Japan is a nation steeped in tradition. There is a profound reverence for nature and the seasonal foods it provides. Over the years, many dishes have become synonymous with certain areas of Japan as well as different traditional events. Dairy in Hokkaido, soba at New Year’s and…chicken at sumo?
A brief history of sumo
Sumo has been practised in Japan for over 1,000 years. In the olden days, sumo wrestlers were basically samurai employed by local lords to bout for entertainment. During Japan’s modernisation in the Meiji Era (1868–1912) the samurai class disappeared which threatened sumo’s future. However, despite criticisms of sumo wrestling being old-fashioned and barbaric, it continued on. In fact, the samurai topknot (muge) is still worn by sumo wrestlers to this day.
Sumo eventually regained popularity and in 1909 the Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo hall was built in order to house matches in Tokyo. As is common in Japan’s history, Kokugikan went through several transitions due to disastrous events such as the Great Kanto Earthquake and World War II. The current-day stadium was constructed in 1985 and has been entertaining spectators ever since.
The relationship between sumo and chicken
Chicken has become a symbol of good luck in sumo culture. In a match, the winning wrestler remains standing on two feet while the defeated loses balance, touching the ground with his hand or body. As a chicken can usually be seen on two feet and doesn’t have arms to touch the ground, it is the perpetual winner.
In addition to this, sumos need to consume quite a lot of food to maintain their strength and size, and the luckiest and most delicious food out there is chicken. One dish popular with sumos is chanko-nabe, a hot pot noodle dish packed with vegetables and protein. While recipes vary somewhat, the pivotal ingredient is, of course, the (lucky) chicken meatball.
Yakitori at the tournament
Chicken isn’t reserved for the wrestlers alone, it is in fact a traditional stadium food for spectators too. Since the 1950’s, fans would buy yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) from vendors outside the stadium gates and bring them in to enjoy later. It became widely believed that eating chicken while rooting for your favourite sumo wrestlers would bring them luck.
Some things stay the same
These days, the stadium’s underground kitchen prepares the food each day. During the tournament, workers of the Yakitori Department begin early to carefully prepare the chicken for all the well-wishers attending that day. Although the yakitori is now broiled under far infrared heaters, it is still seasoned the same way it would have been, charbroiled at the Kokugikan gates of yesteryear.
Available at several places other than Kokugikan
Previously ‘Kokugikan yakitori’ was only available on-site during regular tournaments. However, you can now purchase it at bento stores inside JR Stations Tokyo, Ueno, Shinjuku, Omiya and Hachioji as well as ‘Soramachi’ in Tokyo Sky Tree Town and Meijiza (Meiji Theatre).
While the best time to enjoy ‘Kokugikan Yakitori’ is during a sumo match, it’s an easy-to-get traditional stadium food and certainly worth a try!
Visit the Kokugikan Website.
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