I had been living in Tokyo for about a year when I saw my very first sumo wrestler on a train bound for Shinjuku, Tokyo. His size and stature stood out in a country known for all things kawaii (cute and small). I didn’t know anything about sumo wrestling at the time but I really wanted to learn more about it.
Not long after that, I found out more about sumo tournaments and booked a ticket to watch sumo wrestling in Japan. What I now know is that there is so much more to sumo wrestling than just two men battling it out in a ring.
In this post, you can expect to find out about the importance of sumo wrestling in Japan. You will also find out how to buy tickets to a tournament, how exactly to get to the stadium in Tokyo, what the heck a sumo wrestler actually eats plus surprising sumo tips and facts.
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What is the history behind sumo Wrestling
It is widely believed that sumo wrestling began over 2000 years ago as a performance during religious ceremonies. It was known as an expression of thanks to their religious Gods. It is now widely accepted as the oldest organised sport in the world because of this.
During the Muromachi period (1336-1573), professional sumo wrestling became even more popular. It was practised more widely and then it eventually became a competitive sport.
The form that we see today came from the Edo period (1603-1868). People at this time watched sumo wrestling matches in order to raise money to construct shrines and temples and to replace bridges. Japan is still the only country today where sumo wrestling is practised professionally although you will see many nationalities wrestle during the tournaments in Japan.
When can you watch a sumo tournament in Japan
There are only six main sumo wrestling tournaments per year in Japan, three of which are in Tokyo (January, May, September). The other tournaments take place in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November).
If you are determined to watch sumo wrestling in Japan, you will need to prepare your trip to Japan carefully. Each tournament lasts for 15 days and they always begin and end on a Sunday. You can find the schedule for the Grand Sumo Tournament for 2020 and 2021 here.
If your visit doesn’t coincide with a tournament, it is also possible to attend an early morning training session which is an amazing opportunity to get up close and personal with sumo wrestlers. You’ll be able to watch sumo wrestlers as they train, get a guided tour of the sumo stable and then take photos with the sumo wrestlers afterwards.
Book tickets here: Early Morning Sumo Training
How to buy a Sumo Wrestling ticket in Japan
If you’re travelling to Japan, I highly recommend purchasing a ticket as far in advance as possible as tickets sell out quite quickly. You can usually buy a ticket a month in advance. The best place to purchase valid tickets, often at a discount is through Voyagin.
Something very important to note is that you must bring the credit/debit card you used to purchase the ticket with you to the stadium. The cost of tickets varies quite considerably, prices range from around €20 to €120 depending on where you sit.
If you live in Japan, you can buy tickets in convenience stores like 7/11 although you will most likely need some Japanese language skills. You can also purchase tickets from websites such as Tokyo Gaijins or Voyagin. If all else fails, you can turn up on the day of the event and hopefully secure a seat to watch a sumo wrestling tournament in Japan. The stadium reserves a few seats in the arena for those who do just that.
How to choose a seat in The Arena
There are three main types of seating arrangements at sumo wrestling tournaments and of course the closer you are to the ring, the more expensive your ticket will be. It is completely up to you how you want to watch sumo wrestling in Japan, however, this seating guide may help you:
Ring-side seats: These seats are the hardest to get and the most expensive. They require you to sit on a cushion for the duration of the tournament and you face the risk of injury due to how close you are to the sumo wrestlers. It’s up to you if you want to take that chance or not! They are definitely the most popular amongst die-hard fans who want to watch sumo wrestling in Japan!
Box-seats: The rest of the first floor is made up of box seats which can hold up to 4 people but keep in mind that you pay the price for 4 tickets regardless of how many people there are. You sit on cushions for the duration and it can be uncomfortable if you’re not used to sitting on the floor for a long period of time. Prices also vary depending on what tier you’re in; A, B or C.
Arena Style: The rest of the stadium is then made up of your typical arena style seating and it is the cheapest ticket to buy. The price again varies depending on what tier you’re in; A, B or C. I sat here and was close enough to the action. I was also thankful that there was no chance a sumo wrestler could land on top of me!
