Do You Even Sumo, Bro?

Coming together.JPG

Mark Guthrie Gets to Grips with Some Sweaty Summer Sumo

The sun has been up for barely an hour as I cycle into a northwest suburb of Nagoya, but the mercury has already hit the high twenties, with the humidity making it feel a lot more. From the park behind me comes the steady buzz of cicadas in the trees, and as I corner a meandrous road I almost collide with a group of chattering sailor-uniformed schoolgirls carrying brass instruments on their way to early morning practice.

But despite the insects and the kids, the most prominent sound is a slow, mournful, counting. “Ich’, ni, san, shi, go.” One, two, three, four five. It’s purposeful yet casual. “Rok’, shich’, hach’, kyu, ju, ots’”. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, done. As the road winds past the modern new-build houses and old wooden homes, the counting grows louder until I arrive at Goshosha shrine, the temporary home of the Isenoumi Sumo Beya.

The Isenoumi beya [literally ‘room’, but in sumo commonly translated to ‘stable’] is an old and storied one. Though its current incarnation dates from 1949 it has origins in the mid-eighteenth century, with one of the first yokozuna [top-ranking sumo], the legendary Tanikaze, and his protégé Raiden, considered to be the greatest rikishi [sumo wrestler] of all time, its early champions. Today, the stable is not quite as illustrious as its glittering past, though on the day that I meet them I see Nishikigi Tetsuya, a mid-ranking maegashira [fourth-level rikishi], putting the younger men through their paces 

And they are some paces. As the morning ages, even stood in the shade of the shrine I am sweating like a rabid dog at customs, but to step closer to the training ring, with the sun hammering on its corrugated-tin roof, the heat radiating from it is choking. And in this extreme temperature these huge guys are stretching, pumping iron, practicing manoeuvres and undergoing grueling sparring bouts. It seems like utter madness.

Yet there is reason for this madness. For, while the Isenoumi Beya are based in Tokyo, each summer they, along with the other major stables, travel south to Nagoya in order to train and acclimatise for the intense humidity of the city’s Grand Tournament, the Nagoya Basho.

The Big Six

There are six such annual honbasho [professional sumo tournaments] – three in Tokyo, one in Osaka, one in Fukuoka and the Nagoya Basho, each lasting 15 days. Rikishi ranked in the top two divisions compete once each day, while those of the lower divisions wrestle seven times throughout the tournament, and the cumulative results of these bouts determine whether they will rise or fall in the rankings. While some honbasho are considered more prestigious than others, Nagoya’s intense summer humidity makes it perhaps the most demanding. It’s also a great spectacle.

The day starts at around 8:30 with the first low-ranking rikishi bouts, as the early spectators arrive. These are mostly families carting cool boxes of picnic food piled on top of the contraband beer and sake that the guards blatantly ignore (unless you happen to be a foreigner with just a couple of cans in your backpack, and then you can guarantee that they will be discovered, meaning that you have to either toss them – let’s face it, not gonna happen – or stand out in the car park necking both before you’ve even had breakfast).

Inside you make your way to your seats which range from the corporate boxes, the ringsides, mid-level tatami or the stalls in the gods, and all but the first and last consist of zabuton [seating cushions] on tatami mats. These vary in price (though are cheaper if you’ve got mates in a top company or decent yakuza group), but no matter what, you want the cushions. More on which later.

Ready? Fight!

In the first few hours the hall is pretty empty, and you can roam as you please, getting right up close to the dohyo [ring]. Within the dohyo the action is fast. Rikishi enter, and CRASH-BANG-WALLOP it’s all over and the next pair appear. It goes so quickly that, if you look down to open a can of beer (costing 800 bloody yen!) a fight has been and gone.

Few people are interested in this lower-level competition, however, instead choosing to wander the hall, meeting up with friends, getting drunk and hanging around the smoking area that is so heavy with smoke that it looks like a genie convention that all turned up at once. 

Sometime around lunch, as people start pulling onigiri [rice balls] and packets of dried squid from on top of the quickly-depleting booze caches, more and more people file in. At about three o’clock an appreciable buzz fills the air, and within the crowd can be seen pockets of beautiful women in exquisite kimono. These are the sujo [short for sumo joshi, sumo girls] who admire the rikishi for more than their athletic prowess, making me wonder where they were when my university-days’ diet of donner pizzas and Greggs pasties caused my weight to balloon to near-sumo stature. I would’ve been well in.

By half-past three the hall is packed and the atmosphere is as palpable as the insane heat, rising to a crescendo as the makuuchi [top-ranked] and juryo [second-ranked] rikishi are paraded into the ring for their dohyo-iri [ring-entering ceremony] clad in gorgeous, ornate loincloths. The yokozuna then perform dohyo-iri of their own, thunderous applause accompanying every ritualised stamp of feet and clap of hands, as they expel bad spirits from the ring.

Getting Down to Business

Whereas the earlier bouts are undertaken with relative abruptness, for these high-level rikishi posturing is a key element. The battle does not begin until both fighters touch their knuckles to the dust of the dohyo, but before this can happen they cast huge fistfuls of purifying salt around the ring. The rikishi face each other, but time and time again one may stand up, toss some more salt and stretch, before returning to starting positions; Alex Fergusson-level mind games.

Then, in a flash, all four fists have touched the ground and they collide. There are eighty-two sanctioned winning moves in sumo, but most bouts end with one rikishi forcing the other out of the ring. It is then that, if you were lucky (or rich) enough to have acquired a front row seat, you may begin to regret your decision, as the wrestlers regularly topple into the crowd. It’s like one and a half sweaty baby elephants falling ungraciously into your lap. 

Finally, the day reaches its climax, with the final bouts usually involving one of the yokozuna. There are currently only two yokozuna in action, and as such, the basho often ends with one taking on a lower-ranked wrestler, which is where the drama really heightens.

Commonly the Yokozuna are victorious – they’re the top guys for a reason – but on occasion the lesser-fighter overcomes his more esteemed competitor, which is when the whole place erupts. To show their gratitude for the performance, the fans hurl their cushions in a cavalcade of padded seating into the ring. I told you you’d need the cushions.

With the fight concluded the two men return to the ring, neither showing such undignified emotions as joy in conquest or dismay in defeat, and the victor is handed envelopes stuffed with cash from sponsors and admirers. After the final fight of the honbasho an elaborate ceremony is held to announce the champion, complete with prizes that include a trophy so big you’d need to strap it to the roof of your car to get it home, ¥2 million [£16,000] as well as other gifts from sponsors sometimes including cars: which is handy what with the trophy transportation issue.

All of which makes me wish that there was a sumo team at my uni when I was at my Greggs-induced fattest. It sure pays better than journalism, I can tell you!

Originally published in NEO Magazine