I Feel Skinny, Oh So Skinny: Sumo in Tokyo
I Feel Skinny, Oh So Skinny: Sumo in Tokyo
Athleticism, Spectacle, and Tradition
I knew that when we headed to Japan that we had to do everything in our power to watch a Sumo fight. Fortunately for us the second tournament of the year was on during our final week in Japan – bucket list item, check!
After purchasing our tickets we decided to walk around the area of Ryoguko (stadium) where most of the Tokyo based Sumo Stables (training gyms) are located. Because of the volume of Sumos living and training in the neighborhood, there are quite a few restaurants in the are that serve up a local specialty called Chankanobe, which is essentially a high calorie, protein heavy stew, served with copious amounts of beer and rice to help pack on the weight. On our walk back to the subway station we ran into a Sumo who was nice enough to stop and take a picture with us before he biked home (yes biked on a 10 speed….you couldn’t see the seat).
Alright, so fast forward to our last day in Japan, we get up early, braved the packed subways during rush hour to arrive at the 8am gate opening. The first level of Sumos start fighting at 8:30 so we expected people to start filling the seats early…well, this was how packed the arena was at that time…
So yeah, with the exception of a few other fellow tourist couples who arrived early, no actual Japanese people show up until later in the day when the higher level Sumo wrestlers start to fight. The positive thing about arriving so early and having hardly one else there is we could move down to excellent seats for the vast majority of the day.
To bring you up to speed there are six divisions of Sumo:
- makuuchi ( highest level, maximum 42 wrestlers)
- jūryō (28 wrestlers in division)
- makushita (120 wrestlers)
- sandanme (200 wrestlers)
- jonidan (185 wrestlers)
- jonokuchi (lowest division, approximately 40 wrestlers).
Wrestlers enter the profession in the lowest jonokuchi division and, ability permitting (and willingness to essentially be servants for higher level wrestlers), work their way up to the top division. Wrestlers in the top two divisions are known as sekitori, while lower division wrestlers are generally referred to by the generic term for wrestlers, rikishi. The Yokozuna is the best Sumo wrestler in the world and is currently from Mongolia which is a great thorn in the Japanese peoples’ sides. Currently, three of the top 5 makuuchi are from Mongolia – outrage!
Back to the tournament…the first level of rikishi came out and matches went on for about 4 hours at this level and one thing’s for certain, there are no weight classes in Sumo. The matches are completely random and you could be paired with a guy who has 200 pounds on you like this guy…
The matches can be as quick as a few seconds or they could last a couple of minutes. There is tremendous build up before the match which adds to the excitement for when they finally line up for the final time and explode off their lines and collide like two tanks.
By midday I started to pick up on how intense the battle was going to be in the subtleties of the Sumos ringside entrance. Once they sit down across from each other they either watch the fight in front of them, or they stare each other down. It became apparent that this was as much a mental sport as it was a physical one. The stare-downs continue into the ring which then continues on to their cleansing rituals and salt throws; where they really start to peacock. It’s the higher level fighters who push the boundaries of the pre-fight rituals and really get the fans buzzing as they observe the Sumo’s effort to get inside their opponent’s head.
Something that struck us while watching the bouts was how the traditions have been preserved from the earliest days of the sport. Everything from the ring entrance ceremonies, to the attire of the sumos, referees and even the stadium ushers. The picture below shows the Juryo class of Sumos ceremonial entrance.
One other thing that I was kind of shocked by was the athleticism displayed by the Sumos. I knew they were highly skilled wrestlers but I thought they were by-and-large “big fat guys” who smash into each other. Soooo not the case! The muscle that these guys have (especially in their lower bodies) and the quickness and agility that guys who average in at 317 pounds demonstrate is truly unbelievable.
This final picture shows the current Yokozuna as he performs his ceremonial dance which dates back hundreds of years. He is flanked by two other high ranking Sumos.
So I wanted to end this post with a video of a full Sumo match for everyone to get a sense of what it’s like. I thought about posting the Yokozuna fight, or one that was a more skilled fight, but I chose this video because it shows one of the foreigners who fights at the Juryo level compete against a Japanese Sumo. I call it, “White Sumo Gets Destroyed.”
To wrap up, if you want to feel good about your body, and want a full days worth of entertainment, steeped in tradition, spectacle and athleticism, you need to see a Sumo tournament in Japan. You’ll thank me later!