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Monday, Jan. 1, 2007

Great expectations


Special to The Japan Times Online

For many sumo fans, the January Hatsu Basho at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan is the most important tournament in a given year.

Reasons differ behind this "most important" claim and some (in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka, mainly) would disagree altogether, but there is something just a little bit special about sumo in January after the excesses of the festive season.

Preparations for the Hatsu Basho are still underway at many of the stables long after most have packed up, signed off on 2006 and gone home to enjoy the holidays with family and friends, but the year as a whole, the future of sumo, and the possibilities for each and every one of the 700 odd men on the banzuke ranking sheet is what really does it at the moment. Like every good journey, anticipation of what lies ahead plays a vital part in creating the atmosphere in which we take that first step.

Currently on a break, most heya will be back in practice mode by around Jan. 2 or 3, given that the calendar dictates a Jan. 7 start for the Hatsu Basho. Yokozuna Asashoryu will soon be back from his latest trip home to Mongolia and will be limbering up for his ceremonial dohyo-iri at Tokyo's Meiji Shrine on Jan.5, from 2:30 p.m.

It is believed that he injured his right shoulder in a bout with Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu at a training session for the Yokozuna Deliberation Council in December, and he was indeed seen massaging the joint at the time but when asked about it later, he played down the incident. We'll see if there were any lasting effects at this basho.

One touch-and-go ozeki still umming and ahhing over whether or not to enter the tournament is Tochiazuma. Known for his knee troubles, the winner of last year's Hatsu Basho went under the knife late last month, and although he was back in training soon after surgery, he has not yet decided whether he will compete or not.

Fellow ozeki Hakuho is on course for a return, despite again knocking the injured toe that kept him out of the November tournament in Fukuoka. Meanwhile, the Tomozuna man in the second rank, Kaio, along with his Kokonoe Beya counterpart, Chiyotaikai, are keeping fairly low profiles, with little word leaking on their training or lack thereof.

Sekiwake Miyabiyama has been training extremely hard of late alongside Dejima and Kakizoe, under the watchful eye of stable master Musashigawa Oyakata (former yokozuna Mienoumi) and is preparing to mount a charge to get his challenge for ozeki back on track in 2007.

Iwakiyama of Sakaigawa Beya in Tokyo's Adachi Ward is another who needs to work on consistency, and although he has been known to spend time training with Tochiazuma, also in Adachi-ku, now with a trio of sekitori underlings to take care of and with "Tochi" still recovering from his surgery, the Sakaigawa boys have targeted another "gawa" -- Musashigawa -- for their degeiko morning workouts away from home.

Baruto (Onoe Beya) and Hakuho (Miyagino Beya) continue to attract fans to asageiko, despite the training usually starting at pre-dawn when the mercury is at its lowest. They will both serve as two of the main attractions come the honbasho.

For another one to watch this year, look to juryo: Near the foot of sumo's second division, one new addition to the sekitori flock is Russian teenager Wakanoho. A friendly guy with a winning smile, the 150-kg, 193-cm Magaki Beya man is already creating waves of interest in foreign fan circles. If he continues to climb through the ranks, the combination of "foreign," "teenager," "Japanese speaking" and "traditional sport" will soon lead to Wakanoho on posters everywhere -- advertising things you don't need and will never buy.

For now, the native Ossetian leads a relatively quiet life, complementing his morning workouts at the heya with evenings spent in a gym near his stable, where he lists Asashoryu, Asasekiryu and former ozeki Musoyama of Musashigawa Beya as gym training "buddies." Hopefully in among the reps and "last 10," he'll pick up some advice on handling the advertising hawks he'll soon be fending off.

If you're planning to attend the Hatsu Basho, note that the final day (senshuraku) has long since been sold-out and a number of other days are not far off - which is impressive indeed on the back of another year of relative domination by one man, yokozuna Asashoryu.

Happy New Year.



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