File this under seasonsinvermont and beyond. Way beyond. On a trip to Tokyo not long ago, we managed to score a visit to a training session at a sumo stable. Our guide was a retired wrestler who brought us to his stable in Ryogoku- (Sumo Town) just outside the Tokyo city center. When we arrived at the stable, an unremarkable looking apartment house, we were led into a small room with a dirt ring in the center and a narrow wooden platform along the edge. We were instructed to remove our shoes, bow upon entry and sit quietly and cross-legged on the platform (it’s considered disrespectful to expose the soles of your feet to the wrestlers). There would be no talking or excess movement, although pictures and video were okay as long as the camera sounds were off. What we had was an up close and personal, ringside seat to this bewildering, bizarre and ancient sport of sumo. So in honor of the just completed Grand May Tournament in Kokugikan, here it is….
10 things you always wanted to know about sumo but were afraid to ask.
1. What do those guys weigh?
The average weight of a sumo wrestler, also called a Rikishi, is around 350 pounds, but they can range anywhere between 250 pounds and 450 pounds, plus some. There is a lot of muscle under all that fat, but bigger is not always better when it comes to winning matches. Some of the winningest wrestlers were have been under 300 pounds. All the extra tonnage takes its toll on a body – heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes all contribute to an average life expectancy of only 63 years.
2. What’s the story with the man bun?
The man buns sported by sumo are called Chonmage. The hairstyle has its origins with samauri, and is an important symbol of honor for the Rikishi. Special barbers, called Tokoyama, are employed to style wreslter’s hair- the profession is highly respected and often continued for generations within a family. Tokoyama must train for a minimum of 10 years before they are allowed to coif a professional wrestler. The hair is heavily oiled and combed into a top knot, or for highly ranked tournament wrestlers, it is pulled forward and fanned out into a “ginko” leaf shape on the top of the head. When a wrestler retires, the top knot is ceremoniously cut off.
3. What is it – sport, religion or martial art?
Sumo is a hugely popular sport in Japan and wrestlers are revered celebrities. The sport has its spiritual roots in ancient Shinto tradition, where wrestlers performed for the entertainment of the dieties. It emerged as a professional sport in the 1600’s and has maintained many of it’s ancient symbols and traditional rituals that carry spiritual significance. Before each bout, the wrestlers sprinkle salt on the ring as a purification ritual and to protect them from injury. Sumo wrestlers have special traditional garments that they are required to wear in public, and they are expected to carry themselves in a dignified and honorable way at all times. Women are not allowed to be sumo wrestlers in Japan.
4. What’s the objective?
Sumo matches take place in a ring (called a dohyo) made of clay and sand. Sumo is a full contact sport and the wrestlers impact one another, flesh rippling, as they try to push each other off balance. The first wrestler to be pushed out of the ring, or to touch the ring with anything other than the sole of his foot is the loser. There are no formal weight classes within the divisions, so wrestlers competing against one another may be very different in size. Matches usually last less than a minute.
5. Breakfast of champions- what is the sumo diet?
The diet of a Sumo wrestler consists of about 10,000 calories packed into two gigantic meals. The main dish they eat is called Chanko-nabe- a Japanese stew with fish, veggies, meat and tofu, served with bowl after bowl of rice and washed down with beer. Lots of it. Strangely enough, wrestlers do not eat breakfast. By training first thing in the morning, and skipping breakfast, they slow down their metabolism and build up their appetites allowing them to consume more during the day and pack on the pounds. After lunch, they take a good long power nap and then train until –dinner. More Chanko-nabe, rice and lots more beer. Incidentally, many wrestlers open popular Chanko-nabe restaurants when they retire- so if you want to eat like a sumo next time you’re in Tokyo, try one ofthese.
6. What’s with the loin cloth?
The loin cloth that wrestlers wear is called a Mawashi and is actually a 30 foot long piece of cotton canvas (worn during training) or silk (worn for tournaments), wrapped many times around the body of the wrestler and knotted in the back. Grabbing and pulling on an opponent’s Mawashi during a match is an acceptable strategy some wrestlers use to put their opponent off balance. If it comes off, the wrestler who loses his Mawashi is disqualified, and presumably pretty embarrassed, so wardrobe malfunctions are carefully avoided. Oh, and those sweaty loincloths are never ever washed. Sumo believe that in addition to weakening the fabric, washing it could result in washing away the accumulated…um… good luck.
7. How do sumo live?
Sumo live and train year round in stables. Stables are commune-like centers that are run by stable-masters, who are usually ex-wrestlers, and have a distinct hierarchy of privilege and discipline. Each stable is like an extended family and all wrestlers have specific duties, routines and strict codes of conduct. Young men who wish to become sumo wrestlers can join a stable as a novice apprentice around age 15, or sometimes younger. They will leave their families to live with other sumo in a stable for the duration of their career. Wrestlers never change stables and wrestlers from the same stable rarely compete against one another in tournaments.
8. Is hazing a part of stable life?
Hazing is a part of sumo training. As young, low ranked members of a stable, life is difficult. The younger, lower ranked wrestlers are expected to do chores, errands and extra work, wait on higher ranked wrestlers and endure physical punishment as part of their training to develop their mental toughness. They must eat last, and whatever is left over by the older wrestlers, clean up after the others, clean and maintain the stable, ring and living quarters. A novice initiation might even include physical beating. In a 2008 hazing incident, a 17 year old sumo novice was beaten to death by three other wrestlers in his stable, at the direction of his stable master. The scandal exposed some appalling hazing practices, which have been outlawed since.
9. What’s with the stomping and deep knee bends?
As gigantic as Sumo are, they are also amazingly flexible. Much of their day is spent in training doing ritual moves to increase strength and flexibility. Traditional moves include foot stomping, lunging, and repeatedly smacking into another object (or wrestler). Stomping moves involve a wrestler standing with feet wide apart, raising one leg high into the air and then bringing it down with a thundering stomp. Another training move to increase flexibility is squatting, feet flat on the ground with legs far apart, leaning forward so that the belly touches the ground. We watched as a young man was instructed to pick up a huge boulder that was just outside of the ring, and carry it around the ring several times while intermittently doing deep knee bends.
10. Tournaments and ranking
There are 6 divisions of sumo, ranked in a hierarchy from lowest to highest. The highest, most skilled divisions are known as the Sekitori, and garner the most attention and public devotion. There are 6 grand tournaments held every year in Japan, lasting about 15 days each, during which wrestlers compete to advance to the finals. Undefeated wrestlers match up on the final day of the tournament to compete for the grand champion title of Yokozuna. May 22, 2016 was the final day of the May tournament. Hakuho, a now 37 time champion won the tournament with a controversial side step move called a Henka. Click here to read about the final bout in the Japan Times. Want to see that controversial move in action? Check out the Henka move here.
I’ve never felt so petite.