A Day out at the Ryogoku Kokugikan: The Morning after the Night Before

Flags at Kokugikan - Hatsu Basho 2019

One thing I’ve always loved about sumo it’s that it’s a constant evolution. There are no arbitrary end points. While there are 15 day tournaments, and champions of those tournaments, there are no annual seasons to speak of which playoffs or teams or players who can afford to punt the season. Every match counts relative to the next tournament, and until then? There’s constantly work to be done.

Against this backdrop, it’s fairly remarkable how, when I returned to Kokugikan for Day 6 action, it was business as usual. Just three days before, we witnessed in person the last ever match of one of only 72 men in history to hold the title of Yokozuna, and then a day later the media surrounding the sport swelled with coverage of the news of his retirement. On Friday, you wouldn’t really have known. Sure, Kisenosato was on the kyujo list on the side of the scoreboard – but really, taking into account that I missed Aki last year, Kisenosato was always on the kyujo list on the side of the scoreboard for the last 6 tournaments I’d seen. Hell, I’d been to more basho than he had!

The shops were selling out of Kisenosato merchandise, and the cardboard standees were still up for fans to take photos with the Yokozuna. But there was still a tournament to be won and if he wasn’t going to win it, somebody else was. That’s how sumo works.

New and Old Staples

As I was taking in the basho with a friend who had never been to sumo before, we made a stop at the Kokugikan’s Sumo Museum. It’s a must-visit for any first time (or even multiple time!) visitor to Kokugikan, with loads of artifacts from the past hundreds of years of the sport. There’s a small shop inside that sells a very small selection of official merchandise, manned by former rikishi. I hadn’t been into the Museum actually since Harumafuji retired, so the wall featuring photos (and drawings, from before there were photos) of all of the 72 Yokozuna to date was a really nice stroll down memory lane and a great opportunity to pay tribute to Harumafuji and Kisenosato.

I can imagine that for people who have been coming to Kokugikan for years (and technically I suppose I am in that category on my third Hatsu basho), walking past the long list of greats it’s a fantastic opportunity to share stories of legends they grew up watching, with newer fans.

Apart from that, we passed ex-Satoyama in the hallway as we made another trip into the basement for another delicious bowl of Michinoku-beya’s “Variety Chanko.” Fully loaded up on snacks (including the insanely popular “Sumo Pancake,” which comes with a side of soft serve ice cream), we reached our seats just in time to see Ura claim victory.

Reckoning: Now Underway

Readers of the site will know that Bruce will usually sort the drama of a basho out into three acts. Well, when we talk about The Reckoning that’s now under way, Kisenosato’s retirement may just be the first act of a significant transition, and what we’ve been watching for the past year may just have been the prelude. It became clear when I visited for the second time this week that we will see yet more follow, and soon.

Takekaze: He’s 39 and has had a career remarkable for its longevity, but he’s been on a steep downward decline and this will certainly be his final basho as a sekitori, bar a drastic turnaround in form in the next few days or in March, should he decide to continue. But as a rikishi who has only spent two tournaments outside of the paid ranks, the last of which was sixteen and a half years ago, I fully expect like many others before him that he will retire in the next two weeks once the tournament is finished. He went down too easily to Arawashi on Day 6 and has since lost again on Day 7 and 8 and at 1-7 is now facing an almost impossible climb out of trouble.

Aminishiki: Like Takekaze, Aminishiki is now 1-7. Uncle Sumo recently made a wonderful comeback to the top division, but sadly it appears that is where the party will end as his various backwards pull down tricks are no longer working a treat. Aminishiki hasn’t been out of the top two divisions since 1999, but unlike Takekaze, he at least has the luxury of a cushioned fall should the rest of this basho continue as it has started. I wouldn’t rule out him scraping together 3 or 4 more wins by the time it’s finished, but with the number of solid graduates who have escaped the Makushita-joi recently (including the wily Daishoho, who punished him by the same means he frequently punishes others on Day 6), I question whether he has more than two or three more tournaments left in him. Still, others have bet against him before and come up on the losing end.

