Mongolian-born wrestler turned Japanese to get to grips with sumo

NAGOYA, Japan, July 19 (Reuters) - The sound of bodies slapping against each other rocks the stifling sumo "stable" in the Japanese city of Nagoya, as 11 gigantic wrestlers wearing only loincloths take turns throwing each other out of a ring of sand.

The wrestlers, or 'rikishi', at the prestigious Tomozuna stable spend more than three hours each morning practicing holds in Japan's 15-century-old national sport, with defeat facing the first to fall or be forced out of the ring.

With rare permission granted by sumo's governing body, Reuters was able to observe the stable's wrestlers training at their temporary Buddhist temple base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament that began last week, gaining insight into the intricacies of sumo.

24 PHOTOS
Gain rare insight into the intricacies of sumo
See Gallery
Gain rare insight into the intricacies of sumo

Sumo wrestler Kaiho eats a "chanko" meal in the main hall of Ganjoji Yakushido temple, in Nagoya, Japan, July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament.

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

A sand-covered loincloth, or mawashi, worn by a sumo wrestler is seen during a training session at Ganjoji Yakushido temple in Nagoya, Japan, July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. 

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Local residents observe a sumo training session at Ganjoji Yakushido temple, in Nagoya, central Japan, July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. 

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Mongolian-born Tomozuna Oyakata, or master of the Tomozuna stable (L), attends his wrestlers' training session at Ganjoji Yakushido temple in Nagoya, Japan, July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. 

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Sumo wrestler Kainowaka prepares a meal of "chanko nabe", a signature hot-pot dish associated with sumo wrestlers, in an open-air kitchen at Ganjoji Yakushido temple in Nagoya, Japan, July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. 

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Sumo wrestler Kaiho stands on a sumo ring as he prepares for a training session at Ganjoji Yakushido temple in Nagoya, Japan, July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament.

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Sumo wrestler Kaiho reacts during a training session at Ganjoji Yakushido temple in Nagoya, Japan, July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. 

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Sumo wrestler Kaiho takes part in a training session at Ganjoji Yakushido temple in Nagoya, Japan, July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. 

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Lunch dishes, some provided by local fans and well-wishers, are seen in the main hall of Ganjoji Yakushido temple in Nagoya, Japan, July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. 

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Mongolian-born sumo wrestler Kyokushuho has his hair fixed after a training session at Ganjoji Yakushido temple in Nagoya, Japan, July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament.

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Sumo wrestler Kainishiki returns to training at Ganjoji Yakushido temple in Nagoya, Japan, July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. 

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Mongolian-born Tomozuna Oyakata, or master of the Tomozuna stable, attends his wrestlers' training session at Ganjoji Yakushido temple in Nagoya, Japan, July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. 

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Mongolian-born Tomozuna Oyakata (3rd L), or master of the Tomozuna stable, and his wrestlers eat a meal inside the main hall of Ganjoji Yakushido temple in Nagoya, Japan, July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. 

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Mongolian-born Tomozuna Oyakata, or master of the Tomozuna stable, signs autographs for fans after a training session at Ganjoji Yakushido temple in Nagoya, Japan, July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. 

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Sumo wrestler Kyokuhozan takes a break during training at Ganjoji Yakushido temple in Nagoya, Japan July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament.

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Sumo wrestlers take a nap using oxygen masks in the main hall of Ganjoji Yakushido temple, in Nagoya, Japan, July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. 

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Sumo wrestler Kainoryu (R) plays with kindergarten children at Ganjoji Yakushido temple in Nagoya, Japan July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament.

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Tanabata festival decorations, made with a bamboo branch and strips of coloured paper, often with people's wishes written on them, are presented to sumo wrestlers from kindergarteners, at Ganjoji Yakushido temple in Nagoya, Japan, July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers of the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. 

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Sumo wrestlers Kyokutaisei, Mongolian-born Kyokushuho, Brazilian-born Kaisei and Asahisho, prepare to leave the Ganjoji Yakushido temple for a dinner being hosted for them, in Nagoya, Japan, July 5, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Sumo wrestler Kyokutaisei uses his smart phone during a break in his private compartment at Ganjoji Yakushido temple in Nagoya, Japan, July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. 

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Brazilian-born sumo wrestler Kaisei (L), and Mongolian-born sumo wrestler Kyokushuho tape up during training session at Ganjoji Yakushido temple in Nagoya, Japan, July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. 

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

"Chanko nabe", a signature hot-pot dish associated with sumo wrestlers, is seen in a main hall at Ganjoji Yakushido temple in Nagoya, Japan, July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. 

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Sumo wrestler Kyokutaisei poses for a photograph with a baby after their training session at Ganjoji Yakushido temple in Nagoya, Japan, July 5, 2017. The temple is used by sumo wrestlers belonging to the Tomozuna stable as a temporary base for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. 

(REUTERS/Issei Kato)

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Entering the world of sumo is to eat, live, and breathe Japanese - from the samurai-style topknots to the rigid hierarchy.

But the tough training and tradition-bound ways have put off many Japanese youth, leaving sumo to be dominated by foreign – mostly Mongolian – wrestlers, who face a grueling path to assimilation.

"Language was the biggest source of stress," said Tomozuna Oyakata, better known by his fighting name Kyokutenho, the first Mongolian-born wrestler to lead a sumo stable.

"I couldn't understand anything when I was being scolded, or even when I was being praised," said the master, one of the first six Mongolians to be inducted into the sport in 1992.

Today, the one-time champion, who was born Nyamjavyn Tsevegnyam, speaks near-flawless Japanese, has a Japanese wife, and has given up his Mongolian nationality to become Japanese - a requirement to become a sumo master, or 'oyakata'.

8,000 CALORIES A DAY

After ending practice at 10:30 a.m., the wrestlers mingle with fans, sign autographs and pose for photos before the first of their two daily meals.

Lunch, prepared by the junior wrestlers, is a spread of pig's feet, grilled and deep-fried sardines, steamed rice, and 'chanko nabe' - a signature hot-pot dish associated with sumo wrestlers, who are said to consume 8,000 calories a day.

The wrestlers nap for several hours immediately after eating, wearing oxygen masks to aid breathing.

Full assimilation into Japanese culture means that foreign wrestlers face no ill-will.

"We wear our topknots, kimonos and sandals, and live by Japanese rules, and the rules of sumo," said Tomozuna Oyakata.

"It's only by chance that we were born a different nationality."

(Writing by Chang-Ran Kim, Editing by Kanupriya Kapoor, Clarence Fernandez and Karishma Singh)

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.