A Day Out at the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee Soken: Aki 2019 Edition

The sekitori do their rounds before the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee at the Soken

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.

The Kokugikan Shop sold a limited selection of goods during the Soken.

Juryo Notes

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.

Hakuho gives Takakeisho butsukari…

Makuuchi notes

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.

… Hakuho leaves a disheveled Takakeisho writhing on the floor and poses for the cameras.

High Rankers

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!

Another Day Out at the EDION Arena: Haru 2019 Day 11

EDION Arena Osaka - Dohyo-iri
The EDION Arena, Osaka

Originally, knowing that I was to attend two days of the Haru basho, I had intended to write one post about the basho experience, enjoy this amazing city of Osaka, do a podcast with Bruce (like and subscribe), and then head back to the EDION Arena for Day 11 only with the intention of enjoying the action.

But then, magical moments intervened, and here I am again.

Day 11’s torikumi was pretty remarkable. And there are multiple reasons for that. First of all, the big performers have been delivering big performances. There are challengers down the banzuke. There is intrigue from the ozeki ranks going in both directions. And also, apart from Chiyonokuni’s pre-tournament withdrawal, there have been no kyujo announcements and no fusen-sho. The gang’s all here.

I didn’t get all of it. Partly because I arrived a little later than I had intended, and partly because I wanted to enjoy more of what the venue had to offer. So while I’m happy I missed Wakaichiro losing, because I never want to see him lose – I’m also sorry I missed a few Makushita and Juryo matches I would have liked to have seen.

I also missed almost every dohyo-iri. That’s because I decided to take part in one of Osaka’s great traditions, waiting by the shitakubeya entrance/exit for the rikishi to cross through the fans on their way to the dohyo. For every 10 pictures you’ll try and snap of this, you’ll get, well, one that might be passable:

Takayasu prepares for the dohyo-iri

The other thing that I saw during this period, that I think needs to be called out, was the warmness and generosity of one Kotoyuki-zeki. Rikishi are not really meant to interact too much with fans on their way through the open areas, because if they did then all hell would break loose. Usually, they do turn the blinders on, and stay deep in focus. But Kotoyuki, on his way back from winning his match was fist-bumping fans in the hallways, and then later, on his way back to (presumably) the heya, was warmly shaking hands with elderly fans and thanking them for their support. The proximity that punters can get to the rikishi, especially here in Osaka, is truly part of what makes the sumo experience special.

EDION Arena - Katsu sando
Cheers to Herouth for the Katsu sando recommendation, a vast improvement on the EDION Arena’s yakitori

Bruce has done an excellent job covering many of the Ones to Watch, and I’m going to dig back in to some of the lower division performances I’ve seen in a later post, likely after the basho. For now, I’ll close with a few comments on the top division:

Ikioi: his heavy metal sumo hasn’t been on display, and he probably isn’t fit to be on a dohyo. And probably, if he were anywhere else, I don’t think he would be, even though he is the consummate competitor. But his match was the first time the fans really sparked into life on Day 11, and I think he deserves immense credit for turning up in his hometown every day, even if he is – as Kintamayama accurately remarked in his subtitles today – a “walking hospital.”

Interview Room - EDION Arena Osaka
The nondescript hallway to the mysterious and secretive Interview Room – where we won’t be seeing Ikioi this basho – and where rikishi must walk when they defeat a Yokozuna or get kachi-koshi

Ichinojo: Today’s match against Aoiyama felt like a step forward for him. He was up against a lesser-heralded opponent and in a high pressure situation. Usually, you’d bet on him folding in these scenarios, but he set a booby-trap for the Bulgarian by wearing him down, and using his own immense stamina to his advantage. He’ll avoid big names from here, and a 13 or 14 win tournament could certainly make things interesting come May and July, whatever happens.

Goeido: He has rebounded from his defeats and he continues to display the hell for leather attacking sumo that won him a yusho. If he continues to fight like this and can keep himself in this kind of shape, maybe it won’t be in Osaka, but he will challenge for more titles. The crowd support for him was greater than anything I’ve seen in Fukuoka or Nagoya for any other local rikishi – and if you scroll through the content that the NSK themselves have been interacting with and reposting on Instagram, it’s clear to see just how much people in this city absolutely love him. If he brings the noise against the Yokozuna, it may change the course of the basho.

Takayasu and Tochinoshin: Both men are in a period of some kind of transition. Tochinoshin is clearly trying to figure out how to scrape any kinds of wins when he can’t deploy his singular superior manoeuvre, in a desperate act to save his rank. Takayasu is training himself into a lesser reliance on his heretofore opening gambit and is looking to become and even more polished all around rikishi. Takayasu’s throw today felt like it simultaneously deflated and elated the arena. While Tochinoshin is by no means down or out from (or prohibited from returning to) the rank of ozeki, the loss today felt like it punctuated the inevitable. Tochinoshin’s fans were loud and proud but it is not an exaggeration to say his impact on the clay could be felt all the way back in the cheap seats.

Hakuho: I have watched the musubi-no-ichiban back several times, as I did before leaving the arena while NHK were showing the replays on their screen in the lobby. It is folly to say that today was in any way remarkable simply for the style of his result, or even that he cashed in a get out of jail card in his victory over Takakeisho: it wouldn’t be the first, second or third time he’s done that in this tournament alone.

Let’s look at three screenshots via the Kintamayama wrap-up video:

Screenshot 2019-03-20 at 22.02.08

While it may seem quiet on the video, the reality is usually somewhat different from what the NHK microphones catch, and each of these moments amplified the environment by an order of magnitude. First, the above moment: Hakuho, for a lengthy period of time, stares down Takakeisho. He had said before the basho he wanted to teach the sekiwake a lesson. Here, as everyone in the building watches, and everyone on TV watches, and everyone on the internet watches, Takakeisho is looking up at the big man. Hakuho is the boss, and we all know it.

Screenshot 2019-03-20 at 22.02.24

Hakuho crouches down at the shikiri-sen for the tachiai, but again, there’s a longer than usual pause before the start of the match. He is making Takakeisho wait at every turn, and again, this was clear in the arena and it added to the sense of anticipation. This was also not the first time we saw a rikishi wait out an opponent: there were several matta on the day, and several non-starts. Tamawashi is known to regularly wait out the tachiai, but whenever Tamawashi tries to play mind games, he always loses (see: his match against Kakuryu).

Screenshot 2019-03-20 at 22.03.18

In some of the matches in this tournament, we saw a cheeky grin from The Boss after he got out of jail. Not this time. He played a cat and mouse game with Takakeisho before grabbing the belt and throwing him to the clay with authority. Then he let out a huge grunt before grabbing the largest pile of kensho of the day. At this point, the top was about to come off the building. It’s a massive credit to Takakeisho (as with the other rikishi earlier in the tournament), that this match was close. But nothing with Hakuho is by accident. Whether or not you like the theatrics, I would argue that moments like this are what makes sport worth following, they give us heroes, they give us a relationship with the game.

I had been not feeling well earlier in the day and had considered heading back to the hotel to catch makuuchi on TV, but I’m glad I didn’t. Everything in the 8+ hours long day of sumo builds gradually to the musubi-no-ichiban. This was one of the best possible matchups we have seen in a long time, with titles and promotions on the line, and the greatest rikishi of all time was the conductor of an atmosphere which ratcheted up to fever pitch during a match that turned out to be yet another topsy-turvy emotional victory. With just four days remaining in one of the best tournaments in recent memory, I’ll be sad not to be returning to the EDION Arena again this year.

A Day Out at the EDION Arena: Haru 2019

Edion Arena - Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium. Haru 2019
The EDION Arena in Osaka, Day 6 of the 2019 Haru basho

Ahoy sumo fans. I am here in Osaka, where I spent Day 6 of the Haru basho at the gymnasium/arena known as the EDION Arena for sponsorship purposes, also known as the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium not for sponsorship purposes!

Allow me to fill you in and transfer all of the vibes into your brain space:

Haru basho 2019 - EDION Arena/Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium
It’s easy to feel close to the action in Osaka


Outside of Tokyo, I really think Osaka is the best basho. If you are from Nagoya or Fukuoka, I’m sorry. Actually I’m not that sorry, because those are cool places to be from. But it is hard to rival the atmosphere in Osaka, which most days verges – for sumo – on downright raucous. It’s loud and people have no shame in letting everyone know who they are cheering for.

I arrived during Jonidan, and as usual the place was milling with senior citizens, who typically come early with their copy of the torikumi and highlighters and go through all of the day’s matches. In that sense, the late morning crowd-watching is not unlike that of a bingo hall. It is incredible how much these elderly folks know all the lower division guys and then in many cases make their way to catch them leaving the shitakubeya for a photo.

Kakuryu vs Shodai - Haru basho 2019 Osaka
Kakuryu prepares to beat Shodai in the musubi-no-ichiban

This brings me to the next great Osaka tradition: waiting by the front door for rikishi to enter. They come right in the front door, and people get excited. There are clearly marked areas in the lobby where it is acceptable to stand. You can just wait there all day, and it is somewhat predictable what time the more popular rikishi will show up, but if you want to also see sumo, it can be a real lottery. You could miss good sumo and end up waiting for 10 mins just to see Tokushōryū as I did (no offense Tokushōryū, I’m sure you are a very cool guy and we are blessed to have smelled your binzuke). You had better like the scent of binzuke if you come to Osaka, because with so many rikishi passing you regularly in the halls, it is inescapable.

You can tell a lot from who the crowd largely supports by the nature of applause during the dohyo-iri. The two big names in Juryo this time were undoubtedly Aminishiki (potentially fighting his last tournament) and Enho, who is now solidly a crowd favorite. Since the crowd gets so much louder than it usually does at a basho, it’s easier to get a read on who has a few fans and who is legitimately popular at the moment. It’s fair to say Enho is now at least on the Chiyomaru level.