Both Takekaze and Aminishiki possess elder stock and would be set for (relatively truncated) coaching careers, rather unlike:

Sokokurai: I know this may seem a bit of a reach as he won the yusho in Makushita last time out, but he looked listless in person against Chiyonoumi and has for much of the basho. Obviously he will be motivated at 35 to pick up a pay packet for as long as possible, but one wonders how much of his time will be spent in the Makushita joi battling for the right to do so, as he is likely headed right back from whence he came after this basho.

Mitakeumi injury

One of the key moments of Day 3’s action was the overwhelming crescendo of support for Kisenosato and the comparison with the overwhelming deflation that followed. Mitakeumi’s match was a similar moment on Day 6. There was no better supported rikishi at Kokugikan that day – as has become the standard with Endo- and Abi-mania fading with their recent form – and there were cheer towels, chants, claps, shouts, screams and general mayhem inspired by 2018’s Nagoya basho winner coming from every corner of sumo’s hallowed home.

Initially I simply felt that him losing his bout to Myogiryu simply sucked the life out of the place, given the manner of the somewhat emphatic oshidashi that ended with Mitakeumi’s ejection from the raised surface in total. But when the Dewanoumi man stayed down, it was clear that the crowd was incredibly worried about the man who has become the poster boy for the potential next era of champions.

Doubly disappointing is that this came in the context of what had fast become his best best basho since Nagoya, as he was fighting with the tenacity and intention to be worthy of championship contention. While there are now whispers that he may yet make a return from an injury that is potentially not as bad as first feared, the absolute upside for him from this tournament is now trying to squeak through a kachi-koshi in the event he can make it back (whether that’s well or ill-advised at this point is anyone’s guess), and it further pushes back the start of any meaningful Ozeki run by yet another basho.

After that, apart from Takakeisho dropping his bout with Tochiozan, there weren’t any major shocks, and the day finished with Hakuho taking care of business as usual, as he steamrolls his way towards his 42nd yusho. How lucky we all are to be able to continue to watch him fight.

Overall, I am of course grateful for the opportunity to have attended a couple days at another basho – and now will sit back and look forward to more great sumo in Week 2, the Hatsu yusho champion and to sharing more stories in a couple months from Osaka!

Hatsu Day 7 Highlights

Some of our readers, and many sumo fans in general, have complained that recent basho have ended up being “Sumo light”, due to the lack of Yokozuna and Ozeki participation. As we near the half way point of this basho, we are down to 1 Yokozuna and 1.5 Ozeki, and the focus really has shifted to the lower ranks. With so many titans of sumo off the dohyo, the focus has shifted to the lower ranks.

I am impressed that Goeido is soldiering on, and finding ways to win in spite of the problems with his right arm. I expect him to go kyujo after he can manage an 8th win. Thankfully Hakuho looks genki enough, and Takayasu seems to be over his flu.

Highlight Matches

Chiyonokuni defeats Yutakayama – Any match with Chiyonokuni has the potential to be a mad-cap barn burner, and today Yutakayama put everything he could towards a win. The result was a wild tsuki-oshi fest that see-sawed back and forth. A great way to start the top division today.

Kotoyuki defeats Daiamami – A second spirited bout to start the day, Daiamami held advanage several times, but The Penguin battled back each time. At attempted slap down reversed the opponents, and Kotoyuki put Daiamami’s back to the tawara, and pushed with purpose.

Yago defeats Daishomaru – Hapless, winless Daishomaru has nothing serious to offer the surging youngster Yago, and goes down to defeat. We did, however, get to see Yago engage in a oshi-zumo match, and win.

Ikioi defeats Chiyoshoma – Chiyoshoma’s attempt at a face slap embedded in his tachiai (ala Hakuho) results in Ikioi getting poked in the eye. In spite of (or fueled by) this, Ikioi surges into battle with yet another injury and finds a way to overpower his opponent. Word is he was complaining of vision problems following the match.

