Hanging out at Kokugikan: Day 3

kokugikan

With many live sports, the better viewing these days will come on TV, or online, or however you consume your video content. You get the benefit of close-ups, camera angles, replays, and analysis. However, the best and most irreplaceable pure experience will still usually come in person. I was fortunate to attend Day 3 of the Natsu basho yesterday, and so will share some of my experiences. I will caveat that almost all of you who saw yesterday’s highlights saw those matches better than I did, and I will do a more complete post on the Kokugikan experience after one of the later days I attend in the tournament, but hopefully this will add some color to yesterday’s proceedings.

Tickets/Seats

Due to the incredible popularity of sumo, the full tournament sold out in under an hour, and this caused an incredible amount of strain on ticket agents like BuySumoTickets who provide services to those of us based outside of Japan. Unfortunately, my seat was downgraded to “Arena C,” which is the furthest back section at the top of the upper deck of Kokugikan. While the Arena A and B seats feature comfortable, plush upholstery and armrests, the Arena C seats are more of the hard plastic variety you might find in a normal sports stadium. It’s worth paying whatever you can afford to get into one of the closer sections, as it makes a difference when you’re sitting for several hours. Kokugikan, which does offer very good sight lines from almost any seat, is fairly steep, so even getting into the Arena B section does make a meaningful difference. Still, I’m not complaining – at least I was lucky enough to be able to attend.

As far as the surrounding fan contingent up in Arena C, it was made up largely of folks who had queued for “day-of” tickets in the AM as well as tourists. Obviously, I’m all for more fans experiencing sumo and welcoming them to our site to follow English language coverage, but with the incredible demand for tickets, it would be good of tourists to read Tachiai and other sites, and brush up on the rituals of the ring before making their maiden trip to Kokugikan! It would make their sumo experience more rich, and if they are going to take the seats of people who are legitimately fans of sumo (either locals or other tourists), it would sit a bit easier with me if these folks made more of an effort [edit: I appreciate while the spirit of this comment is positive, the tone did not sit well with everyone, so please see further elaboration on the subject in the comments]. The likes of Tachiai are here to help, and we will welcome them!

Despite this, there were pockets of empty seats all around the upper bowl in particular – the three seats next to me were all empty. Later in the day, a few massive groups of school kids filled in the Arena B section and were fantastic for the atmosphere.

Snacks & Shopping

Oguruma-beya is serving their brand of chanko throughout the basho, but I took it a bit easy yesterday, skipping that and the yakitori and just enjoying a custard bun in the shape of the NSK mascot, a snack-box of roast beef sushi with wasabi, and a package of Lotte Koala March cookies.

What was surprising was the amount of Harumafuji stuff you can still find. The postcard vendor inside Kokugikan still carried Harumafuji goods, and they were still selling $100 Harumafuji statues in the gift shops. I always buy postcards at Kokugikan – it’s very rare you can find one of someone below Juryo division, but they were already selling postcards of a certain hotly-tipped Jonidan rikishi:

Additionally, I picked up a pack of cards from the trading card vendors. Opening the package of 5 cards (¥300) to find an Enho card filled me with immense joy. One of the coolest features of this vendor is that he will offer to trade you from a pile of other cards for one of the cards in your pack that you don’t want. I pretty much snapped his arm off to give him my Daiamami card in exchange for Onosho, I don’t know how I got away with that one!

Matches

I did get to see a handful of the folks I’m tracking in this basho’s Ones to Watch series in the Makushita division, but I’ll save the analysis for the mid-basho check in post. Instead, let’s talk about some higher division action:

Wakatakakage has tons of fans. You will always hear people shouting for him, and if you thought that Raja Pradhan’s rapid fire pronunciation of his name was impressive on Grand Sumo Preview, wait until you hear someone’s drunken grandpa shouting it for all of Kokugikan to hear [as I’ve just written this, Hiro Morita has shared during the Day 4 broadcast that Mitakeumi says he is worried Wakatakakage is too light to compete as a sekitori. Make of that what you will!].

Abi vs Mitakeumi: If you think back a year, Mitakeumi always had one of the loudest cheering sections at any tournament. Not anymore. A new generation of exciting upstarts has taken root, and none more so than Abi. If you’re looking for a signal as to how much things have changed and how Mitakeumi’s star has dimmed, it was impossible to hear anyone cheering for him over Abi fans. They created an incredible cacophony and it was the loudest I had ever heard Kokugikan for a single rikishi. But unfortunately for them, in the match, Mitakeumi put him on the run. He’s come up in the first few days against guys who are working hard to be Ozeki (two in with a good chance, and one trying to recover his past momentum in Mitakeumi). I think he’ll be able to turn it around and I agree with Bruce that if he can develop some yotsu-zumo techniques, he would be a total force.

