Saturday, April 8, 2017

Size Does Matter

(Alternate Title: I Like Big Butts and I Cannot Lie)
For anyone out there who may be wondering, my interest in Japan goes back waaaay longer than my interest in anime.  When I was in third or fourth grade, my gifted class did a study of Japan and visited the collection at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, which served as my gateway, and later this would become my art home.  This influenced me to choose Asian Art for my non-Western history course, even though African/Oceanc/etc was usually considered to be the easier way to go..  Even now that I have been infected with otaku fever, I have a lot more reasons to want to live in Japan than just access to all the merch (although that definitely figures into my list).  Just like I'd been wanting to see a proper geisha dance since my first visit, there was another spectacle that I've been trying to catch throughout my travels to Japan, and Thursday I finally got to experience it: sumo wrestling.
Five is the kind of adventurous person who likes to try everything, so when I told her I wanted to attend a sumo tournament she was like, "Alright, cool."  Apparently I gave her the impression that it was in Osaka.  Perhaps because when I told her all I could remember was that it was close by.  Sort of.  Himeji isn't technically in the same region - it's in Hyogo, whereas the rest of our trip was spent in Kansai - but it's not that far either.  A two hour train ride isn't terrible, especially since sumo tournaments typically take place during odd-numbered months, and I seem to always be on vacation in the evens.  However, there are a few special tournaments that take place in April.  When I went to Tokyo three years ago, I missed the special tournament at the Yasukuni shrine by a few days.  I wasn't going to let it happen again.

The tournament in Himeji actually started at 8, but after a long day at USJ we were in no hurry to get anywhere that early, except possibly the McDonald's up the road in Shinsaibashi.  We managed to pull into Himeji Station around 11 and after a bite of ramen, made our way to the gymnasium - about a half hour's walk.  When we got in we were given a program, a calendar (in case we wanted to catch some wrestling later this year), and a plastic bag for our shoes.  We got some help finding our seats (Japanese-size, just like on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey) and figured we'd come in on some sort of opening ceremony.  There was a drummer playing some mad beats, and then all of the wrestlers paraded in, led by the referee, wearing these beautiful embroidered apron-like cloths called a keshomawashi (I had to look that one up, I'd never seen pictures of them before).  Some of them were carrying their babies with them, which Five thought was cute and I thought had the effect of making them seem even bigger than they already did.

Then before the actual wrestling, we got to see a wrestler have his hair done.  They all had their hair tied up in a topknot, which is part of the sumo lifestyle, it turns out.  It took at least 10 minutes (based on my file details...but it felt like it took longer).

Finally it was time for the main event.  My knowledge of sumo was almost non-existent, but I did realize there is a certain amount of ceremony to it.  Being Japanese, there is a fair amount of bowing.  Being a sport, there's some posturing thrown in as well.  Even ignorant gaijin like Five and I knew about the foot stamping part, where the wrestlers face each other in the center of the ring, lift their leg as they lean to the side, and then stomp it back down.  (Edit: Five knew about this because of Street Fighter, and was slightly offended at being grouped in with other ignorant gaijin.  See, this is the problem with sharing the spotlight!)

But apparently, as I've learned while reading up on it, there's a religious side to sumo as well.  I'd seen the salt-throwing before, and knew that it was about purification (have I ever mentioned that I've watched a lot of anime in the last three years?), but it turns out that religious tradition still has a lot to do with sumo.  The canopy overhead is even modeled after the roof of a shinto shrine.
The match doesn't actually start until both wrestlers put their hands on the ground at the same time.  In some of the matches we watched, it took longer to get to that point than the match actually lasted.  They'd come to the middle, bow, stomp, get some salt, toss it - occasionally one would do this with panache, really throw it into the air...rinse and repeat.  Most of the matches were over in a matter of seconds, after all that.  Since you win by getting your opponent out of the ring, it's sometimes just a matter of lifting them and carrying them over the line (easier said than done when your opponents are this size, but you get what I mean, right?)
I don't think Five was expecting to enjoy it as much as she did, but I think she actually got more into it than me.  The matches are so fast paced that it never got boring.  After the first one or two, we decided to bet our small change on each match.  One of us would set the wager and the other would pick the wrestler they thought would win.  I was not doing well - I'm a terrible gambler - and eventually we had to stop because I didn't have any more small change.  Instead, we refined our strategy for picking the winner.  Five based it on the color they wore, picking the color she liked better, and going for the smaller wrestler if their loincloths were the same color.  I didn't really have a strategy, merely watching the way they moved and looking at their overall muscle tone (no, that's not a joke - these guys were seriously strong).  The exception to her strategy was if one was a foreigner.  There were several - one from Georgia and another from Brazil, as well as a few that we were sure were foreign without being sure where they came from - and I pointed out that for them to be this successful in a Japanese sport, they must be really good.
At one point the matches ended - this was the lower-ranked part of the tournament, I think - and one wrestler came out with a posse of other wrestlers to have a special rope thing (called a tsuna) tied around him.  Apparently this means that he's a grand champion.  There was more pageantry with two different yokozuna posturing for the crowd (this might be a religious thing, as of the articles I read said that grand champions have a god-like status).  But eventually we decided that it was time to head out, and left the gymnasium to find out that it had started raining.
Rain or not, I was still hoping to take a look at Himeji's castle.  It's a UNESCO world heritage site, and Five hadn't been to any castles yet, although we at least walked past Nijo on our way to Fire Ramen (that post is still coming, FYI).  By the time we got to the park surrounding it, though, the legs of my pants were wet and my shoes were soggy, so since Five didn't actually care, we just looked from the outside.  At least we finally got our fill of cherry blossoms - they were just beginning to get interesting before we left Kyoto, and our last night there the Kawaii Kingpin showed me the bar street, which was gorgeous with its blooms and small creek, as long as you didn't think too hard about the vomit and urine that had been deposited in the creek the previous night.  However, I'm an artist and at least a little bit of a weeb, so a trip to Japan in the spring just wouldn't be quite right without a legit amount of sakura.  Even if we couldn't sit under the trees thanks to the rain, I felt like we'd finally found that.

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