During my four years in Tokyo, when I had to watch the Superbowl on Monday morning before work and listen to American Forces AM radio to get the World Series, I learned to satisfy my sport cravings with local offerings. I saw the Japan series of baseball, watched traditional horseback archery and cheered on the home team during the World Cup. The unquestionable highlight, however, was sumo.
When I left Canada to teach English in Tokyo, I never imagined I would find myself eating lunch next to a monstrous sumo wrestler in a loincloth. The wrestler in question, Toki, had gone to school with my friend's girlfriend, and was willing to allow us to visit his sumo heya (training facility) to see him practice.
After watching Toki toss around his younger and smaller opponent (a mere 138 kilos) in a series of gruelling matches, we sat down to lunch. Toki, as the senior wrestler, ate first, attended by the youngest aspiring grapplers. As guests, we were invited to join him.
Toki is nowhere near the heaviest wrestler in the sport, but weighed substantially more than my friend and me put together. Watching him polish off bowl after bowl of the steaming fattening stew wrestlers eat daily to keep their weight up and their centre of gravity down was amazing. While I struggled to finish my serving, Toki rounded out his meal with several plates of fried rice and ketchup.
Apart from the fact that most sumo wrestlers are somewhat large and nearly naked in the dohyo (ring), most Westerners know next to nothing about the sport. I was quite surprised to learn that one of the grand champions, or yokozuna, is Hawaiian - the gigantic, recently retired Musashimaru. The remaining grand champion, Asashoryu, is Mongolian. The lack of a Japanese yokozuna is frequently blamed for the declining popularity of the sport at home, but foreign wrestlers are doing a great deal to promote the sport internationally.
Dating back to the eighth century, sumo has managed to avoid the overt commercialization that taints most modern sports. Originally a religious ceremony, today it's very much a professional sport, but unlike the greedy prima donnas who rake in millions in North American professional leagues, the life of a wrestler, or rikishi, is tough.
Most live together in the heya, where only the top-ranked wrestlers have private accommodations. Waking before sunrise, they immediately perform their morning chores before several hours of practice. All this is finished before the first meal of the day, which is promptly followed by an afternoon nap to ensure that the massive quantity of food consumed turns to fat. More training follows in the afternoon; despite their bulk, the wrestlers are in tremendous shape, with a lower percentage of body fat than the average Japanese salary man.
For the full sumo experience, we headed to Ryogoku, home to many of the heya and the magnificent national arena. Located in the old downtown of Tokyo, the area was levelled during the war but has been completely rebuilt.
We pushed past the crowd gathered outside awaiting the arrival of the top- ranked wrestlers and headed in. We purchased the cheapest seats available but headed straight for the expensive box seats close to the ring. Those near the back often don't sell out on weekdays, and brave foreigners can get away with sitting in them.
Sitting on tatami (woven reed) mats is surprisingly comfortable, and the beer we bought at the convenience store outside quickly had us cheering loudly.
Incredibly fast and brutal, the matches often end in seconds. The action is intense. When, in the final match of the day, one of the lower- ranked wrestlers upset the yokozuna, we were quick to jump to our feet and join the crowd as they tossed their cushions at the dohyo in celebration of the upset, before stumbling out into the early evening along with thousands of happy, drunken fans.