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Watching sumo in Tokyo, Japan

Watching sumo in Tokyo, Japan | PACK THE SUITCASES

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.

A day watching sumo in Tokyo, Japan | PACK THE SUITCASES

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.

A day watching sumo in Tokyo, Japan | PACK THE SUITCASES

A day watching sumo in Tokyo, Japan | PACK THE SUITCASES

A day watching sumo in Tokyo, Japan | PACK THE SUITCASES

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.

A day watching sumo in Tokyo, Japan | PACK THE SUITCASES

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.

A day watching sumo in Tokyo, Japan | PACK THE SUITCASES

A day watching sumo in Tokyo, Japan | PACK THE SUITCASES

A day watching sumo in Tokyo, Japan | PACK THE SUITCASES

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.

A day watching sumo in Tokyo, Japan | PACK THE SUITCASES

The aftermath

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.

 

A day watching sumo in Tokyo, Japan | PACK THE SUITCASES

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.

A day watching sumo in Tokyo, Japan | PACK THE SUITCASES

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Watching sumo in Tokyo, Japan | PACK THE SUITCASES

14 thoughts on “Watching sumo in Tokyo, Japan”

  1. Shame our football terraces can’t adopt some good behaviour from sumo. Orderly, respectful, chucking only cushions? Who’d have thought? Lots of ceremony but a little lack of action for my sporting tastes. As an insight into an iconic Japanese sport, most interesting.

  2. Japan is one of the destinations I need to redo the most. I did it on a budget two weeks ago and basically ignored anything that was too expensive. Love learning about how sumo works! I was shocked to hear that the Japanese actually get rowdy. What is this, China?! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for the comment Kate – it’s an honour to have travel blogging royalty comment haha. Glad you liked the post. I think Japan definitely needs another visit! No matter how much time I spend there, I just keep finding more and more fascinating things about it. Also, I could happily eat Japanese food for the rest of my life so always good to go back.

      Oh and yes they get rowdy but it’s all by Japanese standards so as soon as they’ve chucked the cushions, it’s business as usual and the politeness and bowing is resumed 😉

    1. Haha I’m not sure I could cope with another day on a little cushion, I’m getting too old and creaky! Yeah there’s Western seating, just normal chairs, so you could choose that. We did it the first time we went but tried to go full on Japanese on our second visit!

  3. How close did you actually get to the action? Could you see the match well from your box seats or do they have big screens like at a concert venue? I think I’d have to go along, just to experience it for myself. And I’d definitely have to buy some dried squid to take along with me 🙂 I loved that stuff!

    1. Close! They don’t need screens really – you can see quite well even from the back. I’m obsessed with dried squid! I don’t know why it’s not a thing over here, I would LIVE off it.

  4. Wow this is really an amazing experience ! Sumo wrestling is much more about than just throwing your opponent out of the ring, right ? There is a lengthy pre-competition ritual that is enacted every time two new wrestlers step into the ring.

  5. Isn’t it fun when you find something that you like and finally understand it more? I love going to sporting events whenever I travel and would just LOVE to go see Sumo! Thanks for sharing!

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