Kyushu Basho Day 1 Preview

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Welcome, sumo fans! The final basho of 2019 is upon us. Cooler temperatures may have already come to Japan, but the action on the dohyo is set to be intense, with many intriguing storylines set to be resolved over the next couple of weeks. I will be joining the action at the Kokusai Center later in the basho, and hopefully will find some more intriguing details to share.

Set the controls for the heart of Hakata, because the Day 1 torikumi has been posted!

What We Are Watching on Day 1

Daishomaru vs Wakatakakage – Arashio’s relatively new heyagashira makes his makuuchi bow against the returning Kansai meatball Daishomaru. These fellas have met in the four preceding basho with honours even. Wakatakakage tends to be a slow starter, so it would be nice to see him set the jitters aside and get an early trip to the interview room. Certainly his soon to be incoming oyakata Sokokurai will want to see that as well.

Terutsuyoshi vs Nishikigi – Nishikigi returns to his spiritual home of Maegashira 14 where he meets a Terutsuyoshi who had a rough basho last time out, and will be looking to replicate the success he found four months ago. Terutsuyoshi wants to establish a pushing attack from down low here, as any devolution into a grappling battle will favour the larger man.

Takanosho vs Chiyotairyu – It’s a little bonkers to see these two drawn against each other, what with Takanosho having spent most of his recent days in Juryo and Chiyotairyu having been a regular fixture in the joi. Chiyotairyu needs to rediscover his cannonball tachiai if he is to have a chance of rebounding up the ranks, so this match should tell us a bit about his genki level.

Shimanoumi vs Yutakayama – This will be an interesting basho for Shimanoumi, as we get to see how he rebounds from his first real setback to his top division career. Yutakayama looks to continue his renaissance, and probably possesses the more powerful thrusting attack here when he is on song. Shimanoumi won their only ever meeting, earlier this year in Osaka.

Kotoshōgiku vs Sadanoumi – Sadanoumi has done a decent job of stabilising himself as a mid-table rank and filer, and faces an opponent who should draw loud cheers on his homecoming. Kotoshogiku hasn’t been ranked as low as M9 for a year, when he reeled off double digit wins in front of his adoring home fans. We all know the score here: if he sets the hug-and-chug then it’s game over. But can he? Narrative fans rejoice: The former Ozeki leads the career series 5-2 and a win here would take him closer notching his 800th career win in his shusshin later in the week.

Shohozan vs Kotoeko – Another homecoming, and another veteran who performed very well in front of his hometown supporters a year ago. Shohozan also sits within touching distance of a 500th career win that we can expect him to achieve this basho. He’s developed in to a much more able grappler which adds intrigue to a match against an opponent who is very able on the mawashi but perhaps possesses less street smarts than Shohozan. The 35 year old is 2-0 against Kotoeko and I’m tipping him to win again here.

Tsurugisho vs Enho – Much has been made of Enho fighting now at by far his highest rank and the new, higher level opponents he will encounter. First things first, however, as he meets a known rival. Tsurugisho is also now fighting as his highest rank and has taken all four previous encounters from the Ishikawa fire pixie. As ever, Enho’s mobility will be the key to a victory, and Tsurugisho will be attempting to lock his movement out of the gate in order to usher the tricky customer towards another shiroboshi.

Onosho vs Ryuden – A lot of what we can expect to see here depends on the health of Onosho, whose career has been blunted by injury but who slowly seems to be getting himself back on track. Ryuden has faced some brutal trips into the joi. At Maegashira 5 he will no doubt be called upon to face high level opponents later in the tournament when the kyujo announcements begin to roll in, but he has a good opportunity to pick up key early wins in the meantime. Onosho’s pushing attack has proven too much for him in the past however, and the popular tadpole owns a 3-0 record over Ryuden.

Aoiyama vs Kotoyuki – This is a bit of an undercard play, but it’s probably the best shot we have at a good old fashioned bloodbath on Day 1. Ever the pugilist, Big Dan takes on an entertaining opponent in Kotoyuki who has been in inspired form for the past several months. Both men somewhat improbably are past sekiwake. While conventional wisdom would dictate that the gunbai will fall in favour of the man who can establish a pushing attack, look for Aoiyama to hit the slap down against an opponent who is notoriously wild on his feet: several of the Bulgarian’s seven wins against Kotoyuki have come via this strategy.

Tamawashi vs Tomokaze – Tamawashi has spent half the year as a sekiwake, but apart from his stunning yusho ten months ago, looks to be settling into a spoiler role in the joi late in his career. Tomokaze has a good early chance to respond to his first ever make-koshi, and we could learn much about his genki level from this match. He was clearly haunted by the loss of senpai Yoshikaze and struggling for form at the Aki tournament, but up against a high octane pusher-thruster, we should get an opportunity to see which tools the ivory tinkler has been able to sharpen over the intervening months.

