We went to Fukuoka for sumo and sake.

There are six sumo tournaments in Japan each year — three in Tokyo, one in Osaka, one in Nagoya, and one in Fukuoka.  Each tournament is only 15 days long, so we were lucky to be in Japan while one was running, and the last one of the year too.

We went on the Tuesday of the second week, and getting tickets was very straightforward.  They go on sale in advance, and mostly promptly sell out, save for a few of the cheaper tickets.  Even the cheapest tickets online were a bit much for us though (about £20 each), so we decided to take our chances at buying general admission tickets on the day.

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These are the cheapest tickets in the house (about £13 each), and are only available from the venue on the day.  They get you into the building, and the right to sit in the plastic seats right in the top corner of the arena.

The thing is, you’re fee to walk around the building, and as there’s nobody checking tickets once you’re in, and most of the seats closer to the action are empty for most of the day, you can get more or less ringside seats for this.  So we did.

We went early to be sure of getting tickets, and as it was raining, decided to go straight in.  A tournament day runs from about 8.30 am until 6 pm, and most people don’t arrive until 3.30 or later, but we were in the hall by 9ish, as we had nothing better to do.  The sumo venue in Fukuoko is a little out of the centre, on the sea front, and there’s not much in the immediate vicinity.  Also, did I mention it was raining?

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It was a little slow at first, with some fairly inexpert looking grappling going on in the ring, and not much atmosphere with only a couple of dozen people in the huge arena.  Still, we got ourselves an overpriced coffee, and had fun trying to work out the best camera settings for snapping the wrestlers.  Too much fun as it turned out, as the battery ran out before the top flight sumos even got into the building.

I also had a bit of a wander around the venue, and watched the sumos warming up.  I’m not sure if I was allowed in the area where they were waiting to go into the arena, but if so then being a confused looking gaijin (foreigner) stopped anyone from telling me off.

It was fun watching the ceremony associated with each bout too.  Most of the time is spent in ceremony.  Actually, pretty much all of the time.  The whole thing was more or less mysterious to us — we spent much of the day pleasantly baffled.

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Sumo bouts happen in a clay ring that’s built specially for each tournament by the official ‘handymen’ of sumo, the yobidashi.  Above the clay stage hangs a roof which is supposed to ressemble a Shinto shrine; sumo originated as part of Shinto, which is where the ritualistic elements come from.  The ring itself is marked out with rope, and topped with sand.  You lose by touching the ground with anything other than the soles of your feet, or going outside the ring.  In practice being forced outside the ring often means falling off the 3 foot high clay stage onto the hard floor surrounding it, which is no little thing for a huge sumo.  It’s pretty comic watching big heavy men in loin cloths tumbling over each other off the stage, towards the well turned out business men and fashionistas in the front row seats.  On one occasion the sumos actually fell on several people.

As well as the fighters in the ring there’s a sort of referee, the gyoji, who’s responsible for declaring the victor in each bout.  Around the ring sit black robed judges who are sort of linesmen — they can question the gyoji’s call if they see something he didn’t.  I say ‘he’ because professional sumo is a world completely closed to women.  Not only are no women’s tournaments permitted, women can’t have any part in the male tournament.  They’re not even allowed to touch the ring.

This is really taken seriously: the governor of the prefecture traditionally gives a prize at the end of each tournament, but while there was a female governor of Osaka prefecture she wasn’t allowed to enter the ring to do so, instead having to stand next to the ring (much to her chagrin).

Before a bout starts a yobidashi enters the ring and announces the two fighters, holding a fan dramatically towards the two sides as he does so.  Then the sumos get up from their ring side cushions (more and better cushions the higher ranked the fighter), and enter the ring.  Then the gyoji announces the fighters again (I think…), with more fan waving and impressive pose striking (feet planted wide apart, knees bent, arms raised), while the yobidashi gives the ring a ceremonial sweep with a special broom.  All of this announcing is done in a sort of macho-sing-song way.  Ritualistic, and very over the top.

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The sumos then square up against each other, and start their stamping, clapping, pre-bout staring contest.  They’re allowed longer for this if they’re a higher rank, and at the top it gets very complicated, with ceremonial salt throwing from a special bucket and all sorts.  The top sumos are allowed 4 minutes of thigh slapping and stamping action.  The typical bout goes on for less than 30 seconds.  Some of the bouts we saw early on only lasted a split-second.

