It’s still morning in England but on the other side of the globe, the evening drags its dark cloak over the Japanese sky.
Hatsune Igaki, a big fan of sumo wrestling, is at home, ready to share her knowledge of the traditional sport with me via Skype – well, if it actually is a sport.
“It is very hard to say whether it’s a sport or not, the English language does not have a proper word for it,” she says.
“Sumo is not so popular anymore – the young go for football or baseball, they are more interested in those kind of things”
“Sumo is very a traditional thing in Japan and it is tightly tied to its history. It started over 1,000 years ago and over the centuries very little has changed.
“The wrestlers still wear kimonos and their hair is done in a traditional way. You could say that sumo events are show-like, but the old style is kept everywhere in Japan. This is why I’m so into sumo, I like traditional things,” she explains.
Sumo might be equal parts sport and tradition, but in modern day Japan, Igaki laments, its cultural importance is declining.
“Sumo is not so popular in Japan anymore,” she says. “There are so many other sports that children can choose from. The young go for football or baseball, they are more interested in those kind of things.”
But, luckily and rather unexpectedly, the emergence of a group of particularly good-looking wrestlers has created a whole new fanbase, women who initially go along to watch them, and then end up becoming genuine fans of sumo.
”Since last year, many young women have started to go and watch it,” she said. “So, nowadays is quite hard to get a ticket because of these girls.”
Another thing that draws people to sumo is how fan-friendly it is. People can go and watch morning practice – something Igaki has done so for many years.
“Normally, they wake up around 5am or 6am, practice for maybe a couple of hours and after, they eat breakfast and go to sleep,” she explained. “Seriously, they must sleep. That is a part of the practice. They must sleep to get the weight.
“They only eat twice a day, but they consume huge portions. A wrestler once told me that if he ate more times a day he would lose the precious weight.”
“A fight can be over very quickly. When one wrestler pushes his opponent out of the ring or the other is thrown to the ground, it is all over”
A popular dish among the Sumo wrestlers is chankonabe. It is a stew containing mushrooms, onions, leafy greens and meat. Of course, the meal is accompanied by bowls of rice and other delicacies.
The Japanese word for a sumo bout is torukumi. Two men meet in a ring – the dohyō – and greet each other sitting crouched on the mat.
They must then rub their hands and finish the ritual by clapping one time and moving their arms to show that they are unarmed. Then, each wrestler places his hands on his knees.
After the command to start – torukumi – is yelled, the wrestlers rush to immediately try to get the upper hand. A fight can be over very quickly, with the most common forms of victory being when one pushes his opponent out of the ring or throws him to the ground.
“There are other ways of winning and losing as well,” Igaki explains. “Fall on your hands and knees and you have lost the torikumi.”
A tournament – basho – lasts for 15 days and every wrestler has only one torukumi a day. So, in total 15 fights.
“Every basho is important,” says Igaki. “Events are held in Tokyo, then in March in Osaka. Actually, Osaka basho started today [13th of March]”, she says, asking if it is possible to follow results from the UK.
“In May the wrestlers come back to Tokyo. Then to Nagoya. In September, they return to Tokyo, again. Then, it all ends at Fukuoka in November.
“After every basho a ranking is made. It indicates the results for every wrestler. By using the ranking, the basho organisers will make the match list,” Igaki explains.
Sumo is divided in to six ranked divisions, involving promotion and relegation, based on results. Wrestlers from the lowest cannot meet those more highly-ranked.
“A wrestler can make his way to a higher rank by winning torikumis. They can also fall to the bottom as well. If he loses, for example, more than 10 times and only wins five, then he’ll be fighting at a lower rank during the next basho.”
Igaki’s favorite wrestler is Hakuhō Shō, a 6ft 4in tall mashing machine. A Mongolian by birth, Shō holds the record of the most undefeated championships.
She remembers his early days in sumo: “I have supported him for more than 10 years now. When he started a decade ago, no-one knew his name. But he was a good wrestler and he is at the very top now. It is very exciting.”
From the champion, the conversation turns back to traditions and the centuries-old sumo diet.
“During a basho, they do not eat beef or pork, because these are four-legged animals. However, chicken and fish are seen as okay to consume.
“Do you know Japanese Kirin beer? Kirin means giraffe and because it has four legs the wrestlers avoid that beer,” Igaki laughs.
Photo courtesy of Better Than Bacon, via Flickr Creative Commons