I‘ve been wanting to attend a sumo tournament ever since we moved here over a year ago, but getting tickets was not an easy task. I tried booking via the official web-site, but the moment tickets went on sale the web-site crushed leaving me quite frustrated and disappointed. Thankfully, one of my co-workers turned out to be a hard-core sumo fan and she goes every season. She kindly helped me buy the tickets for the opening tournament on January 8th. As you can imagine, J and I excitedly looked forward to immersing into yet another unique cultural experience and watching this century-old national sport of Japan.
Sumo wrestling dates back some 1500 years. Originally sumo matches were not so much a sport as a Shinto religious rite performed at shrines alongside sacred dancing and dramas to entertain the harvest gods. In the 8th century it was introduced into the ceremonies of the Imperial Court, although its present-day form – rituals, costumes, rules and ranking system – were largely developed and formulated in the 16th and 17th centuries. There are various techniques of pushing, gripping and throwing, but the rules are simple: except for hitting below belt, grabbing opponent by the hair, or striking with a closed fist, almost anything goes. Touch the sand with anything but the soles of your feet, or get forced out of the ring, and you lose.
There are six Grand Tournaments a year: three held in Tokyo (January, May and September), one in Osaka in March, Nagoya in July and Fukuoka in November. For fifteen days, starting and ending on a Sunday, wrestling matches are held every day, starting in the morning and lasting until 6 PM at night. The top division matches start at 4 PM. You are free to join in any time of the day. The tournaments are held in Kokugikan (National Sumo Arena) in Ryogoku which was once the largest and most bustling part of edo (current Tokyo).
We started the day by having lunch at the Edo Noren Hall next to the Arena. The exterior of the hall is inspired by the Edo period and has a nostalgic atmosphere. It is filled with souvenir shops and small Japanese restaurants serving up traditional fare.
We opted for restaurant Chanko Kirishima (which belongs to the former sumo wrestler Ozaki Kirishima (they even had his hair on display as artifact!)) which specializes in chanko nabe – traditional hot pot with vegetables, tofu and meat simmering in a flavorful broth.
Do you ever wonder how do sumo wrestler manage to put on that mass? Well, besides rigorous exercise, they spend a lot of their time just bulking up, consuming enormous portions of high-protein chanko nabe and washing it down with beer. Although our portions were significantly smaller, we enjoyed delicious meal which included the hot pot as well as other seasonal eats like sashimi, mushrooms, egg custard, crab, etc. Everything very very tasty.
Feeling content, we proceeded to the Arena, picked up rental radio to listen to the English commentary and made ourselves comfortable in our seats. Admittedly, we were quite far away from the rink, but beggars are not choosers, I was happy I managed to get the tickets at all.
In general, there are three tiers of seats available for purchase. The ringside seats, those down on the floor right in front of the ring, are the highest priced. The next level are box seats in which you sit on the floor on cushions. The third tier of seats are western style stadium seats (that’s where we were).
I was so proud to learn that there were two Georgian sumo wrestlers competing (apparently, there is quite a profusion of non-Japanese at the top of this most traditional sports), and I even got to personally meet and talk with one of them!
As if the day couldn’t have gotten any better, we also learned that Emperor and Empress would be attending the match – something that apparently happens very rarely. How lucky were we?!?! Sadly, I didn’t have a special telephoto lens to take really good close-up photos, but I think my 24-70 mm did a decent job. Admittedly, I disguised myself as a photo-journalist and nestled myself among media in their designated spot right before the arrival of the Imperial family. They arrived at 5 PM, and the entire stadium stood up to greet them with applause. It was a very special moment and a unique experience.
If you want to attend the tournament, there are a few ways you can try to purchase the tickets: try to book via an official web-site; or contact an agency which (for an added fee) will get the tickets for you. If you happen to travel to Japan during off-season and still want to see sumo wrestlers up close and personal, then you also have an option to arrange a tour of the stable and see them practice.
Would you want to attend a sumo tournament?