Chef's Thoughts on Tokyo:
Former Sumo Wrestler Tantalizes Tokyo with Traditional Mongolian Cuisine

Ariunbayar Unurjargal, more commonly known as professional sumo wrestler Hakuba Takeshi, retired from his career in the spotlight in 2011. Still in Ryogoku, Tokyo's sumo district, he now shares his Mongolian heritage through food at his restaurant ULAAN BAATAR.
He is known in Japan as Hakuba, meaning "white horse," a name given to him by his sumo stable and inspired by a symbol in nomadic culture in Mongolia.

Rise to Success in Sumo

Hakuba, originally from Töv, Mongolia, first came to Tokyo in 1998, after exchanging letters with a relative of his living in Japan. This relative introduced him to the sumo stable Michinoku, to which he was then officially invited.

One of ULAAN BAATAR's most popular dishes, "Chansang Maha," is a traditional Mongolian dish. Tender mutton seasoned with salt is served alongside pickles, vegetables and a chive dipping sauce.

Although Hakuba had not considered a career in sumo wrestling before the exchange with his relative, he had always been very interested in Japan. When the move to Japan finally came, it all felt "like a dream" and not once did he feel homesick.

Despite never having studied at a language school, he credits his fluency in Japanese to having lived with other Japanese boys in the stable. He settled into the neighborhood of Ryogoku as if he had always belonged. In Ryogoku, the community is close-knit, so he could rely on his kind and friendly neighbors if he had a problem. He was further impressed by Tokyo's public services, which are very well organized, "making the city an easy environment to live in."

During his sumo wrestling career he was promoted to komusubi in the fourth highest rank in sumo wrestling, and weighed on average 155 kilograms. He defeated two ozeki: Harumafuji—who later became a yokozuna—and Kotooshu. Ozeki is otherwise known as the champion rank and is the second highest rank in sumo, just below yokozuna. During his active career, he also made a triumphant return to Mongolia with other Mongolian sumo wrestlers for the Sumo Tournament, and was able to deepen exchanges between his home country and Japan through sumo.

Dumplings (Xiaolongbao) have a juicy filling of lamb and are wrapped in a soft and chewy dough, served with a sweet chili sauce.

Continuing the Family Business

Hakuba's mother moved to Japan while he was still a sumo wrestler, and independently opened her own restaurant, ULAAN BAATAR, in 2008. When he retired from wrestling in 2011, at the age of 28, he had no intention of becoming a chef. However, after seeing his mother struggle to keep her business going in her old age, he decided to take over, despite having little-to-no business experience.

With perseverance and determination learned from his sumo wrestling days, he embraced the challenge. When it comes to business, he believes that "patience is key," and that it is important to thoroughly research how to start a business.

Ryogoku: The Center of Sumo

Hakuba enjoys exchanging stories with travelers, teaching them more about his homeland. The walls of ULAAN BAATAR are adorned with treasures and ornaments from Mongolia and from his past. At the entrance, he sells Mongolian snacks and essential ingredients such as Mongolian sour cream.

Many of his customers have an interest in Mongolia, but equally as many are sumo fans, and he is an encyclopedia when it comes to sumo facts and history, especially in relation to the Ryogoku area. He still maintains good relations with most of his fellow sumo wrestlers and this is one of the reasons he remains close to Ryogoku, where the community is quite close-knit. Occasionally, his sumo friends, including famous wrestlers, stop by for a bite to eat.

Many retired sumo wrestlers open Chanko nabe restaurants in the Ryogoku area to serve the well-balanced, nutritious hot pot dish regularly eaten by wrestlers.

But for Hakuba, it was important to share his culture with the people of Tokyo through Mongolian cuisine. Of his customers, 99 percent have never had authentic Mongolian food before. In fact, there are very few Mongolian restaurants in Tokyo. Mongolian dishes are not heavily seasoned; instead, the simplicity of each dish allows the natural flavors of the ingredients to shine through. Often, succulent meats are the star of the show, especially mutton, a staple in Mongolia. He sources his flavorful meat from a butcher in Toshima City, Tokyo.

In his free time, he enjoys gourmet walks, exploring the Tokyo area to find new restaurants and flavors. His favorite food is rice, after all. Whether it is fried rice or a simple bowl of plain white rice, he simply cannot get enough, and according to him, "Japan has the most delicious rice in the world."

The restaurant was awarded three stars for culinary excellence by the Mongolian Culinary Federation in 2018.

In the future, he hopes to expand ULAAN BAATAR by opening more restaurants serving Mongolian cuisine. One day, he plans to use all that he has learned from his cooking in Japan to create his own unique recipes.

Interview and writing by Laura Miyasaka
Photos by Kuratani Kiyofumi