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In Japan, He's the Incredible Bulk

Celebrity: Hawaiian-born sumo standout Akebono stops by a Cypress restaurant to grab a bite and meet admirers.

June 19, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CYPRESS — How do you make a 6-foot-2, 230-pound restaurant critic feel skinny? Stand him next to Japanese sumo champion Akebono, all 6 foot 9, 475 pounds of him, that's how.

The 27-year-old Hawaiian-born wrestler was found dining, signing autographs and posing with families Monday evening at the Gyushintei restaurant on Meridian Drive here. His rare Orange County appearance was prompted by a request from his manager, Jesse (a.k.a. Takamiyama), another American-born sumotori and an old friend of Gyushintei owner Kiichi Arai. The place was packed.

Outside the restaurant, one admirer displayed an enormous handprint, rivaling Michael Jordan's in size, on a signed piece of fancy Japanese paper. The Jordan comparison extends beyond size: In sumo-mad Japan, Akebono is mobbed by a crush of admirers wherever he sets foot.

In the ancient sport of sumo, a grappler attempts to force his massive opponent outside a circular arena or to make him touch part of his upper body to the arena's surface. To this end, the wrestlers--who have legendary girth but are deceptively limber and athletic--train five to six hours a day, seven days a week.

Akebono was born Chad Rowan on the island of Oahu and first went to Japan 10 years ago. Since then, he has become fluent in Japanese, been granted citizenship and, more important, become the first foreign-born sumotori to have achieved the rank of yokozuna, or grand champion, a title relinquished only by death or dishonor.

As I arrived at Gyushintei, I saw the great man sitting against the restaurant's back wall, directly in front of a metal brazier, eating shabu-shabu, thinly sliced beef cooked in a boiling broth. He was clad simply in a blue and white kimono and his topknot, which will be cut only upon retirement, glistened with pomade.

I was allowed 10 minutes. The first thing I asked related to the contents of chanko-nabe, the kitchen-sink stewpot meal that sumo wrestlers eat. He broke into a flushed grin.

"Chanko-nabe is really slang and can mean anything, curry rice, seafood and tofu soup, something different every day," he said.

The wrestlers eat upward of 10,000 calories per day, mostly protein-rich fare larded with fats and oils. The wrestlers have been known to hoist a few as well, after practice.

Akebono impressed me with his extraordinary manner; he gave off an aura of kindness and humility. He said that though his knees have been bothering him (he was a below-average 10-5 in his last tournament), he hopes to be back in top form for the Nagoya Basho (tournament), which starts July 2.

Then he dodged questions about whom he considers his toughest opponents ("Any one of the 15 guys you face during a tournament can upend you if you lose your concentration") and how long he intends to wrestle ("as long as I can").

Sumo is becoming popular internationally, so Akebono and wrestlers like him are going to be increasingly visible. If you get Japanese cable stations, the 15-day tournaments (held six times a year, beginning on the second days of January, March, May, July, September and December) are often televised at night in wrap-ups from 11:30 to midnight.

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