Saturday, 12 April 2014

Dining with the Sumos

This years Grand Sumo Tournament was back again in Osaka and Jules and I found ourselves in the fortunate position of being invited by one of the sponsors to come along to view the big event. We had attended a couple of years ago but had found ourselves quite a way back in the upper seats, toward the back of the stadium. This time we would be viewing from what is referred to as a private box, but is in actual fact a small, tatami matted area with cushions to sit on. In any case these were very sought after cushions indeed, as they would be quite a bit closer to the action. However, the biggest bonus of the invitation was the opportunity for us to attend a post tournament dinner hosted by the Sumos themselves. This was a customary event held by the various Sumo ‘stables’ as a way of thanking sponsors and supporters, while also allowing them to meet some of Japan’s most revered sportsman in an informal setting.

It was mid afternoon on the final day of competition when we took up our positions in the box. The tournament had been running for two weeks and it was now approaching the final events that would decide the ultimate grand champion and the all important rankings. While our seats were very much sought after, it was still quite a tight squeeze, leaving little room for leg adjustment when the pins and needles eventually began to set in. However, the position was terrific; close to the action, but not too close as to have a Sumo land in your lap after being tossed off the dohyo (the raised wrestling ring). Being a sponsors box, we were being well looked after too, with drinks and a generous supply of bentos to keep us nourished between bouts. As is tradition, we were also presented with gift bags containing several nicely wrapped presents as a mark of appreciation of our support for the event…at this point Jules and I were beginning to feel a little guilty, but of course graciously accepted them rather than offend.

With the final bout having been fought and the grand champion decided (Kakuryu, with 14 victories and only one loss) it was time to head off to the Sumo dinner, but with absolutely no idea what to expect. We imagined sitting in a traditional wooden building steeped in the traditions of this ancient sport, but what we found was a surprisingly modern high rise environment, much like you would find for any corporate organisation. Sumo is after all a very professional business these days and so, much like any other corporatised sport, they too have moved with the times. We were however, pleased to be greeted by several Sumo, complete with the traditional ‘chonmage’ styled hair and dressed in their post-tournament robes. These gentle giants looked slightly out of place in this contemporary environment, but they were more than happy to act as hosts by leading us to the elevators and eventually to our seats at the front of a large conference-like room.

The formalities and award giving were about to begin, where each Sumo in the stable would be presented with an envelope of varying size, commensurate with their achievements during the tournament. With the speeches well underway, bowls of noodles, cold meats and sushi began to be served by the Sumos who, despite their size, worked their way around the tables with the graceful ease of a ballet dancer. With the formalities soon over it was time for some fun. There was passionate singing, some impersonations of famous Sumos and several rounds of audience games, all adding to a very relaxed atmosphere. The drinks and conversation flowed while small groups took their turn in having their photographs taken alongside a sizable Sumo.

Clearly the sponsors and supporters who had been especially invited to the event were all very highly regarded by this particular stable of Sumo wrestlers. They had expressed their appreciation with good humor and through the generosity of their hospitality that night. As visitors to the country and as invited guests, we too felt very special for being there. As we stood to leave, they presented us with framed signatures and other momentoes as a reminder of the evening. It had been a remarkable night and yet another one of those unforgettable experiences that Jules and I will cherish from our time here in Japan.

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