Born Aoki Yasushi but known as Onokuni during his wrestling days when he was a yokozuna Grand Champion – the highest ranking position in professional sumo – today 47-year-old Master Shibatayama runs a sumo stable in Tokyo.
On the fourth floor above the neon lights and crowds of Shinjuku is a serene retreat with tatami floors and sliding screens: Yamato Raku, one of a chain of nine restaurants. The tofu comes from the owner’s factory in the Adachi area of Tokyo, where they keep 10 tanks of yuba – fine layers of tofu skin – 3,000 pieces are produced a day.
Salad with baby leaves, Kyoto carrots, Japanese ginger and watercress; a clear shrimp soup; three different types of yuba; turnip in a crab sauce; red miso soup; dessert is “anmitsu” – namafu, azuki bean paste, cubes of agar jelly and sweet sauce.
The secret behind sumo wrestlers’ gargantuan frame may not be one that average-sized diners are keen to emulate. But chanko nabe, the signature dish that fuels their girth-expanding growth, can be very healthy in modest portions and is increasingly popular.
The one-pot body-building broth contains large amounts of protein-rich chicken, fish, tofu and vegetables with a “dashi” soup base. It is its consumption in vast quantities, combined with a tough exercise regime and afternoon naps, that creates the famously large sumo physique.
For 70 years, former sumo stars have been opening chanko nabe restaurants after retiring from the sport. In 1937, former wrestler Yokoteyama opened the doors of Kawasaki Chanko, Tokyo’s first such restaurant. Since then, the dish has become increasingly adored, with a string of restaurants serving the hearty stew across the capital.
Three top chanko nabe restaurants:
- Kawasaki Chanko, still in family hands after 73 years, remains the original father of chanko nabe restaurants.
- Tomoegata, named after its champion founder, is filled with sumo memorabilia.
- Waka in Roppongi offers a contemporary take on nabe chanko as perceived through the eyes of its former sumo wrestler owner Masaru Hanada.