Japan: Round boys in the ring

By Brett Atkinson

Ritual is behind almost every move in a sumo tournament. Photo / Brett Atkinson
Ritual is behind almost every move in a sumo tournament. Photo / Brett Atkinson

How many sumo wrestlers can you fit in a Japanese taxi?

In spring Tokyo sunshine, a twist on the old elephants in a Mini joke is unfolding as two juggernauts extricate themselves carefully from the back seat of a well-sprung Toyota. A stripped-back Zen simplicity is reflected in their prosaic baggage, with simple canvas tote bags containing their essentials for the upcoming day.

Other bulky rikishi emerge from the nearby Ryogoku subway station wearing colourful robes over their carefully wrapped mawashi, the sport's signature 10m long loincloth belt.

Souvenir stalls crammed with fridge magnets, tiny wind-up plastic wrestlers, and sumo sweets shame Eden Park's merchandise stands for quirky diversity, and nearby lanes are filled with simple eateries dishing up smoky yakitori skewers and chankonabe, the protein-rich stew that transforms sumo wannabes into sport's true heavyweights.

Not all the rikishi are truly huge. Some squat and barrel-chested wrestlers look more like rugby props from heartland New Zealand, and a few younger athletes in the secondary Juryo grade wouldn't look out of the place in the Warriors' Junior team.

In the top Makuuchi division though, weights approaching 150kg are the norm, and a few wrestlers are nearly 2m tall. It's a surprisingly international competition too, with Mongolian man mountain Hakuho - 155kg and 1.92m tall - leading this tournament after 13 days with just one defeat.

Bulgaria and Georgia are also represented, and Egyptian Osunaarashi (translating to "Giant Sand Storm") is an emerging sumo superstar just 22 years old.

I'm attending Tokyo's May 2014 Grand Tournament, one of the three sumo basho held in the city each year. Supporting bouts kick off at 8am, and by mid-afternoon the 11,000-seat Kokugikan stadium is almost full for the arrival of the elite Makuuchi wrestlers.

Fuelled by Asahi beer and shochu cocktails, the Japanese reserve has been progressively subsiding, and compact but boisterous fan clubs emerge in the stands to roll out banners in support of their favourites.

Down in the dohyo - the surprisingly small sumo ring with a diameter of just 4.55m - the crowd's energetic spontaneity is balanced by rituals dating back 1500 years. Rolling salvos of drums announce the colourful arrival of the Makuuchi division at 3.45pm.

Five minutes later, the sport's current Yokozuna grand champions make a ceremonial entrance into the ring. When the Makuuchi division kicks off soon afterwards, wrestlers cast graceful arcs of salt into the ring as a purification ritual before bouts. Multiple rounds of salt-throwing are cheered enthusiastically by the crowd, and when sport finally usurps theatre, the action is brutally compelling.

Wrestlers showcase different techniques, with (relatively) smaller athletes preferring to rely on speed, guile and agility, while larger leviathans count on sheer bulk and weight. Winning wrestlers crash out of the ring milli-seconds after their defeated opponents, and some closely-matched bouts morph into static stalemates after a minute or so.

Eventually the elaborately costumed Gyoji (referee) restarts these bouts, reposing the wrestlers like giant action figures to precisely recreate the clinch before the action was stopped.

Five black-robed judges - all former wrestlers - patrol the perimeter of the ring, ready to harness video technology if they think the referee has made the wrong call. The referee carries a ceremonial sword, and in earlier centuries would have committed seppuku (ritual suicide) with a much sharper version if they got a decision wrong. Even in thoroughly 21st-century Japan, a modern sumo referee will still offer their resignation if their decision is overturned.

If only New Zealand rugby and league referees were held to the same high standards.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to Tokyo from Auckland.

Super-sized match-ups: Tokyo hosts 15-day sumo tournaments in January, May and September. Before travelling, secure tickets from buysumotickets.com.

After the day's action concludes at 6pm, adjourn to the nearby Popeye's Beer Club for 40 taps showcasing Japan's craft beer scene.

Further information: See sumo.or.jp.

- NZ Herald

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