The young couple outside the metro station paced back and forth. He looked bewildered. She looked impatient. After a couple of minutes she bounded up – ‘you wouldn’t happen to know where Azumazeki Beya is, would you’? Like us, they were hoping to watch morning sumo practice.
It wasn’t far. Just a short walk, but during the course of conversation I learned that they’d already paid $80 each. I was mystified. We arrived at the sumo stable to find a man with a clipboard waiting outside the nondescript building. He pointed to it and I told him ‘We don’t have reservations. I thought it was free’. ‘Today, demo’, he said. And then, ‘I used to be sumo wrestler’. The young couple were ticked off his list and went inside, waving. I tried again ‘What if we come back tomorrow?’ ‘Today demo’, he repeated. I had a flash of inspiration. I fished out the copy of ‘MetroWalker’ with all the info – luckily also printed in Japanese. A flicker of recognition crossed his face. ‘Wait, wait. Might be possible today. Come back in two minutes’. Meanwhile more tourists arrived, were checked off and disappeared inside. My heart sank.
Then, much to my amazement, we were in! ‘OK. OK’, clipboard man said. ‘Please take off your shoes, but you cannot sit down’. He pointed to the flat round cushions on the wooden platform. ‘For reserved guests only’. And then bafflingly he pointed to a fold-out chair and waved Jim to it. He didn’t need to be told twice. It would’ve been torture for him to sit on the floor for two hours. I stood at the back, also glad not to have to sit on the ground. Once in, you’re expected to stay put, no whispering, no eating, no drinking, no fidgeting, no toilet break.
It was 08.30 and the session was well into it’s second hour. Nine wrestlers, all sizes, some young, some experienced, were working out. Walking in semi-squat position. Lifting dumbbells and heavy rocks. Stretching elastic bands across shoulders and pounding a wooden post, rhythmically, first one hand, then the other, lifting feet in time with the movement of their hands. Like a drumbeat, the heavy slap gave a charge to the session. Energy. Continuation. Constant movement. It was a kaleidoscope, silent, steady but so intense. I hardly knew where to look. There was so much going on.
And in the middle of all this a bout. We were up close and personal. Probably only five meters away from the dohyo. (ring). Watching those giants slam into each other was heart-stopping, heart-pounding, gut-wrenching. They dripped sweat. They grimaced. They panted. They suffered. I noticed one of the wrestlers was wounded. Blood trickled down his breast; after a clash he’d would wipe it casually with a towel. It took me a while longer to realise this was the point of contact, the push of the head against chest. Many of the wrestlers had scars, hard skin, and marks in this area. Physical testament to their power, stamina and agility. Feet and fingers were taped. Knees bandaged. Water was sipped. Bodies towelled off. And then it started all over again. Relentless.
But more than the power, it was the respect, politeness and discipline that moved me. Respect for the senior leading the practice who was addressed in hushed tones with a bow of the head. Obedience paramount. The band between the wrestlers. They supported, encouraged and helped each other. The etiquette on entering the dohyo. Wrestlers crouched, looked each other straight in the eye and showed no emotion, before, during or after; simply mutual respect.
The two hours passed in the blink of an eye. It was fast and technical. It was also personal, intimate and sacred. There was much I did not understand. But it all made a great impression.
Many travel websites will tell you it’s not possible to visit a training session alone and that you need to be accompanied by a Japanese speaking person – so you need to go on a tour and pay high prices. Not true!
We went to Azumazeki Beya. Oshiage (Skytree station). Approx. 11 mins walk from exit B2. Approx. 4 min walk from Honjo-azumabashi Sta. on the Toei Asakusa Line. 4-6-4 Higashikomagata, Sumida-ku. Tel: 03-3625-0033 Open for viewing: 07.00-10.30. (Not available during tournaments held outside Tokyo). Charge: Free. What to bring: mask. (We took one but no one was wearing one). No reservation required. For groups, call in advance. No flash photography. No filming. No talking.