Natsu 2019 – Tachiai’s Experience In Tokyo

Ryogoku JR Station and Kokugikan at Sunset
The sun sets on another honbasho

The Natsu basho is always a special time for me. Both this year, and last year, I’ve spent a significant amount of time in Tokyo around the May tournament, and been fortunate enough to enjoy some fantastic sumo experiences and meet with some great people. In this post, I’ll share a bit about what I encountered over the past several weeks in Japan’s capital city.

New Tachiai experiences

First of all, I’m happy to share that I will be bringing a number of pieces of new content to the site in the coming weeks before the Nagoya basho. I attended keiko at Onoe beya with John Gunning, and later met one of Onoe’s new oyakata, and former sekitori Satoyama, who asked me to share some news with our readers, which will be coming in a later post.

Onoe beya Keiko
Keiko at Onoe beya. Former sekitori Tenkaiho (Hidenoyama oyakata) looks on.

Additionally, backed by some fantastic questions from our readers, I spent an hour and a half with one of the voices of NHK’s sumo coverage, none other than popular broadcaster Murray Johnson. We had an amazing conversation, and I’m excited to bring it to you soon. And as a surprise for our readers, I met up for coffee and chocolate cake with luminary of the digital sumo world, the one and only Kintamayama. We had a similarly in-depth conversation that will be making its way to these pages soon (and we may even sneak some audio snippets into a future Tachiai podcast, so if you haven’t subscribed now, do it). I also, of course, got to visit my first sumo art exhibit, and my first dohyo consecration ceremony, the dohyo matsuri. Check out this post if you want to learn more.

Finally, I’m happy to say that I got to meet so many members of the Tachiai community. Natsu is a very popular tournament for sumo tourism – the weather is fantastic and the early summer time makes it a convenient moment for many fans to visit Tokyo. Jason Harris of Jason’s All Sumo Youtube Channel hosted a brilliant meet up during the tournament, where many Tachiai community members were present. Our reader and friend El Zeno produced fantastic Black Panther movie inspired Wakaichiro shirts, and it was a great chance to meet up with our friends at BuySumoTickets, who continue to provide so many of our readers with access to live sumo.

It was also wonderful again to link up with Tachiai contributor Nicola – please follow her work on the Tachiai instagram! – who has shared literally gigabytes of original photos that we are working to bring to the site in the near future. And I’d like to give a special shoutout to friend of the site Melissa, who along with her partner shared a box with me at my final day of the tournament – it was wonderful to have some great conversation and take in the basho with some very serious sumo fans!!

Ryogoku Kokugikan Panoramic View from Box C masu
A panoramic view of Kokugikan, from the “Box C” masu section.

The Live Experience

I could probably write several posts on this, so I’ll keep it somewhat short. The live experience at Kokugikan continues to be the reason why so many folks make the trek from far and wide. There simply is nothing like experiencing sumo in the building that goes some way to making the sport as special as it is.

Special new “Reiwa” era merch has been produced, featuring the san’yaku of the first basho of the Reiwa era. Tochinoshin’s upcoming re-promotion has rendered these immediately out of date, but the NSK is clearly working to capture the enthusiasm of this new period. I would also add that like many of our readers who visited Kokugikan during this basho, I wore a Tachiai t-shirt with pride, and many locals (including vendors!) were very interested to find out where I got it. The well-received shirts can, of course, be purchased from Tachiai’s shop!

Kisenosato / Araiso arrives at Kokugikan
Kisenosato / Araiso arrives at Kokugikan

The Kisenosato exhibit at the Kokugikan drew massive numbers – and also as much enthusiasm as the man himself when he made his way into the public areas of the arena, as he did on several occasions. I witnessed mass hysteria greet the 72nd Yokozuna as he entered the building, and he continued to make a string of increasingly popular media appearances. His commentary has been praised from many quarters.

Natsu was the first tournament where I was able to watch from one of the “masu” box seats on the first floor. It was a very new experience for me, as I managed to score seats in the “Box C” section. The sight lines were still very good, though if you’re looking for a pure view and can’t manage to obtain the very rare and expensive seats nearer to the dohyo, I might recommend the Arena A seats on the second level.

