Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Osaka - Grand Sumo Tournament

Makuuchi entrance
There are some things that just immediately spring to mind when you think about Japan, and one of those is Sumo. But whilst it is a hugely popular sport here, there actually aren't that many tournaments, just six a year, each lasting only fifteen days. The March one is in Osaka, which is why we started our trip here.

Back in early February, we had struggled through the patchy internet access in Myanmar, to join the huge numbers of people trying to book their tickets on the first day they went on sale; they sell out fast. But we were successful, and managed to get tickets to day 13. We opted for the seats, which we figured that, although a bit further back, would be more comfortable that sitting on the floor with very limited space.

The purpose built arena has the raised dohyo - the ring - in the middle, with the five judges sitting on the first ring of floor cushions. The ring is considered sacred, so spectators must not enter it, or even pass between the judges and the ring.

The next rows of individual floor cushions, the ringside seats are the most expensive but, along with the judges seats, also the most risky. It does happen that one - or even both of the wrestlers - can come right out of the ring and land on top of the judges and front few rows; and most of those guys aren't lightweights!

Then there are the box seats, square sections with four floor cushions. You buy the box and it's up to you how many people are in it. Personally I would want the box for two, but most contain the full four, and they bring along who picnics, including their full tea paraphernalia. The venue will also deliver you food and full tea sets.

Sumo goes back around 2000 years to the Shinto period, and is very regimented and hierarchical. The Sumo wrestlers join one of the stables, where they live and train according to strict rules. They must wear their hair in the chonmage, or topmost, which comes from the Edo samurai style. Their eating regime is designed to put if weight and mass; they have no breakfast, but a huge lunch of stew and beer, followed by a fiesta.

There are six levels of Sumo, set out in the banzuke. Your rank is based on your performance in the six grand tournaments held each year, and you can be promoted or demoted depending on how well you do. Your ranking affects what time you get up to train, the quality of clothes you are permitted to wear, and the jobs that you have to do.

The bottom four levels (jonokuchi, jonidan, sandanme, and makushita), have to get up earlier for their practice, do more chores, and act as assistants to the stable master and the sekitori - the Sumo in the top two tiers.

The sekitori levels are the juryo, and the elite makuuchi. The top makuuchi tier are further split into the run of the mill maegashira, who are given their own rankings, and three tiers of san'yaku, those who have won titles. The san'yaku ranks are, in ascending order, komosubi, sekiwake and ozeki.

Juryo entrance
Then there is the final level, which is the yokosuna, that of the grand champions. To achieve this, you normally have to win two consecutive Grand Sumo Tournaments. It is the one level that you cannot be demoted from, although if your performs worsens, you are expected to retire.

In the tournament, the bottom four ranks fight in the morning, then the juryo fight at 3pm, and the makuuchi at 4pm. A group of elders decides who fights who. We watched the end of the lower ranks bouts, and all of the latter two. They fight one bout per day, so their tournament score is based on their win to loss ratio out of the fifteen bouts.

Makuuchi entrance
At the start of the session, there is a ring entering ceremony, where they wear their ornately decorated kesho-mawashi, aprons from their sponsors, embroidered with silver and gold threads and sometimes gemstones, which cost upwards of £12,000.  For the bouts, they lose the aprons and fight in just the mawashi, the famous loin cloth style belts. If their belt comes undone in a fight, they forfeit the bout as well as their modesty.

When they enter for the bout, the wrestlers are announced in a kind of singing voice, and then there is a lot of ritual, which increases as the ranks go up. They will crouch to face and welcome each other, clap their hands to ask the gods to accompany them into battle, stamp to squash bad spirits, lift their arms and legs to show they are unarmed, sip water to clear the body, and throw salt for purification. This can go on for almost five minutes in the top ranks.

Hakuho v Terunofuji
When the gyoji, or referee, gets them started, they must launch from their crouching position simultaneously. The initial contact can be all important in how the bout ends, as sometimes it is literally over in one or two seconds. To win, you have to force the other wrestler out of the ring, or cause them to touch the floor of the ring with any part of their body other than the soles of their feet.

Hakuho v Terunofuji
Bouts can last a few minutes, but that doesn't happen too often. Normally it is quite obvious who has won, and the referee will indicate the winner, but the five judges can overrule him, and will decide any debatable bouts.

Hakuho v Terunofuji
It is actually quite good fun to watch, especially those that last a bit longer. And it is surprising that sometimes the smaller Sumos can win, because they use better and more agile techniques.

Hakuho v Terunofuji
The best bit though, was the last bout of the day. Hakuho, a Mongolian born yokozuna, who had already won 33 titles, and was currently on a 12-0 winning ratio, took on Terunofuji, also Mongolian, but only a sekiwake level (2 below), although he was doing pretty well himself with the next best ratio of 10-2. So we were very lucky that we were going to see the top two (of this particular tournament) fight it out.

Hakuho v Terunofuji
If Hakuho were to win, his lead would be unbeatable and he would take his 34th title.

If Terunofuji were to win, not only would it be a major upset, but if he could win his last two bouts, and Hakuho lost his, then he would take the title. So both had everything to fight for.

Terunofuji beats Hakuho
It was a good bout. Both clearly gave it all they had, but in the end, it was the underdog, Terunofuji who came out on top.

Cushions being thrown
A lower rank beating the yokozuna is a big deal, and the crowd went wild, in a way that you just don't expect of the Japanese. They all did something that is traditional, but not permitted, and threw their floor cushions into the ring.

Final ceremony
Once they got everyone back under control the day ended with a stick twirling ceremony of some sort. By the way, Hakuho went on to win both his next bouts, so won his 34th title. He has since gone on to win more, and is now the record holder for most Sumo titles.


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