Wednesday 30 April 2014

Sumo food - Chanko nabe

Sumo wrestling as most of you would know is Japan's national sport.  It is no longer the most popular having been overtaken by baseball and football (or soccer depending on what part of the world you are from).  It is a sport rich in tradition and dates back approximately 1,500 years.  It has it's beginnings in religion, originally being a religious ceremony in the Shinto religion.  Also, as you may know, sumo wrestlers are pretty big guys, and the training that they go through each day is incredibly tiring, so these big boys need a lot of energy and that's where chanko nabe comes into the picture!

There is no fixed recipe when it comes to chanko nabe, it traditionally uses whatever ingredients are available.  It is typically high in protein, nutritious, easy to prepare and inexpensive, and therefore is perfect for stable masters to use to feed hungry sumo wrestlers!

A good number of retired sumo wrestlers open chanko nabe restaurants after they retire.  For a long time I have wanted to go to one and try chanko nabe, but not knowing how to read a lot of Japanese, I knew that I would probably never be able to understand the menus (sumo is sport that is rich in tradition and that tradition is held in high regard, so I knew that most chanko nabe restaurants would hold on to that tradition and therefore use a lot of traditional Chinese characters on their menus).  A friend of mine, Masa, knew about this and offered to take me to a chanko nabe restaurant that he knew of.  It is located in the district of Ginza so I made my way by train to Ginza to meet Masa.  The restaurant he had chosen was called Tamakairiki and is owned by a former Sumo wrestler who had the same name during his competition days.

Stepping inside the restaurant, you are left in no doubt as to the history and the theme of the restaurant as there is a mini sumo wrestling ring just inside the front door.

I felt like stripping down to my loincloth and challenging Masa, but being Japanese, he probably has better sumo technique than I do so I decided not to.

We were taken to our table with a view by our waiter and we sat down down and took in the view that also included the beautiful Kabukiza (traditional Japanese theatre) across the road.

I let Masa do the ordering as the menu was all in Japanese!  He ordered a few dishes to start with and a couple of beers to go with them.

Some of you may know the rules of sumo wrestling and some won't.  There are basically two ways to win a fight.  The first is to force the other sumo out of the ring.  The second is to make any part of your opponents body (apart from their feet) touch the ground.  There is one element of chanko nabe that is related to this second method of victory.  Masa told me that historically, chicken was the only meat used in chanko nabe (and still is during tournament times) as it is the only animal out of the major sources of meat in Japan that stands on two legs!  I found this incredibly interesting!

Soon the appetisers were brought out and included cucumber with a miso paste for dipping (the contrast of the crisp juiciness of the cucumber and the saltiness of the miso was nice), tsukune (minced chicken balls with a miso sauce and vegetables) and some yakitori (grilled chicken on a stick).

They were quickly polished off and then then centrepiece arrived.

The chanko nabe that we chose was made of a miso base soup and the other ingredients were pork, shrimp, scallops, onion, mushrooms, cabbage, tofu and minced chicken balls.   All that was needed was to turn on the heat and let it start cooking.

Stir occasionally and pretty soon it is ready to be eaten!

Conversation came to a standstill at this point as we all got busy eating like the hungry little sumo's we were!

At the end of the meal (or at what I thought was the end of the meal!) you are left with a pot of soup.  Masa looked at the menu and asked if I wanted to have udon noodles, soba noodles or rice to finish the meal with.  I requested rice and pretty soon a big bowl of rice came and it was tipped into the soup and the heat was turned on again.  Masa explained that the meal was only half finished and that we still had to enjoy the rest of the soup, now containing all of the flavours of the meat, seafood and vegetables that had been cooked in it!

The resulting dish was a porridge like dish that tasted so good!!

What an amazing meal!  I certainly felt I had a stomach the size of a sumo, but it was seriously delicious.

Masa said that he wanted to go to another place called "Bunka Yokocho" (Bunka Alley).  Now Masa reads my blog and knows about my fascination with small alleyways and to tell you the truth, I was intrigued by what we were about to see.

We got into a taxi and about 5 minutes later jumped out of the taxi again and started walking down a side street.

Soon we started walking under the train line (anyone who has read my post about Koenji will know about the treasures that can be found under train lines!)

Suddnely Masa turned a corner and started walking down this......

As you can clearly see, it is so small that three people walking side-by-side would not fit down here!!  It was amazing!  And there were restaurants down here!!

We walked out of the other side and I asked Masa to promise to bring me back here another time!

We finished our night at a busy standing bar in Ginza on Corridor Dori (Corridor Street), a nice way to finish a nice night!

This post doesn't finish here, however.  As I said, I got Masa to promise to take me back to Bunka Alley, and two weeks later we returned!

So, the concept behind Bunka Alley is that you can walk into any of the 10 - 15 izakayas (Japanese style restaurants) and there are no walls separating them!  You can order from the menu of any of the izakayas and the staff of the one that you are seated in will take your money down to the other place, place your order and pay for you.  When the food is ready, the staff from the other izakaya will then bring the food to your table at the place that you are seated in!  Fantastic!!  So how do you choose which one to sit in?  Easy, do what we did and find the one with the cutest waitress, and there's your selection!!

We walked inside, and what do you know, most of the menu had English translations!

The inside was nice,

as was the cute waitress who was the deciding factor about which izakaya to enter!  In this photo you can see through about 4 different izakayas.

So we ordered the lotus root with mustard,

some gyoza,

and some chicken with garlic and scallions.

We did also order some crispy, juicy fried chicken, but I was so busy enjoying it that I forgot to take a photo!

So, all up, a couple of uniquely Japanese dining experiences.  The food was good, the company was great, and if you have a chance to try chanko nabe or wish to visit Bunka Alley, I can definitely recommend both of them!

My great thanks to Masa for taking me to both places.  I definitely enjoyed both places!

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed being there, and hopefully it gave you a couple of ideas for when you visit Japan

See you next time! 


  1. Hi Jase,
    I'm glad you like it.
    Ask me anytime.
    Next would be Ra...


    1. Ramen???
      Thanks Masa for showing me these places.
      I appreciate it!


  3. Hi Jason,A very entertaining article as usual...peko peko desu!I went to Ginza in the late afternoon and evening and found a noodle shop..oishii katta desu.Went downstairs to another place before I found the noodle place and as I went down the stairs, I met one of the waiters coming up who said"man seki".I got close enough to the restaurant area to see that it looked full.I don't know if this is common,but I heard that some restaurants in Nihon don't want gaijin,so they tell them the place is full.It is not so much that they don't like foreigners,it is because they can't communicate with them in English,so causes embarrassment.Like you,I like those narrow streets.Good to see the Dons have a win,even if it was "ugly".May see Bellchambers in this week and Carlisle missing out.

    1. Hi Noel,
      not sure about that one, but I have never been turned away from a restaurant before. I generally choose my restaurants carefully and if I am by myself, only go to ones that I know will have a menu with pictures. If I am with a Japanese friend, as I was this time, then I don't need to worry about it.
      I think one thing that will start changing over the next 6 years, with the Olympics coming, is that I think we might see more and more restaurants with an English translation of their menus.
      I have yet to catch a replay of the game against the Bulldogs but may try to find a replay on Youtube tonight.
      Take care,