An Ikioi Moment of Reflection

As good a time as any to bust out this old edit I did for Andy years ago…

As you may have seen or heard elsewhere, Ikioi retired last week.

This isn’t the post to do a comprehensive post-mortem on his career, I don’t really have the ability to eloquently summarise that right now or the patience to get “whatabouted.” Instead, the retirement of Ikioi instead makes me think about the passing of time with sumo, life, etcetera and so on. So, I want to talk about that. 

Ikioi was my favourite rikishi. I said that many times on this site, in podcasts, in interviews with other folks throughout the sumo world. There was something special and unique about him, even in the beginning, when I started following sumo, before I knew anything. At that point I think he was the only single kanji name in the top division, and he had a strange but powerful, relatable shikona.

Ikioi was all over the place. When I started watching the sport, he could just as soon rattle off 9 wins in a row as he could lose 13 or 14 in a tournament. He was a kinboshi threat, would go crashing into the dizzy heights of the san’yaku and be sent swiftly crashing back out of it.

His sumo was so intense. I always called it heavy metal sumo. For sure, that was partially influenced by my theft of that term from association football and that term’s association with the beloved manager of my beloved club. But it applied here. Ikioi only had one speed, which was all the way on.

A lot of rikishi say that their will is to do “forward moving sumo.” This is the only way that Ikioi ever really operated. From the tachiai he would rush in, grappling or thrusting or with a big right hand to the mawashi, normally with an attempt to just overwhelm the opponent, and dominate. Did he win? More often than not. Well, one time more often than not as his career 546-545 record would indicate. But it was the approach that was the exciting thing.

For sure, some of his mannerisms in the dohyo seemed to be influenced by my other great sumo love, Hakuho (even if his results certainly were not). There’s not really much denying that. As the iron man, he was ever present in the top division, famously never missing a day of work. Our friend Kintamayama described him at times variously as a “walking ambulance” or “walking hospital” owing to the state of the many bandages covering him and the challenges he often seemed to have in his latter years even entering and leaving the dohyo, always gingerly and sometimes with a grimace.

The first time I ever interviewed someone for this site, John Gunning explained the concept of shin-gi-tai: heart, technique, physique – the three qualities you need to be successful at sumo. It’s no good if you just have one or even two of them. To be great you need to have all of them. I’ve watched sumo at this point for many years (not as many as some, longer than others), and no one epitomises heart to me like Ikioi. Of course he had the physique to be successful in the top division and he sometimes displayed the technique to back it up, but it was his heart that kept him in matches he had no business winning, and it was his heart that kept him coming back onto the dohyo when his body clearly didn’t agree.

It has been said that of the three, perhaps that’s the most important quality.

I haven’t been in Japan for a while now. It’s hard to say I miss the basho experience because the experience that exists now isn’t the one that I and so many other readers of this site have had. So it’s not that I miss going to a basho, but I miss moments, like the one I had meeting the follower of Ikioi who showed up to Kokugikan in a Hanshin Tigers jersey and walked around the upper bowl of the arena for an entire afternoon holding up his Ikioi cheer sign.

A well known Ikioi fan graciously allows Tachiai to take his photo at Kokugikan in 2019

I have a deep love for the city of Osaka and there is just no replicating the atmosphere that the fans of that city provide to one of their own during the Haru basho. I was lucky enough to witness this in person several times for Ikioi. The Kansai experience is not for everyone it must be said, but I’ve often said it’s my favourite place to watch sumo and for me, watching this guy in that place was often the best part of all of it.

The worst part for me here isn’t the retirement, it’s the manner of it. And I don’t mean an injured guy dropping into Sandanme while the Kyokai works out a myoseki shuffle before he can retire. It’s that an Ikioi was robbed of that last appearance in front of hometown fans, much like a Kotoshogiku never got to make a final appearance in front of supporters in Kyushu. Those places would have provided the best backgrounds for these long serving veterans to make their final bow, to say nothing of long-serving lower rankers whose most passionate support, perhaps even the support that helped to keep them going, might have come from one of the regional basho.

