Thursday, November 26, 2009

Sumo wrestling

Grand sumo tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan
On 22nd September, after seeing Sensoji temple at Asakusa, we went to see sumo wrestling at Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo stadium located in Ryogoku. There are various routes to reach Ryogoku railway station. At Asakusa, we took Toei Subway-Asakusa Line to go up to Kuramae, and then used Toei Subway-Oedo Line to reach Ryogoku. It took us about 12 minutes to reach Ryogoku railway station. The sumo stadium was located within walking distance from the station. A 15-day tournament is held at Ryogoku Kokugikan every January, May, and September. That day was the tenth day of September tournament which is known as aki-basho (autumn tournament). It was the first time that hubby and I saw professional sumo wrestling, which was really a thrilling experience for us.

Sumo originated in Japan and is an ancient sport dating back some 1500 years. Sumo is steeped in legend, history and ceremony. It is a wrestling sport where a rikishi (wrestler) attempts to force opponent wrestler out of a circular ring (dohyo) or to touch the ground with anything other than the bottom of the feet. The origin of sumo was religious. The first sumo matches were a form of ritual dedicated to the gods with prayers for a bountiful harvest and were performed within the precincts of the shrines. During the Nara-period (8th century) sumo was introduced into the ceremonies of the Imperial Court. A wrestling festival was held annually which included music and dancing in which the victorious wrestlers participated. During the military dictatorship Kamakura-period (established in 1192), sumo was regarded chiefly for its military usefulness and as a means of increasing the efficiency of the fighting men. Peace was finally restored when the different warring factions were united under the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603. A period of prosperity followed, and professional sumo groups were organized to entertain the newly emerged mercantile class. The present Japan Sumo Association has its origins in these groups first formed in the Edo-period. At present there are six grand tournaments a year, three are held in Tokyo, one in Osaka, Nagoya, and Kyushu. A tournament lasts for fifteen days, each rikishi fighting once every day with a different opponent. The rikishi with the best record of wins over losses is the winner of the tournament, and is awarded the Emperor's Cup on the final day after the last match.

At present there are about 800 rikishi in professional sumo. After each grand tournament, the sumo ranking called banzuke are revised. The banzuke are printed in an ancient, stylized calligraphy. At the top area of the banzuke the names of the upper division rikishi called the makuuchi are printed in large bold characters. The makuuchi group includes the five top ranks, namely yokozuna, ozeki, sekiwake, komusubi, and maegashira. There are 42 makuuchi rikishi. Next on the banzuke, in smaller characters, appear the name of the juryo and makushita division rikishi; and below these the sandanme, jonidan, lastly the jonokuchi rikishi are listed. Below the makushita do not get to wrestle on each day of a tournament. The position of grand champion yokozuna is unique and he can never be demoted. In the past three hundred years since the title was created only sixty-two rikishi have been so honored.

The day hubby and I went to see the sumo wrestling was the tenth day of autumn tournament held at Ryogoku Kokugikan. Sumo is a very popular sport and the best seats in the stadium are usually reserved very much in advance. So even though we purchased our tickets about a week earlier, we got seats in the eighth row (from the ring) of the second floor, which was rather far from the ring, but I guess that was the best possible seat we could get within such a short booking time. We reached Ryogoku railway station at about 2.15 pm and then walked up to Kokugikan sumo stadium. While walking we realized that the atmosphere of Edo-period is still prevalent in Ryogoku. After about five minutes of walk, we saw the green-roofed stadium. It has an authentic architectural style that is very impressive. The road leading up to the outer entrance of Kokugikan was lined with colorful sumo nobori flags (banners) proclaiming names of individual wrestlers as well as different stables. There was a ticket counter at the outer entrance of the stadium and we saw people purchasing tickets for non-reserved seats. After enjoying the unique atmosphere around the outer entrance, we entered the main ticket gate. There were a few ticket collectors who were former sumo greats, however unfortunately we were unable to recognize them.
Ryogoku Kokugikan

Front view of Ryogoku Kokugikan

Kokugikan lined with colorful sumo nobori flag banners

Me standing in front of sumo nobori flags

Hubby standing next to the ticket counters outside the sumo stadium

Main ticket gate

Once inside the Kokugikan premises, it seemed that we were transported to a different world altogether. Juryo division bouts were already underway. However, we were more interested to see the makuuchi division bouts that were going to start at about 3.45 pm. So we skipped seeing the juryo division bouts and explored the Kokugikan arena. Just after entering the ticket gate, we saw huge beautiful mural paintings on the front walls of the stadium. The paintings were on both sides of the main entrance of the stadium. We took several photos of us in front of the beautifully painted walls for the sake of memory.
Mural paintings on one of the walls of the stadium

