The 2018 Aki Basho is over, and I’m sure you’ll agree it was an incredible two weeks of sumo! In this video, I break down four major stories coming out of Aki and give a quick recap some breaking news making waves in the sumo world.
With most of Japan hoping to dodge typhoon Jebi, the yobidashi squad got to work today at the Kokugikan, tearing down the old dohyo from the Natsu basho, and constructing the new. With the basho just 5 days away, preparations are underway in the stables, at the Kokogukan and in the offices of the Japan Sumo Association. It has also been published that NHK World will once again host Sumo Live, on day 1 and day 8 (both Sundays) for Aki.
The raised fighting platform (dohyo) is built or re-built before each tournament, by hand. It’s a task that sumo’s yobidashi do with pride and a great deal of skill. For the Kokugikan, this dohyo will serve multiple purposes once its duty for the basho has elapsed. This will be the same dohyo that Harumafuji will use to perform his last dohyo-iri.
Another news round up, as we are now one week away from the start of the Nagoya basho. Everyone who is going to participate is practicing now, and we are in the midst of inter-stable / ichimon cross training sessions and practice matches. In many cases, this is where people can start sizing up who is genki and who is not.
There are zero new recruits joining the sumo kyokai in Nagoya. This is a somewhat unusual situation, but in and of itself it’s not a cause for any alarm or assumptions that the Japanese public have given up their love for sumo. Today marked the dedication dohyo-iri at the Atsuta shrine. The party attending included shin-Ozeki Tochinoshin, marking the first time he has been of rank to participate.
First and foremost is Kisenosato. He looks like he is not even close to being ready. He lacks power, he lacks poise, he struggles against mid-tier Makuuchi rikishi. As someone who loves sumo and deeply respects Kisenosato’s commitment to the sport, this is painful to watch. But we can more or less assume that he won’t be competing. Takayasu, however, seems to have put his upper body injuries behind him, and has been fighting with gusto. We can expect him to enter and to strongly compete for the yusho.
Our beloved kaiju, Terunofuji, once again went into surgery in a desperate attempt to repair his knees. It’s obvious that he is going to drop as far as he drops in a last ditch attempt to regain some kind of fighting form, and barring that some kind of mobility to use for the remainder of his life. Don’t look for his at Nagoya or Aki, I would say. Meanwhile, Harumafuji’s retirement is set for the end of September at the Kokugikan. Some elements of Team Tachiai may be in attendance…
Dai-Yokozuna Hakuho took 38 practice bouts against rikishi of all levels down to Jonidan. He won 22 of them. He also called on Asashoryu’s nephew, Hoshoryu for 3 bouts. Speaking afterwards, Hoshoryu said, “”Glad to face the Yokozuna”. Hakuho stated, “It’ll be nice to hand over the baton to him”.
It’s banzuke Sunday in the western world, and while the sumo fans eagerly await to see who came out on top, or how their guess the banzuke entry scored, let’s take a look at the top end of the Nagoya ranks. The Yokozuna have had their problems this year, and Nagoya may continue to underscore the tremendous change at work in sumo’s upper ranks.
First up is sumo’s top man for Nagoya, the unexpectedly genki Yokozuna Kakuryu. A year ago, if you had told me that Kakuryu would take back-to-back yusho and supplant Harumafuji as sumo’s anchor Yokozuna, I would have considered it unlikely. But he has somehow managed to get his body healthy and his fighting spirit aligned. His sumo looks quite good, and as long as he keeps from going for pulls, he tends to prevail. Kakuryu’s sumo is highly reactive. In most matches his approach is not to conquer his opponent at the tachiai, but rather to put up a strong defence and keep his opponent stalemated, waiting for a mistake. These mistakes almost always appear and Kakuryu is without peer in detecting and exploiting even the smallest error in his opponents. After his Natsu yusho, he suggested that he would like to see if he could achieve 3 consecutive titles, which would be remarkable for a man who many (myself included) suggested a year ago hang up his rope due to lack of competition. Prospect – Surprisingly Positive.
Yokozuna Hakuho is the Michael Jordan of sumo. There has never been any rikishi as dominant as he has been, and in all likelihood, none of us will live to see a day when some future sumotori surpasses his records. But his cumulative injuries are starting to impact his ability to compete. Specifically, repeated injuries to his big toes have robbed him of some speed, agility and power. Furthermore, the YDC has admonished him to change up his tachiai, which frequently features a slap to his opponents face. Hakuho has struggled with that guidance, and the lack of that first disorienting blow seems to have thrown his sumo off at least a half step. His performance during Natsu was a respectable 11-4, but his supporters wonder how much longer “The Boss” can keep going. His biggest issue in May was mental. His father had just died a few weeks before, and it clearly impacted the dai-yokozuna’s mental state. Hakuho’s father was his own larger than life figure, and was likely a driving force in his son’s life. Anyone who has lost a parent can attest to the mental impact it can have. But I suspect he took ample time during the summer break to come to terms with the loss, and his mental state will be nothing short of amazing for Nagoya. Prospect – Grim Determination To Win.
