The Sumo: A battle of the big boys that's worth every cent

Forget sightseeing, head to Japan for the Sumo
Forget sightseeing, head to Japan for the Sumo Photo credit: Getty Images

We could hear the cheering as we walked in the gates. Hundreds of sumo superfans had gathered in front of the arena, lining an imaginary red carpet.

Suddenly, the crowd roared to life.

There stepping out of a convoy of minivans were the stars of the show, dressed in shiny kimonos. They walked among the adoring and entered the doors of their coliseum. 

Lunch was the first order of business once we got inside. I ordered a skewer of crumbed pork but quickly came to regret my choice when I spotted another culinary delight on offer. 'Sumo Stew,' said the sign. 'Only 300 bowls available.'

The arena itself was a bit of a disappointment. We'd walked past a stunning one in Tokyo, but Nagoya's Dolphin's Arena was more like the North Shore Events Centre: underwhelming. That didn't matter though, because we were here for the action. 

To get to our seats, we had to weave our way under the grandstand, which proved to be a fortunate route. We soon found ourselves less than a metre away from a real-life Sumo wrestler. He was mid-squat and wearing one of those nappy-like giant G-strings (called Mawashi). It was quite a sight. I pulled out my phone to get a picture, but quickly put it away when an official started waving a sign reading: 'No Photo!'

The sumo stadium was set out like a boxing match, with the fighting rin g in the middle and tiered seating on all four sides. For the sum of roughly $80, we had secured ourselves the cheap seats at the back of the room. Most people had splashed out on what's called a box - which gets you about one square metre of floor space where you and a buddy can stretch out your legs.

Nagoya in  Japan’s Aichi Prefecture.
Nagoya in Japan’s Aichi Prefecture. Photo credit: Getty Images

On the stage stood what looked like a Japanese Gandalf dressed in a fancy silk gown - with a special hat. He was the referee (or gyōji), and he was standing inside a circle of sand that marks the edge of the fighting ring. They call this the dohyō, and suspended above was what looked like the roof of a Japanese hut. There was another man on stage too - a man with a broom. He had the crucial job of making sure the sand ring was in perfect shape. 

The first pair of wrestlers clambered into the dohyō and positioned themselves in the squat position. From where we were sitting, the only way to tell them apart was the colour of their g-strings. The gyōji said something. They stomped their feet. Then, confusingly, they both walked out of the ring to confer with their entourages. 

It turned out their super-sized legs needed one last stretch. Soon, they were back in the squat position. The gyōji counted down. And they were off.

There was pushing, slapping, shoving, grabbing, lifting and twisting - a battle of the bulge of the most boisterous kind. Seconds later, the man in the red mawashi forced his opponent over the sand line. The crowd erupted. It was over. Blue had lost, and red was declared the victor.

The rules are simple: push your opponent outside the ring of sand, or, make them touch the ground with a part of their body other than their feet. It seems the latter is much harder, as we only saw it happen a couple of times.

Keeping track of who was in the ring was a hell of a task. They gave us an English language list of the day's fights, but it wasn't much use. Eventually, I had to ask the two elderly Japanese women sitting beside me for help. They chuckled and pointed me to the right name. 

Late in the afternoon, the crowd roared into life as a competitor in a golden g-string entered the arena. He was clearly special. My new Japanese friends were clapping furiously. "Endo," one of the women said, pointing excitedly. "He's a very famous Sumo," she added.

Endo was a beast in the ring. He went full super-sumo, destroying his opponent in seconds. The crowd roared again louder than ever, and Endo was declared victorious.

It was clear we were at the business end of the day. The next fighter pushed his opponent not just out of the ring, but off the stage and into the front row of the crowd. For a moment, it looked like the loser had crushed a small Japanese woman.

But thankfully, he'd actually landed on top of another competitor and she had just got a belly slap to the face. With that, we knew we'd seen it all, and thought we better leave before one of them came flying our way.