The lightest man in sumo

When we think of sumo wrestlers, we usually imagine very big, even fat, men. Like Kotoshogiku for example:

sumo wrestler kotoshogiku

Sumo wrestler Kotoshogiku

Weighing in at 176 kilograms, Kotoshogiku is a formidable man. There is, however, one exception to the rule of big sumo wrestlers. With only 93 kilograms, Czech born Takanoyama doesn’t have a gram of fat on him.

czech sumo wrestler takanoyama

Czech sumo wrestler Takanoyama

I am not sure why Takanoyama is so lean. Is he unable to put on the weight? Or is it a deliberate choice? If so, is it because of vanity? Or is it perhaps a way to stand out among all the other wrestlers? One thing is for sure though: it is not helping him in the ring. When I was following sumo, in 2011-2012, he was struggling to stay in the maegashira division (which is the lowest part of the top division). Usually he attempted some judo-like techniques and while they gained him the occasional win, overall he simply couldn’t compete with the heavier wrestlers. Meanwhile he has dropped out of the top division completely and is placed in the middle of jūryō, the second highest division.

Despite his poor ring performance, Takanoyama was (and perhaps still is?) very popular with the fans. I wonder if this is due to his unusual physique. It certainly isn’t due to his sunny personality, as I had the chance to discover one July afternoon in 2012.

Prior to the 2012 Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament, we had the chance to attend a sumo practice session and eat some chanko nabe handed out by the wrestlers. As the wrestlers left to retire to their quarters, they were followed by a group of fans, asking them for pictures. Among the group was a very pushy Japanese lady, who seemed intent on touching the wrestlers as much as possible. When she took a picture with kind natured Takayasu, she even held his hand! Unfortunately I don’t have pictures of the pushy lady, but I do have our own pictures with the wrestlers.

japanese sumo wrestler takayasu

This is me and a friend posing with Takayasu. Such a sweet and shy guy!

After having taken her picture with Takayasu, the pushy Japanese lady approached Czech wrestler Takanoyama. As she was posing alongside him for a picture, she tried to cuddle up to him and take his arm. Takanoyama was having none of it though. He barked at her “Chikai!”, which literally translates as ‘(too) close’. In Japanese, just barking out the word is a very rude way to say she was too close. The lady shrieked and jumped at least a meter away.

We were witness to this incident because we were waiting to take our own picture with Takanoyama. In fact, our turn was up right after the pushy lady. Needless to say we were a bit anxious about approaching this ill-tempered wrestler after witnessing such a scene. In the pictures below, you can clearly see that my friend is keeping her distance from Takanoyama, as is my husband. Because I am standing a bit to the front, it looks like I am closer, but I can assure you that I was equally wary.

Czech sumo wrestler takanoyama

Posing with scary Czech sumo wrestler Takanoyama. Notice how my friend is keeping her distance.

Czech sumo wrestler takanoyama

Even my husband is afraid to come too close and I can’t blame him!

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Blogging brings people together

When I first started with this blog, I warned myself not to expect too much of it. Sure, it would be great to attract readers that aren’t just friends and family. In fact, it would be downright wonderful to get a decent number of page views and some comments on my posts. But since I was completely new to blogging, I decided it would be best not to expect too much and just have fun with it.

Now, two years later, I can gladly say that my blogging adventure has exceeded my wildest dreams. People from all over the world find their way to this blog. Some people even comment on my posts! There are regular readers, who I feel I have gotten to know quite well through their comments on my posts and through reading their blogs. This blog has really become a source of joy to me. Therefore I think a thank you is in order. Thank you, dear readers, for coming to this blog and sharing a digital moment with me. I feel like blogging brings people together in a way that I could never have imagined.

This blog has even led to some real-life encounters. In March of last year, I found this darling message on the ‘About’ page of my blog:

I really enjoy reading. I was researching some information because my husband works for Toyota and we will be coming for a visit on March 24th and leaving on the 31st. He has to go into work everyday and I’m on my own at the hotel. I have to admit I’m a little nervous. I’ve never been out of the country. We live in Lexington, KY in the United States. We are staying at the same Hotel, I think it’s called Toyota Castle.

The only language I know is English. If you can help or give me some advice I would really appreciate it. If you live near by the hotel I would love to meet you during the day. Thank you so much for sharing your information. I hope to hear from you and wish you nothing but happiness for you and your husband.

Best Regards,
Bonnie

Not one to pass up an opportunity to infect someone with my passion for Japan, I agreed to meet Bonnie. It turned out to be a wonderful experience. Knowing that Bonnie had never been to another country before, I was very impressed with how open-minded she was towards all the new experiences and impressions coming her way. As I watched her discover Japan, I felt like I was rediscovering everything myself as well. It was a pleasure to show her around.

