My 7-year-old son had just one question when I told him that our itinerary in Japan included a sumo wrestling tournament.
"Pops," he asked, "are they going to have really fat butts?"
At sumo wrestling tournaments in Japan, the country puts its popular national sport on display, as well as its superstars, such as Asashoryu (far left), who's considered to be on the small side.
It was, of course, terribly inappropriate language. But let's face it: The boy spoke for many of us. When Americans think of Japan's national sport, they tend to think of a comic shoving match between scantily clad lard-buckets.
As both my youngster and I were about to learn, however, there is much more to sumo. As old as Japan itself, it remains a riveting spectacle -- part top-flight athletic competition, part ancient cultural ritual. For us, it was a window into the soul of Japan.
Our voyage of sumo discovery took us to Nagoya (population 2.1 million), the fourth-largest city in Japan. Just two hours southwest of Tokyo by high-speed bullet train, industrial Nagoya is no tourist mecca -- except for the 15 days in July when thousands flock to its Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium for a national sumo tournament, or basho. (There are five other bashos annually: three in Tokyo, one each in Fukuoka and Osaka.)
Each day, sumo wrestlers, or rikishi, of varying ability levels compete in a kind of round-robin, hoping to win trophies and such prizes as cash, cars and, occasionally, a cow or huge pile of shiitake mushrooms. Based on their performance, rikishi rise through a complicated ranking system atop of which sits the grand champion, or yokozuna.
The day's bouts begin at 9 a.m. and continue until 6 p.m. The top-ranked rikishi don't go into action until the last hour or so. Still, as my son and I learned, it's a good idea to show up for at least some of the undercard. For one thing, it takes time to get used to the arena, which resembles an indoor picnic area. You get a little patch of floor, covered by a couple of cloth cushions. Remove your shoes, cross your legs and settle in.
A young female usher supplied us with free programs and paper fans, then took our orders for bento, a Japanese-style lunch box. Mine, a tad overpriced at $32, contained an ample supply of steamed rice, plus a variety of other items I could not identify but thoroughly enjoyed -- except for a piece of octopus, which I recognized but barely stomached. (It's permissible to bring in your own food and drink, if you prefer.) My boy enjoyed ice cream and popcorn.
Watching the less experienced rikishi, we familiarized ourselves with the rules. Basically, you have to either force your opponent out of the ring, a 15-foot-diameter circle known as a dohyo, or force him to touch the ground with any part of the body other than the sole of his foot.
A key figure in the contest is the spectacularly dressed gyoji, or referee. As with the wrestlers themselves, there is a hierarchy among gyoji. Junior referees, who officiate among lesser rikishi, work barefoot; the experts, who handle matches among the top-ranked rikishi, wear sandals set off by a pair of split-toe socks known as tabi. The top-ranked gyoji on the day of our visit were decked out in 14th-century imperial court attire -- a shimmering purple kimono complete with fan and short sword.