Where, When and How to Watch Sumo on Your Solo Trip to Japan
When we were growing up far from Japan, it was a mythical land full of mystery for us. A country which did everything different than us but it was beautiful. We were unaware of the glamorous side of Japan and instead were drawn to the history and cultures that permeated through its borders and reached far and wide.
As we began our solo female travels and traveled to Japan, we saw the perfect blend of culture, history, and tradition with modernity. No doubt we fell in love with every aspect of Japan, but somehow the nostalgia that Japan brought always carved a special place in our hearts. It took us back to our childhood when we huddled over the Manga comics, we fell in love with anime, and somehow we were not bound by language anymore. As kids, this is how we traveled to different cities in Japan in our imagination.
Quite in the same way, as kids, we began associating another culture with Japan: sumo wrestling. I don’t know about you, but I loved spending my afternoons with my siblings, watching two sumos fight it out amidst loud cheers. Well, I would be lying if I said that my love for the sport was over as my childhood faded away. I still spend time chuckling to myself as I still watch the sports. The golden days of childhood may be over, but the memories still live fresh. But there’s an upside to growing up, isn’t it? Because now you can travel to Japan and watch a sumo wrestling match with your own eyes. There will be no screen anymore.
But before you leave for Japan, maybe for your first female solo travel, let me tell you where, when, and how you can watch sumo wrestling whilst in Japan.
What is sumo wrestling?
Let’s go back to the very basic question. What is it, and who are the sumo wrestlers? Well, sumo wrestling is Japan’s national sport, and it started as a performance to appease and entertain Shinto deities. Even today, many customs of the religion are seen performed during the match.
The first origins of sumo can be dated back to almost the early 8th century, where mentions can be found in Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, the oldest literary works in Japan. But during those times, sumo fights were held in front of emperors, and it would turn fatal. But as time wore on, death was no longer a part of the match (thankfully) and soon became entertainment for the masses.
Today, sumo wrestling like the geishas has evolved into one of the most prominent cultures that are always associated with Japan.
Before we know where and how to watch and enjoy a sumo wrestling match, let’s look at the rules. To be honest, there are hardly any rules when it comes to this ancient sport. Even if you have never watched a sumo wrestling match, you will be able to figure out what’s going on after just one match. It is indeed that simple! Matches take place on something like an elevated boxing ring called the dohyo. But unlike the boxing ring, there are no ropes, and instead, it is open. The dohyo is made of clay and is then covered in a layer of sand.
The wrestler who first exits the dohyo or touches the ground with any part of the body except his soles of the feet loses. Matches usually last only a few seconds, but if the fight is on an even keel, it may take some minutes. But the funny thing in sumo wrestling is that this is not like weightlifting or boxing, where players are segregated based on weight. Here anybody can be pitted against anyone. So wrestlers can face someone twice their size, and it is exciting to watch.
Where and when to watch
Now that we know where it came from and what the rules are of the sport let’s see where we can watch it on our solo trip to Japan.
Sumo wrestling in Japan is not just a wayward sport that is played by anyone and everyone or just anywhere. It is managed by a proper professional governing body called Japan Sumo Association.
The best way to see a match is during a basho or a sumo tournament. There are six tournaments held in a year in four different cities of Japan. So there are three that are held in the capital city of Tokyo, and one each in the cities of Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka.
The first tournament of the year is the New Year Basho held at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Sumida in Tokyo. It then travels to Osaka during the sakura season of spring in Japan, which is the spring basho. During the summer, the basho comes back to Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo again before traveling to Nagoya in July. It is back in Tokyo once again for the autumn basho before ending the last tournament in Fukuoka called Kyushu Basho.
|New Year Basho
|January 14 – 18
|March 11 – 25
|May 13 – 27
|July 8 – 22
|September 9 – 23
|November 11 – 25
Each tournament lasts for around two weeks, where each wrestler fights in a match per day except the lower-ranked ones who get fewer matches. Are you surprised that sumo wrestling has rankings? I was, too, at first before I realised that it was a full-on system!
So, the ranking hierarchy is called banzuke, which gets updated for each wrestler after every performance. The more a wrestler wins, the more he moves up, while too many losses can even get him demoted. The top division in a sumo wrestling tournament is called Makuuchi, and the division that comes after that is known as Juryo. So, losses of wrestlers in the Makuuchi division will demote them to Juryo. At the helm of this hierarchy, you find the grand champion or yokozuna. A yokozuna, once anointed, is never demoted but is expected to retire if his performance is not up to the mark.
How much does it cost?
