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 2: Juryo Wrap-Up

Hatsu Basho Banner

It’s Day 2, and here’s another wrap up from Juryo. This time we’ll throw in a couple bonus bouts from the Makushita promotion race, which is already shaping up to be a hot one.

Makushita Bonus Action

Akua defeats Chiyonoo – After his disastrous basho in Fukuoka, Chiyonoo doesn’t look like coming back up any time in the near future. Akua gives him the ol’ push and pull and he’s face flat on the dohyo. Woof. Akua looks the more likely to be back up in Juryo the soonest.

Takanofuji defeats Ryuko – Takanofuji nee Takayoshitoshi wins despite not having a solid grip for most of this match. Ryuko, a former Tachiai One to Watch who was surprisingly tipped by John Gunning as a future Ozeki, has got a left hand grip and gives a couple attempts at an uwatenage, but Takanofuji manoeuvres him close to the bales and crushes him down via yoritaoshi.

Juryo Action

Chiyonoumi defeats Daiseido – Daiseido, having lost already, gets a visit to Juryo on day 2 against Chiyonoumi. After a matta, the Kokonoe man uses Daiseido’s inertia against him, steps to the side and thrusts him down to win by tsukiotoshi. Daiseido now has very little room for error with 13 days to go, if he’s going to make it to the penultimate division. Chiyonoumi now 2-0.

Sokokurai defeats Gagamaru – There’s a combined age of 66 on the dohyo with these two. You know that facebook meme going around right now where you’re meant to post your first profile picture from ten years ago and your most recent? Well if you’re feeling bad about how you’ve aged then bear in mind that Gagamaru is 31. Before this match starts, I notice that cool man Tomozuna is in the shimpan crew, which in fairness is a good distraction from some gnarly shiko. There’s another matta, and then Sokokurai pulls a planetary-orbit altering henka that sends the Georgian to the clay. Both men are now 1-1, and Gagamaru is not massively pleased.

Shimanoumi defeats Kyokushuho – Kyokushuho deploys some strong nodowa attempts in front of his stable master, but can’t find the killer move and as Shimanoumi gets him going backward, he pulls and it’s all over. Shimanoumi checks his balance, stays low, and shoves his man out.

Jokoryu defeats Tsurugisho – Jokoryu beats Tsurugisho with one of those throws that feels like it lasts an entire year. Jokoryu lands his left hand inside after the Tachiai, and then the entire rest of this match is him attempting to unload the throw. It looks like it may backfire but eventually he controls Tsurugisho’s momentum and executes a very satisfying shitatenage.

Tobizaru defeats Takekaze – Takekaze had a bad loss on Day 1 and needs to sort himself out if he isn’t going to suffer a potentially career-ending drop out of the professional ranks. This match is a slap-fest in which the veteran is determined to rough up Tobizaru’s face, much to the chagrin of the younger man’s fans. Takekaze unleashes about 13 slap and pull and poke and scratch attempts before Tobizaru is able to keep the wily elder statesman at arms length in order to set up the push and pull for the slap down. Takekaze is now 0-2, and Tobizaru is now 1-1.

Arawashi defeats Kyokutaisei – It’s not Tobizaru’s fault, but I could get behind his Tokyo banana mawashi if Kyokutaisei was still sporting the Hokkaido melon tinted belt. Arawashi’s sumo has been a mess lately but he executes a pretty solid tsuppari into mawashi grip transition and chaperones Kyokutaisei out. The best lead actor of any recent sumo film puts up a decent fight at the edge but there’s nothing he can do, and that’s the kind of match Kyokutaisei should probably be winning against a sekitori in freefall. Both men are now 1-1. Bring back the melon!

NHK cuts the feed at this point over from the broadcast satellite to NHK G and shows Kisenosato entering the Kokugikan, and the footage kind of looks like there’s going to be an intai announcement. But it turns out they’re just announcing that he takes on Ichinojo later.

Hidenoumi defeats Mitoryu – disappointing from Mitoryu as Hidenoumi tries and fails to get a mawashi grip, but doesn’t really need it to get the Mongolian high and escort him out in fairly short order. Disappointing match, and Mitoryu is getting a little inconsistent at this level. Both of these guys are now 1-1 as well.

