I got off the train at Osaka and did not have the foggiest idea where to go. Or even in what direction to head. The jumble of busy streets and incomprehensible signs gave no indication.
Boasting a Japanese vocabulary that might have stretched to half-a-dozen words on a good day, I was steeling myself for the ignominy of approaching a perfect stranger and asking plaintively, “Sumo?” At which point I saw a bloke crossing the road ahead of me.
To quote the Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan, he “looked like a walking mountain range.” And not only that, he was dressed in a splendid willow-pattern yukata, wore his hair in the classic semi-shaved style made famous by Tombei the Mist in TV’s ‘The Samurai’ and clip-clopped along the footpath on raised wooden sandals. The transparent bubble umbrella that he daintily opened against the light drizzle that had begun to fall barely covered his massive frame, but if it seemed a bit twee nobody was going to say so.
“Electricity in the air!”
The Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium has a capacity of about 8,000, but it was scarcely populated when I arrived at midday and found my spot in the bleachers. It’s a long day and the Sumo cognoscenti don’t begin to pour in until the preliminaries are done with and the bouts at the top of the bill are getting underway as evening approaches. But even with only a few hundred present, the electricity in the air that sports fans feel when entering any field of combat was there. Sadly, Western-style seating wasn’t, with even ringside punters provided with nothing more than a tiny square cushion on which to make themselves comfortable. To sit cross-legged for more than two minutes was a big ask for my rickety knees and bony arse, but the theatre that followed was worth the embarrassment of toppling over when I stood to go to the loo on a leg that was as dead as a doornail.
To the untrained eye, there was no way of predicting which of the two wrestlers would prevail in any contest. You can fall back on the old cliché that ‘a good big man will always beat a good little man,’ but when applied to Sumo, it just doesn’t hold water.
Halfway through proceedings, I thought I recognized the fellow whom I’d followed from the station – Tombei. He looked enormous on the street, but his opponent was a monster. Butter would not have melted in either man’s mouth as they followed the time-honored introductory rituals – each of them, like Nana casting seed to her chooks, shot a handful of salt into the air to purify the ring. Suddenly it was personal for me. I really wanted Tombei to win, and sport is at its most deeply satisfying when it swings from the objective to the subjective.
“Done like a dinner”
A hush fell over the crowd, which had built considerably. Tombei and the Monster squatted, their eyes locked in a cold glare. It was Tombei who blinked, withdrawing from the face-off to the edge of the ring and gather his thoughts. I was disappointed, fearing that he had lost his nerve. The two men rejoined the squatting position. Again, Tombei withdrew. The crowd murmured – did they know something I didn’t? The Monster was looking even bigger. I was convinced Tombei had been psyched out, done like a dinner before they had even come to grips.
At the third squat, he held his ground. The buzzer sounded. The Monster lunged at him and with a couple of deft moves Tombei threw him out of the ring and into the front row of wildly appreciative punters.
Now I was really getting to like Sumo … and in a strange, unexpected way it reminded me of test match cricket.
“In the blink of an eye, the vanquished is sent packing”
A bout might be won and lost in a matter of seconds, as opposed to the five days of a test. But in both there is that life-and-death moment when, in the blink of an eye, the vanquished is sent packing – the stumps are shattered, a wrestler expelled from the ring.
A constant in both is the observance of tradition, notwithstanding Cricket’s willingness to dumb-down its ‘product.’ From the sartorial splendour of its judges, to its Oriental deliberation and adherence to propriety, Sumo seems to be aware – more so than Cricket, I fear – that if it bends over backwards to appease the mob’s baying for ‘louder! faster!,’ it will stop being Sumo. As I left the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium, with a few sakis under my belt, the roar of the full-house told me that the Japanese, thankfully, would not have a bar of that.