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Morning at the Tournament


I got to Ryogoku on Sunday—the first day of the tournament—at 10 in the morning, about two hours after the matches had started. A wrestler got off the train the same time I did, presumably on his way to compete. Downstairs from the platforms, I saw Tatsuya passing through the ticket gates. He didn't recognize me at first, perhaps because I was wearing a jacket and tie and had let my beard and mustache grow back in.

"Tatsuya," I called out. He looked surprised to see me. "How'd it go?" I asked him.

"I lost," he said matter-of-factly.

I told him I'd see him on Tuesday, when I'd come back to spend a few more nights at the stable. Then I left the station and went into the public relations office at the Kokugikan to pick up my press pass.

In the auditorium, the league's lowest-ranked wrestlers were fighting. The matches were proceeding in quick succession and with little ceremony. When I walked in, the gyoji presiding over the matches wore what looked like a blue jumpsuit that ended at his legs in a pair of knickers.

Meanwhile, the wrestlers' names were being called by a yobidashi in a blue robe with "Natori" printed on his back. I thought that must be his name, but knew I was mistaken when he was replaced by a yobidashi with "Ozeki Sake" on the back of his robe. Then I realized that his robe was actually an advertisement for the Natori snack company.

The dohyo was also surrounded by judges, called "shinpan," in black kimono. They sat one apiece on the floor at the foot of the dohyo on the north, east and west sides, with two sitting beside each other on the south side. The shinpan, I knew, were all former wrestlers who had once wrestled at the sport's highest ranks.

They had the final word on the matches' winners. If a shinpan disagreed with the gyoji, he could call a quick conference with his colleagues atop the dohyo and, if they all agreed, reverse the gyoji's judgment. The chief shinpan—who sat on the north side of the ring—wore an earplug that connected him to a sixth judge hidden away in a control booth where he could watch video replays of a disputed match.

The shinpan to the east and west of the dohyo were each flanked by two wrestlers, the next pair to compete. Wrestlers waited on the side of the side of the dohyo that matched where they were listed on the banzuke, or ranking sheet, (i.e. wrestlers listed under the "east" column on the banzuke waited on the east side of the dohyo).

The next wrestler up waited until the yobidashi sang his name in a drawn-out, quavering voice while opening a white fan. The melody and the singing style reminded me of the song that sweet potato venders play out of the trucks they drive around Tokyo in the winter selling baked yams.

After the yobidashi sang out their names (and compass direction), the wrestlers mounted the dohyo. His place beside the shinpan was filled by the next wrestler in line, who emerged from a corridor under the stands. (The corridor, I'd read, was called a hanamichi, or "flower path." The aisle kabuki performers take to the stage is also called a hanamichi.)

Next the gyoji waved his paddle from one side of the dohyo to the other while calling out the names of the wrestlers a second time. He spoke in the theatrical, forceful voice of a Noh performer or Shinto priest. The wrestlers, in the meantime, did a few shiko in their respective corners at the south side of the ring facing the hanimichi from which they'd arrived. Over their thighs fell their sagari, the rows of thin ropes attached to a belt they wore tucked into their mawashi. Different wrestlers had different color sagari. I'm not sure what their purpose and significance is: one book I consulted said they're related to Shinto; another said they hang over a wrestler's pelvis to specify the part of the mawashi that's off limits for grabbing during the match.

When the gyoji finished calling out the wrestlers' names, he held the paddle level with the ground, lifted it up, and stepped back. At that signal that the wrestlers walked to the center of the ring while their names were announced for a third and final time over the public address system. Then the gyoji signaled with his paddle and the wrestlers bent their knees, tapped on the dirt floor with their fists, threw their sagari over their crouching thighs, and lunged at each other.

The gyoji followed the wrestlers around the ring as they tussled chanting what sounded to me like "teribu-teribu-teribu-tah." It turned out that he was actually saying "nokotta, nokotta, nokotta," which means something like, "You're still going."

When one wrestler had thrust the other out of the ring, or thrown him on the ground, or maneuvered him off his feet, the gyoji pointed his paddle in the compass direction associated with the winner. Then the two wrestlers faced each other in the middle of the ring and bowed. The loser walked off the dohyo, while the winner crouched down before the gyoji, who called out his name.

When I walked in, there was only a smattering of spectators—a lot of them Caucasians—in the lower-tier corrals and the mezzanine above was virtually empty. Miki had told me the day before that some sumo fans buy single-seat tickets on the mezzanine level, which can cost as little as $40, and watch from the ground level until the spectators who'd paid at least $370 for their four-seater corral arrived. Foreigners are especially notorious for that practice, Miki said; most Japanese don't care about the early matches and only arrive at around 2:30 or three o'clock, when the highly ranked, higher-profile wrestlers face off.

I had been sitting in an empty corral myself while I watched the matches. The first ones I saw were between jonidan-ranked wrestlers, but as the morning progressed, more highly ranked wrestlers began fighting. Every few matches, new gyoji and yobidashi were rotated in, their ranks increasing along with the wrestlers'. A couple of the matches I watched were decided by the gyoji that lived at the stable where I stayed, and one of the yobidashi whom I'd seen help remake the stable's dohyo announced the names of the combatants in a few consecutive matches.

I had been watching for about an hour when Miki arrived. He brought me under the stands and into one of the "west-side" wrestlers' changing room. It was a long room with a narrow corridor running between raised tatami floors, on which dozens of wrestlers sat in various stages of undress. Kazuya, who must have wrestled moments before I arrived, was on his way out. I asked him how his match went.

"I won," he said with healthy self-satisfaction in his voice.

NEXT: The Sekitori Fights