to Japan you’ve probably never even heard of them. Just who, exactly, are AKB48?

AKB is short for Akihabara, an area of Tokyo known primarily for cheap electronics, comic book stores, Maid Cafés, and… ahem… adult goods. It is here that AKB48, a band that started life with 48 members but whose ranks have since swelled to a staggering 140, maintain their own theatre and perform to their fans every single night.

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In a minute I’ll get to telling you just how AKB48 launched their coup de grace on the hearts and minds of millions – but first let me give some introduction to the world of J-Pop (that’s Japanese pop music) and the Japanese “idol” craze.

Now, this is a subject that deserves a blog post of its very own – and it will get one in good time – but for now the very briefest of backgrounds will have to suffice. Idols, or “aidoru” (アイドル) as they are referred to in Japanese, are young pop stars and actors who are plucked from obscurity by entertainment agencies and, despite relatively little obvious talent, are catapulted from girl- or boy-next-door to being idolised to the pitch of hysteria by legions of screaming, wild-eyed, glowstick-waving fans.

Sylvie Vartan, a French singer who became extremely popular in Japan during the 1970s, is sometimes credited with triggering the "idol" craze

Sylvie Vartan, a French singer who became extremely popular in Japan during the 1960s, is sometimes credited with triggering the “idol” craze

The prerequisites for being an idol are youth, cuteness, and a squeaky-clean public record. (Notice how I didn’t mention talent). Now, you may think that in criticising idols’ lack of talent I’m letting my own (impeccable, I might say) musical tastes eclipse my impartial evaluation of their musical worth. I mean, just because you don’t like listening to Mozart doesn’t mean he isn’t good, right?

But this isn’t just that I prefer Metallica to Morning Musume (though obviously I do). Mediocrity is written into the whole concept behind AKB48.

AKB48 is no ordinary pop group – they are “idols you can meet”. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in 2011, the pop group’s creator, Yasushi Akimoto, explained that “AKB48 girls are ‘unfinished.’ In other words, they’re still not very good at singing or dancing.”

It sounds like a poor concept for a band, but Akimoto is no fool.

Yasushi Akimoto, the man behind it all

Yasushi Akimoto, the man behind it all

Akimoto hoped that this very mundanity would be the key to the band’s success, and by gum was he on the money. Giving young fans idols that they could relate to, whose progress and improvement they could follow from “trainee” members to “graduates” – whom they could actually meet for themselves at the band’s various “handshake events” – has turned AKB48 into a social phenomenon.

An AKB48 fan meets one of his idols at a "handshake event". These events were cancelled earlier in 2014 after two band members were attacked by a man wielding a saw at one of the events. The girls sustained minor injuries and the events were resumed with increased security in July.

An AKB48 fan meets one of his idols at a “handshake event”. These events were cancelled earlier in 2014 after two band members were attacked by a man wielding a saw at one of the events. The girls sustained minor injuries and the events were resumed with increased security in July.

This staggering success has seen Akimoto’s protégés – who began as a group of 48 but now number no less than 140 – become officially the biggest pop group in the world. Such has been their success that they now have no fewer than 11 sister acts based in other Japanese cities and even in other Asian countries, including SKE48 (based in Nagoya’s Sakae district), NMB48 (of Osaka’s Namba district) and JKT48 (of Jakarta, Indonesia).

And this isn't even all of them....

And this isn’t even all of them….

So AKB48 is a girl band with 140 members. Logistically, how on earth does that even work?

Unlike mainstream bands who subsist on gigs and arena tours, AKB48 have their own theatre in Tokyo where they perform to their legions every single night. Of course, nobody has the stamina to actually fulfil such a punishing schedule, so the band itself is split up into teams of around 18 members who split the duties amongst themselves.

Again, unlike mainstream bands, the list of members of AKB48 is constantly rolling. All the girls are aged between 13 and their early 20s, and when members outgrow the group they move on to become “graduates”. There is also a rolling ranking system within the group, and fans are encouraged to choose a favourite member to support in the televised elections that are held to determine the rankings within the group each year. To obtain a ballot, fans must first purchase the “election single.” It is, quite simply, marketing genius – and AKB48 singles can sell over a million copies in their release day alone.

Add to this a collection of TV shows (including “AKBINGO!”, “Weekly AKB”, and “Naruhodo Highschool”), their own manga comic book series, a monthly newspaper and a collection of video games and you have an economic powerhouse of enormous proportions. AKB48 even feature on a Japanese postage stamp!

AKB 1/48 - a dating simulation game based on the island of Guam

AKB 1/48 – a dating simulation game based on the island of Guam

All of this is quite remarkable in itself, but AKB48 gets more interesting still.

The band has courted controversy in the past with some of their lyrics and videos. One of the songs to have come under scrutiny is “Seifu ga Jama o Suru” (“My school uniform is getting in the way”) for its racy lyrics, and the vaguely provocative video for the 2010 megahit “Heavy Rotation” (in reference to when a song gets overplayed on the radio – i.e. it gets played on “heavy rotation”).