Ikioi: I’ve mentioned before on the site that he is my favorite, so I am biased. I’m also a life long fan of Liverpool Football Club. Their manager Jürgen Klopp became known earlier in his career for his approach to “heavy metal” football: intense, unrelenting, in your face action. Maybe this is what also draws me so much to Ikioi. Ikioi’s brand of sumo is heavy metal sumo, high-octane, full-throttle sumo. In football parlance, his extreme gegenpressing might leave him open to the kind of counterattacks which might make a charge for silverware a bit of a vain exercise for him (even if he wins the odd special prize here and there). This is perhaps evidenced by a second monoii in three days leading to a gyoji-decision reversal in his favor. I often say Hakuho is “box office,” and he is the consummate entertainer, but Ikioi is can’t-miss sumo. And in an era of declining numbers in the upper san’yaku (two years ago there were 7 yokozuna and ozeki, and they usually all turned up…. now we have 3 who are active), the sport needs can’t-miss performers.

Lost: Hokutofuji and Yoshikaze.

Found: Kotoshogiku and Ishiura. Ishiura did sumo, and won. Imagine that! Usually baseball pitchers establish their fastball and then mix in an off-speed pitch like a curveball to confuse batters. Ishiura is doing the opposite now: he leads with most people’s curveball, the henka, and then when he throws good sumo out there, he can blow people away. Kotoshogiku is always trying to get his feet sorted, and yesterday he kept composure through a couple waves of attacks from Yutakayama to deal with a rikishi who didn’t have much experience of his signature move. The old dog’s still got it, you know.

Daieisho threw a henka on Ichinojo and the big man reacted like someone untied his favorite pony and set it free while he wasn’t looking. The crowd reacted and he throw Daieisho to the floor, the gyoji’s decision confirmed after a monoii.

The crowd reacted very disapprovingly to the Tochinoshin/Tamawashi matta. Long time watchers of Tamawashi will know that he will sometimes play mind games at the tachiai with higher rankers and eke out a longer than usual stare down. However, whenever he deploys this tactic, even when he provokes two or even three matta in an apparent attempt to unsettle his opponent, he always seems to lose. It seems it might motivate his opponents more than anything, not that Tochinoshin needs extra motivation at the moment.

I have never experienced an atmosphere like I did for Endo vs Goeido, the first massive upset of the basho. There were huge groups of fans for both rikishi chanting and screaming and clapping in the run up to the match. When Endo finally threw Goeido to the clay, the explosion of noise was one of those moments that makes Kokugikan one of the most special sporting venues in the world.

20 thoughts on “Hanging out at Kokugikan: Day 3


  1. Thanks for this post! It was very evocative, I’d love to catch a day at the Kokugikan some day.


    • No problem! I’m going to do a post like I did for the Osaka basho explaining how I set up my trip to Tokyo, so keep an eye out for that!


  2. Great post, thanks! I didn’t remember the C seats “felt” cheaper to the buttocks, but the armrests of the A’s et B’s sure are nice. And the trays and can openers for every A seat, too!
    However, I don’t think some viewers are more “legitimate” than others. After all, even if those tourists don’t know the first thing about sumo, they did wait in line at 5 or 6 in the morning for those same day tickets didn’t they? As long as they don’t embarrass themselves and every other foreigner…


    • I agree with that sentiment fully, and I accept and knew in writing this that that statement may be challenged a bit.

      To clarify, I don’t think any viewer is more “legitimate” that any other viewer — but I think it’s fair to say some people are legitimately fans of the sport while others are simply there because it’s something to do as a tourist (same as many sporting events). I also think, when you go to another country it is a good thing to show humility and at least read up a bit first on the thing you are going to see. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard other folks say things that are just a little ignorant to the sport. A lot of times, people make no attempt to understand it or flat out leave early, and I think that is difficult to accept when so many people have difficulty securing tickets. When I see people leaving in the middle of Juryo because it doesn’t make sense to them and they didn’t know what they were in for and/or don’t like it, and there are so many big fans who queue up and still CAN’T get tickets, it’s hard to accept. If I’m sitting next to tourists who want certain things explained however, I’m always happy to share.

      I have a lot of respect for anyone, regardless of background, who will queue up at 5 am — but remember many of these folks, like me, will have bought through a broker, or they are someone who has had tickets secured for them by a tour group or travel agent, etc.


      • As I messaged today, I do understand a bit of what you said. I spent 3 days in a row explaining to the people beside me exactly what Sumo was and answering all of their questions. It was quite exhausting. BUT it was great that they were interested in learning more about the sport and really wanted to get the most out of the experience. I made sure that I told them about Tachiai and other sites so they could stay informed later.
        One of the reasons I do like being down in the boxes with the Japanese fans is that they are a lot rowdier and engage more (as many have been following for a long time).


          • So, last time I was cheering so much with the Japanese men next to me that one of them ducked out (I didn’t notice) and at the end they gave me a bag full of sumo presents, including a Kotoeko magnet, because I had told them I liked him 😂😂


  3. I also disagree with the sentiment that you need a sumo-license to attend a basho.

    When I went to my first basho back in 2001, I knew next to nothing about sumo, it just seemed an interesting thing to do with the day. Back then, tickets were easier to get, so I queued up half an hour before start time and went in for the experience. And what do you know? I went in knowing nothing, and came out a fan in the making.

