Martial Arts training, regardless of the art or style, is something most young people would benefit from, as much for the sense of self-confidence, which it inevitably gives, as for the discipline it instills in the practitioner, while at the same time teaching the concepts of courtesy, respect, humility and courage. Aspiring to become a Sumo wrestler (rikishi) though, takes things to the extreme requiring each prospect to submit himself entirely to the art. Not a pursuit for any but the most committed of individuals, indeed most don't have what it takes and there is a heavy turnover of candidates. Those who can persevere keep alive the traditions of the centuries old art, which is inextricably entwined with Shinto doctrine; a vast array of rituals being performed during the average day. Sumo wrestler's literally live and breathe their art.
Though morning training begins at 5AM, the three of us arrived at the more civilized hour of 9:30. Quietly creeping in, we were seated on square cushions directly behind two very famous former rikishi, Oyakata Akinoshima (stable master) and Konowaka. They were both continually chastising and never praising, as is the traditional way. Things were well underway. The first part we watched was a winner-stays-on session. The boys were really going for it. A bout would end, and immediately all the other wrestlers who had been standing around the dohyo would run over hoping to be chosen to square off against the winner. The most impressive thing was watching two big guys smash into each other, at which point both would stop breathing while straining with the massive effort of attempting to push the other out! No wonder that even after the shortest of bouts both wrestlers are panting heavily!
As a rule, the Japanese are a very clean, well turned-out race. They bathe each evening, indeed they've made an art of the bathing ritual with hot spring resorts being an extremely popular form of relaxation. That said, anyone would be forgiven for imagining that there might be an air of pungency surrounding a room full of big, sweaty male bodies in the midst of hard-core training. They would, however, be mistaken. We sat in close proximity to a full-on Sumo training session on a hot, muggy late summer's day and there wasn't even the slightest hint of an unpleasant odor.
Finally, after tiring myself out shifting weight from one cheek to the other for two hours, it was time for brunch. The morning training session finished at 11:30 and we filed upstairs to the dining area. The boys prepare all the food themselves and already a huge cauldron was simmering as a wrestler, still clad only in his 'loin cloth', was keeping careful watch, adding ingredients and seasoning. Can only hope he finished training early and had a bath before commencing with his cooking duties! They put on a lovely spread for us. Along with the protein rich stew (chanko nabe) that rikishi suck up in massive quantities to assist with weight gain, there were several other side dishes. The food was excellent; really delicious. I expected that we would all eat together, but of course the wrestlers need to bathe, with the high ranks going first. As brunch wore on more and more boys joined us and were kind enough to answer our questions and to have their photographs taken. They really were a friendly bunch of lads to be around.
Too soon it was time for them to head back to their dormitory for a well deserved nap before the resumption of training in the late afternoon, and time for their newest fans to retire to the busy streets of Tokyo having had a thoroughly enjoyable experience.