Tokyo's "Sumo Town": The diet secrets of a Japanese sumo wrestler

These are the most unusual "before and after" photos I've seen. 

In the corner of this celebrity-owned restaurant in Tokyo, a wall-mounted TV is showing a video on constant repeat.

Every 10 minutes, we lunchtime diners are re-introduced to a parade of young, healthy athletes who are then contrasted with photos of their older selves 10 years later. 

Now they are fat, bloated, smiling – and professionally acclaimed.

Yes, we're having lunch in Tokyo's "Sumo Town" – Sumida-Ryogoku, the inner-city, riverside suburb where sumo wrestlers have lived and dined for generations.

Our guide, Yuji, has bypassed several more charming-looking restaurants to bring us to this drab mall just a five-minute waddle from Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo's hallowed sumo stadium.

But Yuji's cunning plan is revealed when we enter the foyer of Chanko Kirishima and are greeted by a full length portrait of a youthful Kirishima Kazuhiro – one of Japan's most famous retired sumo wrestlers.

If Kirishima's portrait makes him look like "the Fat Elvis" (and that was in his thin period), his sumo career was thwarted by a vital defect. 

Try as he might, he struggled to gain weight. 

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A fitness fanatic who ran several kilometres at dawn before normal sumo weight training, Kirishima never reached the rank of yokozuna (the highest level of sumo wrestling). 

But having reached the second highest rank – ozeki – he gained fame as "a giant killer", defeating much heavier wrestlers than himself.

Now Kirishima owns a chain of eponymous restaurants, devoted to sumo-style food.

"Sumo wrestlers never eat breakfast," Yuji explains as we head past the photographers and reporters gathered outside Ryogoku Kokugikan. 

Japan's media has been dominated by a sporting scandal that involves three leading sumo wrestlers, a late night bar, a mobile phone, lack of respect for the strictly hierarchical code sumo wrestlers live by, and a fractured skull. (So AFL, NRL and cricketers aren't alone, then.)

"They train all morning," Yuji continues. "But then, they get hungry. 

"So the sumo wrestlers have a big lunch. Then they sleep to build up their body mass. When they wake up they have their second meal of the day."

Yuji seems to think we two Australian journalists might be showing promise as late blossoming sumo wrestlers because he over orders.

The "classic Chanko hot pot" is cooked at the table, and features chicken, fish, scallops, minced chicken balls, vegetables and either udon noodles or rice to soak up the gorgeous stock/soup that remains.

Frankly, if I was about to venture into a sacred circular ring and face a guy with man boobs the size of two small cherry blossom trees, I would probably skip lunch.

But then the average length of a top level sumo contest is around 60 seconds. (One of Japan's six elite sumo contests per year is being fought when I visit, so it's live on national TV: it doesn't take long to pick up the rules.)

So when Yuji orders starters (and an obligatory round of Asahi beer), we concur. Most of the starters are easily identified. That's a coarse-textured tofu. And those small elegantly coloured balls must be the fish roe? The grilled chicken wings need no introduction, nor do the various combinations of deep-fried fish cakes.

But what is that dark meat in the side bowl?

"Guess," says Yuji. 

"Wagyu beef?", I suggest.

"Guess again, and this time taste," Yuji continues, adding that it is best eaten with a touch of the horseradish relish that accompanies it (not wasabi: neither green nor eye-watering).

The sashimi is succulent: moist, tender and flavoursome – suitably spiced by the touch of horseradish.

"Any ideas?" Yuji asks. "No? Well, you've eaten basashi ..."

In English, he explains, that's raw horse … or "horse with a sauce" when combined with the horseradish.

My fellow journalist politely tries a couple of pieces of horse sashimi, but then folds her chopsticks. But not before Yuji has ordered another plate of basashi. ("The best in Tokyo," he says. "Tuck in.")

I know my limits. Despite my growing midriff, I'll never make it as a sumo wrestler. 

I just don't have the stomach for it.

MORE

traveller.com.au/japan

jnto.go.jp

STAY

Keio Plaza Hotel, in the heart of Shinjuku (one of Tokyo's most vibrant nightlife districts), is ideally placed on the rail/metro system for exploring greater Tokyo. See: keioplaza.com.

EAT

Chanko Kirishima Ryogoku Honten, 2-13-7, Ryogoku, Sumida-ku, Tokyo, 130-0026.

Steve Meacham was a guest of Keio Plaza Hotel.

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