A Day out at the Ryogoku Kokugikan: Kisenopocalypse Edition

Kisenosato Flag - Hatsu Basho 2019
A flag that soon may never fly again.

In sumo there are no places more hallowed than the Kokugikan, and for me, it’s one of the most special venues in all of sport. Having completed my set of honbasho cities in 2018 and having last taken in the Kyushu basho in Fukuoka, I had been excited to get back to Kokugikan and the home of sumo.

And since I last visited, the NSK has been busy bringing in new features:

But despite the pleas of Sumo Twitter™, this is not why I came and I did not take part. This Friday, I’m back at Kokugikan for Day 6, so perhaps I’ll grab some #content then, if the Cat Cafe is still in business. I did, however, make a stop off at a different novelty, the dohyo mounted by the legends of broadcasting, the NHK Grand Sumo Preview team:

Sumida Information Center Dohyo
Why, yes Hiro, I do have a prediction for this basho.

There’s a Sumida information centre next to the Kokugikan with all kinds of restaurants (including chanko) and tourist info, and this dohyo is located there. The dohyo is roped off with signs clearly stating not to walk on it. As it is not (as far as I know) actively in use, it would be cool if fans could be chaperoned onto this dohyo at some stage. Perhaps one of our readers knows more and can point this out in the comments!

After a quick walk around, I headed into the arena, stopping with several other punters to snap a photo of the Kisenosato flag at the entrance (at the top of the post). Everyone attending the basho knows the end is near, and what was clear throughout the day is that in spite of the farce that has been his record-breaking losing run, Kisenosato’s fans are desperate for him to do well, and desperate for a final good memory.

Normally, I get right to my seat to check out some early, lower division matches, and calibrate myself with the torikumi. However, this alluring photo of Michinoku-oyakata beckoned me underground:

Michinoku Chanko poster
It’s an original blend.

Typically, a different stable will supply the recipe for the chankonabe that is served at the Kokugikan for each honbasho. The last time I was in Tokyo, it was provided by Oguruma-beya, and this time, it’s Michinoku’s “Variety Chanko” on offer. And as you can see above, you can wash it down with a cup of hot, steaming rules.

Michinoku heya Chanko
Everything but the kitchen sink.

The chanko is served in a small styrofoam bowl, and you get a pair of wooden chopsticks. There’s ichimi in the dining hall if you need it, though this had some good spice. I’d call it Kitchen Sink chanko as it had a bit of everything in there. For ¥300 it’s a nice novelty to be able to eat a small bowl of chanko, and the line moved quickly enough that I didn’t mind waiting. If you go later in the afternoon, maybe toward the end of Makushita, there’s usually less of a line.

After a quick stop at noted sumo artisan Daimon Kinoshita‘s stall for some beautiful postcards, and then to the BBM Sumo Card seller to pick up some cards from the new 2019 series, I did a lap around the arena and headed for my seat. Not far away from the Daimon Kinoshita stall at the front of the venue, newly retired ex-Satoyama was doing fan photos, along with NSK mascot Hiyonoyama.

Across from Hiyonoyama, the NSK social media team has launched a photo activation where fans can take photos with a variety of backgrounds to share on social media. Sadly, this seems to have replaced the incredible Purikura box which used to be available at Kokugikan, where fans could take pictures “with” any of the 42 top division rikishi. While the fan experience does tend to continuously improve at Kokugikan, the NSK has got this one wrong and I hope they restore the purikura booth soon (if only so I can continue my long and quite literally decorated history of taking photos with Ichinojo).

Once inside, I decided to stop off and see the newest addition to the Kokugikan rafters:

Takakeisho yusho portrait hanging at Kokukigan
Young man among legends.

Takakeisho’s yusho portrait was a great reminder that while we talk about the achievements and accomplishments of these rikishi as if it’s just part and parcel of the daily business, what we witness every basho is men writing themselves into history (usually the good kind).

Speaking of recent champions, one of them had a very prominent and popular supporter in attendance:

Others will cover the actual content of the days events on the site, so I want to focus the rest of this piece on Kisenosato, whose presence overshadowed almost everything else to take place on the dohyo.

Kisenosato dohyo-iri. Hatsu basho 2019.
“Something I wasn’t sure of, but I was in the middle of”

Kisenosato Dohyo-iri

Kisenosato’s dohyo-iri was greeted with a massive round of applause. It was clear from this moment that while yesterday was reported to have been a tense affair, the crowd was here to celebrate and cheer for the beleaguered Yokozuna.

While his nerves were visibly jangling when watching the ring entrance ceremony yesterday with the benefit of HD TV, today’s dohyo-iri at least appeared to be more authoritative from my viewpoint in the venue. The entire crowd was absolutely behind him and welcomed him into the ring and celebrated what could possibly be the last time we all saw him perform that ritual.

