Watching sumo in the heart of Japan

The sumo entrance ceremony

The sumo entrance ceremony

Rich and I were very excited when we found out that our trip to Japan coincided with one of the six annual Sumo tournaments held across the country. Three of these are in Tokyo, whilst the others are in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka. Each tournaments only last 15 days and so we were pretty lucky to have this opportunity.

When the tickets were released one month before the start of the tournament we went online to buy them as quickly as possible. We were shocked and a bit disappointed to find out that all the advanced tickets were sold out. After some research we found out they sold out within a couple of hours which was very frustrating. The popularity of Sumo in Japan has increased again in the last couple of years. This revival had meant tickets were in high demand.

Luckily after a little more research we learnt that 400 tickets were released on the day at the very reasonable price of just over £15 per person. It was first come first served and so on a rainy morning in Tokyo we got up very early and made our way to the famous Ryōgoku Kokugikan, the national Sumo stadium in Tokyo. We joined the queue at about 6.30am. Looking up and down the line it was a real mix of both international tourists and keen locals waiting.

The morning queue for general admission tickets

The morning queue for general admission tickets

At 7.45am the ticket office opened and everyone, in a very orderly fashion, shuffled slowly forward, edging closer and closer. With a lot of people behind us in the queue we felt like we had a really good chance but until we had the tickets in our hands we did not want to get too excited. Luckily our early morning endeavours paid off and we soon had two magical sumo tickets. We were ecstatic!

Inside the Ryōgoku Kokugikan, the national Sumo stadium in Tokyo.

Inside the Ryōgoku Kokugikan, the national Sumo stadium in Tokyo.

The tournament started at 8am and went on until 6pm with the competitors getting more advanced as the day progressed. We weren’t sure we could watch a whole day’s worth of sumo and were told the ideal time to go into the arena was about 2pm. Our seats were in the top, top row of the whole stadium but as the place wasn’t massive we still had a decent view. Also the final and most popular round didn’t start until 4pm and so we could very easily sneak down to a lower seats to get a better view whilst the lower ranks wrestled.

Seating arrangement at the sumo stadium

Seating arrangement at the sumo stadium

As we had never seen any sumo before we really enjoyed the whole event. The actual wrestling is surprisingly very fast and fights can be as short as a couple of seconds. The aim is to either push or trick your opponent into exiting the ring or to get them to touch the floor with anything that isn’t their feet. There are many techniques used to achieve this and it is surprisingly not always about weight. We saw smaller men win against larger wrestlers. Interestingly sumo in not categorised by weight.

A sumo wrestler about to win the fight

A sumo wrestler about to win the fight

What we learnt straight away was that a lot of time is spent on the pre-fight rituals. Without any guidance you would sit there thinking why on earth are they throwing white powder everywhere and slapping their thighs. What we understand is that this is a combination of both intimidation and purification rituals.

The sumo wrestlers performing the Shiko

The sumo wrestlers performing the ‘Shiko’

The wrestlers first sit opposite each other staring at their opponent while the fight before them is happening. They then are called to the ring where they each first perform the ‘Shiko’. This is a move we probably all associate with sumo where the wrestler stomps the floor with one foot at a time (see photo above).

They then grab a handful of salt from their corners and proceed to rub some on their bodies and then throw a handful over the dohyo (the wrestling ring). The salt is meant to purify and drive away evil spirits. They then crouch opposite each other and clap. They then stretch their arms out either side to show they have no weapons.

After this the fight could start. They move to the centre and crouch directly opposite each other seemingly ready to start. However if one opponent is not ready he might hold this position for a second then suddenly stand up. He has changed his mind. He isn’t ready. He will make his way back to his corner for some more salt and his opponent will do the same. They often slab their bellies, legs and arms to be intimidating and to psyche each other out. This routine happens three or four times before they are both perfectly ready to fight. Only now will the fight happen. As the competitors became more and more skilled the longer this ritual would go on and the crowd loved it.

Ryōgoku Kokugikan, the national sumo stadium in Tokyo

Ryōgoku Kokugikan, the national sumo stadium in Tokyo

Watching sumo in the heart of Japan was an amazing experience. The sumo reminded us both of the Mongolian wrestling we had seen during Naadam Festival a few months earlier. It was fascinating to see some similarities between these contrasting cultures. Both sports involved a ritualistic processes. Understandably each culture looked for support from a different religion or God but both characteristics, such as chanting, were surprisingly similar. Of course both countries also made their wrestlers fight in tight, nappy like, pants which made us chuckle as well. 

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