Fabulous fat men in Fukuoka
When we got to Japan we were devastated to hear that sumo season was over. Between that and only spotting one geisha, our to do list was looking pretty meager. Luckily Giles and Anne , in their infinite wisdom, informed us that the sumo tournament was only just beginning in Fukuoka so, ignoring Lonely Planet’s advice that people start queueing at dawn for the special (and cheap) ‘on the day’ tickets, we picked up our Japanese Rail passes and massive backpacks and headed straight for Japan’s second city.
We managed to blag the cheap seats for that day for 2,100 yen (around 16 euro) but it being only 11am, the stadium was pretty empty so we had someone else’s ringside (sweat splatter) seats until around 2.30pm. The tournament runs from 8.30am until 6pm every day for the duration of the festival, starting with the lower level sumos and moving onto the world’s best in the afternoon. Surprisingly, there are only around 800 sumo wrestlers currently competing, as Japanese boys move towards the country’s latest craze – baseball.
I had always imagined sumo to be an epic battle between two massive forces of nature so when the first few competitors came into the ring, weighing little over 14 stone, I was a bit disappointed. Fortunately as the day progressed, they got bigger, until they weight around 1 kilo less than a fully grown sperm whale. I was also surprised by the amount of ceremony involved (apparently sumo was originally part of a religious ritual).
The first person to enter the stage is a man in traditional dress (looking a little like a medieval squire) who sings/chants the competitor’s name. The sumo then hauls himself into the ring, a circle with a diameter of around 15ft on a sand platform. They stretch, lifting one swollen foot over their head before stomping it down on the ground and repeating with the other foot. Then they square up, squatting down, before standing up and walking out of the ring. The referee (also in traditional dress) dances about a bit and the sumos return, squat and sometimes, leave again.
After around 10 minutes of this the fat (or sometimes not so fat) men finally get to it. The referee starts yelping like an injured seal (apparently shouting encouragement) and they rush at each other, colliding and sending all their rolls of fat (and in one sumos case four boobs) quivering towards their rear in fear.
Oftentimes this is all it takes. One puts his shoulder down lower and the other, defying the law of gravity, soars over his back, suspended gracefully mid-air in a backflip for one terrifying moment, before he hits the floor/judge/closest audience member. And that’s it. After all the ceremony, chanting and prancing, they hobble back to the stage, bow and exit the room demurely. Sumo wrestlers, unlike Irish football fans, are not permitted to show emotion after winning or losing a bout.
The best fights are the ones where the wrestlers weigh about the same and have similar strength. When their shoulders meet, neither gives way and they wrap their free arm around each other. This leads to a standoff which, after a few minutes, starts to look a bit more like the world’s fleshiest cuddle.
You would think that seven and a half hours of watching a foreign sport in an unintelligible language with a seemingly endless routine of unrecognizable religious rituals, would be too much of a good thing. But its not. As the day went on it got more and more exciting and, as the more successful sumos arrived, the crowd got more and more excited. A queue of people waiting to greet the world champions formed outside the stadium and with all the screaming teenagers and swooning women, you would have been excused for thinking that you were at a Take That concert.
We left feeling like kids who had spent the day at Disney, practicing our squats and splits and stamping on the bus, just daring people twice our size to take us on. And why not? Sumo has it all – morbidly obese men, thongs, long flowing locks, bear hugs, elaborate costumes, injured sea creatures, gravity defying belly flops and the ever present fear that the next time they fall, it could be on you. What more could you want from a sport?
More photos of sumo in Fukuoka are available in the gallery.