(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 fight of the gods
As I told you before, the early hours of competition are often not attended by many people, so you usually have the opportunity to sit in the front rows where you can watch the bouts from the best possible vantage point. Many people think that the wrestlers of the lower categories are youths who have not yet acquired enough skill to progress further, and that the show they're going to watch will be very lazy and boring. Nothing could be further from reality. From the earliest bouts of the day, you can imagine the potential of those who climb on the dohyo, and there is no possibility of boredom. Besides, the shikiri in these ranks is very short, so the bouts go very fast, one right after another. It is advisable to go with your own list of the bouts of the day (available at Sumo Forum) because the complete list that you get at the entrance is written entirely in Japanese. The English version given to foreigners list only the two highest categories of wrestlers.
During those first hours at the Kokugikan you not only see very young fighters, but also gyoji and yobidashi, who are of similar age. As most of them rise through the ranks when they get older, it is easy to understand that the newest men always start in the Jonokuchi division. As you watch the ranks of the wrestlers’ bouts rising, you can see that the age of the referees and assistants gradually increase.
It is also very interesting to look to the side aisles and see rows of about 10-15 fighters waiting their turns to go out and fight. As noted, the bouts will happen fairly quickly, so the each wrestler needs to take care not to get distracted too much or he might miss his bout and lose by default
Around 2pm, the stadium begins to fill. Juryo wrestlers make their appearance for the Juryo dohyo-iri and the fans now begin to recognize the rikishi, shouting their support for one man or another. Also at this time, cadres of women, dressed in blue and white police uniforms, emerge. They stay at the top of the access stairs leading down to the dohyo and they aggressively pursue anyone who tries to access this level without a ticket for a specific seat within the lower area. They certainly don’t lack work, because many people attempt to access the area to take photographs of the fighters during the bouts, and if these security people were not guarding the way to the rikishi aisles, there would be pandemonium with so many non-credentialed “photographers", so much so that even the rikishi themselves would not be able to return to their dressing rooms.
After the Juryo bouts, it’s time for the official introduction of the tournament. Kitanoumi Rijicho climbs up to the dohyo with all members of the sanyaku, to thank the public for coming to the Kokugikan and to encourage the wrestlers to do their best during the 15 days of competition. Then comes a very emotional moment, which is the hanging of the paintings of the last two champions on the ceiling gallery of the Kokugikan. In this case, the portraits, which were presented the day before just outside the entrance to the Kokugikan, were of Hakuho, as winner of the Natsu Basho, and Asashoryu, as winner of the Nagoya Basho. At the beginning of the Hatsu Basho 2007, this ceremony would be repeated again, placing two new portraits of Asashoryu as a tribute to his two victories in the previous two tournaments. I was lucky to see, in September, the portrait of Takanohana's last yusho, because it was retired that January. The substitutions are always done in chronological order, so Yokozuna Akebono and Musashimaru’s pictures would also be gone shortly. And if we continue as now, soon the entire gallery at the top of the pavilion will be full of pictures of Asashoryu.
We reached the moment of the Makuuchi Dohyo-iri, and here you are now able to see the passion that the Japanese fans have for the fighters of the highest category. The biggest applause were for Ozeki Tochiazuma (don’t forget that he is from Tokyo), Komusubi Kisenosato, and Maegashira Ama, Homasho and, of course, Takamisakari. Europeans were also greeted with loud applause, specially the Estonian Baruto, who seems to be the new idol of the Japanese ladies. The whole atmosphere is magical, spectacular and enjoyable way more than one can imagine - Nothing at all like the television broadcasts.
But we still had another spectacular moment to witness, and that was the Yokozuna dohyo-iri. Asashoryu was there to do it perfectly, without the slightest hesitation, and with grandeur worthy of the moment. Just fabulous. The applause and the enthusiasm of the crowd had reached the zenith. It was now time to begin the bouts.
Everything is majestic in the Kokugikan, from the entrance of each wrestler to the end of the fight. The clash in the tachi-ai resonates through the entire stadium, and from that moment, something moves all around your body and makes you start cheering for one or another rikishi. And even if your favorite fighter loses, it really doesn’t matter that much if you see that the opponent fought better and was a fair winner. A henka is usually met with silence (I even heard a few boos) and the spectacular shikiri from rikishi such as Katayama or Kitazakura receive thunderous ovations. All is magical inside the Kokugikan.
In the middle of the bouts, during a short intermission, the Crown Prince and Princess of Japan with arrived with their daughter, a true fan of sumo, and their appearance was followed with a deafening ovation from the public, who are devoted to the Japanese Imperial Family as in few parts of the world. I could not feel less than some envy of them for how the Spanish Royal Family is treated sometimes in their own country.
After the last Yokozuna bout of the day, the Yumitori-shiki, the dance of the bow, was performed by Oga, a Juryo fighter. This is one of the most beautiful rituals of sumo, and people follow it with great interest, applauding and cheering with any stomp of the feet on the dohyo by Oga. It's really incredible to see the rikishi twirling the bow so fast and so confidently without dropping it. I can imagine how many hours of training led him to achieve that degree of perfection.
When the day is finished, the "police girls". to whom I referred earlier, and all the oyakata surround the dohyo in security positions to prevent anyone from approaching it, while the yobidashi cover and clean it with a canvas to preserve the dohyo in the best possible condition for the bouts of the following day. I must say that just seeing Takanotsuru or Musashimaru guarding in front of the dohyo is enough to make me forget about any desire of getting too close.
I’m not going to talk about each day’s bouts because I think that we have television for that. In the 15 days of competition the mechanic is always the same, except on Shonichi (for the rituals commented before) and Senshuraku, about which I will talk later. Only Mae-zumo bouts from the third day and the presentation of the new fighters on Nakabi are different from the rest.But there is something that I would like to tell to all who are going to see a tournament in Tokyo, and it is about exiting from the Kokugikan. I’m going to talk here a bit about the Japanese people, but with affection, not with bad intention. I think that the Japanese people are very accustomed to following any guidelines at all times, and to improvise as little as possible. So, most of the Japanese audience leave the pavilion using the same door and then go to the same sidewalk which goes directly to the train station. The curious thing is that if you're on the second floor, it’s much better to leave by the exits to the terrace, down the stairs toward the main gate and then go out through that gate (most people use the left side, the same used by the wrestlers to enter), cross to the other side of the street which is (yes, I promise) almost empty. In the meantime, hundreds and hundreds of people are just piling up on the other sidewalk in a slow, slow walk of about 30 meters to the east entry of the railway station. It’s even better to cross to the station a few meters farther away (from the nearly empty sidewalk I just described) and access it at the west entrance, which is empty; that will put you on the platform in a few seconds. Perhaps some of you think that I'm exaggerating, but I assure you that I’m not. Although there were around 11,000 people watching the bouts on the weekend, I was able to get from the terrace of the Kokugikan to the station in just 5 minutes. Using the other sidewalk could take you about 20 minutes. Try it one day if you are in Japan for sumo at the Kokugikan and tell me if I am correct or not.