I saw my first sumo tournament in 2004: you might remember I wrote about it here. I never really bought into the first big wave of UK sumo fandom, when Channel 4 started showing it regularly in the late 80s. It wasn't until I saw it, as it were, in the flesh that I could see what all the fuss was about.
I'd been hoping that I'd get the chance to do that again this year: a series of exhibition bouts had been arranged for this autumn at the Royal Albert Hall, and I was gearing up to drag some of Spank's Pals along to it. Sadly, that's not happening any more, another victim of the credit crunch and a yen that's stronger than Asashoryu right now.
Still, all is not lost. For some time now I've managed to keep up with the regular sumo tournaments over in Japan: and with a little knowledge and a reasonably high-speed web link, you can too.
Ultimately, you just need one website: goo Sumo. Sure, the sport has an official English language site courtesy of Nihon Sumo Kyokai, and it's got plenty of information on it, including exercises for you to try at home (hence the illustration above). But goo is the one for the fans, with near real-time updates on the latest fights, and - crucially - live video as they happen. So you'll want to bookmark that one (or at least some of the sub-pages that follow below).
Let's start from the beginning: when can you watch it? Well, in Japan they have six major tournaments a year, one every two months. If you're reading this around the time I originally wrote it, there's one starting this very weekend, on Sunday May 10th 2009. Each tournament lasts fifteen days, from Sunday to Sunday, with a full set of matches every day.
For foreign viewers, the tricky bit is exactly when those matches happen: 4pm to 6pm Japan time every day. Which means in the UK, you're looking at 7am to 9am GMT, or 8am to 10am BST. If you're serious about catching the sumo live, you'll need to be awake and in front of a computer in between those times. If you can manage that, the trick is to get your Windows Media Player logged on to the live video feed as soon as possible after it starts. The later you leave it, the higher the risk you won't be able to connect at all: because the most important fights are left till the end of the day, and at that point you'll be in contention with all the salarymen trying to grab a quick peek via the office server before leaving work for the day.
Assuming you've got yourself logged in, you'll have access to a slightly fuzzy but otherwise passable live video stream of the day's action. But it's a very basic stream: one camera, no edits, no commentary in any language, no captions. Basically, it's the equivalent of having a back row seat at the real thing, but with access to a zoom lens for the actual fights themselves. You're probably going to need a little help understanding what's going on.
Every individual scrap will start something like this. Ever watched any wrestling, ever? Has it had a guy come on and announce who's fighting in a ludicrously mannered voice? Well, that's exactly what's happening there. An introduction to both fighters will be sung with appropriate pointing in their direction, and then the whole thing will happen again in non-musical form. (If your ear for Japanese names isn't that hot, don't worry: while all this is going on, goo's front page will have the day's schedule with live scores updated every three minutes or so, so you shouldn't get too lost.) Depending on how big a game it is, there might be a short and charmingly archaic ad break - although this particular match attracted more advertising than most - and then the two guys in question will hunker down and do all that stretching and throwing salt around.
Part of it's down to ritual, of course, but watch enough of these things and you realise a large part of it's also about mind games. The actual fight can't start until both opponents are crouched with both fists touching the ground: and a lot of that pre-fight faffing about is delaying the moment when that happens, trying to psyche the other guy out with false starts. There are some rikishi like Takamisakari who've turned this into a fine art, and can spin out the pre-fight ritual to five minutes or more, to the obvious irritation of his opponent and the delight of the audience. (Don't bother looking out for him in the live webfeed: it looks suspiciously like whenever Takamisakari goes into his crowd-pleasing antics, the cameraman's been told to look at something else. Anything else.)
Finally, it all kicks off, and that's where the beauty of sumo lies. No fancy rules, no complicated things to remember once the fighting starts: it's just two men in a ring, each trying to get the other one onto the ground or out of the ring, and that's all there is to it. In the early stages, you watch sumo just for those moments (which are of course the ones you'll get in the massively compressed summaries on the sports news later that day): but as you watch more sumo, the long buildup to those few seconds of pure energy becomes more and more important to you.
Who should you be looking out for? Again, goo has a list of all the key players, sorted by rank. The two guys at the highest Yokozuna level, Asashoryu and Hakuho, are the ones to beat - Asashoryu's dominance over the last few years has been astonishing, but every so often injury or arrant stupidity causes him to come a cropper. The lower-ranked Kotooshu has been one to watch recently, the main exception to the traditional 'Never Bet On The White Guy' rule. On close inspection, you'll notice that none of the above are actually Japanese, a fact that's been a topic of anguished national debate for some years now. Kaio was looking like the nation's best hope when we saw him in his home town of Fukuoka in 2004, and he may well still pull it off.
As with anything else, the more you know, the more you'll enjoy it. Have a look at the narrated videos by Jason on YouTube, or buy a beginner's book like the one The Belated Birthday Girl got for me one Christmas (see below). Pretty soon, every sumo match will look to you like this magnificent thing. But normal sumo's all I can help you with. Those Crying Baby Sumo matches they've been having in Japan this weekend, where they put two babies face to face in a ring and the first one to cry wins? I'm afraid you're on your own with those ones...