It’s pretty un-Australian to admit you don’t particularly like sport. I don’t mind the odd bit of tennis, but that’s about it. If I were to suggest going to any kind of sporting event to my other half I doubt I would even get a response, his face alone would tell me that a trip to the dentist holds more appeal. We like going out, just to more ‘cultural’ things.
On previous trips to Japan we hadn’t really sought out the sumo experience. On our trip last year, I noticed a poster advertising a sumo wrestling tournament close to the hotel where we were staying in Osaka. I floated the idea and wasn’t entirely surprised by the positive response, because somewhat ironically, for us as tourists, sumo wrestling isn’t sport…it’s Japanese culture.
The excitement started as we approached the amusingly named Bodymaker Colosseum. There were coloured flags and crowds of people gently jostling each other on the footpath trying to catch a glimpse of the sumo wrestlers as they walked into the stadium. Like gigantic super models, with their black hair slicked back and giant girths wrapped in cotton robes, they had the appearance of having just stepped out of a bath. They moved through the crowd like B-double semi-trailers on a highway.
We would have been wide-eyed as we went up to the ticket window, clearly without a clue. Nothing a credit card and a smile couldn’t solve. To our surprise the ticket price included personal guidance from a tournament official to our seat, which they knew very well would have been impossible for us to find, along corridors, up stairs, around bends.
Inside the stadium it was a complete world of order, colour and ritual. The Japanese crowd followed complicated looking form-guides and offered emphatic calls of encouragement to favourite competitors. The mix of spectators was interesting: well-dressed middle-aged couples, families, mothers and daughters, single men and, including us, just enough foreigners to count on one hand. Groups nearest the ring sat on cushions in sectioned off compartments, with shoes lined up neatly outside and bento and tea being delivered by stadium staff.
It was impossible to understand the nuances of the competition but we picked up the rhythm of the bouts fairly quickly. The wrestlers entered, threw salt, slapped their thighs, stomped, procrastinated, showed some bravado, then started again. This went on for what seemed like as long as the wrestlers could legitimately draw it out. All of a sudden the bout would start for real, and the strength of these athletes became instantly apparent. They are enormous and all muscle. The wrestle was over in seconds. One is defeated, the other, victorious. Framing the rise and fall of excitement were the intricate traditional costumes and ritual singing and parades.
At the end of the tournament, we headed back out through the crowds, none the wiser on the rules, but with more appreciation of the wrestlers. The jokes we now make about sumo wrestlers have changed, they’re about bravado and posturing, not about size. The ritual aspect, so interesting to us as foreigners, was also a revelation and something we assume that many modern sports lack. I expect, truth be told, that in our own country we’re simply unable to recognise and appreciate it quite so easily
We attended the March Grand Tournament in Osaka which starts on 8 March and ends on 22 March in 2015. Other Grand Tournaments are held around Japan in May, July, September and November. There’s more information on this website.