The Kyokai shared a great video that provides insights into some behind-the-scenes processes. Visitors to Kokugikan will have seen the scoreboards. These backlit screens display the Juryo and Makuuchi bouts, reading from right to left, as well as listing any kyujo wrestlers (far left). A win is indicated with a red light next to the victor’s name. The kimarite is also indicated on the far right. They’re called “denkōban.” We’ve all seen this…but how does it get updated each night?
The video is great but unfortunately it’s captioned in Japanese and not in English. There are some great little tidbits in there that I wanted to makes sure to share. After the day’s action is completed, and after the bow-twirling ceremony, the clean-up crew comes in to prepare for the next day and one team comes in to update the scoreboards. Their main piece of equipment is a big, ole, lop-sided ladder.
The first little factoid that many of you probably already know is that the tiles are hand-written by gyoji. If calligraphy work is needed, like with the banzuke and this scoreboard, that’s the work of gyoji.
Secondly, the East and West sides are alternated each day. If you pay attention to the yobidashi, in particular, you’ll see that on alternating days they’ll come up on the dohyo from the East, or the West to announce the wrestlers for each bout. So it makes sense that the scoreboard order would be consistent. On odd-numbered days, the East names are on top since they’re read out first. On even-numbered days, the West names are on top.
The video here comes from Aki, I believe, before Terunofuji went kyujo. We see the plates changed from his Day 6 bout with Ura to his Day 7 bout against Ichinojo. The worker goes up and down, up and down, over and over, updating the acrylic plates. Then they validate the change and move over to the other scoreboard on the other side to repeat the process.
I want to make a quick note about the safety culture. If this were me, I’d probably walk out there alone with a rickety, wooden ladder. Or even better, I’d go to the upper deck and hang over the edge to swap them out real quick. Safety First, or 安全第一, is a common slogan in Japan. You see it at various work places, especially construction sites, around the country. Earthquakes, typhoons, and landslides are pretty common so it’s no surprise that safety is a focus. So it doesn’t surprise me that the worker has two colleagues securing the base of his ladder, they all wear helmets, and that he even clips into the ladder. That’s quite different than this old picture we’ve got here of the worker updating the kyujo board, with no helmet.
I’m pretty happy to see that over the last year safety has been more of a focus on the dohyo, and maybe off the dohyo, too. But, as we saw with this recent yusho play-off, there is still some work to do. Thankfully, Abi won against Takakeisho. If he had lost, I’m not sure if Takayasu would have been in condition to fight. So the Kyokai possibly dodged a bullet there with Abi’s win. Let’s face it, it’s a contact sport and injuries are a part of the game. When those injuries happen, the athletes need confidence that they’re in good hands…and we fans want to know that, too. I like that the Kyokai is moving in the right direction; it’s a far cry from three years ago (Takayasu was at the center of one of those “uncomfortable” moments) but let’s keep it up!
It’s always rare, and cool, to get a chance to watch an open sumo practise session. While I was denied a visit to the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee’s soken earlier this year, as the event was closed to all non-NSK/YDC/media members, today’s session in advance of the Aki Basho was once again open to the public. And so with that in mind, I headed East across the Sumida River to Ryogoku.
For the uninitiated, the soken is essentially a modified open keiko session in front of a considerable number of oyakata, as well as the esteemed and yet also sometimes puzzling Yokozuna Deliberation Committee. Many members of the sports and mainstream media are also in attendance, and today’s event was filmed by at least six different entities. After the workout, various luminaries will voice their opinions on the state of the sport’s top rankers.
Food is an integral experience of sumo, especially when sitting around for hours. I picked up an onigiri beforehand in the konbini at Ryoguku JR station, as I wasn’t sure what food might be available at Kokugikan. I needn’t have worried, as the venue had two small stalls selling both onigiri and tamago sandwiches.
The event started at 7.20am, and I arrived a shade before 9. Having arrived earlier in the morning on my last visit to the soken in 2018, I was shocked to arrive to see open masu box seats as the various Juryo men took their turns in the moshi-ai (winner stays on, picks next opponent). Unlike the event preceding the 2018 Natsu basho when I was relegated to the upper deck, plenty of lower deck boxes were still available as I entered to watch Sokokurai go on a several bout winning run. Indeed, the attendance peaked with about half of the lower deck being full, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the last time this event was open to the public, it was very much in a period where the public was eager to the see the condition of beleaguered hero and 72nd Yokozuna Kisenosato.
