Today its been hot and wet - and to quote Robin Williams that's nice if you're with a lady, but it ain't no good if you're in the (urban) jungle. When I went out (all the daily chores need doing, letters to post, groceries to buy, had to get my hair cut) I got soaked from the inside out, and the outside in which left me miserable, irratable and seeking diversion. So once I was home, bathed and dried, I was looking to the magic picture box in the corner to provide some distraction. That distraction came in the form of the summer Grand Sumo tournament taking place in Nagoya.
Like many gaijin (foreigners) here, Sumo holds a real fascination for me and I have found it to be both dramatic and absorbing. Part religeous ritual, part martial art, the real thing is so far away from the 'fat men in nappies' image prevelent in the West that it is hard to convey the tension and drama without sounding like a joke. Its origins lie in the Shinto religeon, the native animistic religeon of Japan, where the wrestling was intended as an entertainment for the sun goddess to entice her out of her winter hideaway. It takes place on a platform made of special clay (there's no padding when the wrestlers fall) with a shrine roof suspended over the ring. The referee dresses as a traditional Shinto priest in colourful robes, and the contest is preceded by a slew of aincient purification rituals - the wrestlers stamp to drive out demons from the clay, clap to scare them away, throw salt into the ring to purify it and rinse their mouths with holy water (chikara mizu or power water) to give them divine strength.
The ring is marked out with bales of rice straw sunk into the clay, but there is no barrier around the edge and the wrestlers (often weighing 250-300lbs) can and frequently do end up flying into the audience. The rules are pretty simple. After staring each other down for a couple of times, the wrestlers launch into each other trying to force the other out of the ring, or throw him to the ground. A match is lost if any part of the body touches the ground outside the straw bales, or if any part of the body except the soles of the feet, touch the ground at all. There is no punching, poking or hair pulling allowed although slapping with the palm of the hand is an accepted technique (tsuparri). The audience sit on cusions on the floor right up to the edge of the ring, and wrestlers are quite often thrown into the most prized ringside seats (it's amazing more audience members aren't injured).
The wrestlers (or rikkishi) have to adopt a traditional hairstyle, with a topknot (chon-mage) fasioned into the shape of a ginko leaf, and lacquered solidly into place. This has the practical advantage of forming a sort of crash helmet in the initial headlong charge. There are no weight divisions, and all matches are aranged according to rank and current tournament form (the better you do, the harder your opponents). You might think the heaviest wrestler would always win but often a lighter more nimble man will cause his heavier opponent to overbalance and fall out of the ring. Nevertheless, there is huge pressure on the wrestlers to put weight on and their calorific intake is huge.
The tournament lasts for 15 days, and wrestlers with a winning record move up, losers are demoted. There are no excuses, and the only exception are the Yokazuna (Grand Champions) who would be expected to retire should they have a losing tournament. With six tournaments a year, it really takes a toll on the wrestlers bodies and their careers rarely last to their mid 30's.
Despite their huge size, the rikkishi have to be extremely supple, and warm up with stretches more reminiscent of sprinters or gymnasts than wrestlers. It is quite a sight to see one of these huge guys doing the splits like a twelve-year-old gymnast. They take on ring names with a distinctly poetic flavour, such as Cherry Tree Mountain, The Dancing Sea, Blue Dragon of the Morning, Noble Flower or White Phoenix. I have learned quite a few Japanese characters just from learning the wrestler's names.
The current top men are all Mongolian (Asashouryu and Hakuho) although the next rank down contains a Bulgarian, a Mongol and three Japanese. Asashouryu has dominated the sport for years, and is known as a bit of a bad-boy (he was disqualified for pulling an opponents hair, and pulled the wing mirrors off a rival's car in a fit of temper), but a number of young wrestlers coming through are challenging his position. It would be nice to see a Japanese Grand Champion, although the next most likely is another Mongolian.
If you've got this far, you now know a bit more about Sumo. In case you were interested both Grand Champions won today, although Asashouryu has had two losses already in the tournament and is probably out of the running for a tournament win. The Bulgarian Kotooushu (pronounced ko-to-oh-shue) is also undefeated (he is in the second rank of Ozeki (meaning The Great Barrier)).