I wrote about how I met Shimpei in this previous story about Tiger Leaping Gorge. Our previous meeting had been more than a year prior – at the blockchain “knowledge sharing” session described in that article. I planned to visit Tokyo, where Shimpei lived at the time. I messaged him asking for Japan travel tips and, specifically, about how I could get to observe the sumo wrestlers train. Shimpei was very helpful in my vacation planning – he introduced me to some of the highlights – and said that he had arranged breakfast with the sumo wrestlers for me.
We met one April morning at Kiyosumi Shirakawa Station at 8.15 AM. A river ran next to the station exit where I stood. Sakura trees bloomed on either side of the river, with cherry blossoms shedding their pinkish petals in the wind. We walked next to the river, under the cherry blossoms and arrived at the sumo “stable”, Tagadagawa Beya. We went in to the training area.
There was the sumo ring. The ring was made of natural materials, with an earthen floor and a thick rope that made up the perimeter circle. Two men were wrestling as we entered. The rest were lifting weights, practicing moves against wooden pillars or watching the activity in the ring. One wrestler pushed the other out of the ring. As this was a training session, we would get to observe tens of bouts. The waiting wrestlers who wished to take part entered the ring and uttered a greeting as each bout ended. The victor of the bout would indicate with whom he would wrestle next. They would face each other in the ring and perhaps do some stretches for a few seconds; the victor would take some time to catch his breath from the previous bout. Once they were both prepared, they would face each other again with their bodies close to the ground.
The bout would begin once both wrestlers had both fists on the ground. Then one would see rapid bursts of movement that would otherwise be surprising in people with such girth – one must not forget that they are athletes. The objective is to push the opponent out of the ring or to the ground. Most of the bouts lasted about five seconds. Unusually long ones lasted above ten. The wrestlers would try to get lower than their opponent and push upward with the weights of their bodies in order to destabilise them. Each brief bout would involve a few moments of held breath, followed by deep gasping and panting for a minute or so while the wrestler recovered.
Speed, strength, mass and technique – all contribute to a wrestler’s success in a bout. I observed a wiry wrestler with arms less muscular than mine win bouts against opponents with greater body mass. He was better at strategy and at surprise tactics than the others of his rank. Likewise, in the bouts between the more experienced men, the most physically formidable person was sometimes beaten by guys who were shorter than him on account of weaknesses in his technique. However, sumo wrestlers are required to be big and fat. The people who were around on that day just happened to not be the top flight – those guys were away on a tournament in Nagoya.
The men were wearing loincloths called “mawashi” that covered little more than their genitals. They had their hair tied in top-knots with a string – they were required to grow their hair long enough to have a top-knot. The wrestlers would tug at their opponents’ mawashi if that was what it took to give them the advantage.
Toward the end of the training bouts for the newbies, the experienced men came over to help them with some drills, which included some chest pounding followed by pushing the experienced (and considerably heavier) men across and out the ring. To end, the trainees would do theatrical rolls on the ground, covering their bodies with mud. The trainees swept the ring and remade it before the experienced men went on for their bouts. After the bout training ended, the men did some cool down exercises, which did not look radically different from modern callisthenics-based cooldowns. The coach / master pushed them to their limits before they stopped.
We then went upstairs for breakfast. It was already 10.30 AM and the wrestlers had not eaten anything since the previous night. Two wrestlers were cooking; they were wearing their mawashi. On the low table they spread an array of food – spaghetti with mincemeat, sashimi (raw fish), beef strips, a salad and the traditional “chanko”. Aside from the spaghetti, none of these foods looked exceptionally fattening. The wrestlers eat mostly nutritious food in huge quantities, but they may supplement it with beer or sake. After a long fast over the night, followed by training, they eat, then take a siesta. This regimen is supposedly designed to make them fat, and for sure they are. We ate. I felt terrible that the men who had been training for so long after waking up had their meals delayed on account of us. Not only that, they were serving us.
The master sat to eat with us, as did a wrestler who had a leg injury. I was astonished when told that the injured man was found to be diabetic and yet continued in the profession. He did have a big plate of rice in front of him. Balancing the professional requirement to gain weight and get fat with the need to not die on account of the disease must be a challenge. Some of the wrestlers would pick this life in order to get away from their faraway villages and come to the big city. The youngest of the bunch, who was 16, was 15 when he came over. Few would actually make it as full professionals. Shimpei handed over a bottle of sake as a gift to the master before we left.
Shimpei had planned a walking route for us. I remembered that he had somehow outpaced me in the strenuous Tiger Leaping Gorge trek and was a little apprehensive about walking an entire day with him, but I was up for it. We walked to Senso-ji temple, the most crowded place I came across this trip, with the exception of Shibuya. The temple had beautiful red structures.
We walked through Yanaka Cemetery, blooming with cherry blossoms and filled with people photographing them.
We moved on to Nezu neighbourhood, with plenty of aesthetically-pleasing wooden buildings and had a drink. We walked through the campus of Tokyo University and had a drink at Mimasuya, one of the oldest izakayas (Japanese-style pubs) in Tokyo.
Just the previous day, I had come across a theatre and watched a 20 minute kabuki performance. Shimpei had never watched kabuki, but he had visited Kerala and watched a kathakali performance – which I had never done. This day, thanks to my request to see a sumo training and his help making it happen, both of us had breakfasted with wrestlers. We ended up close enough to my place for me to walk back. It was a great day, I had walked over 21 Km, and we had both gotten up close to the giants.