The soken does give a different atmosphere to a day at Kokugikan during the basho. While it is more sparsely attended, it’s almost exclusively attended by die-hard sumo fans, which provides a unique experience. It was a pleasant surprise to see a few foreign faces in the venue as well. I took up a position in front of the various camera crews and next to some veteran connoisseurs of sumo who themselves enjoyed a plethora of snacks and sake throughout the morning.
The soken really isn’t too difficult to follow. As the day progresses from moshi-ai to butsukari and san-ban and back to butsukari etcetera and so on, the announcers do a great job of very quickly announcing who has been selected next to mount the dohyo for various activities. Even without any kind of dedicated torikumi, it is quite an easy event both for new fans as well as those who are very familiar with the sport to understand.
In terms of the matches themselves, one should bear in mind that these are all training bouts, and it is important not to put too much stock into wins and losses but rather the nature of performance, the apparent health of the rikishi, and any discernible genki factor heading into the upcoming tournament.
Please bear in mind also that these notes from firsthand viewing are simply based on what I saw in the arena with the naked eye, without the benefit of replay or video footage.
It was notable to see most veterans staying on the periphery of the Juryo action. As mentioned above, Sokokurai took a lengthy winning run in the moshi-ai until relative newcomer Irodori finally dealt with him. Kizakiumi and Kyokushuho vied for the chance to get dispatched by the veteran Chinese rikishi, but the latter was very much the exception. Other rikishi with Makuuchi experience such as Kaisei, Chiyoshoma, Kyokutaisei and Yago stayed very much on the periphery of the day’s action, choosing not to even venture near the dohyo for most of the day.
Kiribayama was a popular staple in the moshi-ai mix, a grappler in an age of slappers. He has adjusted well to life in the second division and I have high hopes for him as he enters the upcoming basho in the upper third of the penultimate tier.
We were afforded first proper look at shin-sekitori Kaisho, who was handled pretty easily by Wakatakakage, the Arashio-beya man appearing quite genki. Kaisho did however later give the business to fellow newcomer Asagyokusei, who also looked in good shape.
Recent birthday man Midorifuji of the Makushita division was invited to play with the sekitori and I thought he looked impressive, although he was no match for Kotonowaka. He’s added some heft in the previous few months, and whether or not he achieves his promotion after the upcoming tournament, it is clear he is destined for a good run as a sekitori. As a smaller rikishi, he reminds me far more of the likes of Wakatakakage than Enho or Ishiura.
In the transition between the Juryo and Makuuchi portions of the day’s events, a pair of Ozeki took time to work with Juryo youngsters. Tochinoshin lent his chest to Kaisho, then later Kizakiumi. Takayasu, meanwhile, worked with Kotonowaka. Tochinoshin’s knees appeared taxed by the workout – though it’s very possible that may have been part of the purpose of the activity for him.
During the Makuuchi moshi-ai, popular man Endo had a good winning run that was of course very much enjoyed by the crowd. He appears to be someone who trains well, but I didn’t feel there were too many clues with regard to how he may take his second bite at Komusubi in a few days’ time.
Ichinojo looked fairly genki. He had a spirited and victorious battle with Okinoumi, in particular. Of course, ever the inconsistent puzzler, Ichinojo was then bundled out by Nishikigi. It’s worth noting that Okinoumi was picked a few times during the moshi-ai. I think that as a tactically aware and technically capable veteran, he’s a great opponent to train against, especially if you’re a rikishi who may not have access to him all that much.
I felt Mitakeumi looked awful against the lower rankers, but that’s not really a surprise given his reputation of being a poor trainer. He could barely deal with a visibly tired Okinoumi before getting beaten in a yotsu-zumo match by famed slap artist Shohozan of all people – although it should be noted that Shohozan’s mawashi technique has improved notably as he has aged.
There were mixed results for Terutsuyoshi, who looks like he is honing his very compact style of sumo. He seems content to rely more on his strength than the wild trickery of the likes of Enho, Ishiura or Ura.
It was also a mixed bag for Takakeisho, who gambarized and was clearly intent to show his progress in his rehabilitation from recent injury, but he looked well short of match fitness. Video has circulated already of an impressive match of his with Aoiyama, but then the resurgent Yutakayama had Takakeisho all wrapped up and figured out. He largely disappeared after that match until the end of the day.
