That’s the unfortunate (and inaccurate) assumption a friend of mine made when I proposed attending a sumo tournament. Although many people have an image of what it is, the sport doesn’t necessarily have a “refined” reputation like kimono, Geisha, or cherry blossoms.
However, if you have the opportunity to watch a match, take advantage! If nothing else, at least for the fact that you can only experience it in Japan. Below, we’ve provided a brief history of sumo, what to expect during a tournament, and where and when you can see one for yourself.
Sumo is Japan’s oldest sport. Conflicting reports date its origins from 1500 to 2000 years ago. Archaeologists have found figurines of wrestlers (Rikishi in Japanese) thought to be from the 3rd century. Sumo wrestling’s rules are simple but decidedly strict.
Rikishi absolutely can not do things like hair pulling, striking with a closed fist, hitting below the belt, or kicking. Doing so not only disqualifies them during the match at hand but can also affect their ability to participate in future games.
Upon the referee’s signal, the tremendous men slam into each other and try to grapple, push, and slap their way to victory. A match ends when one player goes out of bounds, even by a toe, or if any part of his body besides his feet touches the ground. Rounds usually end in a matter of seconds, but on rare occasion, they can last several minutes.
According to Kokiji—a book containing some of the first written records of Japanese myths and legends—two deities wrestled to determine which would rule the burgeoning country. Millennia ago, shrines held wrestling exhibitions to reenact this story, and through the centuries the sport evolved with Shintoism.
For example, hundreds of years ago Shintoism deemed women to be “impure," and they were banned from entering—or even touching—the ring. These days, many gyms train amateur female sumo wrestlers, and there’s a national debate on whether a women’s division should open for the Olympics.
The current form of the sport developed during the Edo Period, and it still observes Shinto customs and practices. The rikishi are called to the ring by an announcer singing their names. The wrestlers throw salt and stomp to purify the ring, and they drink special water for strength. Meanwhile, the referee (dressed as a samurai) enters and presents banners that show the prize money at stake.
When beckoned, the opponents assume the famous sumo squat starting position. They bend their knees in a stance wider than shoulder width and stretch out their arms to show that they don’t have any weapons. Each movement in the pre-round ritual holds profound religious significance.
a professional rikishi takes years of
intense training and strength building. Technically, there isn't a weight limit or minimum for wrestlers, and there are some famous lean champions out there. However, many
wrestlers build up their bodies so that they can easily force their
opponents out of the ring. To achieve this, a typical sumo wrestler’s diet consists of two 10,000 calorie meals.
They often eat a stew called chankonabe that is
filled with nutritious ingredients like meat, vegetables, and tofu.
A rikishi has more muscle mass and quicker reflexes than most people, yet they tip the scales around 150 kg (330 lbs). So, are sumo wrestlers healthy? The sport, lifestyle, and diet take a severe toll on the body. Rikishi have a shorter life expectancy than most Japanese people.
Going from amateur to grand champion isn’t easy, and newcomers to the sport don’t receive a salary despite training every day for hours. Trainees are also responsible for keeping their gym clean and caring for their predecessors. Outside of the gym, they must wear traditional clothes and keep their hair in top-knots at all times. The hair is so important that bald men can’t join, and if a rikishi starts to lose his hair, he must retire!
The Grand Sumo Tournaments (Honbasho in Japanese)
take place six times a year. The sumo tournaments
are the Hatsu Basho (opening tournament) in January,
Natsu Basho (summer
tournament) in May,
and the Aki (Fall) September sumo basho.
The Haru (Spring) Basho takes place in Osaka in March, and Nagoya and Fukuoka host tournaments in July and November respectively. Tournaments last fifteen days, and the venues and dates of the sumo schedule are relatively set in stone.
You can purchase sumo basho tickets at the venues on the day of the event or in advance through the Nihon Sumo Kyokai (Japan Association of Sumo) site. Sumo wrestling ticket prices vary by seating.
Ringside seats are the closest to the action, (wrestlers sometimes fall into the spectators sitting here!) but they’re the most expensive and difficult tickets to get. Box seats are in the next highest tier of the arena. They seat up to four people, but you must purchase a whole box even if there are less than four in your party. Both ringside and box seats have Japanese-style floor cushions, but the balcony seats (the highest and most budget-friendly) have chairs.
you come to Japan in February,
there aren’t any tournament matches, but there are lots of ways you can enjoy sumo!
In Tokyo, you can visit a gym (also known as a stable) to watch sumo wrestlers train and spar. They’ll wear the proper sumo wrestler attire, so you’ll feel like you’re watching an actual match! However, be aware that visiting a sumo stable means you must arrive early (some stables begin training as early as 6 or 7 am), and sit quietly for the entire 3-hour session. If you have the patience for this, consider going with a Japanese or Japanese speaking guide who can translate and teach you the etiquette of being a guest in the gym.
If you don’t need such an immersive experience, head to Tokyo’s Arashio Sumo Stable. You can’t enter, but you can peer inside of a large window and snap a quick picture. Near Tokyo’s stables, you can find chankonabe restaurants to try a rikishi's lunch for yourself!
Other sumo related attractions in Tokyo include the Sumo Museum, Ekoin Temple (a former wrestling venue), and Tomioka Hachimangu Shrine (considered the birthplace of current sumo).
Outside of Tokyo, head to Nara’s Kehaya-za Sumo Museum in Taima Village. In addition to displaying a gallery of historical tools, artifacts, and literature related to sumo, the museum houses a replica ring made to the exact specifications of an authentic one.
Upon reservation, you can meet a retired wrestler who will teach you a few basic moves. Afterward, you can hit the ring in a padded sumo wrestler costume (complete with a sumo wrestler loincloth and hood with a sumo wrestler hair bun) and try your might against your family, friends, and fellow travelers! If you prove your worth, the professionals just might spar with you.
No matter when you go to Japan, don’t pass up on your chance to experience sumo and other traditional sports!