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Tokyo's massive wrestlers: the sumo stable tradition

© By Josephine Matyas
  It's 8 a.m. on a hot, Friday morning, my first day in Tokyo; I'm jet-lagged, sitting in a steamy room off a downtown alley, shoes shed at the doorway; I watch men in loincloths stamp their feet, slap hefty thighs and square off in the centre of a dirt ring. A sign outside reads: Arashio, one of 54 Japanese sumo stables, where both professional and wannabe sumo wrestlers work, exercise, eat and relax, completely focused on the daily rigours of sumo preparation.
     Plan your vacation carefully and you may watch Japanese sumo wrestling all day long and if hardcore, purchase tickets for 15 consecutive days of matches at one of the half-dozen sumo Grand Tournaments held annually. Some wrestlers tipping the scales at 300 lb and up are national heroes. An ancient religious-based ritual to pray for a bountiful harvest, now survives 1,500 years later as a martial art and the country's national sport.
     "Don't break the concentration of the sumo wrestler," cautions Katsuo, our guide, outlining the rules before we enter the building. "Pay respect at all times. No talking, smoking, drinking, eating or chewing gum. Sitting cross-legged is okay, but don't stretch your legs out. And take your shoes off at the doorway before stepping onto the woven tatami mats."
     It's not a large room, especially for the considerable amount of bare skin being flashed and centered in a dirt ring. Ten wrestlers line the walls, wipe streaming sweat with towels, watch the action and await their turn. The stable master, oyakata, leads them through practice with deep grunting, feet stamping (to build strength and crush evil spirits), skin thwacking, heavy breathing and panting. While waiting in the wings, wrestlers perform extreme knee bends, lift weights, foot stamp and slap at a wooden log, the size of a telephone pole, planted upright in the corner.
     For 90 minutes each morning, they concentrate on repetition of the basic sumo moves. The uniform seems simple, appearing as a skimpy stretch of loincloth, but actually consists of a lengthy piece of fabric - more than three metres - folded, wrapped and rewrapped around a substantial girth. This mawashi is a key to the wrestling match: most winning manoeuvres begin with a pit bull-like grip on the cloth. Hair pulling, choking, kicking, eye gouging and other delicacies dispel any fight etiquette concerns. Two glistening, dirt-streaked wrestlers crouch on opposite sides of the ring, squaring off in a cold-war type glaring contest.

Sumo Stable  Sumo Wrestlers  Sumo Wrestlers  Sumo Wrestlers  Sumo Wrestlers 

     In the ring, wrestlers and spectators work themselves into a fever pitch. Once the oyakata signals the start, there's immense pushing, grabbing - time-honoured moves - and the match is over in mere seconds with one wrestler forced from the ring or touching ground with something other than the sole of his foot.
     The dohyo (wrestling ring) is a sacred area where wrestlers dedicate both life and soul; however, the kitchen upstairs is where they dedicate their prodigious appetites. After morning workouts, they get spiffed up, and the younger trainees prepare traditional boiled chankonabe, a protein-rich, hot-pot soup of chicken, vegetables and rice. Meals are communal to reinforce the stable unity.

Sumo Wrestlers  Sumo Wrestlers  Sumo Wrestlers  Sumo Wrestlers  Sumo Wrestlers 

     "My job is not just to have them grow bigger," explains the oyakata, "but teach them techniques. I seek someone who takes advice, trains hard, even if the master is not looking and speaks truth to everything." It's a big job in a world steeped in ritual; and it takes a big man to do it right.

Josephine Matyas is an award-winning travel writer and photographer living in Kingston, Canada. Soft outdoor adventure, history, cuisine and the great outdoors are topics she never tires of exploring. She writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines in North America, and is a board member of the Travel Media Association of Canada.

Photo Credits
Josephine Matyas

If you go
Japanese Sumo Wrestling
as seen on
YouTube
Japan National Tourist Organization: www.jnto.go.jp/canada.
For $200 Cdn. visitors can watch a morning practice at the sumo stable and then enjoy a meal of chankonabe in the dining room upstairs.
H.I.S. Experience Tokyo (offers tour packages): http://hisexperience.jp/
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokyo
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Tokyo

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