"men, in nappies, pushing each other."
13.09.2011 32 °C
Today we decided to sink out teeth into some more Japanese culture, so we got up early and travelled into Tokyo-hoping to bag some tickets to watch Japan s national sport- Sumo.
We arrived quickly and easily into Ryogoku, the main sumo arena in Tokyo. Here we managed to get tickets for about 21euro, an absolute bargain, with an English audio commentary for 1 Euro to boot.
None of us were quite sure what to expect... my only experience of Sumo thus far, was that of Fat B*stard in Austin Powers. One scene in particular was burned into my memory, where he is in the ring slapping another sumo and then throws him into the crowd. This was actually not too far from the reality, which was both shocking, exciting, and, well, a bit mesmerising at times.
Sumo is the national sport here in Japan, and for those of you who aren't aware of the basic rules, they are as follows;
The aim is to make your competitor step out of the ring, or dohyō
You can also win the match if you can make your opponent touch the ring with anything other than the soles of his feet
Sumos have no weight restrictions or weight groups, so you can fight someone twice your size
Brothers or people from the same house or 'stable' as they call it, will usually never fight one another
The highest-ranked contestants compete at the end of the day
The wrestler who wins the most matches over the fifteen days wins the tournament championship
That's it, they are the rules. Sounds pretty straight forward! But whooooa Nelly, this is a very ancient and respected sport, thought to have been performed to the Shinto Gods for their amusement, so it is full of (long winded) ceremonial stamping, salt throwing, and, believe it or not, dancing! The ceremony began with a procession of the wrestlers from the east changing room and afterwards, the wrestlers from the west. During the ceremony, wrestlers are introduced one-by-one in ascending rank order. They walk in a circle on the dohyō facing outwards, and one they are all present and correct, they turn inwards and shake their arms a bit, and then go off again. Then, something quite amazing happened. The mac daddy of sumo, the champion from the last tournament, came onto the dohyō and started to do some sort of Thriller esque dance, to raucous applause from the crowd! It was literally amazing, this giant tough looking guy, in a nappy, giving the fanciest footwork I have ever seen. What a sight to behold.
The wrestlers are announced by the priest singing their names, which sounds beautiful. When they enter the ring, they perform a number of rituals derived from Shinto practice. Facing the audience, they clap their hands and then slowly raise each leg, to stomp their feet hard on the ground – an exercise believed to drive evil spirits from the dohyō. They are then given a ladleful of water, the chikara-mizu ("power water"), which they use to rinse out their mouths, and then they spit this water into a bucket, dangerously paced by the first row of the audience...and then both wrestlers step back into the ring, as the announcer says their names again, and they squat facing each other, clap their hands, then spread out their legs (traditionally to show they have no weapons).
Then, they fight right? Wrong.
They return to their corners and they each pick up a handful of salt which they toss onto the ring to purify it. Finally the wrestlers crouch down at the shikiri-sen, or starting lines, each trying to stare the other down. This is it. Fightin' time... When both wrestlers place both fists on the ground on or behind the shikiri-sen, they spring from their crouch for the tachi-ai (the initial charge).
However...........In the upper divisions they almost never charge on the first occasion. Instead, after staring at one another, they return to their corners for more mental preparation. More salt is thrown whenever they step back into the ring. This can happen a number of times, (believe me) until the referee gets bored and insists that they must start the bout. The total length of time for this preparation is around four minutes for the top division wrestlers. It probably doesn’t seem like a long time to wait, but when the average match lasts about 20 seconds or less, its a pretty big build up to witness. Especially when you don’t expect it! We didn’t know about any of these rituals at the time, we were getting pretty impatient when they kept bending down and then wandering off again!
The actual fights were brilliant, so fast and powerful. Despite being so huge, they are actually quite skilled and agile, so just when you thought someone was going down, the other wrestler could catch him off balance and win the match instead. My absolute favourite match, was when a guy literally got thrown into the audience! What a moment. I wouldn't have liked to be sitting down there!