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The Grand Sumo Tournament

Sumo and sushi, that’s what Tokyo does, right? Alright, well maybe not, but they are perhaps the two most readily invoked images of Japan and, after having already gotten some Japanese sushi, yesterday I finally got a glimpse of the former.

It required 360 yen ($3 U.S.), three trains and forty minutes of travel, but I made it to Ryogoku, just northeast of my South Tokyo apartment. Just as I walked out of the station, beside me was a beautiful stone sumo wrestling statue. I wasn’t bashful enough to stop and click a few photos, only for my pictures to be blocked by the busy crowd, including the occasional kimono-clad sumo star.

I found it odd to watch these sumo wrestlers fall out of subway cars, hidden as a 300 pound man can be in the crowds of Tokyo. I found myself leaning against a wall and trying to decode all the personal mysteries of every wrestler who passed my way. They all appeared to have the grace of athleticism, the type of odd collection of size and skill that fills the professional ranks of American sport. They carried athletic bags, wore sandals and more than a few peered through carefully placed eye glasses.

I followed a pair, one of whom was barking into a cell phone, ruffling his kimono, towards the 8,000 plus seat Ryogoku Kokugikan. The Tokyo crowd of which I had become accustomed was slower moving as it offered collective exclamations at these culturally-immersed mountains. I walked into the green-roofed arena and climbed to my seat, one of the very last rows having paid only 3,600 yen (about $30 U.S.).

The arena was quite full for being the middle of the 15 day tournament. The Nihon Sumo Kyokai (Japan Sumo Association) holds six of these Grand Sumo Tournaments annually. I was arriving quite late in the eyes of some, with the clock reading 2:30pm when I finally sat down, while the bouts begin before 9am daily.

But, to others, I was early. You see, there are 800 rikishis (wrestlers registered with the Kyokai), many of whom participate in each tournament. According to their ranking, based on tournament records and evaluated by a Kyokai committee, rikishis are stuffed in one of a handful of categories. I walked into the tournament in the midst of Juryo bouts (think Triple-A minor league American baseball). At 3pm the Makuuchi (think the major leagues) bouts begin, and the audience swell reflected that.

As with much of what I find here in Tokyo, my initial ignorance assured that all of my previously conceived perceptions remained steadfast. I peered down to the sumo ring below and saw two mostly-naked, overweight men pushing and slapping at each other until one fell. I rediscovered images of friends in big, padded, plastic suits bouncing into each other at carnivals.

Sometimes stereotypes are true, just outrageously shallow interpretations. Such is sumo. When the grand entrance of the Makuuchi came, an audience that ranged from passively attentive to indifferent suddenly became entirely focused. The seats filled, eyes turned and cheers increased.

For me, the Juryo bouts provided a wonderful opportunity to acclimate myself to the traditional and even vague notions of sumo law. Following my most common interest, I pestered anyone who spoke English with questions and found a handful of sheets that were meant for people like me. Anyone with much interest can find a great deal of information on the website of the Nihon Sumo Kyokai, English is available:

With the boring education out of the way, I found myself wholly caught up in the excitement of the matches. It is remarkable to watch the agility of the wrestlers, to watch them charge each other and see one evade the other, as camera flashes encircle the dohyo, ring.

Without weight restrictions, it isn’t uncommon to find a wrestler facing an opponent outweighing him by a hundred pounds or more. During one such bout, I watched a larger rikishi charge and push back his much smaller opponent. Yet in a second, power turned hands, as the smaller rikishi dropped his right side and tossed his aggressor to the ground with his left with the roar of the crowd approving his maneuver.

If the audience maintains strict allegiance to particular wrestlers, I couldn’t follow it, as it appeared whoever managed a clever move was shelled with cheers. During another bout, a tangled mess of the two wrestlers hung over the edge of the ring, jockeying for position before they both fell, one just outlasting the other. The crowd was, as they say, electric.

A match rarely lasts more than ten or fifteen seconds, but involves perhaps three to five minutes of preparation, spreading salt as a symbol of cleaning the ring, entering and showing respect to each other, and more. Sumo, which started as a ritual asking for bountiful harvests, has managed to maintain a great deal of its tradition. The bowing and stretching can be agonizing to some but serves as buffer, allows for exciting contrasts, and keeps sumo one of the few holds onto traditional Japan.

Despite its 1,500 years of hold on the curiosities of insiders and outsiders alike, a young Japanese man told me that interest has waned among many Japanese children in past decades. International sports like soccer and baseball have stolen more than a few fans and prospective wrestlers, to be sure.

For now, it is alive and well, if in an elderly age, and there may be no more exciting sight to see.

Jaa mata,

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