Real men wear thongs

Tokyo Travel Blog

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I don’t know how often sumo wrestling creeps into the Tokyo tourist’s list of to-dos, but this was my first time. Though I geared up for the momentous occasion (compliments of my father who scored awesome front-row tickets) by downloading Sisqo’s Thong Song, I forgot to crack :) jokes I had prepared once I stepped inside the sumo hall, officially known as Ryogoku Kokugikan.   While Ryogoku Kokugikan qualifies as a stadium it feels small, and what makes the place markedly different from any other sport tournaments I’ve attended is the fact that the best seats on the ground floor are not seats but tatami mats squared off into little boxes for each group of spectators.  My family of four barely squeezed into our designated square, and the entire ground floor seemed more like an outdoor concert hall, what with everyone seated on their butts with just the aid of a rather flimsy purple cushion.
The "oyakata" convene
But with even the sumo wrestlers seated on their butts while waiting for their turn to fight, why would spectators be awarded the luxury of sitting on chairs? (Just kidding…the second floor has normal seats).  

Finding the right box in the huge crowd would have been quite an ordeal for me if it weren't  for the expert guide of our waitstaff. Spectators with ground level seating meet up with their waitstaff in the service section of the sumo hall, a corridor with rows of individual shops or  “houses” numbered 1 through 20. The house from which you pick up your food and waitstaff is determined by the number on the back of your ticket. I was rather fond of our sixty-something waitstaff, so agile and energetic as he carried off our food and zig-zagged his way through the crowd.
The preparation before the fights.
He also wore beautifully anachronistic garb and geta sandals.  

The food was a quintessentially Japanese bento-box affair, complete with plenty of rice, teriyaki chicken cutlets, baked fish and pickles. While the food tasted rather bland the whole meal was quite voluminous by Japanese standards, with extra helpings of  fried snacks, ice-cream and alcohol you can order. It all went down quite nicely with the rivers of sake and beers that kept on flowing. The strange thing was, everybody seemed to be eating different food, and I found out that each “house” serves slightly different bento boxes.  

By that time I could feel that the entire hall was steeped in long-held traditions and rituals. While a tournament goes on for 15 days, each day is structured so that the high ranking wrestlers go last, thereby building up the tension considerably.
Wearing colorful "ads". Kinda like Nike, but in thong format.
 Once on the ring or dohyo, made out of a mixture of sand and cray, the wrestlers engage in  a series of ritual moves which includes throwing salt for purification. Actually, the preparation for the fight once on the ring takes far longer than the actual bouts themselves.  And antediluvian of all traditions, women are not allowed on the wrestling ring where the big boys duke it out. I kind of felt an immediate appreciation for the exclusive world that seemed to exist inside the stadium where everyone has a great sense of commitment and respect for the traditions. In any country I visit, I like to attend or be a part of the traditional experience for that very reason--nowhere are the people of a specific country more graceful, proud, and somehow comfortable than when they are a part of a recurring experience throughout their history.
Japanese people, in the sumo hall, were certainly no different    

Since the game I went to see was the very last bout of the tournament, obviously the crowd went wild. The showdown was between the two Mongolian sumo wrestlers, the reigning Asashoryu and  Hakuho, the young aspirant for the championship title. I never really paid attention to sumo wrestling on TV, but I was quite taken aback by how nimble, quick and powerful the tactics employed by the giant competitors were. Unlike other stadium tournaments where you can look away in search of that missing bag of popcorn during the game, each bout of sumo is lightning quick, and you will miss the throw-down and the trick maneuvers if you let your focus wane for too long. The connection and affection you develop with each of the big-bellied sumo wrestlers that rise up on the ring, I believe, is akin to boxing.

The most exciting ritual that spectators observe at sumo wrestling is cushion throwing. Whenever the spectators like (or hate) what they see or are genuinely excited by that great attack or play, they start having what looks like a pillow fight  to express their appreciation  or anger. The crowds began throwing the cushions in utter frenzy when Hakuho won, and I got hit in the face by a few cushions thrown my way by somebody's drunken grandpa seated behind me.  

The ground level tickets are expensive, but as sumo bouts don’t take up a whole lot of space, I think the whole experience will be compromised somewhat if witnessed from the second floor. Besides, the ground level seating come with souveniors--bags after bags full of bento boxes, rice crackers, drinks and snacks--which took my family about four weeks to consume. Yet no matter where you will be seated, watching a few rounds of sumo is well worth it; it’s a sure way into the heart of one of the quirkiest and graceful Japanese tradition.
Eric says:
haha, this looks cool. It seems like it would be really cool to see one of these matches in person. Thanks for sharing! :)
Posted on: Jun 27, 2007
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The oyakata convene
The "oyakata" convene
The preparation before the fights.
The preparation before the fights.
Wearing colorful ads. Kinda like…
Wearing colorful "ads". Kinda lik…
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