In search of the real
As a kid I never thought Sumo wrestlers were real. I could not wrap my head around it and if they were real their sport must be a joke. The Japanese must surely be playing a trick on the world. That was then, but now I have just watched a Sumo wrestler do a shuttle run down a backstreet in Tokyo dragging a huge tractor tyre. It was surreal, but real and my eyes have just been opened to the amazing world of Sumo Wrestling.
I am still standing on the street as the same wrestler runs back the other way. Sweat drips from his head that is firmly fixed on his next step forward, the only sound louder than his breathing is occasional collisions of flesh inside the Sumo stable. I forget the runners efforts as I notice a line of wrestlers waiting for their chance inside. I step past them into the dull light.
One by one the wrestlers step forward to battle the winner. Like a constant round robin the black belted wrestlers test their strength and holds on a larger wrestler. He wears a white belt and his experience, strength & technique is immediately obvious as he throws the opponents left and right.
Opponents step forward, one by one they fall back in line. 40 minutes later the same wrestler is still fending off opponents. His stamina and fitness shines through, it is as if the opponents have too much respect for the man mountain as he continues to push on.
Coaches shout encouragement from the side line but no one can unsettle the man in white, he is too steady and well versed in his art. His challengers look wrecked, panting with hands on hips there session is finished as another wrestler steps forward.
The wrestlers grapple for a moment before one shoves the other across the floor. Sliding in the dust the large wrestler is driven backwards. He hits the rings rope and immediately they grapple again. Hand positions are changed before the newcomer is driven back the way they had come.
After 30 or so drives back and forth a larger wrestler steps forward. As if the last wrestlers weight was not enough the new sparing partner is huge. They instantly begin grappling before the sliding starts again. Back and forth in the dust the exertion is finally taking its toll. After a final shove it appears it is time to stretch his over worked legs.
Like a demonstration to his apprentices the wrestler goes through his stretches. Intently the weaker opponents look on before taking over the floor and copying the stretches in a well rehearsed choreography.
The smallest wrestler takes charge and leads the group. Uninterperated instructions are broadcast across the group, at the completion of each stretch the group clap as a collective before being given further direction.
More instructions are bellowed before the wrestlers shuffle to attention. Listening intently they bow their heads at their instructions before a long congo line is created. Like a whirl wind in the room the group sweep left. A loop later they swing to the right. The scene is perplexing and looks like a children's game but is designed to coordinate lactating limbs.
The line soon breaks up and the wrestlers make their way out of the open door. I have been filled with more questions than answers. The Sumo wrestlers have lit a fire with in me, I am amazed at their agility, I am mesmerised by their strength and I am finding I am being swept up in their culture. I need to see more.
A tournament is looming in Nagoya so there is no chance to see the wrestlers again in Tokyo. I want to learn more so I find myself altering my plans. A few days later I stand in a forecourt of another stable in Nagoya as new faces go through their morning exercises.
The wrestlers limber up as hushed conversations dance through the crowd. Something is happening and I'm not quite sure what it is. TV cameras and pundits appear as anticipation builds. Moments later a wrestler appears and the crowd goes bananas as the same word is repeated on every ones lips: Yokozuna
The Yokozuna is the grand champion. He steps forward into the stable. There are no formalities as he gets down to business. He challenges a number of opponents before stepping aside and presenting himself to the crowd. The crowd go wild as a line of children step forward. They are here to meet the grand champion.
After a short speech the Yokozuna is gone. He retreats up the same path he had appeared from. His departure allows the fun and games to start. The children step up into the ring and try their best at pushing the other wrestlers around.
The whole scene is becoming surreal again. My childhood thoughts come flooding back, is this all another rouse. The children laugh and giggle as more wrestlers appear. They are pushing trolleys of children and I feel like the butt of the joke, surely this is Japan as a whole having a laugh at the rest of the worlds expense.
The children are paraded around the forecourt as parents and the pundits clap on. I am lost for words as the sumo and kid train disappears. The parents evaporate in their wake as I hear grunts and slaps once again eminate from the ring. As if nothing out of the ordinary had happened the wrestlers were back at their training grind.
The black belted wrestlers carry towels for the larger wrestlers to mop themselves as weights and strappings are attended to. Training is back in full swing and I wonder if that side show had actually happened. Never the less I watch intently as their skills continue to mesmerise me.
The session finally ends but with much less of a fan fare than its beginning. Towels are dished out as the wrestlers move off and I am left yearning to get tickets to the big tournament.
Being a national sport there is a lot of interest in the tournament. The tournament runs for two weeks and it is almost booked out but I secure tickets. The prized tickets do not come cheap but the elevated view is worth the cost.
I arrive early as the younger less experienced wrestlers go through their rounds. One bout a day for 15 days. Each match lasts only seconds so the stadium is rather empty. These younger wrestlers were the apprentices I had seen earlier in Black belts and this is the beginning of their sumo wrestling journey.
As the rounds progress so does the interest in each division. Each division is a tier of wrestling. Each registered wrestler falls into a tier. The best ranked wrestlers progress through tiers whilst struggling wrestlers are required to retire. As the day moves on so does the progress through the tiers until the stadium is filled and the show is left for the pros.
Finally it is time for the last division. Formalities are introduced as is the pomp and ceremony. The wrestlers step forward one by one and are introduced to the crowd. The wrestlers wear bright sashes and a string of flags follow each wrestler to display origin and his past successes.
When all of the wrestlers have been introduced it is time to give thanks. Prayers are shared and calls for fair sportsmanship ring out around the ring as the wrestlers throw their hands in the air in anticipation of the match ups to come.
The ring is cleared and the battles begin. Each wrestler will try to intimidate his opponent as best as he can whilst purifying the ring with salt. This process is repeated three times in a ceremony to eradicate any bad spirits.
Once the purification is complete it is all down to business. A steady bow and a tap of the floor unleashes the fury. Flailing arms and rigorous grunts pierce the air for a few spilt seconds. Moments later cheers replace the grunts as a winner is announced.
With a final thud an opponent is thrown to the floor. Respectful bows are exchanged as a prize purse is handed over. The rounds carry on as the wins and defeats are tallied up. At the end of the tournament a Yokozuna will be announced. This announcement is highly anticipated by the Japanese public as to is the Yokozuna's celebratory dance.
A final kick announces the Yokozuna to the public. His face will grace the nations papers while another flag is added to his collection. His title will follow him until he challenges himself again at the next tournament.
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