Well, this varies because how much the tickets cost depends on how close you are willing to sit. Also, even though the tournament takes place over a span of 15 days, it doesn’t mean that tickets are easily available. The craze for watching a sumo wrestling match is always there among visitors and natives alike. So, getting a ticket for a day is sometimes as good as winning a lottery. I know of people who have actually booked their tickets to a sumo match before booking tickets to Japan!
There are usually three types of seats to watch a sumo fight in Japan.
1. Ringside seats
These are the most expensive because here you can watch the sumo match from up close. These tickets are extremely difficult to find, and you may only get your hands on these tickets if you know someone on the inside of this operation.
Spectators are made to sit on a cushion on the floor here, but I would never prefer these seats even if it came for free. Yes, I love watching sumo wrestling, but I don’t want to be exposed to the risk of getting injured as sumos are sometimes thrown away from the dohyo into the crowd, and I am not ready for that. But if that’s how you want to enjoy it, go right ahead.
2. Box seats
This is a mid-level position, and this also has cushions on the floor. Spectators are expected to take off their shoes and sit comfortably on the cushions while enjoying the sumo match. But here tickets are not sold per person. Rather it is sold per box. If you are traveling with a group of friends, it is great because a box seats about 4 to six people. But as a solo female traveller, this is a loss because you will have to pay for all the seats but use only one.
3. Style chairs
This is the cheapest option and the best for a solo female traveller. This is on the second-floor balcony, where you find rows of Western-style seats. It is comfortable and provides for quite a good viewing of the sumo wrestling match. There is also a section that is reserved for same-day ticket holders. Though this is the cheapest, it sells out in the blink of an eye. For tickets here, you are expected to pay around 4000-9000 yen.
You can buy the tickets in advance from the official vendors or even in some convenience stores.
Rituals during the bout
You will soon realize why sumo wrestling is not just throwing your opponent out of the ring but rather an art form. I feel it is almost like a ritualistic and choreographed dance performance, and that is what makes it so special. The yodibashi or the referee, dressed in traditional attire, announces the names of the two wrestlers before the match. The wrestlers face each other and try to intimate the other. They then return to their respective corners, where they squat, then raise one leg and raise another.
They then come back to the ring again, squat facing each other, and raise their arms. This is to show that they are not carrying any weapon, but somehow this looks extremely artistic! Before reentering this time, salt is thrown into the ring and air as a purification ritual, and the crowd erupts in cheers.
A day at the tournament
If you are wondering how a day at a sumo wrestling tournament looks like, I am here to paint a picture for you. The tournament runs for a full day and sometimes starts as early as 8.30 am. But around this time, only lower-ranked sumos have their matches. It is the afternoon when the higher-ranked ones come to play, and the arena gradually fills up.
The climax of the day happens at around 6 in the evening when the top two wrestler takes on each other. My advice would be to reach around 1.30-2 pm because when you have paid for those tickets, you might as well make optimum use of them.
Like any other tournament in the world, food is an integral part of watching a sumo wrestling tournament. There is no dearth of delicious food in Japan, and even at the sumo tournament, be sure to check out the various delicacies on offer so that you can treat your eyes and your stomach at the same time. Pre-order a bento box and get some sake or beer to go along with it. My only complaint about the seats is that there is no cup holder so be careful with your drink.
Once you are done with the wrestling matches for the day, your experience is far from over. Get ready to chomp on some sumo food. Well, when sumos train, they eat 20,000 calories a day. While that is an impossible feat to achieve, we can always enjoy a chanko nabe. Restaurants serving this dish can be found all around the sumo wrestling arenas, and if you are visiting Ruoguko in Tokyo, you can savor this hot pot dish that contains vegetables, meat, and seafood, prepared by retired sumos.
Visiting a sumo stable
If you are not able to visit Japan during the sumo wrestling tournaments or if you fail to buy a ticket, don’t get disheartened. There is still a way for you to enjoy the sumo experience in Japan. You can witness their morning practice sessions if you visit a sumo stable. This is a place where all the sumos live, eat and train together. Being sumo is a way of life, and you can get a close look at it. There are around 40 such stables around the country, but you can have the best experience in Tokyo’s Ryogoku district.
But not all stables allow visitors, and even if they do, you have to be accompanied by someone who is fluent in Japanese and in their customs and rituals. So a guide is highly recommended. You can check out their morning practice schedule before planning your day.
There are plenty of cultural experiences in Japan that is unique to the country. It is what sets Japan apart from the rest of the world. And if you are planning a trip to this magical country, do immerse in the sumo experience. Trust me, it will be an experience of a lifetime.
An introverted blogger who is looking to make unforgettable solo travel memories with one short life.