Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Pleasure of a Thousand Autumns

These colorul banners depict the names of the sumo wrestlers taking part in the Tokyo Sumo Tournament (Basho), held for two weeks every September. Tim and I had the good fortune to snag tickets for the last day of competition. We took a tour up to Tokyo BY OURSELVES, which made the trip quite peaceful. Not knowing how long the day would be or how much we would understand of the spectacle, we left the girls in the care of friends so as to escape the inevitable chorus of "I'm booooooored."

What a spectacle it turned out to be. Mesmerizing, zany, intensely suspenseful, solemn, rowdy--I have never experienced anything like it. Watching two obese guys go at it on TV just doesn't do the experience justice. It is so much more.

Sumo is an ancient sport, if you could call it that. It's origins, yes, you guessed it right, are Shinto. Because it originally was a contest between two wrestlers to predict whether good or bad spirits would control the harvest, each and every moment is dictated by ancient shinto beliefs and tradition. When the two wrestlers raise their legs up high and thunder them down on the ring, they are trying to stamp out evil spirits. Throwing handfuls of salt before the match helps purify the ring and protects the athletes from injury. They ceremonially rinse their mouths out with water before the match, which is still done as well in the tea ceremony and before people enter a shrine.

The actual matches oftentimes last only a few seconds or sometimes as much as a few minutes. The pageantry before is mesmerizing. By the time the contestants have finished stomping their feet, rinsing their mouths, and crouching and glaring at one another several times, the crowd is completely stoked. Everyone is on the edge of their seats, waiting. The wrestlers finally lunge at each other like two linebackers, with speed and dexterity belying their enormous size. Whoever forces his opponent first to touch the ground with anything besides his feet or forces the other to step outside the ring, is the winner.

The crowd reacts with gasps, moans and shouts of approval for each move. I had as much fun watching the people as I did the sumo wrestlers. They can go from shouting at the top of their lungs to complete Library Mandated Silence in a matter of seconds.

I had particular joy watching the PCFs (private crazy fans) sitting next to us. A gaggle of young Japanese girls were pouring over the wrestlers' glossy pix in a book. (It was like a scene out of Sex and the City except they were downing beers instead of martinis.) Everytime "their" man entered the ring, they started screaming, rock groupie style. Although I couldn't understand fully what they were saying, I heard the words OKI (Biiiiiiig!) and KAWAII (Cuuuuuuute!) quite a bit. "Big" I can relate to, but "cute" wouldn't be the word I would use to describe these gentleman, although I am sure it's an acquired taste. I am told that if a woman snags one of these guys, it is the ultimate female victory.

Strangely, or maybe not, a Fantasy Sumo League exists here. I think it's the "Fantasy" part that trips me up.

Like sports' enthusiasts in the states, people of all ages follow sumo like it's a religion....well...because it actually is a religion. I can not think of another sport on earth that is a fascinating blend of modern day hoopla and ancient solemn rituals. The tea ceremony, sumo and many martial arts are this country's Holy Communion. People do not go to "church" every Sunday to reenact holy rituals, they do it in their everyday lives, as a nation. Sumo is just one outward and visible sign of their inward and invisible faith.

The awards assembly at the end was pure modern hoopla, though. The Basho Champion not only receives a ridiculous amount of money, but each sponsor (about 50 in all) awards him a trophy or prize. Many of the trophies were life-sized. Sumo life-sized. The very diminutive Japanese Deputy Prime Minister tried to casually pick up one of these and walk it over to the champion, his back bowed from the effort. The champion took it from him and lifted it up as if he were bench pressing chopsticks. Hilarious.

The awards ceremony only happens on the last day of the basho. When we got home, I had some questions about some of the rituals so I did some research online. I discovered that the last day of the September basho is called senshuraku, or literally, the pleasure of a thousand autumns. As I have explained before, the Japanese are particulary fond of the changing seasons and the temporal joys found within them.

Not only did we get to experience something new on Sunday, which is always a pleasure, but it was also the first day that it felt like Fall in Tokyo--the heat and humidity seemed to be taking their final curtain call of the year. On the way to the sumo stadium, I saw the first leaves starting to turn pale yellow. Our morning glory has died back and left swollen seed pods on its red vines. Nature is preparing to close up shop. It's gently warning us that Winter is Coming.

I guess that's why I love Fall so much. Even though I know the cold and darkness are on their way...there are thousands of pleasures to experience yet.

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