Journey Through Japan

Day 11, 11JAN2017

Today was Sumo Wrestling Day.

Josh and I did not plan our Japan trip to coincide with a Sumo Tournament; however we are forever thankful that our trip to Tokyo did in fact coincide with this incredibly Japanese sporting event.

There are six Sumo tournaments each year in Japan: January, March, May, July, September and November. Each tournament lasts about two weeks and they are hosted in four locations across Japan.

The January Tournament ran from 8-23JAN this year and it was hosted at the Kokugikan Stadium in Tokyo. Advance sale tickets entirely sold out by the time we looked into pre-purchasing tickets to Sumo. This is very common, and yet, we had no idea.

Luckily for the two of us, I read Lonely Planet and learned on our bullet train ride back from Hokkaido that the venue sets aside a number of general admission tickets sold the morning of the tournament for the first come, first served.

So, on 11JAN, the fourth day of the tournament, Josh and I lined up an hour before opening for a chance to buy a general admission ticket.

When we arrived at the venue, a line had already begun to snake around the jade-green roofed stadium. The place was abuzz with excitement and the billowing flags outside indicated this was indeed the home of champion sumo wrestling.

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We were handed line ticket 140 and 141. These tickets did not guarantee we’d be able to purchase general admission tickets today, rather, they served as place marker in the line. The Japanese seriously get an A+ for efficiency and following rules. See, you can only purchase one adult ticket for each place holder ticket you have; that being said, you as an adult can only possess one place holder ticket at any single time, period. Thus, you can’t show up at 0700, get a place holder ticket, and then proceed to the window and purchase ten tickets, and then either give them to your friends/family, or try to scalp the tickets as is commonly seen in the US.

Instead you can only buy a ticket, for yourself, and that’s it.

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If you show up and are given ticket 140, you stand in line at the 140th person. If your boyfriend stopped to buy coffee to drink while in line and he shows up and is given ticket 150, he is not allowed to jump in line to stand with you. We know this, because we watched as a French speaking couple angrily argued with the Japanese security guard about why the man couldn’t join the woman who had “been holding his place in line.” Rules, deal with them. ::Insert epic Japanese mic drop::

Josh and I both managed to procure tickets today, and wow, were we lucky! The advance tickets were $150 a piece, we bought general admission tickets for $22 a piece!

 

Tickets in hand we grabbed some breakfast on the outside of the venue, booked our bullet train tickets to Kyoto for tomorrow, and then entered the dome unsure what to expect.

The venue was entirely done up for the tournament: you could take your photo in various photo booths or in cut outs “standing with the sumo wrestlers.” The sumo museum was open only to tournament goers, and we perused the place interested by the ritual of the wrestling match itself.

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Now that we knew about the rishiki (fighters), the judges, the referee, and the barber’s purpose in the sport’s ceremony, we wandered into the stadium itself.

The place opened at 0815, fights began around 0830; after our breakfasts we probably happened upon the early morning fights around 0900.

The place was massive and eerily silent. The morning bouts were reserved for the juniors. People who are just entering into the world of sumo and are trying to get a foothold. From 0900-1230 Josh and I moved around the entire stadium enjoying various viewpoints in this relatively empty ceremony house. No matter how close or far you were from the fighters their presence was huge.

The fight is fought on a hardened clay surface. Buried in this clay are straw rice bags with only the tops of said bags showing – these tops outline the fighting ring. There is a layer of dirt atop the clay, and just like in baseball when people come out to rake the diamond between innings, people swept and watered this top layer of dirt between fights.

The ring itself is sacred and considered a place in which the fighters and the referee are in the presence of the Gods. For this reason, prior to the actual fight, sumo wrestlers conduct an elaborate and seemingly coordinated dance where they expose themselves to the Gods to showcase they are without weapons of any kind.

In the junior league, there is no salt, but in the upper levels – that is, the Minor League and the Major Leagues as Josh and I like to refer to them, or the Juryo (intermediate) and the Makuuchi (senior) – the fighters utilize salt to further purify the ring before fighting. Salt also serves as a method to cleanse the fighters’ cuts or abrasions if they have any.

Before the wrestlers enter the ring, and before they begin their ceremonial dance, a singer enters the ring and while Josh and I never learned the actual words, the meaning was clear: they were calling forth the next two fighters. Its was elaborate and absolutely beautiful. The singers traded out numerous times throughout the day because as one can imagine, singing the names of the wrestlers – of which there must have been at least a 100 fights in the morning and then 35 fights in the intermediate and senior levels – wears on one’s vocal cords.

To assist in the singing, and the amphitheater’s sound system in general, hoisted above the clay fighting ring is a suspended roof that looks very much like that found on shrines or temples throughout Japan. There were of course microphones ensuring all could hear the songs, calls, and chants from the ring, but I like to think the roof definitely enhanced the noise.

Once the song is sung, the wrestler’s cleansed, the referee makes a few chants, and then the wrestlers enter the ring and square off.

In the junior league the square off immediately transcends into the fight. In the Juryo and Makuuchi levels, they have three or four minutes respectively to “stir up the crowd.” That is, they can look as though they are both completely ready to fight, and then to psyche the other fighter out, one can stand up, exit the ring, and begin throwing salt again and conducting all sorts of dances. It’s very much like in baseball when the batter looks ready, and then steps out of the batting box in hopes of throwing off the pitcher.

Its important to explain here that there are no weight classes in sumo. So the first few fights Josh and I witnessed pitted all sorts of shapes and sizes against one another. We must have seen a handful of 400lb behemoths square off against men weighing no more than 150lbs. The disparity is startling, and yet, each wrestler entered that ring, followed the ceremony, and squared off intensely without belying their inner feelings whatsoever.

