Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Wrestlers settle into unique Kyushu location

by John Gunning

The ring purification ceremony for the upcoming Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament takes places at Fukuoka Kokusai Center on Saturday, Nov. 10 at 10 a.m.

As always, the ceremony is open to the public and free of charge. Entry is allowed between 9:20 and 9:50 a.m.

All of the top-ranked wrestlers will be in attendance to watch three senior referees take the roles of Shinto priests for the consecration.

The event has several parts, including the placing of various items such as squid, nuts, rice and salt into a square hole cut into the center of the ring.

As with all of the non-Tokyo dohyo-matsuri ceremonies, there is no presentation of giant portraits to the previous tournament winners immediately afterwards.

Another difference from the Kokugikan is the clanging and banging of steel pipes inside the arena in the week leading up to the ring’s construction and purification, as temporary stands are installed for the tournament.

That’s something that all of the regional meets have in common, but the Kyushu Basho, because of its distant location and time of year, poses some unique challenges and offers particular benefits for wrestlers and fans alike.

Something that encompasses both of those is the location of the various stables.

When a tournament is held outside of Tokyo, the Sumo Association moves lock, stock and barrel to that city.

Hundreds of people, including wrestlers, stablemasters, hairdressers, referees and administration staff decamp to Fukuoka and its surroundings for roughly six weeks.

Apart from the logistics of the move, the most difficult part is finding suitable accommodation and practice facilities in a city far smaller than Tokyo, Osaka or Nagoya. The challenges have led to some unique arrangements.

Asakayama stable, for example, trains on an open-air ring at Sumiyoshi Jinja. The prominent shrine right in the heart of the city is also the venue for the annual yokozuna ring-entering ceremony.

The shrine is a major tourist spot and anyone arriving early each morning can see the stablemaster (legendary former ozeki Kaio) put his charges through their paces on the raised ring under an elaborate roof.

With a growing number of stables restricting or prohibiting the viewing of training sessions by the general public at their home bases in the Kanto area, the outside practice grounds in Kyushu are one of the increasingly rare opportunities for regular fans to watch wrestlers in action.

Shikihide Beya is likewise housed in a shrine, but as benefits one of the quirkiest stables in sumo, theirs is nestled in the shadow of giant shipbuilding cranes right on the waterfront. The juxtaposition of wrestlers in mawashi training behind Shinto gates while massive steel hulls slowly rise behind them is something you don’t see anywhere else.

Tomozuna stable too had the sounds of construction hammering out at its open-air ring on Nov. 2, as workmen erected scaffolding around the dohyo while training was in progress. The stablemaster, former sekiwake Kyokutenho, explained afterwards that they were putting up wind-blocking sheets that would be needed as the days gradually get colder at the ring’s location on a small hill close to the coast.

Proximity to the sea and good fishing grounds are among the aspects that make the Fukuoka tournament by far the most popular among the wrestlers.

Otake stable, which has its lodgings on Shika Island in Hakata Bay, even switched to training on the beach last week, with the wrestlers doing leg stomps in the sand and running sprints up a nearby slope.

The limited options in Fukuoka also mean that sometimes practice rings aren’t even located in the same place as the lodgings. Tomozuna stable’s wrestlers have to walk ten minutes alongside a large road after training to get to the building where they eat and sleep.

It’s something you don’t see in Tokyo and its surroundings, with all stables housed in purpose-built structures. Yet that wasn’t always the case. Oyama Beya, for example, didn’t even have its own ring in the 1950s, requiring its wrestlers to go train at other stables every day.

While Fukuoka sees stables housed in some unique places, it can’t lay claim to the most unusual of all. That honor goes to Musashigawa Beya, which a few years ago built its practice ring under one of the stands at Hanazono Rugby Stadium in Osaka.

That was part of a promotion campaign for Japan’s oldest rugby ground ahead of its extensive renovation in preparation for the 2019 World Cup.

Fukuoka too will host games during that tournament, but rugby teams traveling to Hakatanomori Stadium won’t have to face some of the particular logistic challenges that wrestlers do.

It’s no surprise that a sport as old and tradition-bound as sumo has countless particular objects and tools that can’t be found outside of Tokyo.

When packing up the trucks that ship everything to Fukuoka in mid-October, great care is taken to ensure there is an adequate supply of items such as bintsuke hair oil and paper ties for topknots.

More common items such as dumbbells, salt and athletic tape can be bought pretty much anywhere, but the sheer bulk of wrestlers poses a challenge when sourcing clothing and footwear.

While specialist tops with oversized neck holes (to avoid messing up the topknot) are standard beneath yukata, many wrestlers just use regular underwear.

Anyone forgetting to bring enough to Kyushu will find themselves in trouble, as it’s doubtful that wrestlers will have much luck finding 8XL-sized boxer shorts in Fukuoka stores.