 

OK, so some of the lyrics and costumes are a little risqué when you consider how young some of the band members are, but there’s nothing outright shocking here. What is particularly interesting is that despite their raunchy lyrics and recurring themes of love and dating (including several dating simulation games featuring their images) AKB48 girls themselves are not allowed to date.

One of the girls, 20-year-old Minami Minegishi, caused controversy in 2013 when she was photographed leaving her boyfriend’s apartment after having allegedly spent the night there. AKB members who break the rules are considered to have betrayed their fans by tarnishing the illusion of their purity (and, crucially, their availability), and for her infraction Minegishi was accordingly demoted to bottom-ranked “research student”.

The odd love scandal is not unusual for AKB48 members, a few of whom have had to “graduate” or transfer to less popular sister groups in the past as a result of similar scandals, but it didn’t stop there. Minegishi’s case drew world headlines because of what she did next – shaving her head (a traditional Japanese gesture of contrition) and releasing a tearful four-minute video in which she makes a grovelling apology for her actions.

The video was posted on the group’s official website but has since been removed amid unconfirmed accusations that Minegishi had been forced into the act of repentance by her management.

Minami Minegishi in her apology video, in which she says "I don't believe that just by doing this will be forgiven for what I did"

Minami Minegishi in her apology video, in which she says “I don’t believe that just by doing this will be forgiven for what I did”

Leaving aside the question of whether it is ethical to forbid a group of teenagers and young adults from any kind of romantic encounter (no matter how innocent) on pain of demotion – is it even legal?

Opinion is divided on that count, with some legal commentators arguing on either side. For a discussion of the issue, you might turn to “Constitutionalism” – a book about the Japanese constitution co-written by an associate professor at Kyushu University School of Law and 18-year-old AKB48 member Natsuki Uchiyama. Yep, they’ve got their fingers in the politics pie as well. Uchiyama is known for reciting parts of the Japanese constitution onstage during performances (she knows the whole thing off by heart, if you can believe it), so I guess if anyone should know the answer it’d be her.

Natsuki Uchiyama: Crzy about the Constitution

Natsuki Uchiyama: Crazy about the Constitution

Other campaigns in which AKB48 have flexed their marketing oomph have been a Tokyo Metropolitan Police traffic safety campaign in 2010, a suicide prevention campaign in 2012, a military recruitment campaign and even a campaign to sell government bonds for tsunami relief.

Then things get stranger.

In 2011, AKB48 introduced a new member: Aimi Eguchi.

 

She’s pretty, cute, innocent – she ticks all the “idol” boxes. And none of those boxes stipulates that she has to be real.

Aimi Eguchi, as it turned out, was not an actual person but a computer-generated hybrid of the “best features” of six of her bandmates. This was not revealed to her fans until after she had already made her debut and appeared in a Glico advert on television.

I don’t know about you, but I’d have thought that telling your fans that one of their idols isn’t actually a person at all would be more crushing than anything poor old Minegishi ever did.

The AKB management team were obviously left to run amok on the CGI tools in 2011, because in the same year the band released a promotional internet service called “AKB Official Net”, with a feature that allows fans to combine their own face with that of their favourite AKB48 member to create a hypothetical lovechild. It’s called AKBaby, and the advertisement features a photo of band member Yuko Oshima breastfeeding a baby, with the caption “Want to make a baby with me?”

Weird? I don't even know where to begin.

Weird? I don’t even know where to begin.

Proponents argue that AKB48 offers fans the chance to feel closer to their idols, providing good role models for their young followers and giving the girls themselves fifteen minutes in the spotlight that they can use as a platform to launch their future success. Nay-sayers cry exploitation and moneygrubbing. Whichever camp you fall into, there’s no denying that in terms of sheer popularity, AKB48 is onto a winning combination.

If you’d like to get a piece of the AKB action on your visit to Japan, you’ll need to enter a ticket raffle by email from one month in advance. Visit the girls’ official website for details. InsideJapan can of course assist with the process, but cannot guarantee tickets.

 

Inside a traditional Japanese house

Tour leader Richard, has recently moved house in Japan. He is not in a city apartment, but he is way out in rural Japan and in a huge traditional house. Want to know what a traditional country house looks like?…read on…

When I am asked by Japanese people where I reside in Japan, my response is usually met with a combination of disbelief and amazement. You see, I live in a beautiful little village in a beautiful prefecture called Tottori. With the smallest population for a prefecture in Japan, Tottori is considered the most rural of them all. However, that’s why I love it and that’s why I choose to stay. Tokyo and Osaka are great places to visit, I often do, but they are not for me. Countryside all way, please.