The men at the very top of the banzuke do not participate in the moshi-ai, and simply pick their partners and play with them until they decide they are finished. Unfortunately, like Tochinoshin, Ozeki Takayasu was not fit for bouts, just butsukari. Fellow Ozeki Goeido was rather more active, taking on Shodai for a number of matches. Shodai seems like an odd partner as his tachiai leaves so much to be desired that it’s difficult to tell whether Gōeidō has recovered his trademark speed or he’s just taking advantage of a weak opponent. In any case, he dominated the Maegashira.
Mitakeumi was a rather more robust opponent for Goeido in a matchup of men with rather different training reputations. Surprisingly, this is where Gōeidō came unstuck a bit and simply didn’t have his all-action high-octane offense. But after one win against the Ozeki, Mitakeumi crumbled, his overall performances on the day showing that while he has great ability in one-off matches during tournament play, his stamina for san-ban is rather diminished.
Gōeidō finished the day’s work with some lengthy battles against Daieisho. I felt his choices of opponent were curious. I understand that the three men offer different styles, levels, and are likely the type of opponents he will need to beat to get 8 wins. But I would have wanted to see someone in decent form like Ryuden (last basho’s results aside), Endo or Hokutofuji take him on – as I suspect they would have handled him quite differently, and that might have given more of a clue as to Goeido’s outlook for the basho.
Yokozuna Kakuryū ended up picking Endo off the bat, followed by Mitakeumi for a lengthy battle. The reigning yusho winner was very composed against both. Mitakeumi didn’t offer a whole lot and Kakuryū frequently picked the lock straight from the tachiai against the serial san’yaku challenger.
After a lengthy stretching routine during which a parade of tsukebito and lower rankers offered various greetings, gifts of chikara-mizu, towels, and so on, Hakuhō finally made his first appearance on the dohyo. Rather than taking on multiple challengers, he decided to give the fans a thoroughly entertaining set of matches against fun loving Komusubi Abi.
I felt both the Yokozuna made wise selections in light of their respective issues. Kakuryū, in good form, picked decent all rounders. Hakuho’s choice of Abi gave him a series of matches against a wild pusher-thruster with excellent mobility. He dispatched the Komusubi in a variety of manners, almost using a different technique each time, albeit with several thrust-downs. Hakuho’s main mission here seemed to be to blunt the two hand tsuppari, lock up the Shikoroyama man, and test various finishing manoeuvres against him.
Hakuho, as we know, is the consummate entertainer. I’d pay to watch him against Abi all day, but with the soken being a free event, it was even more of a treat. Abi did not try to use too much yotsu-zumo against the Yokozuna, which would have been intriguing, but facing the Yokozuna may not be the best time to try tricks you haven’t mastered. Abi did defeat Hakuho once, after which he holds his head in his hands looking like he can scarcely believe the level of work it took.
The relentlessness of Hakuho is such that surely when you believe Abi can’t take any more, Hakuho just continues to bring him back. Clearly, there is much to look forward to about Hakuho’s future as a stablemaster. Abi looked absolutely wrecked by the end of the day’s events, although he’ll come off better for it.
The finish to the day was mostly notable for Hakuho giving butsukari to Takakeisho, the only high ranker to the on the receiving end of any kind of brutal training. Takakeisho didn’t look great, although maybe didn’t have the most obliging partner in Hakuho, who would simply pull up and let the ozekiwake fall to the floor if he wasn’t delivering enough to push the Yokozuna across the dohyo. Indeed, most of the time, Takakeisho only had enough power to get the dai-Yokozuna to the shikiri-sen. A Hakuho butsukari session is always an entertaining watch.
As a thoroughly filthy Takakeisho exited the dohyo, that wrapped the day’s proceedings. Next up on the schedule is the dohyo consecration next weekend, and then we’ll be ready to kick off the Aki basho!
The last day that I visited Kokugikan during the recent Natsu honbasho was actually also the first day I had ever had the fortune of sitting in one of the “masu” boxes on the ground floor. It felt appropriate to celebrate the moment by engaging in one of the time-honored sumo and uniquely Japanese experiences: purcashing a proper bento box for lunch and enjoying a meal while watching some feisty lower division matches.
