It has been half a century since Maui's Jesse Kuhaulua left the island for a sumo career and life in Japan.
But the sumo legend - who went from speaking pidgin to fluent Japanese and broke cultural barriers in the centuries-old national sport - still remembers his roots fondly and holds the Valley Isle close.
Legendary sumo wrestler Jesse Kuhaulua shares a laugh with friend Mitsuyuki Tamae of Nagoya, Japan, as the two and others were eating lunch at Sheik’s Restaurant in Kahului last week. Saturday marks 50 years since Kuhaulua, of Happy Valley, left Maui for a sumo career in Japan. He now resides in Tokyo.
The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo
"Still my heart is on Maui. I will never forget," a white-bearded Kuhaulua said during a visit home last week. "I had a lot of support, 50 years."
It was the backing of his friends and family on Maui that kept a young Kuhaulua focused on sumo, a sport where large men, some weighing 400 to 500 pounds, wrestle while wearing a mawashi, a diaperlike loincloth belt. In the hierarchical sport, where every wrestler is ranked, victory is achieved by the first wrestler to force his opponent out of the ring or to touch the ground with any part of his body other than the bottom of his feet.
Kuhaulua was 19 and a recent graduate of Baldwin High School when he left for Japan on Feb. 22, 1964.
And he's never lived anywhere else since.
Although he was treated graciously, even having American food cooked for him when he first arrived in Japan, the training was tough. He endured hours of exercise, the food was different and teachers whacked students when they behaved badly or performed sumo techniques incorrectly.
"They would hit a rikishi (sumo wrestler) with a broomstick," Kuhaulua said. "You call it encouragement."
Kuhaulua, who fought under the name Takamiyama, also was subject to the hierarchy of the stable, where the young wrestlers ate and cleaned up after the older, more experienced and higher-ranked wrestlers. Meals were limited to soup and tsukemono or pickled vegetables.
Adjusting to a foreign culture and the endless physical training was grueling, and the "first three years was hard."
"(But) something just kept me there," Kuhaulua remembers.
He recalls receiving letters of encouragement from Hawaii.
"(It) made me feel I got to try harder," he said.
Now 50 years later, those days are just memories.
Kuhaulua's sumo career spanned 1964 to 1984. He reached sumo's third-highest rank, sekiwake, in 1972. That was the highest rank by a foreigner until fellow Hawaii wrestlers Salevaa Atisanoe, or Konishiki, reached the next highest rank of ozeki, or champion, and Chad Rowan, Akebono, and Fiamalu Penitani, Musashimaru, attained the highest rank, yokozuna, or grand champion.
Kuhaulua also was the first foreigner to win sumo's coveted Emperor's Cup for winning a tournament in 1972 and was called the "iron man," competing in a record 1,231 consecutive matches.
At 39 years old - one year short of his goal of wrestling until 40 - Kuhaulua retired following an injury.
He then went on to run his own sumo stable for 25 more years, until the mandatory retirement age of 65. He founded Azumazeki stable in February 1986 and among his wrestlers was Akebono. In order to become a stable master, he had to renounce his American citizenship for Japanese citizenship.
Kuhaulua, 69, still resides on the top two levels of the building that houses his old sumo stable. He owns the building.
With retirement, his days consist of going to the gym to shoot the breeze with friends and riding a stationary bicycle. After his trip to the gym, he goes home for lunch, then spends maybe an hour on the Internet.
His meals are not what one might think.
The former 400-something-pound retired wrestler, in a sport where bigger is often better, now sticks to a specific diet most days. For example, though being on vacation in Hawaii, he had an orange, oatmeal and milk for breakfast.
Since being on the diet for about a year, Kuhaulua said he has lost around 115 pounds and was down to around 300 pounds this past week.
"I just try to lay off (food). I'm 69 years old now," he said.
Kuhaulua did go off the diet a little last week, eating fried noodles and fried chicken at Sheik's Restaurant with classmate Wayne Hamamura and friends from Japan. They ordered the food, Kuhaulua confessed.
The Baldwin High School Class of 1963 50-year reunion triggered his decision to eat healthier, he said. He was back in the islands last year to attend the event.
He also said he wanted to be alive for the 2020 Olympic games, to be held in Tokyo.
Asked if he misses sumo, he replied: "When you think about it, no."
But his eyes light up when he reflects on coaching sumo wrestlers.
Among his star pupils was Rowan of Waimanalo, Oahu, who was the first foreigner to become a yokozuna. Unlike other ranks where wrestlers are demoted based on a poor tournament, yokozuna wrestlers do not face demotion, though a string of poor tournaments may mean retirement.
When Kuhaulua was asked what he thought of being a trailblazer for other Hawaii wrestlers, such as Rowan, Atisanoe and Penitani, he said: "I feel real good. In this world of sumo, it's very hard."
When he first started out in Japan, it was only 20 years after World War II but the sense of defeat about the war had not subsided for some Japanese, Kuhaulua said.
"The Japanese still felt they lost the war," he said.
Kuhaulua said he did not face prejudice or animosity as a gaijin, or foreigner, from America. But as a gaijin, he had to push himself to do better than others.
"You got to work hard," he said.
Kuhaulua has seen some changes in sumo, which has ties to the Japanese religion of Shinto, since he first started.
No longer can stable masters hit their students with broomsticks, and how much rikishi may eat is no longer regulated by rank in the stable.
"It's much better," Kuhaulua said. "You can eat now."
While his life is comfortable in his adopted homeland, Kuhaulua says that at times he still longs for Maui.
"The weather, the people and the warm aloha" are what he misses most, he said.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com.