The recent news that Yokozuna Hakuho, the record-breaking sumo wrestler, is finally planning to retire after a stellar career, prompted us to look back on a splendid day at the sumo in Tokyo, back in 2007 when Hakuho had just been promoted to the highest rank in the sport. Sumo wrestling is the national sport of Japan and is steeped in tradition. Indeed the origins of sumo are thousands of years old and it is thought to have originated in the Yayoi period in Japan (300 BCE-300 CE).
The rules are very simple: Two rikishi (wrestlers) face each other in a ring known as a dohyo, which is 4.55m in diameter. When mutual consent is given to begin, signified by each wrestler touching his fists to the floor, the bout commences. A rikishi loses when he is either forced out of the ring or touches the floor with any part of his body other than his feet. The wrestlers wear just a mawashi (belt), which can be grasped and used to push, throw or lift their opponent out of the ring or onto the floor. Some rikishi don’t use the mawashi and tend to have a push and thrust approach to taking on their opponent.
There are very few techniques that are banned, but fist punches, poking the opponent in a vulnerable area or pulling the opponent’s top knot, which is part of the chonmage (the hairstyle), are all considered to be unacceptable and any rikishi that uses these moves will automatically lose the match. A gyoji (referee), wearing robes based on medieval imperial court attire, oversees proceedings, encouraging the rikishi to spar and deciding which has won the bout. Sometimes the outcome is extremely close so additional judges sit around each edge of the dohyo in order to assess which wrestler first exited the ring or touched the floor.
The first characteristic that most people notice about sumo wrestlers is their weight, which can be substantial. Sumo wrestlers put on weight because it is more difficult to force a heavy opponent from the ring. But they are extremely fit, flexible and agile. There are no weight categories in the sport so a 100kg wrestler could easily face an opponent twice his weight. This is also what makes sumo so exciting – weight isn’t necessarily an advantage as the smaller rikishi may be more nimble and can employ moves that outsmart their opponents.
The bout itself is often, but not always, short in duration, although there is no time limit. It is always preceded by a series of rituals that have origins both in Japan’s Shinto religion and ancient warfare. The rikishi throw salt into the ring to purify it. Other practices include wrestlers raising a leg and stamping on the ground to scare away enemies and also clapping their hands. Once ready, they take their mark and squat in a position known as shikari, facing their opponent, ready to thrust forward when the bout begins. It’s often an explosive start as two large men crash into each other and it’s hugely exciting.
Grand Sumo Basho, or tournaments, are held six times every year. Three are held in Toyko at the Ryogoku Kokugikan (January, May, September) and then there is one each in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November). (These schedules have changed a bit during the last couple of years due to Covid.) Each tournament lasts 15 days. The most popular days to attend are weekends and the final days of the basho as the excitement mounts to see who will win the Emperor’s cup. We were honoured to be invited to the sumo by a family friend. It made for the most splendid entertainment. The tournament schedule and ticketing information can be found at the Japan Sumo Association website.
The Ryogoku Kokugikan dohyo in Tokyo is located just a two minute walk from the JR Sobu Line Ryogoku Station West Exit (useful if you have a JR pass), or five minutes walk from the Toei Ryogoku Station A3 exit on the Toei Subway Oedo Line. The Ryogoku Kokugikan is easy to find and outside you will see the brightly coloured flags bearing the rikishi names lining the route to the entrance.
There are various tiers of ticket available and the most popular seats do sell out quickly. Ringside tamari seats are the most expensive. They are the closest you can get to the action and sometimes audience members can be a little too close if an energetic bout results in a wrestler falling on top of them!
Box seats are designed for either four or six people and you have to buy all the seats within the box. This suits a group of people viewing together. They have a tatami mat base and cushions. The boxes closest to the dohyo are more expensive and they become progressively cheaper the further back they are located. The box seats are very popular.
Arena seats are located on the upper floor in a standard tiered seating arrangement, further away from the action but they offer a good view at a much cheaper price. For the die-hard fan who cannot pre-order tickets, jiyu seki, (free-seating tickets), located right at the top of the building just below the rafters, can be purchased each day at the Kokugikan from 8am. These will go quickly though and if you want some, you may well need to start queuing very early in the morning.
