Michinoku-beya Keiko

OMG.

Herouth found a gem posted by the Sumo Kyokai over on Youtube. Kakuryu is the top dog at this stable after he moved over after the death of Izutsu oyakata in September 2019. The yokozuna has taken up-and-comer Kiribayama under his wing, helping him crack into the joi at Maegashira 3 for the upcoming Tokyo tournament. Kiribayama and his development are also the subject of an interview from Nikkan sports in the thread below.

Underlying this is the issue of the degeiko ban and how many top wrestlers are unable to practice with their peers close to their ranks. As Herouth has also reported, both yokozuna have expressed their worries publicly about how that lack of degeiko will impact their performance. Hakuho has Enho and Ishiura to practice with but neither could really be called a peer to the greatest Yokozuna to have climbed the dohyo? For Kakuryu, the timing means that perhaps this is a perfect moment to take on a beefier Kiribayama.

Now that Kiribayama is in the joi he is able to have these practice bouts with the Yokozuna, who completely outclasses him so far winning all bouts. The bit about doing 300 shiko stomps each day tells me I need to up my game, 10-fold. We’ll see what this does to my legs. The interview also touches on COVID and how Kiribayama, and really many sumo wrestlers, have become virtual recluses, rarely going out but for the essentials and only if wearing a mask. The death of Shobushi still weighs on the Kyokai.

The video opens at the stable’s entrance with a close-up of the wood sign. When Tokyo opens back up, I hope to go visit and will take a selfie from out front. Once inside, the video zooms in to a wooden sign with the shikona of the staff and wrestlers, starting with Michinoku oyakata on the right. Next are the coaches Tatsutayama- and Urakaze-oyakata, yokozuna Kakuryu, makuuchi Kiribayama and makushita wrestler, Yuki. Then we see Michinoku-oyakata’s yusho banner from Hatsu 1991, when he was an Ozeki fighting under the shikona Kirishima.

In that title run he beat a young maegashira by the name of Akebono and finished things off with three yokozuna scalps in a row, Asahifuji (Isegahama), Onokuni (Shibatayama), and Hokutoumi (The Great Octogon, Hakkaku). Unfortunately Chiyonofuji and fellow Ozeki Konishiki were kyujo. (You’re damn straight I’d put that picture up on the wall by the front door. Shoot, I’d carry it with me to the grocery store.) Then we see the man himself, wearing a proper facemask, not one of the gov’t issue postage stamps, as he presides over keiko. The man in black appears regal on his floral zabuton. If Kiribayama wins a bout over Kakuryu will he throw it? I would. Enjoy!

Update (7/9/2020)

The Kyokai posted another practice video to Youtube! I will add further videos here, too if there are more updates…rather than create a new post for each one. Also, Herouth brings us more news in the degeiko-ban saga with Kakuryu’s appeal as the head of the players’ union. Lack of rigorous practice may increase injury risk, especially for those at small stables.

“Practice?”

Your not-so-humble correspondent cannot process the word practice (or the Japanese word keiko) without thinking of Allen Iverson. In the clip below, I skipped past most of his infamous rant on the topic, which begins around the 7:21 mark. I skipped forward to where he says, “How the hell can I make my teammates better by practicing?” (Gaa! The embed is not queuing it up the way I want. The quote is at 8:53.)

Enter today’s reporting from Herouth via Twitter. The ban on practice outside the stable will continue until the basho. In between tournaments, and especially in the lead-up to a tournament, top-ranking wrestlers travel to other stables to take on their would-be opponents. I’m taking liberties here with the point behind Iverson’s quote since the issue here is that a wrestler will ONLY be able to wrestle with their stablemates. But I do wonder how effective these degeiko trips are and am very eager to see how the first few days play out.

As she points out, Tamawashi and Ichinojo will not be able to face off against other sekitori until they climb onto the dohyo. I also want to point out that this means no sanyaku will be able to warm up against other sanyaku. While Daieisho has Endo, Takakeisho has Takanosho and Shodai has Yutakayama as peers in the same heya, this restriction against degeiko could mean there will be considerable ring-rust during “Act I” of the Tokyo Basho. To get a quick sense of how this will impact our top wrestlers, I again offer up the Heya visualization I created a few weeks ago (though the ranks have NOT been updated for the new banzuke).

Despite my inability to get the new ranks updated for everyone in time for this article the promotions and demotions will not, for the most part, be of a totally different class. For Arashio stable, Wakatakakage and his brothers will not be able to get pointers from other makuuchi wrestlers. Will this limit his ability to compete with the likes of Takayasu, Terunofuji, and Great Wall of Sadogatake?

