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Monday, March 25, 2019

Exploring Japan Vol. 21 - SUMO!!

So you're probably asking yourself why it took so long for me to write about Sumo.  To be honest, there are two reasons. First, it was something we did as part of a tour group the on our initial visit to Tokyo.  We're not big on tours and this was one of only two that we took.  While I'm glad we did it, it still felt like we were kind of sheltered and not really a part of the action and vibe.

Second (and maybe because of that sheltered feeling), the whole thing kind of came off as a one dimensional experience.  Allow me to explain the whole concept though because I really feel like if I lived there, attended on my own and followed it for even one season, I'd be hooked.

Sumo is Japan's national sport.  They take this very, very seriously.  There are six tournaments per year, three of which take place in Tokyo.  Each tournament lasts only 15 days but over that time, the newspapers and television are covered with stories about each day's results.  

The sport started as part of a religious ritual and the matches were thought to be entertaining to the Shinto deities.  As you watch a match, you'll still see components of this.  The matches take place on a raised platform made of clay and covered with sand.  A Shinto priest will start each match by chanting to purify the ring.  Then each wrestler will do his own ritual, tossing salt to further purify it and get into the proper mindset.  Eventually, they will get into position mere inches from each other.  There is no whistle or anything to start.  One will just suddenly make a move and in a few seconds the match is over.

The rules are simple.  If you exit the ring or if any part of your body other than the soles of your feet touch the floor, you lose.

Wrestlers are split into hierarchies based on their performance.  They can move up or down within those depending how well they do in each tournament with one exception.  The winner of the tournament is crowned Yokozuna (Grand Champion).  Once that happens, you're a Yokozuna for life.  However, if your performance begins to slip, you are expected to retire.

Winning brings with it some fantastic rewards.  Aside from fame, you also get prizes from different sponsors that include giant casks of sake, chesnuts, etc.  You also win money and there's always the occasional sponsorship.

The matches themselves are fun to watch, but they end so quickly you need to make sure you don't blink.  The real fun for us though was watching the people with the ringside seats.  You may have realized from the picture below that there are no ropes to keep a wrestler from falling into the crowd.  This happens quite a bit.  In fact, if you sit close to the ring itself you're not allowed to bring food or drinks.  Seeing 350 pound giants fall on a family of four can be relatively entertaining if you're in the right mindset.

When the day's matches are over, there's a closing ceremony where all the high ranked wrestlers perform a final ritual.  Then everyone heads home.

All that said, if you've never attended then going for a day is worth doing.  Matches begin early (8:30 a.m. most days) and go until after 6:00 p.m.  The better wrestlers get the later matches so the stadium tends to fill up as the day goes on.  Bring some yen so you can buy snacks and beer and allow a few hours to get the full effect.  Also, we found that there was an English radio broadcast of the event, so bring a portable radio with headphones if you have one and you can hear the call in real time.

Next week, we'll explore some of Tokyo's public parks and hang out with some cats.  Be sure to join me!

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