Azumaryu defeats Enho – Ura had better hurry up, because here’s more incredible sumo involving Enho, who is turning into the can’t miss rikishi. Azumaryu’s ring demeanour is so much calmer and measured than the more frantic Enho. They take a while to get ready at the tachiai, but eventually this bout gets underway, and Enho gets in low. Azumaryu tries repeatedly to simply push him down, slap him down, as the smaller man buries his head into Azumaryu’s stomach. Eventually Enho tries to get a mawashi grip, but this doesn’t work and it looks like the Mongolian has him off balance. But the little guy recovers, tries a throw and can’t pull it off. Then he tries a sotogake leg trip and can’t pull that off, and Azumaryu now has Enho off balance and throws him to the dirt. Enho gets up with a bloodied face and nothing to show for his efforts but his fans. Both men are now 1-1.

Chiyomaru defeats Akiseyama – It’s the battle of the bulbous! Chiyomaru tries to hit a slap down and then the match looks like it’s turning into a yotsu-battle. The two men lock up in the middle of the dohyo and it’s possible one of them is about to fall asleep when Chiyomaru twists the awkward Kise-beya rikishi around and tosses him down with a tsukiotoshi. Chiyomaru heads to 2-0, with Akiseyama now 0-2.

Wakatakakage defeats Hakuyozan – Dominant performance from Wakatakakage. Hakuyozan gets the better of the tachiai, but once the smaller Arashio-beya man lands his grip, Hakuyozan is totally out of control of the match and Wakatakakage deposits him over the edge. Both of these young starlets are now 1-1 as well.

Toyonoshima defeats Tokushoryu – Here’s a match featuring an awful lot of belly. Toyonoshima puts his to good use as he takes control straight from the tachiai and wins with an insanely straightforward yorikiri. Tokushoryu tries to get his arm around the senior sumo citizen’s head and execute some kind of throw or slap down in desperation, but he’s got nothing. Everybody here is now 1-1 as well.

Aminishiki defeats Tomokaze – Old meets young in a generational battle. Uncle Sumo mounts the dohyo in an attempt to get something from the current division’s yusho holder. Tomokaze has his usual nonplussed expression as the two men get down for the tachiai. You’ll never guess what happens next: pusher-thruster Tomokaze has backwards-moving slap-down specialist Aminishiki going backwards. Aminishiki dances around the ring and hits the hikiotoshi as Tomokaze goes flying. It’s a good lesson for the youngster. It’s increasingly likely in 50 years we’ll still be watching them wheel the bones and bandages of Aminishiki onto the dohyo – he can still win at this level. He, like Tomokaze and just about everyone else, is 1-1.

Ishiura defeats Terutsuyoshi – Here’s the battle of salt vs protein. Terutsuyoshi deploys a sodium explosion that’s impressive even by his lofty standards. Ishiura takes charge of this match though – and it’s interesting to watch him when the opponent is also small – it’s a reminder he can do some great sumo when he goes head on. Despite Terutusyoshi being small, Ishiura does manage to get in a bit lower, grabs the Isegahama man, spin him around and throw him out. There may have been some discussion of a matta, but Ishiura’s already on his way back to the locker room to make a shake, with both men’s records now 1-1.

Daishoho defeats Takanosho – Daishoho and Takanosho are so close to makuuchi they can smell it. After some good old fashioned slapping, the Mongolian locks up Takanosho’s arm and the Chiganoura man simply can’t escape. Daishoho unloads a kotenage and it might not be surprisingly that Takanosho is in bad shape after the rough throw. Takanosho needs the help of multiple yobidashi to dismount the dohyo and this will put his attempt to gain promotion back to the top level in deep trouble. Both of these guys are also now 1-1. Despite a kotenage arm lock throw being notoriously harsh on the receiver’s arm and elbow, it seemed the injury was to his leg/thigh area.

Natsu Day 8 Preview

Natsu Day 8.jpg

Time To Go Live

Overnight US time, NHK World will be broadcasting the last 50 minutes of Makuuchi live, and we will be live blogging during the event. Now, you may think it’s crazy to be awake in the middle of the night for sumo, but we sumo fans are an odd, dedicated lot. Our sport is televised some 8-11 hours different, and so Japan’s afternoon is the middle of the night for us. I will caution that all manner of calamities may take place that cause things to go poorly or not happen at all, but to the best of our ability, we will be adding our own brand of commentary, insight and inappropriate humor.

With Endo’s shocking withdrawal from the tournament, a gap has opened in the torikumi. Until someone else goes kyujo or Endo returns, we will be seeing daily visitors from Juryo to fill the open slot in the fight card. Today it’s long term veteran Sokokurai. Yes, the guy with the cat. But we are likely to see Onosho as well later this week.

