Written on a piece of cardboard and propped in the sales kiosk: ‘Tickets for Today Sold Out’. It was hard to believe. At 11.00, the hall was practically empty. Just the odd person eating Bento and a couple of bodies seemingly sleeping on the red-cushioned box seats that covered the ground floor.
The sumo, though, was in full swing, and had been since 08.30 in the morning. Lower ranked rikishi (wrestlers) were hard at it. From the first moment we were gripped by the physicality, the ceremony, the sheer spectacle of sumo. Rikishi waiting their turn sat on either side of the judges, facing each other across the ring. The beginning of the psyching-out process. Man-mountains of flesh sat in positions that I could never hope to twist myself into – legs splayed, backs ram-rod straight. Inscrutable, immovable, primed, with top-knots gleaming. Once their names were announced they entered the ring, and limbered up by lifting one leg – high – with balance, poise and control perfect, before stomping it down in the sand. Squatting, they looked each other in the eye, clapped to ask for the attention of the gods so they did not fight alone, and extended their arms out to the side, palms uppermost – a gesture intended to indicate they were unarmed and that sumo is an honest and fair fight.
All the ritual lasted longer than the bout. Blink and you missed it. But it was powerful stuff. Techniques were various. One rikishi charged his opponent, slapping him in the face. Hard, jabbing slaps in rapid sucession. Stunned, his huge opponent was shunted out of the ring unceremoniously. The aggression was shocking. Some wrestlers were literally hoiked out of the ring, as if it were no more trouble than lifting a bag of feathers. One, in a movement worthy of Harrison Ford, neatly side-stepped his opponent as he charged, and unable to stop, that wrestler threw himself out of the ring. There are no weight divisions in sumo, so once or twice we saw David-and-Goliath bouts; the little guy knocking the big one off balance and making mincemeat of him. Size isn’t everything.
Whatever happened, however humiliating the defeat, face down in the sand, arse high in the air, or landing on the judges strategically positioned around the ring, no emotion was shown. No showmanship, no grandstanding – the loser simply bowed to the winner and left the ring. The referee announced the winner and he showed his respect for the loser. Finito. Ad infinitum.
But as the day went on the ritual became more pronounced. There were ring-entering ceremonies for the Juryo and Makuuchi ranks. Wearing heavily embroidered aprons, wrestlers were announced and formed a circle around the ring, facing outwards. Once the top-ranking wrestler was named, they faced inwards, lifted arms high in the air and then lumbered slowly off. The hall was now full and the atmosphere electric. School children behind us shouted themselves hoarse chanting their favourites name. Two old ladies next to me tittered and giggled with glee, unable to sit still. Supporters clubs waved banners. Encouragement was shouted, beer and sake drunk. The normally reserved Japanese let themselves go.
The wrestlers threw salt into the ring to purify it and ward off evil spirits; sometimes just a little and sometimes a great handful high into the air so that the crowd roared. They sipped water from a wooden ladle to cleanse themselves, the so-called ‘strength water’, then crouched, faced each other, and broke off – slapping their girths, wiping their faces with cloths, towelling themselves down. I almost expected them to beat their chests Tarzan style. ‘I am the man’, they all seemed to project. Banners symbolising sponsor prize money were paraded around the ring. We played a guess-the-winner game. Poor judges of character, we were invariably wrong. What a spectacle. Watching Morning Sumo Practice. had been about the blood, sweat and tears of the sport, the daily hard grind. This was about where all that training led, and what it was for – style, self-belief, spirituality, showmanship.
The day passed in a flash. Before we knew it, we were watching the entrance of the yokozuna – the highest rank of all. These wrestlers get their own individual ceremonies, wearing even more elaborate aprons and great braided hemp ropes, accompanied by a ‘dew-sweeper’ and an aide carrying a sheathed sword. Glaring and stomping they made all the by now familiar moves, which had lost none of their appeal over the course of the seven hours we’d been watching!
I have discovered my inner sumo fanatic!
Tickets can be purchased via sites such as Voyagin or Buy Sumo Tickets or at Lawson stores if you are already in Japan (knowledge of Japanese needed, but staff will probably help). General same-day tickets go on sale at 08.00 at the stadium. You will need to queue early to get these. There are normal stadium seats in categories A, B, C; A being nearest the ring. “Box seats” are cushions on the ground and closer to the ring. 4 “seats” to a box. The whole box must be purchased. Tickets entitle the holder to see all matches that day – from 08.30-18.00. You can enter at any time. One re-entry is permitted if you wish to leave the stadium. Food and drink is available to buy. You can also take your own. It’s possible to walk around the hall to take photos – staff may ask you to return to your seat, but so many people were doing this, especially before 14.00. After 14.00 the hall starts filling up. Flash photography also permitted.