The Sumo Experience

Here’s the fourth instalment of our recent adventures in Japan.

May 11, 2015: Sumo is traditional Japanese wrestling with a history dating back nearly two thousand years. One of the sport’s big events, the Natsu Basho (Grand Sumo Tournament), was starting during our second week in Japan. These major events are held every other month, but not always in Tokyo. We couldn’t pass up this opportunity. Even before we flew to Japan, we ordered tickets online and had them delivered to our hotel.

The Natsu Basho 2015 ran from May 10th until the 24th. Fifteen days of sumo. Our tickets were for day two of the tournament.

In the morning, we took the train to the Ryogoku neighbourhood on the east side of Tokyo. This is sumo central, home of the Kokugikan (sumo arena) and numerous sumo-beya (stables or training centres). Each stable has anywhere between two to thirty rikishi (wrestlers), and they train and live together.

First we had to have some lunch before heading to the arena. I was determined to find a restaurant near the station that I had read about online. I had an address, but the only name I had was in Japanese characters. We wandered around the block twice before giving up and deciding to pick the next restaurant we came across. We asked the waiter if they served chankonabe, otherwise known as sumo stew, and instead of seating us in the restaurant, he directed us to an elevator at the back of the building and told us to go to the fourth floor. What luck! This was the restaurant I had been looking for, pronounced as Chanko Kirishima.

It was a busy place. We asked for chankonabe and sat back as the waiter brought a single-burner butane stove to our table, lit it and placed a large pot on top full of an assortment of meats, seafoods, tofu, vegetables, mushrooms, noodles and broth. There was also an abalone shell full of some kind of raw ground meat mixture off to the side. We had no idea what it was or what to do with it.

Although people at some tables were cooking their own nabe, our waiter came back every so often and stirred things up. Eventually, he took two spoons and set about turning the meat mixture into tiny chicken balls and dropping them into the now hot broth to cook. It was torturous to wait. We were hungry and it smelled so good. About twenty minutes after lighting the fire, our server tested the meatballs with chopsticks and proclaimed our nabe ready to eat. It was amazing, especially the seasoned chicken balls. I can’t wait to try and make this ourselves one day.

Nabe is basically a Japanese hot pot and can contain pretty much any combination of ingredients cooked at the table in either a light or strongly-flavoured stock. Some are like soup, others thicker like stew. But chankonabe, with its vast quantities of protein, takes nabe to another level. This is what sumo wrestlers eat in huge amounts with plenty of rice and beer to keep up their strength, gain weight and attain their massive physiques.

Now that we were pleasantly stuffed, we were ready to see some sumo in action.

Sumo became a popular spectator sport in the early 1600s. Today, all professional wrestlers must be members of the Japan Sumo Association, which regulates the events (and places strict rules on the fighters). Professional sumo consists of about 730 rikishi divided into six divisions.

New professional wrestlers start at the bottom and work their way up. While the vast majority are Japanese, there are a few foreign-born wrestlers, including 25 from Mongolia who currently dominate the sport.

The sixth or bottom division, called Jonokuchi, includes about 80 rikishi. This is where new professional wrestlers start, some as young as fifteen. Life is hard at this level and many young wrestlers drop out. Moving up through the ranks there is Jonidan (fifth division, 260 rikishi), Sandanme (fourth division, 200 rikishi), Makushita (third division, 120 rikishi). Some wrestlers, who join after pursuing amateur sumo in high school and college, can start here, if they are good enough.

Wrestlers in the top two divisions—Juryo (second division, 28 rikishi) and Makuuchi (first division, 42 rikishi)—are called sekitori. Sekitori wear their hair in an ooichou (topknot) and don colourful mawashi (belts). Sekitori are also assigned a tsuke-bito, one of the lower-ranked wrestlers, to be their servant. At the top level, the wrestlers range from mid-twenties to early thirties with weights in the neighbourhood of 130 to 180 kilograms. Each rikishi adopts a wrestling name.

The atmosphere outside the arena was festive. There were mobile food trucks and vendors selling every imaginable type of sumo souvenir. The arena itself is a square-shaped building with two levels of seating. On the lower level, the seats closest to the action are Japanese style, where spectators sit on cushions on the floor. We could see some people, particularly some of the women, dressed in traditional kimono.

We sat in the upper level in plush seats like those you’d find in an old movie theatre, each with a tiny table for beverages and snacks. Admittedly, this was a bit further from the matches than we liked, but at least the sight lines were good. When we booked our tickets, all of the two-person boxes on the lower level were sold out, with only boxes consisting of four or more tickets remaining. That was just a little too pricey for our budget, since we couldn’t buy a partial box. On the plus side, I’m guessing the cushy seats are more comfortable for hours of sumo viewing.

In the center of the arena, there sits a raised dohyo (clay block mixed with sand) about two and a half feet high. Apparently a new dohyo is created for each tournament. The fighting takes place here inside a circular ring about 15 feet in diameter with a raised straw band marking the edge. High above the ring is a yakata (canopy) like the roof of a Shinto shrine.

There are a lot of symbolic Shinto rituals in sumo, like the tassels found at each corner of the canopy, each one a different colour and representing the four seasons (green for spring, red for summer, white for autumn and black for winter). Shinto—the traditional religion of Japan—was developed to please the gods and ensure a good harvest and divine protection. Sumo, which means “striking one another,” was originally performed to entertain the Shinto gods, and the rituals are intended to purify the sport and protect the wrestlers from harm.