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Sumo is very hierarchical, with fighters progressing up the ranks as their results improve, and the tournament day starting with the lower ranked fighters and culminating with bouts between the top ranked sumos.  Three of these are currently yokozuna – wrestlers who’ve reached the top of the rankings, and cannot be demoted.  All three yokozuna were fighting on the day we went, which added to the spectacle, since there’s extra ceremony when these guys fight.

I thought the yokozuna was the current champion, so I was a bit confused when three of them turned up, but it turns out it’s just awarded to sumos when they’re deemed to have reached the necessary level of skill and success.  There can be multiple yokozuna, or none.

As the day went on the arena got busier and busier, and we cracked into the two litre carton of sake we’d brought along.  Officially you’re not supposed to bring in your own food and drink, but everyone does.  As the seats around us filled up, mostly with businessmen, plenty of beers and sake cups were brought out.  The sake added to the party atmosphere nicely, and made the possibility of being caught sitting in somebody else’s seat less worrisome.

When this did eventually happen, it was an even more Japanese experience than sitting at the sumo drinking sake and eating onigiri (seaweed wrapped triangular rice balls).

The lady showing the actual ticket holders to her seats looked at us rather apologetically, at which point we hopped into the empty booth behind (the lower down seats are floor mats with cushions, organised in little booths that sit four people).  We thought she might come and check our tickets after this since it was fairly obvious we were squatters, so when she approached our new booth and started gesturing at us we assumed she was trying to move us along.  Playing confused seemed the best option at this stage, but it turned out we actually were confused — she wasn’t trying to oust us, she was trying to give us a plastic rubbish bag to put the peel of the oranges we were eating in.  She seemed very pleased to help.

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At about three o’clock the second-flight sumos started entering the building, and people crowded into the lobby to take their photos and yell their support.  Then it was time for these wrestlers to enter the arena, another ceremonial process.

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The two sides (East and West) enter in procession, wearing brightly coloured loin cloths fronted with embroidered floor length aprons.  Each sumo has his own colours and emblems on his apron.  By this point in the day all of the sumos are very tall and heavy, and mostly muscular rather than just a big ball of flesh.  The sense of ceremony and excitement builds as the day goes on, as the fighters and ring attendants become more skilled, and their rituals and outfits more elaborate.  At the top level the gyoji wears a dagger which is supposed to indicate that he’ll commit seppuku (ritual suicide) if he calls the outcome of a bout wrong.  Apparently these days they offer their resignation instead, which is then rejected.

The sumos progress into the ring, and stand in a circle facing outwards looking very menacing, before turning inwards and raising their arms in unison.  All of this to tumultuous cheering and clapping.

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By the time the top flight sumos entered, the arena was packed, and the crowds in the lobby even more excitable.  The crowd were mostly dressed in their best too, with some groups sporting special matching jackets for the occasion.  The last people to arrive were in the front seats, which are just a cushion on the floor at the ringside, and are eye-wateringly expensive.  These people were all pretty well dressed, and knelt neatly watching the action, in contrast to the more raucous crowd further up the stands.

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As well as the circle of sumos, there were separate entry-ceremonies for each of the yokozuna, flanked by two other high-ranking wrestlers in matching aprons.  The yokozuna wears a special belt of twisted white fabric, which is similar to the hangings marking the entrance to a Shinto shrine.  He does a sort of dance in the ring, which mostly seems to involve showing how high in the air he can get his leg (pretty high).  I didn’t know this at the time, but apparently these belts weigh 20 kg, which makes the whole thing pretty impressive.

Before going, I thought of very overweight guys in nappies pushing each other over when I thought of sumo (maybe because of those inflatable things you get where you on massive sumo fat suits and try and knock each other over).  There is a bit of this in the lower ranks, and it’s pretty funny watching a big ball of fat bowling over a skinny teenager.  Sumo has no weight or height classes, so this happens quite a bit.

But in the top ranks it’s not comic at all – these guys are serious athletes.  They’re not skinny, but they’re mostly not really fat either, just huge scary looking blocks of muscle.

All in all I had a really good time at the sumo.  Watching sport isn’t really my thing, but the rules are so simple, and the ceremony so mesmerising, that it’s a great day out even if you know nothing about it.  It’s a really good way to see something that’s very traditional, and very Japanese as well, but isn’t horribly touristy.  Everything about sumo is traditional.  Even the sponsors adverts are displayed on embroidered banners which are carried round the ring in procession by yobidashi.

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Also, who doesn’t want to spend all day drinking sake?

When it all ended rather abruptly at 6 o’clock we set off back to our hostel in a nearly straight line, and were in bed by about half past nine.

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