John Gunning On The President’s Natsu Visit

Noted Sumo media icon John Gunning has authored another excellent piece for the Japan Times, reviewing the visit by US President Donald Trump’s visit to the Kokugikan during the final day of the Natsu basho.

From his article

Trump isn’t the first head of state to watch a sumo tournament, nor the first president to hand over a trophy in the ring, but the excessive security presence, and over-the-top restrictions put in place on the day, were illustrative both of the outsized importance of his office and the extreme emotions the man himself generates.

Any visit to sumo by a member of the Imperial family necessitates increased security, but nothing approaching the level of controls and checks at the Kokugikan last Sunday had ever been implemented.

Much has been made of the fact that sumo fans were those most negatively affected by the president’s presence.

As well as a reduction in the amount of available regular tickets, the number of same-day unreserved seats was cut in half, with the result that only those who had started queuing by 10 p.m. the night before were able to get in.

For fans that did attend, there were a number of differences too.

Cans and plastic bottles were banned, while any liquids in soft containers had to be sampled in front of security to prove that they weren’t dangerous substances.

Fans had to walk through metal detectors and have their bags searched on the way in, all the while being watched by the police and members of the U.S. Secret Service.

Facilities and services normally available at the venue were also curtailed or severely restricted.

One thing that John touches on briefly in his article is the monstrous logistic problems the President’s visit created. Specifically the heightened security protocol forced people to wait in an unthinkably long queue in hot and humid conditions while their bags were checked and they passed through a metal detector. Most Japanese folks can take summer weather, but the fans at the Kokugikan do tend to skew towards the elderly side of life, and it’s never good to put the older crowd in the heat. Some specifics (culled from our live blog):

Here is a photo of the security line, stretching from the station, to Edo-Tokyo museum, then back and through the front gates. Crazy!

Another image of the cursed line to get into the Kokugikan. This is especially tough as its a hot and humid day today, and some of the more aged sumo fans might be in dire shape standing in line for hours.

A sumo fan who endured the line illustrates its enormity below

I get that a presidential visit requires a level of security, but in hind sight it really does seem over the top. Perhaps if President Trump returns to a future Natsu basho, as he has mentioned, they will dial back the security somewhat.

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.

Natsu Day 15 Highlights

Enho Gives Everything In His Day 15 Match With Shohozan
Image courtesy of friend of Tachiai, NicolaAnn08 on Twitter

Described by one friend as “Anti-climatic”, day 15 in general was a study in how many rikishi were hurt and fighting poorly vs a small core who managed to stay healthy. The schedulers threw in a good number of “Darwin Matches” where both rikishi were 7-7, and one walked away with winning record, the other with a losing record and demotion. The atmosphere in the Kokugikan was off, as vending machines were taken off line, there were hour long lines to be screened to enter, and there were protective guards everywhere. But some solid sumo did take place, and the final day of the Natsu Basho went off without a hitch.

As expected, US President Trump did appear with Prime Minster Abe, and both handed trophies to Asanoyama who looked happy, overwhelmed and just a little bit uncertain. President Trump was courteous, and at times appeared very happy (handing over the Presidents Cup) and bored (during some of the matches). If the President or any of his staff find themselves taken with the notion of sumo, I strongly recommend reading Tachiai, watching Jason and Kintamayama, and listening to Grand Sumo Breakdown during the next 2 months to be primed for what should be an epic battle in Nagoya.

We are all eagerly awaiting lksumo’s crystal ball post due up later today, but I can say that this basho was a death march for far too many rikishi. A few big names were missing, and the ones who hung in there were fighting well below their normal capabilities. I think this basho greatly underscored just how tough it is to keep a group of 40 or so rikishi healthy, fighting and fit.

Highlight Matches

Chiyoshoma defeats Ikioi – Chiyoshoma delivers a slap and a pull to drop Ikioi to 4-11. Is this the end of Ikioi as we know him? Clearly he is still too hurt to fight effectively. Its tough to see long time favorites go out banged up and down.

Shohozan defeats Enho – The first of the Darwin matches, Shohozan threw in all of his unsavory behavior including multiple matta (one with a full charge and slap) before the match could get underway for real. When the match did finally start, it was a wild brawl with Enho dodging and weaving at his best, but Shohozan was clearly in charge. The two went chest to chest, and Enho struggled to get leverage over the larger Shohozan, but “Big Guns” remained upright and stable, while Enho became increasingly tired. Eventually Enho’s attacks left him too low, and Shohozan helped him to take a face full of Natsu clay. Huge effort by Enho, and typical crummy attitude from Shohozan, but he did pick up his 8th win.

Onosho defeats Chiyomaru – Second Darwin match, Onosho’s propensity to put too much pressure in front of his ankles was no worry with Chiyomaru’s mass to push against, and Chiyomaru found himself without any room to work, or any chance to move to the side.

Kagayaki defeats Ishiura – Both men end the basho 5-10, with Ishiura likely headed to Juryo. Ishiura lost the last 5 consecutive matches, and is in dire need to regroup. The entire Pixie contingent looks to have faded through week 2, as Enho also lost his last 6 consecutive matches, after a strong start.