One of the memories that stand out most to me, is the day we were wandering around the Toyota Municipal Museum grounds and stumbled upon a little tea house. There was an elderly lady tending to the tea house and she invited us inside. The weather was beautiful. Spring was in the air and nature was bustling with new life. The tranquility of the tea house and the hospitality of the elderly lady further contributed to the atmosphere of the moment. Bonnie was moved to tears. It truly was ‘ichigo ichie’ (a once in a lifetime moment).

Thank you Bonnie, for all those wonderful memories!

The tea house near Toyota Municipal Museum of Art

The tea house near Toyota Municipal Museum of Art

view from the tea house

The view from the tea house

Two gals out for a day of fun

Two gals out for a day of fun

The vicious deer of Nara

Nara is an ancient city not too far from Nagoya. At one point it was the capital of Japan (from 710 to 785). The most famous sites include the largest wooden structure on earth (Todaiji Temple), a 15m Buddha statue and the second tallest pagoda of Japan (Kofukuji Temple).

But never mind all that, because perhaps the most famous tourist attraction in Nara are the deer. Large numbers of Sika Deer (‘shika’ in Japanese) wander freely around the premises. Visitors can purchase rice crackers, called ‘shika senbei’, to feed the deer.

Sika deer in Nara

Sika deer in Nara

Nara deer everywhere

Deer everywhere!

selling shika senbei

A stall selling shika senbei, the special crackers to feed the deer.

At first sight, the deer seem quite tame. In fact, they appear to be downright lethargic.

This deer just couldn't be bothered, although I am practically in its face with my camera    This deer just couldn't be bothered, although I am practically in its face with my camera. Even when I start petting it, it acts as though I am not there.

This deer just couldn’t be bothered, although I was practically in its face with my camera. Even when I started petting it, it continued to act as though I was not there.

But don’t be fooled. Their innocence is but a ruse. As soon as they smell food, the deer of Nara turn into vicious predators. They stop at nothing to get hold of the rice crackers, even going as far as attacking the humans holding the crackers.

deer looking for food

Obtrusive deer looking for food. These people didn’t even buy shika senbei. They are just trying to enjoy a bit of yaki-imo (grilled sweet potato).

My personal deer feeding adventure soon turned into a shouting frenzy when one of the deer tried to head-butt me. Another person in our group got bitten in the  behind while feeding the deer.

In all fairness, the park authorities did warn us this might happen. Here is an overview of what the deer might do to you:

nara warning sign

Warning sign in Nara park

Be forewarned!

Return of the mukade

There are few Japanese animals as fabled and feared among expats in Japan as the poisonous Japanese centipede (called mukade in Japanese). Proof of this widespread fascination is the number of people who find their way to this blog on a daily basis, looking for mukade information.

Having been a Japan geek long before moving to Japan, I had of course heard of mukade. Some of you might remember my elation when I saw my first mukade only a few days into my stay in Japan. I can assure you that I felt equally elated about never meeting a mukade since that day. Until a few months ago, that is.

It is a beautiful day in May. My parents and I are having a walk in the forest, in the lovely town of Asuke (Toyota City).

forest in Asuke

Forest walk in Asuke

Suddenly my mother calls out. “Look at this interesting animal I have found”. What could it be? A butterfly? A squirrel perhaps? I rush over to see what it is. I catch a glimpse of a shining brown exoskeleton and bright orange legs. It’s the dreaded mukade! And a big one too. “Stay back!” I shout. “It’s a mukade”.

mukade

The mukade, who almost appears to be posing for the photograph

But there is no need for fear. The mukade completely ignores us. He’s just scrambling about the leaves, probably looking for a good place to hide from us. This provided me with some wonderful photo opportunities. The previous mukade I met (in the supermarket) ran straight towards me when I tried taking a picture.

After a year of living in Japan, I think it is safe to say that at least in the Toyota City and Nagoya area, there is no need to fear the mukade. I don’t know anyone who has had problems with mukade (apart from one horror story about ‘the mukade mountain’, an overgrown mountain that is apparently teeming with mukade and is causing some problems for the nearby apartment building).

So why are expats so afraid of this animal? Speaking from my own Belgian point of view, we are not used to giant, poisonous bugs. The most dangerous bugs we have around here are mosquitoes. In hot and humid Japan, the sheer size of the bugs is a trigger for expat imagination. And then we find out they are poisonous as well! That is one advantage to being back in Belgium: no more scary bugs!

Third time on the Tsubasaya blog! Hurray!

One of my favourite restaurants in Toyota City is a tavern (or in Japanese, an izakaya) called Tsubasaya. They have a blog where they post pictures of their guests. In the first two months of our stay in Japan, I had managed to end up on their blog twice.

The first time was at the end of July.

The second time was in the beginning of August.

