Like visiting Kyoto, climbing Mt. Fuji, and catching a Japanese baseball game, watching a live sumo match is one of those things that ‘must be done’ while in Japan.
There are six Grand Sumo tournaments throughout the year, half of which take place in Tokyo’s Ryōgoku Kokugikan. The Kokugikan is a broad, squat, green-roofed construct adjacent to Ryōgoku Station, two stations east of Akihabara on the JR Sobu Line. The nearby streets are lined with basketball-sized statuettes of sumo wrestlers, the local shops adorn their signs with wrestlers’ images, and larger-than-life portraits of historical wrestlers hang above the ticket gates in the station.
Each Grand Sumo tournament begins on a Sunday and ends fifteen days later on another Sunday, with tickets sales beginning a month prior to the tournament. Advance sales close when the event begins, though some tickets may still be available on the day.
Arriving around 9:30 in the morning, we watched a few of the low-ranked wrestlers filter into the arena alone or in pairs, unassumingly walking down the street in their cotton yukata. The staff outside the arena looked as if they’d been waiting all day to offer someone directions, pamphlets, and schedules in English, and we graciously obliged ourselves to be guided.
We had elected to attend the second-last day of the tournament, arriving early enough to catch the preliminary bouts between low-ranking and novice wrestlers, who began competing around 10:00. Stepping into the main level of the arena, the floor seemed to fall away as a solid angled roof, seemingly torn from the top of a shrine, hovered above the ring before us. The aisles beneath us were narrow and treacherous, while the corners of the arena were cut by cinder-block halls through which the wrestlers representing the east and west sides would enter the ring.
At this hour, most of the Ryōgoku Kokugikan’s 13,000 seats were empty, and although we had officially procured cheap ¥3600 seats up in the nosebleed section, the staff didn’t mind when we sat down on the tatami and zabuton (straw mats and cushions) three paces from the ring. We were cautioned not to eat or drink in the closest seats, however. The ring is considered sacred, and cannot be touched by spectators.
Some of the wrestlers in the preliminary bouts looked as though they couldn’t have been more than fourteen years old, adjudicated by school-aged referees who sometimes had to stop a bout to walk the uncertain contestants through the formalities. Each wrestler was announced by a fan-bearing, singing official—some remarkably good, a few comically bad—who would describe each contestant as representing ‘nishi’ (west) or ‘higashi’ (east). The slab-like, cracking ring, the dohyō, was meticulously swept after each match.
It was a very intimate feeling sitting on the open mats surrounding the ring; if we shifted forward another yard or two, the wrestlers would be falling on top of us. We later moved to seats that were divided into quadrants by ankle-high aluminum rails, where eating and drinking were not only allowed, but apparently encouraged, as each square was equipped with teacups and bottle openers.
Wandering outside after a brief lunch in the arena restaurant, we found a large crowd gathered on the steps to watch the arrival of the senior-division wrestlers, and when we returned to our ring-level seats to await the jūryō-division ring-entering ceremony at 2:30, we found that the staff were no longer accommodating of arbitrary seating: Although the arena was still half-empty, they tracked us down like homing missiles until we had no choice but to retreat to our plastic seats up where the balcony met the ceiling.
The real event began with the entrance of the top-ranked wrestlers, who streamed out of the concrete halls just before 4:00, forming a brightly-colored circle atop the dohyō. Then came the ceremonial entrance of the yokozuna, who appeared flanked by two attendant wrestlers. As the contestants rose in rank, the referees, too, became older and more elaborately attired, the highest-ranking matches adjudicated by sprightly grandfathers who would leap out of the way of 150-kg (330 lb) piles of colliding flesh. The proceedings were sometimes interrupted by attendants circling the ring with flags announcing a wrestler’s sponsors.
the arena only filled up completely as the biggest matches approached around 5:00. Each day’s match-ups are determined based on the previous day’s standings, often pitting wrestlers with similar records against one another. Baruto, an Estonian-born wrestler, had just been promoted to ōzeki in the March tournament, and many eyes were on him as, in the third-last bout, he defeated Kitataiki with an over-arm throw to improve his tournament record to 10-4.
The final bout was Kotoōshū against Hakuhō. Hakuhō has been the only reigning yokozuna since Asashōryū was forced into retirement by a scandal early in 2010, and he entered the match with a perfect 13-0 record. Kotoōshū’s tournament record was only 9-4, but he had defeated both Hakuhō and Asashōryū to win the Emporer’s Cup at the tournament in May 2008. A fan favorite hailing from Bulgaria, Kotoōshū was the first European-born wrestler to achieve the rank of ōzeki, the highest rank below yokozuna, and his rise from the lower levels was one of the fastest ever recorded.
The bout was a long one, with Hakuhō and Kotoōshū locked in a stalemate for more than a minute. There was a thrilling moment when the 203 cm (6 ft 8 in) Bulgarian came back from nearly being tossed on his side, but the yokozuna pressed his advantage to force his opponent out with a frontal ‘yoritaoshi’ technique, the audience responding with heartfelt applause for both contestants.
The spectators then filed out as the day ended, a lower-ranked wrestler marking the event with a series of moves with a Japanese longbow.
Some of sumo’s rituals can be confusing for the uninitiated, and even though I’d been watching it on TV for years, there was still one rule that never made sense to me. Before each bout, sumo wrestlers clap their hands, stomp their legs, and then rinse out their mouths with water before purifying the ring with salt. The bout is meant to begin when both contestants' fists touch the ground on or behind their respective starting lines. But more often than not, even when they’ve put their fists down, the wrestlers will just look at one another, stand up, and grab more salt. The higher the rank, the more times they’ll do this. Some wrestlers, and such as former yokozuna Asashōryū and popluar maegashira Takamisakari, use this interval to pump up and intimidate, but most of the time the entire procedure seems like an elaborate effort to draw out the suspense prior to a thirty-second payoff.
Seeing it live, however, enabled me to finally solve this mystery: The referee always turned his fan sideways before the wrestlers were allowed to begin the match. That, it seemed, was the start signal.
Published October 2010. Photos © 2010 Michael Kanert.