For me, the box experience was almost less about seeing sumo and more about living the live sumo experience. It was the first time I had been at a basho where I hadn’t been surrounded by folks who look or talk like myself, and whether that’s good bad or irrelevant, there can be no denying that it created an incredibly different atmosphere for me and a very different experience on the whole. A year ago, I hadn’t even taken my first Japanese lesson, so it was a very rewarding feeling not only to be able to have basic conversation with the Takayasu-loving locals in the next box at points throughout the day, but also to be able to cheer for and share the rikishi that I love to follow (even if those were in some cases met with quizzical looks!).

Kokonoe Beya Variety Chanko - Natsu 2019
Kokonoe beya’s “variety chanko,” served during the Natsu basho

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about sumo without talking about food. Kokonoe beya delivered the tournament’s helping of tasty “Variety chanko” for fans to sample. This tournament also marked the debut of the new Takakeisho bento box, which I experienced and will review in a later post. Of course, with Tochinoshin poised for an ozeki return, there won’t be a shortage of rikishi-inspired meals for us to continue to indulge at the venue in future.

Asanoyama arrives at Kokugikan
At the end of it all, one man stood alone.

The Tournament, The Trophy, The Winner

I can’t say that on the days that I attended it really felt like there was a momentum or a story building behind Asanoyama – it was still early enough in the tournament that his first week, like that of many other well performing Maegashira every basho, could be corrected with a gruelling week 2 dance card. But he does have a growing number of die-hard fans in attendance at the tournament, and his cheer towel is one of the better sellers.

I have to say I agreed a lot with Bruce’s thoughts on the presidential visit and the trophy. It was impossible to escape conversation about this with virtually any english-speaking sumo fan or pundit in Tokyo. It was a moment of intrigue that has to do as much with the person as the politics – that is to say everything and nothing. This is because frankly, wherever you sit on the political spectrum or what you believe – everyone just didn’t know what would happen. How would it work? What would it be like? Kokugikan is a very security-free venue, which makes it part of the charm. So, this conversation piece certainly added to the sense of occasion.

Hungary Tea Cup trophy
The great tea cup of Hungary: unique, and staggering

I also concur with Bruce that I am happy for there to be some kind of American trophy. It’s not the one I would have made – personally, I long for the creativity of the giant macaron or the tea cup, I love those things. But, we have seen such a growing affinity between Americans and sumo over the past few years – this site is testament to that. So for there to be any trophy from America, well, it’s a nice feeling. Perhaps in future years America can do something like contributing a gift from the home state of the president, much in the way other countries supply yearlong supplies of beer or gasoline.

It’s important for us to keep the focus on sumo though, and I’m happy and relieved that we experienced a tournament that delivered that yet again. To our new followers who may have just discovered this world: welcome! We’re happy to have you. And to our friends of the site and long time readers, I’m excited to continue partnering with everybody else to create more content for the site! Thanks for sharing the experience with us.

26 thoughts on “Natsu 2019 – Tachiai’s Experience In Tokyo

  1. Regarding Murray Johnson, I think all the NHK English broadcasters are just fine, but I like Murray the best. He’s descriptive AND insightful. Kinda like Howard Cosell.

  2. I thought the long overdue American trophy was quite nice. Pretty classic design, not too overdone, the eagle a perfect touch. Also thought President Trump did a great job with the presentation….not too wordy, very respectful.
    . Nicely done.

  3. What a great post! Thank you for putting it together, and for all you gathered up while in Japan. I am looking forward to your posts.

  4. Being a Hungarian, let me comment on the Great Tea Cup. The gigantic cup is a new thing; the original gift dating back to the ’80s was a vase made by the same famous manufacturer: Herend porcelain. However, the cool thing is what you also get in addition to the publicly presented prize: a whole traditional tea set for six with a unique design each time. (Having a normal Herend tea set is usually a priceless thing to have in a family, usually handed down through generations.) So Hakuho is the proud owner of 252 unique porcelain tea cups. I wonder what he uses them for. :)

  5. I am very excited to read the upcoming posts and thank you for doing this for us! I also have a suggestion for any future president who might come from my part of Indiana (near Chicago): a year’s supply of pierogies. I think it might be a tasty occasional change from chanko.

