Travel the World in 450 days
Many things are different and unique in Japan as well as their national sport – Sumo.
According to the legend, the supremacy of the Japanese people on the islands of Japan was established when God Takemikazucki, won a sumo bout with a leader of a rival tribe. Initially, sumo origins were religious with rituals dedicated to gods with prayers for bountiful harvest and wrestling was occurring within the premises of shrines. In Nara Period, the Imperial Court gathered wrestlers from all over the country to hold grand sumo tournament. It was a ceremonial banquet to celebrate peace on earth and bountiful harvest. Over the years Imperial Court formulated rules and developed techniques that resemble the sumo of today. During military dictatorship dating back to 1192, sumo was regarded for its military usefulness. However, when the peace was restored in 1603 and prosperity followed professional sumo groups were organized for entertainment purposes. Sumo as a sport dates back some 1500 years.
The Rules. Sumo ring is called dohyo and it is made of hard clay. The surface is covered with thin layer of sand. Roof suspended over the dohyo represents a Shinto shrine with four giant tassels signifying the seasons of the year. Sumo wrestler is also called rikishi. There are no weight limits set in sumo; therefore, don’t be surprised to see one opponent bigger than the other. Sumo match is won when the rikishi touches outside the circle with any part of his body. That is – even a touch of his finger. It is prohibited to punch, bite, kick or pull even the band covering vital organs. There are six grand tournaments a year that last for 15 days and each rikishi participates once a day fighting different opponent. The winner, with the best record, is awarded Emperor’s cup. If there is a wrestler that won at least 8 matches, he may pretend into additional prizes: for technique, for fighting the spirits, and champions.
Sumo Rankings. There are 800 professional rikishi. During each tournament they are either moved up or down rankings based on their performance.
At present the top 5 ranks (makuuchi), out of 42 best ranked rikishi are:
The match lasts the whole day, but only top 42 get to perform every day. Every day of the tournament is started by the lowest ranked rakishi and by the end of the day it progressed to the highest ranked players. Interesting to know that the top position of Yokozuna is held by one rikishi even if he has the worst record, the position becomes vacant only if a player retires or Ozeki wins two consecutive tournaments in a row. The hair style of each rikishi represents Edo Period and also serve as a protection during the falls. Elaborate hair styles resembling ginko leave are for higher ranked rikishi.
Sumo Ceremonies. Sumo continues to be the most unusual sport based on their rituals, etiquette and traditions. At the beginning of a match day all players enter the room grouped in two lines wearing colorful ceremonial aprons. Each apron is made of silk and embroidered with many details that cost anywhere between $4000-$5000.
Rikishi perform a brief ceremony standing around the circle and then leave the stage.
Yokozuna takes a leading role in the ceremony. He wears a massive braided hemp rope weighting 25-30lbs that is tied in a bow in the back and has paper strips hanging in zigzag patterns. This pattern is very popular religious symbol in Shinto shrines.
Sitting around the stage there are 5 judges wearing black formal kimono. If there is a doubt in referee’s decision all judges jump into the ring and debate the ruling. There is one referee and an announcer. The announcer takes at least a minute to introduce rikishi and always does it in distinctive voice and strict movements in the ring.
Mawashi is the silken loincloth that rikishi wear. It is made of 10 yards long and 2 feet wide silk that is folded in six layers and wrapped around the girth approximately 7 times. The strings hanging from the front are of silk stiffened with glue and purely ornamental, they can be discarded as they become detached during the tournament.
Each rikishi goes through ceremony once he enters the ring. First they clean their minds and body by symbolically rinsing their mouth with water and wiping their bodies with a paper towel. They raise their arms into the sides and stamp with their feet. Each grab and scatter salt to purify the ring, it also prevents them from serious injuries.
The rikishi then squat and face each other in the center of the ring, crouch forward and glare at each other fiercely. It is all a part of a ritual. Sometimes upper ranked players repeat this ritual over and over again and up to four minutes. This way their prepare their minds for the match and for the spectators it creates anticipation.
The bout itself is usually less than a minute, but those brief moments are priceless.
It is real pleasure to watch the game. We got the least expensive ticket on the day of the match. We were told that tickets can be purchases at 7/11 as well. We paid $30 each and our seats were at the very top row; however, since it was early in the day, spectators usually sit in an empty space near the stage. If a person holding the reservation shows up, one politely moves out. During the game everyone sits on the tatami mats with shoes off and neatly placed under the bench behind oneself.
Spectators are allowed to bring drinks and food, but usually they are able to purchase hot meals and sake in the stadium. We observed many Japanese sharing sake and enthusiastically watch the game. It was a great experience and we truly enjoyed it.