I was there a few years ago to witness the passing of an era, when three great Hawaiian champions – Konishiki, Musashimaru and the awesome Akebono – were still wrestling. Between the three of them they weighed in at a good 1500 pounds or so. To see a 500-pound man in a loincloth and nothing else shove another behemoth across a dirt ring and toss him like a rag doll was one of the most awesome sporting experiences I've ever had. Akebono, who grew up on Oahu as Chad Rowan, was one of the most fearsome athletes imaginable at six-foot-eight and 550 pounds, with a glower like George Foreman in the ring. He was a great yokozuna, or Grand Champion.
But then, a sumo tournament is something that everyone should experience once. The Kokugikan arena in Tokyo's Ryogoku neighborhood is festooned with colorful banners, and the wrestlers can be seen striding around the neighborhood in their formal kimono and wooden sandals. Referees wear exquisitely embroidered uniforms and sing the names of each contestant who enters the ring, and fans sit on tatami mats surrounding the raised dirt ring, drink beer and eat teriyaki skewers and rice crackers. The whole experience is incredibly atmospheric and cultural and is one of the only places in town where the reserved Japanese are allowed to yell the equivalent of "Knock the crap out of him, big guy!"
The Hawaiians have all retired due to injury and age, and there are no American wrestlers left in this year's crop, but I see that Russians and Bulgarians have made it to the upper ranks, joining a Mongolian yokozuna named Asashoryu whom I watched toss man after man from the ring when he was first coming up into the top echelon of sumo.
Great sport, and if you feel like catching a plane, it goes on daily from now until Sept. 23.