The tickets are valid for the entire day and bouts start from around 8:30am. Sumo is divided into a number of divisions and the lowest ranked wrestlers will spar earliest in the morning. As the day progresses and the higher ranked rikishi start making an appearance the stadium will slowly fill up. By the time the Makunouchi (the highest division) commences the Kokugikan will be full and the atmosphere incredibly lively as the audience members support their favourite rikishi. You can buy banners, t-shirts and other souvenirs at the concession stands.
On arrival at the Kokugikan main entrance, if you have tickets, you will be guided to your seat. It is possible to pre-arrange a bento and drinks. (Alcohol is allowed.) The stadium even has its own kitchen in the basement. There, they make yakitori chicken, which is often eaten as part of the bento meal. There is a reason that chicken is on the menu – it is a bird that stands on two feet, something that the rikishi most definitely want to emulate. It’s also absolutely fine to bring your own food and drink if you wish.
Then it’s a case of sitting back and watching the action, whilst enjoying delicious food, a cup of green tea and, later on, a few beers as well.
You will often see the banners from sponsors of a particular rikishi parade around the dohyo before the bout. These organisations put up prize money for their sponsored wrestler. If he wins, he receives cash in an envelope offered by the gyoji but if he loses, his opponent wins the prize. The higher ranked and more popular the wrestler the greater the number of envelopes. If a lower ranked rikishi beats an ozeki (second highest rank) or Yokozuna, he wins a magnificent wadge of cash.
One of the wonderful things about the sumo is that you can wander around the arena between bouts and will often see rikishi in their yukata (light cotton kimono). More often than not, they are happy to pose for photos.
When it’s time for the Makunouchi bouts, the top tier rikishi will enter the dohyo wearing their keshō-mawashi, which are beautifully decorated ceremonial silk aprons, and form a circle. They perform a number of symbolic movements together before they leave and prepare for their bouts.
The Yokozuna, accompanied by two top division wrestler ‘assistants’ then enters the dohyo, wearing a tsuna (ceremonial rope, the word Yokozuna literally means ‘horizontal rope’) around his waist, to perform the ring entering ceremony. There are two types and the Yokozuna will choose which one he will perform soon after his promotion.
The highest ranked wrestlers fight the final bouts and the crowd become increasingly excited. When the very last bout has been fought, there is a closing bow-swirling ceremony – another ritual steeped with symbolic meaning.
And what better way to round off a wonderful day’s entertainment than going out for dinner at a local restaurant? Of course the only meal we could have was chanko nabe – sumo stew. This is the meal that sumo wrestlers eat at their stables in large quantities after their training sessions. (They go to sleep after eating chanko nabe and this helps them gain weight.) It’s filling and nutritious and, importantly, delicious. It’s a great sharing dish – a hot pot that sits in the middle of the table and everyone helps themselves. It comprises meat and vegetables, sometimes with seafood and tofu, that simmers in a dashi broth (a recipe for dashi can be found here). Sometimes sake or mirin is added to the broth to add flavour. There is no specific recipe which means that loads of scrumptious variations are possible. Unsurprisingly, there are a cluster of chanko nabe restaurants in the Ryogoku area.
If you are visiting Tokyo at a time when there is no basho running, it is possible to watch sumo wrestlers training in their stables. There is no cost to this but you’ll have to get up early as they usually train between 7:30 and 10am. The Arashio beya stable has an English language guide to watching the morning practice: Watching Keiko: Morning Sumo Practice. You generally don’t get to enter the stable itself but can watch through a large window.
And if you can’t get to Japan at all it is possible to watch sumo basho on TV. Japan’s national broadcaster NHK World present the highlights from each day over the entire fortnight. The first and final day’s events are also shown live.
If you are likely to be in Tokyo at the time of a basho we highly recommend trying to obtain tickets for the sumo. It really is the most lovely way to spend a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon watching this unique and fascinating sport.