2016 March Grand Sumo Tournament, Osaka

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.

  
How does the day work?

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.

  
When are the tournaments?

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).

Food (Osaka-specific)

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. 

Highly recommended!!

Conclusion

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!

Osaka Nightlife for a Solo Englishman

Grace was ill tonight and unable to leave the hostel, which meant that I had a free night to explore Osaka and experience the nightlife for perhaps the only time in my life. I should add, to argue against your immediate thoughts, that I did offer to stay in and look after Grace. She insisted that I should go out and explore or, to paraphrase, I’d resent her forever. Well, they were harsh words and forever is a long time, but the night was young and I increasingly wasn’t.

Fancying a stroll, I walked from Hostel 64 along the Amidaike-suji highway, took a left onto the American-themed Orange Street and walked towards the built up Soemon-cho area. Walking around until something took my fancy (criteria: prices were neither overly cheap nor overly expensive, queues weren’t tailing down the street, they had an English menu), I wound up in a place called Napoli’s Pizza and Caffé.

Napoli’s is an unusual place. It’s very popular with locals, though a couple of Westerners were here too. It’s primarily Italian-themed, though the bar itself is like any you’d find in the UK, with all the Japanese staff speaking at least a little English. Its prime beer is Carlsberg and their logo is proudly displayed all over the decor. It has a variety of spirits and beers on sale, none of which seemed unfamiliar to me. Most of the meat on the pizzas it serves is fish and that aligns it to the local Osakans (I’m sure that’s what they call themselves). The music played was Japanese-language soul music, but they helpfully counteracted that with several screens playing a subtitled Harry Potter film. It was the one where all the wizard schools from around the world battled for the tri-wizard cup and everyone realised Emma Watson was going to be really attractive but wasn’t yet because she was under-aged and to think that would have been wrong.

When I stepped back outside, I realised how easy it is to get completely lost in this area of Osaka. Bright lights everywhere, every intersection leads to another 100-200m of night spots. The nightlife potential here is second to very few cities in the world. Restaurants, bars, nightclubs, seedy underground spots. The world, or at least one of the best places to be on a Saturday night in the world, was my oyster. There was only one place to go: Murphy’s Irish Pub.

  
Yes, by this point in our trip (about a week in) I was now missing some home comforts. Knowing what I’d get here was a good move. It was absolutely heaving with a mixture of Japanese, Americans, Australians and a handful of Irish people. There was a live band on stage called Ichigo Ichie. They played a mixture of Japanese, English and American music, including but not limited to Radiohead, Chad Kroeger, Oasis and Pearl Jam. The Japanese songs, of which I was familiar with none, were by far the most popular. It was perfect for the mood in the pub, with people happy to chat to those beside them regardless of whether they knew them or not. I met a couple from Hawaii and had a nice chat about American soccer goalkeepers and t-shirts.

 

I then retraced my steps back to a place I’d seen on my way into the centre called Kamikaze, a craft beer pub. It has been operating for three years from its location on the Naniwa-suji highway. It’s a fantastic place with the menu offering such drinks as Highland Peat Scottish Ale, Izutsu Grape Field Beer and Real Blood Lager, the latter of which I went for. At 1620¥ (just under £10) it felt a little pricey for what I got, but a bar blasting out The Libertines whilst Meet Joe Black occupied the big screen was by-no-means a loss.

And so back to Hostel 64 to check on Grace. It turns out her headache came and went and she probably could have enjoyed the night as much as I did. Osaka is a wonderful city with a lot to offer. As a lonely traveller walking around on my own through the Osakan night I felt 100% safe and the opportunities it offered to me were endless.

Japan Warning!

I make no apologies for the coming weeks’ posts, which will be very Japan-heavy. I’m heading there for a bug holiday and will no doubt be posting the occasional update from over there as I come across things I think people will find interesting and also manage to find time to post about them (on long train journeys).

The trip will finish and end in Tokyo, taking in Osaka, Kōya, Kyōto, Hiroshima and Nara along the way. It will include sumo, kabuki, a Disney theme park, the Studio Ghibli Museum and a whole load of shrines. It will also include, hopefully, some Sakura, which is Japanese for cherry blossom.

Hope you find the posts interesting!