This inspired me to aim at a once a month average and thus become a Tsubasaya star. Alas, my beginners luck ran out and I have not been featured on their blog since. That is, until today! Today I have the honour of being on the Tsubasaya blog for the third time. Admittedly, I did not accomplish this feat alone. I was in Tsubasaya yesterday with a big group of foreign ladies. Our banter attracted enough attention for the staff to take our picture at the end of the evening. So thank you ladies, for a fun evening and a helping hand in my attempts to achieve Tsubasaya stardom!

Toyota City expat ladies at Tsubasaya

Tsubasaya blog screenshot

Tsubasaya blog screenshot. The text above the photograph mentions all our nationalities. Click on the picture to go to the Tsubasaya blog.

Running out of gas in the middle of nowhere

During our recent trip to Hokkaido (see post about Hokkaido) we covered quite some distance by car. At one point we drove all the way from Hakodate to Kushiro, about 585 kilometers in one day.

Hokkaido from Hakodate to Kussharo

The blue line indicates our road trip

A large part of this route included highway, which is closed off by toll booths at the beginning and end. It turns out there are no gasoline stations (‘gasorin sutando’ in Japanese) on the highway in Japan, or at least not in Hokkaido. Here’s the story of how we found out:

We entered the highway above the left-most black arrow. We saw a gas station right before entering the highway but we still had enough gas for about 160 km. So no need to fill up the tank. Or so we thought.

So we start to drive. And drive. And drive some more. After about 100 km we start to get a little worried. Where are all the gas stations? When is this highway going to end? There’s not an exit in sight.

When the highway finally ends, after 127 km (right-most black arrow), we’re relieved. There’s bound to be a gas station soon. Right? Think again. The highway ends on a road that leads through the middle of nowhere. We’re in the mountains, night is setting in and we don’t even pass any side roads, just the entrance to a farm here and there.

Hokkaido mountains at dusk

The mountains at dusk. Very gloomy.

Meanwhile our estimated driving range has dropped to 4 km. Gulp. It’s time to do something now! So when we finally come across a side road, we make a turn. It’s supposed to lead to a village 12 km further. We start driving along this road, only to see this road take us further into the mountains and further into the middle of nowhere. By now our estimated driving range is 0 km.

Estimated driving range 0 km

Estimated driving range 0 km

Feeling slightly desperate, we decide to stop at the next farm to ask for directions. It feels strange just driving up someone’s farmyard but we don’t have a choice. After shouting ‘sumimasen’ for about 5 times, a very sleepy woman and an old man come to see what all the fuss is about. I can only imagine their surprise when they see two gaijin standing on their porch.

We try to explain in our best Japanese that we’re looking for a gas station. ‘Gasorin sutando???’ they repeat with a puzzled face, like we just asked them if there’s an ice cream parlour around here. After talking back and forth some more, it turns out there are no gas stations around here (we already figured as much). But they understand our problem and generously offer to sell us some of the gasoline they have in their barn.

They transfer 10 litres to our car and we shower them with thank you’s, bow about a hundred times and pay them 3 times the amount we would have paid at a gas station. With this we should be able to make it Kushiro.

I can hardly describe the relief we felt seeing the first houses by the roadside again, the first convenience store (a sure sign you’ve entered civilization) and of course the first gasoline station.

Gasoline station, Hokkaido

Finally a gas station!

Making friends at the izakaya

An izakaya – best compared with a tavern or a bar that also serves food – seems to be a great place to meet people. In a previous post you could read about our encounter with Asahi-san on our first evening in Japan (click here to read the post). A few nights ago, we had another encounter in an izakaya.

We were quietly sitting at a table in Tsubasaya, Dennis’s favourite izakaya, eating and minding our own business (trying to be well-behaved gaijin).

the entrance of Tsubasaya in Toyota city (I did not add these chickens myself)

A group of Japanese people stumbles in. Clearly it’s not their first izakaya visit of the evening, judging by the staggering walk that some of them have. They take up a box close to our table. As the box is not big enough to fit them all, some of them sit at the other end of our table. Of course I try to take a sneak photograph of the group without them noticing and of course they notice. Immediately their interest is sparked and the guys at our table start a conversation.

the sneak photograph - you can see the box in the background

As soon as the other members of the group notice that gaijin contact has been made, several of them flock to our table. A lively conversation starts. In Europe we always think that Japanese are silent, shy and reserved. But put them together in an izakaya, throw in some alcohol and you get quite the animated group of people (to use an understatement).

The result of the evening is that I am now on the Tsubasaya blog! The manager – a stately lady in kimono – saw me talking to a Japanese girl and exchanging telephone numbers. Inspired by this intercultural contact, she asked to take a picture to post on the Tsubasaya blog. Check out the Tsubasaya blog (click here)! If anyone could translate what they write about the picture, I would be most appreciative.

Tsubasaya blog screenshot

a sneak shot of the Tsubasaya manager