With the release of the new banzuke rankings on Monday, thoughts turned to the upcoming Nagoya Basho.
The steamy capital of central Japan hosts a tournament that has earned a reputation as one which often throws up one-off winners and unusual outcomes.
Such unpredictability is attributed to various factors. First among them is of course the searing midsummer heat and humidity that makes it hard for rikishi to maintain a decent physical condition throughout the fifteen days.
Air conditioning in the Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium that doesn’t quite reach the ring results in a slippery dohyo that is another contributor to the chaos.
The tournament tends to suit those with better body control who can handle such difficulties.
The fact, however, that the two rikishi in recent years who best fit that description are yokozuna Hakuho and Harumafuji, has somewhat mitigated the basho’s reputation for the unexpected. You have to go back a full decade to find a Nagoya winner outside of the Mongolian pair.
That 2007 basho was won by Asashoryu — who also took the previous two July tournaments. So much for chaos.
In a way, though, it’s fitting that foreigners have come to dominate the Nagoya Basho, as it was there, 45 years ago, that the first ever non-Japanese rikishi lifted the Emperor’s Cup. Takamiyama (Jesse Kuhaulua) from Hawaii finished that 1972 tournament with a 13-2 record that saw him promoted to sekiwake (also a first for a foreigner), and receive a letter of congratulations from President Nixon.
There was much consternation at the time over a non-Japanese rikishi winning the title. There was even a debate about which anthem should be played, “Kimigayo” or “The Star Spangled Banner.” Hard to imagine that in our current era which saw a full decade pass without a native-born champion.
The Nagoya Basho has in the past posed a particular challenge for another foreign wrestler. Egyptian Osunaarashi has had to compete most years in a tournament that falls in the middle of Ramadan.
From roughly 4 a.m. to 8 p.m., he has trained and fought in temperatures reaching the high 30s without food or even water. Incredibly, he’s only had a losing record in one of the four Nagoya tournaments he has taken part in, and even in that he downed two yokozuna.
As a new recruit, there was the added difficulty of a curfew that meant when the sun went down he wasn’t able to eat his fill, as there were only leftovers in the stable. He resorted to sneaking out to a local fast-food joint when everyone was asleep and wolfing down hamburgers.
Once, when ordering at the counter, he noticed his stable master in the restaurant about to look in his direction. Dropping to his knees out of sight, he completed his order in a whisper and handed the perplexed staff the money before crawling out the door with the food.
For most rikishi, the difficulties aren’t quite so unusual but Nagoya is a challenge even for those who grew up in Japan.
“Yeah, it’s really hot and humid,” maegashira Nishikigi told The Japan Times when asked on Tuesday about Nagoya. “I don’t change anything in particular (about my routine) but it’s really hot so I pay close attention to how I manage my physical condition.”
Juryo division debutant Tobizaru (formerly Iwasaki), who is the younger brother of Hidenoumi, indicated that the heat and twice as many bouts meant that he would “have to change my mind set so that I don’t run out of stamina.”
Even for those used to a warm climate, the humidity can be challenging. Hawaiian Musashikuni (nephew of Musashimaru) says he “gets into a cold bath after I’m done with practice so that way my body doesn’t overheat or get too tired from the humidity.”
At least the wrestlers have the “comfort” of competing in only mawashi. The gyoji (referees) also have to run around the ring but in heavy kimono.
Asked if they wear less layers underneath or use something to cool down, top division referee Ginjiro Kimura replied: “Nothing like that. Basically it’s a battle against the heat. The important thing is to thoroughly manage one’s physical condition from day to day and stay focused on the dohyo.”
As for who will win the upcoming tournament . . . well, with Hakuho, Kisenosato and Harumafuji all reportedly in decent shape, it’s likely to be a while before we see another surprise championship victory in Nagoya.
It’s hard to see the Emperor’s Cup going to anyone outside those three. There should be some competition though. New ozeki Takayasu will of course be looking for a good showing in his debut and Terunofuji, who is coming off back-to-back runner-up performances, knows a title will kick-start his drive for the white rope.
Further down the banzuke, 20-year-old rising stars Onosho and Takakeisho are at career-high ranks along with fan favorites Ura and Ishiura.
The silverware this time is probably going to one of the veterans at the top of the rankings but the new generation is positioning itself to make a push very soon.
If pushed to make a prediction for a surprise champion, I’d go with Onosho. Young, hungry and coming off an intense week of training with Kisenosato, the Onomatsu beya man just might be the one to restore Nagoya’s reputation for chaos.