In sumo there are no places more hallowed than the Kokugikan, and for me, it’s one of the most special venues in all of sport. Having completed my set of honbasho cities in 2018 and having last taken in the Kyushu basho in Fukuoka, I had been excited to get back to Kokugikan and the home of sumo.
And since I last visited, the NSK has been busy bringing in new features:
I thought Kokugikan already had it all but this basho there’s also a cat cafe!
— Josh Kahn & Co. (@jsklfc) January 15, 2019
But despite the pleas of Sumo Twitter™, this is not why I came and I did not take part. This Friday, I’m back at Kokugikan for Day 6, so perhaps I’ll grab some #content then, if the Cat Cafe is still in business. I did, however, make a stop off at a different novelty, the dohyo mounted by the legends of broadcasting, the NHK Grand Sumo Preview team:
There’s a Sumida information centre next to the Kokugikan with all kinds of restaurants (including chanko) and tourist info, and this dohyo is located there. The dohyo is roped off with signs clearly stating not to walk on it. As it is not (as far as I know) actively in use, it would be cool if fans could be chaperoned onto this dohyo at some stage. Perhaps one of our readers knows more and can point this out in the comments!
After a quick walk around, I headed into the arena, stopping with several other punters to snap a photo of the Kisenosato flag at the entrance (at the top of the post). Everyone attending the basho knows the end is near, and what was clear throughout the day is that in spite of the farce that has been his record-breaking losing run, Kisenosato’s fans are desperate for him to do well, and desperate for a final good memory.
Normally, I get right to my seat to check out some early, lower division matches, and calibrate myself with the torikumi. However, this alluring photo of Michinoku-oyakata beckoned me underground:
Typically, a different stable will supply the recipe for the chankonabe that is served at the Kokugikan for each honbasho. The last time I was in Tokyo, it was provided by Oguruma-beya, and this time, it’s Michinoku’s “Variety Chanko” on offer. And as you can see above, you can wash it down with a cup of hot, steaming rules.
The chanko is served in a small styrofoam bowl, and you get a pair of wooden chopsticks. There’s ichimi in the dining hall if you need it, though this had some good spice. I’d call it Kitchen Sink chanko as it had a bit of everything in there. For ¥300 it’s a nice novelty to be able to eat a small bowl of chanko, and the line moved quickly enough that I didn’t mind waiting. If you go later in the afternoon, maybe toward the end of Makushita, there’s usually less of a line.
After a quick stop at noted sumo artisan Daimon Kinoshita‘s stall for some beautiful postcards, and then to the BBM Sumo Card seller to pick up some cards from the new 2019 series, I did a lap around the arena and headed for my seat. Not far away from the Daimon Kinoshita stall at the front of the venue, newly retired ex-Satoyama was doing fan photos, along with NSK mascot Hiyonoyama.
Across from Hiyonoyama, the NSK social media team has launched a photo activation where fans can take photos with a variety of backgrounds to share on social media. Sadly, this seems to have replaced the incredible Purikura box which used to be available at Kokugikan, where fans could take pictures “with” any of the 42 top division rikishi. While the fan experience does tend to continuously improve at Kokugikan, the NSK has got this one wrong and I hope they restore the purikura booth soon (if only so I can continue my long and quite literally decorated history of taking photos with Ichinojo).
Once inside, I decided to stop off and see the newest addition to the Kokugikan rafters:
Takakeisho’s yusho portrait was a great reminder that while we talk about the achievements and accomplishments of these rikishi as if it’s just part and parcel of the daily business, what we witness every basho is men writing themselves into history (usually the good kind).
Speaking of recent champions, one of them had a very prominent and popular supporter in attendance:
— Josh Kahn & Co. (@jsklfc) January 15, 2019
Others will cover the actual content of the days events on the site, so I want to focus the rest of this piece on Kisenosato, whose presence overshadowed almost everything else to take place on the dohyo.
Kisenosato’s dohyo-iri was greeted with a massive round of applause. It was clear from this moment that while yesterday was reported to have been a tense affair, the crowd was here to celebrate and cheer for the beleaguered Yokozuna.
While his nerves were visibly jangling when watching the ring entrance ceremony yesterday with the benefit of HD TV, today’s dohyo-iri at least appeared to be more authoritative from my viewpoint in the venue. The entire crowd was absolutely behind him and welcomed him into the ring and celebrated what could possibly be the last time we all saw him perform that ritual.
As an aside, I will say it was fantastic to see three Yokozuna dohyo-iri today. The last time I visited a honbasho, in Fukuoka this past November, Kisenosato had already withdrawn by the time I reached the venue, and so I didn’t get a chance to experience one of the more magical moments of live sumo on that occasion. I’m grateful that all three Yokozuna gamberized (or attempted to) for this basho.
Kisenosato vs Tochiozan
The atmosphere before this match was totally charged. This may have as much to do with Kisenosato as it did with the match that preceded it, Hakuho prevailing over Ichinojo in an epic contest.
As Kisenosato mounted the dohyo, what seemed like the entire arena spontaneously broke out in a synchronised clap in support of the Yokozuna. Kisenosato towels were being waved everywhere – absolutely everyone in the venue was behind him and I cannot state that enough. Were he to win, it seemed like the roof would come off the place.
It felt like Tochiozan took absolutely ages to get down and ready for this bout (he’s obviously a very seasoned veteran, just like the Yokozuna, but it’s clearly possible he too had nerves in that kind of abnormal atmosphere). It seemed possible that this may have had the effect of unsettling Kisenosato, who seemed very much ready to go.
By now, you probably know how this ends. Kisenosato lost a match it didn’t seem like he was every really truly in danger of winning, though it was clear he gave it everything he could. After the match, the disappointment of the crowd was immense, and so audible. After all of the energy everyone had put into it, the gasps, sighs, and exhales of the entire arena probably lasted about 5-10 seconds but it seemed like it went on for minutes, and it felt like a cloud had been put over the dohyo. The whole place just felt deflated after having been so charged up.
After that, the last match between Kakuryu and Nishikigi felt like a total non-event – which is sad, really, as it was a very good bout and a career-altering continuation of what has turned into a remarkable storyline for a rank-and-file rikishi. Having been emotionally drained, a lot of people simply walked out of the venue before the musubi-no-ichiban had started, and missed it altogether. Again, I’ll let others supply the match analysis, but it was a frankly bizarre end to the day, as there was a long monoii before Nishikigi’s kinboshi was confirmed. Zabuton had been flying everywhere both before and after the monoii.
With the festivities having finished for the day, and having seen a bow twirling ceremony in my time, I left Kokugikan in very much the same mind as many others, it seemed: thankful for being a part of the final moments of something, but not really totally sure of what to feel.