Sunday, June 11, 2017


In the year 1684, the Tomioka Hachiman Shrine in Tokyo decided to hold a wrestling tournament. If this seems like a strange thing for a Shinto shrine to do, consider that the origins of wrestling in Japan can be traced back centuries to Shinto dance rituals, so part of the ceremony involved in each bout was ultimately derived from a religious rite. The 1684 tournament was the first in what would become a series. From that point on, tournaments were held twice yearly at the Shrine under the protection of the shogun, or military dictator, of Japan. The Tomioka Hachiman Shrine called their 1684 tournament kanjin zumo; today, we call the sport that originated at that tournament "sumo".

Sumo, or sumo wrestling if I wanted to be redundant, is likely a familiar sport to some people, although their impression of what really happens in a bout might be very different from the reality. To most, I think sumo could be summed up by two fat Japanese men in diapers running into each other at top speed until one surrenders and the other one wins, however exactly that might happen. Before I set foot in Japan determined to see this sport in person, I might very well have fit into this category, although I likely wouldn't have used the words "fat" or "diapers". Now I see things differently.

The origins of sumo can be traced back centuries. And I don't mean about three and a half centuries to the year 1684. I mean CENTURIES. Like a couple of millennia. There is evidence of rituals which might suggest sumo all the way back to the start of our Common Era or about the year zero. It may have stemmed from festivals which included references to Shinto myths in which spirits were summoned and fought by men for the entertainment of the gods.

As the Japanese began to record their history more rigorously, we know that sumo was definitely performed at the royal court for the entertainment of the emperor. There is evidence that sumo tournaments featuring the finest wrestlers in Japan were held prior to harvest time during both the Nara Period (710-794) and the Heian Period (794-1185) as a way of securing favor from the gods for a successful crop. During the Nara Period, the royal court (or capital) was located in Nara, a city about 300 miles west of present day Tokyo; during the Heian Period, the court was moved to Heian-kyo, which is present day Kyoto, about 25 miles north of Nara.

While sumo's history goes back 2,000 years, the origins of today's professional sport can be traced to that 1684 tournament at Tomioka Hachiman. Over time following 1684, rules of the sport were codified; the notion of tournaments spread to other parts of Japan (particularly Osaka); and the bouts moved out of shrines and into secular buildings constructed strictly for sumo tournaments. In the early 20th century, there were two prominent sumo organizations in the country, one based in the east of the country in Tokyo and the other in the west in Osaka.

In 1926, these two organizations merged, agreeing to hold four tournaments per year which would alternate locations between the east and west. The east tournaments would be hosted in the custom-built-for-sumo Ryogoku Kokugikan building in Tokyo; the west tournaments would be held in either Osaka, Nagoya or Fukuoka. Today, there are six grand tournaments held annually in the odd numbered months: the January, May and September tourneys are held in the Ryogoku Kokugikan and the March, July and November contests are scheduled for Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka respectively. They still alternate between east and west.

Banners hanging in the Ryogoku Kokugikan train station let you know you are near sumo.
If there was a single reason I visited Japan last month, it was to watch sumo in person. To be clear, that was not the ONLY reason I visited Japan but sumo certainly determined the timing of my visit. I had to be in Tokyo at least one day between May 14 and May 28, the start and end dates of the May Grand Sumo Tournament at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan, the high temple of sumo. Sumo was the first thing on my planning list and we bought tickets for Sunday, May 21 as soon as they went on sale (thanks, Larry, for that). We were on our way.

Before I go on, perhaps a little terminology check is in order. First of all, there's no need to call it sumo wrestling. Sumo means wrestling; saying both is redundant. I won't do that here anymore. The big fat guys in the ring at the center of all the action are rikishi and they are not doing battle in a ring, it's a dohyo (not to be confused with dojo; we'll get to that sort of stuff eventually in this blog, just not in this post). They are also not wearing diapers. The belts they wear are referred to wamashi. Got all that? Good. I won't confuse you with any more vocabulary right now but I do think it's worth mentioning here that sumo is the only type of wrestling in history where the combatants wear garments that can be held onto; we'll come back to that concept.

