This is the last in a series of memories related to my experiences with sumo in Japan. The first part is here and the second is here, though you really don't have to read all of them to follow this part.
Humans experience the world through their senses: sight, sounds, smell, touch, taste. Those of us who have grown up with television have been conditioned to focus on what we see and hear because fictional realities have been conveyed to us without the benefit of other the other types of sensory stimuli. One of the advantages of reading over watching and hearing is that someone just might take the time to fill you in on the part of the picture that isn't filled in by the eyes and ears.
When I had my first experience with sumo "in the flesh" after having only seen it on television, those other aspects became vividly clear. The air around and inside the Kokugikan is filled with scents. It's an aspect of the experience that you'd never imagine sitting at home watching the bulging bubble of your CRT screen show nearly naked guys slapping and shoving each other. As you approach the stadium, you may encounter a sweet scent somewhat reminiscent of baby powder accompanied by the sound of rubbing fabric and clacking geta (wooden Japanese sandals). This is your cue to look around to see if there are any wrestlers making their way to the special entrance through which only they can pass.
The smell of the chamomile oil that is used to slick back and style sumo wrestlers hair always surrounds them like a sweet cloud. Their size and weight often means they're walking with thighs that rub together and make a particular noise. The wearing of traditional Japanese footware means they make a particular sound as they move, especially since they are shuffling from wearing yukata that restrict their leg extension as they walk.
Once you walk into the Kokugikan, you're greeted with wide hallways on either side. The perimeter around the dojo (ring) and theater for viewers is scattered with vendors selling sumo-themed items, some tacking and some tasteful, and food vendors. Most of the food vendors sell boxes of cold, low-quality food that is clearly prepared off-site. It's about the lowest of the low food in Japan and to be avoided if possible. The worst yakitori (grilled chicken sticks) I ever had in my 23 years in Tokyo came from the a box at the Kokugikan. The taste of sumo is far less sweet than the smell. Of course, most of the people there are looking more at the drinking of sake or tea than at the consumption of otsumami (drinking noshes).
When my husband were there in the early 90s, Lynn Matsuoka's work was very well-known and popular so her art was on sale at the sort of prices we lowly English teachers could not afford. Some of it was sold as prints and others as postcards. On a few occasions, there may have been actual original work, but I was just guessing that was the case based on the exorbitant price tags.
I don't believe that we bought anything that day, and there is a reason why. There was a mistake made in our favor, which I shall explain soon enough. We mainly checked out towels, cloths, cups, and paraphernalia as well as the bean cakes. If we bought anything, it was probably something with white bean paste inside as that was one of the few traditional snacks that we enjoyed at that time.
Once we walked into the area with the ring, it felt expansive, but compact enough for nearly anyone, even those with "bad" seats, to have a decent view. We noticed the shrine-like "roof" hanging over the dojo, and noted that it seemed like a bad idea in a country prone to earthquakes. Most impressively though, we saw the ring of huge portraits of tournament winners that ringed the wall around the area. The portraits are about twice a person's height and about as wide as a tall man. I can't remember how many are there, but one old one gets bumped after each tournament as a new one goes up to replace it.
It's hard to get a good shot of them, but the tournament winner portraits are between the scaffolding of the roof and the upper tier of seats.
When we arrived at the Kokugikan with the tickets that we'd purchased via Andy Adams, publisher of Sumo World magazine, we expected that the "box" of 4 seats was going to be the same sort of thing we often saw on T.V. That is, we expected 4 cushions on a tatami mat flooring and to have to endure sitting cross-legged in a cramped space. It turns out that there was another option for those who occupied the very last row of seats on the first level.
For our 32,000 yen, we got 4 seats alright, but not on the floor. The ring of seats around the back of the lower deck were Western-style swivel chairs. To the best of my recollection, they were wine-colored, velour bucket seats. There was a small round table between them so you could put your drinks and snacks on it and eat them like a civilized person. To me, this was the sky box of sumo viewing from a Western point of view. Sure, it was not so close to the ring that a sumo wrestler who fell the wrong way might fall into your lap and crush your pelvis. And, yes, you weren't close enough to toss cushions into the ring when the wrestler you favored upset the one who was in disfavor with you. There were better views, but there were not more comfortable seats.
The Japanese-style boxes and seats which cost about 3-6 months rent.
