The Updated Haru Basho Experience

I’ve long been open about the fact that I view the Osaka honbasho as one of the more definitive sumo experiences. While the hallowed ground of the Kokugikan in Ryogoku is the ultimate destination for any pilgrim seeking dosukoi action, the EDION Arena in Osaka in some ways showcases the most romantic elements of sumo. Or at least it did.

Before the pandemic, the Osaka tournament was notable for many things. Among them, the raucous nature of the Kansai match-going fanbase, and also the proximity of spectators to the rikishi as they emerge from the shitakubeya and make their way down the hanamichi to the side of the dohyo.

This last feature was also a staple of the year-end Kyushu basho in Fukuoka, but the EDION Arena’s layout had long been unique for the fact that souvenir shoppers in the hallways would likely end up intoxicated from the scent of binzuke as combatants of all shapes and sizes made their way to and from the arena throughout the day. It was not uncommon for fans to mix it with rikishi or even get handshakes, autographs or photos with sekitori at the business end of the torikumi.

And speaking of intoxication, before the edict to “cheer inside of your heart” went into place as a mitigating strategy in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus, you’d often find dyed-in-the-wool (or dyed-in-the-cotton-cheer-towel) supporters of a particular rikishi or heya screaming out messages of support or instruction to “GANBATTE!” for hours on end from the pacy schedule of Sandanme right through to the lengthy rituals leading up to a top division bout.

Before the basho, I remarked on these pages that I had some trepidation for what I might find. Osaka has always been my favourite basho. Maybe it lacks of a bit of depth compared to the three Tokyo tournaments in terms of the fan experience that you can find inside the venue itself. But the personality, feeling and emotion of the basho – never more showcased than when a Kansai native mounts the dohyo in front of a full house, lights and cameras – for me is more than worth the annual pilgrimage. I had ringed the first week of the tournament on the calendar ever since Japan announced its reopening to foreign visitors, and could not wait to reintroduce it as a staple of my travel calendar.

So, what did we find?

A bit of a mixed bag, truth be told, but it was mostly a return to the experience I knew and loved. Some elements were missing, while others improved on my past memories.

First let’s talk logistics. I flew directly into Osaka’s Kansai International Airport from elsewhere in Asia and this was the correct decision. Post-pandemic, Japan has had mixed reviews for the entry experience into the country. In some places it is easy, others convoluted, and some ports like Tokyo’s Narita have been plagued by hours-long queues. Entering the country at Kansai was a relatively smooth experience, amplified by an express train taking me to my hotel 2 blocks from the venue near Osaka’s Namba hub in the Naniwa district of the second city.

Tickets were procured through Tachiai’s partner I’ve long been a user of their service and could not be happier with the seats or the special gift bags we received for our business. I had the tickets delivered directly to the hotel in Osaka on the day before my arrival, and after presenting my detailed delivery confirmation from Japan Post which BuySumoTickets provided, the front desk team was able to track down the envelope in the back room.

A word here about sumo tickets – they are the equivalent of cash, and can only be issued once, so coordination and attention to the package is key. A lot of first time visitors to a basho really seem to struggle with this. We’ve heard stories of people losing or failing to turn up with tickets, bringing their receipts and expecting to have it honoured by the Kyokai. They won’t. But once inside, they are very accommodating of foreign visitors and brought us directly to our box.

I went back and forth before the basho about whether to order the “Arena S” seats (hardback chairs with a removable cushion) or a 2 person masu-seki. I don’t find the boxes to normally be comfortable for a full day’s viewing, but the 2 person box is a great feature of Osaka’s venue. Most fans that I know don’t travel in groups of 4 and don’t have a need for the 4 person boxes which are most prevalent across the venues. While I was a little worried about the distance from the box to the dohyo, I shouldn’t have been. BuySumoTickets managed to secure an absolutely outstanding view from our seats.

One note about the layout of the EDION Arena is that unlike in Tokyo, which has the faux-cherry blossom lined chaya-michi alley where the various tea-houses supply luxury gift packages to tanimachi and other fans, the section of the EDION Arena housing the chaya’s booths is actually outside the main gate of the arena. Osaka tickets grant you one re-entry, so if you have ordered a lunch set or gift set and don’t pick it up on the way in, you will have to use your one re-entry in order to go out the front gate and retrieve it. After this, you won’t have any more exit and entry privileges.

Our gift sets came replete with a very generously portioned bento, a traditional dessert, program, various other souvenirs including sumo chocolates, and of course, the famous sumo yakitori. While I normally will want to sample food from the venue throughout the day, this package was simply so filling that there was no need to report on other options available within the venue. I can report however that the various gift shops were full with the usual omiyage gift boxes of sumo themed cookies and snacks, and yakitori, chips and drinks were available at points in the venue. Chankonabe did not however appear to be available in the venue, at least as far as I could tell.

The Arena’s hallways, so well-known for its previous ability to interact with rikishi, had been re-organised since the pandemic. Rikishi walkways to the hanamichi had now been fully segregated, with all of the previous shopping areas in the vicinity of the shitakubeya moved to other areas of the venue. This is obviously meant to limit casual interaction between rikishi and members of the general public, although it is still possible to linger outside the shitakubeya entrances from a distance. But there is no longer any casual engagement with sumotori that’s possible inside the venue. It’s possible that those wishing to engage with very low rankers could have more luck earlier in the day, but punters should be aware that there is a security presence in this area. You will, however, still see lower-rankers entering and leaving the venue throughout the day by the front entrance.