In the past, the news that trickled out of these degeiko sessions has not always been a reliable indicator of a top wrestler’s fitness or ability to hold his own for a week of competition, much less two. I’m not looking at you, Tagonoura-beya — or perhaps I am? Takayasu’s top competition, aside from picking on the retired old geezers (I jest), will be Sandanme-ranked Akashifuji. Without the PR trips to take on Sadogatake or Isegahama powerhouses, will we be left with a more realistic picture of his prospects?

So, with much love to The Answer*, I lean toward agreeing with Herouth. Ichinojo’s in much the same boat as Takayasu. I’m not entirely convinced Shodai is going to have a huge advantage, or if Ikioi and Nishikigi will regain their sanyaku form, but it will be very interesting to see if Sadogatake comes out of this without needing an industrial case of Rustoleum.

* The Glove is Gary Payton as Todd pointed out. Allen Iverson was “The Answer.” The Answer to the question of, “Practice?”

Miyagino Practice Fist-Fight

Photo Credit Nicola

Ishiura was involved in a fist fight with Makushita-ranked Hokaho. No, not Hakuho, though the big man himself stepped in to separate the two. Practice then ended abruptly and the incident was reported to the Crisis Committee. So, the scandal meter is reset to 1/4/2020, one week from the start of Hatsubasho.

Herouth’s got a thorough run-down of the events but in a nutshell, Ishiura took exception to Hokaho beating him. When he would lose to Hokaho, he’d lash out, with a kick or a punch. Since the incident has been reported, there will be an investigation into exactly how “hot-headed” Ishiura was and whether there is any need for punishment. That punishment could range from apologies and reprimand to potential suspension, likely hinging on how hard the blows were. Calls for retirement would be…a bit bizarre unless more back-story unfolds.

Keep in mind, this was practice where blows are supposed to be thrown…but not between bouts and fists and kicks are obviously a no-no. The location and reason would distinguish it from punches thrown as rebuke for chores done poorly but it will be interesting to see what standard is applied. Some, like Mitakeumi, are disparaged for low-intensity practice. The opposite end of the spectrum here, we have a practice that got out-of-hand.

For some insight about the practice intensity I’m talking about, there’s an interview of Steve Kerr a former teammate of Michael Jordan, where he reflects on a fist fight he had with Mike. Jordan is famous for a lot of things but one is the intensity that he brought to practice. Similarly, keiko is supposed to ready you for the real thing. So if you slack off there, how will you be ready when the harite is for a yusho?

Natsu 2019 – Tachiai’s Experience In Tokyo

Ryogoku JR Station and Kokugikan at Sunset
The sun sets on another honbasho

The Natsu basho is always a special time for me. Both this year, and last year, I’ve spent a significant amount of time in Tokyo around the May tournament, and been fortunate enough to enjoy some fantastic sumo experiences and meet with some great people. In this post, I’ll share a bit about what I encountered over the past several weeks in Japan’s capital city.

New Tachiai experiences

First of all, I’m happy to share that I will be bringing a number of pieces of new content to the site in the coming weeks before the Nagoya basho. I attended keiko at Onoe beya with John Gunning, and later met one of Onoe’s new oyakata, and former sekitori Satoyama, who asked me to share some news with our readers, which will be coming in a later post.

Onoe beya Keiko
Keiko at Onoe beya. Former sekitori Tenkaiho (Hidenoyama oyakata) looks on.

Additionally, backed by some fantastic questions from our readers, I spent an hour and a half with one of the voices of NHK’s sumo coverage, none other than popular broadcaster Murray Johnson. We had an amazing conversation, and I’m excited to bring it to you soon. And as a surprise for our readers, I met up for coffee and chocolate cake with luminary of the digital sumo world, the one and only Kintamayama. We had a similarly in-depth conversation that will be making its way to these pages soon (and we may even sneak some audio snippets into a future Tachiai podcast, so if you haven’t subscribed now, do it). I also, of course, got to visit my first sumo art exhibit, and my first dohyo consecration ceremony, the dohyo matsuri. Check out this post if you want to learn more.

Finally, I’m happy to say that I got to meet so many members of the Tachiai community. Natsu is a very popular tournament for sumo tourism – the weather is fantastic and the early summer time makes it a convenient moment for many fans to visit Tokyo. Jason Harris of Jason’s All Sumo Youtube Channel hosted a brilliant meet up during the tournament, where many Tachiai community members were present. Our reader and friend El Zeno produced fantastic Black Panther movie inspired Wakaichiro shirts, and it was a great chance to meet up with our friends at BuySumoTickets, who continue to provide so many of our readers with access to live sumo.

It was also wonderful again to link up with Tachiai contributor Nicola – please follow her work on the Tachiai instagram! – who has shared literally gigabytes of original photos that we are working to bring to the site in the near future. And I’d like to give a special shoutout to friend of the site Melissa, who along with her partner shared a box with me at my final day of the tournament – it was wonderful to have some great conversation and take in the basho with some very serious sumo fans!!

