Round One, Fight!

As November closes, I find myself struggling to get an article finished. It’s been a good month: I’ve explored a remote mountain valley, watched some Shintō dance, bounced on a floating rock and tried deep-fried garlic. It’s also been a busy month; since I got back from Fukuoka last week I’ve been bowling, celebrated a mate’s birthday, bought famous fabrics in Fukuyama and visited a 300-year-old sake brewery.

We’re getting towards the end of 2018, and I fully intend to do some summing up at some point soon. But first I need to talk a bit about my final adventures of the month. Let me introduce you to the sacred sport of Shintō, and perhaps the only one that considers obesity a professional advantage. I’ll meet you at the dohyō.

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IMG_2491.JPGWe set off for Fukuoka perilously early, the four of us- me, James, Chris and Yurika. I haven’t had a 6am wake-up call in a long time, and this one was less than welcome. Still, we made it onto the coach, and sped westward through the foggy morning. I don’t want to ramble too much today, because there’s been a few long blog posts recently, but Japanese petrol stations are quite the experience: clean, well-decorated, and only occasionally inhabited by terrifying carved ghost children riding carp.

Anyway, in Fukuoka, we caught the bus over to the International Center. I sat next to a rikishi (sumo wrestler) on the bus, his hair arranged into a tight topknot, his face a picture of scowling composure. The outside of the venue was marked by a line of flags. Inside, stalls sold sumo memorabilia: flags, postcards of colossal men grinning coyly, models of enchanted animals, and commemorative teatowels. Eat your heart out, Harry and Meghan.

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The arena itself probably seated about five thousand, and was surprisingly quiet. I guess sumo is a Japanese sport through and through. A few fans shouted for their sumo heroes, but most sat in respectful quiet, or chatted softly amongst themselves, cheering and shouting only as each bout reached its finale. And nobody shouts at the referee. We arrived during the upper intermediate juyro bouts.

The rituals associated with the sport are a pleasure to watch. The rikishi enter the dohyō, or ring, from the east and west. We were seated west, and it’s a testament to the arbitrary ferocity of human tribalism that I quickly found myself rooting for ‘our side’ (quite literally). The wrestlers then commence a ritual of squatting, raising their arms to the roof, and clapping. While squatting, they raise each leg in turn, and stamp with all their power. This is supposed to be to banish evil spirits, but to be frank, I don’t fully believe that. The parallels with psych-out pre-game rituals like the Haka are too strong. Not for the first time, I saw evidence of deep Polynesian roots in Japanese culture*. The contestants also throw salt to cleanse the ring. One rikishi threw more salt than usual and got a big cheer- didn’t seem that impressive to me, but what do I know.

IMG_2508.JPGThe matches themselves were different from what I was expecting. They were usually very brief and intense, with more time spent on the build-up than on each fight. Matches end when the losing candidate is hurled to the floor or pushed out of the ring; if the winner follows them by a second it doesn’t matter. A few times a wrestler was pushed back right against the ring, only to suddenly break free and stampede the other rikishi all the way to the other side of the ring. Often wrestlers will remain locked in an intense grapple, and then in a flash one will be thrown to the ground. Lots of slightly hilarious slapping also gets thrown into the mix, like some cartoon catfight. All in all, most matches took thirty seconds to one minute.

None of the yokozuna (former grand tournament winners) were present, but the final took place between two ozeki, Tochinoshin Tsuyoshi and Takayasu Akira, competed for honour and a substantial cash prize. Tochinoshin was fighting under an assumed name; unlike most of his competitors, he wasn’t born in the archipelago, but hails from Mtskheta, Georgia. Sumo has been slow to open to foreign competitors, but these days around 5% of the top wrestlers are gaikokujin, mostly from Mongolia, Belarus, Russia and Georgia.

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In the end, the final was an anti-climax. Tochinoshin never really found his strike, and was pushed out of the ring without too much fuss by Takayasu, to the evident delight of the crowd. We finished our drinks, and headed out into Fukuoka for yakitori and gyoza. The next day we found Sumiyoshi-jinja, a shrine built in honor of the sacred sport.

I could go on. I could go on about Fukuoka’s sleek modernity and questionable culinary delights. I could talk about Fukuyama’s weird concrete garden, or its historic belltower or my ongoing efforts to speak Japanese. But if I do, I’ll never finish. So I’ll leave you with some pictures from Tomonoura, perhaps my new favourite place I’ve visited. I’ll explain later; there isn’t time.

* More about this in the new year?

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