Saturday morning, my alarm went off, and for once, I didn’t hit snooze. I shot out of bed and into the shower–it was sumo time.
For months, I’d been looking forward to the Sumo Tournament. When I visited Tokyo in October, my one goal had been to meet real sumo wrestlers, and I had been heartbroken to find out that they were out of season. But all was not lost! They would be visiting Okinawa in December, and I still had a shot to see them wrestle in person!
Through a series of confusing interactions, we had tickets. The tournament was sponsored by Family Mart, a local convenience store, so we just had to go to the counter and use whatever Japanese we could muster to request tickets. My friend Sally purchased mine for me without issue, but Carl said that he was handed a large burrito when he attempted to ask for tickets. So close!
On the drive down, Sally shared interesting sumo facts that she gleaned from Wikipedia. We learned that their entire lives are regulated by systems and rules. The most junior wrestlers make the least amount of money, wake up the earliest, and wear a thin robe even in winter. With time and success, they may rise through the ranks and become one of the sekitori, or senior wrestlers.
The strict organization was evident as soon as we arrived at the tournament. Many sumo wrestlers surrounded the dohyo, a sort of raised platform wrestling ring covered in dirt and clay. Periodically, tournament workers would throw out a new layer of clay as the sumos somersaulted and pushed each other across it, slowly wearing it down.
Around the dohyo, the sumos-in-training stood, watching intently. They observed the wrestlers as they began their morning warm-up, always ready with the towel to wipe off any dirt. For the more famous sumos, three helpers would swarm whenever he stood still: one held an energy drink close at the ready, one held a box of tissues, one fervently wiped him clean.
We had come early with plenty of time to watch the morning warm-ups and practice, which was a great! Mid-morning, a Russian sumo (did you know that was a thing?) announced that the Okinawa Little Sumo’s Club would now be wrestling the great Hakuho.
Or so I deduced, because let’s face it, my Japanese is so-so.
The crowd went wild for Hakuho! My coworker had told me about him in advance, so I joined everyone else in wildly taking photos. He thundered out with all the swagger of a Sumo Champion King, three assistants trailing close behind.
Facing him, thirty kids of all ages in sumo garb lined up to meet their match. From behind them, a really big kid, probably about sixteen, emerged looking fierce. It started to feel like David and Goliath, or rather Goliath vs. bigger Goliath.
It all started with the Russian sumo, Amuuru, facing off against five four-year olds. They ran at him, giggling, and hugged his legs. Amuuru looked more confused than frightened, and picked up a kid in each hand and swung them around, helictoper-style. After a good amount of hugging, they called it a tie and bowed to each other, saying a heartfelt thank you. My heart melted at the pure adorableness that continued, as big sumos fought little sumos of varying ages–it was truly perfect.
But the really big kid was still there in the corner, waiting. He got up into the dohyo, and I could not believe how big he was–he must have been 300 pounds. Hakuho laughed, unfazed.
There was a ritual with throwing salt, which I learned was for purification. Then, each squatted into position, and once Hakuho tapped the ground, they wrestled. He was a great sport; he let this huge kid wrestle him for a long while before he eventually tossed him onto his back like a toy. On the third round, Hakuho made a show of being tossed, and the crowd cheered for our own Okinawan sumo wrestler-to-be.
Around this time, I started to squirm. My seat was amazingly close to the action, but my American butt was unused to sitting on the floor, even with the seat cushion I had purchased. All around me, people of all ages oohed and aahed at the celebrity sumos while I shifted in my seat, and finally moved back to an unclaimed chair-style seat in the nosebleed section.
Several sumos came to the front and performed an opening song to announce the official beginning of the tournament. After our first bout of real wrestling, it was mid-afternoon and we were all spent. We toasted to a very successful day with beers, then took a big sumo nap. Cheers!
- Sumo emotional meltdown. No idea what he was mad about, but we saw one sumo wrestler run out of morning practice, slam his hand against the water fountain and continue to curse to himself loudly. He had a total emotional breakdown in sumo attire, which was super interesting to watch.
- No shoes allowed. Weird, but cool! I was provided with a bag for my shoes on the way in, and remained barefoot the entire time.
- The smell of sumo hair. My coworker had told me that sumo wrestlers have an amazing smell to their hair, which at the time I thought was a strange comment. At the tournament, the air was filled with the scent of their pomade, which we learned was a mix of wax and chamomile oil…mmmmm.
- Waiting in line behind a sumo at a vending machine. Nbd.