Images: John Gunning
Ozeki Kotoshokigu became the first homegrown rikishi to lift the Emperor’s Cup in 10 years with his triumph at the January Basho. With two consecutive tournament wins at the ozeki rank being the standard for yokozuna promotion, Kotoshogiku has set himself up to be the first Japanese grand champion since Takanohana retired in 2003.
Osaka has been waiting even longer to see a Japanese yokozuna. It’s been a full 15 years since Takanohana finished runner-up to Kaio in the Spring tournament of 2001. With veteran Hakuho so dominant over the past few years, and fellow Mongolian yokozuna Harumafuji and Kakuryu snapping up what scraps remain, the odds would seem to be against Kotoshogiku taking that final step in March.
The Fukuoka native’s victory last time out, however, was no fluke. Recently married and employing new techniques to help his mental focus, Kotoshogiku overpowered all three yokozuna in convincing style, on his way to a career-best 14-1 record. With the last five tournaments having seen five different winners (something that hasn’t happened in 16 years), and injury questions hanging over most of the top-rankers, the upcoming meet in Osaka would appear to be wide open.
Fans who arrive early at the arena each day have a chance to see the stars of the future battle it out in the lower divisions. Those lower-rankers aren’t allowed to give autographs but most are happy to pose for photos on their way back to the stables. Coming into the stadium, though, they are focused on their fights so it’s best not to bother them.
In the middle of the tournament you can also see the latest batch of new recruits. The most promising groups of young wrestlers starting their sumo lives in March will be presented gladiatorial-like to the crowd on days eight and nine. They will be wearing the ceremonial aprons of their seniors or stablemasters and hoping to follow in their footsteps.
With the school year ending in March, Osaka is where most of the top prospects make their debut. So get down to Namba and get a photo with the next Hakuho, Harumafuji, or even Kotoshogiku while they are still skinny teenagers.
2016 Grand Sumo Spring Tournament
•When: March 13th to 27th (8am to 6pm Daily)
•Where: Edion Arena Namba (Osaka Prefectural Gym)
•Tickets: Range in price from ¥2,100 to ¥14,800.
Can be purchased at the arena daily during the tournament 8am–5pm.
Also available through Family Mart / Lawson / 7-11 / Circle K / Sunkus
•Online ticket purchase (in English): sumo.pia.jp/en[/box]
Basic Sumo Terms
Rikishi: The Japanese term for a professional sumo wrestler.
Yokozuna: Grand Champion. Can never be demoted. Only 71 men have achieved this rank.
Ozeki: Sumo’s second highest rank. Two consecutive tournament victories as ozeki means promotion to yokozuna.