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Friday, October 16, 2015

The Fighting Cows Of Sumo

I love watching and listening to Anthony Bourdain.

A world-renowned American chef, in his earlier days he was the Lou Reed of culinary delights - a hard drinker, heroin user, rock and roll enthusiast, and one hell of a volatile chef.

While he has thankfully mellowed enough over the years to where I can be sure he's not going to end up dead in a ditch with a needle sticking out of his vein, he still has a borderline edginess about him that makes his global travelogues to be a scintillating mix of politics, cooking and people.

His wry sense of humor and wit never ceases to amaze me. He has a weekly hour-long show on CNN called Parts Unknown, and you are doing yourself a complete disfavor if you aren't a regular student of his teachings.

Okay, before this sounds like a bromance love letter, let's get to the point.

Last year Bourdain visited Tokyo and showed us a bit of Tokyo's underground - a scene I stayed away from while in Japan because… well… as an AET (assistant English teacher) on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme I didn't want to get caught doing anything that might bring dishonor onto my host BOE (Board of Education), my country or to myself.

I know, how noble. How un-Bourdain of me. True. I never wanted to be him, but I do admire him.

Anyhow after other trips around the world and even the nondescript parts of the U.S. where one wouldn't think of going, this past Sunday, Bourdain traveled to the beautiful island of Okinawa, Japan.

I know a little bit about Japan since I am an amateur student of World War II, and because I've written this blog since 2009 and one has to ocassionaly do some research.

And yet, I was still blown away by what Bourdain presented.

Bull fighting is a thing on Okinawa.

I know. You are picturing a matador waving his red cape at a charging bull… but no… this is actually bull fighting… between two bulls.

When I saw that it was real bullfighting, you could have knocked me down with a feather.

In the common vernacular, it is called ushi-zumo, aka bull sumo, but it officially known as Tōgyū (闘牛).

It is a sport native to the Ryuku Islands, of which Okinawa is one of them, though I believe the Amami Islands - a part of Kagoshima - also considers ushi-zumo part of its cultural heritage.

Bourdain noted that the tradition started with local farmers - probably bragging about who had the biggest bull.

With apologies to Mexico, Spain and Portugal, ushi-zumo is real bull fighting. What goes on in those countries is more like bull-baiting. It's fascinating and grotesque, and to be honest, I love the casework, but—while not squeamish in the slightest, sticking swords into a bull for the amusement of tourists seems déclassé.   

In Japanese… sorry… Okinawan ushi-zumo (The native Okinawans were part of the Ryukyu Kingdom until 1879 when it was absorbed by Japan, and still consider themselves to be distinct from mainland Japan), the two bulls lock horns and force the other to give up. Basically, when one runs away, the other is declared the winner.

There may be some blood from being gored by a horn, but it's nowhere close to life-threatening, and the loser does not become luncheon meat at the local grocery store tomorrow.

Each bull has a "coach" who not only keeps his bull locked in combat, but also encourages him to win.

These are magnificent creatures, and each coach takes care in ensuring his bull doesn't get badly hurt, with the fight over if one accidentally gores the other.

It is a popular sport in Japan… and while gambling is officially illegal in Japan, each match can surely find willing participants to quietly gamble a few schekels on the outcome.

While I can't confirm or deny, the following story sounds like a great story and story only.

During the Showa period, before WWII, so popular was ushi-zumo, that a village is said to have banned it because the villagers spent too much time enjoying the fights, instead of working in the fields.

I could believe that happened, but since I have no idea WHICH village banned it - let's just call it a story.

It was, however, by 1960 that rules for ushi-zumo became formalized, though I'm betting none of the battlers have actually read the rules. And don't even mention the red tape. It gets them angry for some reason.

There are rankings for bulls in ushi-zumo. As in human sumo wrestling, there is a ranking by ability, with promotion or demotion provided if warranted - except for Yokozuna… the top rank, where one has to be voted in, but once in, is a Yokozuna until retirement.

Naturally, the BBOC (Big Bull On Campus) is ranked Yokozuna.

However, while there is a minimum weight and height for human sumo wrestlers, ushi-zumo has different weight classes, so a lightweight bull will not fight a very heavy bull.

I wouldn't think that animal rights organizations are very happy with the Okinawan tradition of bull fighting, but then again, I'm pretty sure animal rights organizations aren't all that pleased with Japan's over all record with much of anything.

At least no animals were killed during the writing of this blog - just like in a standard ushi-zumo bull fight.

Andrew Wooly Bully Joseph


  1. Oooh, I love me some Bourdain. I actually chose my fancy Montreal outing restaurant (Au Pied du Cochon) based on his recommendation -- died and went to heaven :)
    - Alice

    1. You lucky $!@C&er! When were you there?

  2. Beginning of July when we had to go for a conference - ate my weight in fois gras, worth every damn penny (especially the fois gras poutine, where even the potatoes are cooked in duck fat.) OOH LAA LAAAA
    - a

    1. Duck is my favorite bird - Guinea fowl is a close second. But strangely enough, the one time I had fois gras, it didn't blow me a way.
      Of course, I really like canned corned beef, so I'm not exactly high society.

  3. It can be in your face or sublime, honest. I had it last summer at the only 3 Michelin star'd restaurant we went to and it will rank as an all-time top 3 food high moments so far: