As the sun rises over Tokyo, six men, naked apart from loincloths, stand on sand and stamp their feet repeatedly. Six trunk-like thighs are heaved into the air, pausing for a second before crashing down, the topknots on each wrestler’s head wobbling with the impact.
Monotonous it may be, but no one ever said training to be a sumo supremo was supposed to be fun.
“Shift your weight! Don’t raise your hips too fast!” shouts a retired wrestler now working as a caretaker and coach.
The routine, called shiko, builds strength and bulk in the lower body and lasts half an hour on sand-covered clay in the gym of a stable in downtown Tokyo.
Three hours of exercises, including leg splits and an elaborate foot-shuffling routine, culminate in one-on-one clashes in a circular combat ring, a tradition-steeped form of wrestling practiced in Japan for hundreds of years.
Man-mountains grapple and thrust against each other, trying to throw down or force their opponent out of the ring, watched over from a raised wooden platform by stablemaster Tadahiro Otake, who sits cross-legged in front of a small altar.
The sand is raked by bamboo brooms, sprayed with water and sprinkled with salt for purification, while the combatants wipe sweat from their bulging bodies.
A few weeks earlier, the wrestlers had performed their daily exercises in front of the body of stable founder Koki Naya — better known by his ring name of “Taiho” (Great Phoenix) — after his death on Jan. 19.
The former yokozuna (grand champion) established the stable in 1971 on his retirement from the ring.
A similar morning training regimen was taking place at Japan’s 43 other professional sumo stables, as wrestlers geared up for the next bimonthly tournament, opening on Sunday in Osaka.
The caretaker coach, Masataka Yuho, said the practice had not changed in the four decades since he joined the stable, even as it struggled through some of the scandals that have savaged the sport in recent years — marijuana use and illegal betting.
“The atmosphere is totally different, though,” said Yuho, 56, noting a rule change that allowed live-in wrestlers to own electronic gadgets. “We were banned from owning even a transistor radio when I started.”
Most of the 610 wrestlers who come under the aegis of the venerable Japan Sumo Association are lodged in stables like this one; living, eating and sleeping together in facilities that allow for little personal space.
Privacy, like respect, must be earned.
Only the 70 wrestlers in the top two divisions are permitted to live by themselves.
Japan’s declining birthrate and the growing popularity of other better-paid sports in Japan, such as baseball, have made it increasingly difficult to recruit wrestlers.
Fewer young Japanese want to endure the privations of a whole way of life to earn ￥150,000 (US$1,608) every other month, half of what new high-school graduates earn.
It is different for those at the top of a sport dominated by foreigners. Mongolian grand champion Hakuho was estimated to have earned more than ￥150 million last year in monthly wages, special allowances, sponsors’ prize money and endorsements.
“Every part of sumo life is very tough,” said Egyptian Abdelrahman Ahmed Shaalan, the highest-ranked among Otake’s eight wrestlers, who needs to climb 23 ranks to crack into the second division.