In normal times, half of sumo's six annual tournaments take place outside of Tokyo.
March, July, and November usually see all thousand or so members of the Japan Sumo Association decamp to Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka, respectively, for meets in those cities.
Various coronavirus-related restrictions and anti-infection guidelines put a halt to those travels in 2020, but since July of this year, the country’s national sport has returned to its regular schedule.
As a result, for the first time since just after 2019's Rugby World Cup, sumo will be back on the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands beginning Sunday.
Regional tournaments have a very different flavor from those in the capital. Each has its own charms and reasons to be recommended, but the year’s final meet in Fukuoka is almost universally considered to be the best overall experience for both fans and wrestlers.
While nowhere in Japan is far from the ocean, most sumo venues are located in the center of large urban sprawls, with docks and shipyards covering all waterfront areas.
Conversely, Fukuoka Kokusai Center — which hosts the November tournament — is quite literally a stone’s throw from Hakata Bay. With several beaches within walking distance and a six-kilometer-long tombolo (sandy outcrop into the sea) just a short ferry hop away, the Kyushu Basho’s location is easily the most pleasant and picturesque of the year.
With many stables choosing lodging along the coast for the duration of their time in southern Japan, rikishi have numerous opportunities to relax on the beach or even go fishing after a hard day of training and competing. Sumo is a physically grueling sport, and its fortnight-long meets are notoriously taxing on the mind. The stress-relieving aspect of the November tournament’s location for its participants can’t be overstated.
For fans traveling to Fukuoka, the compact nature of the city — and the location of both a bullet train station and an airport within a ten-minute train ride of the venue — makes everything easier, removing the time pressures that early starts and late finishes often put on travel plans at other tournaments.
Fukuoka is widely considered to be one of the main culinary centers of Japan, and the array of good food on offer combined with the normally mild November weather also contribute to the Kyushu tournament’s widespread popularity in the sumo world.
The fondness the meet generates is important, as Fukuoka, partly due to its smaller size, has long fallen behind in both ticket sales and support for wrestlers that aren’t from the region. As a result, there have been numerous calls over the decades to move the meet out of the prefecture and place it somewhere with a more substantial fan base.
While calling a metropolitan area home to 5.5 million people "small" may seem strange, that’s half as many as reside in the greater Nagoya area, and a quarter of the number in Kansai — the two other regional host locations. Fukuoka's population is also dwarfed by the nearly 38 million people that live in Tokyo and its surroundings — a location that rarely has trouble selling out tournaments.
Even so, and despite the fact that Kyushu was traditionally one of the main sources of strong wrestlers, poor attendance at the Fukuoka meets has long been a cause for concern.
Disappointingly, a two-year absence and a limited number of seats available this time out hasn’t led to the heavier demand that was expected. Five days before the action gets underway in Kyushu, tickets of all classifications were available for 14 of the 15 days, with only the final day seeing strong demand and certain sections selling out.
It hasn’t always been this way. In the late 2000s, a packed Fukuoka Kokusai Center thundered with rhythmic clapping and un-sumo-like chants of “Kaio, Kaio” — proof that Kyushu fans can rival those anywhere when they have a local hero to cheer for.
However, the falloff in interest when no local hero exists is dramatic. Over most of the past decade, rows and rows of empty seats — even in desirable sections close to the ring — were very noticeable on TV and stood in contrast to full houses elsewhere.
It’s never been a good look, but in fairness to supporters in Fukuoka it’s been a long time since Kyushu had a dominant local rikishi that the city could get behind.
Even in the aforementioned Kaio’s heyday, the ozeki’s exploits were mostly a subplot to rising Mongolian dominance.
Takakeisho’s Emperor’s Cup wins in Fukuoka in 2018 and 2020 were the first Kyushu Basho titles not to go to a Mongolian yokozuna since 2003. In fact, Tochiazuma’s win that year is the only other championship in Fukuoka won by a native-born Japanese rikishi this millennium. The final tournament of the year hasn’t just been a barren one for Kyushu locals in recent times, it’s been a graveyard for the dreams of virtually all domestic hopefuls since the time when Google was merely a tiny tech startup.
From Kisenosato’s ending of Hakuho’s 63-bout winning streak — a fight the recently retired yokozuna said was one of the most memorable of his career — to Paul McCartney sitting ringside and sponsoring prize-money banners, Kyushu has been the home of some memorable scenes in recent years.
The Fukuoka basho is worth keeping for its uniqueness alone, but in a rapidly changing sporting landscape, financial realities continue to exert an increasing amount of influence. If seats remain empty in the Fukuoka Kokusai Center post-COVID-19, calls for a relocation of the November meet will be heard again.
Yet in an interesting twist, the lowest rank in sumo’s top tier — which has produced two surprise champions recently — is occupied this time out by the sole Fukuoka native in the division. Were Shohozan to make it a third shock maegashira 17-title win since the start of 2020, he would provide the boost to sumo in Kyushu that it desperately needs.
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