Sumo in Springtime
Springtime in Japan is nothing short of magical. It’s getting warming, the sun stays out longer, and the cherry blossoms are blooming on every corner. In Osaka, there are many things to do or see especially in the spring. One of my favourite things to do during is time is an activity that dates back to the Edo period, watching a professional sumo bout!
From March 8 to the 22nd Osaka hosted the 2015 March Grand Slam Sumo Tournament at the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium. Tickets went on sale on February 1st. Tickets for sumo varies in price depending on how close they are to the ring (dohyō). The seats that are open to the public and closest to the ring are sectioned off into boxes, with four cushions per box. The second section further from the ring is made up of seats that fold down, the kind that are common in most Western arenas. Despite being farther away from the dohyō, the arena itself is small and you can still have a great view of the match from these seats. If you missed the chance to buy tickets earlier, you can still get them the day of. However this will involve waking up early and standing in line outside the venue. But believe me, it’s worth it! This year I was able to get tickets the morning of February 1st and boy, do they sell quickly! Sumo is still very popular in Japan and many families will attend, as well as older groups of friends. Of course it is also very popular with tourists!
Photo : iris on Flickr
The Grand Slam Tournament consists of six sumo divisions, the Jonokuchi Division, the Jonidan Division, the Sandanme Divison, the Makushita Division, the Juryo Division and the top Makuuchi Divison. These ranks are then further divided into East and West. The East is ranked slightly higher than the West, and is considered to be more prestigious. The sumo wrestlers in the East will face the sumo wrestlers in the West, within their division. By the end of the tournament each division will have a champion.
Sumo tournament days begin bright and early with the Jonokuchi Divison. But you can choose to arrive at any time throughout the day once you have your ticket. The Jonokuchi sumo wrestlers are younger and newer to the professional sumo world, or sumo wrestlers who have fallen back down to this division due to prolonged injury. They are not considered professional sumo wrestlers until they reach the Juryo Division. That paired with the early start time results in a not so packed arena. As the day goes on and the division ranks get higher, the arena fills up. When the Juryo Division matches are coming to an end and the Makuuchi matches are about to begin you may notice that suddenly the arena is completely full! If you do choose to arrive earlier in the day the arena sells bento boxes, alcoholic and non-alcohol beverages and snacks to keep your tummy happy and full! The Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium also has many vending machines.
I attended the Tournament on March 14 and arrived for the Juryo and Makuuchi Division matches. The Juryo and Makuuchi Division matches began with a ring-opening ceremony known as dohyō-iri. The wrestlers (rikishi) enter the ring wearing silk aprons (kesho mawashi). They will stand in a circle and do a simple handclap to attract the attention of the gods. Within the Makuuchi division, the highest ranked sumo (yokozuna) will perform theirown dohyō-iri. The yokozuna dohyō-iri is simply amazing. The yokozuna will enter dressed in his kesho mawashi and an intricate white braided hemp tsuna. He enters with a senior referee (gyoji) and two attendants. The yokozuna will also clap his hand to attract attention of the gods, extending his arms out with his palms up to show that he doesn’t carry any weapons. He then raises his leg high on the side in the world famous sumo stance and stomps down onto the ground. This is to drive any evil out from the dohyō. The audience yells out “yoh!” when his foot hits the ground and it really gets the excitement level up!
Finally, the matches begin! A sumo match can start once the wrestlers touch the surface of the ring with two fists, and jump up from a crouch at the same time. Before this occurs, there are rituals the rikishi must complete. When they enter the dohyō the wrestlers will go to their respective corners and rinse out their mouths with water and wipe themselves down. The higher ranks will throw handfuls of salt into the ring to purify it. They will slap their thighs or bellies or stomp their feet and then take their position in the centre of the ring. Then they will crouch, stare each other down, and straighten back up and repeat the entire process. Salt, stomping, crouching. Only once both wrestlers are ready will they start! Recently a time limit has been introduced but before sumo wrestlers could take as long as they liked! The goal of the bout is to push your opponent outside the ring or have them fall inside the ring. Even if just your hair scrapes the ground it’s over! Rikishi will often fall together and it results in some pretty close matches! It is really intense!
This year’s favourite was Hakuho Sho. Hakuho is a yokozuna ranked rikishi from Mongolia. Hakuho is truly amazing! He broke the record for most wins in a calendar year (winning 86 out of 90 bouts) in 2009 and in 2010 he achieved the second longest winning streak in sumo history! He holds the record for most undefeated tournament championships, 11 championships, three more than any others sumo wrestler in history! In January 2015 he won his 33rd top division championship. This is the most in the history of sumo! He is quite tall, standing at 6ft 4 inches, and isn’t as heavy as some other professional wrestlers. He weighs in at 346lbs. The crowd simply loves him, and many waited all day for his match. It came at the end of the day and Hakuho did not disappoint. The match had barely begun when Hakuho successfully flipped his appointment onto the ground! The stadium exploded in cheers! Despite being a quick bout, it was an incredibly satisfying one. I have to admit I am a Hakuho fan! Hakuho then went onto win the entire tournament with 14 wins and only suffering a single loss!
Sumo matches are just fantastic! The tradition, the rituals, the atmosphere, and the excitement all play into it. You never know what can happen! Bigger sumo wrestlers often fall to smaller ones and vice versa! Some matches are over in the blink of an eye and sometimes the rikishi slam into each other and are completely still, pushing for the win as the audience yells words of encouragement. Everyone seems to be in a good mood and are often very talkative, joking around with one another. It really is a truly “Japanese” experience. There are tournaments all year long so check the official Sumo Organization website for the schedule! The next Grand Sumo Tournament takes place from May 10 to May 24 in Tokyo. If you’re in the city, I highly recommend attending! It is a ton of fun and an unforgettable experience!