Sumo for Beginners
By Freedom Ahn
Japan’s national sport, Sumo, is a traditional style of wrestling with roots reaching back to Shinto festivals during the Edō period (1603-1868). Wrestlers would perform at shrines during these celebrations to entertain and honour the Shinto gods and goddesses (kami) with the hope their actions would encourage a bountiful harvest. But Japan's love of the sport can be traced back even further: traditional Japanese folklore tells us centuries-old tales of how the gods themselves would wrestle one another.
While you can still catch a glimpse of sumo during certain Shinto festivals, the best way to see all the sumo action is at one of the six Grand Sumo Tournaments, called ‘bashos’, held at multiple locations throughout Japan each year.
January, May, September
Tokyo, Ryogoku Stadium, 1-3-28 Yokoami, Sumida-ku, Tokyo
Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium, 3-4-36 Nambanaka, Naniwa-ku, Osaka 556-0011
Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium (Nagoya), 1-1 Ninomaru Nakaku, Nagoya 460-0032, Aichi Prefecture
Fukuoka Kokusai Center, 2-2 Chikkohonmachi, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka 812-0021, Fukuoka Prefecture
Always popular, sumo events have seen increased attendance at tournaments following the promotion of Ibaraki-native wrestler Kisenosato Yutaka to the top rank of Yokozuna earlier this year. He is the first Japan-born wrestler to reach the Yokozuna rank since 1998.
Tickets sell out fast, sometimes within hours. If you can't get a ticket, or if your trip to Japan doesn't coincide with tournament dates, don't despair. Below, I’ll share some ways you can still catch some sumo action.
Sumo: The Basics
The rules of sumo are simple:
Two wrestlers (rikishi) face each other in a sand-covered clay ring (dohyo)
A wrestler loses in one of two ways:
The first wrestler to touch the clay of the sumo ring with any part of his body - other than the soles of his feet (whether he's pushed, thrown, flipped, slips, falls, etc.) - loses, or
Is the first wrestler to be thrown (or be pushed, fall, slip, etc.) out of the ring.
The subtlety and finesse of the sport are vast.
The Sumo Wrestling Association (Nihon Sumo Kyokai) currently recognizes 82 winning techniques or kimarite a wrestler can use to win a match, and eight prohibited moves which will automatically disqualify a combatant.
The wrestlers live at wrestling 'stables' or beya, where daily practice takes place. As young wrestlers do not earn the big salaries of their higher ranked stable-mates, they would otherwise be unable to afford a residence in the heart of Tokyo. Living at the stable also provides a dedicated environment built on sumo-as-a-way-of-life, rather than a sporting event.
When competing, wrestlers wear a simple uniform consisting of a single piece of cloth (cotton for junior ranks, silk for higher) that measures just over nine metres in length, about half a metre wide, and typically weighs between 3.5 and 5 kilograms. Called a Mawashi, it is worn by all wrestlers, wrapped between the legs and around the belly several times, finally secured in back with a large knot.
Attending a Grand Sumo Tournament or basho can be an all-day affair, with bouts containing lower ranking wrestlers (Jonokuchi, Jonidan, Sandanme, Makushita) starting early in the morning with doors often opening at 8:00 a.m.. Higher ranked matches (Juryo, Maegashira, Komusubi, Sekiwake, Ozeki) typically take place in the early afternoon and the top ranked Yokozuna bouts take place as the final matches of the day, usually around 5:30 p.m. The day wraps up around 6:00 with the bow-twirling ceremony (Yumitori-shiki), a tradition dating back centuries. You can bring along food to eat or treat yourself to some of the fantastic noms available at the area: from snacking sushi, to Yakitori, to full bento boxes, sake, and even soft serve ice-cream and chocolates, there's little chance you'll leave hungry.
Depending on your budget, you can choose from one of three seating choices:
The cheapest tickets will have you watching all the action from the Balcony seats. Bring binoculars for the best view at this level. Balcony tickets range in price from 200 yen to 5,000 yen.
Box Seats, on the main floor, provide good middle price range and mid-level viewing. Box Seats are typically between 9,500 and 11,700 yen per person.
And despite Ringside seats inherent potential of having a wrestler land on you, they offer the best view of the matches, are the most coveted, carry the biggest ticket price, and sell out the fastest. Expect to spend 14,800 for a single ringside seat.