    • Nice to meet you too KC Mustang! Glad to see I’m not the only one who does giant comedy macaron photos

  6. Great photos from inside the Kokugikan. I’m looking forward to all the interview material you have coming towards us soon. Any one of those experiences would have made a sumo fan’s week but there are so many at once! I watched day 14 NHK World on my phone, outside, under a giant tent, with 1000 people having lunch around me and the technology allowing me to do that is as amazing as the bouts were.

  7. Apropos of nothing (and only because this is the most recent post at this time): I’ve been thinking about Abi’s last six basho. Abi relies on two techniques, one forward-moving and one not, almost as heavily as Takakeisho. A year ago Abi at M3 started a three-basho streak of 6-9 results and in the following three basho came back up the banzuke with records of 10-5, 8-7, and 10-5. In the most recent basho he went 8-2 against his maegashira peers and 2-3 against named ranks, including wins over “quality” opponents Takayasu and Tochinoshin (although maybe the latter deserves an asterisk as reports are that the spun-glass ozekiwake was injured by that point, and also it was achieved via the despisèd henka).

    Some of us have been waiting to see more diversity of technique from Abi, but it seems that he’s tuned up his sumo game by focusing on applying his core techniques instead. Does Abi still have room to improve? I think he could by gaining some weight, ideally including more muscle to power his tsuppari attack. I’m really looking forward to seeing what kind of result he can achieve in his first basho in sanyaku.

      • It wouldn’t hurt. Turn those pushes into thrusts and start driving opponents backwards instead of relying on hatakikomi.

    • I agree with most of what you say. However, one small factual correction:Abi’s victory over Tochinoshin this May Basho did not come via a henka. Abi employed his standard two-handed technique at the tachiai and then executed a decisive hatakikomi.
      But your main point – that Abi has climbed back up the Banzuke not through diversifying his technique but through improving his core methods – is surely correct.
      Concerning his weight – he was listed as 150kg this tournament and I guess I tend to think he may only need to gain another 5-10 kg to be at his ideal fighting weight. He relies so much on his nimbleness and speed and athleticism that I am not sure whether bulking up loads would help or hinder. The reason why his slap-downs and pull downs are more effective than most is that he is able to switch direction more suddenly than most – and he is able to pirouette on his tippy-toes right at the edge more elegantly than most!
      Of course when these pull-down attempts don’t work it looks bad, but their effectiveness should not be under-estimated – after all, they dealt with Tochi and Takayasu this tournament.
      Also his tsuppari – though not in the same league as Takakeisho – is still pretty effective. 4 of his 10 victories this basho were by oshi-dashi, including totally dominant wins over Endo and Hokutofuji.

      My fingers are, of course, very firmly crossed that he can survive in the sanyaku. But his game is inherently high-risk – sometimes he will defeat top level opponents (2 kinboshi) but he will also get outmuscled sometimes. I guess I suspect that actually his buddy Ryuden may have a better chance of sticking around near the top…. But I can’t wait to find out either way!

      • Oooh, thank you for the correction! I try to remember to double-check factual claims like that but I was sloppy this time. Great analysis of the question of ideal weight.

        • Thanks coreyyanofsky!
          I figure : Hakuho is 158kg and Kakuryu and Goeido are both 160kg. None of them lack for power but they all have excellent speed and mobility. So if Abu gets up to around 155kg (assuming the extra weight is useful muscle) he’ll be close to his best weight.

      • I just didn’t see his slaps or even nodowa as very effective against Kakuryu. He kind of waited them out and shrugged him off to the side. If his upper body were like Ishiura, Kotoeko, etc, he’d be dangerous.

  8. Okay, my sister and I were wondering where the tea cup was from and just presumed it was from England 😅 Does England give a gift/trophy?

    • That’s an excellent question…and a brilliant idea for a new visualization between now and July!

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