Haggard and heavy, the sumo wrestlers of the Arashio stable began to stir. A young rikishi (wrestler) stumbled over sprawling camp beds and stray limbs, coaxing his colleagues out of their deep slumbers. Some opened heavy eyes, while others batted away the young novice's attempts and returned mulishly to sleep.
It was 5:30 am and cold outside - and what awaited the wrestlers was hours of bone-crunching practice in an abandoned car park in the outskirts of Osaka.
The stable - where the rikishi live and train - had temporarily moved to Osaka from its Tokyo home, so the sumos could take part in one of six annual tournaments. I had managed to get access to the wrestlers in the week leading up to the March Osaka tournament, or hon basho, and was interested to view the daily realities of this secretive sport.
After heaving themselves out of bed the rikishi washed and dressed for practice, fixing their hair into slippery chonmage (topknots) and tying the 3m-long mawashi (loincloth) around their inordinate girths. They did not eat breakfast in order to slow down their metabolisms and increase their appetites, and began the day on the longing gurgles of their empty stomachs.
The wrestlers moved like a fleet of ships bashed between high waves, tossing and rolling their bodies down a narrow staircase and into the small marquee outside.
There, they set about preparing the dohyo, the sacred circular ring in which the sumo bouts are held. After the clay floor was swept and the perimeters of the ring properly demarcated, the wrestlers nursed old wounds with tape, tightened saggy loincloths and began to stretch.
They bent into improbable positions with an ease not unlike the fleshy suppleness of wet clay, and with a grace that negated the slosh and sway of their heavy paunches.
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