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February 2019. It was a crisp, sunny morning and once again Wonderboy and I were buzzing with excitement at the thought of another bucket-list-ticking day in the Japanese capital. When I drew up my list of essential Tokyo experiences one of the first things I scribbled down was Watch Live Sumo! But then, as we got stuck into our exhaustive planning, I realized that making this happen was actually more difficult than we’d thought. First off came the realization that there weren’t any tournaments on during our stay in the city. Then, after a bit of digging, we found a behind-the-scenes tour of a Tokyo Sumo stable. At first glance it looked great: you could spend a few hours watching the wrestlers train! But then, as we read the details, I came across a bunch of depressing caveats: no talking, no video, no photos, no communication with the wrestlers, no going to the toilet, pretty much no breathing. I was just starting to give up hope when, joy of joys, I ran into a much more accommodating alternative! Now here was a program that gave us the chance to meet and chat with two retired wrestlers, learn about their techniques and watch them fight! Best of all, it was even possible to step in the ring and take them on!!! We literally couldn’t sign up fast enough!!!
February 2019. Our Sumo experience took place in the top floor of a restaurant in Tokyo’s Asakusa neighborhood. There were about twenty of us there that morning sitting expectantly at the long wooden table sipping on complimentary tea.
After a brief introduction from our English-speaking Japanese host the two Sumo performers emerged from behind a curtain at the back of the room. We all put our hands together as they marched proudly up to the stage, two absolute giants dressed in nothing but the traditional mawashi loincloths around their waists.
February 2019. There’s no way I’ll get anywhere close to spelling their names correctly, so for the purposes of this article I’ll refer to the Sumos simply as Chef and Comedian. Chef, it turned out, was the restaurant owner and the guy who’d cooked the key component of the special lunch we’d be having after the show. Comedian meanwhile was his buddy, co-performer, fellow Sumo retiree and all-round slapstick merchant. First they showed us some warming-up techniques, which involved lots of stretching and the somewhat amazing revelation that Chef was able to comfortably do the splits!
From there we were treated to a number of key Sumo techniques, such as the fearsome Frontal Force Act where the wrestler is able to get a firm grip on his opponent’s belt and drive him forward out of the ring.
Much to our amusement we were also shown what Sumos are not allowed to do, with hair pulling and eye-poking among the offending acts played out by the wrestlers. This is where Comedian started to ham things up a bit with hilarious screams of pretend agony followed by some Norman-Wisdom-style grimacing at the audience. Touristy and kitschy for sure, but also fantastic fun!
February 2019. With the warm ups, techniques and prohibited moves covered it was now time for Chef and Comedian to treat us to an actual match! From the moment it started we could all feel a major boost of energy in the room and a fierce, focused desire to win from both guys. Playing out the best of three, Comedian took the first game with a well-executed throw from the edge of the ring before Chef leveled things up at 1-1 with a bizarre move that saw him grab Comedian from behind before dragging him out of the ring and literally right into my camera!
In the final game it was Comedian who prevailed 2-1 with a victorious half-throw that sent an off-balance Chef cashing to the floor! Sweaty and breathless, he looked pretty pleased with himself while Chef lay spread-eagled on the floor, presumably for dramatic effect.
With the match concluded it was time for the moment we’d all been waiting for, not least Wonderboy who was the first to accept our host’s offer for audience members to step up and fight one of the Sumos! So off he went to put on a frankly ludicrous Sumo outfit that was sure to add even more comedy to the situation. As such, it was only fitting that Comedian came forward to be Wonderboy’s opponent. Needless to say the resulting contest was fucking hilarious, with Comedian ratcheting up the clownery by slapping his ass provocatively and camply waving at the audience as my poor old friend flailed away in vain. And of course in the end Comedian was gentlemanly enough to allow Wonderboy the honor of winning the fight!
Wonderboy’s triumphant Sumo debut was followed by more hilarious wrestling attempts from audience members before a round of photographs where both men proved to be great sports. They made sure everyone got their shots and were incredibly cheerful and patient during the whole thing.
The lunch we had that afternoon wasn’t just any old crap, but rather a key part of the Sumo experience. The pork cutlet with salad, rice and sweet mashed potato went down a treat, but it was the piping hot bowl of Chankonabe (Sumo Stew) that we were most curious about. It’s basically a hearty chicken broth brimming with vegetables and little meatballs. This is what Sumos gorge on in vast quantities as part of their strict, weight-gain diet. I thought it was a nice touch that the stew had been cooked and served by Chef himself. Like most retired Sumos it was natural for him to make the move from wrestler to restaurant owner as he’d spent the majority of his life cooking this stuff for himself and his fellow wrestlers, who all lived together in a communal training stable.
It had been an amazing, Sumo-tastic morning and Wonderboy and I had gotten exactly what we’d come for… and then some! But even then we were treated to the added bonus of an intimate Q&A session with Chef as we sat chomping on our lunch. As the questions fired back and forth we heard how he’d begun learning the art of Sumo aged just eight, although it wasn’t until after he graduated from college that he took it up professionally. He also told us about the crazy hours he’d put in training and how tough it was to make an active income from Sumo wrestling. Amazingly, only the top 10% of Japan’s registered fighters make any real money and Chef’s professional peak saw him reach an agonizing rank of 77 from the country’s 700 pros.
But although he didn’t quite make it on the prize money front, Chef nevertheless did very well for himself! He’s been on Australian TV in a truck commercial, done a photoshoot with English model Kate Moss and helped promote the 2019 Rugby World Cup (hosted by Japan) alongside English rugby star Chris Robshaw. And now of course he’s a restaurant owner and live entertainer to tourists from all over the world!
Our amazing Sumo performance & duel experience came through the online tour operator Voyagin. Tickets are priced at 10.500JPY (£71/€83/$94). For more info click here: https://www.govoyagin.com/activities/japan-tokyo-duel-with-sumo-wrestlers-and-eat-chanko-nabe-in-tokyo/4034
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