Two very large men are facing each other in a kind of circular boxing ring in a central Osaka arena. They show off standing on one leg, balancing their 150 kg or more in the air before throwing salt in the ring, turning around, throwing more salt, and finally getting down in the centre of the ring, only a meter or so apart. Following a sign from the referee, both touch the ground with their hands and storm into each other. In less than a minute the fight is over.
The Japanese Sumo tournaments, which take place only 6 times a year, taking turns between Tokyo and one of the 3 other locations, follow strict rules based on centuries-old Shinto rituals. The parades, the ritual entry of the participants, the show-off before each contest, are the main draw to visit unless you are familiar with the dozens techniques used to destabilise the opponent. The rules of the actual match are quite easy: A circular rope on the clay floor marks the space where the two rikishi (ringers) are allowed to stand. The one who first steps out of the ring or touches the ground with anything else than his soles is the loser.
To have a chance in such a sport, Sumo rikishi tend to be tall, very heavy, and surprisingly muscular. In fact, a large share of the top sportsmen nowadays are not Japanese, but Hawaiians or Mongolians. There is also a Bulgarian in the Makunouchi division, the top league, as well as an Egyptian with the beautiful Sumo name of “Ôsunaarashi” – Great Sandstorm. All the sumo wrestlers in the professional division have a ring name.
Hakuho (=White Phoenix) was the second Mongolian to be promoted to the top rank in Sumo, the rank of Yokozuna, in 2007. He has just turned 30, and became the most successful Sumo rikishi ever earlier this year when he won the Makunouchi tournament, the Emperor's Cup, for the 33rd time. Remember, there's only 6 tournaments a year! Eleven of these, he won undefeated, i.e. winning all 15 individual bouts (one on each day of the two-week tournament). On the thirteenth day of the Spring tournament, he lost against Terunofuji. It was his first defeat after 36 consecutive victories. Nevertheless, Hakuho was again the champion after 15 days, claiming his 34th Emperor's Cup.
Unfortunately, we missed the chance to see Endo in this tournament as he pulled out earlier due to a knee injury. The 26 year-old rikishi from Kanazawa is a very popular newcomer in the highest division. He became a professional rikishi in 2013 and rose so quickly that his hair did not grow fast enough to be made into the traditional top knot by the time he was in the top division, something practically unheard of.
If you have never been to a Sumo match you might be under the impression that this is a so-called sport where obese men bump into each other and not exactly something you would want to watch. But give it a try - the atmosphere is really unique, and not a few sceptics turn out quite enthusiastic.
Schedule: The Spring Basho took place this year on 8 to 22 March in Osaka. The next tournament, the Summer Basho, will take place in Tokyo on 10 to 24 May.