Abi vs Takarafuji – Fresh from a much ballyhooed apology over the his recent bondage scandal, Abi looks to play the dominator as the Shikoroyama man has established consistency at the Komusubi rank and targets a yusho. Takarafuji, unfortunately, will likely play the role of the submissive in this encounter: Abi’s whole attack is the full throated thrusting that has become his signature, whereas there are few rikishi in the top division that have been able to make as much of a career of stalemating, defensive sumo as Takarafuji. Abi leads the career series 4-3, and would probably be the favourite if not affected by recent events.

Meisei vs Tochinoshin – The Georgian will attempt for the second time this year to regain his Ozeki status, and also for the second time in history to do it twice. The Ozekiwake starts his 10 win campaign against Meisei, who returns to the joi following a successful September meet which saw him spending much of the basho in the yusho race. This should be a mawashi battle and we should learn much about the state of Tochinoshin’s health in what should be a tenacious fight. Meisei has won their only prior meeting, but the smart money is probably on the veteran.

Mitakeumi vs Myogiryu – Not enough words have probably been said about how impressive Myogiryu’s return from kyujo was last tournament to snatch an unlikely kachikoshi. OK, now we’ve said that, we can focus on one of the huge stories of this tournament, current yusho holder Mitakeumi’s latest Ozeki challenge. With all of the high rankers starting the basho, Mitakeumi has to win probably half of the matches against those ranked above him and be flawless against those ranked below him. Both of these men are known for quick powerful manoeuvres from the tachiai, and while their lifetime rivalry is locked at 3 apiece, I have a hard time believing that the Mitakeumi’s Ozeki challenge will come undone on Day 1, so I’m going to tip him here.

Takakeisho vs Okinoumi – Day 1 throws up a number of rematches of critical bouts from Aki, and in this match, veteran Okinoumi gets a chance at revenge for his elimination in last tournament’s final day of action. Again, we will learn much about Takakeisho’s health and chances of success in this tournament here. Okinoumi typically should not be a match for his overwhelming oshi attack, but should the Shimane man get a chance to land a grip, then it is likely the Ozeki may not have the power owing to his recent injury to keep the veteran away. That said, I’m tipping Takakeisho to continue his good form, as he should be able to win this on ability.

Daieisho vs Takayasu – I almost ran out of superlatives for Daieisho in the last basho, as he notched a kinboshi and came from well down to win four in a row and score a kachi-koshi which leads to his highest ever placement on the banzuke here, at Maegashira 1. No matter the opponent or the odds, he simply did not stop doing his style of explosive oshi-zumo. And in this match, I am going to tip him to upset kadoban Ozeki Takayasu. It is clear that Takayasu is not in full health, with his brutally damaged elbow having not fully healed, and I don’t know that even someone as good as him, short of form and fitness, can blunt the thrusting attack of an awkward customer like Daieisho.

Goeido vs Endo – Another critical match from Aki replayed, as Endo scored a big time upset of the Ozeki which helped dismantle early hopes that Goeido could be a yusho challenger last time out. Endo went on to score his first ever sanyaku kachikoshi. Goeido will likely be looking for a manner of revenge here. Endo has won the last 3 and 7 out of the last 9 of their matchups, and with both men being very able technicians, Goeido is going to have call on his hallmark speed from the tachiai in order to overcome the popular pin-up.

Hokutofuji vs Hakuho – The last time Hakuho was seen on the dohyo, he was walking off clutching a broken finger having been upset by a thoroughly fired up Hokutofuji on Day 1 of the Aki basho. If there’s one thing you can say about Hakuho, the legend has a knack for a narrative. And while he’s more GOAT than Elephant, he certainly never forgets. With that in mind, a chance to settle a score and put things right straight from the off against the man ranked Komusubi 2 is probably exactly what Hakuho is looking for. And it will be most exciting to see what kind of technique the Yokozuna chooses from his library to blunt Hokotofuji’s amped up pushing and thrusting attack. I’m tipping the Yokozuna here to win a gripping match.

Kakuryu vs Asanoyama – Growing superstar Asanoyama gets his sanyaku debut in this tournament, having scored his first yusho earlier in the year and his first kinboshi in the previous tournament against Day 1’s opponent. It’s yet another rematch of a key Aki battle, Asanoyama having dealt the Yokozuna his first of the consecutive losses which knocked him out of the tournament. This match in the musubi-no-ichiban is their third meeting. Asanoyama is one of few yotsu-specialists among the current crop of new stars, and the Yokozuna may be best served avoiding strength against strength if he can manage a pushing attack. Kakuryu is always susceptible to move backwards, however, and with questions over his health, this may be one of the more likely upsets we could see on Day 1.

