Coondog O'Karma Goes to Japan

Our favorite competitive eater and essayist voyages across the Pacific to see his friend Takeru Kobayashi, the greatest competitive eater of all time, and learn about Oguii, the Japanese tradition of Big Eating.

I still can't see how he did it!

It's an inside joke my teen-age son Adam and I use to break the ice in those awkward father-son moments when we're lost in silence and want to bridge the gap between generations.

The "he" we are talking about is Takeru Kobayashi, the greatest eater in competitive eating. If you consider competitive eating a sport, then Kobayashi beats the Babe, Wilt, Kareem, Gretzky, Spitz, Bonds and Armstrong, all transcendent sports savants, as the most dominating of the dominant athletes of all time, the Tiger Woods of Michael Jordans.

What he did was eat 50 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes, doubling the world record of 25, on hot dog's holiest day, July 4, at Coney Island, N.Y., in 2001. I was on stage that day, competing against Kobayashi. My son was in the crowd. We saw him do it and still couldn't believe what we saw.

Although my son has gone on to the typical teen-age male's passions for girls and cars, I, Dave "Coondog" O'Karma, Cleveland's contribution to the table of competitive eating, have never been the same since seeing it.

"So you're friends with Kobayashi?" asks Jason Fagone, a young Philadelphia writer who's contracted by Random House to write a book about competitive eating. "I've been researching everything I can about him, and all there is is the standard public relations drivel. No one's ever done a true interview. It would be great to go to Japan, get the real story, find out what's really going on."

"Man, I've always wanted to go to Japan, see how they train, learn their secrets," I answer. "You ever see the movie 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'? How the Richard Dreyfuss character becomes totally obsessed after seeing the UFO? How he can't let it go and leaves everything wife, kids, home, job, everything to follow his maniac curiosity?

"Well, that's me after seeing Kobayashi! It was like seeing a UFO."

After Kobayashi's incredible feat, competitive eating piques America's interest, and in a career that should have the shelf life of a fruit fly, I have more lives than a cat's times nine.

It's a nice comeback for a man in his mid-40s, 30 years after my teen-age debut in competitive eating, when I reigned as the pizza-eating champion of WJW Channel 8's "Big Chuck and Houlihan Show" for four episodes and set world records for eating eggs and doughnuts at radio station contests and fairs.

First I compete in the "Glutton Bowl," a Fox television special featuring the world's 50 top competitive eaters. Then it's off to Philadelphia for an event where I eat so many chicken wings, my peformance is commemorated in Volume 6 of Trivial Pursuit. (Q: What was competitive eater Dave O'Karma disqualified for after eating 126 wings in the 2002 Philadelphia Wing Bowl? A: Vomiting.)

I'm interviewed on ESPN by Darren Rovell, on CNN by Jeanne Moos. I'm quoted in GQ, The Wall Street Journal and Sports Illustrated. I'm featured in newspaper stories in Australia and Japan. I eat doughnuts on the "Steve Harvey Big Time Show." I perform on the Travel Channel, Discovery Channel and Food Network. In a sport that is a mongrel mix of pro wrestling and "Hee Haw," I am a star. For four years, I bask in my D-list celebrity.

It's much ado about nothing, and most of the time I play it that way. Except when someone asks the magic question that ignites my passion: Is competitive eating a true sport?

My answer, which always gets people's eyes rolling and the table shaking as I pound my fists in indignation, is: Yes.

"It's stupid," you say. "It's boring." "It's silly." "It's wasteful." "It's gross."

Maybe. But competitive eating has measurable abilities in speed, capacity, endurance and technique. When placed in the parameters of a competition, that qualifies it as a sport. It may not be a fitness sport. You might not have to put on shorts, pads, helmets or jocks. You may not have to throw or kick a little ball in a hole or net or smash it with a stick or club. It may belong in county fairs, not multimillion-dollar stadiums. But it's still a sport, and the really good competitive eaters are athletes. And I consider myself one of the best.

