Saturday, 14 April 2012

Cheering on the Sumos

One of the things that Jules and I had put on our ‘must do list’ while in Japan was to attend a sumo tournament. Last year a major tournament planned for Osaka was cancelled due to a betting scandal that had tarnished the reputation of the country’s most revered sport. However this year, sumo was back and would nicely coincide with the arrival of a friend from Australia who was also very keen to see the ‘big boys’ demonstrating this unique form of martial art.

We had booked tickets for the final day of the two-week tournament and the stadium was a sellout. As we entered the Osaka Prefecture Gymnasium, the crowds were filling in for the final Makuuchi competition (the top division of professional sumo). We chose to sit on western style seats high on the third level, but if we wanted a closer view, we could have sat on pillows in one of the numerous tatami styled areas that circle the dohyo (the raised wrestling ring). It seemed that the closer you moved to the to the central ring, the more formal it all became with absolute ringside seats being reserved for traditionally dressed officials, the well to do of Osaka and the sumos themselves.

Eventually it was time for the wrestlers to make their appearance and following protocol, they strutted into the arena in reverse rank order, each wearing a large traditional apron called a kesko-mawashi. Following a short ritual ceremony, they were ready to begin, with each retiring to the dressing rooms to await their all important match. As with the previous days, each sumo would only fight once, adding to their win/loss record which would ultimately determine their overall ranking for the tournament.

As we began to watch proceedings, we became fascinated by the various traditions and gestures of the combatants and the officials. While the actual bouts might only last for a matter of seconds, there was always plenty happening in and around the dohyo. The sumos have up to four minutes to get their bout underway, so there is plenty of posturing, body slapping and throwing handfuls of salt into the ring (a ritual of purification). Finally they would take up positions with the mandatory stamping of feet before crouching ready for action. The fight itself is ‘no holds barred’ in an attempt to force an opponent to the ground or outside the circle. This can often result in a sumo being spectacularly tossed off the raised dohyo into the crowd, which probably explained why many of the wrestlers had battle scars and bandages following a long tournament.

The capacity crowd, who clearly had their favorites, enthusiastically cheered each encounter. The arrival of local sumo Goeido sent the fans wild and they were soon chanting his name throughout the stadium. With a ranking of 6th, he was taking on the much favored and higher ranked, Kakurya. The crowd support must have worked, as he went on to win the bout; much to the delight of the cheering fans. This was an unexpected defeat for Kakurya who could have won the tournament with that win. He was now forced into a final deciding bout to determine the ultimate champion. This would be against his archrival Hakuho, who was seeking revenge following his defeat at the previous tournament. It seems that Goeido’s earlier win had indeed proved decisive, shaking Kakurya's confidence and allowing Hakuho to go on to win the bout and the championship!

After receiving the rapturous adulation of the fans, the presentation ceremony began and as we were by now well entrenched in the atmosphere of the moment, we decided to stay although we would understand none of the speeches. One by one, large trophies were brought out and presented to Hakuko, who graciously acknowledged the crowd before passing them on to his assistants who dutifully rushed them off to his dressing room. We were somewhat amazed by the scale and number of these lavish gifts, some of which took two men to lift. By the tenth presentation and speech we finally decided to leave the stadium, with yet more trophies to be given waiting in the wings.

While having to learn much about the rules and formalities as we went along, we had certainly enjoyed our day of sumo wrestling. This was yet another facet of Japanese culture that continues to fascinate us westerners and the type of experience that makes a visit here so wonderfully unique.

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