The Lost Episode: Drift On

(Note: This was originally written in February 2012.)

The year is 2006. In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffers a massive stroke, sending him into the permanent vegetative state in which he remains to this day. In the Pacific, an earthquake rocks Indonesia, killing more 6,000 and leaving over a million more homeless. In Germany, Italy wins its fourth World Cup after French star Zinedine Zidane bludgeons a chatty opponent with his expansive forehead.

And in America, millions of young men, ages 16 to 29, flock to multiplexes across the nation, drawn in by a little movie with big ideas about courage, friendship, and the inertia of hope.

I’m talking, of course, about The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.

Less a movie than a master course on philosophy in motion, Tokyo Drift swept through America with the devastating speed and precision of protagonist Sean Boswell in his climactic showdown against Tokyo’s reigning Drift King, the Yakuza-connected Takashi. Almost overnight, drift-fever seized the nation, and an automotive lifestyle was born.

Actually, no, that didn’t happen. But Tokyo Drift did gross $158M, and if you don’t mind a movie set in Japan where everyone speaks perfect English, it’s pretty entertaining. I saw the movie on TV a couple of years ago, enjoyed it, and hadn’t thought about it since.

Until last month. I was having a conversation over drinks with an acquaintance of mine, Kazu, whose relationship to me will be left ambiguous for obvious reasons. (Note: Not his real name.) Anyway, Kazu and I were chatting about very ordinary matters when the topic of cars came up.

Now, this is a favorite subject of men around the world, but one I’ve always felt a little out of place discussing. I’ve never owned a car. To me, a car is a mode of transportation rather than a status symbol or a fetish object. I know nothing about car parts, car maintenance, car makers, car anything. When cars become a topic of conversation, I just try not to embarrass myself.

This passive silence suits me well in Japan because, even if I knew something about cars, I probably wouldn’t know how to say it in Japanese. So when Kazu whipped out his phone to show me a picture of his ride, I nodded my head and gave a perfunctory response. As I was preparing to change the subject, he said in English, “I practice drift.”

That got my attention. “Uhh… Tokyo Drift?” I said.

A flash of recognition. “Drift is Japanese culture,” he replied. You don’t say?

He didn’t say too much more about it, and I didn’t press him, but later we went back to his apartment, where we drank beer and watched Japanese drifting videos with his wife while his four-month-old daughter slept in the other room. Before I departed, I worked up the liquid courage to ask him whether I could watch him drift sometime. “Okay, okay,” he said, and gave me his phone number.

Over the next month, I tried to follow-up on this offer as delicately as possible. I didn’t want to intrude, but I most definitely did want to see him drift in person. Finally, I got a text in Japanese: “Tonight, I will go. Meet at my apartment at 11.” It was on.

Needless to say, I was excited, curious, and a little nervous. Most of the things I get invited to by Japanese people are work- or community-related functions. Only on rare occasions am I invited to something of a more intimate, less public nature. And this was about as intimate as it gets, since, strictly speaking, what we were going to do wasn’t exactly street legal.

Just before 11, I met him outside his house. Now, let me say this about Kazu: he’s about the most-unassuming lawbreaker you can imagine. Quiet, well-groomed, and a devoted family man at 22, if someone told you he breaks the law on a weekly basis, you would probably guess that he downloads movies illegally on the internet. (He does that, too.) You would definitely NOT guess that he is involved in a street racing syndicate.

Unless you saw his car, in which case you might begin to have some suspicions. Because this ain’t no normal car. It’s a shakotan, or Japanese low-rider, and it’s tricked out with all kinds of custom parts, the likes of which I can’t even begin to describe. It has lights like a spaceship and an engine that roars like its breaking the surly bonds of Earth. The entire back of the car is gutted, save for some rear-mounted speakers, so behind the two front seats, there’s nothing but empty space and other assorted car parts. This is designed to tip the equilibrium of the car towards the front, so that the back wheels will slide more easily.

