It’s common to smell sumo wrestlers before seeing them . . . and not in a bad way.

The hair wax used in the sport has a pungent sweet smell that is instantly recognizable. Known as bintsuke, the wax is applied daily by specialist sumo hairdressers called tokoyama.

They do so while resetting the wrestler’s topknot after morning training.

That topknot (mage) is one of the most recognizable elements of sumo and is a version of the samurai hairstyle that was once common in Japan.

Sumo has two versions of the mage. The regular style that is worn by everyone in training and by men in the lowest four divisions during tournaments as well as a more elaborate vertically spread-out style called oicho. That name refers to the leaf of the ginko tree, whose shape the topknot closely resembles and the style is worn by wrestlers in the top two divisions for official bouts.

The mage has proven problematic for some foreign wrestlers. Yokozuna Akebono’s tight natural curls required constant straightening and ozeki Baruto’s Estonian hair was almost too fine to properly set in a mage.

At one point in his career they tried to solve the problem by taking some strands from a stablemate, dying them blond and weaving them in. That turned out to be just as disastrous as it sounds and after much mocking the idea was swiftly abandoned.

When a wrestler retires, a long line of people cut his hair one strand at a time before his stablemaster finally removes the topknot completely.

The wax I mentioned earlier comes in small, round pink and black tins and is sold in stores, so if your dream is to walk around your town or city smelling like a sumo wrestler, it’s achievable.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.