Kyoto: Sumo

We planned to have breakfast and be at the main gate of Nijo-jo (the Tokugawa shogunate castle) by opening time at 8:45am, but when we got there bus-loads of schoolchildren were already lining up at the entrance. So we found a tiny street cafe nearby and sat at an outside table eating breakfast, having discovered that an early start is no guarantee of beating the hordes at the tourist attractions.

The interior of the castle was stunning despite the shuffling crowds, however. Lavishly decorated with painted screens (albeit reproductions: we later saw a few of the originals in small museum in the grounds) with very high, decorated ceilings, it was the most imposing and spacious of the interiors we have seen so far – and so it was designed in 1603, to express the might of Tokugawa Ieyasu and his shogun successors. In one room, Ieyasu accepted the title of shogun in 1603, and in the same room successor gave it up in 1867, returning power to the Emperor – the space projected power and formality.

We wandered the Ninomaru Garden and around the adjoining palace, climbed the foundations of the original keep, saw some of the original painted screens, and finally had an ice-cream (we stuck with vanilla and avoided the matcha varieties this time).

Now it was time for SUMO! We caught a bus to the stadium, and I took the opportunity to get my head freshly shaved in a little hairdressing place in a street nearby. The old guy who did it managed to nick my head with the electric razor and draw blood however!

There was a real atmosphere of excitement at the small stadium (more like a very large gymnastics hall really) and everyone looked set to enjoy themselves. I bought a bento box and a beer, Carol got a glass of wine, and we found our seats – right on the railing at one end of a long side, with a great view of the sumo ring.

The afternoon was a definite highlight of the trip. It was far more entertaining than I expected, and the atmosphere was electric. When we arrived there were ‘minor league’ matches in progress; then there was an opening ceremony, with a group of sumo wrestlers taking turns to sing or chant; then some comedy sumo routines; then ritual displays and a parade in the ring of the main wrestlers (many brought babies to hold aloft, which the crowd loved); then finally the main bouts.

The wrestlers are big celebrities and there was often a commotion in the fringes of the crowd as fans clustered around one for photo ops. A wrestler came and sat near us to talk with an old guy at one point and everyone around us got very excited. They are big, big men who dominate the space around them!

The bouts were very short but it wasn’t long before I could recognise some of the psychological games and physical strategies being used. During one bout, a much smaller wrestler tricked his huge opponent by dodging the latter’s opening charge, whose momentum carried him right out of the ring! But most bouts were really exciting displays of strength that couldn’t help but make you cheer and jump out of your chair. Carol and I had a great time and when it came to an end at 3pm, we both could have happily watched for much longer.

Afterwards we went to the Kyoto Handicraft Centre and I bought a cotton yukata (bathing robe) and some tatami thongs.

Heading back to the hotel however, we got on a bus going in the wrong direction, and had to get another train, then walk a long way through the entertainment and shopping district. The streets were packed, the lights were flashing, and music was piped out onto the the sidewalk. Huge covered arcades packed with people stretched into the distance off the main road. We were both very tired and we had a small tantrum, but it didn’t last long because we stopped at a bar, had a drink and sorted it out. It was also quite funny as we saw another English-speaking couple doing the same thing – big Japanese cities at night can be a stressful environment if you’re not in the right mood!

Happy again, we walked around the shops for a while. We couldn’t find a good place to eat on the way back, so we picked up food and drink at a supermarket and ate in the hotel room, both completely exhausted after a long day.

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