Monday, January 15, 2007

chubby guys in silk loincloths.

We went to Ryogoku to check out the 2007 January Tokyo Sumo Tournament. It was my first time to an actual tournament - last year I checked out an NHK special presentation with mom and C.; this was the real deal.
I was able to buy tickets easily at Family Mart by using their "ticket pia" kiosk machine and entering the "p-code" (found on the sumo website). I got the cheapest assigned seats, Arena 3, for 3600 yen.
Also availabe for purchase the day of the match are general admission tickets - these don't guarantee seats but are a bit cheaper at 2,100 yen. They can only be bought at the stadium, and I wasn't sure if we would be able to get in, since there are a limited number available. Turned out that the arena seats were half empty - all the box seats were full - and there would have been no problem sitting with general admission tickets. We went on a Monday - I think if you go during a weekday, you're good to go. So that's what we'll do next time.

At first it seems like a normal train station. One grey platform, a pedestrian row of molded plastic chairs lined up, empty now, next to a drink machine promising “best lifestyle heart” and “Pocari Sweat”. Nondescript buildings surround. The sign reads “Ryogoku”. Then, as passengers disembark, they might notice something different. Such as the unusual number of very large men wrapped in kimonos and topknots walking around the area. They might then see the large portraits of wrestlers staring down at them from the station walls. An aroma of chanko-nabe, the fattening stew that wrestlers in training eat, might float to their nostrils from the row of restaurants flanking the station. And the foot traffic is all going in one direction. Off to the right. Toward Ryogoku Stadium.

A hulking grey and green building, it still manages to be low key, rising only a few stories in a squat dome, and shielded largely by a concrete wall on the station side. A few officials patrol the perimeter, and a simple black and white sign ushers tournament-goers to the main entrance. There, a few larger-than-life portraits adorn the front of the building, of wrestlers standing and in action. There are a few freestanding structures – a ticket booth, what looks like a guard booth, and a strange tall, thin tower, from which the beating of a drum is emanating. This drum, called the yagura-daiko, announces to the surrounding area that the tournament is taking place. The tower and the area around it are garlanded with strips of paper, braided straw, and bamboo slats in the Shinto tradition. For Sumo is a Shinto sport.

This becomes even more apparent upon entering the area. After finding seating in one of the four sections – designated east, west, north, and south – the spectator is treated to many sights. The seating, divided into arena-style chair seats and Japanese-style cushion-on-tatami seats (down front and considerably more expensive) scoops down toward the center ring, over which hangs a wooden “roof”, constructed and carved in the Shinto style and festooned with tassels denoting the season. Portraits of past yokozuna (grand champions) line the perimeter of the ceiling. Richly costumed referees oversee the proceedings, wearing ornate kimonos and tall sculpted hats reminiscent of a Shinto priest’s. Other simple kimono-clad attendants are in motion constantly, making sure that the ring, delineated by rice sacks sunk in the packed clay, is kept clean and pure. They keep busy sweeping a circular pattern into the thin layer of sand atop the clay with straw brooms between each bout. They aid the wrestlers in rinsing their mouths and wiping their bodies before each match. They also keep full the buckets of salt next to the ring. The salt is thrown by wrestlers into the ring in order to purify it before each match; those sitting up front not only have the privilege of sitting on the floor, sometimes next to other naked wrestlers watching the match, but also get the occasional stray sweat drop or salt granules flung in their direction.

Once in the ring, the rotund wrestlers, dressed only in silk loincloths and elaborate hairspray, continue the rituals. They lift their hands, palms up, above their heads to show the gods they are holding no weapons. They squat, then rise sideways on one foot, then the other, stamping mightily in order the drive the devil out of the ring. They glare meanly at each other. Each motion, each nuance, is symbolic and is performed with great deliberation. Though the wrestlers are admittedly and deliberately fat, they are also usually very muscular, showcasing in their nudity their immense toned calves and strong arms. During the period leading up to the actual fight, you can hear the spirited cries of the audience, calling out to their favorite. “Koootooomitsuki!!!” a man will yell out lustily. And a higher, childlike voice: “Ama, ganbare!!!”

After several minutes of staring and posturing, the wrestlers lunge, grappling and straining to make the other falter. One toe outside the ring, one elbow touching the ground – is all it takes for the winner to be declared. Matches are short but action-packed. The men, sometimes greatly different in size, struggle to get a good hold on their opponent, sometimes ripping off the decorative paper strips hanging from the front of the loincloth. Finally, and sometimes violently, one bests the other, sometimes throwing his opponent, WWF-style, into the crowd closely packed around the ring. If the match is especially exciting, the crowd up front will show their jubilation by raining their cushions into the ring in a huge, match-ending pillow fight.

If, after watching the matches, the visitor still isn’t sated, they have the option of purchasing a number of souvenirs, including a boxful of chocolate shaped wrestlers. They can then relive the experience at home, biting the head off a sumo giant and declaring themselves victorious

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