Tachiai Interviews Murray Johnson, Part 4: “The objective is to fight the best”

Murray Johnson
Photo courtesy of Murray Johnson

Welcome to the final part of our interview with NHK’s esteemed sumo presenter Murray Johnson. Thank you for everyone who has followed along with the preceding parts of the series thus far. If you missed them, here are the links: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

As Bruce notes, we are going live with this final part on the day that Murray’s latest work on the NHK Sumo Preview airs, and just before the upcoming Kyushu basho. This final piece focuses mostly on our reader questions, so thank you to those who submitted them on the site! I had this conversation with Murray during the Natsu basho, so while a few questions may feel slightly out of date, I will caveat that I included many here where the commentary felt relevant and important. As ever, the interview has been edited only for length and clarity.

Tachiai: A reader named Tom asks: “What will sumo look like in the absence of Hakuho when he retires: (with regards to) up and comers like Hoshoryu and Roga, or top division rikishi who are waiting to find that consistency like Ichinojo, or just a general change in the atmosphere of the sport with such a dominant figure (who wasn’t always afraid to speak his mind) departing from sumo?”

Murray Johnson: I say quite often we don’t know where or who this person [the next dominant rikishi] is at the moment. I suggested those that might be factors and regular contributors to the top division who have spunk in their delivery. But the old nail sticks up in Japan, you get knocked down. When Hakuho leaves, it’ll be a relief for a lot of them. But it will be a disappointment, because the objective is you’re supposed to fight the best. The best is gone, a new best comes in.

Just before Hakuho came along, Asashoryu was the only guy. It was looking pretty sad, and some people thought “oh, this is boring, this guy keeps winning everything.” I didn’t think that, but a lot of people did. When Hakuho came along, he still had to work hard because he had reasonably tough opponents.

There will be another. Who he is I don’t know. I mentioned guys who I think have chances to go on. They could get injured, all of a sudden no one’s there. They’ll be relieved though, it will give all of them a chance to win a tournament.

Do you think the diversity of winners that we’re seeing right now will prepare us for the vacuum that will come?

Yeah. Some people will say, “oh this is dull with no Hakuho,” but someone will emerge from the pack.

A reader named Nerima asks: “With NHK World’s coverage in English being available all over the world, does Murray think we are going to see any more top level rikishi from English speaking countries any time soon? And what about about the prospects of any emerging from Australia, given that there seems to be an upsurge of interest in sumo among Australians?” Of course Ishiura studied abroad in Australia.

He went there for six months and worked with the local association people for a while.

I don’t know of any. There’s only one guy in Australia who’s any good, and he’s a former rikishi. I don’t know of anyone coming on from Australia in that sense.

I think Europe is the breeding ground for potential champions of the future. You’ve got Kotooshu (Naruto oyakata) with his own heya now, who’s taken someone on who seems to have disappeared [nb: Torakio, who has officially since retired]. The biggest problem they have is to adapt to the Japanese way of life: the hazing and all of the stuff that goes on behind the scenes. No matter how big you are, if there’s five or six (rikishi) doing it to you…

There was a well known Canadian (Homarenishiki) [who was in sumo and left], and it’s never going to come out what happened to that poor kid. And probably it shouldn’t.

Tachiai: It seems like Musashigawa – who’s got two Americans – Wakaichiro being technically Japanese, and Musashikuni – at least they have a buddy in there so maybe that helps as opposed to someone like Torakio. [nb: Musashikuni has recently himself retired due to injury and is now starring in sumo exhibitions in America.]

Musashigawa is quite smart, he’s not trying to race (rikishi) through. It takes time. If you’re good at a certain age and you just build on it, maybe you’ll get there. It’s hard work!

A lot of people don’t want to train for 15, 20 years, and go “is that all there is?” There have been plenty of foreigners that have been through sumo from all sorts of countries. That will continue to happen, but it will come in waves. There’s a bit of an interest now with Filipinos, because of these young Japanese-Filipinos who have taken it on, who have inspired them. Brazil, maybe? It’s a long way away, but there’s a pretty big fanbase in Brazil. That doesn’t necessarily mean you want to get up on the dohyo. Someone will emerge, but whether they become the ultimate, there’s nobody I can see.

Well there’s a decent segue, because Tomscoffee asks: “Hi Murray! What do you think needs to happen for Takayasu to finally achieve his first yusho. He has gotten achingly close too many times for it to be simple luck. Many of us are desperate to see it happen, but what is the rate limiting factor?”

