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The Summer Sumo Tournament

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We were lucky enough to be in Tokyo during the Summer Sumo Tournament, the Natsu Basho, and bought tickets as soon as they became available. Sumo is one of Japan’s most famous cultural products, and we were determined not to miss out.

Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo

Six tournaments are held annually in Japan, and three of them take place in Tokyo’s National Sumo Hall, the Ryogoku Kokugikan. These tournaments last for fifteen days, run from the early morning to the evening, and involve hundreds of wrestlers in six divisions. Each day gets started with the lower-division bouts, and the crowd grows in size and excitement until the biggest stars appear at around 6pm.

In sumo, the highest rank a wrestler can achieve is yokozuna, followed by ozeki, sekiwake and maegashira. These four ranks make up the top division, the Makuuchi. The rankings are decided upon by a panel of experts, and the number of wrestlers in each class is fixed (44 in the Makuuchi Division, 28 in the Juryo Division, etc), but the number of yokozuna is variable. Once a wrestler has been named a yokozuna, it’s a title he carries for life, so on any given year, there might be zero, one, two or more. We had the chance to see three yokozuna, which is rare.

We showed up early, wanting to take full advantage of our tickets, but most spectators don’t roll into the Ryogoku Kokugikan until around 2pm, when the bouts of the Juryo and Makuuchi Divisions are scheduled to begin. These are the “pro” divisions, with the wrestlers whom the fans know by name and face: those who feature in the programs, and on collectible trading cards. They’re mostly Japanese or Mongolian, but a few come from other countries as well, such as Georgian behemoth Gagamaru, Osunaarashi from Egypt, and the Czech Republic’s small and muscular Takanoyama, who more resembles an MMA fighter than a sumo wrestler.

Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo

I doubt there’s a spectator sport in the world in which pomp and ceremony outweigh the action by such a degree, as in sumo. For every ten seconds of wrestling, there are ten minutes of preparation: entering the ring, slapping the belly, lifting the leg, chalking the palms, and usually at least three false starts. But when a match finally does get underway, it’s usually thrilling. Contests are decided quickly, after a few seconds of these huge guys tossing each other around, balancing on the edge of the ring, and slamming into one another with unbelievable power and dexterity.

Our day at the stadium began slowly, with only a few spectators on hand for the lower-division bouts, but the attendance swelled steadily. By the time the Makuuchi wrestlers entered for their elaborate ring-entering ceremony, the atmosphere had reached a fever pitch. A group of school age girls behind us squealed in delight when a young wrestler named Endo made his entrance, and the sweet old ladies next to us roared their approval as Hakuho won his match. These guys are superstars in Japan, and a wrestler who’s achieved a high rank can live quite comfortably off endorsements and sponsorships.

If you happen to be in Tokyo during one of the tournaments hosted in the Ryokgoku Kokugikan, you should make every effort to attend. Getting tickets is tricky for non-Japanese speakers, but agencies such as BuySumoTickets.com (which we used) can assist. It’s not cheap, but this is all-day entertainment and well worth the price. I figured that we’d eventually get bored, but we were riveted by every match, and stayed glued to our seats throughout the afternoon. Sumo is one of the most unique and exciting sporting events I’ve ever attended. If I lived full-time in Japan, it’s something I could totally get into.

Location of the Ryogoku Kokugikan on our Map
Japanese Grand Sumo – Official Website

Sumo Morning Practice

Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
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July 2, 2014 at 2:29 pm Comments (6)

A Sumo Training Session

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We quietly filed into the stable and after bowing to the sensei, sat cross-legged on the ground. For the next couple hours, we were to remain as still as possible, while the sumo wrestlers of the Kitanoumi Beya Stable conducted their morning training session. Trust me, I wasn’t going to move a muscle. I wanted to avoid the attention of these behemoths by any means necessary.

Sumo Morning Practice

The summer sumo tournament was set to begin in a couple weeks, and our landlord had offered to take us to one of the morning training sessions in a nearby stable. It’s an exciting experience, but not something which tourists should try on their own. Sumo is a serious business in Japan, and the few stables which allow outsiders to watch a session do so grudgingly. Unless you have a Japanese friend who knows what they’re doing, the only way you’ll get in is with an organized tour.

After sitting down, we watched as fifteen tremendous athletes went through their morning routine. I use the word “tremendous” purposefully. These guys are of tremendous size, tremendous agility, presence and skill. I had never seen a sumo match before, but this morning we saw at least fifty sparring sessions. No ceremony, no messing around, just two giants slamming into each other, over and over.

After about an hour of watching from the sidelines, I started to pick up some things. Mass is an advantage, for sure, but the larger guy doesn’t always win. Most matches are quick, and smart wrestlers can end their bouts before their opponents even know what happened. Balance is equally important to strength, and speed is most crucial of all.

To amuse myself while watching in silence, I gave each of the wrestlers a nickname and graded them on their performance in the sparring sessions. There was the Prodigy, the Veteran, Thinker, Cannonball, Shifty, Newbie, Cream Puff, the Natural, Beauty, Sleepy and Workhorse. Prodigy was talented, while Shifty was small but clever, and usually emerged the victor. His matches with the Thinker were excellent, but he stood no chance against Cream Puff. Cannonball was great fun to watch, as round and explosive as his namesake, and the Natural looked exactly like how you’d imagine a “sumo wrestler” to look.

The training session was intense. Besides the sparring, they were forced to do exercises which would tire even a normal-sized athlete, and by the time it was all over, I felt exhausted myself. But mostly, I was hungry. I don’t know if it was watching such big guys for so long, but both Jürgen and I felt justified in marching across the street to Denny’s (yes, that Denny’s), and digging into a sumo-sized breakfast.

