DH Goes Sumo

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
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Trip End Oct 06, 2013


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Flag of Japan  , Kanto,
Monday, September 24, 2012

After the somewhat strange spectacle of hockey in Japan, we were looking to go to the other end of the sporting scale for a session of the national sport of Japan- sumo wrestling (and as far as I know, no other country in the world hosts sumo events). DH continues to deny that she has any strange fascination with fat men wrestling, but she was like a small child at Christmas waiting for confirmation that we had picked up some advance tickets for the biggest tournament of the year which was happening in Tokyo. The same woman who could care less about the passports I carry around was constantly asking me to double-check that our tickets were still safe.

We railed into Tokyo, dropped our bags, and immediately headed over to the National Sumo Stadium in the Ryogoku District- they actually call it the home of the sumo's stable. DH aggressively tried to head backstage but the lower level of the arena was secured for the competitors as well as all those fans who could sit Japanese style for hours on end (after our dining debacle at the temple in Mt Koya, we picked the best western style with puffy cushions but this left us in the upper level). Disappointed that she was unable to get within touching distance of the wrestlers, DH nonetheless had unobstructed views to the boys in the mawashi's down below- in sumo, two people who are wearing nothing but a mawashi (loincloth), face each other in a dohyo (circular ring) and push, slap, grapple, and try to throw each other. The one who forces his opponent to the ground or pushes him out of the ring is the winner.

Many aspects of Japan's traditional culture can be seen in sumo. Rikishi (wrestlers) wear their hair in a topknot in the shape of the leaf of a ginkgo tree, which was a normal hairstyle in the Edo period. The referee, meanwhile, wears the same kind of clothes as a samurai of 600 years ago. Wrestlers throw salt into the ring to purify it before they begin their match, as the dohyo is considered a sacred place.

Even the lifestyle of a sumo wrestler seems to reflect the traditions, discipline, respect, and work ethic that has had a large influence on the Japan of today- every sumo wrestler belongs to a stable, which is where they live while they are young. A stable is managed by a stable master, a retired wrestler who was a good wrestler in his prime. There are currently 54 stables. Referees, ushers, and hairdressers also live in the stables. There are a number of different divisions for the wrestlers, and they begin receiving a salary when they make the higher ranks, and they also get to wear a keshomawashi, a lavishly embroidered apron-like cloth that comes down to their ankles, when they are introduced before the beginning of a tournament (and who wouldn't want to wear an apron over their loincloth in front of thousands of people). To be fair that loincloth/mawashi that a sekitori wears in the tournaments is made of high grade silk and can be one of several colors, while wrestlers in the makushita division or lower can wear only a black cotton mawashi. Results count- if you're successful you get to have people around you to take care of your everyday needs- there is a great difference between how wrestlers of different ranks are treated and how much money they receive (kind of like the NBA??). After training hard each morning,  the young wrestlers have to go to the kitchen to help prepare chanko- the food eaten by sumo wrestlers, and it includes stews, Chinese food, sashimi, and deep-fried food. Sumo wrestlers eat two massive meals a day and many of them take naps afterward to help them get bigger. Based on what we saw it works (although I suspect that many of them are cheating and going straight to the Big Mac and KFC North American diet!!).

Like the Mongolian wrestling we saw, the basic rules of sumo are simple: the wrestler who first touches the ground with anything besides the soles of his feet, or who leaves the ring before his opponent, loses. Inexplicably, fights take place on an elevated ring, called a "dohyo", which is made of clay and covered in a layer of sand- I say inexplicably because often times one or both wrestlers will go tumbling out of the ring and drop over the sides of this stage. The injuries can be horrific...and that's just the for the ringside observers that these behemoths land on! Just being enveloped in that much blubber must be a suffocation risk. The fights we saw usually lasted only a few seconds, or in some rare cases, about a minute. The strange rituals before the fight usually lasted much longer than the bouts themselves- many of the rituals are derived from Shinto practice.

After lumbering into the ring each wrestler claps his hands and then performs the leg-stomping shiko exercise to drive evil spirits from the dohyo. Stepping out of the ring into their corners, each wrestler is given a ladleful of water, the chikara-mizu ("power water"), with which he rinses out his mouth; and a paper tissue, the chikara-gami ("power paper"), to dry his lips. Then both step back into the ring, squat facing each other, clap their hands, then spread them wide (traditionally to show they have no weapons although I suspect you could hide a howitzer under some of the folds of skin). Returning to their corners they each pick up a handful of salt which they toss onto the ring to purify it. After a few rounds of stare-downs both wrestlers place both fists on the ground and then charge each other with bellies and man-boobs crashing into each other with deafening slapping sound.

Wrestlers are allowed to slap, push, trip, and flip their opponents but kicking, striking with fists, hair pulling, eye-gouging, grabbing the vital organs, and choking are prohibited. The wrestlers can also grab their opponents by any part of their body even their neck and grab and pull on their opponents mawashi belt (DH seemed fixated on what would happen if the mawashi falls off- apparently it is an automatic match loss... and never did happen).

At the end of the tournament, the winner, a Mongolian, was honored in an elaborate ceremony with a band playing the Japanese national anthem and Handel's "Hail The Conquering Hero". In addition to the hefty Emperor’s Cup, he is given two tons of rice, a ton of chestnuts, grapes and pears, four tons of onions, a year's supply of sake, a bunch of cups and a number of other prizes. 

After one last attempt to get backstage, DH reluctantly agreed to head home with the other sumo groupies- this made for our first Japanese train crush (although we still didn't see those train guys who, the rumour goes, push and stuff people into the trains). DH loved the concept that we got "burped out " at our stop which just happens to be the busiest train station in Japan, Shinjuku Station, which sees 2 million people each day. I think we're going to need a couple of DH's sumo dudes to clear a little space for us in Tokyo.

Please be advised that the attached photo's can be both graphic and disturbing. Proceed with caution.
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