He needs some fire in the belly. He’s developed this calmness in his sumo that works most of the time, but when the pressure comes and someone bustles him, he doesn’t have that comeback. When he started his sumo he was a pusher-thruster, and then went to the mawashi, and now has both skills. He doesn’t know when to use which one. I think he makes mistakes. He’s trying not to lose instead of trying to win. If he doesn’t win one this year, he’ll never win one. He could join that short list of ozeki who have never won a tournament.

Do you think he’s adopted that bridesmaid mantle that Kisenosato had for so many years?

Well, I’d stop practising with him! I’d go somewhere else. It’s not doing him any good. He’s still getting beaten by a guy who’s retired? And he’s proud of that! His practise was going really well and then it fell off the rails. The biggest problem is we do the preview show 16 days before the tournament. That was all dictated by the holiday.

Well, at the recent soken…

The soken’s a waste of time. An absolute waste! The soken in front of the public is ok, it’s a PR exercise. But the soken in front of the small amount of media and the YDC? I’ve been going to those for 20 years. And I see no reason to have them.

Do you think it gives an opportunity for people within the community who have opinions to have another platform to air them?

Someone like Kitanofuji? No. Kitanofuji’s probably got more bitter as he’s got older, but that’s his job. He’s kind of taken it on board to become the negatory of all the rikishi.

I think at least his opinions are perhaps a little more reasoned than people in the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee (YDC). 

The YDC is an honorary job and they get paid. They’re there to uphold the traditions of sumo.  They’re the conservative face of sumo, so when Hakuho does the three claps, it’s a bit of a brain fade. Now, I thought it was charming! But it was wrong. Most people don’t get to see something like that, because they’ve all left the building. You bring out the newcomers to sumo, and they all stand around, and that’s the last thing that’s done. He usurped that tradition by trying to figure that “we’re losing an era and we’re going into a new one.”

It was embraced by many people, but not the traditionalists. If any YDC member gets one nasty letter from a traditionalist, then it becomes: “we’ve got to discuss this.” But for three hours? It was three hours because they all stood up and had their say. They weren’t straight into him for three hours. I felt sorry for him, but he was wrong.

Stonecreek says: “What is the single biggest reform or change you think needs to be made to ensure a solid future for the sport of sumo?”

I think it’s injury. They’ve got this cash cow which is the jungyo, the provincial tours, to promote sumo to the masses, where people can get up close and personal. And we talk about interest from overseas, but (the jungyo is also) to encourage Japanese boys to take on sumo. And it does work.

Unfortunately, they flog these guys, the idea being that they put these guys out there because they’re employees of the Sumo Association. The whole process, the procedure of going out 28 days in a row, on a bus… you ever sat next to a rikishi on a plane? I’d rather be on the wing!

They have to go out and do (the jungyo). I would like to see that reduced. And then bring in some sports officials with an overseeing view of sports injuries within sumo. There have been excercises that have been carried out by professors that have come from the United States (regarding) body mass and weight and went back and wrote a thesis. But the Sumo Association doesn’t care about that.

Also there’s a diversity in body mass just in the top division and it doesn’t mean that one build creates success or not.

People have talked about “why don’t they have cushions around the dohyo,” or a softer floor, things like that. That’s not going to change. And the elevated dohyo, why it’s elevated when they don’t practise on an elevated dohyo. Well, they learn to roll, and most of the injuries don’t happen from falling off the dohyo, they’re injuries on the dohyo that are sustained during a bout. If there was a flat dohyo, it just wouldn’t be sumo.

I’d say reduce the jungyo, and introduce a realistic sports medicine assessment of injuries where they have people that say, “OK, we’re checking him out of the clinic, and we advise he doesn’t fight for six months. Here’s the submission.” Then the Sumo Kyokai (can) say: “OK, oyakata, this is what we’ve been told, we don’t want to see him on a dohyo for six months.”

Now, if that happens, people will say, “oh, well they’ll lose their rank.” Tough! That’s the system. Maybe you introduce the old system (Kosho Seido) which was abused before, and allow maybe one or two tournaments without losing rank. That’s what I would like to see. 

I totally agree about the raised dohyo, and I would go as far as to say…

It should be higher?

It should be higher! No. Actually, we post sometimes about an amateur tournament that Hiro Morita went out to last year in Long Beach in the States, the USA Sumo Championships. It is not something that traditionalists, people who like the sport as it is here in Japan, are really attracted to. I think they try and appeal to more WWE audience. It’s on a flat dohyo, and I think it does take away from the presentation and the fan experience. There is something about where your eyes are drawn to when you’re at the Kokugikan. 

