The time had finally come; after around 6 months of planning, I was on my way to an entirely different island of Japan — Kyushu. More specifically, Hakata Station in Fukuoka. The final day of the November sumo tournament had a seat with my name on it.
I was excited for a number of reasons — the deep cultural roots of sumo, the traditions and religious ties that it represents, and the significance of yokozuna Hakuho’s recent rise to power within the ranks of professional rikishi (sumo wrestlers). Hakuho was a big part of why I was so excited to go; he has spent his entire life looking up to unmatched sumo legend Taiho (who died 2013), whose record of 32 championship wins was, until then, unheard of in Japan. But in the November tournament, Hakuho (a non-Japanese wrestler), would have the chance to tie the record of his idol.
That being said, tickets were extremely difficult to get.
Rather than narrating every match (boring), let me just introduce you to sumo via summary and then let you enjoy some pictures and video.
A rikishi loses the match if any part of his body other than the soles of his feet touches the ground, or if any part of him (including his feet) leaves the ring marked off by rope.
Sumo wrestling has its basis in religion; rikishi throw salt into the ring to purify it, clap their hands to get the gods’ attention, extend their hands palms-up to show that they aren’t hiding any weapons, and stomp to chase off any bad spirits.
So let the pictures begin!
And Hakuho won against opponent Kakuryu, marking a dramatic change in sumo — the first non-native Japanese to rise to the level of the respected Taiho. Many were concerned that Hakuho, out of deference to Taiho as his inspiration, would quit sumo after winning this tournament so as not to continue on and break Taiho’s record. Thankfully, tears streaming down his face, Hakuho said he would keep going.
“It’s something I’ve been dreaming of since I was little,” he said in Japanese, standing on the side of the ring after his victory, “and now I did it! I have three fathers — my real father, the man who coached me in sumo, and yokozuna Taiho, who passed away. I am very proud today to repay Taiho for all his favors to me, because he has been watching me from the sky!”
Sumo wasn’t the only exciting part of the week surrounding Thanksgiving. I was also invited to the house of Sasaki-san, a Japanese friend I’ve become acquainted with during my time here. His wife and two kids volunteered to host a takoyaki and okonomiyaki party, and together, we cooked up quite a storm.
The youngest made sure that he didn’t go anywhere without his samurai helmet and sword.
As my time in Japan is drawing to a close, I refuse to let myself get sucked into purely the academics. While that’s important, I still had to just get out and experience more of the culture, and that landed me on the lanes of a traditional competition in samurai horseback archery.
Because yes please.
And of course, I just couldn’t end my day without taking a ride on those samurai steeds myself. So I found my way to Hinomaru (Circle of the Sun), the strong grey horse that had carried his rider to the #1 spot in the archery tournament. Hinomaru was kind enough to take me for a ride along the archery list where the competitors had been running; the ancient saddle and stirrups were a pleasant change from typical western riding.
“Be careful,” one of the archers told me as I headed off on Hinomaru’s back. “Hinomaru’s the horse boss around here.”