Everyone has an idea of what a sumo wrestler looks like. Big fat guys, top knot in their hair, wearing some strange diaper thing. But I am willing to bet that very few have actually been to a tournament and seen a sumo match. So that's what made me decide to get us all tickets and head to the sumo tournament last month. After all, you can't live in Tokyo without going to see the sumo tournament at least once.
Not knowing what everyone's reaction to watching sumo wrestling would be like, I bought nose bleed seats. We also went with our friends and neighbors, the Herseys. Their son Dan is a good friend to all our boys.
Sumo tournaments are held throughout the year in Tokyo and other cities throughout Japan, alternating between Tokyo and other cities. January's tournament was in Tokyo at the Kokugikan. The tournament is held over 15 days, and runs all day, each day, from about 8 in the morning to 6 in the evening. It's a long day if you go for the whole day. Most spectators don't go until later in the day, when the ranked wrestlers start their matches.
We arrived at the Kokugan around 2 in the afternoon - just as the non-ranked wrestlers were finishing. There were sumo wrestlers strolling around outside the arena, and inside as well. One was very gracious and let us take his picture with our boys - I think he was visiting with his family either post- or pre-match.
The sumo tournament was filled with ceremony and tradition, especially the higher ranked wrestling matches. The wrestlers in the division are introduced and they walk around the sumo ring with ceremonial aprons.(I'm sure it has a proper name, but I am not sure of it.)
Then the matches starts, officiated by a referee in an ornate kimono. The wrestlers demonstrate their flexibility to the audience, lifting their legs high in the air - honestly, how do they do that?Stepping into the ring, they scatter salt - some wrestlers dramatically throwing the salt, other contemptuously tossing the salt at their feet. Then they confront their opponent. They show their strength, they grimace. If they are highly ranked wrestlers, they can do this for quite a while. Then they step out of the ring, wipe their faces, take a handful of salt, and start again.
Finally, they give each other the signal and the wrestling starts. Sometimes it's a fast match and one wrestler quickly overpowers the other, or manages to get a good hold on his opponent at their first clash. Other matches we watched the wrestlers struggle to get a good grip, feet slipping and the match went back and forth until the winner was decided. The winner was not always who you thought it would be.
We saw one huge sumo overpowered by a wrestler who was probably half his size. Another match ended up in the first tier of spectators, who sit on tatami mats. I was told later that if you buy those seats, you are not allowed to carry anything in with you - no bags, no food. The reason for this is that someone was skewered by an umbrella at a past tournament. And no children are allowed in that section either. That I can really understand. If a sumo landed on an spectator, they could be flattened.
There are quite a number of non-Japanese wrestlers in the ranks. Many are from Mongolia, including the 2 highest ranking wrestlers, the yokazuna. Many others are from Georgia, Russia, and Bulgaria. It's very interesting to see them take part in a sport that is so very Japanese.
Finally, the highest ranking wrestlers - the yokazuna - had their matches. A yokozuna, Asashoryo was the overall winner of the tournament, but both yokozuna lost matches to lower ranked sumo, including a very popular Estonian wrestler called Baruto.
However, Asashoryo was compelled to retire this past month after behaving badly. He apparently imbibed excessively and then hit the waiter that was serving him. I guess sports figures can behave badly in any culture, but in Japan, it can end your career.
If you want to explore more, you can visit the sumo web site (in english):
Enjoy! I can't wait to go again!