One of the quintessential images I think we all have of Japan is of those larger than life characters called Sumo Wrestlers, and while Sumo may not be a sport that resonates with us all, it is one of those classical Japanese experiences that anyone who travels to Japan harbours a desire to see. While it may be difficult to get tickets to some matches or days due to the enormous popularity of the sport here it is possible, so is worth the effort to get hold of one and enjoy an entertaining day out.
We were lucky enough that a friend was familiar with the ins and outs of Sumo Wrestling so he arranged tickets for us all to attend on Coming of Age Day which is a public holiday here in Japan and the second day of the Grand Sumo Tournament 2014.
As an aside the day itself is interesting in that it is the day every year when those who have turned 20 during the previous year are recognised and reminded that they are now adults, so it involves everyone getting dressed up in their best gears including kimonos for the girls.
We arranged to meet at Ryogoku Station near the stadium around mid-day. Walking from the station to the stadium you are immediately struck by the grandeur of the event with colourful buntings lining the fence, which apparently represent each of the competitors in the tournament and their sponsors. Also on the fence in beautiful calligraphy is the draw for the day.
|Entry to the Stadium with buntings lining the fence. That is the drum tower in the middle.|
|Posing with some of the winners spoils|
Upon entering the we did a circuit of the stadium to learn a bit more about the history and etiquette of the sport. Opposite the entry is a large cabinet (probably 15 - 20 m long), full of amazing trophies, cups and other awards, which apparently ALL go to the winner of the tournament (no place for also ran's here by the sounds of it.....). Filling the promenade around the perimeter of the stadium are numerous souvenir shops selling Sumo related merchandise, everything from small banners and wrestler figures, up to paintings of champion sumos reaching into the 1,000's of dollars.
|Beauties and the Refs.....|
After completing the promenade circuit we made our way down to the basement dining hall to enjoy a bowl of staple sumo food called Chankonabe, which is essentially a meat and vegetable soup. Each Sumo stable apparently has their own preferred recipe so at each tournament they serve the signature dish of a different stable. While a little apprehensive initially (not being a great fan of vegetable soups or stews...), I found this brew delicious and at 200 Yen a bowl couldn't be beat. Also in the basement area they were having a promotion where anyone who came to the event dressed in their kimono was able to have their photo taken with the referees (seems the referees are as popular here as the wrestlers, I bet there are a few rugby referees who would be envious of their revered status....), so there is a long line of kimono clad girls lining the stairway waiting for their turn.
|"Caution, Wide Load Coming Through"|
Next we headed into the stadium itself and took our seats (3rd row from the back) and took in the afternoons events. The day's wrestling actually started around 8:00am with lower ranked events in the 2nd division, so we caught the last 10 - 15 fights of this round. Despite being near the back of the stadium our view was pretty good and we could see all that was going on down in the ring. It is a funny sport to watch with all of the posturing and mind games that go on prior to committing to the fight and smashing into each other as they try and push each other outside of the ring. The ring announcer starts each fight by announcing the names, etc of the next two combatants, who make their way to the centre of the ring, then proceed to leave the ring have a drink of water and grab a handful of salt which they throw into the ring to cleanse it of bad spirits. Then they take up their positions in the centre of the ring bent over, one hand on the floor, with the referee standing to one side posturing like a prize bantam rooster trying to beat a Sussex rooster to his hen, eagerly awaiting the start. Next they will break their stance head back to the corner and repeat the process again, and again, and again, and again....... until such time as they have drunk enough and cleansed the ring enough and are now happy to get on with it. The fight starts with both men lunging at each other to try and get a good hold on the other, then they proceed to try and either know their opponent down or push him outside of the ring. Touching the floor with any part of the body other than the souls of the feet is a loss as is touching the ground outside of the ring. Some fights last mere seconds, while others drag on as the fighters become locked in the middle unable to push the other out. On more than one occasion a poor judge was flattened by an unlucky wrestler being ejected from the ring, luckily they are former wrestlers themselves so are able to handle it.
|Getting ready to rumble|
After lunch they hold what is called a Re-entry Parade where all of the wrestlers in that division parade around the ring in their official skirt, which is generally emblazoned with their sponsors name, logo or colours. This is also repeated later in the day for the top division wrestlers, so is a nice colourful opportunity to see all of the wrestlers in the ring together.
|Re-entry parade for the big Kahunas (Top division)|
In the top division some of the fights are sponsored and prior to the start of the fight ring attendants will circle the ring carrying buntings displaying the names of those who have sponsored the event. Each bunting represents a sponsorship of 60,000 Yen ( I think was the official figure), with half of the money being awarded to the winner at the end of the fight in an official manner carried out by the referee.
|Sponsors buntings for one of the later fights, obviously a good fight to win.....|
While this was only the second day of a 13 day tournament, it was great to see this classical Japanese sport first hand, and is definitely something we will come back to in future. If you are travelling to Japan and want to check out some Sumo action visit the Japanese Sumo Association Website
to find out when tournaments are on or to buy tickets, although like most events in Japan you can also buy tickets from your nearest conveni, or from the stadium. You will not go away disappointed after experiencing all of the pomp and pageantry of this noble sport, however make sure you allow at least an afternoon to really take it all in.