Just as geisha is synonymous with Japan so is sumo. I was fortunate enough to be in Japan during one of their six Grand Sumo tournaments and wasn’t going to miss it.
My friends, Michael, Shaun and I headed of to The Sumo Hall at Ryogoku Kokugikan Station in Tokyo, early morning to be there in time for the cheap seats. By 11am all the cheaper seats were sold out and we were lucky enough just to make the cut off.
Not knowing a lot about sumo we entered the arena just after buying the tickets. The wrestlers begin their warm up fights around 9am in the morning and from 11am you could watch some lower lever club wrestlers doing their thing. Some of these fights were really mismatched, with a really thin dude against a huge dude. It was funny too see the thin dude actually outwit the huge dude.
Sumo is a very competitive full-contact wrestling sport where a wrestler is declared the winner of a sumo bout by being either:
- The first wrestler to force his opponent to step out of the ring.
- The first wrestler to force his opponent to touch the ground with any part of his body other than the bottom of his feet.
This sport originated in Japan, the only country where it is practiced professionally. I was very excited that I would get the opportunity to witness this sport here in Tokyo!!
The wrestlers really have a great girth and when they stamp their legs before the fight their whole body wobbles and it’s a bit nauseating to watch. When a couple of them fell flat on their stomachs everything wobbled like blubber, it was quite something to see. A lot of the wrestlers are renowned for their great girth as body mass is often a winning factor in sumo.
The sumo matches took place in a ring, of rice-straw bales on top of a platform made of clay mixed with sand. A new dohyō (ring) is built for each tournament. At the center are two white lines, the shikiri-sen, behind which the wrestlers position themselves at the start of the bout.[A roof resembling that of a Shinto shrine was also suspended over the ring.
The REAL fights started around 3pm. The opening was spectacular with them all walking into the arena dressed in their ceremonial suits. During the ceremony the wrestlers were introduced to the crowd one-by-one in ascending rank order and formed a circle around the ring facing outwards. Once the highest ranked wrestler was introduced they turned inwards and performed a brief ritual before filing off and returning to their changing rooms. The crowd waved and cheered and got ready for the excitement to start.
The build up to each fight took about 4 minutes with each wrestler performing a number of rituals derived from Shinto practice. Facing the audience, they clapped their hands and then performed the leg-stomping shiko exercise to drive evil spirits from the dohyō as the referee announced the wrestlers’ names once more.
They then Stepped out of the ring into their corners, each wrestler was given a ladle full of water (“power water”), with which he rinses out his mouth; and a paper tissue (“power paper”), to dry his lips. Then both stepped back into the ring, squatted facing each other, clapped their hands, then spread them wide (traditionally to show they have no weapons).
Many ancient traditions have been preserved in sumo, and include many ritual elements, such as the use of salt purification, from the days when sumo was used in the Shinto religion. So with the stomping the wrestlers each also throw salt into the air before getting into position.
It looked as if this challenging part was very important and it took each wrestler a while to get into position and signal that they were ready for the fight.
The wrestlers would then crouch down at the starting lines and try to stare the other down. When both wrestlers placed both fists on the ground they then sprang from their crouch for the initial charge. Sometimes after staring at one another for a while they returned to their corners for more mental preparation. More salt was thrown whenever they stepped back into the ring to start the bout.
The fight or bout however only lasted about 30sec to 1 min before it was over. If you looked away for a second you could have missed the whole wrestling match!! Each match is preceded by an elaborate ceremonial ritual, and was very interesting to watch.
There were obvious favourites among the wrestlers and the crowd would go crazy when they were introduced, and especially if they won their match. I know too, little about sumo to actually appreciate the nuance of the fight and watching this for the first time I didn’t actually know what detail to look for.
In the tournament that we watched the best wrestler was a Bulgarian guy named Kotooshu. When he won at the end the crowd stood up and everyone threw his or her little pillow they were sitting on into the air.
We really enjoyed our day out at the wrestling and got exposed to a whole different part of Japanese culture than what I have up until now.