Photo/IllutrationThe entrance to the Sumokan Kehaya-za museum in Katsuragi, Nara Prefecture, is located at the back of the building on the left, which houses a free resting area for tourists. (Kohzoh Yakuwa)

  • Photo/Illustraion

KATSURAGI, Nara Prefecture--When a sumo museum here considered going “interactive,” the city official in charge of it at first opposed the idea.

But Hironao Koike, a former amateur sumo wrestler, discovered that many people wanted to climb in the dohyo ring at the Sumokan Kehaya-za and try the traditional sport for themselves.

“As someone with experience, I found it strange,” said Koike, who initially rejected the idea of providing stuffed sumo costumes and loincloths for museum visitors to help them look like sumo wrestlers. “I’m grateful for members of the (town government’s) commerce and tourism division who gave me the idea.”

Over the past few years, there has been an increasing number of foreigners who have enjoyed trying their hand at sumo wrestling dressed in the costumes and loincloths. They now account for nearly 20 percent of the museum’s paid attendance.

The Sumokan Kehaya-za opened in 1990 as Katsuragi is the birthplace of Taima no Kehaya, who, according to “Nihon Shoki” (The Chronicles of Japan), a legendary account completed in the Nara Period (710-784), wrestled in the first recorded sumo match.

“It is a facility that honors Kehaya who lost to Nomi no Sukune and passes down the history of sumo to posterity,” said Koike, 51.

Koike was an amateur sumo wrestler until he graduated from college. He was assigned to the museum immediately after he landed a job at the now-defunct Taima town office one month before it merged with a neighboring town to form Katsuragi. Koike studied the donated materials to learn the history of sumo.

At the Sumokan Kehaya-za, when visitors pass under the “noren” curtain to enter, the first thing they see is the dohyo. The ring is a circle of straw bales 4.55 meters in diameter, which is mounted on a 6.7-meter-square platform made of clay.

It is the same size as the dohyo used for the “honbasho” professional tournaments. People of all ages can get up on the ring, while “sumo jinku,” a type of folk song in traditional seven-and-five-syllable meter, is also performed twice a month to entertain visitors.

Housed on the second floor is an exhibition space for historical materials. Put on display at a special exhibition currently held at the museum are the “banzuke” rankings used for the first and the last honbasho tournaments in each of the past four eras from Meiji (1868-1912) to Heisei (1989-2019), in addition to the recent Summer Grand Sumo Tournament, which was the first honbasho held in the Reiwa Era.

The museum boasts a collection of about 12,000 pieces of historical materials.

The facility has featured the dohyo since its opening 30 years ago. But most of the approximately 500 pieces on display at the venue were borrowed from the Sumo Museum, which is operated by the Japan Sumo Association in Tokyo, only for three months. They included “kesho mawashi” ornamental loincloths worn by two famed yokozuna from the Showa Era (1926-1989), Taiho and Kashiwado. The collection was far from satisfactory.

However, things took a favorable turn thanks to peonies that bloom at the nearby Taimadera temple in the spring.

Shortly after the museum opened, Ikuhito Furukawa, 76, a sumo fan who lives in Kawachi-Nagano in Osaka Prefecture, visited Taimadera to see the peonies before dropping by the Sumokan Kehaya-za. But he was disappointed because there was not much to see at the time.

What popped into his head was the enormous amount of materials collected by Hisashi Fujita, his close friend who died at age 60 in late 1988. Furukawa reached out to his bereaved family to donate the materials on the condition that the museum would receive all the pieces. About 7,000 items from the “Fujita collection” were made public in 1991.

The Sumokan Kehaya-za is a five-minute walk from Taimadera Station on Kintetsu Railway Co.’s Minami Osaka Line. The museum is located five minutes from the Katsuragi Interchange along the Mimani-Hanna Road by car.

It is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays except national holidays and during the year-end and New Year holiday period. Admission is 300 yen ($2.75) for adults, 150 yen for elementary and junior high school students and free for preschoolers.