(proofreaded by Barbara Ann Klein)
Japan, the birthplace of sumo, the country that any fan of this sport wants to visit. In September 2006 I went to watch the Aki Basho live. This is the story of my trip to the land of the rising sun.
Introduction - The journey begins - First contact with sumo - The show starts - The fight of the gods - Tourism across Tokyo - Komatsuryu dojo - Tomozuna beya - Barbara and the typhoon - Senshuraku - Senshuraku party - Daishi - Feel the sumo
The show starts
And then, the big day arrived! At last I was going to witness a sumo tournament, live. All the years of waiting were worth it. I do not know if it were the nerves or the jet-lag, but about 5 am, I was awake and ready to go to watch the bouts, although I was not the only one awake early in the morning: About 6am, Mark phoned to tell me he was already in the queue outside the Kokugikan trying to get a ticket for that day. One of the advantages of going to watch the 15 days of competition is that you can get the cheapest tickets - a coupon book good for the whole tournament - and forget completely about this issue for the entire 15 days.
Since I still had a lot of free time, I decided to walk from the hotel to the sumo arena, a walk of about one hour through the Asakusa district and around the Sumida River. It was Sunday and all was very quiet and with little traffic, so the walk was very pleasant. I went to Yokoamicho Park, which is dedicated to all those who died in the great earthquake of 1923 and in the allied bombings of 1945.
At 8.30 am, I was already outside the gates of the pavilion waiting for the doors to open, assured that I would be one of the first to enter. The bouts hadn’t even started yet, so I took that opportunity to inspect the inside of the arena. On the lower floor, there are several shops where you can buy many sumo-related items such as banzuke, cups, mugs, books, scarves, cards, tegatas and much more. This early in the morning, everything was still closed, but some people were beginning to prepare the stores, and in only two hours, all would be fully operational and awaiting the majority of people who would arrive around 3 pm. They were also organizing the tea house kiosks that accommodate spectators who have the most expensive tickets, which include a bag lunch and a tea mug or other porcelain souvenir. For me, these seats are very small for four people, and if you also have to keep the bags, glasses, cups, etc with you... well, I think I was more comfortable in my seat in the upper part of the arena, although it was further away from the action.
In the early hours of competition, the attendance in the venue is very low. Most people who come are relatives or friends of those who have to fight. However, above all, there are a lot of foreigners, somewhat confused, because nobody had told them that the main bouts begin around 2.30 pm, and they are wandering around the arena wondering why there are so few people watching the bouts. But it is not easy to get bored in there, because apart from all the shops selling merchandise, there are some places to get food and drink, so you don’t need to go outside for anything, even if you plan to be there for 9 hours straight. One of the most typical things in Japan is 'bento' boxes which contain various foods, each in its own small separate compartment, so they don’t mix. There are many kinds of ‘bento’, and among them are some with a picture of a top wrestler, in which you will find the food that is most favored by the respective individual such as Asashoryu, Tochiazuma, Hakuho, Takamisakari, Kaio and Chiyotaikai. On the second floor there is an American style serving counter, with hamburgers, hot dogs and other types of fast food, and another, comparatively more elegant (and the only) sit-down restaurant, serving Japanese cuisine.
One of the attractions of the Kokugikan is that you can try a bowl of chanko-nabe for only 200 yen (just under two euro now, about 1.25 euro then), although during the weekend there are so many people attending sumo that you must wait in a long queue in order to taste it. They serve it at 12pm and 2pm, but during the weekdays there is virtually little or no waiting in line. The chanko is basically a broth, with plenty of vegetables and a couple of pieces of meat, which is served piping hot. The Japanese devoured the meal with dizzying speed, something that I was completely unable to do, so that I was always the last one to finish. It is a good way to eat cheaply and without having to leave the Kokugikan.
The terrace on the second floor is open to everyone, whether for having a cigarette (smoking is prohibited inside) or taking a walk. One day I even saw Kitanoumi Rijicho walking around; probably, his doctor had advised him to perform certain daily exercises that included walks at medium-high speed. If you get tired of walking, both floors of the arena have video screens that are constantly broadcasting former sumo bouts. Sometimes it’s interesting to watch all these old rikishi in their glory days.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things you can do inside the Kokugikan is to wait for the arrival of the wrestlers. Almost every one of them enters the venue on one side just behind the outer wall of the Kokugikan, and only those who have their tickets are able to access to this area. The Yokozuna and Ozeki, however, have a private entrance through the garage gates. While many people are piled at the door to see the wrestlers, in this particular corridor you can see them very clearly and take a lot of pictures of the sekitori as they walk past you. Can you imagine Raul or Ronaldinho walking right in front of you at the moment of reaching the football stadium before a match?
Well, we have already inspected the Kokugikan and now we also know everything about the exterior. It's time to go into and enjoy the bouts.