"Hey, Coondog. It's Jason. I just talked to Kobayashi's manager, Bobby Ikeda, and he told me Koby is excited to meet with his good friend Coondog in Japan. You still wanna go?"

Without even thinking of asking my wife, my employer or my bank account, I hear a voice answer: "Yes."

I can laugh at the silliness of competitive eating. I really can. I can talk tongue-in-cheek about my "athletic greatness." But when I am around an eating competition, I am a dead-serious addict. I want to compete, and I want to win.

It's a rough sport that demands that you keep going after your brain and body tell you to quit. If feeling full is your 100 percent, then you have no chance against the serious competitors. It takes a special breed of maniac to be good. If you can stick a knife in an electrical outlet, get shocked, somehow not die and stick the knife back in the outlet again, then you have the makings of a great competitive eater.

I have that talent. I also train. I drink gallons of water to stretch my stomach. I eat pounds and pounds of fruit in single settings. I lift weights, run stairs and bike hills to build mental toughness and endurance. All this has made me one of America's top eaters, but still no match for the top Japanese, and not even half as good as Kobayashi. And it makes me crazy. I know there are far more important things in life, billions of them, but it still bugs me: What are they doing that we aren't doing? How can they be so much better?

"You travel Japan?" asks the neatly suited man seated next to me on the Shinkansen, a bullet train rocketing across Japan at 180 miles an hour.

"Hai. Yes," I answer, pleased, after weeks of study, to use a Japanese word on a real Japanese person.

"Where from?" he continues in brittle English.

"Ohio," I answer, realizing too late that Ohio, in Japanese, is ohayo, or hello.

"Ohayo gozaimas," he nods, going back to his beer and nuts. I turn, glancing out the window to a foreign world rushing at me at speeds I've never experienced before.

"We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto," I say aloud, looking over to my smiling new friend, neither of us having a clue.

Along the train ride to Nagoya, we pick up our interpreter for the trip, Marina Kinno. Jet lag and culture shock greet us at our hotel and send us running to bed, but the growing anticipation of fulfillment wakes me early.

I take off for a morning walk to explore my new surroundings. Awed and giddy, I'm puffed with confidence when I get back to the hotel, only to discover Jason in a panic. Marina's received a call from Bobby Ikeda, who says Kobayashi has gotten cold feet for the interview. He'll still meet with me, but not Jason.

"How can he do this to me, Coondog?" Jason pleads in the long, empty hallway of our hotel. "I've come all this way and invested all this money. How can he back out like this? Bobby Ikeda said that Kobayashi read my Wing Bowl article and was upset because I described Ed Jarvis as a fat' real-estate agent from Long Island. He thinks I am writing a negative book on competitive eating. You've read the article. Did you think it was negative?" he begs.

For the first time, I really see Jason. He's no longer the urbane, hip writer I've clung to like a lost puppy these past few days as he skillfully maneuvered us through Philly, New York and Tokyo's crowded, confusing subways, airports, train stations and taxis. Now I see him as a desperate and disappointed 27-year-old kid, and I remember I am old enough to be his father. It's my turn to maneuver. I summon a parental calm.

I try to explain that even if most of the world thinks competitive eating is ridiculous, to the upper echelon eaters it is a sport, and there's an honor among us, a battle-worn sensitivity that bonds us against the outside scorn. So I am not truly surprised by Kobayashi's sudden reluctance to be interviewed. In competitive eating, Ed Jarvis, at 450 pounds, is fat, but he's no joke. He is a monster competitor and a champion. Jason's simple description of "Cookie" Jarvis as a fat real-estate agent misses that fact.

"A huge chunk of this book is riding on this Kobayashi interview," he complains. He still doesn't understand.

Finally, I do what all good fathers do when things aren't working and they don't have an immediate answer. I lie.

"It'll be all right," I assure him. "Have some faith. We have time, and we'll work it out."

