It seems like only yesterday Phil and I were queuing for our Visas at the Japanese Embassy in London; yet last week we had to pay a visit to the US Consulate in Osaka to obtain our US Visas ready for the last leg of our TRIAD programme. I won’t bore you with the details of our Visa applications suffice to say that there was a lot of paperwork to complete and a lot of questions to answer at the interview. Not to mention the fingerprint-taking! Mori-san accompanied us to Osaka and once Phil and I had successfully completed our Visa interviews we decided to make the most of our day in Osaka. I suggested we first visit Namba Parks, which is famous for its rooftop garden.
Namba Parks is a massive retail and office compound which opened in 2003 on the site of the former Osaka Baseball Stadium. The creators were the Jerde Partnership who sought to create a new natural experience for the city that ‘celebrates the interaction of people, culture and recreation.’ As a result the compound features a remarkable eight-level rooftop garden which descends gradually from the highest rooftop to street level where the planting is designed to entice people off the crowded streets of Osaka and into the lush, green oasis of Namba Parks. Although a freak snowstorm dampened our visit slightly we nevertheless enjoyed exploring the park, which features outdoor terraces, groves of trees, clusters of rocks, lawns, streams, waterfalls, ponds, and even space for growing vegetables.
Later that afternoon we had a real treat in store – tickets to watch Japan’s national sport, Sumo wrestling. The Japan Sumo Association holds six Grand Sumo Tournaments (called ‘Basho’) each year, three in Tokyo and one each in Nagoya, Fukuoka and Osaka. Happily the Osaka tournament coincided with our trip to the city to visit the US Consulate, so after lunch we wandered along from Namba Parks to the Bodymaker Coliseum, Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium.
Each of the six Grand Sumo Tournaments lasts for 15 days and tickets are purchased for a full day’s worth of wrestling. That said, most people don’t show up to collect their tickets until the afternoon as the less popular lower division matches occupy the morning’s programme (beginning from 8:30am). Top division (‘Makuuchi’) matches don’t kick off until around 4pm, with the highest ranking wrestlers not entering the ring until just before 6pm.
Thanks to Mori’s knowledge and experience of sumo we timed our arrival just right for joining the crowds to watch the top division ‘rikishi’ (professional sumo wrestlers) arrive at the gymnasium.
Rikishi are ranked in a hierarchy called ‘Banzuke’ which is updated after each tournament based on each rikishi’s performance. The highest ranking rikishi, the ‘Yokozuna’, cannot be demoted; instead he is expected to retire when he is no longer at the top of his game. Today we were privileged to see Hakuhō Shō, the current Yokozuna, as he entered the gymnasium.
We were also privileged to have our photo taken with one of the lower ranking sumo wrestlers. Without wishing to sound too much like Victor Meldrew, I don’t believe it – I am bigger than a sumo wrestler! Interestingly there are apparently no weight categories or restrictions in sumo, so the prospect of coming up against a much larger competitor is why weight gain is such a crucial part of sumo training.
Sat comfortably in our balcony seats…
…the first ‘act’ which we witnessed was the ring entering ceremony.
The higher ranking rikishi, who we were now watching, fight in only one bout each day, with sponsor money at stake for winning that bout to supplement their monthly salaries. Before each bought banners are paraded around the ring to indicate his spoils should he win; each banner costs a sponsor ¥60,000, with half going to the Sumo Association and half to the winning rikishi.
There are more at stake on some than on others!
With its origins as a performance to entertain Shinto deities nearly 2000 years ago sumo is rich in tradition and ceremony and several rituals are involved in the sport. One such ritual is the throwing of salt onto the ring by the rikishi before a bought in order to purify it.
Each bout generally lasts just a few seconds, but with so much at stake it’s no wonder that the bouts are preceded by tension heightening displays in which the competing rikishi attempt to psyche each other out during the ‘greeting ceremony’. During this ceremony the two wrestlers welcome each other, sitting crouched on the ring and looking straight into each other’s eyes. A form of purification to show that they are unarmed, the wrestlers then perform a series of arm and hand movements, rubbing and clapping their hands, moving their arms horizontally sideways with palms first facing up then down, and putting their hands on their knees. Legs movements play a role too.
Finally the bout begins and within a blink of an eye it is over, with the losing rikishi being the first to exit the ring or touch the ground with any part of his body other than the soles of his feet.
The bouts take place on a Dohyō – an elevated wresting ring constructed of clay and covered in sand – and after each bout the sand is ritualistically raked to a level.
At the end of the bout the winning rikishi accepts the sponsorship money during another ritual.
At last it is time for the ultimate fight.
Finally the winner is revealed: it’s the favourite – the Yokuzuna, Hakuhō Shō. He performs the winner’s ceremony to close the sumo tournament.
Now I’m not much of a sports fan but I thought sumo was a pretty awesome experience! I loved the sumo-themed souvenirs in the gift shop too!