Ozeki - An Near Ryogoku Kokugikan Serves ‘lucky’ Soba Noodles

Ozeki-an near Ryogoku Kokugikan serves ‘lucky’ soba noodlesThere is a soba shop called Ozeki-an near Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, sumo’s major center. The shop’s second-generation proprietor is Mamoru Ozeki, 83.
His name, which literally means “protecting ozeki [sumo wrestlers in the second-highest rank],” is regarded as quite lucky and auspicious by sumo wrestlers.

Established in 1952, the soba shop has been in business for about 64 years. The former Ryogoku Kokugikan, which became a memorial hall after being expropriated by the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces following the end of World War II, was located directly on the south side of Ozeki-an. The building was transferred to Nihon University when a new kokugikan was built in the Kuramae area.

The Ryogoku area became sumo’s heartland again in 1985, when the current Ryogoku Kokugikan was built on the north side of JR Ryogoku Station. Around that time, Ozeki was already operating the shop, located opposite the station, as the second proprietor.

Ozeki was then just 52 years old. “I made trips between the shop and Kokugikan to deliver soba dozens of times a day — I couldn’t count exactly how many even at that time,” he said, recalling those busy times.

He frequently dropped into the executive room of the Japan Sumo Association. “Stablemasters who earned reputations as prominent rikishi were there, including [former yokozuna] Taiho-san, [former ozeki] Kiyokuni-san, [former sekiwake] Annenyama-san [later changed to Haguroyama] and [former sekiwake] Tsurugamine-san, just to name a few,” he said.

One day, Ozeki was asked by one JSA executive about his name. “Say, your name is Mamoru Ozeki, right? Is it your real name?” Irritated by the question, he took out his driver’s license and roughly put it on a table. “You’ll see my name along with my address certified as Ryogoku 2-chome,” he responded in a huff. “Look, my official family registry is also mentioned on the license card.”

He said the stablemasters who had been skeptical about his name responded, “OK, we understand, we completely understand.”

“After that, I felt that the way stablemasters looked at me changed,” Ozeki said, adding: “Sumo wrestlers, I think, relent when we are straight with them.” This is a memorable episode he cannot forget, he said.

Ozeki takes on a look of triumph when foreigners visit his shop. In fluent English, he explains his family name to make them laugh. “Japanese people all recognize my family name, Ozeki, due to the ozeki sumo rank and the famous sake brand Ozeki, so I’m also a celebrity.”

Why on earth is an 83-year-old, who has devoted his life to running a soba shop, so good at English? In the next installment of this column, I will tell a secret story about Ozeki.

— Miki is an expert in sumo.