Last weekend, we went to the Wembley of sumo, the Kokugikan in Ryogoku, Tokyo, to watch a day of wrestling for ourselves. The first fight of the day starts at 8.30, with trainee rikishi vying for experience and getting used to the big match environment, rather than training in the stables (their training quarters rather disturbingly go by the English translation of stables, and are where all the rikishi live and train). We arrived at about half 11, and although there were fights going on, the place was as good as empty. We found our seats up on the second floor, and waited for the next fight to begin.
The fights start with the competitors’ names being called in a melodious high pitched warble by the yobidashi – so unintelligible does it become that until we had the name of the rikishi in front of us, we couldn’t understand who was fighting! The two competing rikishi then step onto the ring, or dohyo, and begin their preparations. Generally, they won’t fight for another 3 or 4 minutes at this point, and will behave in a curious manner of bending over, slapping their thighs and stomping their feet, to bring a mixture of good luck and to drive bad luck away,
Then, the competitors will face each other in the ring, bend down, clap and open their arms to show they’re not hiding any weapons. Just as they look ready to start, they’ll stand up again and go back into their corner, get some salt from a pot on the floor and throw it into the ring to purify it ahead of the fight. After several repetitions of facing each other, staring each other out, clapping, foot stomping, thigh-slapping and salt throwing, the fight will begin, many minutes after first entering the ring. For the trainees, this happens almost immediately, but for the higher ranked rikishi, they’re allowed up to four minutes of this faffing!
Once the fight begins, despite all the preparations it’s usually over within seconds. To win the bout, a rikishi must either push his opponent out of the ring, or force any part of his body other than his feet to touch the ground within it. We saw some top class grappling, with some fights almost making 60 seconds, but the majority were done within 10 seconds or even sooner due to schoolboy errors or swift movement from the giant contestants (some of them are enormous, but they can move pretty sprightly!).
Because of the uneven time weighting between the (let’s be honest here) pretty boring preparation and the exciting wrestling, I felt it was akin to heading to Lords to watch the cricket – for the aficionado, it’s probably riveting, with little nuances and stories amongst the rikishi that the layman just wouldn’t know about; for that lay-tourist however, there was a lot of waiting and comparatively little action, and in fact, like at the cricket, many of the locals brought a newspaper or a book for the downtime.
At the end of the day’s schedule, the sumo grandmasters (or yokozuna) had their battle. Currently their are two yokozuna, Hakuho and Harumafuji, and the crowd went wild for their fights. Harumafuji particularly impressed me for his very camp style of throwing salt into the ring, one hand on his hip, the other throwing the salt with a flick of his wrist in an incredibly blasé manner. Despite their billing, or possibly because of it, their fights didn’t last any longer than the others, and although perhaps I tricked myself into thinking they had better technique (though I didn’t really know what I was looking for) aside from the additional fervour from the crowd, the yokozuna flights weren’t much different from the others.
Overall, I’m glad I went to see it, as the traditions and rituals are very Japanese, but I don’t know if I’ll be hurrying back again to see it in January when the tournament next comes back to Tokyo.