Unlike Japan's other major sports such as football, baseball and rugby, Sumo is famously difficult to attend. You can go to any major city in Japan at almost any time of the year and be assured of some top quality sport. Football fans have their choice of 56 J League teams split amongst the 3 professional leagues, there are 16 different Top League rugby outfits to choose from and though the Nippon Professional Baseball league has only 12 franchises, each one plays a staggering 144 games throughout the regular season.
Sumo is a very different affair. With an elite number of wrestlers, Sumo has long been a closed sport, accepting only limited foreign entrants and has minimal outside interference. Traditionally, the only opportunity to see this ancient sport in action is at a 'Grand Tournament'. These take place over a period of two weeks, with each competitor entering the 'dohyo' once per day, so you might think they allow for plenty of viewing time. However, these grand tournaments are held only once every two months, alternating between the Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo and another venue elsewhere in Japan. Therefore, there are only six opportunities in each calendar year to catch the world's greatest Sumo champions – 2016 will see three of these held in Tokyo while the other three are in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka respectively.
However, those with their fingers on the Sumo pulse (and the day off work) were treated to a special exhibition tournament on Monday April 18th in Tokyo. Part of the 2016 'Spring Tour', the 'basho' was one of sixteen that occurred during April – often held in parts of the country were grand tournaments are not; such as Ibaraki, Mie and Toyama Prefectures.
The 'Honozumo' tournament held in Tokyo took place in its' traditional location, Yasukuni Shrine and is supposed to mark the beginning of a new season of competition while honouring the (in)famous shrine itself. Some of the highest ranked 'ozeki' wrestlers attend this largely exhibitional tournament each year to pay their respects, to pray for good fortune in the coming year and to treat the fans to a day of free Sumo.
Fans from nearby University complex trying to get a peek.
This year was no different – in summer-like temperatures, a reported 8,000 fans flocked to Yasukuni to watch various ceremonies and performances, some 'comedy' exhibition bouts and several dozen, top-class sumo wrestlers going head-to-head. Feasting on 'chankonabe' (traditional Sumo stew) and Asahi (traditional Sumo beer, of course), Sumo fans of all ages sat on the concrete steps or stood jealously around the periphery for what was a memorable afternoon.
With the mythical 'Yokozuna' (grand champion) Hakuho in attendance, fans were even lucky enough to see the most successful wrestler of all time. While many treat the Honozumo tournament as a much more relaxed affair and even take their children into the dohyo, Hakuho made no mistake in defeating his fellow Mongolian Kakuryu in his bout.
This was a perfect chance to see Sumo wrestlers in a rare relaxed mood in the Spring sunshine and get some truly unique photos of these legendary warriors at the spiritual home of Japan's war efforts. For those fortunate enough to still be in Tokyo come May, don't forget about the next basho taking place between May 8th – 22nd in Ryogoku, and for those unfortunate enough to miss out, don't make the same mistake next year.