by Sophie Butler, The Telegraph, April 16, 2018
How do you get under the skin of a country in a two-week tour, especially one with a culture as distinctive and different as Japan? Taking my seat in the vast indoor arena in Tokyo, in the midst of an almost exclusively local audience, I was about to discover at least one of the answers.
We were in a cavernous hall, packed tightly around a small, raised platform of rice-straw bales (a dohyo) with a Shinto-style canopy sheltering a simple ring marked out on the sandy surface. It was day 12 of the capital’s 15-day Grand Sumo Tournament and it wasn’t just unexpectedly exciting, it was electrifying.
Each bout was heralded by a pageant-like procession of men dressed in bright tunics with black leggings, carrying banners announcing the wrestlers’ sponsors. The more popular the wrestler, the longer the procession and the greater the buzz of the crowd. Overseeing the action was the referee in a sumptuous kimono with full sleeves and black hat. Even the attendants who swept the ring with bamboo brooms in preparation for each fight were dressed in vividly coloured and elaborately belted robes.
Excitement swelled through the cheering, sake-swilling spectators as two wrestlers entered the ring and somehow made their waddling bulk of quivering flesh seem menacing. Vast bellies barely restrained by the thong-like mawashi loincloths, tree-trunk thighs, hair drawn back in topknots samurai-style, these highly focused, mountainous heroes appeared oblivious to the roar.
They prepared for combat in a flurry of showmanship and ritual: slapping thighs, stamping feet, squatting and prowling – anything to psyche out their opponent. Then after a clap of the hands and a spray of salt thrown into the ring, they took up position on the balls of their feet, legs akimbo, elbows out, hands on knees, buttocks splayed and eyes down.
The fight itself was over in seconds. A lunge, a headlock, a short struggle and the loser was ejected from the ring. It was fleeting, bizarre, but weirdly compelling – you don’t need to understand the 82 match-winning techniques (kimarite) and 1,500 years of tradition and ritual that lie behind sumo to be swept away by the raw emotion of the crowd. And it’s that unrestrained emotion – so rarely displayed here in public – which was, for me, as enthralling as the spectacle itself.
My tour had been timed to coincide with the sumo tournaments (Basho) which take place six times a year, with three in Tokyo (January, May and September). But it was only one of series of “immersive” cultural experiences on the itinerary that otherwise followed a fairly standard circular journey around Japan’s main tourist sights.
I was in a group of 22, guided by a petite Japanese guide who didn’t need the dimensions and foot-stamping techniques of a sumo wrestler to exert her quiet but unquestionable authority. With a winning mix of personality and guiding ability, she quickly endeared herself to the mostly British contingent, helping to shed light on even the most baffling points of history, belief and tradition that characterise this complex society.
From Tokyo, the itinerary took in the foothills of Mount Fuji, to view the volcano, lakes and 16th-century Matsumoto Castle (with the oldest wooden keep in the country). Then to Jigokudani Yaen-Koen for an entertaining glimpse of snow monkeys bathing in the region’s hot springs, before heading west to the traditional, wooden Meiji town of Takayama. To reach Kyoto, it was off the coach and on to a bullet train.
If sumo sees the Japanese at their most uninhibited, then the conventions of kimonos sees them at their most restrained and formal. These eye-catching gowns are still worn by men as well as women, whether as formal wear when visiting shrines and temples or out and about in the city streets. However, in the Gion area of Kyoto, when worn by geisha women with their painted faces, black wigs and butterfly colours, this traditional look turns into a spectacular art form.
Even without the make-up and wigs, our kimono trying-on session proved to be easier said than done. It requires an expert dresser to help with cotton underlayers (nagajuban), binding the 13ft-long sash – or obi – tightly around the waist and making sure the material hangs correctly. There are almost as many codes and complications to kimonos as there are to sumo but most important is to wrap the left side of the kimono over the right side. The reverse is considered very bad luck as it’s the way that the dead are dressed for burial.
The colour, length of sleeve and type of bow can signify marital status, and there are different kimonos worn for different occasions. But somehow being lectured on the detail tells you far less than the feeling of wearing one, complete with traditional socks, flip-flop style sandals and hair decorations. Restricted by the tight material, I realised that the much-admired, shuffling walk comes naturally. For the full immersive experience, kimonos were kept on for an origami lesson, where the group learned how to create a beginner’s line-up of jumping frogs and warrior helmets.
Elegant though the kimono made me feel, it was a relief to unpeel the layers and unwind with some uninhibited fun, which came in the form of a Japanese drumming lesson on barrel-shaped instruments known as taiko. This was an energetic workout that involved beating out rhythms ensemble-style, combined with loud synchronised shouts (kakegoe) to indicate a change in dynamics.
Not quite as uninhibited as the sumo, perhaps, but just as deeply rooted in the Japanese psyche, this centuries-old musical tradition has mythological origins and a myriad religious and historical meanings. To us, it was also tremendous fun and a good way of working off the sushi.
Then it was back to the sightseeing routine. There were two days to explore Kyoto’s best-known sights but even this had an immersive twist. Instead of a coach, travel was by bicycle and it felt liberating to avoid the tourist queues by speeding along quiet back streets behind our guide to reach the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji), the Ryoan-ji Zen garden and the spectacular Arashiyama bamboo grove.
Our cycling efforts were rewarded by an afternoon attending a Japanese tea ceremony where the performance of making the strong-tasting brew is as important as the drink itself. Gathered in a purpose-built, tatami-floored pavilion, simply decorated with hanging scrolls, our graceful, kimono-clad host demonstrated how to ritually clean the bamboo tea scoop, bowl and whisk before preparing the thick, green tea (matcha) and presenting it to each guest with a solemn bow.
After Kyoto, there was an overnight stop in Koyasan, a temple settlement established in AD819, for another moment of calm: a stay in a Buddhist lodging (shukubo). We slept on a traditional futon laid out on tatami matting, in a room with sliding screen doors and plain furnishing. Dressed in robes and sitting cross-legged, our dinner was Buddhist vegetarian cuisine (shojin-ryori) at 6pm followed by an evening of quiet reflection then rising early for prayers and chanting.
I’d shouted along with the sumo crowds, dressed up in a kimono, folded an origami frog, thumped a taiko, slept on a tatami mat, bowed reverently over my afternoon tea, cycled through bamboo groves and lived the life of a Buddhist monk. I was beginning to get a feel for Japanese culture. But there were some insights that were more difficult to come to terms with. One was the Robot restaurant in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo where Kiyomi took us for a cabaret-style performance featuring neon-lit floats, pumping amplified music and futuristically costumed dancers, which somehow just didn’t do it for me.
However, perhaps the strangest experience of all was the visit to a maid café – a bizarre concept based on the Japanese concept of moe, the big-eyed, innocent-looking female characters of cartoon anime – in Akihabara, the hi-tech area of Tokyo. Given animal ears to wear, I was served iced coffee and cheesecake by a simpering waitress in petticoat, pinafore and stockings while another performed ad hoc karaoke. Another fascinating insight into this contradictory culture, perhaps. But I couldn’t help wishing I was back at the sumo.
A 13-day Trails of Japan tour from Wendy Wu (0800 902 0888; wendywutours.co.uk) costs from £5,490 including accommodation, some meals, international flights, all transport and entrance fees.