Sumo: Lords of the Ring
Japanese Sports - Sumo Wrestling
Will Yong visits the Osaka 'basho'
Imported sports may have gained a foothold in Japan along with other brands of Western cool, but none can claim to be over 2,000 years old. None grip the Japanese soul like sumo.
If you want to go to one of the six hon-bashos held throughout the year - three in Tokyo (January, May, September), one in Hakata (November), one in Osaka (March) and one in Nagoya (July) - it's a good idea to arrive before lunch.
That way you'll have no trouble picking up the cheaper tickets, and what's more, you'll get to spread out over the four-cushioned boxes that won't be occupied by their rightful owners until much later in the day. This is when to dig in to the convenience store goodies and let the day unfold.
This is raw sport. No gloves, boots, helmets or bats, just an explosion of human power. Imagine 300lb sprinters getting just a yard from the blocks before hitting a brick wall head first. Fortunately, it's a brick wall padded with layers of fatty flesh to absorb the impact.
Just don't kid yourself that these guys are flab only, something's got to move all that weight around and the weight of their adversaries too. Watch a smaller wrestler use his speed to launch an onslaught of slaps, disorienting his larger opponent. For a while it seems that his blows are what's keeping the other standing but the tough canvas girdle is grabbed, deadlock is reached. Speed is of no use in such an embrace - now it's a battle of strength and wits.
At first there's no movement. The referee in ceremonial dress shouts "nokotta, nokotta" ("keep going, keep going"). One arm each is locked on the other's belt, one arm dangles, awaiting commands. You're sizing up their prospects but it's over already.
It happens so fast that you're reviewing it in memory. Mr. Big steps in, his free arm groping for a telling inside grip. Little 'un makes a move of his own and there's sudden momentum - lots of it. The unlikely strength of a single arm pulls big guy up, he teeters on one foot and then none. Youth and speed won out this time but bigger wrestlers are sometimes just as quick.
The slight yet spirited 17-year-old you see in the makushita (third division) may put on 30kg by the same time next year. He'll eat more than he needs or wants twice a day and sleep straight after for the maximum weight gain. He'll need to do that and more if he wants to reach the top maku-uchi division.
The maku-uchi are the last to fight in a long day of sumo, the first to eat when back at the stable. If you improve you climb the ladder and get first dip in the pot, if you don't make makushita from the lower ranks in five years, you're forced to retire. Then you're just an overweight guy who didn't make it. You scrubbed the backs of the guys who did for five years and now what? Competition in the lower divisions is fierce.
By about 4pm you see what they're aiming for. The juryo (second division) fighters parade in ceremonial garb, their kesho mawashi hangs down from a belt at the waist like a heavily embroidered apron. It might bear animals of good fortune or great fierceness or simply the snowy white peak of Fuji on a background of night.
But whatever it is, compared to the faded black canvas of the lower divisions, the vibrant colours bellow success. No one's just watching. All are delving into bento boxes, supping sake and cold beers. In the narrow wooden walkways around the masseki seats - the second circle around the ring - runners are ferrying bags stuffed with food, drink and take-home souvenirs that crowd the barely adequate seating space.
Then the maku-uchi parade begins and finally the sole yokozuna of the East takes centre stage. His counterpart Takanohana - the "noble flower" of a long sumo legacy - has faded to the West due to a long-term injury but he will stay at sumo's highest rank until he chooses to retire, a mark of respect to both him and the illustrious title. Musashimaru remains, Samoan-born, the biggest man in sumo, in size, rank, stature and fame. He will perform the ceremony that opens the final bouts, the stamping and clapping that attracts the attention of the gods.
Sumo is intimately bound up with Shinto after all, the simple religion that all Japanese are born into. Shinto has no texts or philosophy, just a simple awe of nature's greatness. The sumo yokozuna wears not just a kesho mawashi, but also lightning-white pennants from a belt of twisted rope.
These symbols hang from his abundant waist just as they girdle thousand-year-old trees and mighty rocks. And so the final bouts begin. A child in the cheap seats screams for his man. He always has a preference and he makes sure it's heard. I take up the call and a gentle-looking old woman beams at us both.
Below me a group of four middle-aged men are getting steadily more drunk, now filling each others pull-ring-to-open sake cups with beer. "Kaio was terrible, what an idiot", I manage to make out from a slew of thick Osaka dialect, slurred in my direction through a broad smile of missing teeth before he turns his attention back to the ring and the four ladies in the next box along.
The makuuchi wrestlers are bigger and they take their time. Squaring up, as if to launch into the attack, eyes meet and both rise, faces giving nothing away. Back at their corners they'll flex their muscles, spray the ring with purifying salt, their every movement feeding ripples around the crowd until finally it's a roar.
Applause erupts, for blue-belt or red? You find yourself weighing up their prospects from the pre-match posturing. But this is not the braggadocio of the boxing ring, it's the silent strength of the samurai warrior. The tension is exquisite.
But in the final bout when Mushashimaru comes out to play, there's no such doubt, no ambiguity at all. His opponent traces an inevitable backward arc to the edge of the ring and topples out without ceremony.
Victory is as decisive as a bold, forceful brushstroke of black ink on paper. As self-evident as a typhoon. Truly today, we have witnessed forces of nature in action, with sake and snacks on the side.