Sumo (相撲, sumō), the Japanese style of intense contact wrestling, is a very popular activity to amongst both locals and tourists (as a spectator that is). Not many people practice Japan’s national sport as the wrestlers need to adopt a very strict and disciplined lifestyle. The rules of sumo are fairly easy to understand and the matches tend to be short, but intense. Together with the many rituals and traditions, as well as excitement, the tournaments attract large crowds and tickets often sell out within the hour! When you visit Japan, we highly recommend that you try to squeeze in some time to watch this exciting sport.
- What is Sumo?
- Sumo Wrestlers: Rikishi
- Grand Sumo Tournaments
- Sumo Stables
- Ryogoku: The Center of the Sumo World
- Sumo Tours in Tokyo
- Other articles you might like
What is Sumo?
Sumo is a form of competitive contact wrestling that originated in Japan and is said to have first started hundreds if not thousands of years ago. To put it simply, the name of the game is trying to force your opponent out of the ring or get any body part other than the soles of their feet to touch the ground.
History of Sumo
In ancient times sumo originated as a performance to entertain the Shinto deities. Legends say that sumo was practiced by the gods, before handed down to the people long long ago. However, sumo didn’t actually become a form of public entertainment until the 16th century, especially during the Edo Period. Before this, sumo was repurposed from a performance for the gods to a form of combat training that was used by the samurai.
Once it started to get bigger and more popular among the public, it wasn’t uncommon for daimyo to sponsor individual wrestlers. It is said that the famous daimyo and one of the ‘Unifiers’ of Japan Oda Nobunaga became a big fan of the sport and even held a tournament in the 1570’s in which 1500 wrestlers participated! This is thought to be where the Dohyo (ring) made its first appearance, which is a major part of the sport today. Sumo had its ups and downs over the next few hundred years but made a big comeback in the late 1800’s when a tournament was organized by Emperor Meiji. From here on out small rules/additions were put in place and it became the sport it is today.
Rules and Customs
There are many rules/rituals in Sumo that have their roots in religion, most relating to Shintoism. As previously mentioned, the way that a wrestler wins a match is by getting their opponent out of the ring or getting any body part other than the soles of their feet to touch the ground in the ring. There are lots of ways of ‘winning’ a match, or kimarite(winning techniques), as well as a few that can get you disqualified.
The rituals, customs and ceremonies of sumo have a long history and are still a huge part of the sport today. You may have seen a few of the main ones such as a cermony when entering the dohyo(ring) in their flashy mawashi(loincloth), tossing salt into the ring to purify it, rinsing of the mouth before a bout, shikiri(warm up before the bout), as well as the acceptance of their win that often comes with a nice chunk of cash.
Sumo Wrestlers: Rikishi
The appearance of the rikishi is very striking and traditional; their samurai-like hairstyle chonmage originates from the Edo-period. The samurai used chonmage to hold their helmet steady atop of their head in battle. Also, the only piece of clothing is the belt called mawashi. The mawashi is worn before, during and after the game. The upper ranked professional wrestlers wear a keshō-mawashi during ring entry ceremony.
The professional rikishi are divided into six divisions. The wrestlers are classified in a ranking hierarchy [banzuke], that is updated after each tournament based on the wrestlers’ performance. The top Makunouchi division is subdivided into five ranks: Yokozuna at the pinnacle, followed by Ozeki, Sekiwake, Komusubi, and Maegashira. The second division is called Juryo. Funfact: in sumo there are no weight restrictions or classes, meaning that your opponent can be many times your own size! As a result, weight gain is an essential part of sumo training.
Grand Sumo Tournaments
Every year six Grand Sumo tournaments “本場所 [Honbasho]” are held. Occurring on the odd months, each tournament starts and ends on a Sunday and last 15 days.
- January, May, and September at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo.
- March in Osaka.
- July in Nagoya.
- November in Fukuoka.
Tournaments start at 8:00am with matches between lower-ranked wrestlers. Around 3:30pm the ring entering ceremony [dohyō-iri] of stronger wrestlers starts. Reserve at least three hours and to make the most out of your experience we recommend you go together with a guide. A guide will tell you about the history and traditions of sumo so you understand the sport better and have a great experience.
Sumo wrestlers [rikishi] live together in a sumo stable, under the strict regime of the stable master. The sumo stable is the place where they live, train and sleep together. Almost every morning they practice and have serious and energetic practice matches. In the greater Tokyo Region, approximately 40 sumo stables can be found, many of them are located in the Ryogoku area.
