From Kyoto, it was about a 3 hour trip on a bullet train to Fukuoka, the largest city on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. A little off the beaten tourist path, I was headed down here because each November this port city hosts one of the six official sumo tournaments that are held in Japan each year. While I had been trying to surpress my desire to neatly plan out this whole trip in colour-coded spreadsheet and go with the flow a little more, once I found out we would have the chance to see Japan’s national sport that was one thing I knew I was definitely locking in well ahead of time.
Besides the sumo, the other thing that I was excited to experience in Fukuoka was their ramen scene – this is the birthplace of tonkotsu ramen after all. This type of ramen base is made by simmering pork bones or marrow until it becomes delectably milky and rich, and it’s my favourite type of broth. My first stop was Hakata Issou, an popular but unassuming little restaurant just a few blocks behind Hakata Station. It was pretty quiet when I visited at about 4pm, and when I walked in the aroma of pork hit me like a wall! Ramen shops worth their yen spend days preparing their broth, and you could tell that this one had pork bones simmering away all day long – I could actually smell the pork on my skin for hours afterwards. The ramen was, as expected, extremely rich, and combined with tender pork and a silky egg it was a winner in my books.
The next morning, I was up bright and early for the sumo. The tournament runs all day, and while most people only turn up for the senior matches in the evening I wanted to spend as much of the day as I could here soaking up the atmosphere. Plus I had paid top dollar for traditional box seats, and I wanted to get value for money! I walked over from the hotel which took about 30 minutes, and on my way in I stopped at a delightful little bakery called ‘Heart Bread’ as I wasn’t sure if there would be food at the tournament. I knew it was likely there would be, but we all know by now that being stuck somewhere without food is my worst nightmare.
While I had pretty good seats, I took the opportunity when I arrived to a pretty empty stadium to sneak down into one of the boxes closer to the ring to get a better look at the action. Not knowing much about sumo I wasn’t really able to tell much about how good the matches were, but I learnt a lot about the rituals associated with sumo watching these early matches.
When the sumo wrestlers enter the stadium they sit across from each other while waiting for their match, which starts to build the tension. Once it is their turn they step up to the ring and begin the purification rituals. First, they turn outwards from their corner, squat, lift each leg high in the air, and stomp it down – this is to stamp any bad spirits out of the ring. They then rinse their mouth with water from a special ladle, and wipe their face with a special cloth – this part to cleanse their body. They then enter the ring, throwing salt as they do to purify the ring. They then squat down facing each other, clap their hands and then raise their arms high in the air before stomping their feet again – this is to demonstrate to each other that they don’t have any weapons. After the first couple of times they did this they usually left the ring. After about 3 rounds they would begin to wrestle, which usually only took about 10 seconds once it got going.
Wrestlers lose if they step outside the ring, or if they touch the ground with any body part besides the soles of their feet. If there is any dispute about which happened first, the referees sitting on each side of the ring convene in the middle to make a decision.
After watching the first set of matches, I ventured out to get – you guessed it – more food. I realised when I got outside that some of the senior wrestlers were arriving, and there was quite a crowd gathered to applaud them as they came in. Not knowing any of them didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for sticking around to watch – it was fun to see everyone get excited when a car rolled up and a new wrestler made their way through the doors. While people seemed keen to see their favourites, there was a lot of respect for the space the occupied – even in the absence of any barriers everyone stayed well back to let them through.
Coming back in after grabbing some yakisoba, the stadium had started to fill up for the senior matches. There was much more of a buzz around the place, and a lot of cheering when all the senior wrestlers came out for the pre bout ritual.
After that it was more of the same, except that with the stadium filling up the fans became much more interesting. My experience of Japanese people so far had been that they were fairly reserved, so it was particularly fascinating to watch them get all riled up about their favourite wrestler, waving signs in the air and screaming their name over and over. From the couple in front of me that must have been pushing 90+, to the group of primary school kids at the back, everyone was getting really into it and it was so much fun. Every time the wrestlers would enter and retreat from the ring the chants would get louder and the atmosphere more electric, before they finally charged at each other.
After the final match of the night, the ultimate victor was crowned and the tournament ended with one of the wrestlers carrying out a dance with a curved bow. As with most of the tournament, I was surprised with the gracefulness, agility and flexibility of the sumo wrestlers. It flew right in the face of my uneducated guess of what sumo wrestling would be, and it was interesting to think about how much exercise they must need to do to be that agile, and also how much they must get to eat to maintain the size required for the sport.
On my way home after the match I stopped at Ramen Stadium, which is a food court with eight different ramen restaurants on the top floor of the Canal City shopping mall in central Fukuoka. As I had found in Japan, just because a restaurant was located in a shopping mall or a department store it didn’t mean it was something to be passed over, as is usually the case in Australia. I had my second bowl of Hakata tonkotsu ramen here, at Shodai Hidechan Ramen, as well as some pork gyoza and chilli sauce, despite having eaten a full bowl of yakisoba not so long ago. It wasn’t quite as rich as the one I had for dinner the previous night, which was a relief, and pork once again was perfectly cooked.
On the way out, I saw a Christmas themed light show complete with Santa and water fountains spraying in time to the music. It was a pretty elaborate production given the mall was close to empty, but just another example of how extra Japan is most of the time!
The next morning I stopped for coffee at Manu coffee, before heading over to Mengekijou Genei, a ramen ‘theatre’ where all the seats face the stage where the chefs whip up their marvellous creations. With a sense of deja vu, I ordered tonkotsu ramen and pork gyoza, but this time the ramen came with chilli and pork mince instead of chunks of meat. It actually turned out to be the best ramen I had in Fukuoka. While I had enjoyed the others, and I thought I liked my tonkotsu strong, the intensity of the pork broth had actually bordered on a little too much for me in the previous two meals, but this one struck the right balance.
After that, it was time to wander back past the hotel, pick up my bags and jump on the train for Hiroshima. A quick stop for icecream, as well as a matcha and white chocolate scone and strawberry mille-feuille for the train (oops), and my adventures in Fukuoka had come to an end.