My friend, Tajima-san, is a big sumo fan. So much so that he is an active supporter of the Arashio sumo-beya (a/k/a stable). And he kindly offered to take us along to a “keiko” (training session) at the stable.
Sumo is Japan’s indigenous national sport, with references to it found in Japan’s earliest written histories. The sport’s early roots are associated with Shinto religious practices, including purification rituals, certain dances and wrestling with the gods. Professional tournaments, originally also Shinto-affiliated and taking place on shrine grounds, have been held since the 16th century.
In modern Japan, there are six professional tournaments (“basho“) every year, each lasting 15 days. The tournaments are held in January, May and September in Tokyo, and in March, July and November in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka, respectively.
When wrestlers are not competing in basho, they train…and eat…and sleep (apparently the eating/sleeping routine helps them bulk up). They train for 3-4 hours pretty much every weekday morning, with the exception of the week after a basho.
But, the keiko session we attended wasn’t just any keiko. With just one week until the May basho, it is a tradition of the Arashio Stable to have a keiko session on a Sunday and to host a meal for the supporters afterward.
So we found ourselves in Tajima-san’s wake, traversing the quiet streets of early morning Ningyocho and heading for the Arashio-beya, where the keiko was already underway.
For ordinary visitors, keiko can only be observed through windows from the street; entry into the building is not permitted. But special invitees–in particular, formal supporters–can take seats inside near the window or near the entrance. Everyone is expected to be quiet and respectful, so as not to disturb wrestlers as they practice.
A large part of the training consists of practice bouts, with the winner selecting his next opponent until he is defeated. Although there is little talking, there is lots of action and nearly all the athletes are soon winded and glistening in sweat.
The junior-most athletes spar first and, in keeping with tradition, will finish early to go upstairs and prepare the meal. As they finish, other, more experienced wrestlers come in, until finally the professionally ranked wrestlers (wearing white mawashi) enter the ring.
They warm up by helping the other wrestlers with their strength training–by pushing the senior wrestlers across the ring, and then spar with each other. This form of training may be low tech, but the benefits are visible.
When the training finished shortly after 10 am, we joined a large group of other supporters on the second floor of the sumo-beya, where 6 round tables were set up for us to dine together. After some introductory remarks by the head of the supporter’s group–including a report on the condition of certain wrestlers–, and a sake toast, the junior wrestlers served us the chanko nabe they had prepared. Chanko nabe is the vegetable and protein-rich stew that is the main meal for sumo wrestlers. It was delicious!
By the time we had finished our meal, most of the wrestlers had showered and several came out to chat with their fans and pose for photos. There was even a small ceremony in which one well-to-do supporter presented a ranked wrestler competing in the upcoming basho with a new custom-made silk kimono, for luck.
Back downstairs, the ring had been swept clean and purified with salt and shide paper streamers, quietly waiting for the next keiko.To arrange your own visit to a sumo stable to watch the keiko, check out these instructions from the Arashio-beya.