The Sumo Scene / Grand Sumo Tournament Wrestlers Find Power in Local Food; Powerful Wrestler Chiyonofuji Remembered

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Chiyonofuji holds the trophy at the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament in 1988, after winning the tournament for eight years in a row.

The Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament, taking place in Fukuoka, is the final grand sumo tournament of the year. Although still November, the sumo world is familiar with the sight of stablemasters checking their year-end and New Year schedules as they arrive in Kyushu. They say the year is coming to a close, so the overall atmosphere matches that sentiment.

To sumo wrestlers, however, it is a tournament in which they want to achieve a good result no matter what, so they can welcome the New Year with a positive feeling. To help them along, they need power, which they can get from gourmet food.

Hakata, the thriving central district in Fukuoka, is known for its gourmet cooking. The area is home to many kinds of high-calorie, nutritious foods such as motsunabe hot pot, mentaiko spicy cod roe and tonkotsu pork-bone-broth ramen. While preparing for the tournament, wrestlers often chat about the food, saying things like, “I had 10 ramen noodle refills last night.”

Chiyonofuji (1955-2016), a former yokozuna nicknamed Wolf, typically performed well at the Kyushu tourney. He found success in Kyushu more times than at any of the other five annual grand sumo tournaments, winning nine out of his 31 titles in Fukuoka. After the venue moved in 1981 to the Fukuoka Kokusai Center, where the tournament is still held, he successfully beat other wrestlers for eight consecutive years.

Chiyonofuji came from Hokkaido in the north. So why was he strong in the southern Kyushu region?

“There is lots of delicious food, and the sake is good, too,” he once said about Kyushu when he was a stablemaster.

There was, in fact, another reason for his strength there. His wife, Kumiko, whom he married in 1982, was born in Fukuoka. He said that it gave him strength when many of her relatives came to support him.

However, Chiyonofuji also had some bitter memories there. In 1988, he had already sealed his eighth consecutive victory of the basho on the 14th day of the 15-day event.

On the final day, Onokuni defeated Chiyonofuji during what turned out to be the last grand sumo match of the Showa era (1926-1989). The bout, between the yokozuna, ended Chiyonofuji’s 53-match winning streak, stirring up spectators who threw zabuton cushions toward the dohyo ring. Chiyonofuji’s remarks about the loss — “Really regrettable” — made headlines at the time.

Chiyonofuji was a truly great sumo wrestler who created a lot of drama in Kyushu, both good and bad. Will there be a future star who can bring life to the Kyushu tournament?

— Kamimura is a sumo expert.