Uphill fight: Nagano Prefecture’s curious 2-meter-high raised ring

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The sumo ring in the precincts of Daimon Inari Shrine in Nagawa, Nagano Prefecture.

Regulations determine the size of the dohyo ring for grand sumo tournaments: A circle with a diameter of 4.55 meters is placed upon an earth-filled square with a side length of 6.7 meters and a height of 34 to 60 centimeters.

However, this is only the case for the grand tourneys. Nationwide, dohyos can take on many different shapes and sizes, including a square ring in Aomori.

This summer, while on the way to another assignment, I visited a sumo ring on the grounds of Daimon Inari Shrine in Nagawa, Nagano Prefecture. The ring is relatively small, featuring a diameter of 3.64 meters, but it towers 2.27 meters above the ground. Gazing up at the ring, it almost looked like a mini Mt. Fuji.

An annual festival is held at this location on the first Sunday of October, with local people gathering to dedicate sumo wrestling to the gods. The festival has not been held for the past two years because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, but ordinarily, crowds would cheer on sumo wrestlers as they battle it out atop the dohyo. Matches are conducted in a playful spirit until one of the contestants rolls out of the ring.

According to local history, the ring was built by Urakaze Rinemon, a master sumo wrestler in the Edo period (1603-1867). Urakaze is known for being the stablemaster of Raiden Tameemon, a super-strong ozeki, said to be the most powerful rikishi in history at that rank.

In 1762, Urakaze opened a secret dohyo called Sekison-no-tsuji in the neighboring city of Ueda. He is also said to have constructed an exceptionally high ring in the town of Nagawa. In those days, the Edo shogunate encouraged the martial arts, and the masters of the time built hidden rings nationwide to train rikishi. Raiden is thought to have trained in Ueda and Nagawa for about six years before making his debut at the Edo Sumo Tournament.

But why was a ring more than 2 meters high necessary? Opines Jo Ka-tsumi, an expert on local history in Nagawa: “It was to give the wrestlers guts.” The sight of famous Edo-period wrestlers, including the 1.97-meter, 172-kilogram Raiden, rolling from the dohyo must have been a sight to behold.

This novel ring offers a glimpse into one aspect of sumo, a profound cultural tradition.

— Miki is a sumo expert.