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 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!

A Day out at the Ryogoku Kokugikan: Kisenopocalypse Edition

Kisenosato Flag - Hatsu Basho 2019
A flag that soon may never fly again.

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:

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:

Sumida Information Center Dohyo
Why, yes Hiro, I do have a prediction for this basho.

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:

Michinoku Chanko poster
It’s an original blend.

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.

Michinoku heya Chanko
Everything but the kitchen sink.

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 yusho portrait hanging at Kokukigan
Young man among legends.

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:

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 dohyo-iri. Hatsu basho 2019.
“Something I wasn’t sure of, but I was in the middle of”

Kisenosato Dohyo-iri

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. Hatsu Basho Day 3. 15 January 2019.
A penultimate stare-down?

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.

Aki Live Blog – Day 1

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Welcome to Aki day 1’s live blog! No need to refresh your page, new content will appear automatically. NHK will be bringing the last 50 minutes of Makuuchi live starting at 4:00 AM US Eastern / 1:00 AM US Pacific / 4:00 PM Japan. Fire up the stream and follow along with us while Murray Johnson calls the matches.

We are expecting Bruce and Herouth for day 1, with some coverage starting as early as Jonidan.

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