With a Western-sized ass and a spine that was shaped by seats that allowed shorter legs to actually dangle, this was the bee's knees of accommodations. It seemed too good to be true, especially since we'd heard so many times that the cramped little Japanese-style boxes would have cost ten to fifteen times what we were paying for our box. Not only that, but it had little partitions between so it was about as "private" as a space at the national stadium could be. Seated in our cushy chairs, we settled in to watch some sumo.
I can't honestly say that I remember the bouts, but I do remember the energy in the air. This is the biggest reason to see any sport in person instead of just watching it on T.V. Though it is not talked about as a "sense", there is a palpable feeling when you are exposed to a a large number of people who are reacting emotionally to the events they are all there to witness. We lack good words to describe it so we fall back on inadequate language and talk about the "vibe", as if it were like a cheap hotel bed that can shake our bodies if we put a quarter in the slot. I think it's something we can't measure and therefore are afraid to truly name.
If we gave it a proper label, we'd have to acknowledge that there is something humans feel when in the presence of other humans which does not exist when we are around inanimate objects. Science and those who are only at peace with things which can be measured by our current technology would then mock and attempt to humiliate us for having the audacity to claim something which could not be perceived by our five puny senses existed. However, we can all feel it, and it is in the air and has its own unique feel and shape when you're sharing an experience with a large number of people. Watching sumo was no different. I felt that, and I loved it. It was what kept my husband and I going back for more throughout the years to watch sumo. That was where the real "magic" of the experience lay.
The staging area for goodie bag preparation.
At some point just before the major players started engaging in their bouts, a man came by our box with a shopping bag. For reasons unknown to us, he handed the bag over to us and insisted that it was okay for us to take it. We felt a bit strange about it because he didn't ask for money and we couldn't communicate well enough to ask any questions. Rather tentatively and almost surreptitiously, as if someone was going to come and "catch" us doing something "wrong", we poked around in the bag. It had a few boxes of the Kokugikan's bad yakitori, cold and conjealed in cardboard boxes, some sembei which we ignored, and a box of something heavy.
Terrible tsukune (like a chicken meatball) and yakitori (grilled chicken) - pre-cooked, dry, and cold.
After waiting long enough to be sure someone wasn't going to come out and slap our hands or demand money, we opened the box and found that it was full of eight little blue and white dishes with two different designs. I cannot recall what both patterns were, but one was a sumo referee's fan. We had those small plates, which looked about the right size for Japanese pickles or yakitori dipping sauce, for many years. Eventually, one by one, they all broke from clumsy mishandling.
(these are pictures from 2011 - we didn't have a camera back when we started going to sumo)
It turned out that someone had made a mistake. One of the benefits of those super expensive Japanese-style boxes was that you got a goodie bag as part of the ticket price. That was not supposed to be the case with the press box we had purchased the rights to inhabit. Someone in the concessions area had made a mistake and gave us one that first time. During four or so subsequent uses of that same space, we never got such gifts again.
Our first experience with sumo was a great one, full of surprises and new experiences. It was the sort of thing that you couldn't choreograph if you tried and definitely contributed to our desire to continue to go to the Kokugikan. That being said, as with all things, the novelty eventually wore off and our interest in going waned as the sumo itself started to become more formulaic.
When we first started watching sumo, there was no true dominance and the potential for upsets always existed. Chiyonofuji, who was the greatest wrestler of the modern era, was someone who worked for every win. He wasn't a big guy and you could tell that he worked hard to be strong and muscular as well as to develop good technique. It was always possible, though not necessarily probable, that he'd lose. Once the sumo "royalty" of Takanohana and Wakanohana started to ascend, things go much less interesting. It's hard to explain this to people who have nothing more than a passing interest, but imagine that there are "teams" in sumo and the members of the same team can't compete against one another. If you get too many very good members of that team in the upper levels and not so many teams with good members to defeat them, one team will essentially be hitting softballs for much of the tournament. It's boring watching good players spend most of their days beating much weaker players, and that's when our fandom started to fade away.
I believe that sumo was integral to keeping my husband in Japan far longer than planned. It provided us with a strong cultural connection and a deeper interest through the hard adjustment years when we were confused, sometimes angry, and, at least in my case, depressed at all of the differences which could be so vexing. I can't say for sure that we wouldn't have stayed for 23 years had it not been for sumo, but I think it's possible that we may not have made it through the first five.