That same guy who does the US Open is trying to set up two tournaments in Australia: Sushi and sumo. He’s advertising sumo’s years and culture coming to Australia. I think that’s rather interesting! You can get a premium package. It’ll be held in Sydney and Melbourne. No venue, no dates, just prices! Hmm.

Watch this space. Philip Noyed says: “Ichinojo has been up and down in performance over the course of the past couple of years, but (earlier this year) discovered how to swat other rikishi down to the defeat with a slap down to win 14 matches. Will other rikishi figure out a way to defend and counter attack this one-dimensional attack or is he too big and powerful?” [nb: this is now an out of date question given Ichinojo’s injury troubles, but Murray’s analysis related to his long-term career challenges was interesting and I wanted to include it.]

I think firstly the reason he was better is he went to degeiko. He didn’t stay at home fighting one guy. There’s nobody there. He got a bit of a rocket from Hakuho, saying: “You gotta do something, you’re a big guy, you’re huge, use it to your advantage.”

Forget the actual number – 12 of the 14 bouts he won by slap down. He’s been working on moving forward and that’s not been working out well for him. So now automatically he’ll retreat. For people who say, finally now Ichinojo’s turned the corner – I want to wait, let’s see if he can put two together. You can beat him at speed. All (rikishi) have to do is hit and shift. If he starts well, he’s a massive man to move, but the lower back problem he had comes and goes. 

Do you think defending his rank would be a success?

He doesn’t care about rank. He actually doesn’t care if he becomes a Yokozuna or an Ozeki.

It’s been suggested before that he is motivated by kensho, and he turns up for the big matches.

Oh he likes to win the big ones, but he doesn’t always win them with great sumo. He’s a bit of a loner, he does hang out with the other Mongolians. I think he will “ride the elevator” for quite some time. He could go on for quite a long time, he’s not an old guy. He could probably still fight for another five years with a sore back. Whether he stays with numbers like 14, that’s pretty unlikely in my opinion.

George has a big question: Can you predict who might become the next Yokozuna, from people that we already know?

I always said Asanoyama. He had two tournaments were he was looking very light on his feet, which was very surprising to me. The two tournaments prior to that he was moving so well, and adjusting. [nb: a reminder to readers that we spoke right before Asanoyama won his yusho.]

If he gets his act together, Mitakeumi could make Yokozuna – but I don’t think he will. That means full practise! Not just for the cameras.

Speaking of that, one person who practises a lot but doesn’t turn it on in tournaments is Goeido – he’s kind of the opposite of Mitakeumi. What does his career look like from here?

He’s at the end of his career, he’s probably got another year or two year in him. As the opposition gets not as troubling, he might win one more yusho. He’s a flake when the pressure is on. Like Kisenosato was, then he got his act together. Goeido doesn’t handle pressure well, though he did once, his unbelievable zensho yusho. I’m still having nightmares about that!

Why is that?

Oh, I never thought he should have been an Ozeki. I never thought Kisenosato should have been a Yokozuna. I was supposed to eat a straw hat – I had an on-air bet with John Gunning!

Those are the worst ones to lose!

I haven’t seen that hat. Normally, I would say I don’t support any particular rikishi: I’m supposed to be impartial. I like the guys who, when push comes to shove, they pull out the big wins. Goeido elevated in my opinion by getting a zensho yusho but every now and then…

A broken clock’s right twice a day?

Yes, there you go. 

I think those are all the questions we have time for – so, thank you!

Very welcome.

Thanks again to Murray for taking the time to speak with us! You can enjoy his commentary on NHK’s Grand Sumo Preview and also during selected days of the upcoming basho.

Tachiai Interviews BuySumoTickets: “There aren’t enough sumo dates in the year!”

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Recently, I had the chance to sit down with the team from BuySumoTickets.com. Many of our readers (and even writers!) have had questions about the very murky and high demand sumo ticketing process, so the team at BuySumoTickets agreed to have a chat with us. We talked about the challenges of sumo ticketing, what compelled them to start the business, and what kinds of offerings they provide for sumo fans and tourists.

With the introduction of new ticket tiers for 2020, ticket price increases, and the BuySumoTickets pre-sale having just started for the 2020 Hatsu basho – and with several upcoming rikishi retirement ceremonies on the horizon – it seemed the appropriate time for us to present this content.

Tachiai: You opened the site in 2008. What made you want to provide this service for foreign customers?

BuySumoTickets: My girlfriend was on a travel forum and someone was asking how to get tickets for sumo. She said, “Oh, my boyfriend knows how to do that. Send us the money and your shipping address and we’ll send them out.” It was an exercise in trust! 

