Ichinojo: A Curious Intai

Sometimes you get news in your life that makes you gasp audibly. I am sure if you are reading this, you have had a moment like that. Maybe it was something you saw on the news, or that you heard from a family member. I am not too proud to admit that I had that kind of reaction upon hearing of the shock retirement of Ichinojo.

Ichinojo is – or was – not a rikishi for whom there is a universal opinion. He performed his entire career – even after winning a yusho – in a constant state of “the jury’s still out.” He prompted us – and I need to give Bruce credit here – to often ask: “is big a strategy?” But, at the same time, we all knew that somewhere in there, inside of whatever you called him… boulder, behemoth, bridge abutment… there was a hell of a technically proficient sekitori.

I don’t often intend to set out to write something on sumo topics just for the sake of it – and Andy, blessedly, was on the spot to cover the news when it broke. But I just have this feeling about Ichinojo’s retirement that I haven’t had about other recent intai – even Ikioi’s, who was my favourite rikishi and whose haircut I will attend in a few weeks.

Most retirements are easy to analyse. Maybe the rikishi was old, fighting at a diminished capacity, or in danger of tumbling out the salaried ranks. We see that a few times a year these days. Maybe it’s a Yokozuna who can no longer perform at the required level, due to age or injury. Maybe it’s a bright talent like a Yutakayama who calls it quits because injuries have blighted his career to the extent that he may or may not achieve the type of ceiling he might have hoped, and wants to have a healthy “second life.”

Ichinojo, to be sure, had his injury problems. But, especially with rest, he was still a top, top performer on his good days. That was always part of the issue with Ichinojo, the feeling that he was just wasn’t dialled in all the time, or that he wasn’t motivated to make it to the highest level, or that he didn’t know how to manage his body to keep himself consistently on the dohyo.

This past year, however, has seen some of the best sumo of his career. His age 29 year brought his first makuuchi yusho in which he racked up an incredible 9th kinboshi (while his mentals were often questioned, he was known to always rouse himself for the bouts with big kensho stacks on the line). Following a suspension for off-dohyo alcohol-related behaviour, he stormed back in the most recent basho to claim a near-perfect yusho in Juryo and clinch a return to makuuchi, upstaging the higher ranked former Ozeki Asanoyama’s own redemption arc.

In one respect you can say that, with a yusho and a stunning kinboshi tally banked, the man’s potential was achieved. On the other, the current up-for-grabs state of the sumo world means the final counting stats for Ichinojo could have yet been greater. In a world where sports analysis is increasingly mobilised to be black-and-white, we need to acknowledge that Ichinojo’s career lived in the grey space in between. It is possible to applaud his career-end achievements while also lamenting what could have yet been.

No one doubts that injuries have taken their toll on the man, but it’s hard therefore to believe that, coming off the back of one of his most convincing basho (albeit at the second level and facing only two top division opponents), they were what definitively caused his intai. One suspects a more full version of the truth will emerge over the long run.

It’s also difficult to reconcile the lurid tabloid reports of his bar room antics with the gentle giant who we have come to see, or the reputation he’s had as a loner in the sport, even among his compatriots. Perhaps this won’t have been helped by difficult relations with his shisho. But unless we know for sure, all we can do is speculate.

For many followers of the sport, the reporting of his extra curricular activities was surprising because he had long been associated with the term “gentle giant.” One of our last memories of the man in the ring will have been his enduring sportsmanship, especially in holding Takakeisho from falling off the dohyo in a bout where it seemed the Ozeki had suffered a head/neck injury.

Of course, Ichinojo entered makuuchi as a zanbari-clad prospect of unbelievable potential. But nine years on, much of that potential was actually still there. Having claimed that first yusho, and in a period lacking reliable Yokozuna and Ozeki, he certainly would have been primed for more success. He didn’t seem cooked, and that’s part of what makes it feel off. This isn’t like Aminishiki retiring, this feels like we might still have missed out on something good. Intai moments are rarely satisfying, this one particularly not so.

It’s not a massive surprise that he won’t enter the kyokai. He appeared to be a very unlikely leader, and with Minato-oyakata still a decade from mandatory retirement (by which point Ichinojo would be 40), the stable won’t be needing someone to inherit it anytime soon.