Tomokaze defeats Sadanoumi – Another Darwin match, Tomokaze lets Sadanoumi come to him, then employs superior strength and stability to overpower, lift and eject Sadanoumi. Tomokaze has yet to endure his first make-koshi of his professional career.

Meisei defeats Daishoho – Meisei has over-performed this basho, finishing with a 10-5 record, and a solid win over Daishoho. Meisei took a mae-mitsu grip early, and never gave an inch.

Shodai defeats Kotoeko – Shodai finishes with double digit wins, after finishing Osaka with double digit losses. I think his sumo looked better, and his opponents were in worse condition this tournament. I insist if this guy could improve his tachiai, he would be a force of sumo.

Tokushoryu defeats Yoshikaze – Yoshikaze puts forth an effort to win on the final day, but the amount of force he can put into any move seems to be just a fraction of his normal. This comes after double digit wins in Osaka. His performance is either on or off the past 18 months, and I have to wonder if he’s starting to eye that kabu now.

Shimanoumi defeats Takarafuji – Two time Juryo yusho winner Shimanoumi came roaring back from a middling start to win his last 6 in a row, and end with at 10-5 record. That was a lot of Makuuchi jitters and ring rust to scrape off, but once he settled in he produced some solid sumo. He may find himself in a tougher crowd in Nagoya.

Abi defeats Tamawashi – Two false starts by Abi left him a bit slow at the tachiai, but he still landed his double arm shoulder attack, and used Tamawashi’s lateral move to send him arcing into the clay. Both men end Natsu 10-5, and Abi receives the Kanto-sho.

Chiyotairyu defeats Tochiozan – This bout was a mess, it featured a solid forward start from Chiyotairyu, followed by a lateral collapse that saw the big Kokenoe man hit the clay, but win because Tochiozan had already stopped out.

Daieisho defeats Terutsuyoshi – Both rikishi end Natsu make-koshi, with Terutsuyoshi following a cold start to the basho with a week 2 fade. There are a good number of rikishi at the bottom of the banzuke with really terrible records, and it may be another log-jam in the demotion queue that sees some incredible banzuke luck bestowed on the least terrible of the lot. Will that include Terutsuyoshi?

Endo defeats Yago – Endo catches Yago’s tachiai, lets him begin to push and then drops him to the clay. Simple, easy, effective.

Kotoshogiku defeats Okinoumi – A fairly traditional Kotoshogiku hug-n-chug win, but his hip pumping was less focused than normal, and it took quite a bit of time and effort to finish Okinoumi. Both men end the basho with losing records.

Hokutofuji defeats Nishikigi – Hokutofuji’s “Handshake Tachiai” pays off as Nishikigi puts all of his hopes into grabbing a piece of Hokutofuji’s mawashi, and comes up with air. Left without anything to hold on to, Nishikigi is quickly propelled out for an oshidashi loss.

Mitakeumi defeats Asanoyama – Many fans will declare this a bellwether match, as it shows that Asanoyama did not have the mettle to be the Natsu champion. They may have a point, but that’s not how honbasho works. Mitakeumi is able to enact his preferred sumo strategy, and try as he might, Asanoyama cannot get into the grip and foot placement we have seen him use to rack up 12 wins prior to today. Does this foreshadow Asanoyama’s upcoming opponents in Nagoya? Probably, yes.

Ryuden defeats Aoiyama – Ryuden finishes with double digits, and I have to say his sumo was dead on this tournament. Aoiyama was only a fraction of his normal strength by this stage of the tournament, and Ryuden masterfully absorbed everything Aoiyama delivered in terms of tsuppari.

Ichinojo defeats Myogiryu – When Ichinojo is “on” he turns his opponents into rag-dolls and tosses them around at his leisure. This happened today with Myogiryu, who looked like an play-thing in a giant’s toy box.

Takayasu defeats Tochinoshin – Both of these rikishi are fighting hurt, and are only at a fraction of their expected power and speed. Takayasu takes a big chance going chest to chest against Tochinoshin, but rather than set up the sky crane, Tochinoshin oddly decides to try and pull Takayasu, which was all the Ozeki needed to rush forward and take Tochinoshin to the clay. Yeah, Tochinoshin is clearly hurt, and that was crap sumo compared to his first week performance.

Kakuryu defeats Goeido – They made a good match of it, no shady moves, no cheap sumo here, the top two surviving rikishi finished the day with a solid yotsu match that saw the Yokozuna take his 11th win.

That’s it for our daily highlight coverage. Thank you, dear readers, for sharing the Natsu Basho with us!

US President Trump Presents The “President’s Cup” to Asanoyama

Following presentation of the Emperor’s Cup and the yusho banner to Asanoyama, the staff at the Kokugikan attached a stair to the west side of the dohyo, for Prime Minister Abe to present the Prime Minister’s cup. This was followed almost at once by US President Donald Trump, who presented the first “Presidents Cup”.

A large silver cup with gold trim, and an eagle taking fight at the top of the lid. Big, brash, and maybe a bit gaudy, it fits America to a T. As an American sumo fan, I was beaming a huge smile, in spite of my skepticism about my government, that someone finally decided to take this step. After many times when an American took the yusho in the 20th century, we at long last have made a visible memento of our country’s involvement in this wonderful sport.