Nagoya Travel Blog› entry 19 of 23 › view all entries
The place: Nagoya, Japan. The time: mid-afternoon. The event: watching a whole bunch of dudes fatter than the McDonald's dinner crowd throw each other around a small dirt ring. The result: awesomeness.
We actually began our day with a gourmet 6-course breakfast at our ryokin in Hida Takayama. Then we approved a late dinner with the chef/owner and took a 2 1/2 hour train ride to Nagoya for the day. And as shocking as it may seem, we arrived ON TIME! The arena was located next to a castle - so the walk there was pretty sweet. We saw a sumo guy in a kimono on his cell phone by a fountain in the park on our way in, and we thought, "He's really not that big!"
Anyhoo, we arrived and found our seats easily. The Japanese are generally a peaceful and honest people, so there were no metal detectors or bag searches and the ushers were very nice and helpful. The arena was actually smaller than expected. Our seats were at the back but in the middle, and they were actually great seats! Our timing was impeccable, and after picking up a plate of noodles, we sat down just as they were beginning the opening ring-entering ceremonies - some singing/chanting, a dance if you can call it that, and colorful kimonos and fans. Then the sumo basho began! (Basho means tournament.)
It took us a bit to understand exactly what was happening. First, the announcer would sing/chant some stuff while looking at a fan in his hand. Then the referee would yell out the two competitors names, similar to NBA basketball players being announced. The sumo guys would enter the ring, bow to each other, go to their respective corners, and do a ceremonial dance that you've probably seen when people are mocking sumo - left hand out and then left leg up and then down, followed by the right. Each would take a sip of water from a bucket and spit it out, then wipe himself with a small towel. Next they would go to the center of the ring, bow again to each other, and do the dance again facing each other. Then back to the corner to wipe themselves off again, in this order: face, left armpit, chest, under manboob area, right armpit, FACE AGAIN! Yes - armpits then face! Maybe it's some kinda odor strategy. Haha! Anyway, back out to the center of the ring again. They would get in position, looking ready to go. We would get to the edge of our seats and ready the camera. But wait - back to their corners again. More wiping. The crowd would cheer a little. We thought they were just psyching each other out, but after psyching us out several times, we realized that it was just part of the ritual. So back to the center they would go, and as soon as all four hands touched the dirt they would smash into each other, grab each other's diaper thingie (called a mawashi), and within 5-10 seconds it was over; someone had either been push out of the ring or thrown to the ground.
It was a lot of build-up for not much action. We also noticed that the guys were not as big as we had expected - maybe the size of NFL linemen without their pads, but not huge. Then we realized that the first set of matches were the Juryo Division matches - kinda like the minor leagues, or the opening band at a concert: professional but not completely awesome. After the Juryo matches ended, there was a short break and another ring-entering ceremony for the Makkuchi Division sumo dudes - the real pros. These guys were bigger and stronger, and the matches were more interesting and lasted longer. They actually had moves - some face slapping and other quick hand movements, jockeying for position, quick turnaround defensive moves, etc. The later in the tournament, the better the matches got and the louder the crowd got. Some rikishi (sumo wrestlers) were welcomed by chants in the crowd or people just randomly yelling their names. By now, we understood what was going on and we were getting into it too. In one match, the two rikishi were deadlocked in the center of the ring, each with one hand on the other's mawashi (diaper thingie) and one hand around the other's back. All of a sudden, the bigger one got both hands on the smaller one's mawashi and PICKED HIM UP AND CARRIED HIM OUT OF THE RING! For perspective, the smaller one was probably at least 250 pounds. Knowing there was nothing he could do, the smaller one just laughed as it was happening and accepted his fate. The bigger one, with a clear opportunity to throw his opponent completely off the platform as you may see in WWE or olympic wrestling, instead placed him gently down and they bowed to each other. The sportsmanship throughout the day was impressively classy, and there was no major flash or cockiness or Terrell Owens style narcissism. The sport was clearly all about skill, tradition, and honor - three major themes throughout Japanese culture.
The last four matches were the grand finale - the Ozeki (champions) and the Yokozuna (grand champions). Each of the two divisions (East and West) had 3 Ozeki and 1 Yokozuna. For these matches the vibe in the arena intensified as each entered, flanked by people holding flags which appeared to be sponsors. The Yokozuna were each flanked by their personal swordsman and usher, as was tradition. Each Yokozuna performed a traditional ring-entering dance to cheers from the crowd which were louder if the dance was better. As it is pretty difficult to shake a 350-pound booty around, the dance was mostly just a display of their incredible balance and flexibility. Still impressive.
To our surprise, the highest ranking Ozeki (but not quite a Yokozuna) was a white guy! Yep - a westerner! We felt obliged to cheer on the white guy and found ourselves yelling for Kotooshi (ko-to-o-shi). We were not alone. He was hugely popular with his own t-shirts, towels, and McDonald's sponsorship. ("Hey kids - come eat some Big Macs and you too can weigh over 300 pounds!") Ahh we kid. But serously. :-)
He was in the final match of the day against one of the Yokozuna, who outsized him but not by much. They took an extra trip to the center of the ring and back to the corner, perhaps just to pump up the crowd, which worked. People were going about as crazy as Japanese people get, which is like a big 3rd down in the first half of a regular season NFL game - cheering and clapping but still in their seats. We were on our feet down by the rail, partly because that's how we do it but mostly because we had a train to catch and needed to beat the crowd to the cab stand.
The match began, and Kotooshi seem to have the advantage. For a moment it looked like he was going to push the Yokozuna out of the ring! But the Yokozuna was as quick as he was blubberous. With a 1-2 move, he suddenly had the lower (better) position against Kotooshi but still close to the center of the ring. The big guy made a move to throw Kotooshi but Kotooshi lowered his center of gravity and kept his feet down, still with the hold disadvantage. Then, quicker than you can stay "sticky rice," the Yokozuna lowered his right knee and threw all 336 pounds of Kotooshi over his knee and onto his back, halfway out of the ring. White boy fall down go boom. He got up, they bowed to each other, and the basho was over. What a great match, though, and what a great experience!
Well, we missed our train anyway and got back to our ryokin at 10:15pm. Dinner was usually at 7:30 but he had said 9:00 was ok. The chef/owner greeted us at the door, and we said our most remorseful "gomen nasai" (I'm so sorry!) and offered a deep, long bow to him. Japanese people tend to be very impressed and appreciative when Americans know proper Japanese etiquette, and so he offered to open the restaurant and serve us our dinner that we had missed - a delicious 12-course meal of sashimi, cured fish, clam soup, and a bunch of other delicious yumminess.
We'll post some pictures as soon as we can.