I don’t know much of Ichinojo the man, but over time I became a fan of Ichinojo the rikishi. As fans, I hope we can know someday what really led to his exodus from the sumo world. As people, I hope we can all agree to wish him the best whatever those reasons were, as he navigates at a younger age than most, his new life.

The Updated Haru Basho Experience

I’ve long been open about the fact that I view the Osaka honbasho as one of the more definitive sumo experiences. While the hallowed ground of the Kokugikan in Ryogoku is the ultimate destination for any pilgrim seeking dosukoi action, the EDION Arena in Osaka in some ways showcases the most romantic elements of sumo. Or at least it did.

Before the pandemic, the Osaka tournament was notable for many things. Among them, the raucous nature of the Kansai match-going fanbase, and also the proximity of spectators to the rikishi as they emerge from the shitakubeya and make their way down the hanamichi to the side of the dohyo.

This last feature was also a staple of the year-end Kyushu basho in Fukuoka, but the EDION Arena’s layout had long been unique for the fact that souvenir shoppers in the hallways would likely end up intoxicated from the scent of binzuke as combatants of all shapes and sizes made their way to and from the arena throughout the day. It was not uncommon for fans to mix it with rikishi or even get handshakes, autographs or photos with sekitori at the business end of the torikumi.

And speaking of intoxication, before the edict to “cheer inside of your heart” went into place as a mitigating strategy in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus, you’d often find dyed-in-the-wool (or dyed-in-the-cotton-cheer-towel) supporters of a particular rikishi or heya screaming out messages of support or instruction to “GANBATTE!” for hours on end from the pacy schedule of Sandanme right through to the lengthy rituals leading up to a top division bout.

Before the basho, I remarked on these pages that I had some trepidation for what I might find. Osaka has always been my favourite basho. Maybe it lacks of a bit of depth compared to the three Tokyo tournaments in terms of the fan experience that you can find inside the venue itself. But the personality, feeling and emotion of the basho – never more showcased than when a Kansai native mounts the dohyo in front of a full house, lights and cameras – for me is more than worth the annual pilgrimage. I had ringed the first week of the tournament on the calendar ever since Japan announced its reopening to foreign visitors, and could not wait to reintroduce it as a staple of my travel calendar.

So, what did we find?

A bit of a mixed bag, truth be told, but it was mostly a return to the experience I knew and loved. Some elements were missing, while others improved on my past memories.

First let’s talk logistics. I flew directly into Osaka’s Kansai International Airport from elsewhere in Asia and this was the correct decision. Post-pandemic, Japan has had mixed reviews for the entry experience into the country. In some places it is easy, others convoluted, and some ports like Tokyo’s Narita have been plagued by hours-long queues. Entering the country at Kansai was a relatively smooth experience, amplified by an express train taking me to my hotel 2 blocks from the venue near Osaka’s Namba hub in the Naniwa district of the second city.

Tickets were procured through Tachiai’s partner BuySumoTickets.com. I’ve long been a user of their service and could not be happier with the seats or the special gift bags we received for our business. I had the tickets delivered directly to the hotel in Osaka on the day before my arrival, and after presenting my detailed delivery confirmation from Japan Post which BuySumoTickets provided, the front desk team was able to track down the envelope in the back room.

A word here about sumo tickets – they are the equivalent of cash, and can only be issued once, so coordination and attention to the package is key. A lot of first time visitors to a basho really seem to struggle with this. We’ve heard stories of people losing or failing to turn up with tickets, bringing their receipts and expecting to have it honoured by the Kyokai. They won’t. But once inside, they are very accommodating of foreign visitors and brought us directly to our box.

I went back and forth before the basho about whether to order the “Arena S” seats (hardback chairs with a removable cushion) or a 2 person masu-seki. I don’t find the boxes to normally be comfortable for a full day’s viewing, but the 2 person box is a great feature of Osaka’s venue. Most fans that I know don’t travel in groups of 4 and don’t have a need for the 4 person boxes which are most prevalent across the venues. While I was a little worried about the distance from the box to the dohyo, I shouldn’t have been. BuySumoTickets managed to secure an absolutely outstanding view from our seats.

