One of the things I really wanted to do when in Japan was to watch some sumo wrestling.
There are six big basho (tournaments) each year, three of them in Tokyo. Fortunately one of them is on right now and I got the chance to go and see it.
Seats at the front are in high demand, but they keep a small amount of back row tickets to sell on each day of the two week event.
Early in the morning I took the trip out to the sumo suburb of Ryogoku and got in line. There actually a lot of foreigners in the queue, probably the most I've seen in one place so far and I chatted to some other Brits whilst we waited for the line to move. Ryogoku is known as sumo town and lots of 'sumo stables' are in the area where the wrestlers live and train. On the way from the subway I walk past a couple of wrestlers on the way to the arena, wearing traditional dress and wooden sandals.
On a large tower outside the arena, a guy sits at the top banging a traditional drum signalling the beginning of the sumo for the day. He plays it again at the end of the day.
From talking to people, it seems that sumo is not as popular right now as it was a few years ago. There have been a few big scandals involving gambling, violence, drugs and organised crime, that led to several top wrestlers being forced out of the sport. Therefore I had no problem getting myself a ticket to see the event.
Starting just before 9, the matches continue all day, beginning with the trainee wrestlers and progressing up the ranks. As the day continues, you can see the improvement in both physique and skill until the top division matches later in the afternoon. Some of the early matches are size mismatches, with one wrestler having bulked up a lot more than the other. However, just occasionally the small guy manages to win which always got a big cheer from the crowd.
For lunch the cafe on the ground floor was serving chanko, a traditional stew eaten by wrestlers in large quantities late at night to help to put on weight. Well as I was in the home of sumo, I considered it rude not to try some and got a small bowl for less than £2.
This particular 'chanko' I found not very tasty at all. The broth watery, the vegetables overcooked and with a lack of any real discernible taste whatsoever. I thought to myself, how do sumo wrestlers manage to eat enough of this to put on enough weight?
After my disappointing lunch I took a stroll around the merch area and checked out the vast range of sumo products available. There is also a sumo museum which educates about the history of the sport.
As for the bouts themselves, before and after each one there are a series of rituals that the referee and both fighters go through before they begin. Plus a guy comes on and sings before each fight. After watching for a while I got into the flow of the way it all worked and sat back with a book, a bit like as if I was at a cricket match.
Most matches were over in less the twenty seconds. Occasionally though, a match lasted longer with both fighters evenly matched and in these matches the crowd really got into it, cheering and shouting and getting quite excited (for Japanese standards at least!)
My favourite part was when the wrestlers were grappling at the edge of the ring and got a bit unsteady. The judges and crowd sit really closely, so there is always a moment when the wrestlers are unbalanced and seem about to fall, when the crowd and judges quickly scatter out of the way! Even better though is when one guy seems certain to lose, but somehow manages to turn the tables and hang in there. These are the most exciting matches of all.
Later in the day, the professional guys in the top two divisions fought and there was a service to hire a radio to listen to English language commentary. Well I have to say that I've never been so entertained as when listening to an Australian man called Gary rambling into the microphone. Gary reeled off endless statistics, talked about the different fighters, their strengths and weaknesses and explained some of the technical terms of the sport. It certainly helped me to understand what was going on. Thanks Gary!
The most famous wrestler at the moment is the Mongonlian, Hakuho. He had a 9-0 record in this tournament and quickly dispatched his opponent.
It was really great to get the chance to watch sumo and I'd certainly recommend it for anyone who visits Japan.