A long sightseeing walk around the city helps realign Jason's panic. We decide to dictate what we can of our destiny and travel the country meeting and interviewing lower-tiered Japanese eaters.

From them we learn of Oguii, the Japanese tradition of Big Eating. Created in past generations of the country's annual harvest festivals, Oguii is not an act of gluttony, but a practiced celebration. Eating contests of rice and soba noodles are signs of vigor and health of the community. Eating, and eating a lot, honored the season, the people who labored in the harvest and the chefs who prepared it.

We also discover that, except for a few food challenges and the Oguii of the harvest festivals, there is no professional league of Japanese eaters. The Japanese TV shows that featured competitive eating and the likes of Kobayashi had been off the air for almost two years.

"Scammed!" I think, when finding the truth. I'd left my family, home and country hoping to find a guru/Buddha/meditation/mind-over-matter magic that would explain the Japanese dominance in competitive eating. I was determined to learn some kind of secret and found nothing.

But the funny thing is, I don't care. League or no league, this is the country of Oguii, where the participants of the tradition possess the dignity of great athletes, not the stain of eccentricity. For the first time in my career as a competitive eater, I don't feel crazy or weird or ashamed. I am at home.

Marina receives an e-mail from Kobayashi saying he will meet with me at the Nagoya train station Sunday at noon. I pump my fist in the air with glee. Finally I'll get to meet with my friend. Then I realize there is no mention as to whether the invite extends to Jason.

I can see the lack of clarity in the message has Jason nervous and I assure him everything will turn out fine. He tells me the week has provided enough colorful interviews and facts, but I know he wants the great white whale of competitive eating.

We have a free day before I meet with Kobayashi. So we head north to Marioka, where we will both take part in the country's oldest eating venture: the Wanko Soba Noodle Challenge.

We are sitting crossed-legged on the floor at a table in a very small restaurant obscured in the crowded backstreets of Marioka. Except for Jason, myself, the owner and our kimono-clad server, the place is empty and possesses the quiet solitude of a Shinto shrine.

The rules of the contest are to eat as many shot-sized, lacquered cups of soba noodle as one can withstand. The soba server replaces it with another full cup until the contestant gives up by placing a lid on his cup. The more that is eaten, the more pleased is the cook.

I slurp my first bowl in one gulp. With the lightning dexterity of a shell-game carnie, the server replaces it with another.

The quick sleight of hand of the server and the rhythmic clicking of the cups echoing in the empty restaurant create the mystical magic and illusion I was hoping to find in Japan. I quickly find myself in a hypnotic eating groove.

"Maitta! Enough!" I cry, as I slam down the lid on cup number 163.

I wiggle back from the table, rub my fat puppy belly and then turn my attention to Jason.

He's in the 90s and I can see he is suffering. "You're doing great!" I tell him.

"I'm going for 100," he groans, and fights through the discomfort. Eventually he nails it.

Our hostess happily approves our performance and the owner gives us each a cheap wooden plaque with our totals magic-markered on them. And then, right before my eyes, the molting of the urbane, young writer from Philadelphia begins.

"Can you get a picture, Coondog?" he beams, and proudly holds up his little wooden trumpery. I feel a lot better about the future of this trip.

Jason's got the bug.

He can now call himself a competitive eater. He's one of us.

The big day arrives, and the three of us are at the gates of the Nagoya train station. Jason's a nervous wreck. No matter what he says, he wants this interview and going home without it would be a loss to his book.

Me? I'm just plain excited, and when I feel this good, everything seems to turn out OK.

I've brought some gifts for Koby, and his girlfriend, Kumi Ozeki, and so has Jason. If I see he is upset by Jason's presence, I will explain that Jason wanted to come say hello, give him his gift and leave. It leaves both parties with a chance I think they deserve.

I also believe that when Koby witnesses my trust in Jason, it will relieve his apprehensions about an interview. I know when Koby and I are finally together, Coondog will take over.

