Sumo: A Day in the Life of a Sumo Wrestler
Sumo the very word sounds huge. Balanced between sport and ritual, this spectacle of the gargantuan is as quintessentially Japanese as you get.
Unlike, say, the tea ceremony, or kimono, or calligraphy all with their roots clearly in China sumo likes to think of itself as akin to the Shinto religion from which it reputedly sprang, i.e., purely Japanese, purely wa.
H.I.S. Experience Japan program
I took part in a sumo stable experience courtesy of the travel and tourism agency HIS Japan. The sumo tour is one of the many possible tours that make up the H.I.S. Experience Japan Tours and Cultural Activities Program.
The sumo stable
Assembly was at Motocho station on the Shinjuku Subway Line at 8.15a.m. After an introductory talk from our guide about dos and don'ts (no eating, no gum, but cameras, even with flash, were OK). From there our group mainly of Europeans, plus a few Australasians, made its way to a very nondescript house in a neighborhood 5 minutes walk away.
Immediately in through the door, to the left, was the fluorescent-lit sumo ring, or dohyo. We were shown in and sat down on a low platform by the wall. But even before we'd finished removing our shoes, what hit you first in the ear - was the smacking and shouting.
Morning sumo practice
Practice is already in full swing. A dozen burly boys in loincloths meander around the large dohyo (ring) that takes up most of the room. Inside it two heaving, puffing young giants various digits and joints wound with white tape or bandages - crouch facing each other off. Then upon a tacit signal they spring at each other.
Thwack! The crack of head on head is alarming each and every time. To give (very full) body to that sense of alarm, one young man stands silently in a corner, morosely watching the proceedings sporting a chin-high neck brace.
In the sumo ring
The stable master, in his fifties, sits alongside us on a bench with a couple of contemporaries, shouting out encouragement, advice, or rebuke. The winner of a bout, on throwing his opponent out of the ring, is immediately surrounded by at least half a dozen others, crying out at full volume and raising an arm to him. For a long time I thought it was no more than acclaim for the winner - a trad hi-five - but gradually worked out that they were vying to be chosen by him as his next opponent. Needless to say, as the session goes on, as the bandages, tape and topknots come loose little by little, as the huffing and puffing gets more and more desperate, and the stops for sweat wiping more frequent, the clamor for next would, at time, noticeably subsides.
The guy who dominates the ring is a squat-headed short-haired man-mountain whose eyes almost roll back into his head with the prolonged, pugnacious effort he keeps up to push every challenger out. Gasping as if for life itself, he is a flesh-and-blood battering ram that only an unusually fierce effort intermittently dislodges. But he springs back.
Practice, we were told, had begun at 7am. It finished at 10.30am. The final 20 minutes featured the exercise of pushing a massive, more senior, member of the stable, as is, across the ring. It was followed by group calisthenics, the most impressive being the slow raising of a leg high as possible (which was high!) in unison, stamping it back down on the ground, then the same for the other. (We learned later from the guide that this has its roots in an ancient agricultural ritual whereby fighters would stamp the ground to drive any evil spirits out of the earth before planting.)
Just watching two hours of mutual struggling and straining was strenuous in itself. We were ready to eat. Upstairs, a generous nabe stew waited, on low tables on the tatami floor. While we tucked in to the big generous pots of cabbage, mushroom, leek, agedofu, and chicken pieces, the stable master fielded a barrage of questions, interpreted into Japanese and back into English by our guide. In the corner a wrestler slumbered on a futon.
The sumo stablemaster
The questions for the stablemaster were many and varied, but he answered them from his deep knowledge and experience of the sport. The youngest wrestler there? 15. The oldest? 25. The average weight? About 150kg. The drop out rate? High. The daily routine? Three or four hours of morning practice on an empty stomach, lunch (four or five bowls of both rice and stew), followed by sleep. The greatest sumo wrestler ever? Probably Futabayama. Are the boys allowed out at night? If they're of drinking age and back by 10pm. The reason the boys join the stable? For the glory.
A personable young member of the stable, towering over us all, engaged in some relaxed chat with us toward the end even allowing us to try and push him. But, as one member of the party the biggest there in fact declared after a few moments of vain shoving, he was: "Immovable!"