Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sumo in Nagoya

The final destination of my whirlwind tour of Japan was Nagoya, on July 24th. I didn't know much about Nagoya before this trip, and I still don't. I didn't do any sightseeing there at all. I had only one interest in Nagoya: sumo wrestling.

Nagoya knew why we were here. I saw this advertisement for the match before I had even exited the train station.

I have been planning on going to a sumo match since I first came to Japan, now six years ago. Somewhere along the way I developed the opinion that sumo tickets were going to be prohibitively expensive, but seats in the back ended up costing us around 45 dollars. A movie at a normal theater in Japan costs a solid $18, so I don't think we did too bad considering sumo matches go from morning until around 6pm.

We spotted this wrestler on the train to the match. My understanding is that sumo wrestlers must wear traditional style clothing at all times.

I don't know about the Tokyo venue, but the building in Nagoya was small enough that even the nosebleed seats are adequately close to the action. The professional sumo season is very Tokyo-centric. The big boys wrestle in Tokyo, another city, Tokyo, and a different city, for a total of 6 matches a year, so it was just luck that we happened to be passing by the city where sumo was taking place. I could always catch the next Tokyo match, but as Tung was soon going home to work on his boomerang technique, it was his last chance.

In this building, only the last 7 or so rows of seating sported actual chairs. The rest of the spectators had to sit on cushions, so I was just as happy sitting on a big boy chair in the back. Wrestling was already in progress despite the early hour that we arrived. The lower levels of wrestler battle with almost no one watching. As a result, the vast majority of cushions were vacant. Tung and I decided to keep two in the front row warm for when their rich owners arrived later in the day. We got a really close view of the early action, and it gave me some time to read my little English sumo booklet and learn about what was happening.

I took this one soon after we arrived. Hardly anyone was watching them fight at this point. The few that were there were fairly vocal though, I wondered if maybe they were related to the wrestlers. The referee is much younger and less fancily dressed than those I would see later on.

Here I am sitting in someone else's chair, nice and close to the action during a bout a bit later in the day. You can see the stands are starting to fill up a bit.

I ate a chicken and vegetable stew type of thing called chanko. Sumo wrestlers eat this in large quantities. A PBS recipe website had this to say: "Chanko served during sumo tournaments features chicken rather than beef because a chicken is considered good luck in sumo. A chicken walks on two legs, not four; similarly, a sumo wrestler loses the match if he is knocked off his feet and touches the ground with his hands or any part of his body." It was pretty chunky.

The wrestlers are all organized into different levels, in a pyramid related to their win/loss record. Pretty much every aspect of these people's lives is governed by their rank. The clothes they can wear, they food they can eat, and how long they can sleep. The people on the bottom rungs have to do everything for the big guys. There's way too much for me to cover here, though. Check out the wikipedia entry for more on the wonderful world of sumo.

After a few hours of the lower grade fights, it was time for the big boys. One of the privileges that the group of upper echelon wrestlers enjoy is a grand entrance. They paraded towards the ring from opposite directions of the stadium, wearing an intricate apron-looking thing called a kesho-mawashi. They are made of colorful silk and the designs on them are surprisingly diverse. In addition to the generic suns, mountains, and eagles, their were some fun ones. One looked like a little mighty mouse holding up his beefy arms. One of the few European guys had the EU flag on his. As the champions filed in, their name and birthplace was announced. Crowd favorites got a lot of noise when they stepped up. Once they had all squished themselves into the circle, they did a little dance, waving their arms around a bit.

The bells of the ball.

I believe this happened twice during the day. That was lucky for me, because I spent the first time by the entrance taking pictures of the wrestlers as they walked in, and I missed the ceremony completely. The second of the little dances is when the very top ranking guys, called yokozuna, enter the ring.

The wrestlers were very polite on their way in. Here a big guy is shaking the hand of a supporter.

The yokozuna get to have their own little entrance ceremony. This is Hakuho breakin it down sumo style.

And then once the little displays were over it was time again for the sound of large amounts of flesh smacking each other. By this time the seats were almost completely filled, and we were sitting in our rightful spot at the back of the arena.

A match goes something like this. The two wrestlers are announced. They stand on their little bases on opposite sides on the ring. They wash their mouth out with a little bamboo ladle of water, then grab a handful of salt and whip it up into the air over the ring as they step inside. Once inside the ring, the big guys have some ceremonial little maneuvers and stretches that they do to prepare themselves. This is the part when they lift their big legs up in the air and stomp the ground, something that I think has reached general awareness in the US. They squat down low and eye ball each other, sending unspoken messages of horrible pain to their opponent. Then, they stand up, walk out of the ring, and do it all over again. The highest ranked fighters did this several times, while the guys at the beginning of the day didn't get to do it at all.

A wrestler's thrown salt in midair.

The winner is the guy who can either push his opponent out of the ring, or cause his opponent to touch the ground with something other than the soles of the feet. Occasionally there would be a sneaky guy would would try to dodge the initial thrust of his opponent and push him down with his own momentum, matador style. Kind of a cheap way to win, but it worked.

The wrestlers are expected to be stoic and not show the pride or shame they feel after a bout. One though, was sort of the class clown. He showed little glimpses of an American professional wrestler hidden inside. The masses in the arena had a special little cheer for him, and he sort of “pumped up” before the match like you might expect Hulk Hogan to do. In the end he lost the match, but rather than march blank faced out of the arena, he hung his head a little in sadness. Everyone let out a big “awww”. I imagine sumo has an interesting time balancing its tradition with its need to be entertaining. Somebody has to buy this product in order to keep the lights on, after all.

Here is the score board marking the win and losses of the day.

On a couple of occasions the judges all met in the center of the ring to deliberate on a close call. Pretty similar to just about every other sport humanity plays.

The end of the night was marked by another cool little dance. This one was done with twirling a large bow around. I seem to recall it has something to do with being thankful for victory.

And that concludes my coverage of the little traveler that could. I plotted the cities out on a little map to give you a better understanding of the photographic warpath I burned through the country. Enjoy.

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  1. The wrestler on the train seems pretty small.

  2. Yeah, I was a bit surprised at how small some of them are. Generally it was the lower ranked guys who were the smaller ones... I guess that makes sense. Apparently size isn't everything in this sport, though, as I had assumed. Big is good, but being too big leaves a wrestler vulnerable to a different set of attacks. Pretty interesting.

  3. awesome post. Nice pictures and nice way to write. Your trip was amazing!