By Amy Gibbons
Sumo. What I knew about this sport you could have printed on the head of a pin. So naturally I got on the net and researched this quintessentially Japanese sport. With names like Yokozuna Asashoryu (the highest ranked sumo wrestler) and all the official terms such as mawashi (the cute little nappy or loin cloth-like uniform they wear) dohyo (the name of the arena) and shiomaki (the action of throwing salt) floating through my head, I was ready for my first real sumo experience. Or so I thought.
Distracted by the other enthused patrons and all the cute little omiyage stalls selling everything from food to key ring facsimiles of the sumo wrestlers, we managed to make a wrong turn. With only a few comments on the idiocy of gaijin, having inadvertently stumbled into a changing room, we were politely shown to our seats by a man the size of a small mountain. Despite his intimidating size he was surprisingly kind and gentle as he firmly steered us in the correct direction. This was definitely one of those times when being a foreigner paid off.
So there we were, finally in our seats peering down past the crowd to the dohyo, the raised ring with a suspended roof. The tsuriyane (raised roof ) is reminiscent of the old temples and serves as a reminder that the origin of sumo wrestling is actually rooted in spiritual rituals. Despite its holy beginnings, the crowd, many portions of which look like they are camped out for the duration with an astonishing amount of sake, are a rowdy bunch. Watching the crowd with its picnicking families and the staff wandering along the rows selling ice cream and beer, I was reminded of a swarm of bees, colourful and chaotic but with an underlying sense of purpose. The queen bees are of course the sumo wrestlers and their entourage who eventually come out and parade around the dohyo looking very proud and sombre all dressed up in their kesho mawashi (the long, colourful embroidered apron-like things that attach to the front of their mawashi). The more colourful and intricately embroidered these are, the higher the ranking of the sumo wrestler.
For those of you who have watched sumo on TV and been bored to tears due to the length of time it takes for each match to actually start, take heart. It is far more interesting when you watch it live. The act of shiomaki and each wrestler’s attempt to psyche out his opponent results in much glaring and many trips to the salt holder to throw more ceremonial salt, and is actually quite enthralling. The crowd’s anticipation, cheering and collective breath-holding makes the entire experience exciting, and time actually flies by.
So there we were watching the matches and the crowd, which I found equally entertaining, when some smart cookie decided we should bet on the outcome of the matches. The added incentive of free beer causes one to watch the matches very intently and it is amazing how quickly you come to recognise desirable qualities in a sumo wrestler. If, like me, you don’t know your champs from your trainees, a surprisingly effective way of choosing a wrestler to cheer for is by deciding who has the prettiest coloured mawashi and backing him.
I can honestly say watching sumo live and learning a little more about the sport was a lot more exciting and interesting than I had thought possible. Even now I watch sumo on TV and enjoy it. The exacting precision with which a sumo match is played is both intriguing and entertaining for all.