In 2017 the world welcomed the first Japanese-born Yokozuna in a generation. Many had their doubts about him, as he was promoted on his first yusho. He silenced all doubters with his outstanding performance the following tournament, winning his second yusho, and finishing in spite of a grievous injury that haunts him to this day. Sadly, since Osaka 2017, Kisenosato has failed to complete a single tournament. Fans have been rightfully depressed that a rikishi who would refuse to even miss a single day of practice would be sidelined indefinitely. As his kyujo tally mounted, he eventually reached a 7th excused tournament, matching Takanohana’s longest absence. For such a proud man, the strain of making the record books in such a inglorious manner must eat at him hourly. Fans have noticed in the past few weeks that he has been taking practice matches with his old training partner, Ozeki Takayasu. They have done this in the past, and it seems to have been mostly for show. But a rumor has been running around sumo fandom that Kisenosato has come to terms with the scope of his injury, and will retire shortly. But rather than fade out a defeated man, he will instead don the rope once more, and go out guns blazing in competition. Personally, reflecting on that outcome and the career of Kisenosato it would make perfect sense. It may not be Nagoya, but it will be before Kyushu. Prospect – Unlikely – or- Davy Crockett at the Alamo.
As we pointed in our Ozeki report, with two Ozeki pushing for 8 wins to relieve kadoban status, the pressure from the top of the banzuke on the rest of the san’yaku and the upper Maegashira will be enormous. Two or possibly three active Yokozuna all hunting wins could spell unrivaled carnage at the top of the banzuke. For fans of sumo, this means some of the most thrilling competition possibly in several months.
With many live sports, the better viewing these days will come on TV, or online, or however you consume your video content. You get the benefit of close-ups, camera angles, replays, and analysis. However, the best and most irreplaceable pure experience will still usually come in person. I was fortunate to attend Day 3 of the Natsu basho yesterday, and so will share some of my experiences. I will caveat that almost all of you who saw yesterday’s highlights saw those matches better than I did, and I will do a more complete post on the Kokugikan experience after one of the later days I attend in the tournament, but hopefully this will add some color to yesterday’s proceedings.
Due to the incredible popularity of sumo, the full tournament sold out in under an hour, and this caused an incredible amount of strain on ticket agents like BuySumoTickets who provide services to those of us based outside of Japan. Unfortunately, my seat was downgraded to “Arena C,” which is the furthest back section at the top of the upper deck of Kokugikan. While the Arena A and B seats feature comfortable, plush upholstery and armrests, the Arena C seats are more of the hard plastic variety you might find in a normal sports stadium. It’s worth paying whatever you can afford to get into one of the closer sections, as it makes a difference when you’re sitting for several hours. Kokugikan, which does offer very good sight lines from almost any seat, is fairly steep, so even getting into the Arena B section does make a meaningful difference. Still, I’m not complaining – at least I was lucky enough to be able to attend.
As far as the surrounding fan contingent up in Arena C, it was made up largely of folks who had queued for “day-of” tickets in the AM as well as tourists. Obviously, I’m all for more fans experiencing sumo and welcoming them to our site to follow English language coverage, but with the incredible demand for tickets, it would be good of tourists to read Tachiai and other sites, and brush up on the rituals of the ring before making their maiden trip to Kokugikan! It would make their sumo experience more rich, and if they are going to take the seats of people who are legitimately fans of sumo (either locals or other tourists), it would sit a bit easier with me if these folks made more of an effort [edit: I appreciate while the spirit of this comment is positive, the tone did not sit well with everyone, so please see further elaboration on the subject in the comments]. The likes of Tachiai are here to help, and we will welcome them!
Despite this, there were pockets of empty seats all around the upper bowl in particular – the three seats next to me were all empty. Later in the day, a few massive groups of school kids filled in the Arena B section and were fantastic for the atmosphere.
Snacks & Shopping
Oguruma-beya is serving their brand of chanko throughout the basho, but I took it a bit easy yesterday, skipping that and the yakitori and just enjoying a custard bun in the shape of the NSK mascot, a snack-box of roast beef sushi with wasabi, and a package of Lotte Koala March cookies.
