Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Shooting the Sumo Tournament in Fukuoka

The Dohyo-iri ceremony signifies the start of a match - in this case the highest ranking maku-uchi.
The silk woven kesho-mawashi aprons are used for such ceremonies and cost anything up to half a million yen.
Sumo live in stables and get paid according to their ranking (between US$10,000 and 30,000 per month).
Most sumo live a very strict existence but rarely live beyond 60-65 years because their lifestyle creates serious health problems.
Enter the Maku-uchi or high grade sumo (based on the number of wins each season).
Sumo ranking is judged on the number of wins in the dohyo (clay ring) and not, as some think, on weight. 
So one player could find themselves in the ring with another sumo twice their size. 
EOS 5D MkIII + 70-200mm + 1.4X Extender. ISO 800, 1/400s @ f4
Japan runs a series of Grand Sumo tournaments throughout the year in several of its major cities.  Luckily we were in Fukuoka/Hakata while the last bouts of the year were being held.  I knew this before I left Sydney so to ensure a seat, bought tickets online from Oz. These only cost a few bucks more than if I'd bought them in Japan (www.buysumotickets.com) but Sumotickets.com were efficient, had loads of information, responded to my queries fast and the tickets were delivered directly to our hotel in Fukuoka. 

Sumo pantomime by Natalie Hitchens.
50% of a sumo match is 300 years of tradition. Rituals take front stage in all matches, the referee (gyoji) changes each bout, the preamble is limited to a maximum of four minutes (it used to be unlimited so a match could take days or weeks!) and the salt sweepers (front at right) seem totally oblivious to the circus being performed around them.
Salt thrower by Natalie Hitchens
This guy was a master at pantomime, slapping his chest and thighs, shouting (rare in a sumo match) and flicking handfuls of salt high into the air. The salt is used symbolically for purifying the ring and for protecting the contestant from injury. Only the three top ranks of sumo are allowed the privilege of salt throwing.  It worked because he won this bout easily.
More bluster by Natalie Hitchens
Foot stamping is as much about challenging the opponent as it might be about loosening those muscles
We arrived at the Fukuoka Kokkusai Centre at 2:45pm, just as the junior sumo ranks were finishing up for the day. Matches were a bit slow - loads of glaring, bluff and double bluff, salt throwing and heavy thigh slapping but the action when it happened was pretty uneventful. Cheap tickets (that's me) cost around $60 to sit in a hard seat at the back of the arena - but you still get a great view and can fill the frame with two grunting blubber monsters using a 75-300mm lens. 

The moment of truth by Natalie Hitchens.
You can't get a shot like this without a fast shutter speed (1/1250s), high ISO (i.e. 2500+), continuous mode and a fast card.
The Moment of Truth 2 by Natalie Hitchens
Another sumo hits the clay.
I took an EF70-200mm f2.8 lens plus a 1.4X Extender which gave me a focal length of 280mm at f4. Because the light is reasonable you only need to boost the ISO to between 2500 - 3200 to get a shutter speed of between 1/800s and 1/1000s. Set the ExpComp to  '- 1/3 stop' and colour to AWB and you have the perfect exposure combination. The lighting hasn't changed since I was there four years ago. The only difference is that I now have a better camera (EOS 5D MkIII over the EOS40D).  Shoot RAW, with the quickest card you can buy (i.e. 1000X) in Continuous Fast mode and don't stop till the fat boy is out the ring...

I loved capturing that moment when it seems all over.
Balance and position would suggest that it's all over for the guy in blue. And it was.
Once the foot touches any part outside of the dohyo, the bout is over.
Looks like a head butt but it was just a push - big enough to get this ox of a sumo over the line. The loincloth worn by the sumo, called the mawashi, is made from silk and measures two foot high and 30 foot long! It gets folded in six and is then wrapped round the body four to seven times, depending on the girth of the sumo. There are supposed to be more than 70 winning tricks in sumo, most of which are achieved by maneuvering the opponent with a grip on the mawashi.
My favourite sequence from the day. The result was so close that the five judges (gyoji) called for a rematch. Shooting multiple images in quick succession is the best way to capture that definitive shot, in this case the fourth from last (see below).
Winning move?
For many sumo might appear boring but once the highest ranking tacticians enter the dohyo things can get interesting. Here both contestants are aerial and headed out the ring. In the subsequent rematch the sumo on the left came out the winner.
Another good reason not to pay a high price for a ring-side seat!

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