When he came out of the house, Kazu wasn’t dressed in the trendy, fitted styles that he wears to the office. Instead, he had on a mechanic’s jumpsuit and a wool cap. We made a pit-stop at a convenience store so that he could buy cigarettes. I bought beer. There are no open container laws in Japan, even in cars, so long as the driver has had nothing to drink. And if I was going to be hanging with a bunch of cigarette-smoking, jumpsuit-wearing, drift-racing Japanese guys, I was going to have to loosen up.

We headed to an undisclosed location outside of town, far away from any houses or people. We didn’t talk much on the drive and the sound of Japanese hip-hop played over the car’s growling engine. On the straightaways, Kazu opened her up a little bit, giving me a taste of what his lady can do.

Finally, we saw the lights of two cars idling by the side of an otherwise pitch-black mountain road. Kazu rolled down the window and shouted to the other cars. Abruptly, they peeled out and headed up the mountain. Kazu followed them.

Coming in, I really had no idea what to expect. When someone tells you that they “practice drift,” and this is your only frame of reference, well, you try not to over-think it. And besides, I had only asked to watch, which I assumed meant drinking a beer and standing at a safe distance. As we lurched up the mountain and Kazu floored the accelerator, it became clear that I would be doing more than just that.

Like most things that adrenaline-junkies will do for a rush, the thrill of drifting is hard to describe. What does it feel like to ride a roller-coaster or jump out of an airplane? I’ve done both, but I’m not sure I can describe either in a meaningful way, beyond emphasizing that they are worth trying for yourself. The difference with drifting is that the rush feels more authentic. The appeal of a roller-coaster ride or a tandem skydive is the simulation of danger in a controlled environment. It feels like you could get hurt, but really, the risks are managed and minimal.

Drifting is different. My stomach hugging against my ribs, I gripped the seat-belt with both hands as we came into the first turn. The course Kazu and his friends use is well-suited for drifting, not just because of its remoteness, but also because the mountain roads are banked wide at the turns to accommodate runaway trucks. Even so, the road is not an actual race course, and it has a drainage ditch on one side that is, well, to be avoided.

I didn’t get to see the mechanics of how Kazu controlled the wheel because my eyes were locked on the car in front of us, watching it carve a wide arc across both lanes as the tires squealed and smoked. Before I could steel myself, we entered the turn. Kazu hit the break and cranked the wheel, throwing the car into a (barely) controlled slide as it fishtailed past the guard rail.

Coming out of the turn, I saw the car ahead of us going into another, so I braced for the slide. And by braced for the slide, I mean that I screamed. Loudly. If the noise bothered Kazu, he didn’t say so, though he can’t hear much over the noise of the engine and screech of the tires.

Controlling the car requires all of his attention, anyway. I’ve never really thought of race-car drivers as athletes, but that’s a position I’m reconsidering. As an athlete, I’ve been in the zone enough times to recognize it in someone else.

After the third turn, we slowed and came to a stop. I kept screaming. Turning to me, Kazu smiled. “That’s the feeling, right?” he said in Japanese. It is certainly a feeling. Satisfied, he nosed the car around, and we bombed back down the course in much the same fashion.

Though similar, the ride down had still another surprise waiting in store for me. As the course bottomed-out and we entered the final turn, Kazu threw the emergency brake and, without warning, launched the car into a full 180 degree turn. Afterwards, as I struggled to collect myself, he smiled and calmly said, “Spin.”

After that, Kazu ran the course up and down behind the other car over and over, flirting with the guard-rail again and again. Every so often, the drifters stopped to examine their cares and perform maintenance, changing tires and fiddling with engines. They smoked cigarettes. I drank beer.

Drifting is murder on tires. The back tires take the brunt of it. The course was scoured with dozens of jet-black trails of melted rubber. The tires themselves sprouted ribbons of rubber that had to be peeled away in between runs.

