We enter the Kokugikan Sumo Stadium early, long before the crowds descend. The lowest ranking rikishi, or sumo wrestlers, are just getting started as we make our way to our seats.
We’ve been in Japan for almost a month now; wrangling a language built with characters rather than letters, bumbling our way through culture and traditions hoping we aren’t offending anyone too badly, and savouring cuisine that has no equal in my eyes, and yet entering into the stadium was like entering into a whole other world again.
Steeped in history, riddled with culture, and defined by strong traditions, sumo wrestling is a quintessential Japanese sport. Everything means something. Every flick of the wrist, every lifting of a leg, and every turn in the ring has a reason.
I am instantly fascinated.
In the causeway of the stadium, as we sit and eat our bento box lunches, the Yokozuna, or highest ranked rikishi, begin to enter. Fans, young and old, rush to the doorway; craning and peering to catch a glimpse of their sumo wrestler hero. There is a common-ness about it all though. These are the best of the best and yet they walk among the fans easily pausing for pictures, answering questions, and encouraging young boys with stories of winning and success. They are held to a high regard and they clearly stand up to it.
The crowd swells as the day progresses and the more important bouts grow closer. We are fortunate to make a new friend; Atsushi has come all the way from Sapporo to watch the tournament and takes the time to explain the ritual and practicalities to us. We are grateful.
A hush comes over the stadium as the gyoji, or referee, enters the ring. His kimono is ornate and his actions deliberate as he begins to call out in a sing song voice gesturing first to one side of the ring, and then to the other. I imagine he must be recounting some ancient story, calling on the ancestors, or blessing the proceedings but Atsushi confides that he is simply announcing the next round of wrestlers.
The sheer size of the wrestlers is daunting and yet they climb the steps to the ring with a grace and dignity that belies their heft. The cleansing ceremony is at once ritualistic and ferocious as the wrestlers attempt to intimidate each other while, at the same time, they appease their ancestors and gods. Faces are grimaced, feet are stomped, salt is strewn, and then it is time to get down to business.
Crouching down, facing each other, they stay perfectly still until some unseen influence sets them off. It is over almost before it has begun; the winner only having to force the other to touch the ground with any part of his body (even the tip of a thumb!) or place as much as a toe outside the straw ring boundary.
The loser bows reverently and slinks away; the winner is exalted and, in the later matches, showered with gifts.
I am pulled from the action only by the smell of fish. Looking over I see my seat mate snacking on the remnants of his bag of dried fish as casually as we might enjoy a bag of popcorn at a hockey game. This might be an ancient sport, attended in the past by emperors and kings, but today it is the every-man filling the seats and enjoying the sportsmanship and camaraderie of cheering for a favorite.
In the end it’s the ritual, the showmanship, the progression that makes the day interesting. I understood next to nothing but was transfixed for the entire day by all that was happening around me.
Interested in seeing a sumo tournament yourself? If you stay in Osaka, Tokyo, Nagoya or Fukuoka you will be able to participate in one of the tournaments. Here’s some info that will help make it happen:
- There are six tournaments a year. Three in Tokyo (Jan, May and Sept), one in Osaka (Mar), one in Nagoya (July) and one in Fukuoka (Nov)
- Getting tickets was easy. The Sumo-Ticket.jp website has tons of information on the stadiums and the tournaments and allows you to book tickets also. Tickets are only available starting about 6 weeks before the tournament so set yourself a reminder to book them. I entered all my information and was sent a confirmation within a couple of days. CHOOSE YOUR SEATS CAREFULLY! Box seats are delineated by a brass bar all around the area you are purchasing; you must sit on the floor (Japanese style) for the entire time. Arena seats are western in nature; a fold down seat that I could sit on like I do at home.
- Picking up tickets was even easier. There was a booth outside the stadium that held the pick up tickets. I just showed my ID and we were in. WARNING: The tournament was sold out the day we went so be sure to get your tickets ahead of time. I overheard one whiny Canadian (!?) complaining that they had travelled SO far and couldn’t they just, please, be let in. Don’t let this be you!
- It’s not that hard to figure out what’s going on. There is plenty of information on the internet but we also received a fabulous packet of information (in English) at the gate. The beautiful pamphlets explained about the practicalities of the stadium and about the history and ritual of the sport. There is also a live, English, radio broadcast available (we didn’t use this). As I said above, people are super friendly and helpful and it won’t be hard to find a fan who can help you understand what’s happening.
- Spend some time. The best part of the day was watching the progression of all that was happening. The early, junior, matches are a great time to learn about the sport so you can enjoy the later, more senior, matches with some knowledge behind you. People come early and bring snacks to make an afternoon of it. Do the same; either bring something with you or there are lots of concession stands selling bento boxes, yakitori, popcorn and dried fish snacks or you can head to one of the basement restaurants offering chankonabe stew (the official meal of sumo wrestlers). We spent 8 hours in the stadium (11am to 7pm) and never once felt bored or like time was dragging; it was one of the best days we had in Japan
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