Ahoy sumo fans. I am here in Osaka, where I spent Day 6 of the Haru basho at the gymnasium/arena known as the EDION Arena for sponsorship purposes, also known as the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium not for sponsorship purposes!
Allow me to fill you in and transfer all of the vibes into your brain space:
Outside of Tokyo, I really think Osaka is the best basho. If you are from Nagoya or Fukuoka, I’m sorry. Actually I’m not that sorry, because those are cool places to be from. But it is hard to rival the atmosphere in Osaka, which most days verges – for sumo – on downright raucous. It’s loud and people have no shame in letting everyone know who they are cheering for.
I arrived during Jonidan, and as usual the place was milling with senior citizens, who typically come early with their copy of the torikumi and highlighters and go through all of the day’s matches. In that sense, the late morning crowd-watching is not unlike that of a bingo hall. It is incredible how much these elderly folks know all the lower division guys and then in many cases make their way to catch them leaving the shitakubeya for a photo.
This brings me to the next great Osaka tradition: waiting by the front door for rikishi to enter. They come right in the front door, and people get excited. There are clearly marked areas in the lobby where it is acceptable to stand. You can just wait there all day, and it is somewhat predictable what time the more popular rikishi will show up, but if you want to also see sumo, it can be a real lottery. You could miss good sumo and end up waiting for 10 mins just to see Tokushōryū as I did (no offense Tokushōryū, I’m sure you are a very cool guy and we are blessed to have smelled your binzuke). You had better like the scent of binzuke if you come to Osaka, because with so many rikishi passing you regularly in the halls, it is inescapable.
You can tell a lot from who the crowd largely supports by the nature of applause during the dohyo-iri. The two big names in Juryo this time were undoubtedly Aminishiki (potentially fighting his last tournament) and Enho, who is now solidly a crowd favorite. Since the crowd gets so much louder than it usually does at a basho, it’s easier to get a read on who has a few fans and who is legitimately popular at the moment. It’s fair to say Enho is now at least on the Chiyomaru level.
I got my tickets through buysumotickets.com, and ended up in what a fellow fan called “gaijin alley,” as typically happens since they block buy the tickets for overseas customers. I sat next to a family of very nice and friendly Australians, who stayed all the way to the end and were hugely interested and excited to see sumo for the first time. I have noticed plenty more fans from Australia coming to tournaments lately, so maybe study-abroad alumnus Ishiura has started doing protein shake commercials down under (Australians, please let us know in the comments!).
I would probably rank Osaka third out of the four basho cities in terms of the availability and quality of food on offer in the venue (ahead of Fukuoka). This is a fairly shocking and damning indictment, given that Osaka is definitely-not-probably one of the greatest food cities, not only in Japan but in the world.
I grabbed some edamame as I was in need of sustenance, and it did not let me down. The yakitori, however, was far worse than at Kokugikan in Tokyo, and was a bit cold and slimy. My advice, if you’re planning to attend the Osaka basho, is to have a large breakfast beforehand and then either smuggle snacks in your backpack or just grab a couple things at the venue.
You will find stuff like dried squid and cheese packs here, but the sweets game in Osaka is pretty weak. They do stock the usual rikishi/dohyo-decorated-cookie gift packs, but none of the Hello Panda action, candy, or NSK-branded treats like the wacky Hiyonoyama pancakes that you’ll get at Kokugikan. There is a restaurant in the basement that has a deep if uninspiring menu when compared with what lies outside – so you’re better off taking advantage of the single re-entry policy than eating at the venue. If I’m the NSK I would probably figure out a way to do a deal with a couple beloved local vendors, and play up the local culture in order to enhance the in-venue experience.
This is where Osaka just flat-out wins. I had Arena “A” seats, which are the furthest back seats on either the east or west sides of the venue. The rectangle shape of the arena means that there’s a strong distance difference between Arena “A” and the Arena “B” & “C” seats, which are the furthest back on the front and back sides of the dohyo. The layout is very different from Kokugikan, where the A seats put you at the very front of the upper tier, so that’s something to bear in mind. The “S” and “SS” seats are the best upper tier seats.
This all being said, despite being in the penultimate row on the west side of the venue, the view is just incredible. You can very clearly see everything that’s going on, and you don’t feel far away from the action at all. In fact, I felt closer to the action in these seats than I did at a jungyo event in Koshigaya last year, in a local gymnasium.
Merch & Experience
The official NSK merch booth got set up around 1pm, and it is staffed by oyakata. This booth always provides a good opportunity to interact with ex-rikishi you may have known and/or loved. It was a little odd to see someone like ex-Satoyama/now-Sanoyama, who very recently wrapped up his career, still with his mage, setting out the merch like a shop assistant. One of the oyakata started the daily sales by passing out fliers to and loudly hawking tickets for Satoyama’s danpatsushiki to the assembled masses, much to the bemusement of the soon-to-be-shorn ex-sekitori.
The hot item at this booth was the limited edition Kisenosato collector’s photo and postcard set. I told Bruce during our Hatsu basho podcast that it felt like it wouldn’t be until Haru that his retirement would feel more real, because we wouldn’t see him around the place as much. Well, guess what? We now see him more than we have in years! In addition to the new merch items, the rest of the stalls still ran a robust trade in Kisenosato merchandise, a huge “Arigato Kisenosato” board was erected for fans to write their thank-yous and memories (a really nice touch), and the man himself has been all over the arena and TV as he comes to watch Takayasu every day. I wouldn’t be surprised if the robust merch offerings are on offer at the Natsu basho in Tokyo, as well as the “thank you” message board.
The NSK did a slight revamp of their “purikura” feature which allows fans to take photos in pre-selected frames and share to their social media profiles. However, this was broken for most of the day, so I wasn’t able to try it out. They really should bring back the old, proper purikura box they used to have.
As for rikishi merchandise, local man Ikioi’s merch was very scarce compared to last year’s Osaka basho, and even Osaka superstar Ozeki Goiedo wasn’t as well represented as some of the hot young names of the moment. After the top ranks, the usual suspects – Abi, Asanoyama, Takakeisho, Hokutofuji – were very big sellers. There were a few more Tamawashi items than usual, owing to his recent yusho. The diversity of merchandise and gifts was quite good: the offerings easily rivalled that of Kokugikan in selection if not in volume. One item I had never seen before was shochu, the bottles of which were branded with the shikona of various Yokozuna and Ozeki.
Tachiai will be heading back to the EDION Arena for Day 11’s action – if you have information you’d like to know about the sumo experience – let us know in the comments! We’ll be happy to answer, or find out for ourselves and report back!