Visit a Sumo Stable
A small number of sumo stables welcomes people to come and see the morning practice. However, there are strict rules and manners to being the audience. All sumo stables require that tourists are accompanied by someone who is fluent in Japanese and familiar with the customs of the sumo world. Furthermore, visitors are expected to follow the house rules strictly and not disturb the training session. In practice, it is very difficult for foreign tourists to visit a stable on their own. Instead, the recommended way to witness a morning practice is to join a guided tour.
Chankonabe (Hot Pot)
In addition to your visit to the stables, you can also experience the food culture of sumo. Sumo wrestlers follow a strict diet, taking in approximately 20,000 calories each day! The most popular food cooked and eaten by sumo wrestlers is Chanko Hot Pot. This dish is rich in protein and includes a variety of ingredients that are soaked into warm soup. If you would like to try Chanko, we offer a tour that will take you to a sumo stable for practice watching followed by Chanko Hot Pot eating. Enjoying this meal together with the wrestlers will definitely be a special experience.
*Please note that during the Grand Sumo tournaments, there is morning practice but it’s earlier than usual. And during the tournaments in Osaka, Fukuoka or Nagoya, there is no morning practice in Tokyo.
Ryogoku: The Center of the Sumo World
For centuries, Tokyo has been the sumo capital of Japan, especially Tokyo’s Ryogoku district. In Ryogoku many sumo stables are located as well as the Kokugikan sumo stadium where three of the six annual tournaments are held. In this district you will be able to find many sumo related attractions.
The Sumo museum is housed inside the Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Hall. The museum has a wide range of materials related to the history of sumo on display, from woodblock prints and official listings of rank, banzuke, to the ceremonial aprons worn by the great rikishi of the past.
1-3-28 Yokoami, Sumida, Tokyo 130-0015
Open weekdays 10am – 4.30pm
The Ekoin Temple is the spiritual home of sumo and has hosted many tournaments before the first Ryogoku Kokugikan was built in 1909. Those days, the sumo tournaments were held outdoors at temple, just a short walk from Ryogoku Station. Today, you can see a stone monument on the temple grounds that honours past rikishi and stable masters.
2-8-10 Ryōgoku, Sumida City, Tokyo 130-0026
Open daily 9am – 16.30pm
Sumo at Universities
Some universities have sumo club and they do practice hard. These students are the future of sumo wrestling in Japan and the training is equally to the professional sumo wrestling training. It is a unique experience to see sumo by future professional sumo wrestler.
Regional Sumo Tournament
Every year sumo wrestlers will go on a provincial tour that covers different areas. These always take place outside the Tokyo Grand Sumo Tournament period. Please check the official website of Nihon Sumo Kyokai for the up-to-date schedule.
The official tickets are usually released one month prior to the tournament’s first day and anyone can apply via Ticket Oosumo. Though, to get tickets can be tricky as they are very popular and often sell out within the hour!
But don’t be afraid, you can still get tickets for the tournament! You could opt for the Same Day Ticket. Those are sold at the box office of the Kokugikan Sumo Stadium each match day from 8am. You can only buy one ticket per person and limited numbers of ticket are available. We have tried this once but when we arrived at 6am, the line was already too long and we weren’t able to get tickets anymore.
Those of you who visit Japan during one of the six Grand Sumo Tournaments should certainly go. It will give you the most exciting experience and opportunity to feel the atmosphere of the sumo culture! If you would like to go and see some sumo action but can’t go to the tournament, there are also other possibilities.
Sumo Tours in Tokyo
Sumo is something that you can only experience in Japan. Being the location for 3 of the 6 tournaments throughout the year, Tokyo is the best place to immerse yourself in this fascinating part of Japanese culture. Sumo is a pretty complex sport and therefore the best way to go see a Tournament is with a fun and knowledgeable English speaking guide. There are tours where you can see one of the 6 national tournaments, but there are also tours where you can watch the Rikishi(wrestlers) up close during their morning practice!
Here are a few of the tours we recommend:
Sumo is something that is a huge part of Japanese culture and is a must see if you are visiting Japan. There is truly nothing like experiencing a tournament live or going to see a morning practice session. We hope you learned a thing about sumo in Japan and that you have a chance to see it live next time you visit!