My dinner with three sumo wrestlers at Benihana in San Francisco
Ryuichi Yamamoto doesn't just eat. He inhales, swallows and devours his food.
A plate with two dozen sushi pieces is annihilated in minutes.
Fried rice disappears almost instantly, with the bowl lifted near the mouth and chopsticks working rapid fire as if powered by a machine.
Then another bowl of rice goes down the chute, before a plate of sliced grilled steak disappears, followed by a plate of salmon glazed in teriyaki. Four more plates of sushi, a half-dozen potstickers. I lose track.
It’s stunning to watch him eat, more entertaining than any Food Network show I've ever seen.
I'm dining out in San Francisco at the Japantown outpost of the famed Benihana chain with Ryūichi Yamamoto, 35, aka Yama — and it's a night of moments that leave me astonished. At six-feet, four-inches and 600 pounds, the former professional sumo wrestler is likely the heaviest Japanese human being in history. As we chat with the help of a Japanese translator, I wonder if his body fits through a door frame. Yama was a pro sumo wrestler for five years and reached the top makuuchi division in Japan, where sumo wrestling is as popular as NFL football in the United States (if this dinner went down in Japan, he’d be asked for selfies).
Across the table, two of Yama's wrestling pals pop sushi into their mouths like candy. Hishofuji Hiroki, 30, is a former pro sumo wrestler and is also one of the heaviest Japanese sumo wrestlers ever at 530 pounds. Two-time U.S. Sumo Champion Takeshi Amitani weighs only 220 pounds and his wiry body makes him look like a hyena sitting among two hippos.
All three of these men left Japan to live in Los Angeles and continue to wrestle as part of USA Sumo, taking part in exhibitions and amateur tournaments while also appearing in Hollywood films. Most recently, they competed at S.F.'s Japantown Peace Plaza in 18 matches spread across three hours filled with intense colliding, throwing, thrusting, dropping, and pounding (swipe through photos of the matches in the gallery above).
"They were pretty evenly matched ... but I think Hiroki had the most total wins for the day," says Andrew Freund, an amateur wrestler and president of USA Sumo.
At our table with a grill in the center, a chef flashes knives and throws around the ingredients for fried rice in a theatrical display that wows like a juggling act. The wrestlers look up occasionally, clapping when the chef spins an egg on the back of the spatula and throws it into his coat pocket. But mostly they're focused on their plates and consuming calories, especially Yama.
Sucking up a mai tai in less than a minute, Yama tells me he could easily drink 30 to 40 fruity cocktails if he wasn't in training and competing the next day. He talks about the inconvenience of his size and says public restrooms, especially those on airplanes, are a challenge. And he shares that he cooked dinner for his family as a kid because his parents both worked full-time. Those skills have carried over to today and he whips up Japanese meals in the kitchen of the apartment he shares with Takeshi.
"Every morning, he eats like five bowls of rice," Takeshi chimes in. "When he eats ramen, he eats 10 packages. He'll eat 100 sushi rolls. I eat more than normal people, but Yama is far away from normal."
The diet may not be normal, but it’s not necessarily unhealthy. Oakland-based cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Junaid Khan, who performed physical exams on Raiders football players when the team was based in Los Angeles, quickly learned a very big NFL body can be relatively healthy and says the lifestyles and body types of linemen and sumo wrestlers are similar.
"I can visualize myself watching Refrigerator Perry and thinking that guy is fat, but then seeing him work out and seeing I was wrong," says Dr. Khan, who is based at Sutter Health's Alta Bates Summit hospital in Oakland. "He could jump up from the floor standing still to a table four-feet high. He was fit."
While sumo wrestlers come in all shapes and sizes, the average wrestler in the top pro division weighs about 350 pounds and the average among all pros is about 240 pounds. A wrestler may eat anywhere from 4,000 to 7,000 calories a day, but Freund suspects Yama is closer to 10,000 calories a day. To put this in perspective, that's 15 Double-Doubles at In-N-Out — but Yama isn't scarfing down fast-food. He's fueling his body with a healthy balance of meat, fish, starches (like rice and noodles), and as many vegetables as he can hold. It's a diet he adopted in sumo school and while competing as a professional.
Like all pro wrestlers in Japan, Yama followed a strict regimen year-round. His days started before sunrise with a five-hour-long workout on an empty stomach. A typical exercise was lifting another wrestler onto his shoulders and then performing 100 squats. Lunch was chanko-nabe, a thick hearty stew designed to pack in calories and nutrients, and then it's nap time before an hour of chores, another workout and more bowls of stew for dinner.
"I enjoy eating now, but when I was in sumo school I didn't like it," says Yama, now sliding slices of seared tuna into his mouth. "We were forced to eat well past the point of being satiated. Even harder than sumo training was being forced to eat more and more food."
Yama and Hiroki no longer follow as stringent a schedule, but they're still focused on a lifestyle designed to create a solid muscular body padded with a layer of fat that makes a body collision more forgiving. They practice sumo, go to the gym, swim and bike, working out several hours a day. And while you can see fat pouring from their bellies, the men are far from obese.
Just ask Stanford sports cardiologist Dr. Kegan Moneghetti, who says intense exercise can prevent sumo wrestlers from building up less of what's known as visceral fat. This type of fat develops deep inside the abdomen, covering the pancreas, liver and other vital organs, and it's linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. A typical sumo wrestler has fat right under the skin, which is not only healthier but also provides padding when you're thrown to the ground in a match.
"The basic point about Japanese sumo wrestling is Americans have the wrong idea," says Freund. "They think they're just fat guys. They're really amazing and natural athletes. They're fast and strong. Americans don't realize the athleticism, the depths of the training."
After dinner, Yama and Takeshi say goodbye. They're exhausted and ready for bed at 8:30 p.m. Hiroki and Freund invite me to the Hotel Kabuki in Japantown and we talk more with Freund translating.
Hiroki spent 12 years in professional sumo and says he saw his family only three times in that period of his career. Living in a sumo stable, or heya, with other wrestlers, he led what he describes as a military-style lifestyle with chores, including everything from grocery shopping to cleaning the entire building.
"We don't have cooks," says Hiroki. "We cook for each other. We have to learn hard work and respect. It's not like professional athletes in America."
He explains that there are about 750 pro sumo wrestlers competing in Japan and about 70 of them are at the top earning significant money.
“If you reach the top two divisions, you're making six figures on paper, and the handful of the very highest-ranked guys are making millions on paper, but it probably amounts to tens of millions when all the extra income sources are factored in.” Freund jumps in. “The bottom 90 percent of pro sumo wrestlers get paid less than what is needed to rent a place and buy food, so they all live in the communal heya and get free room and board.”
While he's telling me all of this, I suddenly notice Hiroki is sitting in the chair with his legs spread wide open, like a professional gymnast.
I point this out to Freund.
"He can do the full splits and put his head down," says Freund.
I’m tempted to ask him to show me, but I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do after a 100-sushi-roll dinner.
Amy Graff is a digital editor with SFGATE. Email her at [email protected]