Tottori, like many rural areas in Japan, is facing the double challenge of urban migration and an ageing population. Evidence is never far from sight. Most of my neighbours are in their 60’s and a few are in their 90’s. Younger Japanese are at a premium in these parts, with the lure of better jobs and wages nearer the major cities proving too irresistible for many. And empty buildings. Lots of them. However, if you ask around and the right people (i.e. NOT the government officials at city hall who are supposed to be in charge of such matters) its possible to find some really beautiful and huge places for the price it costs to rent a cupboard in Tokyo. And that’s what happened to me recently. I would like to share with you some photos and a brief description about some of the special points of a traditional, countryside Japanese house.

1) Large, attractive entrance area with wooden screen. The inside of a Japanese house is strictly a no shoes zone. The screen is useful as it’s normal for guests (expected and unexpected) to open the door and walk into the entrance area and announce their presence! Have never quite gotten used to that custom.

Japanese House Entrance Area

2) Speaker/tannoy system. One of the stranger features. Basically a public announcement system for the pocket of houses located together. Each announcement starts with the speaker (usually an older gentlemen) playing a few notes on a xylophone next to the microphone. Old skool.

Japanese Tannoy

3) Large Tatami room with low table. Tatami is type of straw matting, originally associated with the nobility and aristocrats. To be used when formally entertaining guests and having a party with friends and family. No red wine allowed on my tatami! My house also has two other tatami rooms for sleeping on.

Japanese Tatami Room

4) Shrine! Used to pray to your ancestors. The finer detail really is quite special.

Japanese Shrine

5) Last, but not least, Japanese homes are a toilet heaven! The main toilet comes with lots of bells and whistles including a washlet, bidet and a drying function. There is also a separate urinal and even a traditional squat style toilet in an outside room!

Japanese Toilet

 

 

The Joy of Sake

Richard Pearce is one of InsideJapan Tour’s knowledgeable tour leaders. When Richard is not taking people around Japan, he hides away in the mountains of deepest darkest rural Japan with his fingers in many cultural pies….

Living in rural Japan has many, many benefits, as I’ve touched on in previous posts. Clean air, cheaper housing, low-level celebrity status etc etc. However, parties, events and socializing opportunities in general are of course somewhat limited. I’ve found the best way to deal with this issue is to simply make the events yourself!

Want to go to a craft beer festival? Create a beer festival! Want to play football? Start a team!

The Daisenji beer festival is now in its third year and attracted 3500-4000 people in June. The football team, “Tottori Tigers”, were crowned West Japan Champions (all teams a mix of Japanese and non-Japanese) in 2013. In this spirit, whilst talking about the famous and huge Saijo Sake Festival near Hiroshima, the “Kurayoshi Sake Festival” was born.

The perceived benefits were four fold: to support local brewers, to network, to learn more about sake and, well, an excuse for a party! A great two days were had and 37 different types of sake consumed and, in the most part, enjoyed!

Sake Festival Japan

Generally speaking, premium sake can be put into two categories with three grades of quality. The two categories are those with no added alcohol (alcohol occurs naturally in the brewing process) and those with some added alcohol (known as “brewers alcohol”). Premium sake makes up about 20 percent of all sake made. The other 80 percent, “normal” sake if you like, is known in Japanese as “Futsuu” and is cheaper than the premium ones. Lots of distilled alcohol is added to futsuu to increase yields. Although cheaper and generally speaking of a lower quality, there are many delicious futsuu sakes on the market. The types and grades of premium sake are listed below.

What's your poison?

No Added Alcohol Type

Junmai Daiginjo-shu

Brewed with very highly polished rice (at least 50%) with labour intensive and precise methods. Considered to be “the pinnacle of the brewers’ art”. Generally light, complex and fragrant.

Junmai Ginjo-shu

Brewed using more traditional, labour intensive methods rather than machinery with highly polished rice (at least 60%). The fermentation period is relatively long and done at colder temperatures. Light and fruity.

Junmai-shu

Made using rice that is polished to at least 70%. Made with only rice, water and koji mold (Koji mold is a very special part of the sake brewing process, converting sake rice into sugar that can be fermented). Often crisp and full taste.

Sake wonderland
Some Added Alcohol Type

Daiginjo-shu

Brewed with very highly polished rice (at least 50%) with labour intensive and precise methods. Considered to be “the pinnacle of the brewers’ art”. Generally light, complex and quite fragrant.

Ginjo-shu

Brewed using more traditional, labour intensive methods rather than machinery with highly polished rice (at least 60%). The fermentation period is relatively long and done at colder temperatures. Light,
aromatic, fruity and refined.

Honjozo-shu

Made with rice, water, koji and a very small amount of pure distilled
alcohol, which helps to extract flavour and aroma. Light, mildly fragrant and easy to drink.

There are all sorts of sake or ‘Nihon shu’ and something for all palates. When in Japan, give it a go. Kanpai!!!

Sake Festival Japan

 

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