What was surprising was the amount of Harumafuji stuff you can still find. The postcard vendor inside Kokugikan still carried Harumafuji goods, and they were still selling $100 Harumafuji statues in the gift shops. I always buy postcards at Kokugikan – it’s very rare you can find one of someone below Juryo division, but they were already selling postcards of a certain hotly-tipped Jonidan rikishi:
Yokozuna past and future? Surprised that they still have Harumafuji postcards, and that they are already on board the Naya train (half surprised also that they didn't artistically add a topknot) pic.twitter.com/C0HlVsA3J7
Additionally, I picked up a pack of cards from the trading card vendors. Opening the package of 5 cards (¥300) to find an Enho card filled me with immense joy. One of the coolest features of this vendor is that he will offer to trade you from a pile of other cards for one of the cards in your pack that you don’t want. I pretty much snapped his arm off to give him my Daiamami card in exchange for Onosho, I don’t know how I got away with that one!
I did get to see a handful of the folks I’m tracking in this basho’s Ones to Watch series in the Makushita division, but I’ll save the analysis for the mid-basho check in post. Instead, let’s talk about some higher division action:
Wakatakakage has tons of fans. You will always hear people shouting for him, and if you thought that Raja Pradhan’s rapid fire pronunciation of his name was impressive on Grand Sumo Preview, wait until you hear someone’s drunken grandpa shouting it for all of Kokugikan to hear [as I’ve just written this, Hiro Morita has shared during the Day 4 broadcast that Mitakeumi says he is worried Wakatakakage is too light to compete as a sekitori. Make of that what you will!].
Abi vs Mitakeumi: If you think back a year, Mitakeumi always had one of the loudest cheering sections at any tournament. Not anymore. A new generation of exciting upstarts has taken root, and none more so than Abi. If you’re looking for a signal as to how much things have changed and how Mitakeumi’s star has dimmed, it was impossible to hear anyone cheering for him over Abi fans. They created an incredible cacophony and it was the loudest I had ever heard Kokugikan for a single rikishi. But unfortunately for them, in the match, Mitakeumi put him on the run. He’s come up in the first few days against guys who are working hard to be Ozeki (two in with a good chance, and one trying to recover his past momentum in Mitakeumi). I think he’ll be able to turn it around and I agree with Bruce that if he can develop some yotsu-zumo techniques, he would be a total force.
Ikioi: I’ve mentioned before on the site that he is my favorite, so I am biased. I’m also a life long fan of Liverpool Football Club. Their manager Jürgen Klopp became known earlier in his career for his approach to “heavy metal” football: intense, unrelenting, in your face action. Maybe this is what also draws me so much to Ikioi. Ikioi’s brand of sumo is heavy metal sumo, high-octane, full-throttle sumo. In football parlance, his extreme gegenpressing might leave him open to the kind of counterattacks which might make a charge for silverware a bit of a vain exercise for him (even if he wins the odd special prize here and there). This is perhaps evidenced by a second monoii in three days leading to a gyoji-decision reversal in his favor. I often say Hakuho is “box office,” and he is the consummate entertainer, but Ikioi is can’t-miss sumo. And in an era of declining numbers in the upper san’yaku (two years ago there were 7 yokozuna and ozeki, and they usually all turned up…. now we have 3 who are active), the sport needs can’t-miss performers.
Lost: Hokutofuji and Yoshikaze.
Found: Kotoshogiku and Ishiura. Ishiura did sumo, and won. Imagine that! Usually baseball pitchers establish their fastball and then mix in an off-speed pitch like a curveball to confuse batters. Ishiura is doing the opposite now: he leads with most people’s curveball, the henka, and then when he throws good sumo out there, he can blow people away. Kotoshogiku is always trying to get his feet sorted, and yesterday he kept composure through a couple waves of attacks from Yutakayama to deal with a rikishi who didn’t have much experience of his signature move. The old dog’s still got it, you know.
Daieisho threw a henka on Ichinojo and the big man reacted like someone untied his favorite pony and set it free while he wasn’t looking. The crowd reacted and he throw Daieisho to the floor, the gyoji’s decision confirmed after a monoii.
The crowd reacted very disapprovingly to the Tochinoshin/Tamawashi matta. Long time watchers of Tamawashi will know that he will sometimes play mind games at the tachiai with higher rankers and eke out a longer than usual stare down. However, whenever he deploys this tactic, even when he provokes two or even three matta in an apparent attempt to unsettle his opponent, he always seems to lose. It seems it might motivate his opponents more than anything, not that Tochinoshin needs extra motivation at the moment.
I have never experienced an atmosphere like I did for Endo vs Goeido, the first massive upset of the basho. There were huge groups of fans for both rikishi chanting and screaming and clapping in the run up to the match. When Endo finally threw Goeido to the clay, the explosion of noise was one of those moments that makes Kokugikan one of the most special sporting venues in the world.