I did that first one for free, and I had a “wait a minute!” moment: “Why did I do that for free?” Later that day I had a domain registered. It took a few days to build the site. At the time, the Sumo Kyokai had an old site which had an English version. On that English site it said, “let’s show you how easy it is to buy these tickets for the sumo!” It had a little cartoon drawing of a guy on a phone. It said, “Call this number, in Japanese please!” I just thought, “OK, I can do a better job than this.” And I did.

My expectations when we opened it were very low, and it has vastly exceeded those expectations. I was thinking maybe I could buy a few PlayStation games with the extra money. It took a few years, but then it turned into a full time thing.

It’s well known that you have seen a huge rise in interest for tickets, as it has become harder to get tickets for tournaments in general. What moments in sumo have corresponded with these increases?

The first big drop (in demand) we saw first was the retirement of Asashoryu. For a while, you had the Asashoryu-Hakuho rivalry going on, and when Asashoryu retired, sales went down amongst the Japanese. I don’t mean our customers, I mean overall sales.

The first time we really saw what the Sumo Kyokai was capable of, was when Hakuho was going for the consecutive win streak [in 2010], and the days when he was scheduled to tie and break that record were the middle weekend of the Fukuoka basho. Fukuoka had always been easy for us to get tickets, at least at that stage. When sales opened for those dates, there was nothing. Nothing! That’s when I learned they are both capable and willing of holding all of the tickets back for an entire day.

But in general, do you know what the first (huge jump) was? Everyone’s going to think it was Kisenosato but it started way before that. 

I would think it would be something weird, like Kyokutenho winning his surprise tournament.

The first time when the ticket sales really started increasing, was when Endo got into makuuchi and people started going nuts. I remember thinking after a ticket buy, “oof, that didn’t go as well as it should have.” (Demand) just started getting higher and higher, and we had to start eliminating ticket types from our website, the rarer ticket types that we used to be able to get. All because of Endo!

By the year that Kisenosato won the most matches but didn’t win a tournament (2016), I was starting to panic. I was thinking, “this is bad, this is getting horrible, we’re going to be forced out of business.” When he won that next tournament, I went “oh no!”

But we adapted, we made some contacts that were mutually beneficial, and we were able to survive the Kisenosato era. At least in Tokyo, I don’t see (the demand) reducing any time soon. The main things were Endo and Kisenosato.

Has it become easier to acquire tickets, or has it changed since Kisenosato’s retirement?

It’s become a tad easier, in the cities except Tokyo. In Tokyo, it’s actually got worse! I think the reason for that is the Sumo Association is giving out more of the tickets before public sales open than they were before. It’s easy for them! In other cities, it’s starting to ease off a little to the point where it’s: “can we get you some really good seats,” and not: “can we get you any seats at all.”

Were you able to sell any tickets for Kisenosato’s retirement?

No. We had a couple people request it. It never went on public sale. My understanding is that after his fan club and the stable got done with it, there were only a few tickets left. They put them on a website with a lottery system, and that website crashed for several hours. When that website came back up, there was nothing left.

They do special websites for many of them. I went and talked to Satoyama when he was out hustling to sell tickets for his danpatsu-shiki. His was the day before, and he was working for a while to sell tickets for his.

We’ve done a lot of good for his event.

I have to imagine a lot of people who would like to see Kisenosato’s and can’t get in, would still like to go to that type of event.

Most of our customers don’t know who Kisenosato is! You think you guys [Tachiai and its readers, big sumo fans] are the majority of the customers. You aren’t – you’re a very small minority. The vast majority of our customers are regular tourists seeing sumo for the first time, as a curiosity while they are in Japan. Some of those will become hooked, and join your group (of fans). But the vast majority of our customers do not know who Kisenosato is – if they did, we wouldn’t need the guide (that we send with all orders).

Does that come down to really good SEO? People might say, “I want to buy sumo tickets!” And that is your name.

Yeah. We advertise in various places, but word of mouth is a big one now. There are other sites out there that charge a whole lot more than what we’re charging. We think that’s kind of a jerk thing to do.

What’s the most complicated thing about dealing with a customer from overseas who is not already a fan, and just wants to see sumo?

The most complicated thing is people who don’t understand that sumo tickets are not easy to get. That in Tokyo at least, very, very few tickets are made available to the public. I get people mailing me – and this is serious – demanding front row ringside tickets for Senshuraku in Tokyo! When I say that’s impossible, they say, “Why not? Sales haven’t opened yet!”

Was it Paul McCartney?

Even he didn’t get ringside when he went to Fukuoka!

