Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sumo Fun

Last weekend, we went with our friends Ginny and David to the Sumo Tournament going on in Tokyo. This is one of the classic things that you must do when living in Japan, and it did not disappoint.

As we arrived, the Kokugikan, where the tournament was happening, squatted over the skyline like the sumo wrestlers it contained. The excitement of finally getting an opportunity to see these gargantuans (to quote Mama Boucher from The Waterboy) up close was building. Several were hanging around the station, as if they were waiting for someone. Melody tried to get me to pick a fight with one, but I decided to wait until later.

We walked down the street to the front of the building, festooned with banners of the different wrestlers, and ran into (literally, almost) some of the junior Rikishi coming out from a side door after finishing their matches. Despite Melody's urging, I still didn't succumb to the temptation to take one on. I used to box in college, you know. I got a D, but at least I didn't have to take it in summer school. That would have been bad. Not only do all your friends leave, but you get to stay and get beaten up. Every. Single. Day. But I digress...

We all got out our tickets, which David (AKA Young David to tell us apart) had gotten through the Japan Tourism Bureau, and walked up to the ticket collector. He ripped off one end and pointed to a door on the garishly painted front of the building, while saying something about the number two. Eventually, we figured out that we had to go to Tea Stall #2, since we were occupying one of their booths.

The stadium is pretty much like any other, except that the lower deck is filled with small square cubicles about 5 feet by 5 feet square, into which you sit four Japanese or 2.892 Americans. It's something like one of those things used for veal calves that PETA is always complaining about. And all this for a mere $400 or so. The four of us were led to our box by a fellow carrying a pot of tea, one of the perks of having the box. You could also order bags of food in the form of o-bento boxes, yakitori, beer, and of course, more tea. The only problem was that, when you had to go because of all the tea, it required pretty much everyone to move around to allow one person to leave. And, your legs fell asleep. But still, I'd do it was all part of the experience.

Since we arrived relatively early and while the lower ranking rikishi were fighting, there were very few spectators. Over the course of the afternoon, however, and especially later in the afternoon when the big names were out there, this would change, becoming pretty much standing room only.

For a great primer on Sumo, to include reviews of the most recent tournament, go here. The sport is a lot more than just two big, fat behemoths shoving each other around. Some of them were amazingly quick and nimble.

At about three PM, the juryo division started. This is the division in which you start to see rising stars, such as the Estonian Baruto, who had a lot of fans, including this one lady in a box next to ours, enthusiastically cheering him on.

At about 4 PM, the makuuchi division began their procession, each wearing their elaborately designed and expensive (over 1 million yen) sumo skirts. Don't go up and tease them saying, "Nice dress...your sister know you're wearing it?" They will take offense.

After each team (east and west) came in and performed the entrance ritual, it was time for the Yokozuna, or highest ranking rikishi, Hakuho, to make his entrance and perform the Yokozuna dance. There are currently two yokozuna (both Mongolian), but Asashoryu, was recently caught goofing around with some kids playing soccer while home in Mongolia. As he was excused from the upcoming tournament for an injury, it was an instant scandal resulting in his suspension from this and the next tournament. It affected him so badly that he reportedly is having something of a breakdown. Not what you'd expect of a guy who regularly faces and wins matches with 200kg angry men.

This was the moment we'd been waiting for. All (almost) the famous rikishi I've been following since becoming interested in Sumo when I arrived in Japan were beginning their bouts. My favorites include Kotooshu, who has sort of become the David Beckham of the sumo scene and is one of the potential yokozunas of the future, Iwakiyama, an average fighter, but charmingly funny looking with his smushed in face, and Takamisakari, whose antics pre-fight have garnered him a respectable following as well. The Russian brothers Roho and Hakurozan, and the Georgian, Kokkai, were also in this group.

The bouts were exciting, and I paid extra attention to Takamisakari's, and his entertainment factor. Sure enough, the crowd really got excited when he started pumping the air, getting himself fired up to compete. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough. Our friend Harumi's "boyfriend" lost...He was fun to watch, though.

The other exciting bouts, though all disappointments because they all seemed to lose, were Iwakiyama, Kokkai, and Kotooshu. But, all in all, despite that, it was an incredible day. Even the really, really, drunk guy who almost voided on my leg while at the urinal next to me just was part of the overall excitement and experience. As always, we enjoyed our time with Ginny and Young David. We had a chance to catch up a little bit on David's trip to China, a month or so after mine. He did some volunteer work with a travel company called Earthwatch, and worked in a small village in Inner Mongolia. Sounded like a great trip, and he's posted some pics at their Flickr site...check them out.

As we walked out of the Kokugikan in a crush of people, we got delayed for a short period, as the Imperial Princess had to leave first. It turns out that she's a big sumo fan as well. As we walked back to the train station, I took one last look at the building as it shone in the night. We'll do our best to get back for the next one.

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