Sumo in the Modern Age

February 10th, 2011By Category: Arts & Entertainment, Culture, Photography

It was the summer of 2001 when I first came to Tokyo at the behest of a cute young Japanese girl named Nami I had met in a hostel in Rome while traveling around Europe the previous spring. I had not come to see her specifically, but she got in contact just as I had taken a job offer to teach English to children in the mountains of Nagano (imagine that!). I had a week before I needed to be there and she worked for a cheap travel agent in Shinjuku with almost unlimited access to major discounts at business hotels throughout the metropolitan area. We decided to take an vacation without leaving the city.

In The Ryogoku Sumo Stables

Life In The Ryogoku Sumo Stables

We hopped from shoebox to hatbox every day and went out to a different part of the city every night. I stocked up on everything disposable I could (soap, shampoo, towels even) for my new apartment in Matsumoto and while she went to work every day I wandered around whatever part we happened to find ourselves in that day: Nihonbashi, Yotsuya, Nippori, Shimokitazawa. Getting lost winding through block after endless block of office and apartment buildings, shops and cafes, everything was a blur of bright neon and drab gray.

One morning I found myself in Ryogoku, what my girlfriend called “Tokyo for old people,” adding as she walked out our 5th story hotel room door, “…lots of history stuff too. Samurai. Sumo. Maybe you like. Have fun.” It looked to me like old people were everywhere in Japan, but she had dropped the magic word. Not Samurai, but Sumo. I showered, dressed and rushed out into the sweltering mid-June humidity.

I didn’t know anything about anything Japan. I knew there were sumo tournaments, but I had no idea when nor where they were. I did not know then that I stood a few blocks away from the Kokugikan, or Sumo Stadium, and a few blocks away in the other direction were numerous Sumo beya, the stables in which thousands of wrestlers, of all different levels, trained, lived and cared for one another. I was at Sumo ground zero, but ignorance and sweat were more powerful guides and I stumbled to and fro across the Sumida river, eventually ending up near Asakasa and happening onto Nakamise-dori and into the crush of Senso-ji shrine.

Too. Much. Heat.

Too. Much. History.

I needed a breather. Americans, especially Californians, can’t take all these thousand year-old traditions without proper space and time to consider the weight of such institutions. I walked down the road to Asakusabashi and spotted a Wendy’s hamburger joint across the road. Finding myself suddenly thirsting for a frosty and some fries, I was drawn through the doors into a magical bliss of air-conditioning, wondering if they had square burgers, and what the Japanese would think of them. I went to step up to the counter, but something blocked my path. More than that, it seemed to blot out the light around it. It was bulbous and oblong, swathed in gray-black finery punctuated with starry fleur-de-lis like designs. When this heavenly body moved, the Wendy’s galaxy shook. I peered up to see a a black orb with a tightly tied topknot protruding out of the mass of heaving bulk and connected to a pair of elephantine arms with meathook hands holding an antique fabric purse. A few fat five hundred yen coins pinched between stubby fingers were offered to the fast food clerk, himself in shuddering in the shadow of the sumo wrestler who stood at the counter. The young rikishi handed his purse to his similarly yukata-clad attendant, who measured less than half the stature of him, and took his tray of hamburger, french fries and chocolate frosty to a nearby booth.

I approached the counter and ordered from the young fast food employee with the face of sangfroid, looking back over my shoulder to see the diminutive frosty disappear in the giant’s hands as he reached to take the straw into his mouth. I wanted to ask him how often the sumo wrestler came here, how many burgers he ate at one sitting, how quickly he could suck down a frosty, but the server’s inscrutable face left me cold. Somehow he didn’t see the absurdity of the Japanese Andre the Giant ordering a small cheeseburger, small fries and a frosty (Wendy’s Japan only offer one size of Frosty: mini). No one else was giving him the time of day either. I paid, picked up my own frosty, small even in my hands, and left the chilly coolness of indoor air-conditioning for the harsh summer sun outside. Later, back in the hotel with Nami, I asked her about it and she scolded me, smiling, “Silly, you make big deal of nothing. Sumo rikishi normal guy, average joe. You stare at him when he eats hamburger, makes him feel sad!”

Life In The Sumo Stables

Taking a break from the morning training regimen

I agreed and we made out, as soon our vacation would be over and we would go our separate ways–her back to Saitama and the daily commute into Shinjuku and back, and me with my business hotel booty, into the foothills of Matsumoto and its view of the Japan Alps. It took more than a year of solitary thinking in the snows of Nagano before I was to see my first tournament and begin to figure it out, but I was addicted. I had to know why acknowledging something out of the ordinary disrupted public harmony, and sumo seemed like a great place to start. But how to gain entrance to the secret world of Sumo wrestling?

Author of this article

Manny Santiago

Hopping back and forth between Tokyo and San Francisco, the founder of HESO Magazine is currently writing a book on Overland Travel.

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