One note about the layout of the EDION Arena is that unlike in Tokyo, which has the faux-cherry blossom lined chaya-michi alley where the various tea-houses supply luxury gift packages to tanimachi and other fans, the section of the EDION Arena housing the chaya’s booths is actually outside the main gate of the arena. Osaka tickets grant you one re-entry, so if you have ordered a lunch set or gift set and don’t pick it up on the way in, you will have to use your one re-entry in order to go out the front gate and retrieve it. After this, you won’t have any more exit and entry privileges.

Our gift sets came replete with a very generously portioned bento, a traditional dessert, program, various other souvenirs including sumo chocolates, and of course, the famous sumo yakitori. While I normally will want to sample food from the venue throughout the day, this package was simply so filling that there was no need to report on other options available within the venue. I can report however that the various gift shops were full with the usual omiyage gift boxes of sumo themed cookies and snacks, and yakitori, chips and drinks were available at points in the venue. Chankonabe did not however appear to be available in the venue, at least as far as I could tell.

The Arena’s hallways, so well-known for its previous ability to interact with rikishi, had been re-organised since the pandemic. Rikishi walkways to the hanamichi had now been fully segregated, with all of the previous shopping areas in the vicinity of the shitakubeya moved to other areas of the venue. This is obviously meant to limit casual interaction between rikishi and members of the general public, although it is still possible to linger outside the shitakubeya entrances from a distance. But there is no longer any casual engagement with sumotori that’s possible inside the venue. It’s possible that those wishing to engage with very low rankers could have more luck earlier in the day, but punters should be aware that there is a security presence in this area. You will, however, still see lower-rankers entering and leaving the venue throughout the day by the front entrance.

While rikishi are less-spotted, oyakata are still very much milling around and tending to their various duties. Once inside, the very first blue-jacketed-giant we came across was Tomozuna-oyakata, the recently retired Brazilian fan favourite Kaisei. He was happy to pose for photos with fans in the hallways. Word also travelled around the venue that former Sekiwake Okinoumi was performing fansa in an effort to drum up interest and ticket sales ahead of his forthcoming danpatsushiki, although I didn’t personally see him.

As I’ve said many times, Osaka’s atmosphere, for me, is unmatched. The crowd warmed up gradually throughout the day until eventually exploding into life late on. I can’t say it was exactly like the basho that I used to know, but you could see flashes of it here and there. It’s not sumo without a heavily drunken uncle veering between punching the air, slumping over half asleep or effing and blinding in reaction to the day’s events. Happily, the next box contained a local karaoke bar owner who was happy to oblige in all of these things and also engage in some spirited banter about which rikishi had been bad boys in recent years for their misadventures in the company of deep-pocketed sponsors or in gambling dens or with alcohol or ladies or all of the above. Some of the conjecture was too hot for TV, but you’ll just have to believe me.

I attended Day 3 of the basho, and its first week coincided with Japan’s loosening of mask restrictions. While mask observance was obviously still heavily prevalent throughout the venue (and Osaka and Tokyo generally), it was also clear that fans were starting to feel more comfortable eating, drinking, socialising and cheering in the public space. After a couple years of tournaments plagued by a lack of real fan engagement and cheering, where drinking beverages apart from water had been forbidden and thunderous winning moves were met with timid clapping, it was good to see the arena sparking back to life.

While the sumo continued on for several matches after, I think the highlight in terms of atmosphere will have been the match contested and won by Osaka native Ura. As I have said already, I felt in this basho that he rubber-stamped his position as heir-and-successor to Osaka’s Ikioi as local hero. While this may have felt obvious for sometime, it just isn’t right to see an exciting victory met by golf claps. The magic of Osaka is when the venue explodes into life as the flashbulbs pop from the side of the dohyo at a moment that fills the fans with pride for the performance of a native son. The sakura-tinted mawashi wearing man from Kise beta duly obliged to ensure no matter what else took place, the locals would be sent home happy.

