For many, the words “training camp” and “summer” are synonymous with American football and particularly the NFL.
Ever since George Plimpton’s 1966 book “Paper Lion” first drew back the curtain on what takes place inside a professional football camp, sports fans have been fascinated by the annual rite of passage.
Training camp has grown from obscure practice in Plimpton’s day to full-on extravaganza in recent years, with spectators flocking in their thousands to university campuses around the United States to watch their favorite players run drills and participate in one-on-ones.
The HBO series “Hard Knocks,” likewise, is one of the most popular sports-based programs on American television each August.
Summer training camp isn’t a tradition that’s limited to the United States, however.
It’s also common in Japanese sport, and a yearly ritual undertaken by everyone from school kids to professional athletes — rikishi included.
Heading up into the mountains or forests to escape the aggressive summer heat is a long-standing practice in Japan’s national sport, and the rural setting also ensures camps are free of distraction, allowing participants to focus on their training.
Summer is by far the toughest season on the large bodies of rikishi, and being able to escape the claustrophobic environs of their home stables is welcome relief.
While outdoor temperatures in the mid-30s Celsius might not seem all that pleasant, doing sumo on an open-air ring is eminently preferable to sweltering in the tiny dark rooms that most stables use for training.
Lacking air conditioning and under constant harsh fluorescent light, the practice rings in Tokyo become oppressively sauna-like soon after morning training begins.
Some stables set up electric fans around the ring, but the sheer intensity of sumo means these often have little effect.
This summer in particular has been tough on everyone involved. One wrestler, who didn’t wish to be named, told me he passed out during training last week and had to be taken by ambulance to a hospital and put on an IV drip.
It’s small wonder that even the prospect of tsukebito (personal attendant) duty on the hectic jungyō (regional tour) is preferable over staying home in August for many younger rikishi.
Not that those men already on tour are happy with the arrangements.
Yokozuna Kakuryu, who is head of the rikishi association, voiced his displeasure with the lack of effective air conditioning in the dressing rooms for non-ozeki and yokozuna and said he was worried about tsukebito getting dehydrated after running around in the heat.
Kakuryu also complained about uncomfortable bus seats on the long trips between the various venues.
“I couldn’t sleep well,” the veteran told reporters on Aug. 13, adding that the bus “wasn’t the type of one that you could relax in. When I slept my head fell forward and I woke up with a pain in my neck.”
The increasing popularity of sumo has led to exasperation amongst rikishi as more and more event days have been added over the past few years to the various tours that take place between the year’s six tournaments.
In particular, the summer jaunt around most of the eastern half of the country, especially coming on the heels of the extremely humid Nagoya meet, has come under fire.
The tour’s packed schedule, lack of downtime, and limited variety of available food is often blamed for weakening wrestlers’ physical condition and leaving them susceptible to injury.
Only rikishi in the top few divisions and their attendants go on tour, though, so for many wrestlers August means camp time.
In addition to being a welcome break from the city and a chance to get in some solid practice, camps serve another purpose.
As with the jungyō, bringing sumo to different regions allows those without regular access to the sport a chance to interact with rikishi and creates recruitment opportunities.
Stables also tend to build close relationships with various municipalities, trading PR appearances in exchange for deals on lodging.
Ties with local governments also help with promoting their presence in an area and arranging events that bring a large number of people into contact with the stable. Fun tournaments and events for kids are common, with stablemasters always keeping a watchful eye out for potential stars.
Dewanoumi stable holds its summer camp in Sasagawa, Chiba Prefecture. The various events, such as a wanpaku tournament for children and a “kids ring entering ceremony,” take place in Suwadaijin Shrine on an outdoor ring surrounded by trees. Just a short hop from the beach, it’s a picturesque location that provides a much-needed respite for the stable’s wrestlers.
In a sign of how much Dewanoumi values its relations with the local area, Mitakeumi is scheduled to show up for training on the 21st and 22nd, during his only break from the jungyō. For their star rikishi to forego rest in order to travel out to rural Chiba and make an appearance for local residents is a meaningful gesture on Dewanoumi’s part.
Sumo fans in remote regions appreciate such gestures. It can be easy for those of us living in Tokyo with constant access to rikishi to forget how special it is for most people to meet an “ōsumo-san.” After all, over three thousand people showed up at Takasago stable’s camp in Toyama in June to watch newly crowned champion Asanoyama train.
Summer, with its crushing heat and humidity and intense regional tour, may be the toughest time of the year for rikishi, but at least for those in the lower divisions camps provide a measure of sanctuary as well as help ensure the future of the sport.