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

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