Feeding time at the young sumo stable
THE words chanko nabe, chanko nabe kept cropping up throughout the day. First over breakfast when my Japanese host uttered them to the accompaniment of an anticipatory rub of the stomach and a knowing wink.
They were repeated as I paid an early morning visit to a sumo training session, lunched lightly on soba noodles and then sat awestruck through the final bouts in that day's action at the Kyushu-basho, or sumo tournament.
No sooner had the giant Hawaiian-born Akebono sent challenger Takahanada crashing out of the clay ring to win the tournament than our hosts were at it again: ''Chanko nabe, chanko nabe.'' Wink, rub. Wink, rub.
An hour later, the secret of the chanko nabe was revealed. Simply put, it is the lifeblood of sumo wrestlers; the glue that binds the disparate practitioners of this centuries-old sport.
It's their grub.
Chanko nabe is a stick-to-your-ribs casserole peculiar to the ranks of rikishi or sumo wrestlers who eat it morning, noon and night. The invitation to dinner at a local sumo stable meant we were being invited to sample the food of the gods.
We eventually found the stable on the outskirts of Fukuoka, a pre-fabricated two-storey structure in a typically minimalist Japanese design. Once there, our host, Nishimura-san, showed us to our places, on the floor around a low-rise table in the centre of a tatami-ed room.
Then came the first surprise of the evening: the waiters. None of them can have weighed under 110kg, all wore colourful track suits and all had cherubic faces.
It turned out that they were all teenagers, 15-to 18-year-old apprentices at the Nishimura stable which specialises in recruiting and training junior wrestlers.
Training aside, it seems the centre's main purpose is to pour gallons of chanko nabe into the youngsters so as to develop the vast bulk and bottom-heavy pear shape essential to any good rikishi.
And we were there for dinner! Initial anxiety (''why, oh why did I have that ice-cream at the tournament?'') eased slightly when Mr Nishimura poured drinks, made small talk and then unveiled a massive dish of sashimi.
Alas, the joy brought on by the sight of wafer-thin slices of tuna, salmon and octopus was short lived. Two of our man-mountain waiters lugged in a steaming cauldron from the kitchen, set it down on a hot plate in the middle of the table, prompting a frenzy of belly rubbing and anticipatory hissing.
Dinner began and soon settled into a punishing rhythm. Beer was consumed and the glasses recharged by massive hands. Bowls, too, were filled to the brim with the casserole.
Chanko nabe turned out to be a relatively uncomplicated casserole: a combination of vegetables, chicken, fish and deep-fried beancurd. Tasty too.
After bowl one, we made a refreshing foray into the sashimi tray which even included a novelty in horsemeat sashimi.
And so we settled into a highly enjoyable rhythm: beer, stew, sashimi. Beer, stew, sashimi.
Shortly after we finished bowl one, the young wrestlers headed for their own table where they got well and truly stuck in. Each sat with a large bottle of beer at his elbow and a huge, steaming bowl of rice beside his helping of chanko nabe. Not only didthey ladle the casserole into their mouths, but each mouthful was chased down with mounds of rice.
Perhaps, inspired by this awesome process, I renewed my assault on the horsemeat and casserole. Until, that is, one of my Japanese companions gave me a polite nudge in the ribs and whispered an instruction to take it easy because things were about to getheavy.
Sure enough, Nishimura-san issued a command, my Japanese host caught my eye with an I-told-you-so look, and one of the waiters cheerfully tossed handfuls of udon noodles into the still-bubbling casserole.
With an inward groan and an outward ''thanks, I'd love another bowl'', I got stuck into the heaving mass. Things began to get hazy. I have a vague, disturbing memory of the junior giants warbling sweetly through ethereal Japanese karaoke numbers and a sharper memory of a conscious decision not to eat anything for a week.
Most painful of all was the realisation that the young men at the Nishimura stable would be going through the process again in about 12 hours.
When it comes to mixing sport and food, I think I'll stick to weak tea, cucumber sandwiches and cricket.