The lightest man in sumo

When we think of sumo wrestlers, we usually imagine very big, even fat, men. Like Kotoshogiku for example:

sumo wrestler kotoshogiku

Sumo wrestler Kotoshogiku

Weighing in at 176 kilograms, Kotoshogiku is a formidable man. There is, however, one exception to the rule of big sumo wrestlers. With only 93 kilograms, Czech born Takanoyama doesn’t have a gram of fat on him.

czech sumo wrestler takanoyama

Czech sumo wrestler Takanoyama

I am not sure why Takanoyama is so lean. Is he unable to put on the weight? Or is it a deliberate choice? If so, is it because of vanity? Or is it perhaps a way to stand out among all the other wrestlers? One thing is for sure though: it is not helping him in the ring. When I was following sumo, in 2011-2012, he was struggling to stay in the maegashira division (which is the lowest part of the top division). Usually he attempted some judo-like techniques and while they gained him the occasional win, overall he simply couldn’t compete with the heavier wrestlers. Meanwhile he has dropped out of the top division completely and is placed in the middle of jūryō, the second highest division.

Despite his poor ring performance, Takanoyama was (and perhaps still is?) very popular with the fans. I wonder if this is due to his unusual physique. It certainly isn’t due to his sunny personality, as I had the chance to discover one July afternoon in 2012.

Prior to the 2012 Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament, we had the chance to attend a sumo practice session and eat some chanko nabe handed out by the wrestlers. As the wrestlers left to retire to their quarters, they were followed by a group of fans, asking them for pictures. Among the group was a very pushy Japanese lady, who seemed intent on touching the wrestlers as much as possible. When she took a picture with kind natured Takayasu, she even held his hand! Unfortunately I don’t have pictures of the pushy lady, but I do have our own pictures with the wrestlers.

japanese sumo wrestler takayasu

This is me and a friend posing with Takayasu. Such a sweet and shy guy!

After having taken her picture with Takayasu, the pushy Japanese lady approached Czech wrestler Takanoyama. As she was posing alongside him for a picture, she tried to cuddle up to him and take his arm. Takanoyama was having none of it though. He barked at her “Chikai!”, which literally translates as ‘(too) close’. In Japanese, just barking out the word is a very rude way to say she was too close. The lady shrieked and jumped at least a meter away.

We were witness to this incident because we were waiting to take our own picture with Takanoyama. In fact, our turn was up right after the pushy lady. Needless to say we were a bit anxious about approaching this ill-tempered wrestler after witnessing such a scene. In the pictures below, you can clearly see that my friend is keeping her distance from Takanoyama, as is my husband. Because I am standing a bit to the front, it looks like I am closer, but I can assure you that I was equally wary.

Czech sumo wrestler takanoyama

Posing with scary Czech sumo wrestler Takanoyama. Notice how my friend is keeping her distance.

Czech sumo wrestler takanoyama

Even my husband is afraid to come too close and I can’t blame him!

Sumo fashion

It’s no secret that I love sumo. As with all things Japanese, the visual aspect of the whole thing is part of its appeal. I would therefore like to dedicate this post to sumo attire.

The wrestlers, or rikishi, are best known for their typical ring fighting outfit consisting of a colourful, silk, thick-waisted loincloth, called mawashi. But they also have a more elaborate ceremonial dress. It consists of an ornate apron that is inserted into the mawashi. The apron, or keshō-mawashi, is worn at the ring entering ceremony.

Two wrestlers fighting in their silk mawashi

Two wrestlers fighting in their silk mawashi – image from Wikipedia


Sumo wrestlers, or rikishi wearing their ornate aprons, or keshō-mawashi, at a ring entering ceremony – image from Wikipedia

These gorgeous embroidered aprons are very expensive. They are usually paid for by a sponsor or one of the rikishi’s support groups. I had expected that all the aprons would depict traditional Japanese scenes, but that is not always the case. Sometimes the sponsor’s product will be featured and foreign rikishi sometimes wear a keshō-mawashi with their national flag. Some aprons even show funny pictures or scenes inspired by modern popular culture. Others refer to the wrestler’s ring name.

