Young Adrian's world tour continues, this time in Japan. Some football stuff will follow next month but for now Adrian delves, possibly a bit too closely, into the world of sumo.
2008 September Grand Sumo Tournament - Day 26
Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo
It’s 6:30am and I’m about to board a subway train to somewhere I’m not really sure the train goes to. There are few things that would motivate me enough to get out of bed this early whilst on holiday, however one of those things is sumo wrestling.
Having negotiated my way from my hotel to the arena, via getting briefly lost coming out of the subway station (how I managed this having seen the arena as the train pulled in I don’t know), I found myself at the Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo’s 13,000 capacity sumo arena. It was 7:30am and the queue for same day tickets was already forming along the pavement next to the colourful banners displaying the names of the wrestlers. In my experience for queuing for tickets, it is usual for the ticket kiosk shutters to open up and sales begin without any grandeur. In Japan however, to announce that tickets are now available, drums are played from the top of a wooden tower overlooking the line of weary looking patrons. A nice touch I feel.
Entering the arena nice and early gave the opportunity for a good wander around. The upper balcony contained ordinary theatre seats, but it was the lower floor where the charm of the arena lay. No seats- just cushions. In the floor area immediately beside the ring were simple cushions placed neatly with space beside for you to take off your shoes. Moving up from the floor were what can almost be described as boxes, but in reality groups of four cushions sectioned off by an ankle height bar, with each box containing a small tray of teacups. The ring itself was also quite elaborate, being housed under what looked like a barn roof with tassels dangling from it.
Arriving early gave Manouk and myself the opportunity to sample the front row seats, or cushions if you will. Having met her only moments before, I had already been roped into a photo of her strangling me in a wrestling pose in front of the large paintings outside the arena. I really should work on my first impressions. The arrangement with the expensive cushions at the very front of the arena was that you were welcome to use them until the actual ticket holders arrived. So during the morning when the amateur sumos were in action we got to witness the bouts from touching distance.
The amateurs were of varying sizes, some colossal, and some juniors more my size (see ironing board reference, York City away). The other interesting thing with the amateurs was that boys as young as fifteen were up against fully bulked out wrestlers. Initially the fights mainly involved grappling and tussling, followed by the victor defeating his opponent in one of 82 winning techniques. With the increase in seniority through the ranks, and possibly the motivation to rise through those ranks, the amateur fights became less about the wrestling and more about beating the opponent in any way possible. The phrase “schoolboy tactics” springs to mind. One fight became an over enthusiastic game of slaps, with the wrestlers swinging palms like angry wives in a cheap soap opera, meanwhile another fight became all about the wedge. Rather than try and win in the intended fashion, these two guys were more about the wedgies and ensuring the other returned to the sumo stables unable to be put out to stud. At one horrific point in the wedge-fest, let’s just say the curtains closed and the trunks were out of sight.
Taking a stroll around the concourse at lunchtime we were fortunate enough to bump into some of the wrestlers on their way to prepare for their bouts. The friendly giants kindly agreed to a photo, and with plenty of bowing later they were on their way. Manouk and I then decided to sample some Chanko, the potpourri stew used by the wrestlers to bulk up. More like a thin soup than a stew it contained chunks of chicken and every vegetable known to man, all goodness that makes a sumo grow up big and strong. It was one of those foods I ate to be polite, but wouldn’t have again.
It was then time to head to our cheap seats. With the ticket being completely in Japanese, a steward not only told us where our seats were, but walk us all the way. Japanese hospitality is the best in the world. The professional wrestlers were now on, and the arena was filling up. The wrestlers came on to a brief opening ceremony wearing their fancy aprons, some with gold and silver thread, some with diamonds and gems embedded. Another impressive thing at the event was the complete lack of any advertising or sponsorship, no build up music, no “let’s get ready to rumble”, all fights conducted in the traditional and ancient way.
The majority of fights were conducted in the proper sumo manner, with tremendous respect and honour displayed by all. At the start of a bout they would only begin once both contenders were ready. Salt was thrown to cast away bad spirits, feet were stomped to drive those spirits away, and water was sipped to purify the wrestler. As soon as a clear winner was known, wrestlers smiled at each other and help the defeated to his feet. No taunting, no jubilation, all very dignified.
The final bouts of the day drew the biggest crowds and the wildest atmosphere, with the final fight involving one of the tournament favourites. After several false starts, the bout was under way with the people’s favourite coming out on top. The arena erupted and it was time to leave. On leaving the arena I saw some wrestlers waiting for a train at the subway stop, no celebrity status, no wags, just good honest sumo wrestlers.