TOKYO -- A stone path winds artfully to the door. Water trickles through bamboo into a stone urn. One might take this house on Tokyo's outskirts for a lovely, refined Japanese inn.




No, this is definitely not a refined inn.

Behind sliding doors two lumbering men, covered only by loincloths and their own profuse sweat, are trying to push, twist and throw each other to the floor of a dirt-packed ring. Above them, brandishing a long bamboo prodding stick, looms an even more enormous sumo wrestler, a 512-pounder known here as Konishiki. He is a Hawaiian of Samoan descent with a girth as big as a kitchen table, and thighs so massive and fat-laden they give new meaning to the word cellulite.

"What are you doing, stupid?" he says in Japanese. "Ugoki!" -- Move! The two apprentices go at each other even harder.

It is an unlikely scene, this large American barking commands and then, later, easily throwing his own opponent to the dirt in this sumo practice session. Japanese minions jump when he grunts -- fetching water, wiping dirt and drops of sweat from his overwhelming torso.

To the Japanese, there is no arena more sacred -- more Japanese -- than the sumo ring. And Konishiki, born Salevaa Atisanoe to a poor family on Oahu, has penetrated it more deeply than any other foreigner in history. Now he is poised to become the first foreign grand champion ever.

Konishiki, 26, won the sumo meet in November and nearly took the March bout. If he wins the current round, which began May 13 and lasts 15 days, it will be all but impossible for the clubby promotion council to deny him grand champion, or yokozuna, status, sumo experts say.

That prospect does not cheer everyone.

Konishiki's successes in the past have triggered outpourings of xenophobia. In 1984, when out of nowhere he trumped some of the best Japanese sumo wrestlers and appeared headed for a swift rise to the top, hysterical commentators labeled him, the heaviest sumo wrestler ever, a "foreign meat bomb" and a "monster." One writer demanded that sumo tournaments be called off if Konishiki were to become grand champion. And a former sumo great called Konishiki's success a national "shame." Some sumo leaders began agitating for a rules change to bar foreigners from the ring.

Konishiki began getting what he calls "poison-pen letters" and even telephone death threats from people irate that he had intruded too far into this sport-cum-spectacle long favored by Japanese emperors and so much a part of Japan's culture.

Passions have cooled somewhat in the intervening years, in part because Konishiki suffered injuries that slowed his ascent. Suffering always helps endear celebrities to the Japanese, who tend to devalue success unless it is hard won. (It helped too when he publicly wept a few months ago upon winning his first tournament.) In addition, with his now-fluent Japanese and his local fashion model girlfriend, Konishiki himself has come to seem a little less foreign these days.

A testament to his Japanese spirit is the hapless Kosenryu, a young wrestler with promise who, after the recent practice session, hovered outside the back door of the sumo stable still in his loincloth, dirty and limping slightly from the typical "sumo hazing" Konishiki helped administer. To elevate Kosenryu's fighting spirit, Konishiki kicked him in the stomach, whacked him with the bamboo pole and rubbed dirt in his face as he lay moaning in the dirt with exhaustion.

Still, when Konishiki won his first tournament last November, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper felt the need to offer its readers some gentle guidance. "Since sumo is no more than a sport, we should behave naturally," it cautioned in an editorial. And while the head of the yokozuna promotion council recently indicated he would go along with promoting Konishiki if he won another tournament, he also made clear that he wasn't wild about the idea. Konishiki, he suggested, doesn't comport himself properly, acts too fierce at the wrong times and "hops and dances" in the aisle too much before entering the ring.

"If he were a Japanese wrestler there would be no problem," said Tadashi Yato, a sumo reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. While many average Japanese have come to respect Konishiki for sticking it out here, sumo professionals and die-hard fans "feel it's okay to have foreigners in sumo, but they don't want the sumo world taken over by foreigners," Yato said.

Konishiki apparently has learned to take it all mostly in stride.

His long black hair greased and combed up into the samurai-like topknot that sumo professionals must wear at all times, Konishiki said in an interview after the morning practice that he has only one thought these days: "to win."

After eight years living in the harsh and rigidly run sumo world, he is clearly savoring being near the top, with the various perks that brings.

