So we headed to Osaka and arrived at the Sumo venue at 8:30AM as this is when the tickets said the doors open. Not wanting to miss anything important we showed up and grabbed our seats in an almost empty auditorium. The place was dead except for some cleaning crews and a handful of other foreigners. We waited until 10:30 when the lower divisions began competing. These were amateur sumo fighters that were of all different sizes, some older morbidly obese ones sometimes matched up against smaller young skinny ones who looked like they hadn’t hit puberty yet. The place was still pretty empty until about 2:00 when we left to get some lunch and realized everyone was outside at the entrance, camera’s ready to catch the highest division sumo wrestlers as they entered the stadium. Most of all everyone was waiting for the Yokozuna, the highest ranking anyone can ever achieve in sumo wrestling. In order to become a Yokozuna a wrestler must prove that he has enough power, skill and dignity/grace to qualify. In order to be promoted as a Yokozuna you must win two consecutive tournaments whilst being in the rank of Ozeki (the rank below Yokozuna). There is no set quota: there have been periods with no wrestlers at Yokozuna rank, and there have been periods with as many as four simultaneously. Currently there are 2 Yokozuna, both Mongolian. One of the current Yokozuna, Hakuho Sho, has been Yokozuna since 2007 and he is a big deal. He broke records in 2009 and 2010 for the most wins in a calendar year. He became Yokozuna at the age of 22 and he is still dominant, strong and largely unbeatable. During the 15 days of each tournament (of which there are 6 per year) each sumo wrestler plays once per day, and in doing so plays everyone else in his division once per tournament. After each tournament everyone is re-ranked based on their performance either being demoted or promoted. However the Yokozuna can never be demoted. If he does poorly and continues to do so he is expected to retire. The wrestler with the most wins in wins the tournament championship for his division. In the past three hundred years since the title of Yokozuna was created, only 69 have been so honoured.
These are all the wrestlers in the highest division participating in the opening ceremony. By this time the stadium had filled out completely. These elaborately embroidered silk aprons they wear only for the ceremony and not the actual wrestling. These aprons cost anywhere from 400,000-500,000 Yen, or the equivalent of about $5,000
Below is the Yokozuna performing his ring entering ceremony. Sumo is very connected with Shinto and is full of ceremonial pomp and elaborate rituals and symbolism. The ring is considered sacred and rituals are performed with every match in order to attract the attention of gods and spirits and banish evil. The Yokozuna is identifiable by this thick white rope, which weighs 35 pounds which also have shinto significance, it mimics the religious symbols found in shinto shrines, although I wish I could tell you why that’s significant.
The two wrestlers on either side of him are his assistants. The Yokozuna claps his hands together to attract the attention of the gods, he extends his arms to the sides and turns the palms upward to show he is concealing no weapons. Then at the climax of his performance he lifts first one leg to the side high in the air and then the other, bringing each down with a resounding stamp on the ground symbolically driving evil from the dohyo (the platform where they wrestle).
We researched a bit about sumo training before going, and apparently some of them eat only twice a day but in those 2 meals they eat 10 times the amount that an average human eats (20,000 calories per day). They wake up and train for 6 hours on an empty belly in order to encourage the body in to ‘starvation mode’ so that it will store fat, then they have a huge meal where they gorge on ‘sumo soup’ a high energy and high protein and high fat soup. They also eat tons of rice and drink tons of beer for the calories. Then they go have a giant nap right after eating sot hat the body stores all that fuel as fat. Apparently many people are interested in studying sumo diets and weight because they provide really interesting insights into obesity. Unlike North American obesity however, because sumo wrestlers are really physically fit (they are incredibly strong, flexible and athletic) and because of their training and what they eat (a relatively low processed sugar diet) most of their fat is actually subcutaneous fat and not visceral fat stored in the organs like typical obese people. This means when they stop this intense regime they often very quickly lose their fat and return to normal. The type of subcutaneous fat that they have is readily available to be used as energy and is quickly used up when they are trying to slim back down. However they still experience higher rates of diabetes and other chronic illnesses as well as on average they die 10 years before the average Japanese person.