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June 21, 2014 at 3:23 pm Comments (2)

The Historic Neighborhood of Fukagawa

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Across the Sumida River from Nihonbashi, Fukagawa is one of Tokyo’s original fifteen wards. We spent a day wandering around its uncrowded streets, allowing the district to surprise us with an excellent museum, a tranquil garden and, for lunch, a delicious bowl of the neighborhood specialty, Fukugawa Meshi.

Kiyosumi

Fukugawa is home to a few of Tokyo’s most acclaimed sumo stables. In fact, after emerging from the metro, the very first person we saw was a sumo wrestler, clad in a robe and large enough to blot out the sun. Like starstruck schoolgirls, we followed him at a discrete distance, watching as he went into a 7-11 to flip through comics. It’s not that I expect sumo wrestlers to constantly be eating or practicing, but it was somehow amusing to see this massive guy being so normal, just going about his day.

Kiyosumi

Next, we paid a small fee to enter the Kiyosumi Gardens, a 20-acre park with a circular path that leads along a pond, past a tea house, and through thousands of trees. The garden was created in the eighteenth century, and purchased in 1878 by Iwasaki Yataro, founder of the Mitsubishi Corporation, who intended to use it as a place of rest for his employees. Opened to the public in 1932, Kiyosumi is one of the more beautiful gardens we visited in Tokyo, thanks largely to an almost total lack of other tourists.

Kiyosumi

After leaving the garden, we walked a few blocks to the west and came upon the Fukagawa Edo Folk Museum. We weren’t sure what to expect here, but certainly not what we found: a full-scale reconstruction of Edo-era Fukagawa. This museum was a real surprise. Around eight houses have been built, some in cut-away to better show off the interiors, and others in their entirety. You’re allowed to remove your shoes and enter all of the buildings, both the residences and the stores. You can walk down by the canal (Fukagawa was an important port of Edo), look up at the fire tower, peer into the outdoor toilet shared by the entire neighborhood and see the roving soba vendor.

The museum is very permissive, allowing and even encouraging photographs, and visitors are free to handle any of the artifacts which are laying around. But the best part might be the dedicated volunteer staff, many of whom speak English, and all of whom are eager to answer questions you might have. The woman following us around was even answering questions we didn’t have.

By the time we finished in the museum, we were famished and set out to find lunch. While puzzling over the Japanese-only menu of a nearby restaurant, a group of older men clad in hiking gear stormed past us and into the door. The last one in line looked back and rubbed his belly as if to say, “yummy yummy”… and that’s as good a recommendation as you’re likely to get. We went up to the third floor, removed our shoes, sat down and dug into the neighborhood specialty: Fukagawa Meshi, a rice dish topped with a rich miso-based broth of clams and green onions.

Fukagawa doesn’t see a lot of foreign tourism, perhaps because it’s on the wrong side of the Sumida River. But this historic neighborhood is still quite central, easy to reach, and worth at least half a day. Probably more.

Locations on our Map: Kiyosumi Gardens | Edo Folk Museum | Meshi Restaurant

Our Apartment In Tokyo Was Very Close To This Neighborhood

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June 13, 2014 at 2:00 pm Comments (2)

The Streets of Ryogoku

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We had been introduced to Ryogoku while visiting the Edo-Tokyo Museum, and were intrigued enough to return the very next day. The neighborhood’s dominant theme is sumo. Besides the National Sumo Stadium (the Ryogoku Kokugikan), the streets are littered with statues of famous Yokozunas (the highest rank a wrestler can achieve), complete with molds of their terrifying hand-prints.

For lunch, we sat down at Chanko Tomoegata, a restaurant which was founded by a popular wrestler after his retirement. As the name suggests, the main dish here is chanko: a heavy stew eaten by sumo wrestlers looking to bulk up. Floating inside the thick broth are protein-heavy ingredients like tofu, fish balls, daikon radish, and chicken.

With our bellies bursting, we stomped over to the Eko-In Temple. Past the gates, a shrine was busy with people bearing incense and flowers. The photographs left by mourners clued us in that this is a place to remember lost pets. Statues of a dog and a cat guarded the entrance, and outside people had left offerings of bird seed and doggie treats.

Sad, but nearly as melancholy is the shrine across the path, which is dedicated to unborn children. Rows of Buddha figures lined up around the shrine were adorned with red bibs and bonnets, which would never be worn by the children for whom they were intended. After an obviously crestfallen couple entered, we beat a hasty retreat. Normal cemeteries, we can handle, but shrines to dead pets and unborn children are a serious mood-dampener.

In need of a distraction, we went inside a nearby fireworks museum. In July, Ryogoku becomes the scene of a popular fireworks festival. We’d be missing that, but just seeing the huge firecrackers in this free museum helped cheer us up.

Also in Ryogoku, we found the former residence of Lord Kira. One of the more popular stories of Shogun-era Japan is that of the 47 Ronin and their quest for vengeance against the arrogant lord. Until now, I hadn’t been aware that this is a tale based on fact. Though the home is gone today, a small shrine memorializes the location where the villainous Kira was confronted and assassinated by the ronin. The fountain in which his decapitated head was subsequently washed has also been preserved.

Locations on our Map: Chanko Tomoegata | Eko-In Temple | Fireworks Museum | Lord Kira’s Residence

Our Apartment In Tokyo

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March 24, 2014 at 8:37 am Comments (2)
The Summer Sumo Tournament We were lucky enough to be in Tokyo during the Summer Sumo Tournament, the Natsu Basho, and bought tickets as soon as they became available. Sumo is one of Japan's most famous cultural products, and we were determined not to miss out.
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