Watching sumo in Tokyo was not on our ‘must-do’ list of things for our first trip to Japan back in 2015. We didn’t really know anything about it and it seemed a bit weird and didn’t interest us. But we did it anyway and LOVED it. For our second trip, in January this year, we knew we wanted to go again. And after that, we seem to have become actual sumo fans. Who’d have thought it?
So we thought we’d share what it’s like going to watch it for the day and some useful things you need to know before you go.
Before you go: booking tickets and background
You need to make sure it’s on, because it doesn’t run all the time. We’ve been in May and more recently in January. So you need to check if sumo dates align with when you’re in Tokyo, using the official schedule. You buy your tickets in advance online. Sumo is a huge deal in Japan, so they do sell out if you leave it too late. You can buy box seats (Japanese style sitting on the floor) or chair seats. We liked the former for the more Japanese experience, but if you don’t think you’d be comfortable in a tiny box for hours: avoid!
It’s also useful to have a tiny bit of background knowledge about what sumo actually is before you try to watch it in real life. It’s wrestling, of course, and the aim is to force the opponent out of the ring or onto the ground. As soon as a foot goes out, the other person has won. As soon as anything but a foot touches the ground, the other wins too.
In true Japanese style, it is hugely regimented, traditional and sacred. Its origins are in the Shinto religion and it still feels very spiritual. The wrestlers live in communal ‘stables’ (sadly not the horsey kind) where everything they do is bound by tradition and ritual, too. It sounds like an awful life to be honest.
Also, not all of the wrestlers are Japanese – far from it. In fact, it’s been dominated by non-Japanese champions for ages and they were recently thrilled to have a Japanese winner for the first time in years.
Where it is: Ryōgoku Kokugikan (sumo hall)
We got the train to Ryōgoku stop from our little home-from-home in lovely Kōenji. Before even going near the sumo hall, we got some snacks (as is tradition, having done it twice…) from a FamilyMart round the corner. A packet of dried squid was top of my list – FamilyMart stock the best type and we stupidly didn’t take a photo of it but have found one on someone’s blog if you want to know what packet to look out for. As well as the squid, we got some little spicy rice cakes, enormous apples (apples in Japan are hilariously big), beer (obviously) and various other nibbles.
Suitably loaded with provisions, we headed down the flag-lined street to the sumo hall. Outside the hall, there are some photo opportunities ‘with’ Japan’s current favourite sumo wrestler, Endo. Japan just bloody loves a head-in-hole photo board. Once you’re inside, it’s all very busy but organised (so Japan) and there are lots of cherry blossom and lantern decorations lining the walkways as you go through to find your seats.
Sumo seating arrangements
This is what the Japanese-style box seats look like – unfortunately, we took this photo with two of the cushions missing, but you can see in our next-door neighbour’s box that there should be four cushions.
The boxes are for four people, so if you can’t fit on one normal-sized cushion for a few hours with three other people next to you, you might not like these seats. It’s like being four baby birds in a nest. You have to really like your fellow nest-mates.
Opening ceremonies and rituals
Before each tournament, there’s a load of parading of advertising boards in the dohyō. It’s really odd seeing something as commercial and brash as marketing some tinned plums or something in what is mostly a series of ceremonial and ritual activities.
Then the wrestlers do some walking around too. This is your chance to pick who you like best. Obviously, that’s going to be based entirely on the colour of their ‘mawashi’ (the belted knickers they wear).
The seats are all arranged around the dohyō (sand-covered ring, pictured below). Women aren’t allowed to touch it, because of some crap about ‘impurity’, which is the only thing about sumo we didn’t like when we found out about it. Hopefully the rise of feminism and even women’s sumo in Japan will improve things in the near future though.
The actual wrestling
Compared to all the limbering up, foot stomping and ceremony beforehand, the action is usually over in minutes, if not seconds. But it’s surprisingly tense. We were lucky enough to experience a really long one on our last Tokyo trip. They were both latched onto each other, perfectly matched in power, for several minutes.
We also saw one of the top wrestlers get beaten. At the end of the event, everyone threw their cushions at the ring because they were fuming about this. Sumo is the only time we’ve seen Japanese people get proper rowdy. It’s not even allowed to throw the cushions any more, but they do it anyway. Japanese people breaking the rules. Incredible stuff.
It’s very busy when you leave, so be prepared for crowds. All behaving themselves again, of course. They got all the rebellion out with the cushion-chucking.
All in all, we really enjoyed it. Probably more so this second time around because we had some idea of what to expect. It’s definitely worth going to see and is a far cry from the ‘fat blokes in nappies’ image most people have of it.
If you go with someone who lives in Japan who understands it, it’ll make it much better. Our friend Tom informed us that Gagamaru Masaru, a Georgian sumo wrestler, is known as ‘Lady Gaga-maru’. So he is now our favourite one and we even looked out for him when we were watching it on TV in Naoshima. That’s how much we got into it.
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