“SUMO wrestlers don’t eat until noon,” Satoshi Okawa says. “They practice early in the morning until they have worked up an appetite and then eat lunch until their stomachs cannot take anymore.”
62-year old Hokkaido local Okawasan recalls the strict eating regime he had to follow during his days as a sumo wrestler. He was 16 when a talent scout recruited him off his high school’s baseball ground in Mikasa. What followed was a five-year sumo wrestling career at the Asahiyama-beya stable in Tokyo in the third highest and most heavily contested sumo division, the Makushita division.
40 years later and Okawa-san (right) brings to Kutchan what famous wrestler Konishiki once called a legal steroid – “chankonabe”. Konishiki bulked up to 287kg with the help of this protein rich stew which is the main course of a sumo meal. Okawa-san has been successful in the chankonabe restaurant business for 35 years and his expertise can be experienced at his new restaurant, named after the centre of sumo wrestling culture in Tokyo, Ryogoku.
As you enter Ryogoku you will see it’s not just about indulging in sumo food, but also immersing yourself in sumo culture. The restaurant is an exhibition of Okawa-san’s professional past. Pictures, tournament schedules and the Yokozuna belt of former sumo champion Kitanoumi are on display. The interior could be described as East-meets-West fusion. You sit on the raised wooden floor on zabuton – traditional Japanese cushions. The black walls, bright wooden furniture and small fireplace create a cosy and warm ambience. If you prefer tables and chairs and a smoke-free environment you can book one of the four large private rooms upstairs without an extra charge. Including the counter, Ryogoku has seating capacity for 68 people.
You can chose from four chankonabe sets with salt, kimchi and miso broth with up to 22 different types of meat and vegetables. Prices per person ranges from ¥1500 to ¥2000. We are served Yokozuna, which contains the best seafood and vegetables Hokkaido has to offer.
Okawa-san’s wife Saiko is tossing crab legs, prawns, chicken, tofu, shiitake mushrooms, scallops and several green vegetables into a boiling soup made from chicken stock. While the stew is cooked in a simmering pot at our table, Okawasan explains that sumo wrestlers can eat up to 10 bowls of chanko together with several bowls of rice. We marvel over the nutty flavour of freshly ground sesame seeds in our bowls, as we finally pour the stew over it.
The basic stock brings out the flavour of the juicy meat and fresh vegetables. With the soup being subtle, the food tastes wholesome. As scallops, crab legs and prawns disappear, there is room in the pot for the kishimen noodles which always go in last when the broth has developed its full flavour. I am having a hard time finishing my second bowl.