Russell and I went to the next to the last day of the Grand Sumo Tournament. They have six a year but only three in Tokyo. It was fun. Russell thought it was kind of like the Hollywood Bowl. You sit around, you drink, you eat, and oh, by the way, there's entertainment too. You can even get a box where they'll bring you food and drinks - just like the bowl. There may not be any fireworks but there's a lot of rituals, like throwing salt into the dirt ring to cleanse it and guys dressed in ornate kimonos with fans. Oh wait - those are the referees.
The tournament started at 8am in the morning but we were told the best matches are held in the afternoon. So we showed up just in time for the ring entering ceremony or dohyo-iri for the highest ranked wrestlers - the Makuuchi and the Yokozuna (i.e. Grand Champions). Like everything in Japan, Sumo is very hierarchical. Earlier in the day the lower ranking bouts of Jonokuci, Majushita and Juryo wrestling took place. The hierarchy is complicated but distinguished.
Wrestlers began filtering into the stadium wearing brightly colored aprons which covered their fronts and left the wedgie side exposed. "Hey, they're wearing skirts, actually they're called kesho-mawashi. We gotta get you one of those Russell, or at the very least (get it?) the thong thing, called a mawashi. Maybe later you wear that," I said with a mischievous smile. His look indicated he wasn't amused as he took another drag of sake.
We both had a chicken bowl, which we attacked with our chopsticks. It consisted of rice, pickled radish, seaweed strips and chunks of yakitori chicken and chicken meatballs including the bone cartilage. The food was great. I wonder if they have any of those squid snacks? The indoor stadium was draped with pictures of the past grand champions, kind of like the retired jerseys seen in American stadiums. Our seats were decent. We had a great view of the dohyo or ring.
Before each bout the wrestlers perform a ritual including clapping, leg stomping (to drive evil spirits away), staring and squatting, aka posturing. After which they exit the ring and get a drink of water from a wooden cup and a cold towel - then they re-enter the ring and after a couple more squats and stare downs...it's on!
It was interesting to watch the different styles. Some would attack quickly, trying to surprise their opponent, while others would literally pick their opponent up and toss them out of the ring. Occasionally there would be a stalemate, two wrestlers grasping each other with all their might, the tension building with each second passing You could feel the strain. Sometimes when you thought the bout was won, a sudden shift would produce a surprise slip or fall and the bout would be over. The rules are easy. You have to get the other guy to fall down or out of the ring.
Unlike boxing there aren't any weight divisions. So you'd see guys twice as big as their opponent and not all of them are Japanese. In fact there was one guy who must be pretty good because he was in the second highest division who was clearly caucasian and not fat. He looked like a body builder, not a sumo wrestler. Oddly the diaper looked more indecent on him than it did on the larger, more rotund fighter. I thought this fight ought to be interesting. It was over quickly. The big man took him out.
In America, little boys dream of growing up to be baseball players. In Japan, do they dream of being Sumo wrestlers? After reading up on the subject, I doubt it. For one, these guys get paid less than $30,000 USD a year. Sure their food and board are paid for but it's a strict household. Actually they call them stables. All except the highest ranking wrestlers have to wear a yukata (cotton kimono), even in Winter, and uncomfortable wooden sandals which make a racket when they walk so you can spot them anywhere.
It's a life filled with discipline and ritual and hazing - kind of like a fraternity. The younger, less experienced guys have to wait on the older ones. But I guess it must have great perks when you become a champion. The sake - the women - the sponsors - the usual.
The bouts got more exciting and the crowd louder and more rowdy as the evening went on. The wrestlers fight in ranked order, lowest to highest. Soon it was the final bout between the champion and the challenger. It was actually the best bout of the day and it lasted for about two minutes. In the end the champion won, again.
Exiting was easy. Unlike American sporting events which generally take hours to get to and away from.
Twenty minutes after the last bout we were on a train speeding towards home. But only after we walked by all of the souvenir stands. Yes, you too can have your very own cookie or chocolate bar with the likeness of your favorite sumo champion. I asked Russell if he needed anything. He said no.
But I still think I need to get Russell one of those thongs.