Obviously, and punctuated by today’s news, there will not be a clean break between this year and last. Whether Hatsu Basho even happens is now more in doubt today than yesterday. But at least we seem to be more optimistic about what the new year brings us. We wish Wakatakakage, his family, and stable mates the best and hope he recovers soon. If hatsubasho needs to be delayed, perhaps that will be for the better? Time will tell. Regardless,
If your Japanese studies only get as far as hiragana, you’ll be able to read that sentence above. “Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu” (spaces to make it a bit easier), is what Japanese say to others when greeting each other in the new year. The lone kanji is one of the fundamental ones, used in many sumo words and shikona. If you’ve not gotten that far, “ake ome” seemed to be an acceptable variant for those of us still struggling with the basics. But, as always, I would encourage all sumo fans to take their language learning further. Your appreciation of the sport will only deepen.
As an example, I will point to Daieisho’s new kesho mawashi. The maker posted it to their Instagram account for New Years. The beautiful artwork is undeniable. The sakura tree is a familiar symbol, easy to recognize for any of us watching. But what’s with the old blokes in the boat? The seven fortunes, 七福神 (shichi fukujin), sailing a boat called the “Takarabune” (as in Takarafuji — or Uncle Trapezius).
If you travel to Japan around New Years you will see the Takarabune and the shichifukujin as you walk around. The picture below is from a shopping arcade in Kochi, just after hours. At the time, I was struck by the vibrant colors and I had seen the boat in other places. My wife and her friend, Yumeka, told me about the shichifukujin but I love that it popped up in a kesho mawashi.
The kesho mawashi, however, misses some of the other symbolism which is often found with the Takarabune, and that we can see in this banner. These additional symbols actually have links to sumo, and that’s why I’ll point them out. First, note the fish on the left. The “omedetai” is the Tai fish that we see hoisted by a yusho winner, or freshly promoted Ozeki. We also see Mt. Fuji in the background, used in so many shikona.
The crane, flying just behind the boat, and the turtle, on the strip of land on the bottom-right, are also linked to sumo as symbols of the Shiranui and the Unryu styles taken by Yokozuna. Hakuho uses the Shiranui-style, as you can see in his dohyo-iri and in the two loops on his belt. Kakuryu uses the Unryu-style, with one loop for the turtle. It’s amazing to go back and read this article as they discussed the supposed “Shiranui jinx” when Hakuho took the belt. He not only outlasted Kisenosato (Unryu) but has topped Taiho’s title record (44 and counting).
I’m not sure if Harumafuji would count toward the jinx or not. Nine titles during the reign of the GOAT? That’s nothing to sniff at, despite his career ending in a scandal that dragged down so many, including the Unryu Takanohana.
Japan is full of traditions and the sumo world certainly has its own for New Years. This is when sumo wrestlers generally get together with their supporters and make mochi. Mochitsuki, as it’s called, is the process of pounding steamed* rice into the sticky mochi form for eating. COVID restrictions robbed stables of this “fansa” event so Naruto decided to bring it to the world via Twitter livestream. Huge thanks to Herouth for tipping us off so we could join the 100 or so others watching live. The video is no longer available but here are some pictures from the event that they posted on Twitter.
They put a block of special mochi rice in the bowl that looks like a hollowed-out log. That log-bowl mortar is called an “usu” (臼). The long wooden hammer is called a “kine” (杵). My wife remembers her neighbors gathering around in the park and a sumo wrestler pounding mochi every year when she was a little girl. Granted, my wife grew up a stones’ throw from Kokugikan, so this may be atypical of other Japanese communities.
Traditional accompaniments are ground daikon radish oroshi in karami mochi, anko (red bean paste), or kinako (another thing made from beans). My wife was absolutely scandalized by the idea of kimchi mochi but I think that looks good. While I don’t have an usu & kine set to make our own mochi, I’m drying out some blocks of mochi to fry in a few days. Hopefully I’ll post some pics of that again.
*Hat tip to Herouth for the correction. I swear I read that in the fascinating article linked to in my kimchi mochi reference but did not do another proofread before posting. Lesson: Proof read again before publishing, Andy! Geez. Maybe he’ll get out of Journalism 101 in 2021. But that article is fascinating.