One of my favorite experiences so far has been going to see Sumo at Ryōgoku Kokugikan. Upon stepping out of Ryōgoku Station, you are immediately greeted by large paintings of famous yokozuna (the highest rank in sumo) wrestlers with their signature horizontal rope belts. The top ranks after yokozuna are, in descending order, ōzeki, sekiwake, and komusubi. The sumo tournament CIEE took us to was the 11th day of the 2014 May Grand Sumo Tournament, one of the most important sumo tournaments in Japan. The objective of the match is to push your opponent out of the ring or to have them touch the ground with a body part other than their feet. This is usually done in one of two ways; using brute strength against your opponent or by manipulating your opponent’s strength against them. There are often times when a far smaller player defeats a much larger wrestler due to superiority of groundwork and speed.
First up were the jūryō (second division) matches and then came the makuuchi (first division) matches. The atmosphere inside the arena was incredible. Both the wrestlers and the fans were full of passion for the sport. It seemed that everyone was having a good time. Spectators would scream the names of their favorite wrestlers and shout encouragements during the preparations for each match.
The most memorable and intense moment was the match between Hakuho, the top ranked yokozuna, and Goeido, a sekiwake. As the best ranked wrestler in the competition, Hakuho was the sure favorite to win the match. Before the match began, various banners were paraded around the arena, each banner signifying sponsorship money the winner of that match would receive. This match had an especially large amount of prize money. After the traditional throwing of salt into the ring, the wrestlers squatted facing each other, poised for battle. However, the match did not begin. In sumo you can only begin the match once both players say they are ready, therefore, there are often instances where a match is about to begin only to have one player stand up and stretch or wash their face. This also serves to increase suspense and hype up the crowd. Finally, after what seemed like forever but was only a few minutes, the match began. Typical sumo matches only last a few seconds, and rarely do they ever last more than a few minutes. Preparation usually takes longer than the match itself.
After an intense few moments filled with scrambling hands and feet and lots of sweaty flesh, Goeido was victorious! The crowd went wild, throwing their zabuton (seat cushions) at the stage and onto the wrestlers! A completely unexpected outcome: the top wrestler defeated by someone two titles lower than him! Although technically prohibited, it is customary for the audience to throw their zabuton whenever a yokozuna sumo wrestler is defeated by an opponent of lower rank.
The spirit of sumo thoroughly consumed me during the matches that day and I would gladly jump at the opportunity to go see sumo again. Despite the danger in sitting in what I call the “splash zone,” the first few rows in front of the ring, I would gladly risk being crushed by a sumo wrestler thrown out of the ring for a front row view of the action.