April 19, 2016 / 5:41 AM / 2 years ago

Hakuho headlines somber Spring Festival in Tokyo

TOKYO (Reuters) - Nearly 8,000 spectators attended the ceremonial Spring Festival sumo wrestling tournament held outdoors at a controversial war shrine in the Tokyo sunshine on Monday.

Sumo wrestlers line up as they pray before the start of the annual 'Honozumo' ceremonial sumo tournament dedicated to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Japan, April 18, 2016. REUTERS/Yuya Shino

The headline act was top-ranked Yokozuna, Hakuho, the most successful sumo wrestler of all-time with a record 36 career tournament wins.

The Mongolian beat compatriot and fellow Yokozuna, Kakuryu in his bout, one of almost 30 that took place between wrestlers who weigh on average over 120 kilograms (265 pounds) and grapple, slap and push for victory in traditional mawashi loincloths.

The history of sumo, Japan’s national sport, can be traced back over 1,500 years with its roots in a religious ritual conducted in Shinto shrines to pray for abundant harvests.

The annual Spring Festival at Yasukuni Shrine, seen as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism by many in Asia, started with a blessing of Shinto’s religious gods and wishing peace for all.

Traditional foot-stamping ceremonies took place before the bouts begun.

One fan felt this year’s event was more somber than usual after the biggest in a series of earthquakes to hit Japan struck near Kumamoto city early on Saturday.

“This time I hesitated to come and enjoy it after the earthquake disaster,” said Mieko Nakamura, who also attended as a spectator last year.

“Some of the wrestlers, however, are from Kumamoto so we decided to come and cheer them up.”

The next grand tournament, the Natsu basho, will take place in Tokyo on May 5 and will feature all the sport’s top ranked wrestlers.

Reporting by Kwiyeon Ha. Writing by Brian McGee. Editing by Patrick Johnston

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