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So Sumo me!

By IMPY PILAPIL Published May 27, 2023 5:00 am

TOKYO—In the company of giants.

Happening only twice a year, I was finally in Tokyo in the right month for a sumo event.

Sumo, recognized as Japan's national sport, has gained widespread popularity both within the country and globally. Local residents and international tourists eagerly flock to witness the mesmerizing displays of professional sumo wrestlers, leading to swift ticket sales for tournaments.

The roots of sumo can be traced back approximately 1,500 years when it served as a ritualistic practice to forecast the year's harvest. Over time, it evolved into a revered ceremony embraced by nobles and aristocrats at the imperial court, eventually capturing the fascination of the general public during the Edo Period in the 17th century.

Top Division roll call

Interestingly, apart from Japan, the only other place where an international Sumo competition is held annually is in Los Angeles in the US. Surprisingly, there is also a British Sumo Federation that is recognized by Japan, demonstrating the global reach and appeal of this ancient martial art.

As I arrived at the Ryōgoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, the excitement was palpable. The sight of these formidable giants stepping out of their cars and making their way towards the stadium was awe-inspiring. Thanks to our friend Yuko Hayashi, our taxi dropped us right by the spot where they crossed a short path to enter the arena. I couldn't believe my eyes when I found myself face-to-face with one of the sumo wrestlers as he walked by me. Thankfully, my quick-thinking sister managed to capture the moment in a photograph.

Philippine-born Hisashi Mitakeumi, the Pride of Nagano

These athletes are truly massive, yet they possess a serene demeanor, devoid of any hint of malevolence. Their focused gaze was fixed on their path, particularly the high-ranking wrestlers identifiable by their hair tied in a shiny pony bun.

The younger wrestlers, presumably from a lower division, sported short one-inch hairstyles. Starting their careers between the ages of 20 and 25, these sumo wrestlers undergo rigorous training, adhering to strict requirements of weight, height, and skill.

We were thrilled to meet one young wrestler who graciously smiled and posed for a picture with us. Judging by the attention he received from other admirers, it seems he has a promising future ahead.

Stepping into the arena, my friends and I were astounded by its grandeur and size. Although our seats were booked well in advance, they were farther from the ring due to the expansive tatami area in front of us. However, it turned out to be a wise decision as we witnessed the audience who had prepared for the day-long show, equipped with thermoses, food, and even pillows for their comfort.

When the competition finally commenced, the atmosphere became electrifying. The thunderous roars from the crowd echoed through the arena, especially when their favorite wrestlers took to the ring.

Among them was Hisashi Mitakeumi, hailed as the pride of Nagano. Our friend Yuko, upon discovering his presence, shared an impromptu history about him.

Born in the Philippines, Mitakeumi has achieved a high rank in sumo and has garnered a substantial fan base. His mother, who could not be more proud of her hardworking son, is also quite popular among sumo lovers. She is often described as “very pretty” in Sports News, and whether that is a boon to Mitakeumi’s popularity or just a polite compliment, she has definitely won the respect of every one of her son’s fans and the sumo world at large.

Belle Pilapil and my UP Gangmates: Michelle Antonio, Doren Tayag and Melanie de Leon

Amidst the contagious excitement, it was as though a child had suddenly picked up a broken violin, as women from various parts of the stadium shrieked his name with thin, high-pitched voices.

When Mitakeumi's turn finally arrived, we watched with bated breath, even offering silent prayers for his victory. And lo and behold, he emerged triumphant!

In that very moment, our composure crumbled, unable to contain the overwhelming emotions. We joined the crowd, ecstatically screaming his name, swept away by the collective euphoria.

Walking with giants...

There is a lingering feeling that accompanies spectators long after they have departed any athletic event. My father had front-row seats at the “Thrilla In Manila” match back in 1975, and I can only imagine the magnitude of that experience. Sharing the surge of adrenaline with an arena full of cheering fans is a true gift.

Even long after it had passed, every one of us continued to discuss the matches and the unforgettable moments we’d witnessed and shared. This wondrous feeling is something that I wish everyone could experience.

No matter what kind of event you love or enjoy, whether it be a concert or a theatrical presentation, pursue it with all your heart, for it will undoubtedly be worth it! And if, by some stroke of luck, you find yourself with the time and perfect conditions to witness a one-of-a-kind spectacle as magnificent as it is thrilling, nothing will compare to the bouts at the Ryōgoku Kokugikan—absolutely nothing!