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This ancient sport dates back about 1500 years. At first, sumo matches had religious affiliations, being accompanied by harvest prayers to the gods. During times of war it evolved into a type of military fight training. Later, in more peaceful years, it began to develop into its present form as Japan’s national sport.

There are six sumo tournaments (basho) every year. Each sumo wrestler (rikishi) competes once a day. The rikishi with the best record at the end of the 15 days of the tournament wins. Fighting begins early each day with the lowest ranked rikishi, and progresses to the final matches featuring yokozuna, the top-ranked wrestlers.

All 800 or so rikishi are re-ranked after each tournament, to reflect their performance. Any wrestler may be promoted or demoted, except yokozuna. To even be considered for promotion to the rank of yokozuna, a rikishi must win at least two consecutive tournaments as an ozeki (the second highest rank), and prove to possess both skill and character. In the past 300 years, only 68 rikishi have risen to this level of honor in sumo. Yokozuna cannot be demoted, so if one should carry a poor record, he is expected to retire. Assashoryu from Mongolia is the current yokozuna with over 20 titles to his name. As of spring 2007 Hakaho has become a Yokozuna as well.

Sumo has maintained its ceremonies and rituals through the years. A team of rikishi will enter the ring wearing elaborate ceremonial aprons, and perform a ritual together before they fight. Yokozuna also performs a special ceremony featuring the famous stomping gesture, lifting each leg high into the air before bringing it down to symbolically drive evil spirits from the dohyo (sumo ring).

Before each match, the rikishi perform rituals to cleanse their mind and body. They rinse their mouth with water and wipe their bodies with a towel. Higher ranked wrestlers toss salt into the ring to purify it and to protect themselves from injury. Then they face off, crouching low and glaring at one another. This shikiri ritual comes right before the match begins, but it doesn’t mean they will fight right away. The whole process may be repeated for up to four minutes (for high ranked wrestlers) until both are ready to start. To win a match, a rikishi must force his opponent out of the ring, or cause him to touch any part of his body to the ground inside the circle.

Matches take place in the dohyo, a clay stage two feet high with an area of 18 square feet. In the dohyo, there is a ring about 15 feet across marked with straw bags dug into the clay, where the fighting takes place. Above the dohyo, a roof resembling that of a Shinto shrine is suspended. The referees (gyoji) are a critical part of the match. Elaborately dressed and ranked (like the rikishi), they call out the names of the opponents as they enter the ring. Four judges also monitor the action, and have the authority to overrule the gyoji or demand a rematch.  

Where to see it: The Kyushu Basho takes place in November at the Fukuoka International Center (Fukuoka kokusai sentaa ????????). You can get advance tickets from 7-Eleven or Lawson. Same day sales are also available but can sell out quickly, especially for the opening and closing days, so it is best to pre-book. Prices range from ¥4000 to over ¥10 000. From Tenjin take Nishitetsu bus #55, #61, #151, or #152, or from Hakata take #47 or #48. Alternately, it’s about a 30 minute walk from either place. For more info: http://www.sumo.or.jp/eng/