The keshō-mawashi with a more ‘typical Japanese’ feel to them seemed the most difficult to find. Ironically it is Bulgarian wrestler Aoiyama who provides us with a traditional Japanese scene based on a woodblock print.

aoiyama keshō-mawashi

Bulgarian wrestler Aoiyama

Below is another keshō-mawashi based on a woodblock print by Hokusai, worn by Okinoumi. The choice of design might refer to his ring name, which means ‘the sea of Oki’. Oki-shotō or Oki islands is the island group where he was born.

okinoumi keshō-mawashi


Also very Japanese but not quite what one would expect from a tough sumo wrestler: a design with cherry blossom, worn by Osaka-born rikishi Goeido.

goeido keshō-mawashi


Some designs draw inspiration from a very different aspect of Japanese culture: manga. Have a look at this funny design worn by Ikioi.

ikioi keshō-mawashi


Estonian rikishi Baruto pokes fun at himself with a cute caricature. He also has an inception thing going on, where his image on the keshō-mawashi is wearing a keshō-mawashi with his image (it looks less confusing than it sounds).

baruto keshō-mawashi


The most surprising reference to popular culture that I saw was on Takayasu’s keshō-mawashi. It features an image of Charlie Chaplin. I wonder what the story behind it is. I am terrible at reading kanji so the only thing I can make out on the apron is the word ‘clinic’.



Some other interesting keshō-mawashi:


Some rikishi just have writing on their keshō-mawashi, like Yoshikaze.


Brazilian rikishi Kaisei proudly wears his national flag on his apron


Beautiful dragon motif, worn by Chiyotairyu


A Japanese mask on Toyonoshima’s apron. Is it perhaps a demon in a kabuki play?


A personal favourite of mine: Tochiozan’s keshō-mawashi features a dog dressed as a yokozuna (sumo grand champion). My only question is, why?!

All images of rikishi in keshō-mawashi are from the Nihon Sumo Kyokai website. If you would like to have a look at some more keshō-mawashi, you can find them on this page by clicking on the wrestler’s names.

It’s sumo time!

Sumo flags, Naruto beya, Nagoya, Japan, July 2012

Flags advertising the presence of the wrestlers. Each flag portrays the name of a wrestler.

Today, July 8th, is the start of the Sumo Grand Tournament in Nagoya. There are six tournaments throughout the year, three of which take place in Tokyo. But come July, everyone in the sumo world travels to Nagoya for the July basho.

The wrestlers arrive in Nagoya about two weeks prior to the start of the tournament. They traditionally stay at a temple, since in the olden days those were the only buildings large enough to house an entire sumo stable (a stable is a group of sumo wrestlers who live and train together, called a ‘beya’ or sometimes ‘heya’ in Japanese).

Sumo wrestlers temple

Inside the temple grounds

Sometimes the training sessions at those temples are open to the public. And guess what? Thanks to a Japanese friend of mine who kindly looked up all the necessary information, we were able to witness one of those training sessions!

Imagine our excitement at being able to watch the titans from close-by, rather than on a tv-screen or from the other side of a giant venue; to get an inside look into the life of a sumo wrestler and watch their daily routine … If you like sumo, it’s exciting to say the least.

Watching sumo training

Watching sumo training

Beforehand, we were a little worried that we wouldn’t recognize any of the wrestlers (we’re relatively new at this whole sumo thing). But there was no need to worry. Immediately upon arrival we spotted an ozeki (second highest ranking wrestler). I’m not one to get starstruck easily but this made me jump up and down like a little girl on her birthday. “OMG, OMG, it’s Kisenosato!” And there even were two other guys that we recognized. One of them was a wrestler from the Czech Republic called Takanoyama and the other one was rising star Takayasu. They are all members of the Narutobeya.