If the tires take the worst of it, clearly, the cars themselves take a beating, too. Kazu’s car, although obviously well cared-for, shows plenty of evidence of this abuse. The front windshield has spidery cracks on one side. The passenger door is dimpled with divots and gouges, none of which are terribly reassuring. And the back bumper is all kinds of beat to hell, cracked and broken and held together in places by some kind of industrial threading material. Certainly, there have been some crashes. Presumably, they’ve been minor, and no one has gotten hurt. I didn’t ask.

Although I referred to this as drift-racing, it’s really more of a club than a competition. They might try to one-up each other a little bit, but it’s not a race. While Kazu was fooling around with his engine, another car showed up, and the guy who climbed out of it announced his presence with a swagger that could only belong to the club’s senior member, or Drift King, as I came to know him. And, like any self-respecting Drift King, he came with a girl in tow, a pretty Japanese swaddled in jackets and blankets against the mountain wind.

Perhaps because he was with his girl, he had come just to hang out and not to burn rubber. I went with him and his girlfriend up to the “Gallery Corner,” an embankment set back from the course, to get another view of the action. From this vantage point, we watched the Kazu and his friend drift, which allowed me to see two things that are easily missed from inside the cockpit: (1) The incredible volume of smoke that comes off the tires during a drift turn, which resembles a forest fire from a distance; and (2) The sparks that fly from the fender and spray into the night, which seem like they might actually cause a forest fire.

I was standing at “Gallery Corner,” watching Kazu lead through the turn, when a huge POP resounded against the trees. The trail car driven by Kazu’s friend immediately slowed up and turned around, limping back to the starting line on three tires. I assumed this would end the evening, especially since it was almost 2 AM, but these guys had spare tires and other ideas.

Evidently, the blown tire had convinced the Drift King it was time for a “lesson.” One of Kazu’s friends, who had been riding shotgun in the other car, was a novice drifter who had recently bought his own shakotan. The Drift King was about to teach him how to use it.

In a nearby parking lot, the Drift King set up shop with an illuminated traffic cone. For practice, the novice drove his car around the cone in tighter and tighter circles, building up speed. Then, he would throw the break and try to drift his car around the cone, with mixed results. After a few attempts, he would climb out and go over to the Drift King, who would give him notes, drawing diagrams in the air with the lit end of his cigarette.

After yet another aborted slide, the Drift King evidently tired of such feeble efforts, because he climbed into the driver’s seat and shoved his protege aside. Without ceremony, he floored the accelerator, hit the break, and expertly slid the car in a circle around the cone. But he didn’t stop there, sending the car into a second revolution, a third, a fourth. After five full revolutions around the cone, he let the car drift to a stop. The Drift King coolly opened his door. The rookie stumbled out, queasy and panting.

Finally, at just before 4 AM, it was time to go. The Drift King’s dutiful girlfriend, who had been sitting idly in his car for hours, had to get back before her mother realized she was gone. And Kazu had to be home before the sun (and his infant daughter) rose to start another day.

When we arrived back at his house, Kazu asked me if I wanted to join him again next weekend. I declined, and he smiled, knowingly. With that, he bid me goodnight and stepped inside his tidy apartment, leaving a thick black streak of tire grease behind on the brass doorknob.



The Battle of the Bars

They can’t say they weren’t warned.

I begged them to reconsider. I told them, in no uncertain terms, that it was outside the scope of my expertise. They laughed. They didn’t listen.

As far as I know, this is a uniquely Japanese problem. In the United States, when someone tells you they can’t do something, we generally take such an admission at face value. In Japan, however, even if one is highly proficient at a skill, it is customary to downplay that ability for the sake of humility. Regardless of skill level, Japanese speakers of English routinely go out of the way to belittle their own competency, even though the conversation itself tells me everything I need to know about their degree of familiarity with the language. In an American, I might see this tendency as disingenuous, the affectation of one taken to fishing for compliments. But in Japan, it’s not false modesty as much as cultural programming: boastfulness is held in particularly low regard, even by those who have a reason to be so.

