Sunday, July 01, 2007

Sumo Experiences 2 - Visiting a Sumo Stable

This is another card from our collection of sumo postcards. This one depicts former American yokozuna (grand champion) Musashimaru. The artwork was painted by famous sumo artist Lynn Matsuoka.

A story has been in the news recently about a young professional sumo wrestler who died during a training session. The wrestler's fighting name (shikona) was Tokitaizan and he was 17 years old. The current speculation is that he died because of shock after receiving multiple injuries all over his body. While it is certainly shocking and sad that such a young man died, the condition he was in is absolutely no surprise to anyone who has ever visited a sumo stable and watched the training they undergo.

My husband and I visited a sumo stable about 16 years ago and witnessed the lifestyle and culture of the wrestlers firsthand. At that time, there was a rare opportunity for a small group of people to take a "package" tour of the Ryogouku area and visit Tomozuna Beya (stable). Taking this tour involved getting up extremely early in the morning so we could catch a bus and arrive in time for a practice session that would begin around 7:00 am. This morning practice is called "Asageiko" and the fine folks at Tomozuna Beya have put up a great many pictures of this on their English language site so you can see for yourself what it looks like.

While the pictures do a good job of showing you certain interesting aspects of the practice like the thigh muscle busting stretching they undergo, there were things we saw which aren't shown there. There is a part of the training where a wrestler is worked over to a near point of exhaustion to build his physical toughness and endurance. He pushes another wrestler across the training ring and when they reach the edge, he is rolled down to the ground and gets up and pushes again. This wouldn't be such a big deal if the ground in the practice area weren't hard as a rock.

When we were there, the fellow who was doing this endurance training was covered in bruises. He had a nasty black eye and pushed the other fellow (who wasn't really exerting himself), fell to the hard ground, and got back up so many times that he was gasping and panting so hard that we could hear him clearly 20 feet away. He was worked incredibly hard and sometimes hit with sticks. I felt very sorry for him given how beat up he looked. The thing is that this fellow wasn't the only one who looked a bit worse for wear. I have read that the worst of the brutal training (beating with sticks) has been phased out for the most part but the training itself is still pretty rough on the body.

The point of this training isn't to be cruel or to beat up the wrestlers, of course. This form of training is traditional and allows the wrestlers to develop the strength to (hopefully) succeed in their professional careers. Sumo is an extremely competitive sport with a great many low level wrestlers who don't make much money at all or become famous and very few rise to the top ranks. If they don't train hard, they will never get anywhere. A lot of people don't realize this because they only see sumo on television but there are low level ranks that compete hours before what is broadcast on television. These low level competitors aren't making much more than the allowance their parents would give them unless they can reach the upper ranks.

In addition to the hard training they endure, the lower level wrestlers are responsible for taking care of the higher level wrestlers. One of the reasons our visit was so early was that we were watching the lower level training. The low level guys get to train first then go off afterwards to clean up and prepare food for the higher level guys who train after them. I've seen and read that part of what the plebeian fellows must do is scrub the backs and even wipe the back-sides of high-ranked wrestlers in the stable though we didn't personally witness either of these activities. ;-)

During our visit, the low level wrestlers made chanko nabe ("sumo stew") for us and served it up in the huge tatami room they slept in along with copious amounts of oolong tea. They stood around the room in yukata (light cotton robes) while the stable leader (oyakata) held court and yakked to the assembled package tourists. At one point, Sentoryu, an American from Saint Louis who was a low-ranking wrestler at that time, spoke to the group though I don't recall if he did so in Japanese or English (but I'm guessing it was Japanese). Unfortunately, our visit occurred early on in our stay in Japan and we couldn't understand most of what was being said by the oyakata.

In terms of the environment at the stable, it seemed like a smallish place for so many big people. It was simply decorated but quite clean and there was a lot of wooden architecture. I remember also there was a second floor with an extremely narrow set of stairs. I'm sure that no one enjoyed tromping up and down them. The atmosphere wasn't oppressive though the younger, lower-level fellows were quiet and respectful. I'm sure that it can be quite a warm and friendly place when they aren't being forced to parade around in front of tourists or act as wait staff for them. However, it was also clearly a hard life where these guys were getting up early, doing a lot of work, and enduring grueling training. After witnessing their life first hand, I can see why sumo is losing ground to imported western sports.

I don't know if they offer such tours of stables anymore but, if they do, I'd very much recommend taking part in one. You learn a lot about how the sumo world continues to embrace the feudal spirit as well as how hard it is to live in that little old-style Japanese cultural bubble on a daily basis.


melanie said...

A few years ago I got permission to enter a sumo stable for a photojournalistic piece I was working on. I was really surprised by all the hard work the youngest ranks had to do and was then served chanko nabe by him after he'd been training for the whole 5 hours I'd been there.

I found the whole experience enlightening and really got into sumo after that.

I know in Nagoya, once a year there is the chance to enter a stable and eat with the sumo, sadly though we left it 'till to late to book and it was already booked out.

Shari said...

Hi, Melanie, and thanks for your comment. I'm glad I'm not the only one who has had a chance to visit a stable or who has developed an appreciation for sumo.

One thing I've noticed is that more foreign women embrace sumo than one might expect. Maybe we can relate to all that hard work. ;-)