Yokozuna Hakuho performs the Yokozuna ring-entering ceremony at the opening day of the January Grand Sumo Tournament. Photo: Chris Owen
Yokozuna Hakuho performs the Yokozuna ring-entering ceremony at the opening day of the January Grand Sumo Tournament. Photo: Chris Owen

Sumo: so much more than obese men in g-strings

"SO, who is Number 1 sumo?" I asked a Japanese vendor in broken English.

"Hakuho," the vendor replied, as if the answer was obvious. "He is yokozuna - champion of champions."

It was the second last day of my trip to Japan and my friends and I had bought tickets to the opening of the January Grand Sumo Tournament.

I, like many foreigners, knew very little about sumo. I thought it was just two obese men in oversized g-strings smashing their bulging bodies into each other.

When I arrived at Sumo Stadium in Ryogoku, Tokyo, I bought a program so I could educate myself on Japan's national sport.

I had asked the vendor which wrestler - or 'rikishi' - was the best, because I wanted to know who to look out for. The one he recommended - Hakuho - is the Roger Federer of sumo.

He was one of only three competitors in the tournament to have been promoted to the highest rank of yokozuna.

I later learned sumo wrestling had a strict hierarchy based on sporting merit. Wrestlers are promoted or demoted according to their performance in six official tournaments each year.

Each tournament or 'basho' lasts 15 days, with each wrestler fighting once every day against a different opponent. The winner is whoever has the best record of wins over losses. He is awarded the Emperors Cup.

Hakuho, a 157kg, 29-year-old wrestler from Mongolia, was looking to break the record of most tournament wins - 33.

Sumo is an all-day affair, but most spectators skip the morning matches and arrive later in the day when the higher-ranked wrestlers are scheduled to compete. By mid-afternoon, the 13,000-seat Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Arena was almost at capacity.

My friends and I bought our tickets in advance through a website called buysumotickets.com. When attending a tournament, you have the option of sitting in modern, stadium-style chair seats or traditional Japanese-style floor cushions.

If you can afford the cushions, you will be closer to the action, though sitting cross-legged on a mat seat for hours can get a bit uncomfortable. We were in the cheapest seats which cost about $60 but still had a great view of the dohyo - the ring. The dohyo is 18 feet square and two feet high and is constructed of a special clay. The bout is confined to an inner circle a little over 15 feet in diameter.

The rules are simple: the wrestler who first exits the ring or touches the ground with any part of his body, besides the soles of his feet, loses. Sumo dates back 2000 years and has strict rituals and traditions. First-time spectators soon realise that little time is actually spent grappling. Rather, the rikishi spend most of the time performing pre-bout ceremonies.

After entering the dohyo each rikishi goes through a series of symbolic movements that serve to purify the ring and make offerings to the gods. Finally, the two men square off. They squat on their toes and put their fists to the ground and glare defiantly, attempting to psych each other out.

Suddenly the two giant wrestlers leap at each other with the ferocity and speed of runaway trucks. Although the wrestlers may look like giant babies, they are super athletes. Under a layer of smooth blubber is powerful muscle.

After a few matches I was hooked. Sumo is an ancient, disciplined, tough sport, but best of all it's tonnes of fun - literally.

2015 Sumo Tournament

  •  New Year Basho in Tokyo: January 11 - 25
  •  Spring Basho in Osaka: March 8 - 22 (tickets on sale from February 1)
  •  Summer Basho in Tokyo: May 10 - 24 (tickets on sale from April 4)
  •  Nagoya Basho in Nagoya: July 12 - 26 (tickets on sale from May 21)
  •  Autumn Basho in Tokyo: September 13 - 27 (tickets on sale from August 8)
  •  Kyushu Basho in Fukoka: November 8 - 22 (Tickets on sale from October 3)

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