Travel

Japan: Sumo in the spotlight

With the Rugby World Cup approaching, we turn to focus on Japan’s most sacred sporting contest.Tuesday, 3 September 2019

By Ben Lerwill
Grand Sumo tournament, Tokyo

The fighter rests his knuckles on the clay and stares ahead, expressionless. His hair has been waxed into a delicately fanned topknot. His backside could block a stable door. In an instant he propels himself forward, a juggernaut of meaty momentum in a loincloth. Eleven thousand people roar in approval. Seconds later his hefty rear has been dumped without decorum into the third row of the crowd. His hair’s all over the place and he wears the startled look of a man unsure what day it is. Fight over.   

I’m at a Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo. Every few minutes, men the size of buffaloes are entering the arena to slap seven shades out of each other while spectators drink beer and tuck into bento boxes. A sumo match is short and intense, a thunderous coming-together of biceps and bellies. Before each bout, an announcer in a white kimono enters the ring and chants the names of the next fighters in a long, wavering song. It sounds rather like a call to prayer.      

In some ways, it is. It can be easy for outsiders to dismiss sumo as a kind of circus show, but its place in Japanese culture is anything but comedic. Its origins date back at least 500 years, with many of the rituals around the sport tied into the Shinto religion. The referees wear a style of tall black hat associated with priests. Before each fight, the wrestlers clap and stamp and toss fistfuls of salt, ‘purifying’ the ring. An ornate canopy hangs overhead, modelled on the roof of a Shinto shrine. This is no meaningless melee.   

As a result, much about attending a Grand Tournament subverts the usual experience of live sport. The fighters — and these tournaments feature the best of the best, some from Mongolia and Eastern Europe — never gloat, goad or even celebrate. You see no advertising hoardings, cheerleaders or sponsored clothing. And the most expensive seats aren’t seats at all, but matted ringside areas where you have a very real danger of a gargantuan wrestler landing on your lunch.       

I get to Tokyo’s Ryōgoku Sumo Hall at midday. There are six annual, fortnight-long Grand Sumo Tournaments, three of which are held here in the capital. Tickets go fast. Each begins at around 8.30am, with fights held continuously from morning through to early evening. The lowest-ranked wrestlers fight early, while the most established appear at the end of the day.

The arena fills to capacity by around 3pm, by which time I’ve sampled a bowl of chanko nabe, the protein-rich stew used by wrestlers to gain weight (verdict: tasty enough but not, frankly, something you’d voluntarily eat several times a day), and have watched enough bouts to appreciate some of the subtleties at play. Balance, speed and dexterity are as important as brute strength when it comes to forcing opponents out of the ring or onto the floor. Bulk looks to be a pretty useful asset too.  

I’m seated next to a young family, and the father feeds me nuggets of info between fights. “The wrestlers train hard,” he says. “Very early mornings, lots of discipline, many years of the same routine. The average sumo match lasts 10 seconds, right? Think of Usain Bolt running the 100 metres. This is the same. Ten seconds of human effort and power. After a match, the wrestlers are mentally and physically exhausted.”

I watch the final few hours of the day in fascination. The crowd is respectful at times and rowdy at others. The action itself is never predictable. One wrestler enacts a matador-style sidestep at the start of a fight, leaving his over-eager adversary to charge at thin air and flop face-first onto the floor. The defeated fighter gets up and dusts down his midriff, his expression one of Zen calm. Sumo might seem cartoon-like at times, but it could teach other sports a thing or two.

Top 3: Where else to watch sumo in Japan

Grand Sumo Tournaments take place in Tokyo every January, May and September. They’re also held in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka.

Osaka (hosts Grand Sumo Tournament each March)
Famed for its food scene, its architecture and the neon dazzle of its canal-lined centre, Osaka is unquestionably one of Japan’s most intoxicating cities. Don’t miss the reconstructed Osaka Castle and the nightlife of the Amerika-Mura and Dotombori districts.

Nagoya (hosts Grand Sumo Tournament each July)
With Tokyo to its north and Osaka and Kyoto to its south, Nagoya — the birthplace of Toyota — often gets overlooked by international visitors. But as well as offering some top-notch museums, it also serves as the gateway to the local mountains. 

Fukuoka (hosts Grand Sumo Tournament each November)
The largest city on the southern island of Kyushu is located around four and a half hours by bullet train from Tokyo. Sitting on the coast, it was once Japan’s gateway to China and Korea and is these days famed for its Hakata ramen and its all-conquering baseball team.

Essentials

Exact dates are published well in advance on the official website and tickets can be purchased online too. Alternatively, specialist tour operators such as Inside Japan Tours frequently organise tickets for clients. If your visit to Japan doesn’t coincide with a tournament, your other option is to visit the Arashio Sumo Stable in Tokyo, which allows visitors to watch fighters’ early-morning training sessions between 07.30 and 10.00. There’s no training during tournament fortnights.

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