Tuesday, November 27, 2007
This is a picture of me and Joe with Musashimaru Koyo, a retired sumo wrestler. To quote Joe, "It's not often I meet someone who makes me feel small."
Musashimaru is one of 68 rikishi (wrestlers) who have achieved the top rank of yokozuna in the past 300 years. So at 36 years old, he's like a retired champion. If Wikipedia is to be believed, he is 6-foot-4 (the same height as Joe) and weighed 517 pounds when he was wrestling in the early 2000s.
Our paths crossed during our trip to Fukuoka to watch sumo wrestling two weekends ago. In between matches, I went to the lobby to buy some souvenirs and on my return I saw Joe talking to this humongous guy in the hall. It turns out he speaks English because he grew up in Hawaii! I made it my business to get his autograph.
I still grin like a little kid just thinking about the whole thing! The whole time I was there I kept thinking that I could hardly believe I was watching a real live sumo match with my own eyes. Sometimes living in Japan is so surreal.
We took the trip with the local JET association. It was a four-hour bus ride to Fukuoka, a big city on the southern-most island of Japan, on the west coast. There's actually a ferry that goes from Fukuoka to South Korea. The match took place at the Fukuoka Kokusai Senta (Fukuoka International Center) just a couple minute's walk from our tiny room at the Smile Hotel (isn't that cute? The sign had a big yellow smiley face in the middle). Palm trees lined the boulevard nearby.
The grand tournament we attended was one of six held around the country every year. Each tournament lasts 15 days, with the sumo wrestlers competing in one fight each day. There were 34 matches the day we were there.
Never having watched sumo wrestling before, I had no idea what to expect beyond a bunch of chubby beefcakes showing off the goods in what amounts to a big diaper.
Well, it's a little more than that (surprise!).
The sport actually dates back 1,500 years, so there's a lot of symbolic ritual and ceremony involved in the event.
This is the Fukuoka Kokusai Senta (Fukuoka International Center), the arena where we saw the tournament.
The sumo ring in the middle is called the dohyo. It's made of a special kind of clay covered with a thin layer of sand. The circle itself is a little over 15 feet in diameter. Suspended over the dohyo is a roof resembling a Shinto shrine.
The fun begins when all the sumo wrestlers walk out for the opening ceremony. They wear beautiful, vibrant aprons made of silk. These aprons are worth in the neighborhood of $4,000 to $5,000 each.
They go through a ritual that involves a short little dance. Check out those sumo butts!
Once the opening ceremony is over, it's on to the real show.
To win a match, a wrestler must push his foe out of the ring or throw him to the ground. According to the booklet on sumo wrestling I got at the tournament:
"Striking with fists, hair pulling, eye gouging, choking and kicking in the stomach or chest are prohibited. It is also against the rules to seize the part of the band covering the vital organs. As there are no weight limits as in boxing or western wrestling it is possible for a rikishi to find himself pitted against an opponent twice his own weight. "
You have to be very patient watching a sumo tournament because there's a lot of waiting. The wrestlers do a whole series of symbolic movements before they finally get around to fighting each match. To cleanse his mind and body, each wrestler rinses his mouth with water and wipes his body with a paper towel. Following this, they raise their arms to their sides and do these big leg lifts and stamp their feet.
Then they scatter salt to purify the ring and finally squat to face each other like they're about to attack. But wait! After glaring at each other for a few seconds, one stands up and walks to the corner of the ring to wipe himself off some more and slap his body in various places. They repeat this several times until they've properly psyched themselves up and worked up the crowd into a good froth. This can go on as long as four minutes before the ref (that guy in the red kimono) forces them to just get on with it.
Often, the fight is over in a matter of 30 seconds. But it's a thrilling 30 seconds!
I caught a couple matches on video, and I think they represent the different fighting styles I saw pretty well.
In the first, which I've dubbed the Sumo Cat Fight, they battled it out like a coupla hefty girls.
The other fight was a bit longer and involved more muscle power. Warning: you'll get an eye-full of sumo booty!
I love it when one of them practically carries the other guy out of the ring.
All an all, it was one helluva memorable night, followed by a day of galavanting around a nearby amusement park called Space World (think Six Flags).
Bus ride, hotel, sumo and roller coasters — 190 bucks a piece.
Souvenir of Hello Kitty charm wearing a sumo apron — $5
Seeing enormous dudes parade around in loin cloths — Priceless!