Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sumo Wrestling: It's Not About Size.

5.55pm. The final and last round of the day's sumo match.

Two rikishi (powerful men/ sumo wretlers) stood face to face on the shikiri-sen (starting line) in the dohyo (ring for sumo wrestling), crouching and staring at each other. The Kokugikan sumo stadium had been packed with audience ranging from primary school kids to near-century old elderly folks, who were all waiting for that final moment with abated breath. Wait a minute. It looked like a false alarm. 
Both men walked back to the edge of the dohyo, rinsing their mouth with chikara-mizu, some sacred power water believed to give them power, and wiped his lips dry with chikara-gami. Then, each of them threw some salt into the ring--another Shinto ritual to purify the wrestling ground and took their respective positions again. The same process repeated at least twice. All the pauses and false starts preceding each bout built a palpable tension  as no one can be certain when the real action will take place.
The gyo-ji or the referee does not announce when each bout will commence. It all boils down to the two fighters in the ground. Now there they go! Within less than thirty seconds, one of them tumbled out of the ring and was automatically defeated. I stared in awe at the winner who was a few sizes smaller than the defeated. The match ended and the crowd cheered.  
I had the opportunity to witness this September tournament, which was part of an exclusive tour led by famous retired sumo wrestler, Konishiki (full name Konishiki Yasokichi). Oh boy, you never realise who a great star he is until you begin to see groups of Japanese surrounding us, desperately taking out their cameras to take his photo. Konishiki is one great legendary figure in the history of sumo.
 
Who is he? He's the first non-Japanese born sumo wrestler who clinched the prestigious title of Ozeki, the highest ranking before Yokuzuna was introduced. Born and educated in Honolulu, Hawaii, he is fluent in both American-accented English and Japanese. While he may seem like a giant, he is very friendly and shares about the information behind the ancestral portraits of sumo wrestlers at the Museum Exhibition Room. There is a new exhibition every two months and the room can be viewed free of charge.Stepped into the hall and you can find the portraits of champions festooned onto the rafters of second level seating. They are not photographs but all hand drawn by professional artistes! In the world of sumo, it is all about hierarchy.

The matches begin from jonokuchi (the lowest rank) all the way up to makushita (junior grade). Such short, strenuous matches begin from the morning but those worthy ones takes place in the afternoon from around 2.30pm, when the rikishi from the intermediate division (juryo) commences the battle. Only the wrestlers at this rank and above are considered full-fledged salaried sumo professionals.
 
At around 3.45pm, the Rikishi from the senior division step into the ring in their colourful ceremonial aprons (kesho-mawashi) and form a circle around the referee.
 
And do you know that there is no WEIGHT DIVISION for this 1500 year-old sports unlike judo or weight-lifting? So it is possible for a rikishi to find himself pitted against an opponent twice his own weight.

To win, the rikishi does not necessarily have to push his enemy out of the circle. The one who touches the ground with any part of his body (including knees or even the finger tips) is OUT.
Every audience has this black and white sheet of paper cramped with hard-to-decipher scribblings. This is Banzuke, sort of a hierachy chart with the names of low-ranking rikishi at the bottom to the highest-ranked rikishi at the top.  

So perhaps before catching the matches, you can explore the Ryogoku town with a map like this. The Edo-Tokyo Museum is just in the vicinity
With such long hours of competition, audience are free to leave their seats to get some drinks or food that are sold around the stadium. Rest assure that no one will glare at you as it is common for people to wander off and come back again. This box of Yakitori (600 yen) contains 3 sticks of chicken balls and 2 sticks of grilled chicken, is highly recommended by Konishiki-san.
Alternatively, go for the tori-bento (chicken rice box) or buy some unique postcards or souvenirs.

Here are some of the snapshots:
 
 
A postcard with Konishiki-san 小錦さん battling another opponent.
After the final match, don't leave so soon yet. Catch the "bow dance", in which a rikishi specially selected from the third-highest division will perform the yumitori-shiki, an amazing feat of twirling the bow. This ceremony was introduced during the Edo Period when the winning wrestler received a bow as his prize and the dance is an expression of his satisfaction.
 
A grand dinner with Konishiki and his wife was arranged at a traditional house called Kapou Yoshiba. This is not the oldest chanko-nabe restaurant in Ryogoku but is one of the popular ones frequented by the locals after watching the tournament.
There is even a dohyō in the restaurant’s main room where you often find men singing traditional songs for tips but everyone was too preoccupied by the food to leave their seats for the entertainment.
 
And yes, we had the Chanko Nabe- a hot stew consumed by sumo wrestlers as part of a weight-gain diet. Each nabe was shared among four adults and cost about 3000 yen as an ala carte item. 
It was not just a clear chicken soup but a very rich miso-based soup that is infused with the essence of 17 ingredients. I did not count the exact number but there were fresh scallops, marinated salmon, prawns and large-sized chicken balls. 
There are four basic types of soups: shoyu, miso, shio (salt) and spicy miso. Our miso-based soup is the shop's secret recipe blend of Kanto and Kansai miso.
As part of the dinner course, each guest was served a nice champagne glass of raw, seasonal vegetables. topped with bonito flakes. I could not quite figure the name but it tasted like 豆苗 or sprouts. 
A coaster showing the diameter of the dohyo.
In between the appetiser and the hotpot, a bowl of beautifully sliced sashimi in ceramic bowl was served.
After the chanko-nabe was almost done, the guests had the honour of enjoying extra food prepared by Konishiki-san himself, who poured rice grains into the left over broth to make a really excellent bowl of zou-sui (like porridge)
 
Before saying our last goodbyes, each guest received a special hand-print of Konishiki as a token of remembrance.
Sumo is more than just a quintessential Japanese sport that resorts to sheer force. It is a pride to one's family name, a tradition that needs to be passed down to the future generations. Sadly, the number of young wrestlers has dwindled over the years, so is the number of viewers to each sumo tournament (possibly affected by a series of past scandals). But now, signs of recovering are showing as retired wrestlers such as Konishiki, are trying to do their part in spreading the knowledge of sumo to a wider audience.    
 
Will sumo continue to shine as it did in the past? I believe so.
 
Acknowledgement: This is a special one-off event hosted by Konishiki-san and Sunrise Tours.
 
*******
Standard Sumo Tour Plan with Chanko Dinner
Price from 13,000 per person.
 
To watch a Sumo Tournament only, tickets can be bought online in English at: http://sumo.pia.jp/en/
Schedule: Tokyo (Jan/ May/ Sept), Osaka (March), Nagoya (July), Fukuoka (November) ---> Each tournament lasts 15 days.
Prices: 3,600 yen to 11,300 yen (Not inclusive of meal or guide)
 
Kapou Yoshiba
2-14-5, Yokoami, Sumida-ku, Tokyo
Access: 10-min walk from West Exit JR Ryokoku Station/ 6-min walk from Subway Toei Oedo Line Ryokoku Station
11.30am-1.30pm
5pm-10pm
Close on Sunday/Public Holidays

2 comments:

  1. Wow I never knew they have such tour. I would like to join in future.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeps! It was really a very enriching experience as it was also my first time watching a sumo tournament. I think one great thing is that it is not only held in Tokyo, but tickets sometimes sell out fast so do book early if u plan to attend one =D

      Delete

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...