Tokyo September HonbashoSpend a week appreciating the art of sumo
A honbasho is the only form of professional and official sumo tournament, and there are six held every year in Japan. Translated into English, it means “main tournament”, which should give you an indication of how important this event really is. The September Basho is often termed the Aki Basho, meaning “Autumn”, and indeed while there are hundreds of tournaments taking place throughout the year, only the honbasho can determine the promotion and relegation of wrestlers. As such, it’s a highly anticipated and exciting event, and as it’s set in Tokyo, it’s well worth attending.
Lasting for over two weeks and involving matches between makuuchi and juryo, the top two divisions, it sees thousands of Japanese and international fans descend upon the city. Its opening day is on the second Sunday of the month, and the event takes place at the Ryogoku Kokugikan. An indoor sporting arena located in the Yokoami neighbour of Sumida, Ryogoku Kokugikan’s just a short walk from the incredible Edo-Tokyo Museum. Housing around 13,000 eager and noisy spectators, you can be sure the atmosphere will be nothing short of electric; especially for us Brits. So why not consider attending this year, and stay in one of our Tokyo rentals?
The ins and outs of Honbasho
There are lots of ancient traditions regarding sumo wrestling, and some dating back centuries, including the use of salt purification prior to the match. To this day, however, it’s the sumo wrestlers themselves who endure the most strict of these traditions, living a highly ritualised lifestyle. Indeed, most wrestlers live in heya, or communal sumo training grounds, where their day-to-day existence is dictated by sumo elders. From the way they dress - the stiff loincloths are called mawashi - to the things they eat, it’s a sport taken incredibly seriously, and one which requires unwavering dedication.
As a full-contact wrestling sport and gendai budo - or modern martial art - sumo can be pretty fierce. Of course, it’s not a contemporary sport by any stretch of the imagination, with its rules and regulations set in stone for centuries. The aim of the game is for one wrestler to either force his opponent out of the ring, or make his opponent touch the ground with anything other than his feet. The referee - or gyoji - will step in when this happens, waving his war-fan - or gunbai - towards the winning wrestler. Needless to say, the referee’s decision isn’t final: there are five judges, or shimpan, ready to deliberate whether there’s been any foul play!
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The ritual elements of sumo are worth attending the event for in themselves, and take place during the ring-entering ceremony, or dohyo-iri. On mounting the ring, or dohyo, wrestlers perform a number of tasks which hark from the Shinto religion, including clapping their hands and stomping their legs to drive any evil spirits away. Afterwards, they use ladlefuls of ‘power water’ with which to rinse their mouths out, called chikara-mizu, then dried from the mouth with chikara-gami, or ‘power paper’. Salt is then thrown to purify the ring, before the wrestlers crouch down and face one another, attempting to stare each other out. This is often one of the most intense moments during the tournament.
Every day in the September honbasho, each of the top divisions will wrestle once a day, while those in lower divisions will wrestle just seven times throughout the course of the event. If the wrestlers can achieve kachikoshi, or win the majority of battles, they’ll be promoted in time for the next event. What many tourists fail to learn, however, is that the highest ranking wrestlers don’t fight until the end of each day, so you’ll have a lot of time on your hands if you’re only interested in the ‘big’ matches. But this isn’t a problem by any means: there’s so much to see and do in Tokyo!
When you’re not watching the match, you’ll find a fascinating museum dedicated to sumo within the event building, so you can learn all about the art and its long history. Of course, when you want to get out and about, there’s so much to keep you entertained. Simply strolling through a supermarket will unearth all manner of strange foods and souvenirs: the Japanese have a unique and - to us Westerners - a seemingly bizarre culture! Whether you want to visit the largest Barbie store in the world, make offerings to Buddha in one of the city’s temples, or head out for the best sushi you’ll ever taste, Tokyo’s an incredibly vibrant and diverse place to holiday. It is, in short, one of those ‘must-see’ destinations.
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