One of sport’s most overused cliches is the labeling of a ballpark or stadium as the mecca of football, baseball or basketball.
True, there are adherents everywhere that regard their team’s home ground as sacred, and treat each weekend like a pilgrimage, but it’s a metaphor that falls down when it comes to numbers alone.
For no matter how large or historic a stadium is, the likelihood of it being, like Mecca, the only one that exists, is remote. There are always rivals for the crown.
Is Wembley Stadium more deserving of soccer fans’ reverence than Estadio Azteca or the Maracana?
Should baseball lovers around the world prioritize Fenway Park or Wrigley Field when deciding which to visit?
Koshien Stadium holds a special place in Japanese hearts, but how much love do Giants supporters have for Hanshin’s home?
Sumo is one of the few sports where such questions aren’t an issue.
The Ryogoku Kokugikan is the undisputed home of Japan’s national sport.
The only sumo-specific arena in the professional game, the 35-year-old structure houses the Japan Sumo Association offices and plays host to three of the sport’s six yearly tournaments.
It is also a remarkably flexible venue.
That’s something I was reminded of this month when attending two very different events in the building on the east bank of the Sumida river.
On Feb. 8th it was the 44th Grand Sumo Tournament, a one-day straight knockout competition for the top two divisions, intercut with folk songs, comedy sumo and bouts between retired wrestlers. The layout that day was essentially the same as during regular tournaments.
Just four days earlier the Kokugikan appeared to be a different venue entirely during a news conference to announce a special Olympic tie-in event being held in August.
With the ring lowered into a special underground chamber and most of the box seats slid back Russian doll-like to the side, hundreds of regular chairs, all facing a large video screen and stage, covered the arena floor.
The seating arrangement and appearance of the Kokugikan can be easily changed because the building, in addition to being the spiritual home of sumo, is also a space that is publicly available to rent.
Sumo purists who aren’t aware of this fact are inevitably shocked the first time they see the Kokugikan being used to host pro wrestling, concerts or any other non-sumo event.
Even fans who understand that the building is freely available, are often taken aback by some of its uses.
One of the most striking takes place later this month when, for the 36th time, the Kokugikan will host the 5,000-person Symphony No. 9 concert.
With a maximum capacity of just over 11,000 people, half the arena (both the first and second floors) is taken up by a choir for the annual event.
There is an added relevance this year, as Beethoven’s ninth symphony contains “Ode to Joy” which served as the basis for the E.U. anthem.
2017 saw a European flavor as well when Italian carmaker Ferrari decked out the Kokugikan in red for its 70th-anniversary celebration.
Classic and rare cars from the automaker’s history lined the area around the stadium and tate-gyoji (one of the two highest-ranked sumo referees) Kimura Shonosuke, decked out in full regalia, took the role of announcer for the unveiling (on a dohyo-shaped stage) of a special hybrid LaFerrari Aperta that was estimated to cost ¥400 million.
Flexibility, size, location and relatively competitive pricing make the Kokugikan an attractive option, and the venue has hosted everything from private parties and interior design exhibitions to basketball and boxing.
The 2020 Olympic tournament in the latter will also take place at the home of sumo and organizers confirmed last week that the B and C area boxes will remain as they are, meaning many fans are going to be surprised to find themselves sitting on cushions on the floor. Each box will seat two people rather than the usual four, though, which should make it a more comfortable experience, although it will lower the overall capacity to 7,300.
Despite its flexibility, the Kokugikan, like any arena approaching its fourth decade, is faced with challenges, especially in a fast-changing era where it feels as if many stadiums are out of date before the paint has even dried.
Contrasting reactions to the new Olympic Stadium and Sanga Stadium in Kyoto highlight the fact that it doesn’t matter how much money you pump into design and construction, if the fan experience is a poor one, people won’t be happy.
Luckily for sumo fans, the Kokugikan has always been excellent, and the Japan Sumo Association has tweaked it constantly to ensure it stays that way.
Measures like banning smoking inside the building, installing elevators, renovating the bathrooms and museum and adding a wider variety of foods in concession stands have all helped keep a day at the sumo enjoyable for fans.
There is still room for improvement, though.
The JSA has shown itself to be more progressive than many other Japanese sporting bodies when it comes to technology and promoting itself through social media.
The organization should take that a step further by installing charging ports in seats and providing Wi-Fi throughout the stadium. As things stand, there is neither, and even cellular access from certain carriers can be patchy in parts of the arena.
While there isn’t really space for a large video screen, having a multilingual app that allowed instant slow-motion replay of bouts as well as real-time data for the men in the ring would be a big step forward.
Cashless payment at souvenir and concession stands, e-ticketing, and apps that allow you to order food and have it delivered to your seat are ideas that have been implemented in venues around the world and would work well in the Kokugikan.
Sumo in Ryogoku remains one of the world’s great sporting experiences, and just a few small tweaks would ensure it stays that way for the foreseeable future.