This travel blog from Andrew Killeen from our sister magazine beijingkids details his Japanese adventures this week over spring break with two school-age kids.
On Sunday we played the final day of the Spring Sumo Tournament (they said) in Osaka.
This represents the fulfillment of a decades-long dream of mine. In my teenage years, just as I was discovering Kurosawa’s films and the crazy world of anime, sumo wrestling was routinely shown on British TV in just a few years.The show airs on Channel 4, a network known for broadcasting lesser-known minority sporting events such as Kabaddiwheelchair curling and American football.
But sumo captured my imagination: the occult rituals that revealed the sport’s religious origins, the contrast between the sumo wrestlers’ massive stature and their delicate, almost ballet-like grace, the explosive ferocity and unpredictability of the game. So when I knew we were going to Japan, I started checking the dates and booking tickets.
I’ve heard people say sumo is fat guys pushing each other. Of course this is true, just as King Lear is just a language people speak and the Taj Mahal is just a pile of stones. Like any sport, in order to appreciate it you have to know it and understand the characters and drama that give it its narrative form.
So I try to make sure the kids have a sense of what’s going on. We watched Youtube videos and discussed the rules and history of the sport. Perhaps more importantly, they knew it was Dad’s big day and I would be pissed if they ruined my holiday. Or more likely cry.
As we approached the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium, it was easy to see that we were in the right place. Colorful flags were flying outside, and a large crowd gathered in the street. We arrived at the same time as the limousines carrying many of the senior wrestlers, and although people crowded behind the barriers shouting at them and taking pictures of them, we were bewildered to discover we were simply entering using the same entrance as the stars.
Inside is the usual mix at sporting events around the world: the smell of testosterone, overpriced snacks and memorabilia, throngs of raving fans, bewildered sightseers and glamorous diners.Finding our seats was a challenge as the numbers on our tickets didn’t seem to bear any resemblance to the seat numbers but had to be explained through a code book eg Chico’s day in the game tips. Finally we found a kind volunteer who translated for us and guided us to our seats.
That’s not the only misleading information on the tickets. After 13 hours of travel the previous day, we were surprised to find out that the activity started at 8.30am. Googling shows that the morning races are run by teens and amateurs, with no one actually getting there until 2pm at the earliest. Even after we arrived, the seats continued to fill, and the atmosphere grew more intense as the afternoon wore on, with the one person ahead of us only in time for the last three games.
My initial concern was that the boys would get bored and start playing. We brought them books to read when they were restless, but the books remained in the bag. There is always something going on: between bouts there are parades, chanting, and of course the stomping and salting rituals that make sumo so unique. The match itself is usually over in a matter of seconds, but the match can be won or lost depending on prologues, stares, mind games, and the buildup of adrenaline.
Four hours passed quickly and it all came down to the final decider. At this time, the venue was full of seats, the crowd was noisy, and the atmosphere was tense. Finally, the knuckles fell and the challenger charged, with the champion simply stepping aside to help him out of the ring. It was a strangely anticlimactic end to an exciting day that we later learned was a controversial affair. Dodging, while legal, was considered immoral, and poor Shiraho was booed in a post-match interview. He even cried.
On the other hand, I didn’t cry. The boys are engrossed in the competition from their seats, only occasionally needing to go outside to practice their sumo skills.Joseph informed that he had given up on his plans to become a football goalkeeper and intended to become a Li Zhi instead. He promised to buy me a house in Japan when I expressed concern about the idea of him eating such an unhealthy diet. On second thought, son, let’s have another bowl of rice. Come on, come on two.
This article originally appeared on our sister site Beijing kids.
Photo: online.wsj.com, Andrew Keeling