People tend to laugh when I tell them that sumo wrestling is my favourite spectator sport. In its Japanese homeland it’s regarded as somewhat old-fashioned, with younger folk preferring to watch mixed martial arts. Abroad, the perception can be even worse; the generic assumption holds that it’s little more than fat blokes in nappies slapping each other for a few frantic seconds, until one of them falls over. However, with its refreshingly commerce-free mix of sport and ceremony, a day at the sumo is something that I almost never pass up when lucky enough to be in Japan. Tournaments take place every two months over a 15-day period; you join me here on the penultimate day of action at the Aki Basho tournament at the Ryōgoku Gokugikan stadium.
9am: get to know the wrestlers
The sumo day starts at 9am, and continues until 6pm. I head into town from my home in Tokyo after the hectic morning rush hour, then take my time on the way to the venue – almost every café along the way has a gown-wearing wrestler or two inside (you can’t miss them), and they’re often up for a little chit-chat.
10am: take your seats
It’s time to head into the arena itself. Centred on a packed-mud dohyo, it’s always near silent at this time of day; there are seven divisions of wrestlers to get through, and for the first few hours it’s a mix of young pups on the way up, old-timers on the way down, and those who have simply never made it. You could hear a pin drop, and these chaps are somewhat heavier. However, this is one of my favourite bits; even though I’ve purchased a cheap ticket way up in the gods, for a few hours I get to sit almost ringside. From here I can hear every grunt, almost feel every slap, and smell the talc the rikishi (wrestlers) give off as they pound to and from the ring. Even at these low levels, the deal is the same – the loser is the first to step outside the ring, or touch down inside it with anything but their feet.
12pm: bulking up like the big boys
Right, I’m peckish, and need to stretch my legs. The food in the stadium isn’t up to much, so I head a few blocks down the road to Tomoegata, a restaurant specialising in chanko nabe – the hearty, delicious stew that wrestlers eat several times a day in order to bulk up. This comes with rice and a mouthwatering array of side-dishes – it’s no wonder the rikishi are so big.
2pm: things get serious
Now time for the serious business: after an elaborate ceremony during which the rikishi are introduced, it’s time for the juryo division to begin. This is the second highest level, and from here on the guys are professionals – even first-timers notice the contrast in quality, and there are more visible nuances such as salt being thrown into the ring before a fight. With fewer elementary mistakes being made, fights tend to last longer, and I’m usually keeping my eyes peeled for talented fighters on their way up.
Earlier in the tournament, a wrestler named Chiyoo caught my eye with a breathtaking tsuridashi victory – requiring tremendous strength, this rarely-used technique involves picking the other wrestler up by the belt, and plonking them down outside the ring. I’ve never seen it executed so impressively before. Usually tsuridashi is used near the edge of the ring at the beginning of a fight, before the lactic acid build-up; here Chiyoo not only employed it after a lengthy tussle, but started his lift more than halfway across the ring. His opponent, Tanzo, weighed 152kg. Fat the rikishi may be, but there’s an awful lot of muscle underneath the blubber.
4pm: watching the highest division
It’s now time for makuuchi, the highest division; as with juryo before, it’s kicked off with a charming ceremony. The rikishi enter the ring one by one, and stand in circle facing inwards; when they’re all there, they in unison lift an arm, clap, raise their colourful aprons, then raise both arms. That’s all, but it gets me every single time, and I wonder why other sports abandoned tradition in favour of profit.
Again, when the fighting begins, the increase in quality is quite apparent. Each sumo fights once per day over 15 days; those who’ve won eight or more will move up the rankings for the next tournament, and those who’ve lost eight or more will go down, possibly even to the next division. Those who keep rising will eventually find themselves in the esteemed sanyaku ranks, special levels for the top wrestlers in the land. Those in sanyaku have to fight hard to stay there: over 15 days they have to face all the other top rikishi, meaning that only the truly talented will survive at this level, and even fewer will reach yokozuna, the very highest level.
5.50pm: the winning fight
All eyes are on the penultimate clash: Hakuho, an imperious yokozuna from Mongolia, versus Kisenosato, a young Japanese ozeki (the second-highest level) with lofty aims of his own. These are the only two fighters in contention; Kisenosato needs victory to be in with a chance on the final day, while a win for the other could bring Hakuho the trophy.
There’s no mistaking who the crowd want to win; recent Mongolian domination means that no Japanese have won a tournament since 2005. The atmosphere is electric, with the two giant rikishi returning to the ring to eye-ball each other multiple times, in front of a referee dressed like a giant piece of origami. Finally, in they thunder, meeting each other with a wallop easily heard over the noise of the arena. Kisenosato senses a chance and attempts a grab; Hakuho knows just how to deal with this and pummels his opponent to the ground. A streak of blood then ripples down his face, onto his chest: pure theatre. Both fighters break the sumo’s poker-face code: his chance gone, Kisenosato admonishes himself by the side of the ring, while Hakuho delights in taking his 27th title. The crowd give this all-time great a well-deserved ovation, but we’re all thinking the same thing… please, next time, let there be a Japanese winner.