During my previous trip, I got into sumo. The winter tournament was ongoing when I returned to Tokyo, after my excursion to Singapore and Malaysia, and the fights were on TV during hotel check-in time. After a bit of watching, given some idle time on my last full day, I decided to head over to the Kokugikan stadium in Ryogoku to experience the sport first-hand. I enjoyed it so much, I scheduled my arrival this time towards the end of this year's winter tournament.

There's only six basho, or Grand Tournaments, held each year: three in Tokyo, one in Osaka, and the other two float around. The basho lasts for two weeks. The wrestlers (or rikishi) go at it from 9 or 10AM until 6PM, with the matches increasing in rank and importance as the day goes on. Only the last two hours are televised.

As you approach the Kokugikan you start to notice how you've entered sumo territory.

Last trip I posted this next scene, from a different angle, but that day was rainy and overcast -- here's the tower outside the Kokugikan again, with the colorful banners in all their glory.

Here's a couple shots of sumo wrestling:

Notice the pseudo-roof over the dohyo -- it emulates a shinto shrine, and the big tassles mark the directions of the compass. (This photo's the only on here from my previous visit.)

The rules are simple: to win a sumo bout, the rikishi must push his opponent out of the ring (or dohyo or cause any part of his body to touch the dohyo. Sitting around the dohyo are five judges, in formal black kimono. They may over-rule the referee's decision, or order a rematch. The referees are called gyoji -- they're wearing kimono like the samurai wore during the Kamakura period. Gyojii rank can be determined by the color of their fan's tassel, as well as their foot-gear: higher ranks wear straw zori sandals and split-toed tabi socks, while lower ranks go barefoot. Their high-pitched voice is specially trained (they do that to be heard easily above the crowd) and their head-gear is modeled after a shinto priest's. (Imagine an American boxing ref wearing the pontiff's miter... these quasi-religious trappings are why I find this sport intriguing.)

The best part of the basho are the dohyo-iri, the colorful 'entering the ring' ceremonies. Each rikishi appears as his name is called, until the full east or west team is arrayed in a circle, facing outward, displaying their colorful kesho-mawashi (ceremonial aprons).

When they're all are present, completing the circle, they all do an about-face. As one, they all lift their kesho-mawashi slightly (in a kind of a curtsy), clap their hands, turn to the right, and then file out. The other team then repeats this performance.

The rikishi are only arbitrarily divided into east and west groups -- they do not compete as teams nor is a rikishi from one team necessarily matched against one or the other.

They only wear their special kesho-mawashi for ceremonies; during fights they just wear the standard mawashi loincloth, which is made of heavy silk. Those ornamental strings attached to the front are stiffened with glue, and are frequently discarded as they become detached during the course of a match.

A few more sumo facts:
During the Grand Tournament each rikishi of grade makushita and above has one fight every day with a different opponent. The rank of a rikishi determines the style in which his long hair is dressed. All of their moves have names, but my favorite is the shiomaki, or throwing the salt. They do this is a preliminary, to purify the ring and prevent injury. To the uninitiated, sumo's boring, because so much of each match involves these pre-fight activities, a lot of which are rikishi attempts to psych out their opponent. There was traditionally no end to these preliminaries, but a ten-minute limit was introduced in 1928, and it's now been reduced to just four minutes. As there's no weight categories as in boxing or western wrestling, it is possible for a rikishi to find himself pitted against an opponent twice his own weight -- and naturally, that's what we're all watching for, and to see the smaller guy win.

While the basho's on, you can see a lot of rikishi in the Ryogoku neighborhood. And once they've had their match, no reason for 'em to stick around -- these two just left the Kokugikan.

But inside the Kokugikan, the bouts continue, until after nightfall. Here's a view of one of the corridors -- like any spectator sport, refreshments are available, and these two are wearing the distinctive garb of the guys who deliver them.

They don't move up and down the aisles shouting out "Sushi!" or anything, orders are arranged outside, in a special hallway lined with counters. And you can see the best seats aren't seats at all, just cushions on the floor. The upper levels do have seats, however; each with a bottle-opener attached to a stout cord, tied to a chair-leg.

A lot of the details listed on this page are quoted from the "Sumo" booklet which they give foreigners, when you buy your ticket (general admission is currently ¥2100, about $20). The guy on the cover (as well as the one up in that first pic) is a Grand Champion, or Yokozuna -- you can tell because his kesho-mawashi has the massive, braided hemp shimenawa rope, decorated with white zig-zag gohei streamers, just like Shinto shrines on New Year's.

More sumo info:

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