How to get to the Sumo stadium
It is quite easy to get to Ryogoku Kokugikan from central Tokyo. You can take the metro from Tokyo station to Ochanomizu Tokyo Metro Marunouchi and then take the train from Ochanomizu to Ryogoku Jr Chuo/Sobu Local Service. It costs around €2/3.
I highly recommend downloading the Tokyo Metro app which can also be used offline. This is particularly useful as public WiFi in Japan is not that common. I used this app all throughout my time living in Tokyo and I loved how useful and convenient it was.
Ryogoku Area: what Is Sumo Central Really like
The air around Ryogoku Kokugikan on tournament days is full of excitement. There are lots of vendors selling sumo memorabilia, Japanese snacks and lots of trinkets. Before you enter the stadium to watch the sumo wrestling tournament, you can even pretend to be a sumo wrestler! I did just that as you can see below but be quick, it’s a popular attraction!
The day of each sumo wrestling tournament in Japan itself lasts from 8am – 4pm but I noticed that it didn’t really fill up until around 2pm. I later found out that this is fairly normal at sumo tournaments as most people come along to watch the higher ranking sumo wrestlers later in the day.
You can buy snacks and drinks inside the stadium and take breaks outside. If you’ve been at the stadium all day you will most likely want to do this.
At the end of the tournament, the champion takes home a huge trophy. The performance at the end is quite special and it is very clear that all of the years of training have been worth it.
The importance of Sumo Wrestling rituals
There are many religious rituals that take place before, during and after a sumo wrestling event in Japan. They include sumo wrestlers throwing salt onto the ring before the match and drinking sacred water. The referee is dressed as a Shinto priest and the mawashi (belly bands) and oicho (hairstyle) worn by sumo wrestlers are deeply rooted in Japanese tradition.
The rituals that take place are often longer than the actual fight itself. The two wrestlers face each other with their arms extended while they raise their legs and stamp their feet.
They must also glare at their opponent at the same time. This reminded me of the Haka performed at rugby matches by New Zealanders – it is most definitely a form of intimidation.
The actual fights typically last a few seconds to a couple of minutes. In order to win, your opponent must touch the floor with any other body part besides the soles of their feet or step out of the ring.
The Daily Life of a sumo wrestler
The path to becoming a sumo wrestler is often described as brutal and gruelling. You must move to a stable for the duration of your career and be among other wrestlers. Hierarchy is extremely important and those starting out often clean and cook for higher ranking wrestlers.
Every day follows the same ritual; train on an empty stomach, then eat a huge mid-day meal, nap, training and another huge meal before bed. It is a diet which is made up of vegetables, meat and fish and bowls upon bowls of rice.
Once you reach a certain status you are required to maintain it, otherwise, you are expected to retire. A special ceremony takes place when this happens and the top-knot of the wrestler who’s retiring is cut. I’ve heard that it is very emotional for all involved.
Most wrestlers are at the top of their game between the ages of 20 and 35. They eat, breathe and sleep sumo in a life that is regimented from morning until night by their trainer.
Get Tickets Here: Early Morning Training – Sumo Stable Tour
Surprising facts about Sumo Wrestling you May Not Know
- McDonald’s and other restaurants in the Ryogoku area have catered for sumo wrestlers by installing larger seats.
- You don’t have to be Japanese to take part. In fact, up until 2017, the winner of every sumo wrestling tournament was non-native.
- You can visit some stables where sumo wrestlers live but more often than not you must be accompanied by a Japanese speaker who has an interest in sumo.
- Unlike boxing, there are no weight divisions in sumo so it’s possible to be matched up with someone two or three times bigger than you. I saw a thin guy from Croatia fight a Japanese wrestler that was three times larger than him and he won!
- During the Shinto era, women were sometimes allowed to sumo wrestle. Now, they are not allowed to enter the ring at all even to present the trophy to the winner.
- When fans are disappointed with a ruling, they will often throw their cushions at the sumo wrestler or into the ring. Japanese people are known to follow rules rigidly so this was one of the only times I saw ‘unruly’ behaviour in Japan.
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Over To You….
Have you been to a sumo wrestling tournament? What do you think about sumo? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!