We get messages like, “I want to sit in the first row of the balcony, north side.” When someone says “North side,” we know they don’t know what they’re talking about. They say, “North side, front row”… that’s the Emperor’s Box! He’s not going to let you use it. Even if it wasn’t the Emperor’s Box, those tickets would not be made available.

The Sumo Association has been extremely clear with us: foreign tourists are their lowest priority. People assume when tickets go on sale that all tickets should have been available, and if we don’t get something for them, that we’ve failed. But we’re very clear about what we do on our website, that we can’t buy tickets if they’re not available, that it’s a preorder, which means we try. There’s never a guarantee, and we say on the site there’s never a guarantee. So it’s the foreign tourists – not the fans – but the tourists, who don’t understand that sumo tickets are hard to get.

You supply a really good introduction to sumo document to your customers. What’s the one thing that you wish customers would know about going to see sumo?

If you lose your ticket, you’re not going in the building!

The document and the packages always say, “Treat this as cash.”

We put that there at the request of the Sumo Association after they got sick of our customers going to the venue with no tickets, making a scene and demanding to get let in anyway.

I think the Japanese attitude, when you lose your ticket is, “well, I’m not going to go.” The foreign attitude is, “I’m going to go, and demand for someone to fix my problem for me!” So, yeah: protect that ticket like it’s cash.

People ask, “why can’t you reissue the ticket?” When you lose your cash, do you go to the bank and ask them to reissue you your cash? (The Sumo Association) makes one, and if it gets out in the wild, they don’t know what happened to it. They can’t make duplicates. Please protect your tickets.

After you get to the venue, the Sumo Association has made two requests of us, that we inform our customers of: the first request is that they do not enter or leave the seating area during a match. The second request is if you’ve ordered a lunch set, please do not ask the guys at the ticket gate about the lunch set and where to get it. Please go inside and ask the ushers. Those are the things the Sumo Association has asked us to tell people, and that is on our site.

What can you tell us about your non-basho ticketing services? Do you get a lot of demand for retirement ceremonies?

Generally, because our customers are not sumo fans, when they book their trip, they have no idea when sumo is on. Sumo is usually the last thing they research. They already have flights, they have hotels, they have an itinerary. Then they find out, “oh, there’s no sumo.”

So, we decided: “we can show you sumo!” We can get retirement ceremonies, and the rikishi super appreciate when we sell the retirement events. We’ve made some good friends that way. The jungyo in October and April especially are the big ones. Since the Kyokai has started increasing the number of (dates) – they used to be only in smaller towns, now they’ve started putting them in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka – we’re able to offer a lot more opportunities to see sumo to our customers.

One of the things we’ve regretted is that there just aren’t enough sumo dates in the year! Our business would be a lot bigger and more profitable if sumo was more often. We appreciate that there are other events we can offer to people.

I went to Jungyo for the first time a year and a half ago, during the April tour. It was a completely different experience. I wonder, for a first time viewer who is not familiar, how they would walk away seeing sumo for the first time there, versus seeing it at Kokugikan which is such a different experience. 

You can get closer. Usually you can get some photos with the wrestlers. Disclaimer: wrestlers are all human and they get to decide if you get a photo with them or not! It’s the only opportunity you’ll get to have where you can sit ringside. Years ago, we could sell ringside tickets in Fukuoka and Nagoya. They are often available for jungyo, especially if you’re fast and early.

Do a lot of sumo fans know that you offer services for other sports and take advantage of that, to purchase other tickets (e.g. baseball)? What other sports do you offer?

I wouldn’t say it’s a lot of people who request non-sumo events but we definitely offer that. We do whatever people ask us to get, as long as the process to buy the tickets is okay. We’ve done baseball, soccer, we’re big into pro wrestling now. That’s our next biggest business after sumo.

People ask us to get anime festivals, and weird things that I’ve never even heard of! We do concerts, as long as they’re on sale. We don’t take orders for concerts if they’re not on sale yet, and that’s because they often have a fan club lottery and another lottery, and then a presale for credit card holders and then another lottery… by the time it opens there’s just nothing there. I think I did 9 concerts in a row where I got nothing. If the concert is on (general) sale and there are tickets there, we’ll help.

How do stable visits work if people order this service through you? A lot of people ask us about that.

The biggest problem we have with stable visits is that we don’t get enough of them! We don’t just show up uninvited, we have to arrange a date with the stable in advance. They’re getting very busy these days. They’ve told us that the demand amongst Japanese people to go see keiko has also skyrocketed, not just the foreign tourists. It’s really hard to get dates now, so a lot of them have had to close their doors except by appointment only.