Abi defeats Takarafuji – There seems to be some magic in Abi-zumo, as he effectively landed a nodowa against a many with no neck. Takarafuji found hims sumo disrupted, and battled to clear Abi’s attacks, but ran out of dohyo to maneuver.

Endo defeats Kagayaki – Both men threw the kitchen sink at each other, with Endo calling the tune. At one point their early oshi fest went chest to chest and the competitors actually did look like they were dancing. Post match, Endo was holding his forehead – another oversized bandage for a Kagayaki competitor? Maybe he needs to modify that tachiai.

Asanoyama defeats Sadanoumi – Member of the Kagayaki head wound club Sadanoumi cannot endure Asanoyama’s spin attack, and eats clay. Asanoyama picks up a much needed win.

Kaisei defeats Onosho – The only rank and file undefeated rikishi takes a loss at the hands of a surprisingly genki Kaisei. With this loss, Hakuho has sole possession of the lead.

Daieisho defeats Yoshikaze – Yoshikaze seems to have completely run out of energy to compete at the Makuuchi level. It’s painful to watch.

Chiyotairyu defeats Aoiyama – The hatakikomi came quickly, and made me gasp. Few rikishi are big enough and fast enough to roll someone the size of Aoiyama, but Chiyotairyu certainly can.

Okinoumi defeats Ryuden – Ryuden seems to have lost his fighting spirit, and each day seems to be going through the motions. Kind of tough to watch, but when injuries happen, this is the result.

Hokutofuji fusensho Mitakeumi – Mitakeumi damaged his knee day 6, and is missing an excellent chance to run up the score against a reduced Ozeki and Yokozuna force. Hokutofuji picks up back to back default wins, something that has not happened in decades.

Myogiryu defeats Nishikigi – Nishikigi’s magical adventure in the joi-jin looks like it has run out of gas. Can he refuel and return to surprising his opponents? I do hope so. Myogiryu gets a much needed win.

Tamawashi defeats Tochiozan – Tochiozan was on defense the entire match, and Tamawashi batted him about before deciding to finish him.

Takakeisho defeats Ichinojo – Ichinojo has reverted to the docile form of whatever species he is, and failed to deactivate Takakeisho’s wave action attack by grabbing his opponent’s mawashi until it was too late and he was already struggling for balance.

Takayasu defeats Kotoshogiku – Takayasu’s recovery from the flu continues, and he delivers the hug-n-chug to counter Kotoshogiku’s favorite attack strategy. With advantage in size, youth and joint health, Takayasu carried the match.

Goeido defeats Shodai – Impressive that Goeido is finding ways to win, now up to 3 wins out of a needed 8. He was helped by Shodai’s trademark crappy tachiai. Shodai was able to back to Ozeki to the bales, but did not lower his hips to thrust out Goeido, and instead Shodai launched his own body higher. Goeido capitalized on this blunder and won.

Hakuho defeats Shohozan – Hakuho is the lone undefeated rikishi, and is the man to beat for the Emperor’s cup. Shohozan could not generate much offense, and Hakuho waited for his moment and pulled “Big Guns” Shohozan down.

Mitakeumi Kyujo For Day 7

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The fears have become a reality: Mitakeumi has gone Kyujo as of Day 7 after suffering an injury to the quadriceps of his left knee during his Day 6 match with Myogiryu. Unable to walk, Mitakeumi required the giant wheelchair to get down the hanamichi before going directly to the hospital from the Kokugikan. This is a very unfortunate development, as Mitakeumi was looking extremely genki this January, and was undefeated going into his Friday match. In the initial statements concerning the injury, the Komusubi appeared hopeful that he was only dealing with muscle fatigue and would be able to compete on Day 7 (though it’s important to note that he was on crutches by this time). However, it seems Mitakeumi and his Oyakata will not follow in a certain former Yokozuna’s footsteps and try to gambarize though this injury. At least, for the time being that is. Considering the nature of quadriceps injuries, it is hard to speculate how long the healing process will take. Mitakeumi could be out for days or even weeks, but and we may see the Komusubi return in the coming days if the injury isn’t too severe.

