Kanazawa may not be a big city, but notable things do happen. There’s a jazz festival in the fall, as well as a sake festival and a craft beer festival.
At last year’s matsuri, everyone was in a tizzy when a notable television actor played Lord Maeda Toshiie in the big town parade. And annually, high school students from all over the country descend upon the sumo ring at Utatsuyama Koen for the High School Sumo Kanazawa Tournament, held the third Sunday in May.
Ishikawa Prefecture is known for producing a lot of professional sumo wrestlers, and this high school tournament is one of the oldest amateur sports events in the country. It has been held since 1915 – this year will mark the 103rd year of the event. Sumo is notoriously expensive, and tickets can be difficult to obtain, but for only ¥800 JPY, the tournament is a great opportunity to see the up-and-comers of this unique Japanese sport.
The first year I attended (the 101st tournament), my cohorts and I gathered bright and early on the appointed day. Excited and not entirely sure what to expect, we made our way to Utatsuyama, taking a shortcut that had us scrambling up the side of the mountain rather than walking on the long and winding road. We paid the entrance fee and entered the outdoor arena.
The spectacle that greeted us was unlike anything I've seen before. The dirt ring in the center was certainly interesting, with some wrestlers, referees and judges hanging about. But what I found fascinating was the crowd.
The stands around the ring were sectioned off for the various high schools, and there were countless uniformed high school students, cheerleaders, and marching bands. In the midst of these vast cheering sections, scaffolds had been erected. And on these scaffolds were chant leaders, waving signs and directing their peers in the appropriate hand gestures to accompany each choreographed chant.
Throughout the festivities, which lasted 6 hours, there was a constant babble of noise, with various school bands playing, accompanied by the entire school cheering and doing these rallying chants in perfect synchronization. It was impressive, borderline creepy, and very Japanese.
We got there before the event really got underway, so had a bit of a wander, checking out the different cheering sections and festival food. Tucked off to the side were a bunch of practice rings with a sea of high school sumo wrestlers of varying sizes getting ready for their time to shine. We weren't sure if we were allowed to go in there, but we crept in and took a closer look, mesmerized by adolescent sumo wrestlers of all sizes nimbly stretching and grappling.
I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting of sumo as I'm not much for sporting events, but I found it to be impressive. I think in the West when we think of sumo all we think of is fat guys in loincloths, but it's much more than that.
In the high school tournament, many of the wrestlers were not fat at all. Some were actually quite lean. There was one fast, skinny wrestler that I was rooting for (who doesn’t love an underdog?) and he made it all the way to the quarter finals in the late afternoon. Large or small, all were incredibly powerful and skilled.
Sumo doesn't have many rules. To win all you need to do is to push your opponent out of the ring or get some part of his body to touch the floor other than his feet. The bouts are pretty short, some lasting only 30 seconds, but the longer ones get quite dramatic and can end with one or both players flipped on their backs far outside the ring.
Throughout the day, the competitors were progressively better, and the bouts became longer and more intense. Overall, I found it to be a much more entertaining sport than I had originally thought, and I found myself spellbound through the later heats, when the drama was at its highest.
But more than just enjoying the sumo itself, I enjoyed the event and atmosphere of the day. The spectacle of the students cheering, the community vibe with entire families turning out to watch, and the act of sharing such a unique, cultural experience with new friends put this as one of my top memories of Japan.
How to get there: Kanazawa can be reached via the Shinkansen from Tokyo (¥14,000 JPY, 2 ½- 3 hours) or the Limited Express Thunderbird train from Osaka or Kyoto (¥7,650 JPY, 3 hours; ¥6,900 JPY, 2 ¼ hours)
When: The third Sunday in May.
Cost: Entrance to the sumo tournament is ¥800 JPY.
Food and Drink: There are tents selling all the usual festival favorites (think karaage, yakisoba, shaved ice, etc.)
Weather: On tournament day, historically it is either raining or the hottest day in spring, no in betweens. Bring both an umbrella and sunscreen, just in case!
Author: Mo Stone