If you can't get a ticket to a tournament, you can still get your sumo fix by visiting one of the 45 stables around Japan to watch a training session. Some stables such as the Dewanoumi stable (opened in 1862) and Takasago (in 1878) date back to the late 1800’s and are a treasure to see in their own right. But get to bed early the night before - some training sessions begin as early at 5:30 a.m.!
Depending on the stable you choose rules will vary slightly, but the basic guidelines for all training sessions include:
• No flash photography;
• No food or drink;
• No large groups;
• You are required to stay for the entire session (leaving mid-way through will be seen as rude);
• Be prepared to sit quietly. Disturbing the session in any way is forbidden, so plan on sitting very quietly and very still for up to 3 hours!
• And most stables prefer that you attend with someone who speaks fluent Japanese to act as a translator, if you are unable to do so yourself.
If you’re comfortable reading Japanese, you can find most of the particulars online. A quick review of the Musashigawa stable website highlights that they are just a five-minute walk from Uguisudani Station (JR Yamanote Line) in Arakawa-ku. Foreigners are welcome to watch their daily training sessions between 5:30 - 10:00 a.m. daily, but must be accompanied by a Japanese speaker if no one is Japanese-conversant.
A small gift - such as a bottle of sake or box of dried fish - will go a long way to demonstrate your appreciation of both culture and custom.
Okay, you’ve seen a training session and managed to get tickets for the next Grand Sumo Tournament, but you still want more. If you’re in Tokyo, then it’s time to head over to Sumo Town for some grand sumo related adventures.
In addition to the sumo stadium - the Kokugikan holds more than 10,000 sumo fans three times a year - Tokyo’s Ryōgoku’s district has earned the nickname Sumo Town thanks to the number of stables, restaurants serving traditional sumo fare, and other sumo related activities.
Open Monday to Friday, (10:00 - 4:30) during tournaments, this museum offers a chance to see great moments and mementoes from Sumo history. It’s on the first floor of the Kokugikan. And admission is free.
Sumida Hokusai Museum
If you’re a fan of Japanese woodblock prints - many featuring sumo wrestlers - be sure to stop by the Sumida Hokusai Museum, open 9:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. daily.
Now that you’ve built up an appetite taking in all the sumo sights and sounds, it’s time to chow down like a sumo wrestler!
Because of the intense demands of the sport sumo wrestlers need to eat a high-caloric diet, and that can mean consuming between 4,000 and 8,000 calories (or more) per day. (To put that in perspective, an average woman requires 2,000 calories daily to maintain good health, an average man around 2,500).
And that's why chanko-nabe is the meal of choice. A rich mixed-vegetable multi-ingredient stew with noodles, chicken, fish, miso, and pork in a savoury stock, chanko-nabe carries with it between 550 - 600 calories per serving. Add in a few steaming bowls of rice and you’ll soon feel ready to face off in the sumo ring yourself! Kawasaki, a couple of minutes from Ryogoku station, is not only one of the oldest chanko restaurants in the areas, it’s considered one of the best around. You can get your own piping hot bowl of nabe for about 6,000 yen.
And if you’re hoping for a few pictures of your favourite wrestlers, keep your camera close at hand. You can often see the wrestlers in the sumo town neighbourhood.
Following Sumo outside of Japan can be a bit of a challenge, but you can still keep up-to-date. NHK World offers highlight coverage in English of all tournaments via a 25-minute video covering the day's essential bouts. But, my favourite way to enjoy the world of sumo outside of Japan, is via Jason's All-Sumo channel. YouTuber and Sumo enthusiast Jason Harris offers up insight, trivia, and high-definition sumo coverage direct from Japan that’s a treat for even the most discerning sumo fan.
If you’re curious about sumo you can check out the Kyushu Basho, the last tournament of the 2017 year, taking place November 12 - 26 at the Fukuoka Kokusai Centre. This promises to be a real barn burner, following on the heels of a very wacky Autumn Basho in September that saw injuries, drop-outs, upsets, in record-breaking numbers! I’ll be rooting for my favourite wrestler, Mongolian Yokozuna Hakuho.
Who will you be cheering for? Let us know in the comments below!