His Day 7 opponent, Hokutofuji, will pick up a consecutive fusen win.

The team at Tachiai wish Mitakeumi well during his recovery, and look forward to the return of the tadpole king!

Hatsu Day 6 Preview

On day 6 we start act 2. Act 2 is all about sorting the survivors from the damned, and starting the yusho race. It’s were we get an idea of who will have the stamina to contend in the final act for the hardware. As long as Hakuho is still competing, it’s his to lose.

A primary rival was Yokozuna Kakuryu, at least in theory, but as noted earlier on Tachiai, he withdrew from competition this morning Japan time. He has struggled quite a bit to keep his undercarriage in good repair, and this is simply another in a long string of mechanical problems he has to overcome. We wish him a quick and full recovery.

The next rikishi who is on the kyujo bubble would have to be Goeido. Mathematically, he is in tough shape right now. He needs to win 7 out of the next 10 to avoid a make-koshi. It’s clear he is hurt, and needs medical attention to repair his right arm. We can only hope he does not go “Kisenosato” with this one. There is also a question around Takayasu, who is 2-3 going into day 6, and has been suffering due to influenza. Perhaps he is on the mend now.

For each Ozeki and Yokozuna who drops out, the way opens up for the new generation rikishi. At this point, the Freshmen are in poor shape physically, but the Tadpoles are on the march. Their combined score at the end of act 1 is 14-1. The boss is still undefeated, but I am sure Takakeisho is eager to try his sumo upgrades against the sole remaining Yokozuna.

What We Are Watching Day 6

Ishiura vs Chiyoshoma – Ishiura visits Makuuchi with a solid 4-1 start in Juryo. He holds a 6-4 career advantage over Chiyoshoma, and some may wonder if this will be the battle of the flying Henkanoids. We shall see soon enough!

Yago vs Kotoeko – Its odd watching 4-1 Yago in some ways. He seems both unseasoned, yet skilled. I can’t quiet put my mind around it yet. But this might be a fairly good match, as Kotoeko knows how to beat him.

Ikioi vs Endo – Ikioi is a banged up walking casualty, and Endo seems to be just getting by for now. I give Endo a clear advantage, as he is not nursing a damaged ankle or a head wound like Ikioi is.

Kaisei vs Sadanoumi – At some point along the way, Kaisei’s sumo improved. Maybe he finally healed a long-suffering injury. As I like to say about him, “Being huge is not a valid sumo tactic”, as in you cant just be massive and immobile and expect to win (seek Kenho and others). But since Kyushu, Kaisei’s mobility is actually pretty good, and his sumo is stronger and shows some aggressive direction. Starting act 2 at 5-0, he’s a dark horse contender right now, and I expect him to make fast work of Sadanoumi.

Aoiyama vs Daieisho – Aoiyama’s record is 4-1, but his sumo is 5-0. Perhaps a distinction without a difference, but the Man-Mountain from Bulgeria is in top form unseen for some time. I am certain he will get tougher pairings in act 2, but I think today’s match won’t be too tough for him to win.

Ryuden vs Yoshikaze – I don’t want to discuss Ryuden or Yoshikaze.

Onosho vs Chiyotairyu – As discussed prior to the basho, I really like Onosho at this rank, and I think he has a good chance to end up with double digits for this basho. This would put him in the joi-jin for Osaka, and I think he would be healed up enough to compete at the top by then. This could mean that all of the tadpoles would be in the joi, and it would mark a significant stage in the changing of the guard.

Myogiryu vs Mitakeumi – Right now Mitakeumi seems to be on a mission. He shows up each day looking dialed up to 11 – intensely focused and superbly ready to win. I don’t think Myogiryu, in spite of his excellent skill, will overcome Mitakeumi’s fighting spirit today.