On each day of the tournament, before the start of the matches in each of the top two divisions, the wrestlers participate in a dohyo-iri (ring entering ceremony) to purify their bodies and spirits. Even the trimmings on the decorative aprons worn by the top fighters during these ceremonies are steeped in Shinto tradition. The gyoji (referee) is dressed in a traditional robe, similar to that worn by a Shinto priest.

After the rikishi enter the ring and face the crowd, they turn to the centre. They clap their hands once, raise their right hand, life their apron to show they aren’t armed and raise both hands in unison. The very top echelon of the wrestlers are called Yokozuna (Grand Champions). While they fight other wrestlers in the Makuuchi level, they do not participate in the group ring ceremony. Each of the two grand champions performed his own much more elaborate ring entering ceremony.

Although lower-division matches start at 8:40 in the morning, most spectators arrive just in time for the top Makuuchi division, which starts at 3:45 pm. Makuuchi includes the top 42 wrestlers in the sport. Literally, the best of the best. We caught the last few matches in the third division and all of the matches in the top two divisions, Juryo and Makuuchi. The arena was pretty empty for the early matches, filling up as the afternoon wore on. By Makuuchi, most seats were full.

Each match takes several minutes, but there is a lot more ritual and posturing than actual wrestling. First, an announcer calls out the name of the wrestler entering on the east side of the ring followed by the name of the wrestler entering from the west. The fighters bow to their opponents and squat facing each other from opposite sides of the ring. They turn and face the crowd, lift their legs high into the air and stomp them down to scare away demons. They take a drink of water offered to them by lower-ranked fighters. They throw several handfuls of purifying salt into the ring. They may even sprinkle salt on themselves for protection from injury. They re-enter the ring and face their opponent near the lines marked in the middle. The fight starts when they each touch their fists down on the ring at the same time, but first there is more demon chasing and often a second trip to the salt bin.

The initial charge is important to gaining advantage. Wrestlers push, lunge, slap, throw, trip or lift their opponent. There aren’t many rules. They cannot kick, punch, choke, box ears or grab at hair or crotch. The referee officiates the bout from inside the ring, dancing around the wrestlers for the best vantage point.

There are only five ways to lose. Don’t show up to your match. Be the first to step outside the ring. Be the first to touch any part of your body to the ground (other than the soles of your feet). Use an forbidden technique. Or have your mawashi (belt) come completely undone. How embarrassing that would be. Five shinpan (judges) dressed in black kimono sit around the ring below the dohyo. If there is any dispute, the judges may call a mono-ii (conference) to discuss the outcome at ring centre. Instant replay is sometimes used to help decide a match, or a rematch may be called. At the end of the match, the referee points to the winner and the wrestlers bow once again to their opponent before leaving the ring.

While battles of the bellies and slapfests are fun to watch, and throws get a great reaction from the crowd, most of the fights are won by one wrestler pushing the other out of the ring. With no weight classes, sometimes you see small pitted against large, but large does not always win. Strong technique is important too. Occasionally one or both wrestlers go flying off the dohyo and land in the crowd. Although some of the matches are quite exciting, I can’t imagine that fans of WWE wrestling would find sumo much to their liking, as it doesn’t have the same showmanship quality. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing.

When the last of the fights ended, it was time for the ritual yumi-tori (bow twirling) ceremony, signifying the end of the day. Afterwards, the crew moved in to cover the dohyo until the start of day three and the crowds began to disperse. Day two wrapped up by six, but I don’t think we ate much that evening. We were still full from lunch.

If you’d like to see what we saw live, here is a video of the Maruuchi matches that closed the day. With all of the ceremony and posturing removed, you can watch these top division matches in just ten minutes.

If that peaks your interest, you can find videos from each of the 15 days of the May tournament, Natsu Basho 2015, here. The final on Day 15 is particularly exciting, with lots of good bouts, including a final tiebreaker.

Over the course of the fifteen day tournament, wrestlers in the four lower divisions each fought seven times, while those in the upper two divisions fought every day. That’s a lot of concentration focused on the one fight they have in a day, many of which don’t last for more than ten seconds. But a lot is riding on it. Sumo is a strict hierarchy based on results. If by the end of the tournament, a fighter has won more matches than he’s lost, he moves up in the rankings. By contrast, if he loses more than he wins, down he goes. Those at the top of their division may be moved up to the next level as other wrestlers are bumped down. This carries over to the next tournament.

We learned, after the end of the Natsu Basho, that a new Grand Champion was named by the Japan Sumo Association. Three rikishi now currently hold this title, all of them Mongolian. (In fact, five of the top ten wrestlers are Mongolian.) Reaching Grand Champion is not an easy accomplishment, and only happens when a wrestler wins two grand tournaments in a row. Of the many thousands of wrestlers who have entered the ring, just 71 have attained this level of recognition in all the years of professional sumo.

But that doesn’t stop wrestlers from trying. It pays well to reach the upper levels of the sport. Fighters in the top two divisions earn a salary between $11,000 and $30,000 per month plus bonuses based on their cumulative performance. If a bout is sponsored by companies, they can earn dramatically more if they win, receiving a packet of money from the referee at the end of the fight. At the other end of the spectrum, lower division wrestlers earn only a small allowance. Division winners at each tournament also receive prizes ranging from $1,000 (division six) up to $100,000 (division one).

With background information gleaned from Wikipedia and Sumo Talk.

Additional Resources:

Japan Sumo Association

Buy Sumo Tickets

Chankonabe Recipes

Stay tuned for part five of our Japanese adventures, where we go to another of our favourite places in Tokyo. The Tsukiji Market. Fish, fish, everywhere fish.


One response to “The Sumo Experience

  1. Pingback: Japan, So Much Good Food | M/V MOKEN·

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