Each Grand Tournament, or honbasho, held in Japan spans 15 days. Each rikishi participating in the  top divisions of the honbasho wrestles once per day. The riksihi with the best record after the 15 days is declared the winner. Pretty simple, right? Now since it is possible for two rikishi to make it through the honbasho with the same record, even if they are undefeated, there is a provision for a playoff to determine a single champion.

At the food lines inside the Ryogoku Kokugikan. Rikishi got to eat too.
Each day's docket features a schedule that starts with the lowest divisions, where rikishi wrestle about once every other day, and then moves into the two top divisions, starting with the juryo, or intermediate division, before proceeding to the makuuchi, or senior division, towards the end of the day. In the juryo and makuuchi divisions (and perhaps in the lower ranks too although it wasn't obvious to us) the rikishi are divided into two teams: the higashi (or east) and the nishi (or west). There are no weight classes in sumo. It's all based on skill. You can be as heavy or light as you want to be in a division. You just need to be competitive.

There is no time limit on a sumo match. There are also no rounds or innings or quarters or periods. The match starts when the referee declares the match started and it ends when one rikishi is either forced out of the dohyo or touches the ground with some part of his body other than his feet. Most matches are incredibly quick. The fastest we saw was probably on the order of about 5 seconds or as long as it took one riskishi to run straight across and out of the dohyo past his opponent who had simply stepped aside. 5 seconds is sometimes all it takes for a day's work in sumo.

Our sumo adventure began on the first full day we were in Japan. After an uneasy night's sleep (Tokyo is 13 hours ahead of the timezone I usually live in) and a very early wakeup time followed by a walk around the Shinjuku neighborhood we were staying in, we got ready to head out. We knew the doors at the Ryogoku Kokugikan opened at 8 am and the day would go for about 10 hours but decided early on we didn't want to sit through all of that. A 10:30 or 11 am arrival time seemed good to us, early enough to get the lay of the land and figure out maybe something of what was actually going on before the top matches got started.

The Ryogoku Kokugikan is pretty easy to get to from Shinjuku. Just a 25 minute ride on the Japan Rail Chuo-Sobu line to the stop named after the arena. From there it's a five or so minute walk past the multicolored flags and maybe a rikishi or two wondering in the street to the front door. Entering the building is like entering a temple. For sports fans, or at least for me, I think visiting a hallowed ground in sports has it's own special significance. Setting foot in this mecca of sumo for me was like watching basketball at Madison Square Garden or college football at the Rose Bowl or something like that. It is clearly a special place.

The arena is constructed especially for sumo and it's obvious. The main hall is square to mirror the raised platform where the dohyo is located. Above the dohyo is a suspended roof structure made to evoke a Shinto shrine to reference the sport's history and it's significance as a descendent of a religious ritual. The arena has two levels. The lowest consists of a series of four-person boxes containing mats for the spectators to sit on; the upper is built with western style seating. The prospect of sitting crossed-legged or on my knees for hours on end in a confined area which would need to contain at least two people significantly larger than the average Japanese man in addition to two others made my seating choice easy. I'd be sitting upstairs thanks.

Do these seats look comfortable? Not to me they didn't.
Both levels of the arena have a perimeter corridor circling the entire building for accessing each individual seating area. This same concourse has stores selling sumo souvenirs and a variety of snacks and drinks that would provide everything we needed for a full day of watching sweaty men banging into each other. Bento box? Check. Yakatori? Check. Red bean paste buns? Check. Grab some skewers of chicken meatballs, maybe some rice crackers and a couple of cans of Morinaga sweet sake (an apparent bargain at 320 Yen or just a shade less than $3) and head to your seats ready for some action.

From my one time attendance at a honbansho I can tell you if you get there before noon, there's going to be plenty of space to spread out. Need a better seat than what you bought? You can probably get one pretty easily if you are prepared to move once the rightful owner shows up. The matches at that time of the day usually move pretty quickly. There's not a lot of fuss between bouts like there will be later in the afternoon; just two men pitted against one another trying to get the other one to touch the ground with an illegal body part or to exit the dohyo. This time for me allowed me to get my head wrapped around some of the strategy for the sport before examining the finer points of the whole experience when the good stuff started.

