A ring, some salt and two really big guysLiberated from a decades-long ban last month, Japanese pop culture is now hot. Sushi restaurants are all the rage. CDs by Japanese singers are soaring on the pop charts. Now it’s time for sumo, Japan’s national sport, to pounce on the peninsula. On Feb. 14 and 15, Seoul welcomes the Grand Sumo Korea Tournament, which then proceeds to Busan on Feb. 18.
The Japanese form of wrestling, said to be more than 1,500 years old, involves two players called rikishi, or “man of great strength,” who square off on a circular, sand-covered ring 4.55 meters (15 feet) across. In the center of the ring are buried foods such as salt, dried fish, seaweed, chestnuts and sake, whose collective purpose is to drive away evil spirits and protect players’ health.
The rikishi who can force an opponent out of the ring, or make any part of his body but the soles of his feet touch the playing surface, within four minutes wins. While in Korea’s style of wrestling, ssireum, competitors only use their legs, rikishi employ their hands as well. With more than 70 unique moves, sumo has gained popularity the world over for its intensity.
The ceremonial periods before and after the competitions are a big attraction. Before the bout, each player enters the stadium and stands outside the ring. These behemoth athletes ― who keep up their weight by adhering to a high-protein diet called chanko ― are a sight to behold in their flamboyant silk belts.
A yokozuna, the cream-of-the-crop rikishi, claps his hands to invite a Shinto god into the stadium. Moving to the center of the ring, he stamps his feet on the ground in an effort to shoo away evil spirits.
Before each match, players rinse their mouths with holy water and then throw a handful of salt ― which is believed to have purifying power by adherents of Shinto ― into the ring. Following the foot stamping and clapping, each wrestler crouches on the ground to pay respect to his opponent.
For this tournament, about 40 professional sumo wrestlers are flying to Korea, including Asashoryu, a yokozuna from Mongolia. Asashoryu, who weighs 184 kilograms (406 pounds), won 15 consecutive bouts in his first sumo tournament in Japan, which ended Jan. 25. Another player to watch for is Kim Seong-taek, or Kasugao, a Korean in the pro sumo league who’s come home for the bout.
by Chun Su-jin
Ticket prices for the Seoul tournament, about four hours each night, vary from 15,000 won ($12) to a sky-high 520,000 won. Jangchung Gymnasium is best reached via subway line No. 3 to Dongguk University Station, exit 5. For more information, call (02) 797-9322 or visit the Web site at www.sumo.or.kr, which offers information in English and Japanese.