All in all, it did not disappoint. It would be inaccurate to say that I felt the frisson that I used to before going to a basho. But I think that will come, perhaps whenever I am next able to visit the Kokugikan. I think more than anything the prevailing feeling was one of relief, of being able to return to something we used to know and love. Of feeling thankful to be back at sumo again.

Haru 2023 Winners & Losers

In the past, I’ve chanced my arm at a rundown of all of the 42 rikishi in the top division and their performance in the preceding tournament. The problem with doing these kinds of posts is that there are an awful of lot of guys whose performance doesn’t really bear writing about. If you’re a rikishi that was swirling around the Darwin Funnel™ going into the final weekend, then there are good chances I’m talking about you.

So instead, this time, I’m going to give my thoughts on who won and didn’t win in this basho. It will be controversial and some people will be angry! I can’t wait. We’ll save the best for last, and start with the…


Sumo – But for some final day drama, this was a forgettable makuuchi tournament. It will not be referenced among the all time greats. Sumo is the loser when its top rankers do not challenge. The way the sport is set up requires big performances from big names or other guys dethroning big names. The title race changed hands twice in 15 days. Yikes.

Takakeisho – As Andy remarked, he went from rope run to kadoban in a matter of days. There’s no way to spin that positively.

Daieisho – He will move up to Sekiwake and posted a very strong basho, but he lost the yusho in horrific fashion: two virtually identical losses on the final day to the same opponent, having only needed to win one. Then, in the second defeat, he was given the hope of redemption by a monoii, only for that hope to be cruelly dashed upon confirmation of the final result. Woof.

Takayasu – His confident, assured, 6-0 start raised the idea that this might finally be his basho, but an awful fade took the dream away. Again. A couple of extremely convincing wins towards the end signalled what could have been. 10-5 is in no way a bad result, but finishing 4-5 in yet another basho that was his for the taking was extremely disappointing. When people reference Takayasu being the bridesmaid, they often reference his mighty collection of Jun-Yusho scorelines – but there are just as many of these tournaments that don’t show up in any Sumo Reference box score and where Takayasu had it all to lose and then did just that. As fans, we cannot alter fate, so the best we can do is just cheer him on whole-heartedly and hope that one day it will change.

Hoshoryu – You might think I’m crazy putting a couple ten-win guys and a twelve-win guy in the loser category. To be fair, you could put 41 guys in the loser category and you’d have a case for all of them. That’s how sports works. This is another case of “what could have been?” I firmly agreed with Herouth’s tweet early in the basho that Hoshoryu needs to shelve his niramiai until he’s got a couple Emperor’s Cups in the bag. Staring down a former Ozeki in Takayasu as if he’s the top dog, only to get embarrassingly dropped on the chief shimpan – and a cocky approach to a Nishikigi match that ended in defeat – showed a rikishi who’s simply not ready for the top two ranks.

He could have won this yusho outright with a more professional approach to his sumo. It may seem like we’re being hard on a rikishi who once again displayed some fabulous sumo, but whatever, if anything, is between his ears continues to let him down. The best thing he can take from this basho is that he’ll probably be S1E and he’s potentially just put down the first basho of an ozeki run. But I’ll come right out and say it: he’s frittered away losses in the last two tournaments which would have had him at the rank already. While he’s still young, more top prospects are coming and he will not want to look back on this period as the golden opportunity that he missed.

Hokutofuji – He’s been the master of come-from-behind kachikoshi in the past, and looked to be well on his way with 7 straight wins after digging himself an 0-4 hole. Alas, he couldn’t find the one win in his last four days to get the job done, and continues a slide that will leave him outside the joi for an entire calendar year.

Wakatakakage – I left a stat in the comments here this week that since his sekiwake promotion, he’s been 15-20 over days 1-5 of tournaments, and 31-11 over days 6-11 (before the final, most difficult matches for a sekiwake). If he could start better when his schedule was lightest, he’d have already been an Ozeki. When you consistently start so poorly, the issue is either preparation or mental or both. This tournament proved to be one escape act too far, with an 0-5 hole proving too much to overcome. His 7-1 rescue attempt over days 6 to 13 looked to have him on solid ground until the injury that led to a late kyujo. One early win and this all would have been a non issue with kachikoshi in hand, but instead he’ll have to completely rebuild from komusubi next basho – if indeed he’s able to return (reports are that he may not).