There’s usually nothing wrong with this–it makes for a society general devoid of blowhards–except when actual shortcomings are mistaken for culturally-codified modesty. I ran afoul of this miscommunication last year, when I got roped into an impromptu gymnastics lesson with an instructor who refused to believe I couldn’t do handstand. And it reared its head again two weeks ago, when the teachers at one of my elementary schools asked me to lead the students in a cooking class.

At first, I tried to explain that such was out of the question, but they insisted on the grounds that, “Well, you cook for yourself, don’t you?” Yes, I admitted, but that doesn’t make my food fit for public consumption. After all, I come from the land of the “Garbage Plate,” and most of the food that comes out of my kitchen is better suited to a trough than a plate. But in spite of disclaimers and caveat emptors, they weren’t taking no for an answer.

Fortunately, I had an ace up my sleeve: my mother, who in addition to being a strong cook is a genuinely world-class pastryist. After receiving her counsel, I picked a recipe that seemed idiot-proof: toffee bars.

Now, I have no idea why these are called “toffee” bars. A cursory search for “toffee” reveals that it is made by caramelizing sugar, a step which is conspicuously absent from the recipe for toffee bars. But we’ll leave that for the big wigs at Toffee Magazine to understand–I can’t be bothered with such trifles. (Although from the looks of it, the people in charge of Toffee Magazine are probably more concerned with ironically wearing their over-sized wigs than they are with the finer points of what is and is not toffee.)

Toffee or not, though, there were hurdles to clear. For one thing, the school was paying for all the materials and ingredients, which while very generous of them meant that I had to prepare a list of said in Japanese. With help, I was able to do so, going so far as to include step-by-step baking instructions in Japanese. When I heard nothing further on the subject, I assumed that my directions had been understood, and that everything was in order.

Initially, my optimism seemed well-founded. Arriving at the school, I spoke with the teacher coordinating the class, who said nothing to suggest that anything was amiss. But when I arrived in the kitchen, it didn’t take long for problems to emerge.

One of the big differences between kitchens in Japan and those typical of the U.S. is the absence of an oven. Very few Japanese homes have ovens, instead relying on multifunction microwaves and rice cookers (???) for simple baking jobs. Anticipating this could be a problem, I had asked the teacher if the school’s kitchen had an oven, which I was told it did.

What I should have asked is, “How many ovens do you have?” Because when I walked into the kitchen, it was immediately apparent that all 30 students would be sharing the same (small) oven. Rather quickly, it became clear that the teacher with whom I had coordinated the class, while having read the recipe’s instructions and gone about purchasing the ingredients, hadn’t read them carefully enough to consider the logistics of what their execution would require, vis-a-vis the time-oven-space continuum. An inauspicious start. (To her credit, she is a terrific teacher, and has enough on her plate as it is.)

In adherence to the list of ingredients, we fared better, but as they are wont to do, the limitations of rural Japan imposed themselves. There was no cooking spray–only a jug of canola oil. Unable to get chocolate chips, the teacher had bought chocolate sprinkles, which are not the same. In lieu of dark or semi-sweet chocolate bars, she had bought milk chocolate. And, perhaps facing budgetary constraints, the total chocolate purchased amounted to just over 1/3 of what the recipe called for. The materials suffered likewise. Instead of real, non-stick baking pans, we had flimsy aluminum pans, the kind you usually see on picnic tables at family reunions loaded with mac and cheese.

But. But but but. Praise be to Ron Popeil, god of kitchen implements, for we had hand-mixers.

You see, while simple to make, toffee bars require a considerable measure of elbow grease in that they involve “creaming” butter and sugar. Not being a baker, I had to google “creaming” to see what it was, something I recommend doing with your SafeSearch filter on. Needless to say, it is taxing under the best circumstances, but truly arduous if done by hand. But with hand-mixers ready to deploy, the winds seemed to be rising at our backs.

Fool! Did you think it was going to be that easy?

Their brightly colored boxes and sweet racing stripes inspired a false sense of confidence in the horsepower of our mixers. Within minutes, one had broken, and two others were rapidly succumbing to their thick, buttery task. As I surveyed the kitchen, I saw students furiously pounding the batter by hand, hammering it with whisks, spatulas, and potato mashers. Sugar. Everywhere sugar.