Let me say that a sumo bout is anything but a friendly interaction. As cordial and respectful as the Japanese are to each other (including rikishi to rikishi before and after the bout), this is a violent act. Each match starts with an explosion of two 300 or more plus pound men launching themselves towards one another. Most times, they are not just letting their bodies collide. Most matches feature a barrage of face slaps and throat punches and any other way a man can make contact with another in rapid succession. In addition to the shock of having a large man hit what is usually an equally large body, these head shots have to hurt.

If both men are left standing inside the ring after this initial assault then there is likely some grappling and pushing and twisting coming as the two rikishi try to force the other out of the dohyo. And if your opponent gets a handful of your mawashi and you can't get a piece of his then look out. The ability to get a big hand on your opponent's belt seemed to be a key advantage in winning a bout.

The interior of the Ryogoku Kokugikan. Shrine roof over two rikishi and a brightly colored referee in the dohyo.
Each match starts with a singing introduction from some sort of ring official and is ended with the referee (who is outfitted in some fancy brightly colored costume with an odd hairdo which makes him look like some sort of elf or sprite) waving his paddle towards the winner before the victor leaves the arena. Before the juryo division, these things come rapid fire, which both passes the time rapidly and gives the novice sumo spectator a lot to study.

Before we get to the main events, let me say that the biggest guy doesn't always win. There is definitely a size/stamina/nimbleness balance to a rikishi's success in the dohyo. The biggest size mismatch we saw looked like a complete and utter destruction waiting to happen; to my untrained eye there was no way the smaller guy, who probably ranged between 250 and 300 pounds, was going to outmatch his opponent who by my estimate had him by at least 200 pounds and that is not an exaggeration. The whole thing seemed incomprehensibly unfair to the little man, a term which I use lightly here. But sure enough and in a match that lasted into the minutes in duration, the smaller man won. It was obvious just seconds into the contest that the larger rikishi had no ability to move with any sort of agility and after a long while for a sumo match that proved to be his undoing.

Before showing up at the Ryogoku Kokugikan, I had read and heard stories of the pre-match rituals involved in sumo matches. The foot stomping. The throwing of salt to purify the ring. The squatting. The staring. But in the morning and early afternoon matches there was none of this. It was assembly line sumo; in and out as fast as possible. That all changed when the juryo and makuuchi took the ring.

One half of the makuuchi division, pre-bout introductions.
The juryo and makuuchi matches start with an introduction of the competitors, first the east and then the west (or vice-versa, it wasn't clear who was first). All of the rikishi for a particular side of the country enter the arena and parade around the dohyo in an elaborate kesho-mawashi, a kind of apron in bright colors with logos or writing on them (sponsorship information as I understand it). Once all are present and accounted for, they perform a facing and clapping ritual after being announced over the PA system.

After the parade of kesho-mawashi wearing rikishi (say that ten times fast along with the name of the building) at the senior level, there were three rikishi that entered individually for a solo stomping and display ritual. We assumed these three were the reigning champion and the two leaders of the honbansho to that point in the tourney, although we may be way off here. Each of these three sported white cloth or paper (difficult to tell from so far away) zig-zag shaped ribbons hanging from their mawashis. You can see these ribbons in the second photograph above and in the last photograph in this post. You can also see them around Japan at the many many Shinto shrines you can visit when you are in country. 

During both these ceremonies, the crowd is totally into everything with whooping and hollering for individual rikishi and the group as a whole. I didn't even notice it really but the empty arena that we found when we showed up was no longer empty. There was hardly an empty seat or mat to be spotted in the building.

Finally, it's time for the individual juryo or makuuchi bouts and here the rituals of sumo are on full display. There will be no more quick match after quick match. From this point forward, there is going to be a lot of pre-match posturing and ceremony. Think of it as the kind of stuff that batters in baseball go through when they step to the plate. If you watched much baseball in the early 1980s, Mike Hargrove's at bat routine when he was with the Cleveland Indians is about as close as I can get to an American sports analogy. Suffice it to say that there's a lot of time to wait before things actually happen after the rikishi appear to be ready to battle.

