We had not originally planned to go to Japan because it is very expensive but we couldn’t find any decent flights from Asia to South America so we decided to forgo South America and splurge on Japan. Our flight arrived in Tokyo just before midnight and the immigration line was a nightmare so we didn’t get to our hotel room until almost 2 am so naturally we spent the next morning sleeping in. We finally left our hotel around noon, found a grocery store close to the hotel where we loaded up on snacks and drinks and headed to the Kokugikan sumo arena.
There are only 6 sumo tournaments a year, each one lasting 15 days and only 3 held in Tokyo. The last several days of the tournament are typically very popular and we attended the 12th day so we were incredibly lucky to get seats! We arrived in the Ryogoku neighborhood around 1 pm and immediately Drew spotted a rikishi (wrestler) leaving and was lucky enough to get a photo with him!
When we found our seats the arena was pretty empty even though the basho (tournament) started at 8 am. This is because the beginner rikishi start the day off and the intermediate bouts do not start until 2:20 pm with the upper division starting at 3:45 and that’s when most people file in. This was fine with us because our seats weren’t close to the dohyo so this gave us an opportunity to sneak forward and get some great photos! We were also able to read up a bit on sumo, which is over 1500 years old and the only sport in the world based on religion. The movements rikishi make before each match all have meaning – showing their hands to the sky is to show respect to the gods and that they possess no weapons, while throwing rice into the ring is to purify it. The ring is considered a sacred place and women actually aren’t allowed in it.
As the day went on we enjoyed our food and drinks, learned more about sumo (how they train and live), and got more enthralled with each bout. We rooted for underdogs and since our seats were on the East side we decided that each East side rikishi was our guy. Between the different bout levels there is also a ceremony where all the rikishi come out into the ring – it was pretty cool to watch. The basho concludes with a bow-twirling ceremony and that was also neat to see. I don’t know if Drew was drunk on Asahi or just the fun of the day but he acquired a sumo mask and wore it while dancing around the hotel to ‘I’m Turning Japanese’ unfortunately I didn’t get any footage of that….
The next day was our only full day in Tokyo so we got up and headed out early. We had to stop at the Shinjuku station to trade our Japan Rail vouchers in for passes and get some reserved seats for other days. After that though we were on our way to the Meiji Shrine, located in the bustling urban jungle of Tokyo, it is a Shrine commemorating Emperor Meiji with over 250 acres of garden around it! We entered the gardens and it was a perfect day for a stroll with it being cool and crisp out. Eventually we made our way to the main shrine where we partook in the cleansing ceremony before entering. This included rinsing our left hand, right hand, mouth and then left hand again with water.
After entering the temple we saw that people were writing thanks and prayers on Ema (or little wooden plaques) and since we’ve had such an amazing trip we thought it was appropriate to write our thanks on a plaque too. Once written we took it to an area where we hung it and left it with lots of other ones.
The main part of the shrine was under construction but we got a really neat treat because we got to see a Shichi-Go-San or a traditional rite of passage. This takes place for three and seven year old girls or three and five year old boys where the child is dressed in a traditional kimono for the first time and brought to the shrine. Nowadays many people also bring a professional photographer to mark the occasion and the parents of this little girl were no exception.
While heading out of the shrine we saw a massive display of sake barrels. Apparently this is very common practice at Shinto Shrines because sake or rice wine plays an important part in Shinto festivals. Also there are certain rites that brewers take in order to have blessings on the industry. In addition to the display of sake barrels there were also French wine barrels because Emperor Meiji was the first to embrace western culture and was particularly fond of red wine (an Emperor after my own heart).
We continued to walk straight out of the gardens and back into the city. As we continued we noticed the buildings getting taller and the streets and sidewalks getting busier. Soon we were upon the famous Shibuya Crossing – known for being the world’s busiest intersection. We decided to enjoy the view from seats inside the second floor Starbucks with some warm tea and lunch. Although Drew did venture out to participate in the Shibuya Scramble right before it started pouring! Can you see him? In retrospect, he didn’t need to put his hands up to be found, he’s so much taller than the rest.
At a break in the rain we quickly ran to the entrance to the Shibuya train station and safely underground we boarded a train for our last site of the day. We headed to the Tokyo Skytree – a tall observation tower that is actually taller than the Tokyo Tower. We got a fun shot of us ‘falling’ from the tower before heading up. We got to the observation deck right before the clouds rolled in and got views of the Asahi headquarters, the Imperial Palace, and rivers. Before heading down we walked across the glass floor, which was definitely creepier than when we did it in the Tower Bridge in London!
We raced back to the hotel to clean up for dinner. We were lucky enough to get a reservation at the small (14 person) restaurant owned and operated by Anthony Bourdain’s favorite sushi chef Yasuda. The menu is limited- you can only order Omakase (a chef selected meal) or the Sushi Assortment (2 tuna, 2 white fish, salmon, blue skin fish, shrimp, clam, squid, eel, see urchin, salmon roe, omelet, scallion sprout) so we ordered one of each and some sake from the chef’s hometown and rice beer to wash it down. Although I’d say I’m a seafood beginner I really enjoyed the meal! In fact I’ve never liked any salmon until this meal.
We enjoyed it so much that we each also ended up order chef Yasuda’s signature roll in addition to the set menu. Yasuda-san was also very captivating as he showed and explained how real wasabi is made. He also informed us all that Taiwanese wasabi has no flavor and is essentially an imposture while the stuff you buy in a tube in the states is actually just green horseradish. It was a fun and delicious night – one we won’t soon forget!