Hubby standing in front of the wall painting

Me standing in front of the wall painting

Mural paintings on another wall of the stadium

Hubby standing in front of the wall painting

Me standing in front of the wall painting

Next, we went to rooftop plaza of Kokugikan stadium. It is accessed from the second level and it offered great views of the surrounding areas. From inside the Kokugikan premises, we saw several nobori flags and a Taiko drum turret tower located just outside the stadium. The sound of drums echoing from the turret generated a unique ambience.
Second level rooftop plaza of the stadium

Nobori flags and a Taiko drum turret tower

Afterwards we eagerly waited on a staircase of the stadium (that lead to the second level) located near the south gate. Here we saw many wrestlers of great fame enter the arena for their makuuchi bout of the day. I was really thrilled to see the professional sumo wrestlers from such a close range.
People waiting on a staircase of the stadium located near the south gate

Homasho and Miyabiyama entering the stadium premises

Takamisakari and Tochiozan entering the stadium premises

Kokkai and Asasekiryu entering the stadium premises

Iwakiyama and Tamanoshima entering the stadium premises

Baruto and Goeido entering the stadium premises

Kisenosato and Kotoshogiku entering the stadium premises

Aminishiki and Tochinoshin entering the stadium premises

Wakanosato and Kakuryu entering the stadium premises

At about 3.20 pm, we entered the entrance lobby of Kokugikan which was very uniquely designed. There were two information desks on the left side after passing through the main entrance. The people at the information desk gave us a pamphlet written in English and also helped us in locating our seating area. At the end of the entrance lobby is a trophy showcase where numerous trophies and prizes were kept. The Emperor's Cup was also kept inside the showcase, which was awarded to the tournament winner on the final day.
Entrance lobby of Kokugikan

Hubby standing next to the Emperor’s Cup kept inside trophy showcase

We went to the second floor and located our seats. Even though we were seated rather far from the ring, we could still get a good view of the ring and the wrestlers. The last bout of juryo level was underway. I was amazed to see the sumo ring. It seems that a new ring is constructed prior to every tournament. The sumo ring dohyo takes its name from the straw rice bag, which mark out its different parts. The greater portion of each bale is firmly buried in the earth. The dohyo is 18 feet square and 2 feet high and is constructed of a special kind of clay. The hard surface is covered with a thin layer of sand. The bout is confined to an inner circle a little over 15 feet in diameter. Over the dohyo suspended from the ceiling by cables is a roof that resembles a Shinto shrine with four giant tassels hanging from each corner to signify the seasons of the year.
Dohyo ring (juryo level bout underway)

A general view of the dohyo

Sumo has managed to survive with its formalized ritual and traditional etiquette intact, thereby making it unique among sports. Immediately before the makuuchi bouts, at about 3.50 pm, colorful dohyo-iri or ‘entering the ring’ ceremony took place. Down one aisle in reverse order of their rank came one team of makuuchi rikishi wearing rather expensive kesho-mawashi (ceremonial aprons). These aprons are made of silk, and richly embroidered with different designs and hemmed with gold fringe. The wrestlers climbed into the dohyo and went through a short ritual of sumo tradition after which they departed and were followed by the other team entering from the opposite aisle who repeated the ritual.
Dohyo-iri ceremony of makuuchi rikishi

Dohyo-iri ceremony of makuuchi rikishi

Next, the ceremonial dohyo-iri of yokozuna began at about 3.55 pm. A yokozuna came down the aisle attended by a senior gyoji (referee) and two makuuchi rikishi in kesho-mawashi one bearing a sword. Over his kesho-mawashi the yokozuna wears a massive braided hemp rope tied in a bow at the back and ornamented in the front with strips of paper hanging in zigzag patterns. Both yokozuna Hakuho and yokozuna Asashoryu performed the dohyo-iri ceremony with the greatest dignity. I was mesmerized by the ceremony. I am a fan of yokozuna Asashoryu, and made a video of his dohyo-iri ceremony.
Dohyo-iri ceremony of Yokozuna Hakuho

Video of dohyo-iri ceremony of yokozuna Asashoryu

We saw that huge framed portraits of the champions of the past tournaments hung high in the rafters of the second level seating. These immaculate works of art are created by adding oil paints over photographic images. There were also illuminated display-boards mounted in two locations inside the arena that showed the results of each bout during the day.
Framed portrait of grand champion Asashoryu inside the arena