Mitakeumi – His body hasn’t looked right since the injuries that zapped his chance at an Ozeki career upon his promotion to the rank. This tournament was ghastly to watch, a 4-11 that left me wondering at the end where the 4 wins could ever have come from.

Ryuden – I think this was just a basho too far on the meteoric comeback trail for one of sumo’s latest bad boys. It’s a credit to him that he mostly looked very genki en route to his 13 loss campaign. Every rikishi fights hurt, some more than others, but Ryuden’s performances were vastly superior to the results that he got (the eye test would credit him with a 6-9 or 5-10 at worst). But nevertheless, he will take a massive demotion after this basho. You have to call that what it is.


Sumo – Sumo can be the loser and also be the winner. You can have grey areas in life, deal with it! With makuuchi being the equivalent of pulling a green turban out of your fishing net when you were expecting a sea urchin, Juryo emerged as a thrilling division. We also can’t overlook the top division’s final day drama, a new yusho winner whose rank and profile is good for sumo, and the fact that much of lower san’yaku managed to hang around the title race in its final days.

Kiribayama – He’s now one of the most technically proficient top rankers. Some could be forgiven for looking at an 8-11-12 Ozeki promotion after this basho as reasonable given the current state of the sport (and some Tachiai commenters have already posed it as an idea), but with two fusen-sho in there he’s always going to need another strong tournament. You’d think 9 next time could be enough to make things interesting, but 10 should bank it.

Small guys doing crazy stuff – Ura, Midorifuji, and Enho all had highly entertaining tournaments, even if it did fizzle a bit from Midorifuji after his first loss. Credit to these guys and their weird sumo for giving us box office entertainment.

Juryo – it was always going to be a good tournament with 4 former makuuchi yusho winners in the division plus a catalogue of top prospects, but strong performances from big names made this one of the marquee collections of second division talent in ages.

Ichinojo – Everyone expected another Asanoyama yusho, but the big man blasted his way to a 14-1, making his Juryo return brief.

Ura – He was king of the dohyo in his native Osaka, and highly entertaining and mostly successful in the ring. He received rapturous applause and a thunderous reception in the EDION arena. His comeback has firmly sealed his place as successor to Ikioi as Osaka’s hometown hero.

Nishonoseki-beya/Kisenosato – The mid-basho announcement of the recruitment of generational talent Nakamura stole all the headlines (more on that later), but his squad also grabbed the makushita yusho through journeyman Ryuo, had a handful of other good prospect results (Kayo, Takahashi, Miyagi) and a successful return to sekitori level for Tomokaze.

Kakuryu-oyakata – Much has been made of the close attentions the former Yokozuna has paid Kiribayama since his retirement, having taken his compatriot under his wing after moving from Izutsu to Michinoku beya. Kiribayama’s rise has corresponded with this tutelage, and it bodes well for Kakuryu’s future as shisho – be that in his own heya someday or a Michinoku-beya (including Kiribayama) that he could yet inherit upon the incumbent’s retirement.

Miyagino-beya/Hakuho – the top 8 rankers in the stable all scored winning records, with Enho starting to close in on a comeback to the top division and Ochiai putting out a very solid and entertaining sekitori debut. Hokuseiho’s 9 wins on his top flight debut were overshadowed by Kinbozan’s debut, and it’s clear that his ponderous sumo may lead him to struggle for consistency as he approaches the joi for the first time. I’d probably revise his ceiling to be a more technical version of Ichinojo. But for now, all good.

Isegahama-beya – Midorifuji took the headlines, but Nishikifuji put up another very solid basho. Meanwhile, an initially hopeless looking Takarafuji found his patented defend-and-extend technique late on to clinch a kachi-koshi when the conversation on nakabi was about whether he could really be demoted to Juryo. Plus, the heya boasted winning records for top prospects Hayatefuji and Takerufuji. As for the Yokozuna? Even he’s a bit of a winner in absentia, as Takakeisho’s rope-run collapsing amid the removal of Wakatakakage from the Ozeki conversation (for the time being) means that Terunofuji’s seat isn’t especially hot in spite of his lengthy absence.