We recorded some podcast content for Tachiai the other day, and Bruce remarked that much of this incredible class of the 00s has now ridden off into the sunset in their blue jackets as the wave of retirements of that generation of rikishi gathers pace. Just as the sumo world doesn’t stop, that progression through the ranks from rookie to retiree doesn’t happen in isolation – it’s hard not to think how the world has moved and changed around us as well. Of course, there will be another great generation soon, maybe we’re seeing the start of it now. If you’ve got a favourite rikishi, enjoy it. If you haven’t, maybe you and I will find one from this new generation soon. And let’s hope this mad world gets back to normal soon so that we can have special moments in our temples of sumo again.

Anyway, here’s that video of the main man hawking an iron, if you haven’t seen it. Enjoy. 

Asahisho Retires & Becomes Kiriyama Oyakata

Somewhat lost in the sumo news cycle this past week was the announcement of the retirement of popular former sekitori – and erstwhile Tachiai t-shirt wearer (via The Japan Times) – Asahisho of Tomozuna (originally Oshima) beya. His sixteen year career in sumo led him to a peak of Maegashira 11. Like many folks who entered sumo fandom at a similar time as myself, I actually discovered him as the low-ranking senpai to a disillusioned Kyokutaisei in the film ‘A Normal Life.’ Asahisho was well known throughout the sport as an affable and hilarious character and gregarious personality. What struck me while watching that film was the fact that if not for his good nature, perhaps another eventual top division rikishi-to-be might never have made it. In hindsight, it is a good testament to the stable, their hard work and friendship that they both did.

Of course, it’s a bit remiss to boil down a cool guy’s career to a cameo in an indie film loved mostly by hardcore devotees of the sport. John Gunning’s column from a few years back in the Japan Times goes far more in depth, as least as far as his personality and contribution to the sumo-as-entertainment landscape is concerned. Reading columns like these, with hindsight, makes me rue the social media ban even more, as we miss the opportunities to see little bits of day-to-day humour that special characters can contribute to what is a difficult daily grind.

Asahisho was recruited into the famed Oshima stable – a stable run by the former Ozeki Asahikuni and which produced big names such as, to name just a few, the Yokozuna Asahifuji (now influential oyakata Isegahama), the first Mongolian into the sport Kyokushuzan, the current Tatsunami-oyataka and former Sekiwake Asahiyutaka, and of course, the stablemaster to whom Asahisho has reported for the past several years, Tomozuna-oyakata, the former yusho-winner Kyokutenho.

Asahisho was one of the former Oshima-oyakata’s final products to reach the top division, coming shortly before his retirement and the stable’s transition through its merger with Tomozuna-beya and new leadership under Kyokutenho. While the latter years added the likes of long-time makuuchi man Kaisei to his daily training alongside Kyokushuho and Kyokutaisei, Asahisho never made it back to the top division after the stable’s change of leadership. Injuries and loss of form meant that after several years in Juryo, he dropped to Makushita where he spent the last four years languishing. He does, however, retire with winning records against san’yaku veterans Miyabiyama, Yoshikaze and Wakanosato, all of whom he now joins as an elder of the Kyokai, and all of whom he beat in his sole kachi-koshi basho in the top division (Kyushu 2012).

It’s likely the popular pusher-thruster will be more remembered for his non-sumo activity. However, though he was a noted member of a long line of “salt shakers” (see the video of this loss to Ishiura as a thoroughly impressive example, hat tip to YouTube’s Hokkaikochan) – a mantle these days taken up by ichimon-mate Terutsuyoshi, many fans around the internet remember his dame-oshi on a young and controversial Takagenji in a Juryo match that perhaps set the then ill-tempered prodigy straight after the youngster had made a name for himself with a string of disrespectful appearances in the second division (a comment noted both within Sumo Forum discussion of his retirement as well as his wikipedia page).

While that was to be one of the final acts of Asahisho’s sekitori career, his death metal appearance as a guitar player with Gagamaru, Tenkaiho and Toyonoshima in support of the “Move Band” fitness tracker still stands as one of the most iconic sumo brand partnerships of the decade (if not all-time!). No doubt he’ll be on screens and in the commentary booth plenty over the coming years (and it would be no surprise at all to see him team up again with the popular Tenkaiho, a longtime rival, as a host of the Kyokai’s YouTube features), but now that all four members of sumo’s “Move Band” are now retired, perhaps they can get the band back together!