Illuminated display board

At about 4.15 pm makuuchi level matches started. It is the battle between highest division wrestlers. Twenty one bouts of makuuchi level matches were held that day. It was really interesting to watch the bouts. A yobidashi (announcer) called the wrestlers to the dohyo before their bouts. After entering the dohyo each rikishi cleansed his mind and body by symbolically rinsing his mouth with water, the source of purity, and wiping his body with a paper towel. Each rikishi then performed shiomaki by scattering a handful of salt to purify the ring. This is further supposed to insure him against injuries. Next, each rikishi performed chiri-o-kiru by squatting on their toes, and stretching their arms wide with their palms open to show each other that they respect fair play. After this, rikishi performed shiko where each leg in succession was lifted as high and as straight as possible, and then brought down to stomp on the ground with considerable force. Shiko is performed ritually to drive away demons before each bout. Next, the rikishi moved closer to the center of the ring where the toe line marks are located. This is a line that they do not cross prior to the bout. They crouched with toes lined up in the correct location which is called sonkyo. The rikishi then moved almost to the center of the dohyo, squatted facing each other, crouched forward, and glared at each other with their fists on the ground which is called shikiri. Usually, they do not begin the match at once but engage in a ‘cold warfare’. They go back to their corners for more salt, scatter it, and return to glare. We noticed that they repeated the process usually for the full four minutes allowed by the rules. When the rikishi were in the get-set shikiri position, the gyoji signaled with his fan, and the wrestling match began. The initial clash is called tachiai, and the following move, when the rikishi actually grasped each other, is called torikumi. The winner of the bout was indicated by the gyoji when he pointed his fan at the winner.
A yobidashi calling the wrestlers to the dohyo







I compiled a video of the last makuuchi bout of the day that was held between sekiwake Kisenosato and yokozuna Asashoryu. Yokozuna Asashoryu won the bout. In fact, he was the grand champion of the September tournament.
A compiled video of the makuuchi bout between Kisenosato and Asashoryu

After all the bouts, the concluding rite of the day was held which is known as bow dance. A specially picked makushita rikishi climbed into the dohyo and performed yumitori-shiki, a brilliant routine with a twirling bow. This ceremony was introduced sometime during the Edo-period. After the ceremony, people started leaving the arena. We enjoyed the atmosphere inside the arena for some time and then left the place.
Yumitori-shiki ceremony

Hubby posing inside the arena

Travel by JR highway bus
Hubby and I really enjoyed the sumo wrestling. We reached Ryogoku railway station at about 6.45 pm, and then took two trains to reach Tokyo railway station. We had a light dinner at a restaurant inside the station itself. That night we were going to return back to Akita by highway bus. I wished to experience the long distance travel by bus and hence hubby had already done advanced booking of our bus tickets about a week ago. The JR bus started from Tokyo at about 9.50 pm. It was a very comfortable journey. However, it is rather time consuming and I guess one time experience is enough for me. We reached Akita railway station area the following morning at 6.20 am. I was unable to get any sleep in the bus and felt rather tired. We went to the car parking where hubby had parked his car during our onward journey, and after 50 minutes of car ride we reached back home at about 7.30 am. That day (23rd September) was also a national holiday, so we took rest and relaxed at home the entire day. We had a memorable fun-filled two day trip to Tokyo.
A board at Tokyo railway station bus-stand indicating the timing of the bus departing for Akita

The bus bound for Akita waiting at Tokyo railway station bus-stand

The bus bound for Akita waiting at Tokyo railway station bus-stand

Hubby about to enter the bus

Me inside the bus

Hubby inside the bus

Bus reached Akita railway station bus-stand the next day morning

Hubby standing next to the bus

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sensoji Temple

As I wrote in the previous post, hubby and I had been to Tokyo on 21st and 22nd September during the silver week holidays. After sightseeing on 21st September, we stayed at Hotel Toyoko Inn, which is located adjacent to Aomono-Yokocho railway station. The next day in the morning (22nd September) we woke up at about 7 am, and hubby had breakfast at a restaurant inside the hotel. At 9.30 am, we checked out of the hotel and went to see Sensoji Temple located in Asakusa district of Tokyo. There are various routes and trains to reach Asakusa railway station. We took Keikyu Line (limited express) to go up to Sengakuji station, and then used Toei Subway-Asakusa Line to reach Asakusa railway station. We kept our baggage at a locker inside the railway station, and then visited Sensoji Temple.