Ron Popeil, why have you forsaken me?

The situation was becoming dire, and emergency measures had to be taken. From the staff room, troop reinforcements were sent up to help with the creaming. The two remaining, highly-functional hand-mixers began to be passed around double-time, while on the outskirts of the fray, students were mobilized to begin melting their inadequate chocolate supply ahead of schedule to save time.

There were casualties. I don’t like to talk about it. Of the five baking pans of finished batter, only two of them made it into and out of the oven by the end of the period. The other three were… left behind. And not a day goes by I don’t think of them and wonder what they might have tasted like.

In the end, though, toffee triumphed over adversity. Or, I dunno, I guess it isn’t actually toffee. Why the hell are they called toffee bars?! Whatever. Anyway, there was enough to go around, and all the students and teachers got to try some. Although pitifully lacking in chocolate, they still tasted more or less the way I remember, which is to say, damn good.

But today–a day which will live in infamy–I fly my oven mitt at half-mast, in memory of unbaked toffee, or whatever, taken before its time. And I make this solemn vow:


Big in Japan

Sadanofuji, the pride of Kazusa

Sadanofuji, the pride of Kazusa

The first thing you notice is their size.

In the landscape of contemporary Japanese values, sumo wrestling seems anachronistic and out of place. So much of Japanese society is predicated on the desire to be ever smaller, ever more efficient, always producing more and consuming less. These values are identifiable in Japan’s approach to natural resources, but are also a staple of Japanese aesthetics, where minimalist design principles have been a hallmark for a thousand years. Today, sleek is probably the operative word in Japanese style: whether cars, electronics, or clothing, the desired look is taut. (Think Daniel Craig in Tom Ford, minus the muscles, and Asian.) This isn’t to say that the Japanese are immune to the allure of Big Things. But while they are eminently capable of excess, the appeal of Big Things in Japan is more a matter of novelty than the instinctive desire to outsize your neighbor. Bigger isn’t better—it’s just different.

And we haven’t even mentioned food yet. Japan is certainly in on the food-as-fetish-property phenomenon, but it seems like people here would rather take pictures of their food than eat it, because losing weight is the only thing more popular among the Japanese than animal-shaped bento. Although the Japanese diet is not as healthy as it once was, the portions remain small enough that most Japanese are able to stay svelte, the better to ostracize the heavyset among them. While Americans like to complain about the unrealistic standards we set for ourselves, the truth is that Americans are collectively fat enough that we tend to tolerate each other’s hugeness with a modicum of tact. Americans have a reputation for rudeness, but in fact, you’re much more likelihood to be called out on your spare tire by a Japanese person. Being fat is a mark of poor health, and in a country where the life expectancy is still just about the longest in the world, unhealthy habits draw commentary. (Sometimes. Japanese men smoke and drink like Raymond Chandler characters and it goes unmentioned.) Being heavy—never mind obese—is so stigmatized that many Japanese people won’t hesitate to comment if you gain weight. It isn’t necessarily meant as a cutting or malicious remark, just a matter-of-fact assessment of your slothful winter gorging. “Boy, it sure is cold today. Also, that shirt seems like it won’t be able to contain your expanding girth much longer. Well, otsukare sama desu.”

So it is perplexing that Japan’s national sport, and one of its most hallowed traditions, glorifies its most rotund athletes. While NFL offensive linemen bear a passing similarity to sumo wrestlers, football games are lengthy enough, and require enough running, to mitigate their girthiness to some degree. Sumo wrestling dispenses with these trifles: matches rarely last longer than 30 seconds, and the action is contained within the dohyo, a 16 square-meter ring that makes it basically impossible to build up a head of steam. As far as I can tell, sumo wrestlers never compete more than once in a day, so over the course of a week-long tournament, a wrestler might fully exert himself for only 3 or 4 minutes total. Such a schedule leaves ample time for grazing.