Given that Natsu was the first basho following the promotion of Takakeisho to Ozeki, it was a good moment to explore the Takakeisho bento box. As covered previously on the site, there are bento boxes for sale which contain selections from all of the Ozeki and Yokozuna (as well as some other generic boxes). This also means, that following the demotion of Tochinoshin to Sekiwake before the Natsu basho, that the previously available Tochinoshin bento was no longer available (and presumably, as the man himself resumes Ozeki duties, will be making a return for Nagoya).
The Takakeisho bento included the following:
Umeboshi rice with black sesame seeds
Katsu pork with sauce and mustard
Soy sauce egg hard boiled
Tempura thing which seemed to be a fish cake
Broccoli and corn
Mushrooms (buried under the egg – they really pack a lot of stuff in there)
Carrot cut into the shape of a flower
At ¥1150, it’s an insane bargain (as much food is at sumo), especially by western standards. The box feels like it would easily be a $20+ package here in the States.
It should be pointed out that if you want to get your hands on one, then you’d better arrive well before Juryo: all of the sekitori bento typically sell out on a normal day at the basho, and the new nature of the Takakeisho box and popularity of its curator meant that his were flying off the shelves quicker than usual. A further pro tip for our readers: if you’re seated on the ground floor and all of the bento have sold out, more may be available in the gift and snack stands on the second floor of Kokugikan.
Takakeisho has done a great job on the whole of choosing very attractive – especially for sumo – and filling ingredients. As a very hearty bento, I actually think it is a box that would be very suitable especially for the Hatsu basho in January.
Let’s get into the taste. The dried marinated fish element is probably better suited to the start of the meal. And if we’re talking tactics, I’d probably eat this from the left, the right then the center.
The broccoli and corn were surprisingly flavorful – moist and incredibly well seasoned, very peppery. These were among the standout items of the dish. Conversely, if I have one complaint, it would be that the rice was somewhat cold and hard, although I don’t know that that can be helped in the bento format. The egg was extremely delicious and a perfect caramel shade.
It was a bit a bit early in the day for me to imbibe when I was eating it, but Takakeisho’s bento would be a very nice accompaniment for any beer. The tempura item was a bit bland, but the mustard packet helped.
Four very generous cuts of katsu were included, and the accompanying sauce was very rich. I recommend using it sparingly.
No wonder Takakeisho came back early from kyujo! if I knew this was at Kokugikan…
The Natsu basho is always a special time for me. Both this year, and last year, I’ve spent a significant amount of time in Tokyo around the May tournament, and been fortunate enough to enjoy some fantastic sumo experiences and meet with some great people. In this post, I’ll share a bit about what I encountered over the past several weeks in Japan’s capital city.
New Tachiai experiences
First of all, I’m happy to share that I will be bringing a number of pieces of new content to the site in the coming weeks before the Nagoya basho. I attended keiko at Onoe beya with John Gunning, and later met one of Onoe’s new oyakata, and former sekitori Satoyama, who asked me to share some news with our readers, which will be coming in a later post.
Additionally, backed by some fantastic questions from our readers, I spent an hour and a half with one of the voices of NHK’s sumo coverage, none other than popular broadcaster Murray Johnson. We had an amazing conversation, and I’m excited to bring it to you soon. And as a surprise for our readers, I met up for coffee and chocolate cake with luminary of the digital sumo world, the one and only Kintamayama. We had a similarly in-depth conversation that will be making its way to these pages soon (and we may even sneak some audio snippets into a future Tachiai podcast, so if you haven’t subscribed now, do it). I also, of course, got to visit my first sumo art exhibit, and my first dohyo consecration ceremony, the dohyo matsuri. Check out this post if you want to learn more.
Finally, I’m happy to say that I got to meet so many members of the Tachiai community. Natsu is a very popular tournament for sumo tourism – the weather is fantastic and the early summer time makes it a convenient moment for many fans to visit Tokyo. Jason Harris of Jason’s All Sumo Youtube Channel hosted a brilliant meet up during the tournament, where many Tachiai community members were present. Our reader and friend El Zeno produced fantastic Black Panther movie inspired Wakaichiro shirts, and it was a great chance to meet up with our friends at BuySumoTickets, who continue to provide so many of our readers with access to live sumo.
