Appreciating Sumo in Tokyo

“What is sumo, but a dance between giants?” – Sayuri, Memoirs of a Geisha

My boyfriend
Preforming prebout rituals

It is believe Sumo started as a test of strength. Men, who were often samurai, would come from each prefecture to fight at the court. More religiously, there are thoughts that sumo came from Shinto beliefs. A ritual dance was used as a way to fight gods. Men would symbolically show a fight amongst gods in the early forms of Sumo.

Competitions of strength
The founders of modern sumo

After living in Japan for over 18 months I finally got to see a sumo match at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo.

I think sumo is an underappreciated sport. If I were to start over my year and a half of living in Japan, I would have learned more about it and attended more  sumo matches. I was so impressed by my friend Mark’s knowledge on Sumo. His Japanese is not as good as mine,  but he was able to say the winning technique, or kimarite, of which there are over 50, after every bout! He was even able to identify the rikishi or sumo wrestlers from the furthest seats of the stadium! He was our guide during the tournament, explaining what was happening and so on.

Huge Yokozuna posters in Ryogoku Station, with signed hand prints!
Mascots for the kids

There are 6 official tournaments per year. Three are in Tokyo, and the others are in Nagano, Osaka and Fukoka. They are 15 days long each. Each day, each 力士、 rikishi has one bout! Their ritual and warm up with includes rinsing their mouth with holy water, throwing salt on the dohyo to purify it, stomping, and slapping their bodies to intimate their opponent actually takes up much more time than the actual contact part of the sport. The prebout set up takes about 5 minutes and the bout only a few seconds.

*To get unreserved tickets (the seats in the LAST row!) you must arrive early in the morning to purchase them at the stadium. They sell out before 10am usually. My friend bought 5 for us, even though the allowance is one ticket per person. They cost 2,200 yen each.

Inside Ryogoku is a small Sumo Museum with pictures or sketches of every Yokozuna or grand champion. You can see other related tools such as the referee’s wear, sumo daily shoes, combs used to put the sumo hair up in a slick top-knot with some old hair in it! and more. No pictures were allowed. Unfortunately there wasn’t much explanation on the rules or sumo or its beginnings so I had to do some research myself.

Example prizes for the Yokozuna. Year supply of shitake mushrooms!
Small cow signifies a supply of beef?

We were there early. Rikishi are put in ranks depending on their performance over the past 6 official tournaments or honbasho. The earliest bouts are for the lowest rank, jonokuchi, and as the day progresses, so does the skill level of the rikishi. The evening is for the best wrestlers, sekitoriThe stadium begins to get filled around 4pm for this reason.

box seats
Free arena map and tea is included for box seat ticket holders

Since we were early, the stadium was quite empty. We entered the stadium and “borrowed” (without asking) some Box Seat tickets. The box seat tickets start from 38,000 yen, which is about $350 and seats 4 people. They increase the closer to the front you get. We “borrowed” a nice box to watch the lower rank wrestlers. If the stadium is quite empty, I don’t think the staff minds (as long as you don’t use the tea that is provided there). We had two groups of us, so we took two box seats. One group had the real box owner come during their use; they just apologized, picked up their stuff and left. They weren’t very angry and didn’t say anything. Oh, the calm Japanese nature!! My group, however, had no one arrive during our use. We left around 3pm to avoid a confrontation, since the stadium was starting to get filled.

Shrine top floating
The ladies (and baby-chan!)
The gentlemen 

We went to assigned seats in the back of the stadium. It’s a nice view of the suspended roof of a shinto shrine. Along the top are also huge posters of the recent Yokozuna.  

View from the back seats

Two ways to lose Sumo:
1. Exit the rink (Dohjo)
2. A body part (excluding the feet) touches the ground inside the dohjo. 

Why I thought Sumo was amazing:
There were many times where it looked like one rikishi was surely going to win; he had his opponent grasped tightly, his opponent standing on one leg on the edge of the rink, shaking from the force of being pushed, and then this struggling man QUICKLY AND POWERFULLY throws his opponent out! Or, my favorite, underhandedly flips his opponent backwards, slamming him on the floor in the middle of the dohjo (rink). It looks physically impossible to transfer such power! I was never expecting it. This man on the edge looks like he’s seconds away from falling out of the rink, but against all laws of physics it seems, somehow changes it around. Amazing.
There were a few very active matches. Where the giants push and grab and almost fall and scoot around the dohjo in a very fair match. When one man looks like hes going to fall or get pushed out, I couldn’t stop myself from shouting in exciting! Back and forth, back and forth, the amount of energy required in each match is something spectacular. There are also moments when both rikishi go flying out of the rink, rolling down the dohjo and falling on the privileged spectators who are able to get first row seats (or cushions)!
Japanese culture was also easily seen in this sport. From the systematical and synchronized way of sweeping the dohjo after the matches, to the respectful pulling-back the elder rikishi who was pushed out of the dohjo so he wouldn’t fall, Japanese culture was prevalent.

I loved my Sumo experience. I would love to go again, and if you appreciate the small things, I recommend you experience it as well.

Don’t miss the dohjo-iri, or opening ceremony. The rikishi wear colorful cloths called kesho-mawashi, and as their names are called, take a place on the dohyo in accordance to their rank. Once all are standing, they do a short ritual and then exit. First the East side rikishi do it, and then the West site rikishi do it.

dohyo-iri ,Opening Ceremony

For the Sekitori, the top three have their own special ceremony. The are lavishly decorated and take individual turns purifying themselves and stomping on the ground and clapping. The stop on the two white lines in the dohyo and without lifting lifting their feet from the ground, scoot their way up the white lines and raise their arms. It was a little funny to watch.

There is so much to learn about sumo. I can’t wait to see it again.


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