Though grazing isn’t the right word, because it implies a slow, leisurely intake. For sumo wrestlers, eating is a serious business, as much a part of training as the time spent sparring in the dojo. Many wrestlers, especially amateurs and those yet to establish themselves among the sport’s elite, live and train together as members of a “stable,” which they represent in competition. The stable oversees the wrestlers’ development and provides for them as they mature into the professional ranks. Eating is a big part of life in the stable. Meals are eaten together, with more junior wrestlers preparing the food for their sempai. The most common sumo meal is chankonabe, a stew made from chicken stock and filled with protein-rich ingredients, which is consumed with beer in massive quantities. While this kind of trough-style dining holds a special place in my heart, the sumo diet is to be avoided, because it does special things to the heart, like dramatically increase blood pressure and cause adult-onset diabetes. (Sumo wrestlers rarely live past 65 as a result of this diet and lifestyle.)

And so, the size. Sumo wrestlers look big on TV, and on posters, and from your seat, high above the dohyo. But to really understand how big they are, you have to stand next to one.

And you can. The thing that surprised me the most when I arrived at the Kokutai arena in Fukuoka for the annual Kyushu sumo tournament was that the wrestlers were just… walking around. In American stadiums, there are special underground tunnels that allow athletes to enter and exit unmolested by the dirty peasant hands of their adoring public. Not so in Japan. Like the ticket-holding plebes, sumo wrestlers walk the concourses before and after a match, stretching and chatting with their trainers. While they do have a locker room to themselves, some of the wrestlers seem to prefer limbering up in sight of the ring while watching other matches.

As soon as I entered the arena, I hurried to find my seat, only to realize that I was walking past a wrestler in the process of a post-match cool-down. My first thought was, “Shit, I’m not supposed to be here.” What gave me this impression wasn’t just the sweaty, 360-pound man beside me, but the fact that nobody was bothering him. In the U.S., athletes need secret getaway tunnels because if they didn’t exist, Tim Tebow would never make it back to the locker room alive. He’d be torn asunder by the thousands of single women who don’t care that he’s stuck behind Greg McElroy on the depth chart. Evidently, though, Japanese sumo fans are able to resist their baser instincts, which is really a win-win for both parties. The wrestlers can walk around the arena as they please without being prodded and squeezed like Pillsbury doughmen, and fans get to see their icons up close.

So, but anyway, this dude was enormous. Sumo wrestlers are sometimes tall, but it isn’t a prerequisite. For comparisons sake, the average sumo wrestler is about 5’11, whereas a typical NFL offensive lineman is closer to 6’4. That’s a huge difference, especially when you consider that the average sumo still weighs in excess of 300 pounds, which is almost the same as an average lineman. And while some linemen look… a little soft, most of them manage to look pretty built. Sumo wrestlers, while very strong, almost never look like athletes. There’s none of the definition or musculature that you’d expect from an American professional wrestler, heavyweight boxer or mixed martial-artist. Sumo wrestlers are just… well, round.

But despite all appearances of simply being fat, once you get them in the ring, sumo wrestlers begin to look athletic in a hurry. While the matches themselves are over almost before they begin, the pageantry that precedes the bout is as much a part of sumo as the actual contest. Wrestlers enter the ring with a mawashi, the sumo loincloth, wrapped about them. Then, they start the process of shiko, where they lift one leg at a time and slam it down on the clay of the elevated dohyo. This was originally a Shinto ritual, designed to drive evil spirits away, but in modern sumo it is as much about intimidation. Then, wrestlers take huge handfuls of salt and cast it into the ring to purify it before the match. During amateur or junior competition, these rituals are not observed before every match, but as the tournament day wears on, the process is increasingly drawn out, as higher-ranked wrestlers enter the dohyo. (The highest ranked wrestler, typically the yokozuna if one is competing, always has the last match.)