Natsu Leaderboard

LeaderTochinoshin
ChasersKakuryu, Hakuho, Daishomaru, Chiyonokuni
Hunt Group – Shodai, Kotoshogiku, Ikioi, Kagayaki, Asanoyama, Kyokutaisei, Myogiryu

8 Matches Remain.

What We Are Watching Day 8

No, let’s be honest here – we are live blogging this beast, we are watching the whole thing. But here are some comments.

Nishikigi vs Sokokurai – Will the “Mole Boss” show up and attack Nishikigi while his glasses are off? I doubt it, but should that happen look for Hakuho to task one of his tsukebito to chase the beast away before he comes out for his match. Nishikigi holds a 3-1 career lead, making the “Mole Boss Gambit” more credible. In our records, the Mole Boss holds an 8-0 or better advantage over all opponents.

Arawashi vs Kyokutaisei – Kyokutaisei hit a speed bump day 7, but is still just 3 wins away from a kachi-koshi in his first posting to the top divisions. Arawashi has a mirror record and needs to start putting white stars on the board today.

Ishiura vs Chiyonokuni – Ishiura has shown some fire in the the last few days, and Chiyonokuni is always ready for a brawl. If Ishiura brings his real sumo to the dohyo, this match could be a frantic recreation of the battle of Sekigahara.

Yoshikaze vs Takakeisho – If day 8 did not support my “Takakeisho is a poorly constructed Mandroid” theory, I don’t know what does. The real Takakeisho would be a complete handful for the somewhat un-genki berskerer, but this one… who can tell? They are tied 2-2 over their career, but both are quite a bit off their par performances.

Chiyoshoma vs Hokutofuji – Hokutofuji is starting to rally, and his day 8 match against Chiyoshoma might allow him to pull even. Chiyoshoma’s record for Natsu is nearly a lost cause now, and it’s probably down to injuries.

Kagayaki vs Ikioi – What keeps Ikioi going? Electric shocks? Really good chanko? Fear of being chased down and cuddled to death by a legion of sumo grannies? It matter not, as I predict his day 8 match with Kagayaki will be a great display of sumo fundamentals executed with strength and determination. No matter who wins, they are probably going to look good doing it. Then again Kagayaki has never won against Ikioi, so let’s say it’s probably Ikioi’s to lose.

Kotoshogiku vs Abi – What’s going to happen here? Abi seems to have borrowed Ura’s improbability module, and its causing all kinds of havoc among the top end of the banzuke. They have split their prior 2 matches, but I would point out that Kotoshogiku is having his best tournament since Aki of last year.

Mitakeumi vs Shohozan – Shohozan showed surprising versatility on day 7, and hopefully Mitakeumi was taking notes. Mitakeumi likes to open fast and endure any punishment to either get an inside tsuppari position, or get his opponent on the move. Shohozan holds a slight 3-4 career lead.

Tochinoshin vs Ichinojo – Look big man, we need you to rally here. Tochinoshin needs some dirt to really make this basho exciting. I know you have doubts now because you racked up a string of losses, but you are the biggest man on the dohyo this afternoon. He can in fact lift you, but you can use that to open a weakness in his attack. While this would be fun, Tochinoshin holds an 11-5 advantage over the Boulder, so I think we know where this is headed.

Daieisho vs Goeido – This had better be an easy win for Goeido.

Kakuryu vs Chiyotairyu – Big K holds an 8-0 advantage over the man with a kami in his sideburns. But given Chiyotairyu’s proclivity to cannonball tachiai, I am going to put money on Kakuryu pulling.

Yutakayama vs Hakuho – Winless Yutakayama goes up against the dai-Yokozuna. Sucks to be Yutakayama today.

Natsu Banzuke Crystal Ball

I started writing these prediction posts exactly a year ago, so this will be my seventh banzuke forecast for Tachiai. The accuracy has varied from basho to basho, though I think it’s fair to say that the forecasts give a very good idea of roughly where each rikishi will land—in most cases, within one rank or closer.

Upper San’yaku

Y1

Kakuryu

Hakuho

Y2

Kisenosato

O1

Takayasu

Goeido

No changes here from the Haru banzuke.

Lower San’yaku

S

Tochinoshin

Ichinojo

K

Endo

Mitakeumi

With his 7-8 record, Mitakeumi will lose his Sekiwake rank, but should only fall to Komusubi. Tochinoshin moves over to the East side, while Ichinojo moves up to Sekiwake. Endo finally gets his San’yaku promotion, and is a sufficiently strong candidate with his 9-6 record at M1e that I have him on the East side, although the banzuke committee could certainly switch him and Mitakeumi.

