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.
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:
Yokozuna past and future?
Surprised that they still have Harumafuji postcards, and that they are already on board the Naya train (half surprised also that they didn't artistically add a topknot) pic.twitter.com/C0HlVsA3J7
— Josh Kahn & Co. (@jsklfc) May 15, 2018
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!
— Josh Kahn & Co. (@jsklfc) May 15, 2018
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.