While rikishi are less-spotted, oyakata are still very much milling around and tending to their various duties. Once inside, the very first blue-jacketed-giant we came across was Tomozuna-oyakata, the recently retired Brazilian fan favourite Kaisei. He was happy to pose for photos with fans in the hallways. Word also travelled around the venue that former Sekiwake Okinoumi was performing fansa in an effort to drum up interest and ticket sales ahead of his forthcoming danpatsushiki, although I didn’t personally see him.

As I’ve said many times, Osaka’s atmosphere, for me, is unmatched. The crowd warmed up gradually throughout the day until eventually exploding into life late on. I can’t say it was exactly like the basho that I used to know, but you could see flashes of it here and there. It’s not sumo without a heavily drunken uncle veering between punching the air, slumping over half asleep or effing and blinding in reaction to the day’s events. Happily, the next box contained a local karaoke bar owner who was happy to oblige in all of these things and also engage in some spirited banter about which rikishi had been bad boys in recent years for their misadventures in the company of deep-pocketed sponsors or in gambling dens or with alcohol or ladies or all of the above. Some of the conjecture was too hot for TV, but you’ll just have to believe me.

I attended Day 3 of the basho, and its first week coincided with Japan’s loosening of mask restrictions. While mask observance was obviously still heavily prevalent throughout the venue (and Osaka and Tokyo generally), it was also clear that fans were starting to feel more comfortable eating, drinking, socialising and cheering in the public space. After a couple years of tournaments plagued by a lack of real fan engagement and cheering, where drinking beverages apart from water had been forbidden and thunderous winning moves were met with timid clapping, it was good to see the arena sparking back to life.

While the sumo continued on for several matches after, I think the highlight in terms of atmosphere will have been the match contested and won by Osaka native Ura. As I have said already, I felt in this basho that he rubber-stamped his position as heir-and-successor to Osaka’s Ikioi as local hero. While this may have felt obvious for sometime, it just isn’t right to see an exciting victory met by golf claps. The magic of Osaka is when the venue explodes into life as the flashbulbs pop from the side of the dohyo at a moment that fills the fans with pride for the performance of a native son. The sakura-tinted mawashi wearing man from Kise beta duly obliged to ensure no matter what else took place, the locals would be sent home happy.

All in all, it did not disappoint. It would be inaccurate to say that I felt the frisson that I used to before going to a basho. But I think that will come, perhaps whenever I am next able to visit the Kokugikan. I think more than anything the prevailing feeling was one of relief, of being able to return to something we used to know and love. Of feeling thankful to be back at sumo again.

Heading Back to The Basho

It’s been three long years. Long time readers of the site will know that in the “before-times,” I made every effort to attend honbasho and other events to try and grab interesting content for the site – interviews, the soken, the jungyo, ‘day outexperiences at the basho, Ozeki Bento reviews, etc. Hopefully, you found some of it to be enjoyable!

I was in Osaka three years ago, with tickets in hand, when the proclamation came down that Haru 2020 was to be the silent basho. Obviously none of us could have expected what the coming days, weeks, months and years would have in store. How lucky, in retrospect it felt that, in good health, a friend and I were able to take in the basho from quiet cocktail bars in Osaka’s dark alleys. The city felt empty and weird. Everything that followed has obviously profoundly impacted sumo over the course of the last few years, and have touched all of us here at Tachiai in some significant way, and probably you as well.

In the interim, the Sumo Association did what they could to keep the sport ticking. They got some big calls right and some wrong, but there was no playbook for this, and by and large it’s been refreshing that every two months we could continue to bury ourselves in some engrossing storylines. I am deeply grateful for that.

Now, I’m happy to report it’s time for me to return to sumo. I’m a little nervous, I don’t really know what to expect! Haru has always been my favourite basho, by a street. But all of the factors that make it great are things I’m not sure if I can expect to encounter next week in Osaka.

In line with the prevailing gregarious stereotype of the place itself, the Haru basho is known as the wild basho. The EDION Arena can be a raucous ol’ box of a venue and – while there will absolutely never be a time when I would willingly turn down a trip to the hallowed grounds of the Kokugikan, one of the best and most unique venues in all of sport – there’s no better time to see sumo than in a packed house of Kansai natives letting loose when one of the native sons – an Ura, an Ikioi (in days gone by) – has provided some form of monstrous entertainment on the dohyo.

It’s also a venue that allows you, the spectator, to get up close and personal with the rikishi. Like the other regional basho, the big names walk in right through the front door. The placement of the shitakubeya also means that rikishi have to walk through souvenir stalls to reach the hanamichi, which often provides a great opportunity to shout some messages of support, cheer for a rikishi on their way to or from the dohyo, or grab a selfie afterwards. Very few sports already offer the kind of access that is possible with sumo, and the Osaka tournament offers some of the best of those experiences.

So with that being said, it will be interesting to see what awaits. While many of the pandemic-era restrictions have been walked back over the past few tournaments, what kind of atmosphere will emerge this year in Osaka? Will it be like the tournaments we knew, or will it be something else altogether? Will fans yet be able to interact with rikishi? And of course, now there’s a new wild card on the scene, as roving reporter Hiro Morita has made a habit of popping up in public at tournaments for his wonderful Sumo Prime Time channel, and chatting especially to foreign fans who may not have really felt part of the experience in years gone by.

I’m looking forward to hopefully providing some insight about the experience after the basho has wrapped up. If you’ve been to a tournament recently, I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments! In the meantime, I’ll look forward to the daily updates here to keep the nerves settled ahead of an experience I can’t quite believe is happening after not being sure when it might happen again.