Tokyo: Wrestle-mania

By Frank Liew

Frank Liew discovers the history and hysteria of a Tokyo sumo wrestling tournament.

Sumo wrestling offers a butt-slappingly weird and wonderful experience. Photo / Supplied
Sumo wrestling offers a butt-slappingly weird and wonderful experience. Photo / Supplied

After 16 visits to Tokyo I thought I'd seen all there was to see in that vast city. That was until a friend produced four tickets, with a flourish worthy of Willy Wonka's golden prizes. "Hey," he grinned, "are you interested in sumo?"

To be honest I hadn't given it much thought but the chance to tick off another Tokyo first, and see such an iconic Japanese sport firsthand, was too good to miss. So a few days later I found myself outside the sprawling 102-year-old National Martial Arts Centre next to the infamous Asakusa "downtown" area of yesteryear, in the heart of old-town Tokyo. It's a 30-minute train ride from Shibuya and a world away from the other popular tourist landscapes of Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku and Ginza. The pace of this area - historically the border of the sacred city of Edo, modern Tokyo's predecessor - seems a little slower and more serene.

Inside the gigantic arena, however, that serenity gives way to an electric atmosphere. The large dohyo fighting ring sits in the centre of the arena, underneath a traditional ornate awning, and surrounded by a sell-out crowd of 13,000 split over two levels of seating.

The inner circumference of the ceiling is adorned with traditional paintings of famous grand champions (yokozuna) and large TV cameras line the walls, broadcasting live to millions of viewers.

We wind our way through the curious mix of old and new to our traditional Japanese box seats (futons on a raised platform) a mere eight rows from the front of the ring. Grand tournaments such as this are held three times a year, in January, May and September. Each spans 15 days, with bouts all day every day.

Our visit falls on the penultimate day in time for the Makuuchi division fights, perhaps the equivalent of the top-tier "heavyweights division".

My friends eagerly point out the stars among the wrestling line-up. They all weigh between 160kg and 180kg, though the heaviest fighter, a Georgian, tips the scales at 200kg.

After an elaborate entering ceremony, each bout starts with the two adversaries at opposite sides of the ring, always from two different heyas (Sumo training stables), and always accompanied by a monstrous roar from the crowd.

After introductions and more pomp and ceremony by the brightly attired referee, the fighters begin the rather drawn-out Shinto rituals. There's the clapping of the hands followed by the famous stamping of feet to drive away evil spirits, the slapping of stomachs and buttocks and the ceremonial throwing of salt to purify the ring, all before crouching down on their haunches and staring straight into each other's eyes.

It all builds anticipation to fever pitch then they walk away and repeat the process. And so it goes on.

By the third repetition everyone is roaring the name of their favourite fighter. Then the wrestlers turn to their corners for the final Shinto ritual of rinsing their hands and mouths with "power-water" and face each other for the last time. The arena drops into an eerie silence for a split second before the fighters launch at each other and the roar explodes again. The fight is fast and furious, normally over in a few seconds of slapping, pushing or lifting. It ends when one fighter is either pushed out of the ring or thrown to the ground.

It is impossible not to be swept away in the madness. Pretty soon you're furiously fistpumping the air with the best of them, following the roars and laughter of the crowd as a fighter is pushed out or, in one case, sent flying into the front row, crashing into a few poor ringside-seated individuals like a boulder.

Sumo wrestlers are celebrity superstars, often seen in tabloids dating Japanese popstars and models. It's had a rough couple of years, with one yokozuna forced to forfeit his title after a drunken brawl and another match-fixing scandal, but the sport's popularity with would-be fighters and the public is at its peak.

Ticket sales begin a month before a tournament, and vary from Y5000 ($80) for arena seating on the second level to Y40,000 ($600) for box seats close to the ring. But go if you can - it'll bring a smile to even the most jaded world traveler.

Steak a claim

If your taste in wrestling is a little more Western and contemporary than sumo, you're in for a treat at Ribera Steakhouse, a little-known restaurant tucked off Tokyo's beaten tourist path in a corner of Meguro.

Unlike some of Ginza's 40-storey restaurants, where a sliver of sushi can cost you a day's wages, this humble New York-style steakhouse, with a large open grill and a constant fug of steak-infused smoke in which groups of men sit huddled over their beer and food, has been here some 30 years.

But it isn't the food that makes this place stand out. What makes it unique is the owner's fanatical devotion to WWF-style professional wrestling, known here as pro-resu. Every square inch of wall and ceiling space in Ribera is filled with memorabilia, such as belts, trophies and photographs of professional wrestling's superstars of past and present - Hulk Hogan, Owen Hart, Andre the Giant, they're all here, and often they've been here in person, too.

In every corner of the room are old and new photographs of every WWF-era and Japanese pro wrestling star you can name, plus more than a few you can't, all taken inside the restaurant and in all their muscle-flexing glory. And most are frequent diners at Ribera. It's not unknown for various pro wrestlers from around the world show up in the restaurant on any given night.

The menu is unashamedly simple; you get to choose one sirloin steak in three different sizes - ½ pound, 1 pound, or 1½ pound, plus sides such as rice, corn, salad, and soup; everything a growing fighter needs.

And if all that wrestling memorabilia has you feeling competitive you can undergo the Ribera Akebono eating challenge. Named after the Hawaiian-born 233kg Sumo grand champion and subsequent WWF wrestling superstar, the challenge involves downing 1.35kg of sirloin steak, three servings of rice, and assorted side dishes in 30 minutes - all for a 10,000 yen ($155) reward.

You'll probably need one of those nice, stretchy lycra wrestling outfits.

TRAVELLERS' TIPS

Ticketing and tournament schedules: See sumo.or.jp. The next tournament begins on September 11. Taking a Japanese-speaking person with you is a good idea so you know what's going on.

Getting there: By train from Shibuya station, take the Yamanote line to Yoyogi. Transfer at Yoyogi to the JR Sobu line. Take JR Sobu line to Ryogoku station. It's a two-minute walk from the station to the arena, which you can see from the station.

Where to eat: Ribera Steakhouse. Getting there by car or taxi is the easiest way, about five minutes from Meguro station (JR Yamanote Line). Ribera is on the main trunk line Meguro Dori, but it is a pretty big street. You will most likely need to provide the address to the taxi driver, and ask him to use his navigation system

Frank Liew paid his own way to Tokyo and visits the city frequently as the owner of Qubic fashion and product store in Newmarket.

- NZ Herald

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