After the training everyone was invited to a bowl of ‘chankonabe’, the traditional sumo wrestlers’ food. It is a thick soup with lots of protein and vegetables. Ingredients include chicken, tofu, eggs, cabbage, onion, daikon … Sumo wrestlers are able to gain a lot of weight quickly by eating vast amounts of chankonabe and rice at lunch time, followed by taking a nap in the afternoon.

Chankonabe uncooked

Chankonabe ingredients before cooking. The uncooked ingredients might not look like much but the finished chankonabe was delicious!

To our surprise, the wrestlers themselves were handing out the nabe. I would never have imagined an ozeki to carry out such a lowly task. But there he was, Kisenosato himself, handing out bowls of nabe to the fans.

Sumo wrestlers handing out chankonabe

Sumo wrestlers handing out chankonabe. From left to right: Takayasu, Takanoyama, Wakanosato and Kisenosato.

Chankonabe from kisenosato

Dennis gets his bowl of chankonabe from Kisenosato himself. Lucky!

Chankonabe changing hands

Chankonabe changing hands

We were able to get very close to the wrestlers. When watching them on tv, you don’t fully realize how big these guys really are. Sure, they look fat, but they are also very tall (for a Japanese that is) and very broad. I imagine they must be incredibly strong as well. What an experience to meet them face to face!

If you’re in the Nagoya area, don’t miss your chance to see live sumo. The basho is held every day from now until July 22nd. Follow the links below for more information.

Japan Sumo Association homepage (in English)

Ticket information. Click through to the Chunichi Shinbun web site. They have a page in English that seems to work well.

Current banzuke (ranking of all the top-players, with links to their profiles).

Clash of the Titans

Every year in July one of the six Grand Sumo Tournaments is held in Nagoya. It goes without saying that we took advantage of the opportunity to experience a day of real-live sumo.

For those of you who live on another planet and have never heard of sumo: sumo is Japanese wrestling. Two very big guys try to push each other out of a ring, or try to make the other one touch the ground with a body part other than the soles of his feet. There are few things as Japanese as Sumo.

You might think that an entire day of Sumo would be boring. It’s just two overweight guys pushing and shoving at each other, right? Nothing could be further from the truth. Sumo is exciting! And those guys aren’t just fat, there’s a lot of muscle power and technique involved in sumo.  We saw guys who were about to be tossed to the ground reverse the situation with a movement faster than the eye can see and toss their opponent instead.

There’s a rhythm to sumo matches, which adds to the excitement. It’s all about building up tension, before each match and throughout the day. Lower ranking wrestlers perform early on in the day and each match involves consecutively higher ranking wrestlers.

Each match starts with a guy with a fan singing out the names of the wrestlers. An eerie sound.

Then the wrestlers step into the ring and carry out various ceremonial gestures. They face each other and squat, then get up again. This can go on for up to four minutes while they test each other’s nerve (and the audience’s nerve). They start when both wrestlers have both fists touching the ground at the same time. The fight is often over in mere seconds. A winner is declared, the wrestlers leave the ring and the chanting starts again.

The final matches of the day are preceded by a colourful ring entering ceremony.

Ring entering ceremony

The highest ranking wrestler (yokozuna) gets his own special ceremony. It’s a tremendous honour to be made yokozuna. To give you an idea: in the past three hundred years there have been only sixty-nine yokozuna. Currently there is only one, and he is a foreigner. Actually the second highest category of sumo wrestlers also consist entirely out of foreigners.

As sumo is so closely connected with Japanese identity, I was wondering how Japanese people feel about all those foreign wrestlers. A little researched showed that in 2002, the Japan Sumo Association installed a ‘one foreigner per stable (sumo training establishment)’ rule. So I guess in any case the JSA might be a little touchy about it. But the public didn’t seem to mind. Many foreign athletes received a lot of encouragement. So maybe in the end all that matters to the general public is good sumo?

A little tip for people who want to go next year:

If you get the cheap seats all the way at the top of the venue, bring a sweater. The air-conditioning was set to ‘chilling’ and we were sitting right underneath it. If you are willing to invest in a seat closer to stage, be forewarned that the little boxes in the picture below are meant to hold four (!) people.