Tachiai congratulates Kiriyama-oyakata on a notable career and looks forward to both seeing his impact on his stable’s recruits and hearing him in the broadcast booth!

A Sumo Fan Decides Which Stable to Join – Part 1

One of the most important but least seen aspects of sumo life is, well… your day to day life. It has been said that the daily activity, the keiko, the act of being a rikishi is what sumo is all about. The tournaments we see on television, on the internet or in person are simply the culmination of all of the processes, traditions and daily activities one must endure.

There can be a number of reasons why a new recruit joins a particular stable. Perhaps the stable master has a strong scouting network in his hometown, or there are links with the stable’s supporters group. Perhaps he was invited to spend time in the heya and loved it, went to the same school as the shisho, or simply idolised the stable master or had mutual friends with someone connected to the heya. Perhaps, as with Hokuseiho, the recruit had a chance meeting with the stable’s superstar rikishi in an airport. 

Let’s assume we have none of these personal connections, and decide to join a stable. Which one to join? In light of recent announcements heralding the future branch-outs of new stables from relatively recent top division names like Kisenosato and Takekaze, there’s much to be excited about in terms of the shifting landscape of sumo stables. Both of those guys have shared new ideas for their evolution of the place for which sumo’s lifestyle revolves – joining other recently minted oyakata such as former Kotooshu in attempting to push the sport forward. Of course, plenty of other stable masters have experienced incredible success with age old coaching methods or just good old-fashioned man management.

Our rikishi will be for all intents and purposes of average build and good (better than average but perhaps not superstar) ability. We can say they will be a little more technique driven than simply a pure pusher-thruster who relies on blunt strength and physicality. It will be someone for whom development will be required rather than being able to simply bulldoze the bottom four divisions and brute force their way to sekitori-hood. Like the author, this rikishi will be very handsome and surely will attract some of Endo’s brand sponsors should they ever make the top division. This is of course my analysis and these are my opinions, and yours may differ, and that’s okay. But if there were no subjectivity in sports, they probably would not be as interesting and we’d all have the same favourite teams.

With that preamble out of the way, we’ll start today with the smallest ichimon, Takasago, and work our way through the other four over the next few weeks before doing a deeper dive and settling on a final decision. Come with me on my journey!

Part 1 – Takasago Ichimon

Hakkaku: This stable is enormous (growing yet larger with the import of Azumazeki’s crew) and has quite a bit of upwardly mobile young talent. The influential and inspiring stable master – the current chairman of the kyokai – was a yokozuna, the coaching staff now includes the exciting former “Robocop” Takamisakari**, and in a few years, you probably report to Okinoumi, one of the more underrated technicians of the current time. While you’re probably starting your career scrapping for sleeping space with a large number of lower-rankers, the location of the stable in Ryogoku is also really good, about as good as it’s possible to get without waking up to the sounds of the JR line. There are no long commutes to Kokugikan from here. Verdict: On the shortlist.

Kokonoe: Chiyotaikai took over from an all-time legend in Chiyonofuji about five years ago, and has done well to develop many rikishi he inherited into mid-level sekitori. Additionally, various rehabilitative efforts have kept that impressive number of sekitori on the dohyo, or returned them to the salaried ranks after they’ve dropped out. Kokonoe-oyakata is a visible presence within the kyokai, but for all of the recruits he’s brought in, he hasn’t added a ton of quality since he took over a few years back. So when you see a stable of this size, you wonder whether the recruitment efforts are in service of a tsukebito factory. Verdict: This shikona won’t be joining the thousand generations of “Chiyos” – it’s going to have to be a pass.

Nishikido: An apparently dying stable with plenty of scandal in its history. It’s a hard pass.

Takasago: There’s some degree of uncertainty, following the retirement (and re-employement as consultant) of the former high-achieving shisho, who apparently still lives in the heya. The roster is a bit bottom heavy, but contains some inspiring talent to practise with (the soon to depart Ozeki, plus names like Murata, Asagyokusei and Terasawa), and the recent recruiting (Fukai, Osanai, Ishizaki) has been interesting. But it’s tough to go where you’re not sure what the future holds, especially with some degree of punishment awaiting the new oyakata for the Asanoyama scandal. Verdict: A reluctant pass.

** Azumazeki-beya would have been an intriguing option due to the legacy and heritage, but Robocop, lacking the support needed to run a heya, decided to move over to Hakkaku’s place and recently shut it down.

