January 22

Battle of the Titans

Before the match begins, the wrestlers parade into the ring and perform a ritual salute.

Yesterday I was invited to watch Day 14 of the January sumo tournament from my friend Mitsuko’s box, which was so close to the ring we could see the expressions on the wrestlers’ faces but not so close that 400 pounds of muscle regularly landed in our laps when one of the o-sumo-sans experienced the agony of defeat.

I would not want to be the guys in those seats.

Generally I’d choose weeding out the mismatched socks in my underwear drawer over watching any sort of sports match, but sumo never disappoints. The wrestlers whose size is used worldwide as a synonym for “really really fat” are in fact both muscular and graceful, with a dignity and fierceness that makes them seem more warrior than pro athlete.

And as much as I enjoy the actual battles, I find the pomp of what goes on all around just as interesting. Sumo began as a Shinto practice, and matches take place only when the ritual purifications have been observed: hands and mouth rinsed with water, salt thrown in the ring. The referee is dressed more like a priest than an official, and his rank corresponds to the rank of the wrestlers he’s judging. The lowest rank must referee barefoot, the middle rank gets to wear socks, and when you really make it to the top, you get to wear shoes.

This referee has achieved the rank of sock-wearing.

Before each match, a crier takes center stage to chant the names of the fighters.

After several bouts, these guys rush in like the Zamboni machine of the sumo ring to tidy things up.

Before and after the tournament, it’s the duty of the highest ranked o-sumo-san to perform a ceremonial kata.

If you’d like to see a sumo match the next time you’re in Tokyo, directions & a map are on my website, The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had. You can get general admission tickets on a same-day basis at the sumo stadium box office: $20 for adults, $2 for children ages 4 to 15 (kids under 4 get in free), cash only. These tickets will give you a birds’ eye view of the proceedings – they’re not close, but you can still see great. (The closer seats are all owned by people, and you have to be invited to sit there!) The box office opens at 8 a.m., and competition begins at 9 a.m. and lasts into the evening. Here’s the official sumo page in English with a tournament schedule and more ticket info.

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