If you’re thinking of visiting Japan any time soon and you’re lucky enough to land your trip at a time when the sumo tournament is on, you need to make sure you go. To absorb yourself in Japanese culture completely, you should consider all aspects and in a country where sport is so important you might as well opt for a uniquely Japanese sport rather than football or baseball.
We went on the 13th day of the tournament, which is the business end of things. Basically, the format of these tournaments is that they last fifteen days and each sumo wrestler competes against a different opponent each day. They don’t have time to compete against everyone but they don’t repeat any match ups.
As each wrestler is ranked according to his status and record, the fights are split into sub-sections throughout the day. In a nutshell, you can get into the arena from 08:30 but the best wrestlers won’t fight until about 15:00. Since we were travelling over from Tokyo in the morning, we went to the arena at about 13:00 and didn’t feel like we missed anything, seeing the tail-end of the Makushita Division fights (3rd division), all of the Juryo Division fights (2nd division) and all of the top level Makuuchi fights.
Do I need to know anything about sumo?
The sport of sumo is very easy to figure out, and it’s made easier by the fact that the fights come thick and fast so you can pick it up on the day.
In simplistic terms, the aim is to get your opponent out of the ring or on the floor. Only the soles of the wrestler can touch to floor at any time.
You will be able to follow the events unfolding before your eyes with a piece of paper with all the match-ups written out and the form of the wrestlers included so you can see the favourites. The wrestlers from the east are always on the left and the wrestlers from the west are always on the right (though the east/west placement is arbitrarily handed out to the wrestlers regardless of hometown).
Sumo isn’t just about the fighting. There are a lot of rituals that each wrestler must go through and they are followed before each and every fight. The build up to each fight lasts several minutes and the fights rarely go over ten seconds.
Who are the big stars?
In over 300 years of the sport, only 69 fighters have been awarded the Yokozuna title, though this has only been recognised as the highest rank for around 100 years. They achieve this by winning two grand tournaments in a row (there are only six per year). There are currently three Yokozuna fighters: Hakuhō Shō, Harumafuji Kōhei and Kakuryū Rikisaburō. All three are from Mongolia. When these fight, you know about it as the whole stadium erupts with delight.
This is never more evident than with Hakuhō, the most successful sumo wrestler in the history of the sport. We were lucky enough to see him fight against Kakuryū, another Yokozuna, and come out victorious.
There are six tournaments throughout the year: three in Tokyo (January, May, September), one in Osaka (March), one in Aichi (July) and one in Fukuoka (November).
There isn’t much choice of food once you’re inside the arena. Other than ice cream sold by vendors walking around the ground, you’re pretty much limited to a bento box if you’re looking for something substantial. These cost around ¥2100 (£15), but they include a whole host of cold Japanese snacks you can eat with the chopsticks provided.
Here’s an example of what you’d expect to find.
If that doesn’t take your fancy, then you can wait for the tournament to finish and head of the arena in any direction and find heaps of restaurants with every type of food to take your fancy. I’m not even going to attempt to list them as there are too many to choose from.
How do I buy tickets?
This is the tricky part. Sumo tickets sell out almost instantly, especially for the latter days of the tournament.
It’s impossible to buy tickets from the official website if you don’t live in Japan. There are, fortunately, some 3rd party dealers who will help you get tickets.
The one I used was www.buysumotickets.com, and the tickets were paid for with a small commission fee and were in hand within a few days. Really helpful service and sorted me out with alternative tickets when the ones I wanted weren’t available.
If you get chance to go to Japan and happen to be there when one of these tournaments is on, then it’s a must-do experience. Now is a great time to experience sumo, with three Yokozuna all competing at the same time. I went for one day and I’m now converted, wondering how I’ll see the next tournament from the UK!