No longer does he have to suffer without a word of complaint the hazing or the strict rules that govern new wrestlers' lives, from the prohibition against wearing socks or overcoats, even in winter, to the requirements that they perform all the menial chores for the sumo stable. They must wake at dawn to clean the practice ring and house where the wrestlers communally live, eat only after the more advanced fighters are finished, tend to their seniors' every need -- holding their umbrellas on rainy days and even helping them bathe -- and take any abuse the wrestlers higher on the totem pole care to dish out.

Once, Konishiki recalled, a high-ranked wrestler broke a bottle over Konishiki's head to "toughen" him. Another time, a younger but more advanced wrestler came back drunk to the stable, slapped Konishiki awake and chastised him for going to sleep before the wrestler did.

There were times in the beginning when he wondered why he had given up Hawaii and Syracuse University scholarships to come to Japan in 1982, why he had allowed himself to be recruited by the only other successful foreign sumo wrestler, another Hawaiian now known as Takamiyama.

But then after a couple of years, "you get to enjoy it more, to understand it more," he said, adding that it is not so different from the patriarchal Samoan family world in which he was raised, the seventh of nine children of a laborer. Now, he sees the hazing as a way to toughen the body and mind for the short bursts of prodigious strength and the endurance needed to win a pushing match against another mountainous human being.

"At first I thought it was unjust the way the lower-ranking wrestlers are bullied," he wrote in a Japanese magazine in 1988. But "anyone who can't take a hazing probably doesn't have what it takes to succeed in sumo."

Appearances aside, Konishiki is no lunkhead, and has talents in other fields. "I may not look like it, but I was the smartest kid on the block," he recalled in the magazine article. He was also a good athlete, playing football at school, and an accomplished musician, studying guitar, drums, saxophone and other brass instruments. After coming to Japan he took up piano as well. "If Takamiyama hadn't scouted me I probably would have gone to college and lived an ordinary life," he recalled.

Instead, his days are now as far from ordinary as one can imagine. He can wear only traditional sumo garb -- in the ring, the loincloth; outside the ring, at all times, a Japanese robelike outer garment and sandals.

He practices in the morning and then eats the typically gargantuan sumo midday meal, a stew of meat or fish, eggs and vegetables called chanko-nabe, accompanied by many bowls of rice and sometimes beer. That is followed by a long siesta. The rest of the day is usually free, for errands, visits or weight training, until the equally huge evening meal.

According to Andy Adams, editor of Sumo World magazine, who has been following sumo for decades, the daily rituals both strengthen and fatten the wrestlers. The gorge-and-sleep cycle allows them to put on weight, while the training gives them muscles under the bulk. "They look soft on the outside, but they are really strong inside. You can't imagine how strong," he said.

Konishiki's own toughness, not readily visible under many layers of fat, showed itself surprisingly early in his career. Two and a half years after joining sumo he had won enough matches to qualify as a professional wrestler, a status that gave him his own room and his own attendants to cater to his every whim. Several years later he moved up to his current rank of ozeki, only one rung behind grand champion and one of only four ozekis in Japan today.

There are only three yokozuna, or grand champions, as well, and they are respected in a way that no other sports celebrities are in Japan. Not long ago one yokozuna was drummed out of the sport for poor conduct toward his stable master and others.

"Sumo is not just a sport. It's a combination of spectacle and tradition. There's a religious basis, a Shinto religious basis," said Adams. "A real top guy, a yokozuna, is not like a good hitter or pitcher for the {Yomiuri} Giants. He symbolizes a way of life. Some people say they are the modern samurai. People are supposed to look up to them."

They are also well paid, receiving not only a salary and prize money when they win a bout, but regular generous cash and other contributions from fans.

One current grand champion is estimated by a newspaper to have earned about $1.9 million in official pay and prizes -- along with 12 cars, 12 cows, 900 sacks of rice, a year's supply of mushrooms and coffee beans and a ton of salted plums.

It is this exalted rank Konishiki hopes to join. Whether it will happen after this sumo tournament or the next -- or even later -- no one can predict. But sumo analysts tend to agree that, barring new injuries or a loss of will, Konishiki may well enter the record books, not only for his quarter-ton weight, but as the first foreign grand champion in sumo history.