Jacques Chirac may be a fan, but I wasn’t going to sumo for the craic. My motivations were more cultural – I viewed it as kind of a “museum visit”. After all, how much fun could it possibly be to watch two fat guys push each other around?
A hell of a lot, it turns out.
I remember going to watch a rally when I was younger and thinking that the exciting part was when a car crashed or span out, and that didn’t happen enough. The great thing about sumo is that there are no crashless rallies. No goalless draws, no drab stalemates. Technically, if a wrestler touches the ground with anything but his feet, or puts one toe over the straw bales that mark the edge of the dohyo, it’s over. But the dramatic sight of a 150kg man hitting the floor or flying out of the ring (the dohyo) is much more common!
We arrived early at Ryogoku (両国) stadium in Tokyo, and stayed down at the premium seating area for an hour or so, close enough to see every flabby contour of the wrestler’s butts. These early-morning competitors were from the lower ranks, and the owners of the premium seats wouldn’t arrive until much later, when the real wrestlers started.
For us, though, the rapid-fire early matches were a great way to get a feel for how sumo worked before the big matches began. The rough structure is:
The wrestlers hunker down and glare at each other to psyche each other out. They may break away and come back a few seconds later to hunker and glare again. Different ranks have different staring time limits – the lower rank matches come in rapid succession because they have almost no staring time, whereas the big matches are drawn out and suspenseful thanks to their longer limit.
At some point, the hunker-and-glare breaks into a fight, and they’re off.
As the higher grade wrestlers started to appear, the premium seating gradually filled up, and we went back to our 4,900 yen (€31) upper-tier seats. After some great higher-rank matches, we were treated to the kind of finale you could only dream of. When a yokozuna, a top-ranked wrestler, loses a bout, spectators throw their zabuton (cushions) down at the dohyo. Asashoryu (朝青龍 明徳), probably the most famous yokozuna, came on for the final bout of the day, and lost in spectacular style, sending cushions flying in all directions. Thankfully I caught it on video – Asashoryu is the guy with the black nappy (mawashi). Check it out!
We had an amazing day, and if you’re in Tokyo during a tournament you’d be insane to miss out – you can find details on sumo tournament dates here. All in all, it looks like Mr. Chirac and I have more in common than I realised!