So what exactly happens here? Let's start with the pre-match stomping which is done facing the crowd with some yelling. Then move on to the mouth rinsing, similar to the kind of thing you yourself can do at a Shinto shrine elsewhere on your trip to Japan. Maybe some squatting and staring at your opponent? A glare or two to get him nice and intimidated? Follow with some sand kicking and maybe we are ready to go, right? 

Not even close. Time to pull out and throw some salt, in mimicry of an old Shinto purification ritual. Sometimes the salt throw is dramatic; sometimes it's almost lazy. But it was the most exciting part of the pre-match posturing. And not because the match could start after that. Still not there. Maybe some more sand kicking, some more squatting and starting and then maybe a wipe all over (including the very sweaty armpits) with a towel before maybe some more salt along with some belt or flesh slapping. It's all good. After all, the match is probably lasting less than 30 seconds. 

The end of one of the makuuchi matches. Note how crowded the place is.
This is all part of why I came to see sumo. There's no other sport you can get quite this amount of showmanship. Eventually we got through match after match this way. I like to think by the end of the day we could pick up some of the subtleties of the sport through some close watching and comparing strategies used by individual rikishi in their matches. 

We were also able to make sense of who was whom in the east and west thanks to our new friend Hirohite (at least that's what his name sounded like; apologies if I got it wrong) who was sitting next to us. Pointing; broken English and Japanese; and some furious typing and speaking into the Google Translate app worked wonders here. Hirohite also helped us understand why about half the spectators in the building kept taking pictures of the banners depicting rikishi behind us. In the Ryogoku Kokuigakan they hang full body banners of each of the past hanbansho champions and apparently Kisenosato (who won the past two and who we saw in his own introduction) is a pretty popular guy.

After six or so hours in the building, I believe I can say I understand sumo a lot better than I did when I entered. There is some skill in this sport and these guys, despite their massive size, are true athletes. I believe we got a sense of the strength of the rikishi, particularly in their legs, which must endure terrible stress from carrying all that weight. I also appreciated the balance that some of these guys had. Time after time, it looked like some matches were going to end very quickly and a rikishi was able to recover with a quick and amazingly nimble re-shuffling of the feet. 

On the fan side, I can say I get it. I'd sit through another one of these if it came to that. Although I'm not sure I could be a fan of one particular rikishi. Imagine sitting through an entire day's sumo for 10 or 15 seconds of action from the guy you have posted up on your office wall. There would seem to be very little payback for a true fan of an individual, although I'm admittedly open to changing my mind here since I have about as little experience as I could possibly have with this sport.  This day was worth it.

A few final thoughts on my one day sumo experience.

First, it's a good thing we bought tickets the day they went on sale. I checked a couple of days after and the whole tournament seemed to be sold out. There certainly were very visible signs when we got to the arena that there were no tickets available.

Secondly, while I didn't get much of a sense of this, being in sumo is a demanding and rigorous endeavor. There are sumo stables all over Tokyo for the rikishi to practice in with understudies for the next day's match. Some are even open to visitors, although we couldn't find time in our schedule to do that. Maybe next time.

Thirdly, at a number of times during my week and a half in Japan, I was struck by how generous and welcoming the Japanese people were and we got another glimpse of this through our new friend Hirohite. Through our Google Translate-heavy conversation, he asked if this was our first sumo experience which of course we responded that it was. The next time we look over he's gone but he returns minutes later with a box for us containing a poster displaying the history of the yokozuna, rikishi who have achieved the highest rank possible in sumo by securing victory in a Grand Tournament. Included on that poster is both crowd favorite Kisenosato as well as a yokozuna named Hakuho, the winner of the tournament we attended and the most decorated of all yokozuna. It's my favorite souvenir of Japan because it came from the heart and it will soon be framed and hanging somewhere in my home. What an amazing gesture from a total stranger.

Finally and perhaps most importantly is some advice for you if you plan to make your own first sumo pilgrimage. Pass on the sweet sake; get a Sapporo or Kirin instead. You'll thank me for it. 

Me and what I assume are life-size cutouts of everyone's favorite rikishi. 

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