We have to get an appointment, and compete with the stable’s own fan club. Another problem is we often don’t get notice. We try to get dates as far in advance as we can. When we do that, we send you the meeting time and place and we take you out, we show you the practise, we always give you a souvenir of some kind, and commentary.

One thing I want people to know about us is that we support the stables. When you go on a tour with us, you are also supporting the stable. We’ve actually paid out more to the stables this year than we’ve taken out in revenue from stable tours. So, we’re actually operating in the red on these tours, but I like doing them. I like giving something back and helping the people who have been (good) to us. Stables can’t take cash directly, but they can accept support in-kind. We send boxes full of 20kg of meat to a stable, or we’re members of their fan club and go to their parties, and give money to their rikishi when they’re retiring. There are lots of little ways that we can support a stable.

I want people to know that sumo is not just two fat guys in diapers bouncing off each other! A guy emailed us last week asking for information and I replied to him, and he wrote back, “Tokyo is much too exciting a city to sit inside watching two fat guys bouncing off each other.” What! Give it a chance. It’s what I did years ago, I gave it a chance, and here I am.

Thank you to BuySumoTickets for taking the time to chat with us. They can appropriately be found at BuySumoTickets.com. Their pre-sale for the Hatsu basho is available now.

Musashikuni Returns with Konishiki to Sumo & Sushi

Musashikuni on the dohyo at Kokugikan, Natsu 2019
Former Makushita rikishi Musashikuni in his previous life. Photo credit: @nicolaah for Tachiai.

Longtime followers of Musashikuni were disappointed to learn of his recent intai. Long touted as a great hope of Musashigawa-beya, the former Yokozuna and stable master’s nephew vacated the banzuke after struggling with injury in recent months.

His intai ceremony was performed at his heya, and left the Texan Wakaichiro (whose shusshin is technically Nagasaki) as the sole American competitor in the sport.

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【武蔵國 引退のご報告】 武蔵川部屋再興当時より皆様に応援して頂いて参りました武蔵國でございますが、今場所をもって引退する事ととなり、本日たくさんの方々に見守られる中、断髪式を行いました。 昨年より体調を崩したまま回復に至らず、親方と話し合いをした結果、今後はハワイに帰り第二の人生を送ります。 来日してから七年間、大相撲の世界で努力して参りましたが、皆様のご期待に応えることができないまま引退となりました事を大変申し訳なく思っております。 これまで、武蔵國の応援をして頂き、誠にありがとうございました‼︎ #武蔵川部屋 #武蔵丸 #大相撲 #sumo

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Musashikuni has now resurfaced in America, taking part in the curious “Sumo & Sushi” tour, which will be hosted by the legendary former Ozeki and popular cultural tarento, musician and plate lunch grillmaster Konishiki. These events have taken place on a smaller scale at various cultural festivals across America, and allow people who might be completely unfamiliar with the sport to see some of the traditions and the rikishi up close and personal. Often, the events even offer local customers the chance to get in the ring with a former rikishi, and we had the privilege of speaking to one such punter not too long ago.

(The competing rikishi’s status in the sport is perhaps played up for the benefit of customers who may never be the wiser – we also spoke to someone who was under the impression that former Maegashira Yamamotoyama had in fact been a Yokozuna.)

Musashikuni will be on tour with three other retired rikishi: Bungonishiki (Makushita 16, Dewanoumi beya), Kumago (Sandanme 38, Takasago beya), and Tooyama (Makushita 7, Tamanoi beya)

The events will offer varying degrees of tickets for fans in the Seattle (Oct 31-Nov 2), Los Angeles (Nov 10) and New York (Nov 16 & 17) metropolitan areas over the balance of 2019. Viewing-only tickets range between $50 and $70, Sushi dinner ticket packages tend to run around $100, with front row seats and fights against the rikishi running $100 and $200 more, respectively.

While those ticket prices do compare somewhat unfavourably with even Kokugikan honbasho tickets purchased through third party sites which apply a fee, it does of course seem fair to mention that these events not only may serve to bring new fans to sumo, but can offer intimacy on a tangential level with the sport for fans who may not be able to travel (for time or budgetary reasons) all the way to Japan. Of course, the events can also help provide a source of income for former rikishi who may not have achieved sekitori status and the accompanying salary in their career in Ozumo. And you certainly wouldn’t get the chance to dance with a current rikishi at Grand Sumo’s hallowed home.

Tickets can be purchased at sumoandsushi.com. We would certainly look forward to any feedback from readers of the site who may be in attendance. We will also be tracking these events and keeping a close eye on other lower division favourites who may be making their way around the world with similar tours in the future.