I got my tickets through buysumotickets.com, and ended up in what a fellow fan called “gaijin alley,” as typically happens since they block buy the tickets for overseas customers. I sat next to a family of very nice and friendly Australians, who stayed all the way to the end and were hugely interested and excited to see sumo for the first time. I have noticed plenty more fans from Australia coming to tournaments lately, so maybe study-abroad alumnus Ishiura has started doing protein shake commercials down under (Australians, please let us know in the comments!).

Snacks - Haru Basho 2019 Osaka
Snacks and gift boxes for sale at the Haru basho in Osaka


I would probably rank Osaka third out of the four basho cities in terms of the availability and quality of food on offer in the venue (ahead of Fukuoka). This is a fairly shocking and damning indictment, given that Osaka is definitely-not-probably one of the greatest food cities, not only in Japan but in the world.

I grabbed some edamame as I was in need of sustenance, and it did not let me down. The yakitori, however, was far worse than at Kokugikan in Tokyo, and was a bit cold and slimy. My advice, if you’re planning to attend the Osaka basho, is to have a large breakfast beforehand and then either smuggle snacks in your backpack or just grab a couple things at the venue.

Food - Haru Basho 2019 Osaka
Katsu sandwiches, Yakitori and Edamame for sale in Osaka

You will find stuff like dried squid and cheese packs here, but the sweets game in Osaka is pretty weak. They do stock the usual rikishi/dohyo-decorated-cookie gift packs, but none of the Hello Panda action, candy, or NSK-branded treats like the wacky Hiyonoyama pancakes that you’ll get at Kokugikan. There is a restaurant in the basement that has a deep if uninspiring menu when compared with what lies outside – so you’re better off taking advantage of the single re-entry policy than eating at the venue. If I’m the NSK I would probably figure out a way to do a deal with a couple beloved local vendors, and play up the local culture in order to enhance the in-venue experience.

The East and West sides of the venue provide a much closer look of the action from the second level (right), owing to the shape of the gymnasium


This is where Osaka just flat-out wins. I had Arena “A” seats, which are the furthest back seats on either the east or west sides of the venue. The rectangle shape of the arena means that there’s a strong distance difference between Arena “A” and the Arena “B” & “C” seats, which are the furthest back on the front and back sides of the dohyo. The layout is very different from Kokugikan, where the A seats put you at the very front of the upper tier, so that’s something to bear in mind. The “S” and “SS” seats are the best upper tier seats.

This all being said, despite being in the penultimate row on the west side of the venue, the view is just incredible. You can very clearly see everything that’s going on, and you don’t feel far away from the action at all. In fact, I felt closer to the action in these seats than I did at a jungyo event in Koshigaya last year, in a local gymnasium.

Arigato Kisenosato - Thank you Kisenosato message board - Haru Basho 2019 Osaka
The “Thank You Kisenosato” message board for fans in Osaka

Merch & Experience

The official NSK merch booth got set up around 1pm, and it is staffed by oyakata. This booth always provides a good opportunity to interact with ex-rikishi you may have known and/or loved. It was a little odd to see someone like ex-Satoyama/now-Sanoyama, who very recently wrapped up his career, still with his mage, setting out the merch like a shop assistant. One of the oyakata started the daily sales by passing out fliers to and loudly hawking tickets for Satoyama’s danpatsushiki to the assembled masses, much to the bemusement of the soon-to-be-shorn ex-sekitori.

The hot item at this booth was the limited edition Kisenosato collector’s photo and postcard set. I told Bruce during our Hatsu basho podcast that it felt like it wouldn’t be until Haru that his retirement would feel more real, because we wouldn’t see him around the place as much. Well, guess what? We now see him more than we have in years! In addition to the new merch items, the rest of the stalls still ran a robust trade in Kisenosato merchandise, a huge “Arigato Kisenosato” board was erected for fans to write their thank-yous and memories (a really nice touch), and the man himself has been all over the arena and TV as he comes to watch Takayasu every day. I wouldn’t be surprised if the robust merch offerings are on offer at the Natsu basho in Tokyo, as well as the “thank you” message board.

The NSK did a slight revamp of their “purikura” feature which allows fans to take photos in pre-selected frames and share to their social media profiles. However, this was broken for most of the day, so I wasn’t able to try it out. They really should bring back the old, proper purikura box they used to have.

Merch - Haru basho 2019
T-shirts (including Kisenosato’s) on sale at the arena, including the name of each rikishi’s stable

As for rikishi merchandise, local man Ikioi’s merch was very scarce compared to last year’s Osaka basho, and even Osaka superstar Ozeki Goiedo wasn’t as well represented as some of the hot young names of the moment. After the top ranks, the usual suspects – Abi, Asanoyama, Takakeisho, Hokutofuji – were very big sellers. There were a few more Tamawashi items than usual, owing to his recent yusho. The diversity of merchandise and gifts was quite good: the offerings easily rivalled that of Kokugikan in selection if not in volume. One item I had never seen before was shochu, the bottles of which were branded with the shikona of various Yokozuna and Ozeki.

Tachiai will be heading back to the EDION Arena for Day 11’s action – if you have information you’d like to know about the sumo experience – let us know in the comments! We’ll be happy to answer, or find out for ourselves and report back!

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!