A night at the sumo stadium is strangely reminiscent of a job at the freezing works, writes Dean Parker.

It took me a while to remember where I'd heard the sound before. It took me back to the cooling floor of the old Whakatu freezing works near Clive in Hawkes Bay, where I had a regular summer job in the 1960s.

When carcasses from the mutton chain came down from the slaughterboard, skinned and gutted, they travelled on an overhead rail, hanging from the forequarters, graded and ready to go into the freezing chambers.

If there was a hold-up on the cooling floor and one of the carcasses swept down and collided with another, there was an almighty smack of meat on meat.

Aha! That's what it was! That's what I heard at the Ryogoku Kokugikan, the sumo stadium in Tokyo, when two huge 150-200kg rikishis (contestants) wearing nothing but a padded belt around the waist and another between the legs hurled themselves forward from a squatting position inches away from each other and smacked together.

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It was followed a split second later by another familiar sound, that sudden roar you hear at any sports stadium when the chance of a score seems imminent.

Sumo's great. It's exciting, but you have to hone up on form: who's on the way up, who's having a crisis of confidence (on TV I saw a clear look of panic on one warrior's face), who's expected to win, who the crowd favourites are.

In Japan sumos become a bit like Wimbledon. There's always a local boy the audience are rooting for, a Japanese-born rikishi, who - maybe this year - will triumph over the Mongolians and Bulgarians and Hawaiians who now dominate.

It never happens.

The day we went, there was a huge upset. The top two yokozunas (superstars), both Mongolian, came second to a younger talent. The bolter was Mongolian, too.

The actual bout lasts about 10 seconds, but the drama of out-psyching your opponent takes much longer. Four of five times the two massive bodies get down, crouch, touch - and disengage. They rise, stride around, flex their arms, return one more, crouch, touch - and disengage again. Until, finally - crouch, touch, smack, roar!

The local wrestlers are these days overshadowed by exponents from Mongolia, Bulgaria and Hawaii. Photo / Nakatani Yoshifumi
The local wrestlers are these days overshadowed by exponents from Mongolia, Bulgaria and Hawaii. Photo / Nakatani Yoshifumi

The aim is to force your opponent out of the ring by rushing him and pushing and slapping him back, or forcing him to the floor by grappling him and toppling him over. Job done, the winner swaggers about, the loser slopes off.

I saw one bout on TV where, at the opening rush, a rikishi stepped deftly aside and 200kg shot past him out of the ring like a runaway lorry. Clever, but unsporting.

Sumo is steeped in the rituals of Shinto, a wonderfully pagan religion that worships animal spirits. A roof resembling that of a Shinto shrine is suspended over the ring, the referee is dressed similarly to a Shinto priest and holds a fan while wailing like a muezzin, the rishiki throw handfuls of salt into the ring before their bouts in a Shinto ritual.

The salt is seen as cleansing and purifying and comes from the tradition of casting salt upon the doorstep before entering your house after a funeral - quite a good idea, actually. With this gesture you leave the contagion of death behind.

And, in the case of sumo, defeat.

One of the wrestlers we saw, presumably a major loser, threw up a veritable saltstorm and got a huge cheer.

That pagan Shinto should be the national religion alongside transcendental Buddhism seems par for the course for Japan, a country that gets weirder the more you encounter it.

The most fantastic futuristic elements co-exist with the remnants of a medieval culture.

What my companion calls "socially sanctioned fetish territories for sexually inadequate young males" are only a block or two away from the sumo stadium with its ancient ceremonies. (All sounds a bit like the Catholic Church.)

The competition itself takes place over 15 days. It's a round-robin tournament with pairings chosen day-by-day and culminating in the points leaders facing each other on the final weekend.

Each day begins at 8am with a long undercard. Most of the audience start to turn up at 2pm. The Premiership contenders appear about 3.30pm, parading in dazzling robes, then stripping down to mats that look very Pasifika.

There's much ceremony and the ring of clay and sand is swept clear and watered - and we're into it! The leading contestants' bouts are held back to the end so tensions mount.

The show finishes at 6pm.

There's an English language National Sumo Association website you can go to for on-line tickets, but eventually you'll need Japanese help to fill it in.

You can also book by turning up at various outlets. And you need to book.

We tried early for weekend seats. No go. Eventually we got seats for a Monday. Ringside seats are expensive, but there are good, affordable seats in the balcony - $60.

Like Eden Park, there are refreshment booths, though civilised and cheaper. You can get a tasty takeaway lunch box and a beer for $13.

There are six two-week seasons spread through the year, three of them in Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan (in January, May and September) and one each in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November).

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand offers daily non-stop flights from Auckland to Tokyo.

Details: For information on tickets, go to jnto.go.jp.