Takakeisho vs Tochiozan – If Tochiozan can keep Takakeisho close, and prevent the wave-action tsuppari attack, he has a chance. But after letting Mitakeumi beat him this way, I am going to guess Takakeisho won’t allow him a chance.

Ichinojo vs Tamawashi – Ichinojo is competing at an intensity not seen in many years, and we don’t want him to stop. Tamawashi will be no walk in the park. He is fast, mobile and at times brutal. This could be the highlight match of the day.

Shohozan vs Goeido – “Big Guns” Shohozan would normally have his hands full with Goeido, but Goeido is struggling with an arm injury, and is having a tough time generating offensive pressure. I expect loss #5, or a henka.

Takayasu vs Nishikigi – Each time Nishikigi steps on the dohyo, you have to wonder what is about to happen. Takayasu is definitely short of 100%, but Nishikigi’s sumo seems to be surprising everyone right now. I would rather not face Osaka with all 3 Ozeki kadoban, so I am hoping Takayasu can win any match that comes his way.

Shodai vs Hakuho – Hakuho continues to confound opponents with his “Escape” sumo, his opponents think they have him beat, but he uses his unparalleled skill to find a way to not lose. Against Shodai there is a new dimension. He has this odd, almost otherworldly ability, to cause things to go chaotic. I call it “Cartoon sumo”, and it happens too frequently to be an accident. I am eager to see if he can employ it against The Boss today.

What You Need To Know After Act One

Photo courtesy of the official NHK twitter account

The curtain has dropped on Act One of the 2019 Hatsu Basho, and what show stopper it’s been! With major developments happening on and off the dohyo, here’s a quick update to catch you up on everything you need to know before Act Two.

Leader Board

It’s very early days in the Yusho race, but we already have a small quartet of 5-0 rikishi separating themselves from the crowd. The Brazillion behemoth Kaisei, Onosho, Mitakeumi, and Yokozuna Hakuho have all avoided defeat (some more closely than others) and remain perfect after Act One. A mob of chasers is right on their heels, with Chiyonokuni, Yago, Aoiyama, Nishikigi, Ichinojo, and Takakeisho all ending Day 5 with 4-1 records. Act Two will undoubtedly separate the boys from the men in what should be an interesting Yusho race.

Not Looking So Hot

At the far end of the standings is another race to determine who will be the last winless rikishi of Hatsu. The contenders are Daishomaru, Asanoyama, and Yoshikaze, who have yet to pick up their first win. Not doing much better is the fivesome of Kagayaki, Tochiozan, Komosubi Myogiryu, and Ozeki Goeido. As for the rest of the sanyaku, there are some big names who haven’t been looking their best this January. Kakuryu and Takayasu have both dropped three early matches, and as for Tochinohsin? Well, we’ll get to him in a bit. All of these rikishi will need to make some serious adjustments during the remainder of Hatsu.

Kyujo and Intai

For the first time since Act One of the 2017 Aki Basho, I’ve had to add  Intai heading of this section, and it won’t be the last time in the coming months and years if Bruce is correct. Much has already been said about the retirements of Takanoiwa and Kisenosato so I won’t go into detail here. As for injuries, the only man to bow out of competition during Act One was Tochinoshin. Leg injuries have robbed the Georgian of his forward movement and strength which resulted in him going winless after four days. Hopefully, Tochinoshin will get the rest and recuperation he needs to clear his kadoban status come March.

Kinboshi

Prior to his retirement, Former Yokozuna Kisenosato gave up two kinboshi to Ichinojo and Tochiozan respectively. Ichinojo picked up a second gold star off of flagging Yokozuna Kakuryu. This was the second kinboshi Kakuryu has coughed up this January, as he also lost one to Nishikigi on Day 3. With Kakuryu looking precarious, and Hakuho off his game, we may come out of Act two with a few more kinboshi winners.