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Julien Griffon
proofread by Denis Chaton

Aki basho 2004, 5th day: a novice’s afternoon at the Kokugikan

Knowing that many readers are not specialists, we have decided to give this account of a day at the basho, through the eyes and the words of a novice.

At 2p.m., finally, we were nearing the dohyo. We’d been driving for almost 5hrs, coming from Matsushima and through the traffic jams before Tokyo, not so huge today as we would learn to our expense the next day. We were at last getting to our destination.

As a friend of mine, who happens to write in your favorite magazine, had advised me, we spent one day of our trip to Japan discovering sumo. Our knowledge about it being relatively low, our minds were wide open when we arrived to the Kokugikan, a little moment before the juryo division matches.

A little lost, we entered the great building. We walked across a corridor where a crowd of people stared at us strangely, seemingly expecting something. I told myself that they had to be amused by our European faces and by my bushy beard, and I didn’t give it another thought. We got into another corridor from which many doors led off to the center of the building.
We got a look at the inside. It was huge!
A fight was going on in the central circle whose name I have forgotten again. It was obvious the wrestlers were young. It didn’t look like anything I had seen from my TV set. There wasn’t much of an audience either. There were few people were sitting in the boxes and on the ringside.

So, we started looking for our box, number 8-8. As I’ve said already, the room was huge. There was only one solution to find it : ask! A few explanations later, we were following a man wearing a yukata and geta, who was carrying several bags. He showed us our box and went away. Ah! I’d been warned a box was not very large: there was just enough room for four cushions and a teapot, no more. We sat as comfortably as we could, the neighboring boxes were still empty. The atmosphere was still a little cold, but spectators were coming gradually and juryo division's rikishi finally arrived too, all at the same time.

The fights began, much more lively and impressive than the previous ones, but still catching very little attention from the audience. Only a few Europeans look interested in the event. It went really fast and despite the sometimes boring intervals between the matches, mostly when a referee climbed the steps to the fighting round and sang a song, we remained very interested.

Our box neighbours finally arrived, in fours. Two lines in front of us, a 7-person group seemed much more interested in its picnic than in the spectacle. One of them was even sitting with their back to the wrestlers. We learnt to our expense that the room was a "smoking" room and that the man in front of us seemed in the mood for enjoying his right, regardless of our comfort. On our right side, two American men and two Japanese women took their places. They had bought four of these bags we had see passing by without knowing what they contained. Four people plus four bags didn't fit well in one box alone, but they managed not to spill over too much. When we saw what was in the bags, we were not unhappy that we would not partake of the contents: Japanese food was still hard to swallow. We just enjoyed our green tea, which didn't taste so bad.

Meanwhile, fights followed each other and, after some impressive falls from the ring, one crushed referee and a sky-high salt throw, it was time for the first division. The rikishi were presenting themselves, East then West. We tried to recognise the few faces we knew: Asashoryu, the Bulgarian and his yogourt apron, the Georgian, the Russian, Takanotsuru (not Toki, as I thought first) the one with the sideburns. I was trying to find the one I liked the most, with his big glasses, but without his glasses. I couldn't see him.

The fights resumed and now it really came to life in a way we were more used to. Here were some things worth seeing: atari, generous slaps and real fat sumos as we like them to be. We were trying not to get lost with the help of our banzuke, that were given to us at the beginning. Fortunately, one of them was an English version. We needed quite some time to understand how the score sign worked. However simple it may be, with the names of the wrestlers and the small red lights indicating the winners and the current match, unreadable kanji didn’t make the task any easier.

Most Japanese people here couldn't care less about what happened in the centre and they spent time discussing together, getting up, going who knows where, ordering food, etc. In short, anything but what one would expect them to have come for. Many times, I moaned against these maniacs (especially the one who got up in front of my camera for the twelfth time in 20 minutes) who would have better been meeting in a café if they wanted to talk about the weather.

Advertisements had also appeared. You'd believed yourself to be at a boxing match, if it wasn’t for the sign carriers, being far less sexy. I had fun counting them, to see who got most attention. I was pleased to see that the funny sumo I liked with the big glasses got 8 signs against 11 for Asashoryu. Well done! By the way, he was cheered a lot when he entered the room and during all his round, that he lost, to my great disappointment.

As the fights went on, the time between the matches lengthened. Still, we were not getting bored. On the contrary, we were getting more and more interested as we broadly knew who the wrestlers were. Fights followed fights and you never knew what to expect. But we didn't know enough to figure out the throws used. However, we could recognize a beautiful action when we saw it and we were pleased.

Eventually, Asashoryu and Iwakiyama were getting ready for their match. We were all the more interested that the latter comes from Aomori province, where my parents are living, and that we have climbed the Iwaki mount. What a coincidence! The match went on, the yokozuna went out and cushions flew. Oh my ! I hadn't expected that. The scene was really impressive: seeing all these Japanese, who had looked as interested as someone witnessing a Sony TV set being packed, get up and greet the winner with the help of cries and cushion throws. Well, actually, once the enthusiasm had gone, everything went back to normal, and everyone went home.

The performance of a wrestler carrying a huge bow merely caught the attention of a few people. We watched it attentively as we discovered this event. And we even stayed a little longer, while the last people left, to observe the cleaning of the ring, which got covered with a green tarpaulin.

At 6.30, we had spent more than 4 hours in the Kokugikan and we hadn't been bored for one single minute. There had always been something to keep us alert, a small discovery, a picture to take. And, although this 5th day apparently didn't fascinate the Japanese crowd, my family and I really enjoyed it.

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