Sensoji (Kinryuzan Sensoji) is an ancient Buddhist temple located in Asakusa district of Tokyo. Sensoji Temple is popularly known as Asakusa Kannon. Sensoji is the oldest and one of the most significant temples of Tokyo. The history of the temple dates back to the seventh century. Formerly associated with the Tendai sect, Sensoji Temple became independent after World War II. The legend says that in the year 628, two brothers Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari fished a statue of Kannon Bosatsu, the goddess of mercy, out of the Sumida River. And even though they put the statue back into the river, it always returned to them. Consequently, the chief of their village, Hajino Nakamoto, built Sensoji Temple and dedicated it to the goddess of Kannon. The temple was completed in the year 645. The temple was bombed and destroyed in World War II, and the current buildings are postwar reconstructions.

After leaving the railway station, we walked for about five minutes and reached the huge outer gate of the temple known as Kaminarimon (thunder gate). This imposing and dominating structure features a massive paper lantern painted in red and black tones to suggest thunderclouds and lightening. The original gate was built in the year 942. The gate was destroyed by fire several times over the years, and the existing gate was built in 1950. There are two protective guardian deities on either side of the gate: Fujin, the god of wind is on the right side, and Raijin, the god of thunder is on the left side. There were many tourists and locals taking the photo of this landmark of Tokyo. We had some difficulty in taking photo of the gate as the place was very crowded.
Kaminarimon gate

Hubby posing in front of Kaminarimon gate

Massive paper lantern and guardian deities at Kaminarimon gate

Beyond Kaminarimon gate is Nakamise dori that leads to the second gate and the main grounds of Sensoji Temple. It is a colorful pedestrian shopping street which is said to have come about in the early 18th century. The stone-paved street retains the feeling of the Edo period as well as the Meiji era. The street stretches over approximately 250 meters and is lined with around 90 traditional small shops. These shops offer local specialties and souvenirs ranging from folding fans, woodblock prints, kimono, traditional sweets and snacks, toys, and many more items. Many stalls selling food items are also present. It being a holiday, the street was extremely crowded, and hubby and I had to walk very slowly. But we enjoyed walking on this street and bought a few souvenir items from the shops. Mysterious (for me) and enticing smell from the food stalls wafted through the street. It was just 10.45 am in the morning but we could not resist trying some of the mouth-watering snacks being sold, and we had an early lunch of Yakisoba and miso-konyakku from one of the food stalls. It tasted delicious. We also enjoyed walking in a street perpendicular to Nakamise dori and found a few statues of Edo-era-styled Kabuki dancers. In fact during the Edo and Meiji era, Asakusa was the main entertainment district around the present day Tokyo area. Therefore along with restaurants and shops, theaters for Kabuki and Bunraku also flourished in Asakusa during that era.
Nakamise dori

Our lunch of Yakisoba and miso-konyakku from a food stall

Me standing next to a statue of Edo-era Kabuki dancer

As we neared the end of Nakamise dori, we got a superb view of outer side of the second gate of the temple known as Hozomon Gate (treasure house gate). This gate provides the entrance to the inner complex of Sensoji Temple. On the left side of the gate, we saw a five storied pagoda. The view of pagoda along with Hozomon Gate was simply breathtaking. The present two-storied gate structure was built in 1964. The upper story of the gate houses the Buddhist sutras of the temple that include Hoke-kyo (Lotus Sutra) which is designated as a national treasure and compilation of all the Buddhist scriptures called Issai-kyo which is an important cultural property. This gate is also known as Nioumon Gate as the gate has a pair of large guardian statues called Niou, one on either side of the entrance. These fierce looking Niou statues are supposed to protect the temple from evil spirits. One of the guardian Niou statues has its mouth open as if saying ‘ah’ which symbolizes ‘opening’ or ‘birth’. The other Niou statue has its mouth closed as if saying ‘um’ which symbolizes ‘closure’ or ‘death’. The present Niou deities were sculpted in 1964 and each one weighs nearly about 1000 kilograms! At the center of the gate is a very famous and massive red paper lantern. In addition, there are two very interesting and dignified looking black and golden paper lanterns. Hubby posed in front of these lanterns to get a feeling of the hugeness of the lanterns. After entering inside the temple premises, we got an impressive and beautiful view of the inner side of Hozomon Gate. A pair of giant straw sandal (waraji in Japanese) was displayed on either side of the gate. This pair of sandal is 4.5 meters in height and is supposed to be a sort of charm against evil.
Hozomon Gate

