When you come to Japan, there are certain things you just have to experience. Many people often associate Japan with excellent food (correct), anime (also correct) and cutting edge technology (maybe not so correct) amongst other things.
One of the ‘other things’ is likely to be sumo wrestling. The grand old sport in which obese, borderline naked men grapple and try to shove each other out of a circle is something that I always thought of when I pictured Japan – don’t judge me – and it is incredibly popular, especially with older generations, to this day.
I was surprised, however, to find that you couldn’t just rock up to a random arena on any given day and find people wrestling. I assumed it would be like football, where there would be a number of clubs of varying qualities to choose from, and there would be regular events. I didn’t quite expect people to be wrestling down the streets of Shinjuku, but I did think it would be a very common event.
As it happens there are only six tournaments a year, all of which last 15 days; three (January, May and September) in Tokyo, one in Osaka, one in Nagoya and one in Fukuoka. When my mate Chris suggested picking up some tickets for September’s event at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan (try saying that after a few drinks!), I didn’t need asking twice. After Chris successfully negotiated the Japanese ticket machines (with about as much hassle as I did when purchasing my Summer Sonic ticket), we had ourselves some ¥3,600 seats for the first Tuesday event.
Our tickets were the cheapest pre-booked option, and they go up in instalments to ¥8,200 depending on how close you are. Around 350 unreserved seating tickets are available on the day, but it seems these get snapped up incredibly quickly so it’s probably not worth trying to save the equivalent of a fiver and risking not getting in! There are also some seats on the floor, right by the dojo, however I’ve read that these are for real hardcore followers and are practically impossible for foreigners to get hold of. That being said, I was quite happy to be in a seat where I wasn’t running the risk of ending up with a 20 stone arse in my face. Each to their own.
The doors actually opened around 8am but due to a rather heavy night on the Monday, and the fact that the ‘good stuff’ didn’t start until around 2/3pm, we decided to head over at around 2pm. Now, I say ‘good stuff’ but in all honestly I had quite literally no way of knowing what was good quality sumo and what was bad. It did seem as though the wrestlers were getting bigger as the day went on however, if that means anything.
After picking up a few cans of Kirin and some seriously tasty yakitori, we headed over to our seats. The place seemed really quiet when we arrived, so we took the opportunity to sit in some of the better seats until the place started filling up, before taking our seats at the back. That said, there didn’t really seem to be a bad view in the house unless you catch one of the wrestlers bending over for a stretch.
At around 4pm the Makuuchi division entered the ring, and this was to be the highlight of the day. Around 20 bouts of the world’s best sumo wrestlers took place, and it was hard to not be impressed. Perhaps the most impressive thing was that, despite being absolutely huge, these guys were seriously fast movers and the way they avoided just tumbling out of the circle with insanely quick footwork seemed to defy science at times.
As the time went by I was quickly starting to pick up what made a good sumo match. There were matches that lasted a matter of seconds, as some guys would be shoved out of the circle almost instantly. When you consider that the entrance and ceremony before each match can take up to a few minutes, it all seems a bit of an anticlimax. There were however, some matches that would go on for 30 seconds or even a minute. Now I know this doesn’t sound like much, but when you realise how small the circle is and how strong these guys are, avoiding falling over the line for so long is quite something.
There were a couple of guys who stood out; the Georgian Gagamaru looked massive even for a sumo wrestler, so it was fairly hard to forget him! Endo seemed to get the biggest cheer of the day, and I’ve since learned that he is considered by many to be the ‘next big thing’ in terms of Japanese wrestlers. The fact he’s younger than me and about five times the size was a little scary to say the least. The three Yokozuna – the highest ranked wrestlers – are all from Mongolia and it was the final match of the day featuring a Yokozuna which was to be the highlight.
Yoshikaze, a Maegashira (no great shakes, in other words) took on Kakuryu: a Yokozuna. I’m guessing that if this was a football match, it would probably be the equivalent of West Ham taking on Man City; can you tell where this is going?
After a good few minutes of psyching each other out and preparing themselves mentally, the fight lasted a grand total of eight seconds. So, why was it a highlight?
Yoshikaze, against all odds, defeated Kakuryu. The crowd absolutely lost their shit, and Kakuryu was peppered with cushions from those in the close seats – apparently a tradition when a Yokozuna loses to someone ranked lower than him. As you can see from the video below, it was quite a scene. I mentioned before that there’s a lot of pomp and fuss before a match, so skip to 3.50 if you don’t want to watch all that.
Just as quickly as the cushions were cleared from the dojo, the masses departed the Ryogoku Kokugikan and the day was over. The crowd had seen what they came to see and sumo had converted a new fan. Is it January yet?