There is something about sumo wrestling that struck me from an early age. For some unexplainable reason, I always wanted to see them fight in Japan. In January 2015, I realized one of my life long dreams.
This was a challenging trip to plan. I had never been to Japan before and knew absolutely nothing about sumo. Also, as a foreigner (Gaijin), getting access to sumo can be difficult.
The plan was first, to gain entry to a local beya (sumo training stable) and photograph sumo in daily training. Then, to attend the New Year Basho (tournament) in Tokyo – at the Ryogoku Kokugikan.
The second part was easy. I just bought tickets online. However, the stables are where the sumo live, eat, sleep and practice almost every day. So whilst entry is possible, not all stables welcome viewing visitors and not all welcome foreigners.
During my research, I came across a Englishmen called Mark Buckton who lives in Tokyo. Mark is a recognized expert, writer and commentator on Sumo. He also wrestles and is a keen photographer. I was very honored that he agreed to introduce me to Azumazeki Beya, a sumo stable in the Ryogoku neighborhood of Tokyo. He also taught me a little about sumo.
We arrived on a freezing Tokyo morning around 7am. The stable exterior was not what I expected. It was an ordinary building, in a quiet side street, with a huddle of bicycles outside. Sumo are often seen riding bicycles around the neighborhood.
Mark and the oyakata (Stable trainer) exchanged formal bows and conversation. Then, the oyakata gave me a stare as cold as the December air and headed inside. We followed. The entrance hall was narrow and had a large portrait of Takamiyama, who founded Azumazeki stable in 1986.
At the end of the corridor is a kitchen. To the left, a small reception area closed off with sliding wooden doors. Sumo literature scattered on a table. I was asked to remove my shoes and wait. Coming from the other side of the doors, I heard the husky chants of men. I knew who they were.
A few minutes later, the doors slid open and we were ushered in. Mark went in first, paused and bowed as he entered. He was acknowledged with polite bows from everyone inside. I did the same and was ignored. The basement room was around 8 x 10m, with a sand floor and small windows at street level. It was cramped with very little room to sit. In the middle, were a group of sumo and the oyakata sat in front. The atmosphere was tense. I, naively, was expecting something different.
Visitors are only allowed in some beya and usually by appointment. So I decided to be patient. I arrived 7am every day without camera gear and stayed until the end of practice. Other visitors came, then left after an hour or so. Unlike them, I sat motionless and in total silence. The floor was cold, hard and very uncomfortable. I decided that, if sumo can be disciplined and take pain, then so can I.
After four days of intensely observing the sumo’s training regime, movement and the nasty lighting conditions, I finally took my gear. Sensing their unease at my repetitive attendance, I started with calm and gentle movement. It was so frustrating. Once I sat in a place, I could not move again. The visitor gallery tiny and cramped. The shooting angle very limited. I learnt so much about myself, discipline and patience during this time.
After a few days, they got used to me. However, despite bowing every time I entered and left the room, I was still ignored. A week later, I printed a book of sumo images and asked a Japanese friend to write a cover note in Japanese. This was presented to the sumo. To my surprise, they all broke out in child like giggles and clapped in appreciation. After this, whenever I entered the room and bowed, they bowed back. I was now free to shoot.
Depending on the next tournament dates, practice can be from 3-4 hours daily. This usually starts around 6.30 am with a gentle pace and the intensity quickly builds.
In cramped conditions, sumo perform a variety of seemingly old fashioned strength building exercises. These include Shiko (leg stomping), push ups, lifting cast iron weights, a hammer and even a large rock above the head.
The big wooden pole at the back is called a teppo and is used by wrestlers to repetitively slap their hands on. This is to practice engaging an opponent. The sound produced is like a loud ticking clock.
The dohyo for tournaments is usually a raised clay platform with a round circle. Wrestlers believe the dohyo to be a place where gods descend. A junior sumo sweeps the dohyo with a traditional besom broom. Salt is thrown in to cleanse and bring good fortune. Only sumo are allowed to set foot on the dohyo. Woman are never allowed to enter or even touch the dohyo.
One training drill is butusakari-geiko. Here, sumo push each other with force across the dohyo in order to learn the necessary leverage and hand placement. This is an exhausting exercise and is repeated many times until they are exhausted.
This form of practice pitches all levels and size of sumo together. Wrestlers must appear to be keen to fight and the moment a bout is over, they surge forward and shout loudly to be chosen.
Young sumo are rolled and thrown aggressively across the floor during workouts as part of the toughening up process. Ridicule is included too. This helps develop the right mental attitude required to make it in this competitive sport.
Young sumo are constantly pushed to the edge of their physical and emotional limits. Observers in the public gallery sometimes gasp at the treatment they receive. However, this is simply an integral part of the training.
After, and completely exhausted, Nakata staggered to fetch water for the oyakata. Then, he bowed repeatedly and thanked him for the lesson. Only then can he drink himself.
The second post on sumo will follow shortly…
Camera gear used: Canon 1dx, Canon 16-35mm f2.8L, Canon 24-70 f2.8L II, Canon 50mm f1.4 and Gitzo monopod.
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