Pagoda and Hozomon Gate

A closer view of outer side of Hozomon gate

Paper lanterns at Hozomon Gate

Hubby posing under red paper lantern

Hubby posing under black and golden lantern

Statues of Niou deities

View of inner side of Hozomon Gate

After entering the temple premises, we saw the stately five storied pagoda towards our left side. The original pagoda was built in the year 1648, which burned down during World War II. The present pagoda structure was built in 1973 using reinforced concrete and aluminum tile. The pagoda stands 53.32 meters tall and is modeled after a similar structure at Daigoji Temple in Kyoto. We took several photos of the majestic pagoda from various angles.
Five storied pagoda

Me standing in front of pagoda

View of the majestic pagoda from another angle

Pagoda as viewed from yet another angle

Beyond the Hozomon Gate, within the temple precincts stand the main building (also called Hondo or Main Hall) of Sensoji Temple which is devoted to Kannon Bosatsu. Unfortunately during our visit, the Main Hall was under renovation and was covered by scaffolding. However, the visitors were still allowed to enter inside the Main Hall.

Just in front of the Main Hall of the temple there is a large cauldron of incense, smoke from which is believed to bestow good health. We saw many people lighting incense sticks to the already fuming stock and with their hands wafted the incense fumes over their bodies. We also wafted incense fumes over us. However, the smoke was too strong for me and my eyes started to water!
I am wafting incense fumes over my body. My eyes have very low level of tolerance to the fumes of incense.

There is also a water fountain called shararyuozou located slightly towards the right in front of the Main Hall of the temple. The water fountain is used for ritual purification before entering the temple Main Hall. At the fountain, we used a bamboo scooper to take some water and poured it over our hand and mouth.
Water fountain

Inside the Hondo Main Hall, there were many people praying in front of the altar and throwing money (usually coins) into an offertory box. It is said that if we throw money, our dreams will come true! I prayed for good health and prosperity for hubby and me. We noticed beautiful paintings on ceiling of the hall. Within the Main Hall itself, and also at many places on its approach, there are omikuji stalls. Omikuji means sacred random fortunes written on strips of paper that tells about the near future and dispense general advice to the people about things like which direction is best, travel, business, and illness. Fortunes are divided into different levels of luck and misfortune. After a donation of 200 yen we checked our fortune. My strip of paper showed ‘normal luck and fortune’ but hubby’s was not so good, so he was rather unhappy about it. Hubby is not religious and does not believe in omikuji, however seeing a bad fortune does not really feel nice.
Main Hall worship altar

Closer view of the worship altar

Paintings on ceiling of the Main Hall

Hubby trying omikuji

Hubby not so happy with the fortune written on the strip of paper

Within the temple premises, there is a quiet contemplative garden kept in the distinctive Japanese style. After leaving the Hondo Main Hall, we spent quite a lot of time strolling in the garden and temple grounds. In the garden we saw a few stone hokyointo, which is a Japanese variant of stupa containing Buddhist relics. We also saw many statues of Buddha in the temple grounds.
Hubby standing in front of hokyointo

Hubby standing in front of one of many Buddha statues within the temple grounds

After relaxing for some time in the garden, we walked along a route to the left side of the Main Hall building. After walking for a minute or so, we saw a building named Yogodo Hall which is located adjacent to the Main Hall. Yogodo Hall was built in 1994 to commemorate the 1200th anniversary of the birth of Ennin, the monk who was largely responsible for the flourishing of Sensoji. This place was not so crowded. We enjoyed viewing the architectural style of the hall, though we did not enter inside the hall.
Yogodo Hall

A closer view of Yogodo Hall

Hubby standing next to an incense burner in front of Yogodo Hall

We walked further along the route to the left of Hondo Main Hall, and saw a few small shops and food stalls along the road. After walking for a few more minutes we came across a torii gate, which indicated another entrance to the temple premises. The souvenir shops and traditional food stalls on either side of the road continued for almost 300 meters outside the temple premises.
A few small shops and food stalls along the route to the left of Hondo Main Hall

Torii gate at an entrance of temple premises. Hondo Main Hall covered in scaffolding (indicated by arrow) can be seen in the background.

I am standing on the road after exiting the torii gate. There were shops on either side of the cemented road.

Hubby standing next to a board indicating the map of the area

Hubby and I enjoyed seeing the Sensoji Temple. It was about 12.30 pm when we came out of the torii gate of the temple. We walked back to Asakusa railway station via another road, and thereby avoided the huge holiday crowd of Nakamise Dori. We collected our baggage from the locker at the station, and then went to see Sumo wrestling at an arena located in Ryogoku. I will write about Sumo wrestling in the next post.