Then, the wrestlers line up across from each other, crouched in a four-point stance with both hands on the ground. This would seem to be the start of the match, but no! In ranked competition, wrestlers will often assume this stance two or three times (sometimes more), before the gyoji (referee) informs both wrestlers that the match must begin. It is unclear to me if the referee actually starts the match himself, or if the wrestlers simply come to an unspoken agreement, but either way, they have to fire out of their crouch simultaneously or the referee will restart the match. Although it traces its origins to a more sophisticated place, much of this pre-match posturing couldn’t help but remind me of the WWF matches I watched as kid. (Like their play-acting counterparts, sumo wrestlers all have “ring names,” which are announced upon their entry into the dohyo.) The initial collision is as violent as anything you’ll see in the trenches at an NFL game.

Now, all sumo wrestlers are big, but there’s still a considerable spectrum of sizes. Since there are no weight classes in sumo, wrestlers can range from merely stocky (around 225 pounds) to truly gigantic (500 pounds or more), and sometimes a single clash can feature wrestlers from opposite ends. On numerous occasions at the Kokutai, the difference in height and weight between a sumo pairing was immediately noticeable. While you would imagine that a 400-pound giant would be an almost impossible opponent for a 250-pound shrimp, there’s far more to sumo wrestling than just size.

The goal of sumo wrestling is simple: knock your opponent out of the dohyo or, failing that, force part of his body (other than his feet) into contact with clay surface of the ring. While pushing your opponent out of bounds is perhaps the simplest and most straightforward way to victory, sumo wrestlers employ a variety of different strategies suited to their strengths. Repeatedly, I saw undersized wrestlers driven to the edge of the dohyo, only to pirouette out of the way with a matador’s flourish, sending the larger wrestler toppling out of the ring. As big an advantage as size is, smaller sumo wrestlers level the field some with agility, nimbleness, and footwork. In using an opponent’s momentum against him, sumo reveals a kinship with other Japanese martial arts, like aikido, which focuses on redirecting an attacker’s force rather than countervailing it.

In all, the sumo tournament was fascinating, a quintessential Japanese tradition that seems so fundamentally at odds with the values of modern Japan. Of special interest to me, I got to see Sadanofuji, a wrestler born and raised in Kazusa, win a victory, en route to his first ever tournament championship in his division. (Afterward, he had a celebratory parade through the town, which I missed because I had to work. At the grocery store, you can buy cakes in the shape of his face.) Then, to cap the weekend off, my friends and I surveyed another institution of excess that seems wholly out of touch with Japanese life: Costco.

Japanese Costco is almost identical to American Costco, as far as I can tell, albeit with slightly different products. (How many gallons of soy sauce does one family really need?) But while Costco fits right into the spectrum of American consumerism—somewhere beyond Walmart, in the realm of Sam’s Club and BJ’s—it is a spectacular outlier in Japan.

In general, because space is at a premium in Japanese homes, people don’t stockpile food the way we do in America. Instead of buying bulk quantities, people go grocery shopping every day or two, buying enough each time to make a few meals. As far as I can tell, buying bulk or wholesale is vanishingly uncommon. But if my trip is any indication, Japanese people are just as fond of Costco as Americans. The place was packed nearly wall-to-wall, and while part of that owes to it being a Sunday (the unofficial shopping day across the entire country), it was clear that most of the people had made the trip specifically for Costco.

As I said, I think some of the draw of Japanese Costco is its novelty. “My God, a 64” frozen pizza! I don’t have an oven, so I’ll have to chop it into eighths to fit it in my microwave, but so what? And I can slather it in 32 ounces of Tabasco sauce!” (They were doing absolutely brisk business in giant, frozen sheet pizzas. Shrimp appeared to be the most popular topping, so it was impossible to completely forget I was in Japan.) Just like us, though, it seems the Japanese are susceptible to the Costco business model: “It’s too much… I don’t need it… where the hell will I put it… but at these prices!!” Costco: Because You Have No Self-Control, Since 1983.

But the biggest Costco surprise of all: no junior sumo waiting by the checkout with a barrel of chicken stock under each arm. That’s a beautiful relationship just waiting to blossom.