Go to touristing: sumo

You may have the idea that sumo is merely two fat men in nappies shoving each other. If you hold this view then you are going to miss out on a surprisingly spectacular and engaging sport, not to mention not doing justice to the wrestlers themselves who are big, sure, but strong. To any tourist that visits in the right season I highly recommend taking a day out to visit a sumo tournament; it should be an unforgettable experience.

The year is divided into several seasons taking place alternately in Tokyo and several other locations across Japan. The Tokyo seasons are usually around the middle or early January, the middle of May and the middle of September and last two weeks each. Once you have booked your trip to Japan you should check the schedule to see if the tournament takes place at the same time near the location you’re visiting. The best times to go are either the opening day in Tokyo at the beginning of the year, so you may get the opportunity to see and be waved at by the Japanese emperor, who traditionally attends, health permitting, or the last day of any season when the decisive matches are fought for the championship.

A match day starts in the morning but most people turn up early to mid-afternoon because that’s when the grand-masters start battling. There are a variety of seat types available but my personal favourite is the tatami mat pillow type. It can be quite pricey at about 9,500 Yen per seat (US$ 80, EUR 60), and even though cheaper seats go for around 3,000 Yen (US$ 25, EUR 20) you want the pillow! If in the final bout a contender topples the reigning champion it is the tradition, along with cheering like a mad harpie, to throw your pillow into the ring. If you don’t know about this it may come as a bit of a shock the first time it happens. Make sure you’re comfortable with long periods sitting cross-legged though; it’s not very spacious. People who aren’t quite so flexible should seriously consider ordering a seat ticket instead.

Tickets are usually available on the day, if you go early enough, but the prudent fan books his well in advance! A lot of foreigners visit there so pamphlets and information is available in English and the attendants, though not being able to speak English, can help you find your seat.
Though smoking isn’t allowed in the arena itself there is a definite pub atmosphere with stalls outside selling beer, chicken on a stick and many other snacks and foods. A tourist with enough luggage space left may want to splash out on a special goodie bag, which includes not only a selection of snacks and drinks but some commemorative items too, like traditional sumo plates or cups. Other stalls also sell sumo merchandise separately, like key chains, dolls, cups and of course the year’s match line-up posters.

Though the rules and tactics, not to mention the ceremonies can be intricate and difficult to grasp the first time round, the matches themselves are excitingly simple. The thunderclap as two bull-sized wrestlers slam into each other really gives an indication of the raw power involved. It isn’t all just shoving either; there are many hand and foot techniques and I found that my personal favourites tend to be the smaller wrestlers who must rely on speed and technique to win, so their matches are always an edge-of-seat affair.

Personally I try to go at least once a year, if at all possible. It’s a good day out and seeing the event live not only steeps you in Japanese culture but really gives you an insight into the brute strength and tactics the sport revolves around; something that television just doesn’t convey properly. If you are planning to attend a Tokyo match day, the arena is conveniently located next to the Edo museum, so you can kill two birds with one stone. Afterwards you can either eat dinner at one of the sumo restaurants in the area or walk, roughly 20 minutes to half an hour, down the river to Asakusa, where you can go for the trifecta with that bird-killing stone of yours.

Check the official website for a lot of information, history and tournament details.

Location: The Tokyo season takes place in the Ryogoku Kokugikan, a short walk from Ryogoku station on the Sobu line..
Webiste: http://www.sumo.or.jp/eng/
Map: here

3 comments:

  1. According to the book Freakonomics a lot of Sumo matches are fixed.

    If I remember correctly it's because the 8th win of a tournament is so important that wrestlers who have their 8 wins already will throw the match to let someone get an 8th win. Later on the one who got the free win will repay it by throwing the two sumos next match.

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  2. Some matches do appear a little "easy". There are however some that would be very hard to fake; two massive bodies slammed into each other, fine changes of balance, a well-placed foot and a turn and some massive sumo ends up headlong into the front row of the crowd。All this in a split-second.

    But you may be right - it may all be a big fix, the tradition Japanese version of WWE. It's still a great day out, though.

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