Something I rarely mention in conversation to anyone is my deep fondness for bmx. I could spend hours on YouTube watching those sleeve tattoos and green dye jobs twist and flip in the air, holding my breath as one challenger’s fancy mid-air move turns into a grisly face palm into the hard concrete.
One stifling summer day in Budapest, I ventured down to the banks of the Danube to find an extreme biking tournament taking place, spectators lined up for a half-a-mile stretch on the Pest-side quay. I was impressed by the bikers and the daring moves they showcased, knowing full well I’d never have the control, balance, or skill to pull off such stunts.
Now, however, I believe I’ve found a sport in which I have a good chance: sumo wrestling. Following my arrival in Koriyama, and a delicious dinner with some of the school staff and seven wine glasses later, I came back to my new apartment to find that I had been generously provided a television. Although it had only six channels, I found plenty of interesting shows to watch (as I speak, the news channel is using a fun graphic to demonstrate what would happen should several earthquakes strike along the southern coast of Japan – more on my first earthquake experience here later), from incomprehensible, retina-blasting anime to Days-of-Our-Lives—style daytime dramas. And, of course, professional sumo wrestling.
If you’ve never watched sumo, I suggest you do, but not before reading a little bit about it first. The sport isn’t just two fat guys wearing tents around their junk, slapping their bulging stomachs and using their hilarious oompah-loompah arms to push their rhino-charging opponent from the ring.
A bout – ended by one of the wrestlers being pushed out of the ring or knocked down – usually lasts only seconds, but it’s the lead-up that can last minutes and effectively builds the anticipation; many older men can be seen in the spectator crowd, whispering to their neighbors and nodding solemnly, most likely placing their bets on their favorite rikishi, or wrestler.
Rituals that take place before the actual action include a purifying Shinto-inspired salt toss (sometimes more than one), the clap of the hands to show each contestant has no weapons, and the custom of chikara-mizu, in which higher-division wrestlers sip from a ladle of power water. And then, finally, the tachi-ai, or initial charge, the release of tension as the two challengers clash together in a flash of flubby skin and low grunts.
Perhaps the most interesting part of sumo is when there is a non-Japanese competitor. There seems to be relatively few foreign-born sumo participants, which might be due to the restrictions in place by the Japan Sumo Association or simply for the fact that the sport is so uniquely Japanese. It could also be the heart attack—inducing lifestyle and the fact that, as a 400-lb Japanese civilian, you’re bound to stick out like a sore thumb just walking down the street. I believe I saw one yesterday from freecom’s downtown second-story window – an adorable, slightly tattooed, massively self-conscious teddy bear waddling down the sidewalk.
I would love to score a seat at a match in Tokyo, but ticket prices are exorbitant. Until then, I’ll settle with the tv broadcasts and start eating at Denny’s every day.
Yup. Denny’s. Here. By my apartment.