Wakamotoharu – His 11 win basho will see him overtake his brother as heyagashira. He has grown gradually into the top division and looked at points to have an outside shot at the Haru yusho. It will be curious to now see whether he or Wakatakakage can mount an ozeki run soonest – if he’s able to get the yusho in May, one would think Wakamotoharu could even grab it in his next basho.

Kinbozan – In a tournament that boasted three fairly high(ish) profile debutants in the top division, some props should be due to Kinbozan for his excellent performance. While it’s not unusual to see talents who have blown through Juryo come up and grab double digits in their first top division tournament, Kinbozan did it with a minimum of fuss and some excellent sumo. He (and Juryo’s Gonoyama) still looks like a rikishi that has a lot of physical development until he finds his final competitive physique, and it will be interesting to see how he takes on higher challenges in the division. With Hokuseiho impressing but also lumbering at times to victory, and Bushozan being mostly overmatched, we should put some credit on Kise-beya’s Kazakhstani special prize winner.

Who are we forgetting? Who are you angry about me calling a loser? Let’s hear it in the comments!

Heading Back to The Basho

It’s been three long years. Long time readers of the site will know that in the “before-times,” I made every effort to attend honbasho and other events to try and grab interesting content for the site – interviews, the soken, the jungyo, ‘day outexperiences at the basho, Ozeki Bento reviews, etc. Hopefully, you found some of it to be enjoyable!

I was in Osaka three years ago, with tickets in hand, when the proclamation came down that Haru 2020 was to be the silent basho. Obviously none of us could have expected what the coming days, weeks, months and years would have in store. How lucky, in retrospect it felt that, in good health, a friend and I were able to take in the basho from quiet cocktail bars in Osaka’s dark alleys. The city felt empty and weird. Everything that followed has obviously profoundly impacted sumo over the course of the last few years, and have touched all of us here at Tachiai in some significant way, and probably you as well.

In the interim, the Sumo Association did what they could to keep the sport ticking. They got some big calls right and some wrong, but there was no playbook for this, and by and large it’s been refreshing that every two months we could continue to bury ourselves in some engrossing storylines. I am deeply grateful for that.

Now, I’m happy to report it’s time for me to return to sumo. I’m a little nervous, I don’t really know what to expect! Haru has always been my favourite basho, by a street. But all of the factors that make it great are things I’m not sure if I can expect to encounter next week in Osaka.

In line with the prevailing gregarious stereotype of the place itself, the Haru basho is known as the wild basho. The EDION Arena can be a raucous ol’ box of a venue and – while there will absolutely never be a time when I would willingly turn down a trip to the hallowed grounds of the Kokugikan, one of the best and most unique venues in all of sport – there’s no better time to see sumo than in a packed house of Kansai natives letting loose when one of the native sons – an Ura, an Ikioi (in days gone by) – has provided some form of monstrous entertainment on the dohyo.

It’s also a venue that allows you, the spectator, to get up close and personal with the rikishi. Like the other regional basho, the big names walk in right through the front door. The placement of the shitakubeya also means that rikishi have to walk through souvenir stalls to reach the hanamichi, which often provides a great opportunity to shout some messages of support, cheer for a rikishi on their way to or from the dohyo, or grab a selfie afterwards. Very few sports already offer the kind of access that is possible with sumo, and the Osaka tournament offers some of the best of those experiences.

So with that being said, it will be interesting to see what awaits. While many of the pandemic-era restrictions have been walked back over the past few tournaments, what kind of atmosphere will emerge this year in Osaka? Will it be like the tournaments we knew, or will it be something else altogether? Will fans yet be able to interact with rikishi? And of course, now there’s a new wild card on the scene, as roving reporter Hiro Morita has made a habit of popping up in public at tournaments for his wonderful Sumo Prime Time channel, and chatting especially to foreign fans who may not have really felt part of the experience in years gone by.

I’m looking forward to hopefully providing some insight about the experience after the basho has wrapped up. If you’ve been to a tournament recently, I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments! In the meantime, I’ll look forward to the daily updates here to keep the nerves settled ahead of an experience I can’t quite believe is happening after not being sure when it might happen again.