Ryogoku Kokugikan Panoramic View from Box C masu
A panoramic view of Kokugikan, from the “Box C” masu section.

The Live Experience

I could probably write several posts on this, so I’ll keep it somewhat short. The live experience at Kokugikan continues to be the reason why so many folks make the trek from far and wide. There simply is nothing like experiencing sumo in the building that goes some way to making the sport as special as it is.

Special new “Reiwa” era merch has been produced, featuring the san’yaku of the first basho of the Reiwa era. Tochinoshin’s upcoming re-promotion has rendered these immediately out of date, but the NSK is clearly working to capture the enthusiasm of this new period. I would also add that like many of our readers who visited Kokugikan during this basho, I wore a Tachiai t-shirt with pride, and many locals (including vendors!) were very interested to find out where I got it. The well-received shirts can, of course, be purchased from Tachiai’s shop!

Kisenosato / Araiso arrives at Kokugikan
Kisenosato / Araiso arrives at Kokugikan

The Kisenosato exhibit at the Kokugikan drew massive numbers – and also as much enthusiasm as the man himself when he made his way into the public areas of the arena, as he did on several occasions. I witnessed mass hysteria greet the 72nd Yokozuna as he entered the building, and he continued to make a string of increasingly popular media appearances. His commentary has been praised from many quarters.

Natsu was the first tournament where I was able to watch from one of the “masu” box seats on the first floor. It was a very new experience for me, as I managed to score seats in the “Box C” section. The sight lines were still very good, though if you’re looking for a pure view and can’t manage to obtain the very rare and expensive seats nearer to the dohyo, I might recommend the Arena A seats on the second level.

For me, the box experience was almost less about seeing sumo and more about living the live sumo experience. It was the first time I had been at a basho where I hadn’t been surrounded by folks who look or talk like myself, and whether that’s good bad or irrelevant, there can be no denying that it created an incredibly different atmosphere for me and a very different experience on the whole. A year ago, I hadn’t even taken my first Japanese lesson, so it was a very rewarding feeling not only to be able to have basic conversation with the Takayasu-loving locals in the next box at points throughout the day, but also to be able to cheer for and share the rikishi that I love to follow (even if those were in some cases met with quizzical looks!).

Kokonoe Beya Variety Chanko - Natsu 2019
Kokonoe beya’s “variety chanko,” served during the Natsu basho

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about sumo without talking about food. Kokonoe beya delivered the tournament’s helping of tasty “Variety chanko” for fans to sample. This tournament also marked the debut of the new Takakeisho bento box, which I experienced and will review in a later post. Of course, with Tochinoshin poised for an ozeki return, there won’t be a shortage of rikishi-inspired meals for us to continue to indulge at the venue in future.

Asanoyama arrives at Kokugikan
At the end of it all, one man stood alone.

The Tournament, The Trophy, The Winner

I can’t say that on the days that I attended it really felt like there was a momentum or a story building behind Asanoyama – it was still early enough in the tournament that his first week, like that of many other well performing Maegashira every basho, could be corrected with a gruelling week 2 dance card. But he does have a growing number of die-hard fans in attendance at the tournament, and his cheer towel is one of the better sellers.

I have to say I agreed a lot with Bruce’s thoughts on the presidential visit and the trophy. It was impossible to escape conversation about this with virtually any english-speaking sumo fan or pundit in Tokyo. It was a moment of intrigue that has to do as much with the person as the politics – that is to say everything and nothing. This is because frankly, wherever you sit on the political spectrum or what you believe – everyone just didn’t know what would happen. How would it work? What would it be like? Kokugikan is a very security-free venue, which makes it part of the charm. So, this conversation piece certainly added to the sense of occasion.

Hungary Tea Cup trophy
The great tea cup of Hungary: unique, and staggering

I also concur with Bruce that I am happy for there to be some kind of American trophy. It’s not the one I would have made – personally, I long for the creativity of the giant macaron or the tea cup, I love those things. But, we have seen such a growing affinity between Americans and sumo over the past few years – this site is testament to that. So for there to be any trophy from America, well, it’s a nice feeling. Perhaps in future years America can do something like contributing a gift from the home state of the president, much in the way other countries supply yearlong supplies of beer or gasoline.

It’s important for us to keep the focus on sumo though, and I’m happy and relieved that we experienced a tournament that delivered that yet again. To our new followers who may have just discovered this world: welcome! We’re happy to have you. And to our friends of the site and long time readers, I’m excited to continue partnering with everybody else to create more content for the site! Thanks for sharing the experience with us.