The long standing tradition of the Kyushu Sumo Basho (tournament) is currently taking place in downtown Fukuoka. However, before the awesome power of the rikishi (wrestlers) could be witnessed and new legends forged, the stage was set by an opening ceremony of sorts: Fan Day.
Inside the atrium of the Fukuoka Kokusai Center, chouchin lamps decorated food vending stalls and sumo souvenir stands. Meanwhile, the inner arena was transformed by the dohyo (platform where the competition takes place) and the ornate suspended rooftop that hung above.
After a short opening announcement by a tournament official, the rikishi began their performance of the dohyo-iri, a grand entrance ceremony performed to open the festivities. All the rikishi were giants of varying degrees and, replete in decorated mawashi (sumo belt), the wrestlers assembled on the stage. Each wrestler’s mawashi is made from silk and embroidered with a unique design.
With the rikishi introduced, one of the yokozuna (grand sumo champion) reentered the arena, flanked by two other wrestlers and a referee. One of the wrestlers bore a sheathed samurai sword known as a tachi.
Once on the stage, the yokozuna walked to the center. A powerful clap by the giant wrestler echoed throughout the arena, meant to awaken the gods. Two powerful stomps, meant to drive demons from the arena, followed the clap, and each stomp was accompanied by shouts from the crowd.
One of the competition officials attempted to thank the sponsors of the event, before being interrupted and upstaged by Kumamon running into the arena. Kumamon, ever the rebel, even got a smile out of one rikishi on stage by tickling the wrestler.
With a hop, Kumamon left the stage so that the rules of sumo could be explained. It was the best explanation of the rules I’ve ever seen. With the help of the well known comedian Tabus, two wrestlers got on stage for a comedic routine to demonstrate the rules. No kicking, no punching, no spitting flour or hitting the opponent with a slipper. Oh, and no spitting the water used for the ceremonial cleansing.
=================== Read our full guide to the Kyushu Basho online, here ===================
Mirroring the introduction ceremonies from earlier, child wrestlers entered the arena to perform the dohyo-iri. Although they did not resemble the adult wrestlers in weight, they performed the ceremonies with perfect accuracy and the utmost seriousness. With the ceremonial aspect seemingly mastered, it was time to up the ante.
Three giant rikishi stepped up to the dohyo, while at least a dozen children, dressed in their fighting mawashi, were led into the arena. The children’s task was simple, but difficult; try to force one of the adult wrestlers off the mat. It was six on one, but the children were systematically taken out of contention until no tiny challengers remained.
The next group, determined to do better, wildly charged toward their opponent. The wrestler danced around the ring, swatting off the children. Then, with a sudden surge, the children knocked the giant out of the ring! He fell, face first, onto the ground below. The wrestler informed the crowd that he was demonstrating how to lose.
Fan Day would not complete, of course, without karaoke. Three rikishi, clothed in formal kimonos, strode into the arena. The first two wrestlers delivered the performances you might expect, but the third wrestler was downright fantastic. He had the crowd waving their rolled up posters back and forth. At the crowd’s urging, he even performed an encore; the first time in history that there has ever been an encore, by the way.
The day concluded with an excellent showing from some of the child rikishi. They were impressive, despite their young age. Proud parents cheered them on from the stands as each child struggled to force the other off the dohyo. I get the feeling that we’ll be seeing some of these youngsters in future professional tournaments.
Once the festivities wrapped up, I headed out to find a former wrestler. I caught up with Hanakago-san and Tamagaki-san. Hanakago-san began wrestling when he was seventeen years old and competed for fifteen years. Tamagaki-san was an incredible twenty-eight when he began wrestling! Before his nine year career as a rikishi, he was a teacher.
Both men admitted that the age at which wrestlers begin their training varies wildly. Some wrestlers, like the children competing on Fan Day, start in middle-school. I asked them if they thought I could have a future in sumo. Hanakago-san quickly informed me that I did not. Oh well, I guess I’ll keep my day job.
Report by Nathan Spencer for Fukuoka Now. Photos by Rupert Singleton.
Read our full guide to the Kyushu Basho online, here