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Japan: Sumo wrestling

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Sumo wrestling | Japan | Asia

[Visited: September 2000, May 2010]

After a first visit to a sumo tournament, I had always been keen to see another one. So, when I found out I would be in Tokyo on the very last day of the May tournament, I did not hesitate and went to the Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo wrestling arena early in the morning. When I arrived at the entrance, it started to rain - and it was clear at once that the rain would not stop for the rest of the day. As I had been afraid, this last day of the tournament attracted a huge crowd, and I was told that there were no tickets available. Fortunately, I did not give up, and after an hour of asking others, several phone calls with the inevitable language problems, I was holding a ticket for a two-person box. Thinking it would be easy to find another person to share that box with me, I found out that it is illegal in Japan to try and sell such tickets on the streets. Still, I tried to find other persons interested. There was a weird twist when I found out that there actually were no more two-person boxes for sale, but suddenly, a ticket for one person on one of the very first rows was officially for sale. A swap with a couple resulted in me holding one of the best seats of the house.

Picture of Sumo wrestling (Japan): Presentation of a division of sumo wrestlers to the audience

By now, the morning had virtually ended and I could not wait to finally go inside. I bought some snacks in one of the many stalls on the ground floor, and made my way through the many people inside the enormous arena itself. Most of the seats were still empty, but the junior sumo wrestlers, or rikishi, were already wrestling on the dohyo, or sumo wrestling ring. I watched the arena, the audience, and the wrestlers for a while, saw an amazing match between a giant rishiki and a wrestler roughly half his size, which needed two rematches to decide the winner - surprisinly, the small guy, before I decided to have lunch. In the basement of the building, I tried the typical chankonabe rikishi meal: a stew with meat, fish, and vegetables. Sumo wrestlers eat plenty of chankonabe for lunch after normally skipping breakfast. It is one of the ways in which they manage to gain weight. Back in the arena, I noticed that the stadium was slowly filling up with people, and walked around the upper ring for views from above. I saw the entrance ceremony of one of the top divisions before I decided to return to my seat and stay there. I found out that row 5 is really very close to the action! While the audience on the upper part of the stadium is seated on real seats, those on the lower, more expensive part are sitting on a small mat on the floor. For the next couple of hours, I was sitting there in awe of the giants wrestling on the simple platform of the doryo. From this position, all the gestures, the preparation which is choke-full of tradition, the referees coordinating the match, and of course, the match itself, were perfectly visible. Since the platform is over half a metre high, you are always looking up to those on it, making the rikishi look even more impressive.

Picture of Sumo wrestling (Japan): Throwing salt on the dohyo is one of the many traditions involved in sumo wrestling

According to Japanese legend the origin of the Japanese people was determined by the outcome of a sumo match. The Japanese god Takemikazuchi won over the leader of a rival tribe and thus established the Japanese people as the masters of Japan. Historians agree that sumo came into being some 1500 years ago. Sumo matches originally were a ritual aimed at securing better harvests. It was incorporated in the Imperial Court, and developed into a sport in the 17th century. There are only 6 tournaments a year, and sumo wrestlers train and live a Spartan life for these few opportunities to excel. While watching sumo, you are reminded constantly of the rich history of the sport, which is so full of tradition. After the rishiki come from either the east or west side of the stadium into the ring (this way, they cannot see each other before the match), they are summoned on the dohyo when it is their turn. The referee, or gyoji, coordinates the preparations for the match, the start of it, shouts to the wrestlers during the match, and decides the match by pointing his gunbai, or war-fan, to the side of the winner. The higher the division in the hierarchy of sumo, the more elaborate the dress of the referee. The highest ranking referees wear delicate silk dresses contrasting sharply with the relatively simple loin cloth of the sekitori, the elite wrestlers. During this day at sumo in Japan I saw the hierarchy of wrestlers and referees right before my eyes. Meanwhile, the atmosphere in the stadium changed as well. Where initially the sumo wrestlers are only watched by a few while most others in the audience seem to be there more for socializing than for a deep love of the sport, tension rises during the afternoon. In the end, when it was time for the top sekitori to fight, the stadium was packed, I could hear and see the audience thrilled at the action, culminating in a thunderous applause for yet another win of the yokozuna, the highest ranking sumo wrestler. Even after the last exciting match, the award ceremony was interesting to see, too. Enormous cups were handed to the winner, leaving me wondering where he could ever leave all those cups. When I finally exited the arena and walked into a dark, rainy Tokyo evening, I was totally satisfied with the spectacular and highly interesting day I had spent at this typical Japanese event.

Picture of Sumo wrestling (Japan): Sumo wrestlers in close contact during a match
Picture of Sumo wrestling (Japan): Sumo wrestlers preparing before entering the arena
Picture of Sumo wrestling (Japan): Sumo referee, or gyoji, during a match
Picture of Sumo wrestling (Japan): Presentation of the makuuchi, the top sumo division
Picture of Sumo wrestling (Japan): Gyoji and sumo wrestler just before the start of a sumo bout
Picture of Sumo wrestling (Japan): Shiko exercise being performed by two sumo wrestlers
Picture of Sumo wrestling (Japan): Gyoji closely watching a sumo bout
Picture of Sumo wrestling (Japan): Sumo wrestler seconds before the start of a bout
Picture of Sumo wrestling (Japan): Close-up of sumo wrestlers
Picture of Sumo wrestling (Japan): Sumo wrestlers just about to start a bout
Picture of Sumo wrestling (Japan): Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo wrestling hall seen from above
Picture of Sumo wrestling (Japan): Ecstatic Japanese crowd watching a sumo match
Picture of Sumo wrestling (Japan): One of the many cups for the winner of the tournament

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