Koby arrives, and so does that spirit of friendship. We hug and greet.

"O-Hisashiburi! Long time, no see!" I say. He and Kumi raise their eyebrows and nod their approval of my Japanese.

Marina then cordially introduces herself and Jason, and I can tell by the earnest way Koby shakes Jason's hand that he is trusting my judgment for the day.

I give my little buddy a quick gift of an Ohio State Buckeyes ballcap as Marina and Kumi decide on a place for lunch. Then the five of us are off.

Walking through the crowded train station, I search once again for wariness in Kobayashi's demeanor. He takes off the Ohio State cap, and I fear I may have breached a cultural etiquette. He holds it out in front of himself for a good look, then holds it out in front of me and says, "Cool."

For the next five hours, we are old buddies catching up. We eat, we arm wrestle, and we talk like happy children about family, friends, language, hobbies, pets and baseball. Marina can't keep up with us, and Jason is hunched over his paper taking notes faster than a dog scratching fleas.

"What are you going to say to the press in New York when you win Coney Island next summer?" I ask Koby after a quick English lesson.

Slowly and firmly, he replies, "I eat it ... to defeat it."

So, what did I find? How does he do it? Straight and simple, here's what I learned.

Takeru Kobayashi is 27 years old and grew up outside the industrial city of Nagoya, Japan. He is 5-foot-7, 135 pounds of rock-solid muscle. He loves baseball, skiing, track and field, weightlifting and body building. He has a degree in economics, but when asked his profession will say, "food fighter."

He won enough yen in the last four years, before the TV shows and moneymaking Oguii challenges died out, to live comfortably and pursue his interest in physical fitness training.

He loves visiting America, but hates learning English, so tries to pick up as much as he can by watching Nickelodeon.

He wears American cyclist Lance Armstrong's "Live Strong" yellow bracelet when performing because he admires Armstrong's tremendous work ethic and his courage in his fight against cancer.

Kobayashi trains six months before the Coney Island contest by doing huge eats, gaining up to 30 pounds. When he is satisfied he can attain certain levels of eating, he begins an intense training regimen, slowly tapering the huge eating and losing the weight he has put on. He tries to direct all of this training to a two- to three-day window, hoping to peak on July 4 at Coney Island.

As he tells me these things, I realize the UFO I've been chasing. In an era of selfish athletes and sports pages that read like police blotters, Takeru Kobayashi is a throwback to the age I grew up in. He is an Eagle Scout who holds doors open for old ladies, a humble person who should not only be on the cover of a Wheaties box, but also could eat half the inventory of General Mills in a single setting. He is an all-American hero, only made in Japan.

It's the end of the evening. It has the "It's been a great day isn't this what holidays are all about?" feel, and my gluttonous curiosity has been quietly sated.

As we prepare to make our formal goodbyes, Kobayashi turns to Marina and asks her something in Japanese.

"Kobayashi would like to ask one more question before you leave," Marina informs me. "He has always been very curious.

"What type of dog is a coondog?"

"Tell Kobayashi," I reply, "that a coondog is a very determined hunting dog that relentlessly searches the globe for Kobayashis."

My answer is translated to laughter and more Japanese from Kobayashi.

"Kobayashi says: He has heard of this dog," Marina giggles.

All of us shake hands, bow and promise to meet again.

So I found the alien, but there's still that one nagging question: How does he do it?

And I have to say, I still don't know. My best guess is that he just can. The capricious gods of genius touched him with a talent.

But that's not what makes him so special. In a sport that gets less respect than Rodney Dangerfield, he trains with the passion of a Lance Armstrong or Michael Jordan, searching to perfect his genius. He competes not for money, but to stretch the belt of human achievement. His talent bridges over the mundane and phony, into a world of curiosity and awe.

It melts the ice between the awkward moments of silence of teen-agers and dads, opening the doors of conversation. ... And isn't that what heroes and champions are supposed to do?

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