Our last morning in Tokyo, my sister and I wanted to experience something a bit more "traditional Japan." There weren't any sumo tournaments scheduled but we managed to get in on an early morning sumo practice at a local stable. Along with only a few others, we watched for more than an hour as the wrestlers stretched and trained. During the session we also learned about the life of sumo wrestlers and some of their training techniques.
According to our guide, Kiyo, the qualifications to be a sumo wrestler include a middle school education, a height of at least 170 centimeters or 5.5 feet, and a weight of 70 kilograms or 154 pounds. Only ten percent of all sumo wrestlers are white belt wrestlers who get a salary from the Japan Sumo Association. All others are considered black belt wrestlers in training who receive no salary and live in sumo stables that pay for their accommodation, clothing and meals.
The regimen in the stables is structured and highly disciplined. Wrestlers train for hours in the morning and then eat lunch. A common lunch for a sumo wrestler is several bowls of rice and chankonabe, a weight-gaining Japanese stew; the wrestler's bowl is three to five times as large as a normal bowl. Following lunch, it's customary for the wrestlers to take a two-hour nap so that their bodies can use the food to make them bigger and stronger. Following naptime, training resumes.
Traditional sumo training techniques include:
- Shiko: a sumo wrestler lifts each leg high in the air and stomps the ground with his legs to stabilize his center of gravity and toughen the legs and loins
- Teppo: the wrestler faces an exercise pillar and slams his hands and feet into it alternately to toughen his upper body and upper arms
- Mata-Wari: opening both legs wide, the wrestler puts his upper body down to the floor to improve his flexibility and help prevent muscle injury
- Suri-Ashi: a shuffling walk without separating the feet from the wrestling ring floor also called the centipede
- Koshi-Wari: a squat that helps improve flexibility and strengthens the loins and legs
- Udetate-Fuse: push-ups to strengthen the upper body
- Sanban-Geiko: a row of training matches with the same opponents
- Butsukari-Geiko: head-to-head training where the wrestler tackles an opponent pushing him to the edge of the sumo ring, followed by the opponent pushing back and throwing the attacker down
During the session we also saw a few mock matches between the junior trainees as the more seasoned sumo wrestlers advised and conserved their energy.
While action-packed, observing the ritualistic chanting and repetitious maneuvers felt strangely meditative. As with any sport, excelling at the art of sumo requires discipline and dedication, and in Japan it is a lifestyle rather than a mere hobby.
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