Outside the nondescript building on a Tokyo side street, the only sign of life from within is a noise that sounds like sacks of wet mud being hurled onto the ground. There is little to reveal that this is a sumo-wrestling stable – one of 46 across Japan. These boot camps have something of the monastery about them and the 25 taciturn rikishi who eat, sleep and train at Hakkaku stable do live a kind of monastic existence, dedicating themselves entirely to this unforgiving combat sport.
Most stables are off-limits but Hakkaku’s allows paying guests accompanied by a guide to watch a morning training session. Because sumo competitions are held just six times a year, it’s a great way for visitors to experience this uniquely Japanese phenomenon. During the 1980s, one UK channel took the brave step of showing sumo matches on Saturday mornings – I was a big fan and, now, I was going to see them in the flesh.
Be warned – it’s no picnic. Guests silently shuffle into the small dojo to sit or kneel just feet from where the enormous fighters are practising. No eating, drinking or talking is allowed. Photos are fine, video is not and visitors have to ask for permission to leave the two-hour session early. So, keeping still and silent, like a monk myself, I watch 15 junior and three senior fighters do the kind of workout that would leave most fitness fanatics in a heap.
The rikishi warm up with foot sliding and stamping, slapping a solid training pole and doing the splits. Despite their size, the men are incredibly supple and have excellent balance and timing.
Next is sanban-geiko, a contest between two evenly matched wrestlers.
Already dripping with sweat, the two men crash into each other. No kicking or punching is allowed, but open-handed slaps are; their jarring noise makes me wince. One fighter grabs the other's belt and hurls him to the hard floor – which explains the sounds heard outside on the street. Next is moshi-ai geiko – king in the middle. Two wrestlers clash, and the winner's "reward" is to stay in the ring and fight some more. Bouts are brief – often over in 15 seconds or less – but the junior fighters are clearly in agony by this point. This is when the three seniors join in.
They are huge, experienced wrestlers and clash at full speed, trying to force their opponent out of the ring or to touch the ground. They also make good use of their bulk in the final stage of the practice – butsukari geiko. This is when one fighter acts like a human roadblock, standing still as another wrestler charges into him, hoists him up and pushes him from one side of the ring to the other.
All the while, the stable's boss, Hokutoumi Nobuyoshi, 56, watches his fighters in silence. His portrait on the wall reveals that he was once a yokozuna – a grand champion – and is still as supple as his charges.
After the session, I meet some of the fighters, still wearing their mawashi wrestling belts, as they cool down in an alley outside the stable. They graciously agree to pose for photos, something that would have delighted 1980s me. But even now they remain earnest and aloof – warrior monks dedicated to the cause.