Posts tagged ‘ritual’
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.
13th November 2009
*Warning: contains scenes of nudity that may offend/horrify some readers.
At 6.49pm Kyoto time today, I somehow found myself sitting on an upside-down bucket, being scrubbed down by a very small, very old, very naked Japanese woman. She was trying valiantly to teach me Japanese but, being that she didn’t speak any english and that my entire grounding in her language consists of exactly three words, that panned out to be a much more arduous task than removing all those layers of dead skin from my back.
Are you confused? Vaguely aroused? I had better start from the start then. Today we had our first onsen, a Japanese public bath that is traditionally located in a natural hot spring but is reproduced artificially in cities across the country. Much like the Hungarian equivalent, this means a combination of various baths – from hot to cold and everything in between. and much like all other Japanese traditions, attending an onsen is an event with a lot of very specific rituals around it.
Before today I had a lot of preconceived notions about what it was to take a bath. For one, I thought that the purpose of a bath was to clean oneself. Wrong. Bathing is apparently what you do after you are clean.
The ritual begins when you walk through the door. Like everywhere else in Japan your shoes come off at the door. After paying and, if you are not properly equipped, buying a wash cloth and soap, you head for the changing room where men and women are separated and the rate of undressing accelerates. Here you leave all your clothes and walk naked with your washcloth and soap (trying desperately to cover yourself with 5 square inches of cloth) into the onsen, collecting a basin as you go.
Now comes phase one. Sitting on an upside-down bucket you scrub every inch of your body until you are red raw, trying desperately to keep your bare bum on the bucket as you get slippier and slippier. If you are a westerner, a quick glance around you at this point will make two things clear – 1. You are the only person who is having difficulty staying on their bucket and 2. You have a captive audience who are, at this stage, supressing their giggles. Plant your two feet firmly on the floor and get on with it. Two bruised bum cheeks and several bars of soap later, you are now permitted to choose a bath and dive in.
For us, the choice was endless in Funaoka Onsen, with simple cold and hot pools, a jacuzzi, a sauna and, best of all, an outdoor pool – a sheltered, heated bath made of the softest, smoothest wood with a bamboo trunk for a tap. It was utter bliss until it got crowded with naked octogenarians and I was forced to dash inside for the sauna, followed by a dunk in the ice cold pool – strangely enough, that one was empty.
Now pretty confident with my new fleshy look, I plucked up the courage to swagger over to the more adventurous pools. First off was the herbal pool which was a vivid shade of orange and approximately half a degree below boiling point. Gary says that this bit made him feel a little stoned but I just got bored and started to worry about coming out looking like a Cheesy Wotsit.
Finally I tried the electrical pool – distinguishable by the presence of a series of plug sockets at around knee height. I’m not certain how that was supposed to feel but I had the sensation that all of my joints were dislocating themselves. Let’s just say that I won’t be hopping into my tub with a hairdryer any time soon.
Just in case the seven pools, sauna and various hosing downs don’t leave you squeaky clean, the last step to onsen-fresh skin is another vigorous scrub down using liberal amounts of soap and a rough cloth. Apparently I wasn’t quite up to scratch on my vigorous scrubbing skills however, as the aforementioned old woman was forced to take over with her scrubbing brush and organic soap (without a word of warning, might I add).
As clean as a whistle, I floated outside to meet Gary who, after an hour and a half with dozens of naked Asian men, had a new found confidence and a swagger in his step.
As we were unable to take a camera into the Onsen (for obvious reasons) the pictures used in this post are courtesy of Google Images.