Kotoyuki: One for the Fans

In an era where sumo commentary frequently makes reference of those rikishi who stay in the sport past their expiration date, some eyebrows were raised this week at the news that Kotoyuki had retired at the age of just 30.

Of course, anyone who’s seen the Sadogatake man on the dohyo over the past few years would find it hard pressed to dispute that perhaps he might struggle to regain the kind of form that would make him competitive even at sumo’s second highest division, never mind return to the top division as a makuuchi regular. Newer fans will need reminding that this was a man who will retire with a san’yaku rank as his career high.

And yet in light of the heroics of Terunofuji, and mid to late 30s comebacks from the likes of Aminishiki, Toyonoshima, Akiseyama and so on… it does feel a bit underwhelming to see the man from Shodoshima take his leave. Maybe this is in no small part owing to his status as somewhat of a non-traditional fan favourite.

If you looked around Kokugikan – back in the days when it would be full of sumo fans – Kotoyuki isn’t a name that you would see flying on cheer towels, at least not in recent years. But here’s a guy who was a fixture in the torikumi. In the beginning, he was notable for his “hoot” and clap, his method of psyching himself up for matches. It marked him out as perhaps someone in a line of sumo eccentrics, somewhere in between Takamisakari’s Robocop antics and Takayasu’s now-retired gorilla grunt in the Audio division (similar lineage of course existing within the Sodium Conference from Mitoizumi through Kitazakura and now Terutsuyoshi). Cheers to YouTube’s “Sumotori” channel for this edit:

Afterwards, he switched to his “helicopter” manoeuvre before matches which, as noted by venerable sumo laureate Kintamayama when we spoke on these pages, never really got the fans going in the same way.

Of course, on the dohyo in these later stages he also became a bit of a figure of fun, his absurdly serious demeanour in the pre-match pageantry giving way to this oversized bowling ball normally taking out several rows of poor civilian onlookers, tanimachi, shimpan and anything else in its way as he usually careened off the dohyo – winning or losing, though in later years more of the latter – at pace.

It’s also worth noting that in terms of his sumo form, Kotoyuki was, in his day, an oshi-zumo force, with an incredible amount of power generated in a pushing/thrusting attack from a body type that while optimal for that type of sumo, of course also perhaps contributed to his career’s early end. But what fun he was when he got going – we laud the technicians and tacticians of sumo on these pages, but he was at his best an all out attacking force.

He retires, per SumoDB, with a career record of 480-430-70. Record wise, his undoubted pinnacle would have been five years ago in Osaka, a tournament where he ran riot over the joi-jin and in an era where his 12-3 performance at Maegashira 1 sadly wasn’t even good enough for the jun-yusho (those were the days!). He snatched his only career kinboshi from the Yokozuna Harumafuji in that tournament:

I probably came around to Kotoyuki when I was last able to attend the Haru basho in Osaka. Keen fans will know that rikishi must pass right through the fans in the hallways of the Edion Arena as they make their way to and from the shitakubeya. I camped out in the dark recesses of the venue, attempting to get any usable photos of rikishi that we could use on this site – most of which were pretty terrible as the sekitori exited the venue with haste after their bouts. Kotoyuki, however, marked himself out as someone with a soft spot and a heart for the fans. He took his time to graciously meet children, sign autographs and speak at length with supporters on his way out of the building. Perhaps Osaka was somewhat of a “home” basho for him, being nearest his shusshin, and I don’t know if he approached fans at other tournaments with the same warmth, but it was notable in a sport that is known for its stoicism that he made time for those who came to support and cheer for him.

All in all, it is not an exaggeration to say that the highest (and sometimes even the lowest) moments of his time in service to the sport were to the great benefit and enjoyment of the fans.

What’s next? For now, he’s taken Okinoumi’s Kimigahama myoseki on loan, one of several hot seats on the kabu market as he settles into oyakata life. Hopefully over the coming months or years, sumo’s youngest elder – and first oyakata born in the 1990s – will find a name to make his own. 

As he enters the first of potentially 34-plus years as an oyakata, we can and should hope that he passes some of that same fun, that ability to entertain, and most of all that same reverence for the fanbase to those who will follow under his tutelage.