For years now, I have been intending to go down to the Osaka basho at the beginning of Spring, but for one reason or another, usually either work or idleness, I have always missed it. Last year, I was invited to attend, but had to decline as I was working.
However, this year I was once again invited along to sit in view of the dohyo for the first Sunday of the 15-day event, and watch the rikishi going toe-to-toe, belly-to-belly, in their quest for the Emperor’s cup, won last year by the Mongolian fighter, Asashoryu, the wannabe soccer player. This year though, his countryman, Hakuho is in form and attempting to claim the cup from his country rival.
Before entering the Osaka prefectural gymnasium, I sampled the atmosphere outside, and then found myself sitting in a delightful little soba restaurant near Nanba Parks, filling up on zaru-soba and beer, while trying to understand the animated conversation of the two press men at the next table. I may be wrong but I believe they were discussing how the cold weather expected later in the week may affect this year’s early cherry blossom, or maybe they were discussing which of the two Mongolian sumo warriors is going to walk off with the main prize next Sunday. I’ll let you decide which of the two subjects, and also which of the two fighters perhaps, is more likely.
Attending a major sporting event for the first time is always an eye-opener, especially if you are accustomed to the images shown constantly on the TV: sumo is no different. There are surprises waiting for you throughout the experience.
The first thing I hadn’t anticipated, despite this sport only really taking place in Japan, were the similarities with big sporting ocacasions back home in the UK. There were crowds of fans waiting as you entered through the main door, and I noticed that there were also TV crews filming the arrivals. As I hung around, seeing what all the fuss was about, a couple of sumo people arrived, top-knots in place, the familiar sweet smell of tea seed oil trailing behind them. This aroma I have smelt every spring for the past seven years as some of these giant men, their trainers and staff take the Nankai line home to their heya’s competition time accommodation, near Sakai.
What did amuse me though, was the group following immediately behind, who were greeted by an audible gasp of expectation and the flashing of cameras lights. As the focus of all this excitement pushed its way through all the people crowding around the doorway, I was surprised to see a couple of obviously star sumo wrestlers in the full traditional outfit, wearing dark sunglasses, to make themselves invisible perhaps? Clearly, it doesn’t matter what the sport is, if you are the glitterati, you wear dark glasses at all times – except inside the dohyo, of course!
The next thing which made me laugh was when I saw the TV pundits for the live broadcasts. Back in the UK when football is on the tele, the co-commentators and the experts are all ex-soccer players. Of course, for sumo they are all ex-sumo wrestlers. But I hadn’t expected to see all these enormous older guys squeezed into tight fitting suits. There were big guys everywhere. Not only were former wrestlers doing TV work, but they were also working as security guards, as ticket collectors and doormen. It all makes sense really, but I just hadn’t thought about it before, and it made me laugh. A place where being fat is normal, made me feel small.
Something which surprised me a little was how close you could get to the wrestlers, especially before they entered the arena. As they psyched themselves up for their bout, they waited in the wings just 25 metres from the dohyo, flexing their muscles, doing stretches, or just looking like man mountains. You could get close enough to touch them if you wanted to. I didn’t. But I did take a load of photos, of these giant sportsmen in the final seconds before they went out to do battle. The concentration was deep and the looks were intense. I have to say though, these huge fleshy athletes can move with the grace of a ballet dancer pirouetting around Covent Garden, but if they come crashing to the floor the vibrations can be felt throughout the gymnasium. Here is a selection of the photos I took.
I can’t finish without mentioning the gift shop. Back home they make a fortune out of merchandise at sporting events such as Premier League football. But here at sumo world, the goods on offer were much more reasonably priced, and ranged from the essentials such as sweets, crisps and beer to the stuffed, angry-looking sumo wrestler toys and key-rings.
It was a great afternoon’s entertainment, full of drama, costume and noise. All of this slowly reached its anticipated pinnacle just before 6pm, as one great Mongolian yokozuna after another made short work of their hapless opponents, as the two marched inexorably towards a second Sunday showdown for the Emperor’s cup. See you at the gym in Nanba on the 29th for all the fun!
Click here for the official sumo website where you can also listen to broadcasts in English.
Finally, one more silly photo …