Nagoya July Grand Sumo Tournament 2008

by Ed Lau on August 5, 2008

One of the things I really wanted to do when I got to Japan was experience the traditional Japanese sport of sumo whether it was attending a tournament, visiting a sumo stable or, as Stephen Fung suggested, challenging them to a duel. I was quite disappointed that there wasn’t going to be a tournament in Tokyo during the my stay (there are tournaments in January, May and September) but I found out soon after that in July, one was held in Nagoya. There are also two others held in March (Osaka) and November (Fukuoka).

So on the 21st, I hopped on a night bus and went to Nagoya. I stayed for about a week to hang out with some friends so there will be some posts on Nagoya in the future as well. Although I say in the video that the bus is quite comfortable, I soon found how difficult it is to sleep on a bus, especially for someone like me that sleeps on his side or stomach. As such, I took the shinkansen (bullet train) back, which takes about an hour and a half rather than six and costs about twice as much.

Anyways, the tournament is held in the Nagoya Prefectural Gym, located just across from Nagoya Castle and by a number of parks and other tourist attractions. Although I wasn’t quite sure at first, all you have to do is look for the building that all the big dudes in yukatas are coming from. Sumo wrestlers are bound by tradition and must wear traditional Japanese clothing whenever they are in public, although some choose to break this rule (like Yokozuna Asashoryu).

A seat at a sumo basho costs anywhere from $30-$100, depending on where you sit. The more expensive seats must be purchased in sets of four as they are basically a small box with four cushions. I would’ve loved to get closer to the action but the expensive seats on good days are sold out quickly. My seat was located where they had actual seats and there really aren’t any bad seats in the house since the gym isn’t all that big.

Lower ranked rikishi take part earlier in the day, starting as early as 8:30am for the lowest ranked participants. The second-highest ranked jūryō division wrestlers do battle at around 1:30pm or so while the elite makunouchi begins at around 3pm. I got to the gym at about noon and there were very few seats filled but the place was packed by 3.

The action is pretty much non-stop with no intermissions between matches. Therefore, if you need to buy food or go to the washroom, go when there’s a match you’re not particularly interested in and surely before the makunouchi division take to the ring. There are many ushers selling bento boxes but by the time I was hungry, the had stopped coming around…leaving me to grab boxes of chicken wings and edamame from the small food stands behind the bleachers. I’m sure knowing some Japanese would help here.

Something else that would help is brushing up on the rules of sumo as first-timers may not understand really what’s going on. Seriously, there’s more than just big men tackling each other. I read the Wikipedia entry on sumo the night before and luckily, the fan sitting next to me was friendly (and quite interested in photography) and tried to explain as best he could with my limited understanding of Japanese and his spotty English. The wrestlers have good guy/bad guy personalities and each has a small quirk or trait to interest the audience. Yokozuna Asashoryu, for example, is quite a douche and not too many people like him. Other wrestlers are well liked and some have special abilities like a creative way of tossing salt and one guy could literally raise his leg straight up in the air.

Although there are no pauses between matches, there are several during the matches. Most begin with the yobidashi introducing the wrestlers, who march into the ring and present themselves to the audience by clapping his hands and doing leg stomps. They are then given some water as the referee announces their names again. They perform a similar leg stomping ritual in the middle of the ring facing each other before grabbing some salt to toss into the ring, which purifies it of evil spirits. The wrestlers then crouch down and charge at each other once they’ve sufficiently stared each other down, which takes no time at all for the lower ranked rikishi and probably about 4-5 minutes for the higher ranked guys, who have to towel their face and toss more salt several times before getting down to business.

The crowd really gets into the matches, especially the ones late in the day. Asashoryu pulled out of the tournament earlier due to a elbow injury…although most suspect it was probably because it was losing early…but Yokozuna Hakuho was still in it. Watching the Yokozuna entry ceremony is truly a spectacular display of power and grace. You wouldn’t think so if you’ve never really thought much about sumo but these guys are actually quite athletic. A few of them aren’t really fat at all! One dude early in the day was pretty ripped, in fact.

The day ended with Hakuho winning his match easily (as you see in the video), although I was sort of rooting against him. Not that I really have anything against the man himself but I really wanted to see the cushions fly. It would’ve made for a great picture. Whenever a yokozuna loses a match (or if you’re particularly pissed), tradition dictates that everyone throw their seat cushions at him. I didn’t see it but I did find a video on YouTube that shows it quite clearly.

In all, it was a fun way to spend a day and well worth the $50 I paid for admission. I think I’ve seriously become a fan and am really looking forward to maybe catching the September tournament by watching (hopefully) videos someone posts on YouTube.

And there’s some more photos (and more to come) of the basho on my Flickr.

in Photography,Sports and Health,Travel

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

James - DigitalKeyToInfo August 5, 2008 at 1:45 pm

I blinked and nearly missed the action in that last match.

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kenny August 5, 2008 at 2:35 pm

99% Posturing and Intimidation, 1% Actual Match

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Jenny August 5, 2008 at 7:06 pm

Interesting…I wish I could see this sport directly someday…

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Michael Kwan August 5, 2008 at 10:47 pm

Nice use of Weird Al at the end there. Haha.

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Thrifty August 6, 2008 at 1:47 am

Wow those guys are huge must be really great to see a match live.

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Stephen August 6, 2008 at 9:42 pm

Were they throwing “rice” on the ring? :lol:

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watch the l word August 10, 2008 at 10:33 pm

Oh man you’re lucky. How big were the guys in real life? They look big on TV but ya never know ;)

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George September 15, 2012 at 2:12 pm

Great great article and photography… I love Japan but I am yet to visit the country, I will definitely try to go and watch some Sumo match when I am there. I will see Sumo as spectacle rather than a sport, and a great part of a long Japanese tradition.

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