TOKYO – Over 100 sumo wrestlers showed on Monday their most relaxed side to thousands of spectators at the annual ‘Honozumo’ ceremonial Spring Festival sumo tournament held at the controversial Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo.
Around 6,000 Japanese and tourists sat in the sun to enjoy a day full of fights, involving beginner sumo wrestlers to professional ones.
Honozumo, which dates back more than a century, is open to the public and is one of the rare opportunities for fans of the sport to see the top athletes in action.
In addition to fights, there are also comedy routines and rites to honor the gods of the Shinto shrine at which the tournament is held.
The Yasukuni shrine has long been at the center of controversy because it includes around 1,000 convicted war criminals among the over 2.4 million names listed of those who died in Japan’s wars between 1868-1954.
Sumo is one of the most difficult sports to watch live, as only six Grand Sumo tournaments (“honbasho”) are held each year in different cities throughout the country.
However, on this occasion, the spectators could see from up close the main stars of this Japanese sport, who between fights chatted and joked – just a few meters away from the public – amid a relaxed atmosphere.
It was also an opportunity to savor “chankonabe,” a calorie-packed dish that forms the basis of a sumo wrestler’s diet and is prepared with many types of vegetables, meats and fish broth.
The tournament began in the morning with fights of wrestlers of the lowest division, followed by those of the second-highest division – or “juryo” – to give way to the closing of the festival with competitors of the highest “makuuchi” division.
In addition to wrestling, the fighters also paid their respects to the deities of the temple with a collective prayer after the purifying ceremony.
Among the most prominent figures from the world of sumo taking part in the event were the two “Yokozunas” – the highest rank in the sport – Kakuryu and Hakuho of Mongolia.
Other acclaimed wrestlers present included the Bulgarian-born Aoiyama, one of the heaviest wrestlers in the world at nearly 200 kilograms (440 pounds), the Japanese-Brazilian Kaisei and the Georgian Tochinoshin.
The two Yokozunas performed a ring-entering ceremony known as “dohyo-iri” in which they paced around the “dohyo” or sumo ring, dressed in their kesho-mawashi, the traditional white aprons tied with a silk belt.
Honozumo is one of the most relaxed sumo events since it is not part of any competition, allowing spectators to catch a glimpse of the more playful behavior displayed by the young contenders during their warm-ups for the fights.
Some of the wrestlers strolled through the shrine grounds accompanied by friends and relatives, revealing another, lighter side to these respected and mostly solemn athletes.
Many fans took advantage of the occasion to ask their favorite competitors for photos and autographs, while the more daring ones even put their babies in the arms of the wrestlers to capture the moment.
Kakuryu was declared the winner of the tournament amid loud cheers, bringing the festival to a close until next year.