Are you wondering whether it’s worth looking into how to watch sumo in Tokyo and how to get tickets? This might help. To be honest, sumo in Tokyo was not on my ‘must-do’ list of things for my first trip to Japan. I didn’t really know anything about it and it didn’t appeal. But I did it anyway and LOVED it. Now I recommend it to everyone. Me and my other half seem to have become actual sumo fans. Who’d have thought it?
It’s not the most straightforward of things to do, so I thought I’d share what it’s like going to watch sumo for the day in Tokyo, and some useful things you need to know before you go…
Before you go: booking sumo tickets and background
You need to make sure it’s on, because it doesn’t run all the time. Check if sumo dates align with when you’re in Tokyo, using the official schedule. You buy your sumo 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. I 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)
Get the train to Ryōgoku station. When I visit, we do this from our little home-from-home in lovely Kōenji.
Before even going near the sumo hall, it’s the law to get some snacks (as is my tradition, having done it three times…) from a FamilyMart round the corner. A packet of dried squid is always top of my list – FamilyMart stock the best type and I stupidly always forget take a photo of the packet but have found one on someone’s blog if you want to know what to look out for. As well as the squid, I always get some little spicy rice cakes, enormous apples (apples in Japan are hilariously big), beer (obviously) and various other nibbles.
Suitably loaded with provisions, head 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, I 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. And 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 I didn’t like when I 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 with all the limbering up, foot stomping and ceremony beforehand, the action is usually over in minutes, if not seconds. But it’s surprisingly tense.
I was lucky enough to experience a really long one on my last Tokyo trip. They were both latched onto each other, perfectly matched in power, for several minutes.
I 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 I’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, I really enjoy sumo and feel like a trip to Japan would be incomplete without it.
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 my favourite one. I 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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If you enjoyed this post, you may also like my other Japan blog posts:
- Planning your first trip to Japan: what you need to know
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- Tokyo – off the beaten track
- Himeji Castle
- Tokyo – 3-day itinerary
- Naoshima art island
- Kobe – one day in the floral city
- Tokyo – train-themed things to do
- Tokyo – how to watch sumo
- Nara – home of the tame deer.