It was also wonderful again to link up with Tachiai contributor Nicola – please follow her work on the Tachiai instagram! – who has shared literally gigabytes of original photos that we are working to bring to the site in the near future. And I’d like to give a special shoutout to friend of the site Melissa, who along with her partner shared a box with me at my final day of the tournament – it was wonderful to have some great conversation and take in the basho with some very serious sumo fans!!
The Live Experience
I could probably write several posts on this, so I’ll keep it somewhat short. The live experience at Kokugikan continues to be the reason why so many folks make the trek from far and wide. There simply is nothing like experiencing sumo in the building that goes some way to making the sport as special as it is.
Special new “Reiwa” era merch has been produced, featuring the san’yaku of the first basho of the Reiwa era. Tochinoshin’s upcoming re-promotion has rendered these immediately out of date, but the NSK is clearly working to capture the enthusiasm of this new period. I would also add that like many of our readers who visited Kokugikan during this basho, I wore a Tachiai t-shirt with pride, and many locals (including vendors!) were very interested to find out where I got it. The well-received shirts can, of course, be purchased from Tachiai’s shop!
The Kisenosato exhibit at the Kokugikan drew massive numbers – and also as much enthusiasm as the man himself when he made his way into the public areas of the arena, as he did on several occasions. I witnessed mass hysteria greet the 72nd Yokozuna as he entered the building, and he continued to make a string of increasingly popular media appearances. His commentary has been praised from many quarters.
Natsu was the first tournament where I was able to watch from one of the “masu” box seats on the first floor. It was a very new experience for me, as I managed to score seats in the “Box C” section. The sight lines were still very good, though if you’re looking for a pure view and can’t manage to obtain the very rare and expensive seats nearer to the dohyo, I might recommend the Arena A seats on the second level.
For me, the box experience was almost less about seeing sumo and more about living the live sumo experience. It was the first time I had been at a basho where I hadn’t been surrounded by folks who look or talk like myself, and whether that’s good bad or irrelevant, there can be no denying that it created an incredibly different atmosphere for me and a very different experience on the whole. A year ago, I hadn’t even taken my first Japanese lesson, so it was a very rewarding feeling not only to be able to have basic conversation with the Takayasu-loving locals in the next box at points throughout the day, but also to be able to cheer for and share the rikishi that I love to follow (even if those were in some cases met with quizzical looks!).
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about sumo without talking about food. Kokonoe beya delivered the tournament’s helping of tasty “Variety chanko” for fans to sample. This tournament also marked the debut of the new Takakeisho bento box, which I experienced and will review in a later post. Of course, with Tochinoshin poised for an ozeki return, there won’t be a shortage of rikishi-inspired meals for us to continue to indulge at the venue in future.
The Tournament, The Trophy, The Winner
I can’t say that on the days that I attended it really felt like there was a momentum or a story building behind Asanoyama – it was still early enough in the tournament that his first week, like that of many other well performing Maegashira every basho, could be corrected with a gruelling week 2 dance card. But he does have a growing number of die-hard fans in attendance at the tournament, and his cheer towel is one of the better sellers.
I have to say I agreed a lot with Bruce’s thoughts on the presidential visit and the trophy. It was impossible to escape conversation about this with virtually any english-speaking sumo fan or pundit in Tokyo. It was a moment of intrigue that has to do as much with the person as the politics – that is to say everything and nothing. This is because frankly, wherever you sit on the political spectrum or what you believe – everyone just didn’t know what would happen. How would it work? What would it be like? Kokugikan is a very security-free venue, which makes it part of the charm. So, this conversation piece certainly added to the sense of occasion.
I also concur with Bruce that I am happy for there to be some kind of American trophy. It’s not the one I would have made – personally, I long for the creativity of the giant macaron or the tea cup, I love those things. But, we have seen such a growing affinity between Americans and sumo over the past few years – this site is testament to that. So for there to be any trophy from America, well, it’s a nice feeling. Perhaps in future years America can do something like contributing a gift from the home state of the president, much in the way other countries supply yearlong supplies of beer or gasoline.
It’s important for us to keep the focus on sumo though, and I’m happy and relieved that we experienced a tournament that delivered that yet again. To our new followers who may have just discovered this world: welcome! We’re happy to have you. And to our friends of the site and long time readers, I’m excited to continue partnering with everybody else to create more content for the site! Thanks for sharing the experience with us.