Upper Maegashira

M1

Tamawashi

Kaisei

M2

Abi

Shohozan

M3

Daieisho

Yutakayama

M4

Chiyoshoma

Ikioi

M5

Shodai

Kotoshogiku

What’s certain is that there will be a lot of turnover in this area of the banzuke, as with the exception of Shohozan, everyone in the M2-M5 ranks checked in with a losing record, and only Shodai limited his losses to 8. Many in the ranks immediately below this group also did not distinguish themselves, meaning that we have to reach far down the banzuke for viable promotion candidates. Exactly how this will play out is much less certain, as there are many possible scenarios, and the considerations going into them are complex.

Let’s start with the easy part. Both Tamawashi and Kaisei did well enough to earn promotions to San’yaku, but since there are no open slots for them, they will have to be content with the top maegashira rank. Abi and Shohozan are the only plausible candidates for M2, although their ordering is uncertain. Abi will jump 5 ranks, and will join the joi in only his third top-division basho after earning 10-5 records in the first two. Similarly, Daieisho is the only plausible candidate for M3e. He will also jump 5 ranks, matching his highest career rank.

From here, things get complicated. The next best numerical score belongs to Shodai, but he can’t take the M3w slot due to his make-koshi record at M4w. The best he could do would be to remain at his current rank, though it’s more likely he gets a minimal demotion to M5e. Kotoshogiku could technically  be only demoted from M3e to M3w, but given his 6-9 record, this seems overly generous, and he should really be ranked below Shodai. The next best candidate for M3e is none other than Yutakayama, whose 10-5 record could vault him 8 ranks up the banzuke, all the way from M11.

If we put Shodai and M5e and Kotoshogiku right below him at M5w, who fills the M4 slots? The choice is between the next two strong kachi-koshi records, which belong to Chiyoshoma (9-6 at M10) and Ikioi (11-4 at M14), and the other two high-rankers due for big demotions, Komusubi Chiyotairyu (4-11) and M2 Takarafuji (5-10). My forecast favors the guys moving up the banzuke over those moving down. If the banzuke committee agrees, six out of the ten rikishi in this group would be moving up at least 5 ranks!

Mid-Maegashira

M6

Chiyotairyu

Takarafuji

M7

Chiyomaru

Ryuden

M8

Yoshikaze

Hokutofuji

M9

Kagayaki

Daishomaru

M10

Okinoumi

Daiamami

M11

Chiyonokuni

Takakeisho

At Natsu, this area of the banzuke will serve primarily as the landing zone for higher-ranked rikishi who achieved make-koshi records ranging from just below .500 (Yoshikaze, Kagayaki, Okinoumi, Chiyonokuni) to horrific (hello, Chiyotairyu and Takakeisho). The only bright spots are Ryuden, who moves up from M9 with a minimal kachi-koshi, and the Oitekaze stablemates Daishomaru and Daiamami, who vault up and out of the demotion danger zone with their 9-6 and 10-5 records.

Lower Maegashira

M12

Asanoyama

Arawashi

M13

Ishiura

Sadanoumi

M14

Takekaze

Tochiozan

M15

Aoiyama

Kyokutaisei

M16

Aminishiki

Kotoeko

M17

Gagamaru


The bottom of the banzuke is complicated by the fact that there are 6 Makuuchi rikishi who earned demotions by the usual criteria (in order from most to least deserving of demotion: Hedenoumi, Kotoyuki, Sokokurai, Onosho/Nishikigi, and Myogiryu), but only 3 Juryo rikishi who clearly earned promotion: Sadanoumi, Takekaze, and Kyokutaisei. Aminishiki is borderline, and the next two best candidates, Kotoeko (10-5 at J8) and Gagamaru (8-7 at J5), are ranked too low to be normally considered for promotion with those records. Obviously, the numbers moving up and down have to match. What to do?

My initial inclination was to demote Nishikigi in favor of Aminishiki, and save Onosho (who was kyujo) and Myogiryu. Over on the sumo forum, Asashosakari suggested that they could instead demote Onosho and save both Nishikigi and Myogiryu. The solution I’m currently favoring, given how poor their records were, is that both Nishikigi and Myogiryu will be demoted, as will Onosho. I’m guessing that the banzuke committee will be more likely to promote kachi-koshi Juryo rikishi with insufficiently strong records (after all, this has happened in the past) than to keep in the top division rikishi who failed to defend their places there. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see this play out in any number of ways. We’ll find out on April 26th!