Sumo is a big deal here. It's huge. Like, they are celebrities that date the supermodels. We witnessed their elite status at the Nagoya Basho (one of six 15-day championship tournaments they have each year) as hoards of women, all ages, and men in fact, anxiously awaited the wrestlers as they arrived at the facility, snapping photos and swooning. A Red Carpet of sorts (this was lined with baskets of sunflowers and had no carpet at all, but pure pavement - which adds to the experience as you can hear their wooden-bottomed flip-flops dragging with immense force) is full of press and cheering fans.
But that came later for the Big Time Celebrity Sumos. We were there early and saw how the excitement built throughout the day.
Not many fans were around the stadium when we first arrived at 10:30 in the morning. We knew this was amateur hour, but we went anyway, wanting to get the whole experience. We passed by a bunch of patterned-cotton-kimono'ed Sumos as they wobbled over to the Aichi Prefecture Gymnasium for their daily match. Sheryl asked to take a photo with, what appears to be, a very serious - some may call surly or grumpy by his manner - of Sumos. Maybe he was getting himself in The Sumo Zone?
Once inside the barely attended stadium, we were able to get up close for the first round. Up so close one can really get an appreciation for the size of their body parts, since most parts are bare and exposed. Matthew guessed one had a day job at the Nagoya Hooters (which is a real place). The seats surrounding the ring weren't really seats at all, but square cushions on the floor. Fans sit a few feet removed from the raised-ring circle-platform: this is for their safety as we later saw why: Quarter-ton men roll over its sides or are pushed off and onto whatever lies below.
Each match lasts less than 10 seconds. Well, I should clarify and say, the actual fighting time, is less than 10 seconds. Don't blink. There is no JumboTron to replay any matches. And there is no weight classes: some big guys fought wicked big guys. Some "underweights" actually won. No matter the size, they each had a slicked top knot. There are 4 judges ringside (in case of a dispute), a caller who belts out in a singing/Rene Rencourt-y way the winner of the match, the maintenance crew (who broom the dirt-ring smooth) and the ref, who always donned the nicest of outfits. The colors and the patterns and the fabrics are way nicer than the NFL's black-and-white striped polyester.
We asked more questions than got answers:
Tassels dangled from each 'uniform': what do the tassels mean?
Tassels matched their uniform thong color - are they leveled like karate belt colors?
How does one get so big? What is their daily diet?
Do you think they need to buy two seats on an airplane?
The tourney is 15 days - how many matches do they fight? And is it single elimination?
After we got back from our lunch break (which you are only allowed ONE break - they secret stamp your hand and mark your ticket) we definitely, even as novice Sumo fans, could see the difference in caliber. More pomp and circumstance, more colorfully elaborate apron-uniforms, more salt throwing, more sumo moves. Plus the stadium was crowded for the second round and packed and rowdy for the third round.
This sport is like no other. It is typically Japanese, in my opinion, as there is a lot of ritual, spirituality, intimidation, and a whole lotta waiting. During the second and third rounds, they got their own pillow cushion to sit on while waiting ringside for their match. There is more of an entourage, with an awaiting cloth to wipe the sweat (from walking into the arena?). There are three, at times more, trips to the respective corners for a wipe or for another handful of salt. There is more standing, leg extending (what great balance!), squatting, clapping and slapping of the body - all parts. It's all part of the intimidation of pre-game, but when the pre-game outlasts the actual fighting multiple times over, it loses me a bit. The anticipation of, is it going to start now? now? How about now? It finally starts when the ref is ready and both Sumos have touched both fists down in the ring. I think. It all happens just so quickly.
The winner is the first to push the other out of the ring, or make the other touch the ring floor with any body part other than the soles of his feet.
Surprisingly, there were two white men Sumos. They could be identified by their hairy backs. The third-rounder won his match! For the record, like geisha, Sumos take cabs too. And we discovered during our lunch break, some take the subway after the match. They must be the losers.