Finding Nemo

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sumo Wrestler Stand-off

Good short clip on Sumo
Like many foreigners, I find sumo wrestling fascinating.  As in Muay Thai boxing, there are layers of mysticism and ritual built into the sport.  While the build-up to a bout can last several minutes, the match is usually over in seconds.  From wikipedia:
"On mounting the dohyō the wrestler performs a number of rituals derived from Shinto practice. Facing the audience, he claps his hands and then performs the leg-stomping shiko exercise to drive evil spirits from the dohyō as the gyōji, or referee, who will coordinate the bout announces the wrestlers' names once more. Stepping out of the ring into their corners, each wrestler is given a ladleful of water, the chikara-mizu ("power water"), with which he rinses out his mouth; and a paper tissue, the chikara-gami ("power paper"), to dry his lips. Then both step back into the ring, squat facing each other, clap their hands, then spread them wide (traditionally to show they have no weapons). Returning to their corners they each pick up a handful of salt which they toss onto the ring to purify it.
Finally the wrestlers crouch down at the shikiri-sen, or starting lines, each trying to stare the other down. When both wrestlers place both fists on the ground on or behind the shikiri-sen, they spring from their crouch for the tachi-ai (the initial charge). In the upper divisions they almost never charge on the first occasion. Instead, after staring at one another, they return to their corners for more mental preparation. More salt is thrown whenever they step back into the ring. This can happen a number of times (about three, or even more in the case of the highest ranks) until on the last occasion the referee informs them they must start the bout. The total length of time for this preparation is around four minutes for the top division wrestlers..."

Sumo Training
The regularly scheduled tournament in Osaka had been cancelled due to the massive bout fixing scandal that had broke only a month before I arrived.  I was devastated but determined to see sumo anyway.  I did a little research online and found that some of the stables let gaijin like myself come watch the training.  I had my hotel desk call one and they said sure come on over in the morning.  The next morning, after inadvertantly sneaking into the Tsukiji fish market, I hopped the subway over to Royogoku to check out some practice.

Eventually I arrived at an ordinary looking Tokyo house.  I rechecked the address, this must be it.  I pulled out a piece of paper on which I had written down a few bits of Japanese to get me into the training room in one piece, and practiced my lines.  "Watashi wa keiko sumo deska?"  Feeling confident, I pressed the buzzer.  After a moment someone spoke to me quickly in Japanese.  I slowly told them I wanted to watch sumo training.  There was a pause, then more Japanese.  I stared stupidly at my sheet of paper, realizing that I was in way over my head.  Finally, the man said simply, "come up."  At least, that what I thought I heard.  I opened the door and looked around.  I was in someone's house, but there was noone there.  My hope of a welcoming host speaking at least some English quickly vanished.  I didn't know what to do.  I peered around a corner, and saw massive shadows slapping themselves beyond a screen door.  Well, at least I was in the right place.  Feeling like a burglar, I tiptoed up to the door and paused.  Then I sucked in a breath, and opened the door.

This pretty much summed up our encounter
Inside 10 giant men in thongs froze in mid-slap and as a group stared at me in complete shock.  I stared back in fear.  A few seconds passed in the mexican sumo stand-off.  I resisted the urge to pee, pulled out my paper, and said, "  uh,.  watashi wa ...  keiko sumo deska."  "Gozaiimas (please)?"  More staring.  I backed up a foot, shut the screen door, and exhaled.  There was a bunch of Japanese talking.  Then a minute later, the slapping continued.  I decided to walk up the stairs and find the person we'd spoke to on the phone.  The next floor up, I encountered an old Japanese lady berating her poor husband and shaking a finger.  When she picked up a dinner plate, I decided to move on.  I walked up another floor and encountered a locked door.  I went back downstairs.  One of the giant men came out in his thong, he stood a full head taller than me and was twice as thick around.   His eyes were still wide with surprise.  I repeated my query weakly.  He held up his hands in an "X", the universal sign for "No frickin' way, dude."

 I picked up my umbrella, and, defeated, walked out in the rain.  Lesson learned: when burglarizing a house of sumo, bring a translator.  And maybe a nice bottle of sake.

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