    Regarding the trading card stall: I assume they only have the most recent series to trade? What a delight it would be to find older series cards, but those are getting rarer and rarer.


    • As referenced above, that wasn’t where I was coming from or the spirit it was intended in, but I appreciate how it may have come off. I think all of us who have been lucky to have attended a basho came away from the experience much more of a fan than we ever were the first time we went in.

      But I will say that with it being so difficult now to get in, it would be nice to see people if they going to come, come to appreciate the event, not leave in the middle of Juryo going “I don’t like this.” Things are different now even to how they were a year ago in terms of demand, and there are so many great resources to call upon now if you even take 30 seconds to do a Google search, that it pains me that when there are people that can’t get in the door, those who can get in the door squander that privilege. Unlike when many of us started going to see tournaments (and I only started within the last few years), you can’t just rock up because it’s something to do anymore. It’s not possible. We should all be appreciative of every moment we get now, even if it means sitting in the Arena C section!

      Re: cards – they actually had some older cards but those were more collectible one off things you could purchase. I’ll be back Sunday and will have another look.


    • I think the key at any event, for n00bs, is to be respectful and interested. I would be a horror at a cricket match because not only do I not know what’s going on, idgaf and would have no interest in really learning. Though, honestly, I wouldn’t be that bad… still just sit there and wouldn’t moan.

      So I take that back, I would be a terror at the Kentucky Derby because I wouldn’t know anything, wouldn’t give a damn about the race or hats, and would actively antagonize the other fans asking “when do we get to eat the loser?” 馬刺美味しいんだよね!

      Seriously, though, I would prefer to be among fellow fans but n00bs are cool if they actually seem to be enjoying the action. I would also expect people to have at least put in some effort beforehand to learn. I mean with Google and Wikipedia around I’d at least try to know what a wicket was, runs, innings, etc. Nowadays it’s kind of inexcusable to go anywhere without some basic idea of what’s going on.


  4. To me, having the full scope of the sport, no commentators yammering, no overlay graphics between me and the dohyo – that makes it several cuts above anything else. The biggest thing missing from the English language highlight reel is the crowd reactions. You get some of that on the NHK 2 hour block, but being in the Kokugikan, you are enmeshed in the whole experience.


    • I agree. When I spoke to Jason for our interview, I felt this was one of his finest points: that there are so many people who love to see the ritual, the crowd reaction, the shiko, and to get a bit of the venue experience that his videos provide from the full broadcast. His videos give at least some of that.

      The crowd yesterday for Abi, Tochinoshin and Endo were just immense. There’s so much happening. Hiro also said on today’s 2 hour broadcast that the school kids that come add so much to the experience because of the sheer amount of noise they create for their favorites.

      I kind of do my own commentating in my head which is cool as well. I’ve gone with a friend before and being able to supply that information, the here’s what I’m looking for out of this guy (even as far down to Makushita though I can’t do that any further even with the Ones to Watch guys), it’s a really cool thing to think through as you’re watching.


  5. Thank you, it was almost like being there. I would love to even have the chance to shop, and had I attended I would have snapped up a Haramafuji statue!

    I have some questions. My husband bought me a sumo book for Mother’s Day along with a sumo calendar and a rikishi squeezy for when my favorites lose. (I also bought myself a t-shirt from Tachiai. Any chance you could ever sell those cards?) The book said the close seats on mats are incredibly expensive, but people are given free liquor and food all day, plus tons of sumo swag. Is this true? The liquor explains why a tiny elderly person seems to happy to have a 400 pound sweaty guy fall on them.

    Also; Do they have cameras and screens so the people in the sore butt section can see?


    • Ah – that last question is a really good one and something I should have really pointed out in the very first paragraph, so thank you for bringing it up: exactly the reason why you will have the advantage at home in terms of seeing the match is because they do not have screens in the any of the arenas. It’s you, and the fans, and the dohyo (and outside, the snacks!). So in those moments where there is a monoii and the judges are all deliberating, there is a real sense of anticipation in the stands because maybe we think we know what we saw, depending on the angle where we are sitting, but there’s no way to get that final confirmation until afterwards. It all adds to the experience.

      Haha! re: sweaty guys falling. I’ll let someone else speak to what you get with the gift bags in the boxes, as while I have been offered to purchase those, I haven’t done so yet. Regarding the postcards, I don’t know that we could sell them, but we could certainly conjure up our own designs (assuming it doesn’t break some NSK name and likeness rule). The postcards I believe are made by an artisan, and his stand also sells the original drawings that these postcards are made from. They are stamped with his logo and name, but there’s no other info on the back of the postcard. I will cover this in greater detail in my full Kokugikan post that is forthcoming, but the original art is typically drawn, coloured and then filled in with a gold leaf backing and the framed versions of these go for about $1600, so I imagine it is his full time work. You can also get framed, and unframed matted prints there that are mostly in this design. I like to have postcards on hand at home just to write notes on, so I typically just grab some whenever I am at a sumo event.

      Sounds like you got some amazing Mother’s Day presents!!

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