The junior league fights lasted quite a while, and yet Josh and I were fascinated. By time it was afternoon, we’d whittled away an entire morning absolutely consumed in learning the new sport and taking bets on who would win. As the morning’s fights drew to a close, the matches became all the more closely matched, and people of the same weight, size, and athletic ability were paired off against each other making for a genuinely intriguing atmosphere.

Before the Juryo fights, Josh and I grabbed lunch in the most traditional way possible at the stadium: in the basement, herded like cattle to eat Chanko.

Chanko is the “sumo wrestler stew.” A thick miso-based soup full of chunks of meat, vegetables and tofu. It was absolutely delicious! We were paired at our table with an elderly Japanese couple that tried their best to teach us the words for the food in our soup in Japanese, and various other sumo-related terms.

After lunch we settled down for the Juryo fights. The crowd continued to expand, becoming more involved by the minute, until finally the main event commenced.

At 1545 Josh and I were finally sniped by one of the ticket checkers and we were told to take our general admission seats – which happened to be the absolute highest row in the entire stadium. By the time the Makuuchi Ceremony began the entire stadium was packed like sardines. On the first floor people were seated on floor cushions, four people in a square no larger than 4’ x 4’. On the second floor, the floor we were relegated to, the seats were traditional folding stadium seats – although they did have cushions as well, so that was pleasant.

Josh and I found a Canadian couple and a pair of Aussie mates in the top row and sandwiched ourselves between them. What transpired was quite possibly the most fun we’ve had in all of Japan. Note to Reader: don’t take that statement lightly, you know I adore Disney, but I seriously enjoyed sumo on a level that can not be equated to Tokyo Disney.

The Makuuchi Ceremony begins with all 42 fighters performing a parade of sorts. The teams, divided arbitrarily into the East and West march into the stadium from the “stables” in a line. We weren’t sure which team was presented first, either the West or the East. Led by the referee, an announcer names off each of the fighters individually and they ascend from the ground up onto the clay ring. Once all 21 fighters from the team’s names have been read and the fighters are all circled around the top of the ring, they turn inwards and chant and slap their hands and bodies. Its coordinated and chilling at the same time.

Sumo wrestlers are prolifically well known for wrestling with simply a loin cloth, a mawashi, on; however, during the ring entering ceremony, the wrestlers don a kesho-mawashiI, a gorgeous and massive silk belt half-skirt. The article of clothing is brightly colored and intricately decorated in various designs.

After each team is introduced, the Yokozuna, or the highest ranked sumo wrestlers in the entire world each re-enter the ring and have their very own introduction ceremony.

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In our case there were three Yokozuna fighters participating in the January tournament. Each of the wrestlers, in addition to their kesho-mawashi, also wear a gigantic bright white hemp rope belt and from this article dangle white cords designed to look like lightning bolts.

The Yokozuna enter the ring with two attendees, one carrying a sword. And then the Yokozuna conducts a dance of sorts, bowing, chanting, rising, stomping, it is all incredibly powerful and mesmerizing.

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Once the introductions are complete, the Makuuchi fights proceed similar to the Juryo before them with the two fighters called out by the announcer, they enter the ring, conduct their ritualistic dance showcasing their lack of weapons, and then purify the ring with salt.

Unlike the fights before, the crowd becomes radicalized by the salt throwing and four-minutes’ worth of pre-fight psyche outs. It’s incredible, and one can’t help but feel a stirring in their soul.

Josh and I carried out our games of guessing who would win out of the pair and branched out to include our fellow Canadian and Australian row sitters. At times we cheered for the crowd favorite and our cheers were echoed by the thousands of people in the stadium. At other times we apparently chose the wrong fighters to cheer for, and a cute old lady who took a liking to Joshua in front of us would shake her head and try to explain entirely in Japanese something we had no idea about. Either way, whenever our chosen favorite won we stood and cheered. The remainder of the crowd was far more reserved after a fight ended – lots of cheers and clapping, but no standing or booing.

The final three fights were reserved for those Makuuchi paired off against the three Yokozuna. Hakuho, a Yokozuna, paired against Tochinoshin, was 3-0 before the fight and maintained his record much to no shock.

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Stirring the Crowd: the Rooster Move

Harumafuji was the Yokozuna with the worst record thus far in the tournament at 1-2, however he managed to defeat his opponent Arawashi.

Then it was the final fight. Kakuryu, a Yokozuna with a 3-0 record entered the ring the face off against Mitakeumi, a Maegashira. The Maegashira, being the fifth highest and therefore the lowest of the Makuuchi ranks, the crowd assumed, as did we, that Kakuryu would win.

The four minutes of salt throwing, body slapping, hand clapping, grunting, and psyche-outs came to a conclusion and the men were at it, shoving and heaving, throat punching with open fists and all around trying to push each other to the ground or out of the ring.

In a matter of seconds the fight was over and to the crowds utter dismay and un-expectation, Mitakeumi won.

The Maeghashira defeated a 3-0 Yokozuna and the crowd lost their minds!

We were shocked, everyone was yelling, people rose to their feet for the first time the entire day, and those seated on the first floor began throwing their seat cushions into the sacred ring. Chaos was unleashed and it was utterly amazing.

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High on our sumo experience Josh and I departed the stadium and made our way pushing through the extremely calm although massive throngs of people. It was a fabulous way to experience a brand new sport and we definitely are supporters now!

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