As an aside, I will say it was fantastic to see three Yokozuna dohyo-iri today. The last time I visited a honbasho, in Fukuoka this past November, Kisenosato had already withdrawn by the time I reached the venue, and so I didn’t get a chance to experience one of the more magical moments of live sumo on that occasion. I’m grateful that all three Yokozuna gamberized (or attempted to) for this basho.

Kisenosato vs Tochiozan. Hatsu Basho Day 3. 15 January 2019.
A penultimate stare-down?

Kisenosato vs Tochiozan

The atmosphere before this match was totally charged. This may have as much to do with Kisenosato as it did with the match that preceded it, Hakuho prevailing over Ichinojo in an epic contest.

As Kisenosato mounted the dohyo, what seemed like the entire arena spontaneously broke out in a synchronised clap in support of the Yokozuna. Kisenosato towels were being waved everywhere – absolutely everyone in the venue was behind him and I cannot state that enough. Were he to win, it seemed like the roof would come off the place.

It felt like Tochiozan took absolutely ages to get down and ready for this bout (he’s obviously a very seasoned veteran, just like the Yokozuna, but it’s clearly possible he too had nerves in that kind of abnormal atmosphere). It seemed possible that this may have had the effect of unsettling Kisenosato, who seemed very much ready to go.

By now, you probably know how this ends. Kisenosato lost a match it didn’t seem like he was every really truly in danger of winning, though it was clear he gave it everything he could. After the match, the disappointment of the crowd was immense, and so audible. After all of the energy everyone had put into it, the gasps, sighs, and exhales of the entire arena probably lasted about 5-10 seconds but it seemed like it went on for minutes, and it felt like a cloud had been put over the dohyo. The whole place just felt deflated after having been so charged up.

After that, the last match between Kakuryu and Nishikigi felt like a total non-event – which is sad, really, as it was a very good bout and a career-altering continuation of what has turned into a remarkable storyline for a rank-and-file rikishi. Having been emotionally drained, a lot of people simply walked out of the venue before the musubi-no-ichiban had started, and missed it altogether. Again, I’ll let others supply the match analysis, but it was a frankly bizarre end to the day, as there was a long monoii before Nishikigi’s kinboshi was confirmed. Zabuton had been flying everywhere both before and after the monoii.

With the festivities having finished for the day, and having seen a bow twirling ceremony in my time, I left Kokugikan in very much the same mind as many others, it seemed: thankful for being a part of the final moments of something, but not really totally sure of what to feel.

14 thoughts on “A Day out at the Ryogoku Kokugikan: Kisenopocalypse Edition

  1. It’s heartbreaking that the fans think they can pull Kisenosato back to a genki form if they just show how much he means to them, and he does mean the world to a lot of sumo fans. I think the period of gentle guidance to Kisenosato from the sumo leadership is coming to an end, and the suggestions are becoming more direct, and more specific. I don’t think it will be long now.

    • Herouth posted a critical quote from Shibatayama earlier on Twitter, so it’s definitely happening. Kisenosato is all over the media here. I had coffee after the basho today with someone who is not a sumo fan (they exist!) and even he knew the yokozuna was in trouble.

      But yes, people just desperately want to believe, and people are hardly going to cheer against the man that did what he did. The Twitter reaction however has been more resigned in nature from what I can tell. I think his fans deserve a better encore.

      • I’d add I think it’s absolutely clear that Kisenosato knows it as well, and if as Herouth suggests tomorrow is going to be the day his supporters group is in attendance, I fully expect it to be his final bout, especially if it’s the musubi-no-ichiban. I know we’re all on the Nishikigi Fun Time Wagon right now but if he can sign off with a win tomorrow night in the final bout and ride off into the sunset I think it would still be a glorious moment for his fans. I would be absolutely stunned to see him on the dohyo when I am there on Friday.

        • Conspiracy theory inbound: I wonder if Nishikigi will let him have the win, or will he turn a blind eye 🙉

          • While that might seem like a kindness, I’m not sure Kisenosato’s pride would be helped by a ‘given’ win. I doubt Nishikigi can perform like Endo (pantomime fighting and losing to hometown boys on the jungyo), and certainly not without Kisenosato knowing it had been handed to him. It wouldn’t be anything but an appeasement to his fanclub, and I just don’t think it’s going to fly.

            And yeah, I get it’s all just a thought exercise, but eh, what can I say. I’m a spoiler. And I’d rather see Kisenosato go out on his own terms.

  2. Great description Josh, sounds like a truly remarkable day of sumo to have witnessed.

    A very sad day for sumo indeed, as Kisenosato has long been a favourite of mine, but his career will surely end very soon, as everyone else believes too.

  3. Imagine the following scenario: Kakuryu announces his intention to retire after losing seven of his last eight bouts, citing his inability to live up to the standards a Yokuzuna has to conform. It would be the cherry on top of the farce we currently witness.

    • Bingo. I think Kisenosato’s situation is the only thing keeping Kakuryu on the dohyo through this spring and into the summer.

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