Sumo wrestling is one of those quintessential and uniquely Japanese experiences I have yet to experience. Although in and of itself, the sight of willfully and dangerously obese men nudging and pushing each other outside a ring does not hold much appeal, I realize of course that there is also much more to this revered national sport in terms of technique, history and symbolism; the pomp and highly ritualized sense of ceremony and almost sombre seriousness of all the Japanese traditional passions always something to behold ( see my piece on The Smell Of Kabuki).
Sumo wrestlers themselves are rare sightings. They are usually confined to their ‘stables’, where they live, train and eat in harsh circumstances, the sites of scandals involving beatings and even an unwitting murder a couple of years ago by overzealous trainers ; recently there was another incident in the news about a female paramedic ‘defiling’ the sacred circle in order to see to a senior official who was having a cardiac arrest : this stirred debate throughout the country.
But sumo wrestlers are respected; they are like superstars – and there is almost obsessive coverage of them in the national media ; whether the Mongolians, who are begrudgingly accepted as repeat champions again and again will prevail once more this year ( we were thinking about going to Mongolia this August, incidentally, on a whim: I fancied karaoke in Ulanbataar and the vast blue skies of the plains: just somewhere completely unexpected – but the visa application seems too complicated for UK nationals: with its fully established sumo relationship, travelling for Japanese citizens is much easier ); the tracking of the sumo wrestlers’ rankings in the annual tables consistently receiving painstaking, feverish attention.
I have seen, and smelled, sumo wrestlers less than a handful of times up close; on the train once or twice, where everyone is trying not to stare or get their phones out, and otherwise lounging elegantly in the doorway of some hotel lobby or other; almost surreally imposing and gargantuan, yet, in their luxuriant silk kimonos and the gleaming topknots of fragrant, oiled hair, simultaneously flamboyant, even feminine.
J-Scent, a Japanese brand that makes perfumes based on Nipponesque themes – fleeting, more for momentary rushes of memories and novelty than for fully western daytime wear, is a little too coy in its rendering of the rikishi, the sumo kings who in reality, in the intensity of their perfume, actually really reek of powdery red flowers in a manner that is almost unseemly in its decadence (transforming the flab and the obscenity of the grappling, buttocked, loin- clothed giants into seduction – I remember my heart racing slightly as the majestic mountain of floral cotton print,flesh, and the concentrated odour of flowers sashayed by); Sumo Wrestler, its perfume rendering, a light, powdery amber with brief flashes of fresh violet, anise, and eucalyptus that is very easy to wear, soft and pleasant, but is perhaps lacking in the full intensity of the strange dichotomy at the heart of the towering strength of these warriors, and their shining, thick long black hair drenched in perfumed camellias.