The guy in the lime green kimono and black cap is the referee and throughout the match yells words of encouragement to both of the wrestlers apparently! We could here him yelling although could never understand him. Usually the outcome of a match is very clear. If any body part other than the feet touches the ground or if one is pushed out of the ring, the match is over and that player loses. If there is any debate there are also 4 judges, one on each side of the platform that will gather and deliberate and can override the referee at any time. The referee is a bit arbitrary but he looks cool anyway. Before the matches start too there is a little man that comes to the center of the ring as the opponents are preparing and announces their name and where they are from in a ‘specially trained high pitched voice’. It was high pitched that’s for sure and nasal and sort of made my ears bleed by the end of the day. He’s the guy in purple below
Waiting for the match to start is the most exciting part. After entering the dohyo each wrestler goes through a series of symbolic movements. To cleanse his mind and body, he symbolically rinses his mouth with water, the source of purity, and wipes his body with a towel. Certain motions are repeated from the Yokozuna’s dance such as clapping and foot stamping. In addition each scatters salt in the ring to purify the ring. This is suppose to protect the wrestlers agains injuries as well. Only the higher ranks have the privilege to throw salt though. Next the wrestlers squat and face each other (as above), they lean forward and glare at each other very seriously. This is part of the ritual and is thought of as ‘cold warfare’. They then go back to their corner and repeat their clapping and stamping and salt throwing until they sit back down and glare again. They used to be able to do this indefinitely but now there is a time limit on how long they can repeat these steps for. We could never quite figure out exactly who decided when the started but there is definitely a lot of strategy involved in the first contact. Theoretically they wait for the psychological moment when they both feel ready. During this prep time they are working themselves up and the suspense in the crowd is growing and growing. It was so incredibly exciting, the tension would be so high and then they’d suddenly start and the match would be over in sometimes a matter of seconds. This whole experience was extremely entertaining, and had us on the edge of our chairs, clutching our hearts, gasping, screaming and cheering. It was especially exciting to see crowd favourites, as the crowd got really riled up for certain wrestlers. Anyway, it was an incredibly unique experience and I want to go again when the tournement comes to Nagoya, although I will definitely head to the stadium around 2pm instead of 8:30am. Surprisingly though we never felt bored the entire time.
We spent another day in Osaka exploring the castle and the Umeda skybuilding, but the next weekend cherry blossoms or Sakura in Japanese were in full bloom. There is so much hype about this time of year, they make predictions and forecasts on when the sakura will be at their peak, and the time of year is approached with anticipation and excitement. People plan ‘hanami’ parties which is when you go for a picnic and apparently drink a lot of sake and alcohol under as many cherry blossoms as possible. I have started working at an English school just outside of Nagoya and the school organized a Hanami party, although minus the copious amounts of alcohol. Everyone has their own opinion of the best place to go to see the Sakura, where I went was pleasant but nothing too crazy.
But Andrew went to one of the most popular places in Nagoya to see cherry blossoms. He said in fact there were a huge number of them and it was really awesome but because people love them so much every square inch underneath every tree was crammed with people trying to have a picnic.
We also spent a day together at a small shrine by our house (the same one were we spent New Years alone), which was really peaceful and beautiful even though there weren’t an obscene amount of Sakura.
The funny thing to is how much people love the Sakura but how many people have horrendous seasonal allergies. It seems everyone is wearing masks lately (a popular and common practice year round here but even more so lately) in an attempt to prevent pollen exposure. Luckily it doesn’t seem to be affecting Andrew or I very much. Also last week we had another earthquake! Although we would have been ignorant about it if people hadn’t filled us in the next day. A big one (6.0) shook south of kobe a few days ago at 5:00Am. People told us they felt a minute of shaking in Nagoya, but Andrew said he thinks it maybe have been a soothing rocking motion that the ground was shaking in because we slept right through it. Probably for the best, I’m sure I would have had a panic attack.
This month we are heading into the mountains to take a workshop on making miso (fermented soybean paste) and might check out some more stuff in the area, as well as I am heading to the coast to work on a farm for a week in the last month of April. So hopefully we will have lots of exciting things to write about soon!