From Japan, a sumo chop and lessons in time

When the first foreign-born Sumo grand champion retires later this month, fans will watch for hours as his signature hair knot is cut.

"Sumo is much more than a sport," says Taro Akebono, the Hawaiian-born Japanese citizen who moved here 13 years ago and became sumo wrestling's first foreign-born yokozuna or grand champion.

"It's a lifestyle," quips Mr. Akebono, whose 6-foot, 8-inch frame fills up only a hair less space than it did when he reached his top weight of more than 519 pounds.

Akebono is retiring from Japan's most sacred sport. Later this month, his topknot - a sumo wrestler's signature hair lock - will be chopped off before an expected crowd of 11,000 fans.

Attending Akebono's last press conference reminded me of a recent pilgrimage to my first basho, or sumo tournament, earlier this summer.

It featured an invitation to watch the singularly named Mitoizumi, another modern-day giant of sumo, have his topknot cut. The ceremonial and symbolic end to a wrestler's career is a coveted show that draws thousands of fans from around the country.

Mitoizumi has a reputation for flamboyance. Instead of tossing about the requisite handful of salt in order to purify the ring before each match, he used to throw what looked like a mountain of snow skyward. So, I expected the topknot-cutting ceremony to convey some great sense of excitement.

The danpatsu-shiki, as this ceremony is known, would surely carry the drama of watching Rapunzel's fabled golden mane severed in one quick chop.

Not quite. This, like so many traditions that define Japan, takes time. For almost two and-a-half hours, my companions and I sat shifting in our box - a carpeted square where four small, thin floor cushions gave us just enough space to nibble on bento box lunches that were included with admission.

Hundreds of men in business suits - mostly corporate sponsors - approached the platform. Each had his name and company called out before reveling in the honor of trimming Mitoizumi's mage ... one hair at a time.

An entire Superbowl game could have taken place in the time it took to watch Mitoizumi return to the ranks of top-knot-free men.

When I moved to Tokyo a year ago, I expected to discover a city where people move quickly, life is convenient, and trains run on time.

What I discovered instead is a country where time is often not of the essence. Indeed, the amount of time it takes to watch a ceremony - or render a service - is far less important than the way in which it is it rendered.

After being raised in New York City and then spending my last four years in Israel, I had grown used to the kind of culture in which (a) things move quickly, and (b) if they don't move quickly enough, you must show some degree of impatience, lest you be taken for a sucker.

In Japan, the opposite is true. Impatience is a sign of weakness, immaturity even, and that has been perhaps my greatest challenge here. Just dropping off my dry cleaning takes about three times as long as it did elsewhere, because each article of clothing requires its own individual form, as though I were taking out a mortgage on eight different homes instead of dropping off eight shirts.

Not unlike Mitoizumi's hair-losing ceremony, my own hair cut (no blow dry, thanks) is usually a two-hour experience - and that's after I insist on walking out with a wet head instead of succumbing to the 40-minute blow dry. The complimentary head and back massage is, of course, much appreciated, but I have had to adjust to the fact that the stylist approaches my head as though it were a bonzai tree, in need of tiny, meticulous snips over a long stretch of time.

And, when he engages in any dialogue whatsoever, he stops cutting altogether. To do both at once might be considered rude or inattentive, both to the science of haircutting and the art of conversation.

But such delays are almost always accompanied by a chirpy Omatase shimashta! ("Sorry to have made you wait!") Now, after a year of hearing this phrase so often, I realize I no longer mind the wait as much.

Living here has either taught me patience, or helped me rediscover its value. In Japan, fastest is not necessarily best.

Perhaps one of the best places to appreciate that is at a sumo match, epitomized, for me, by the way the victor is declared. The judge, dressed something like a Shinto priest, slowly lifts his small placard in the shape of a hand mirror toward the head of the winner, a gesture that inspires awe.

While retiring from wrestling, Akebono is reluctant to leave the sport altogether.

Founding his own stable, as sumo training houses are called, may be in the cards. "I feel it's my responsibility to pass it on to the next generation of children," he says.

His other goal: to lose 100 to 130 pounds.

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