The magic and the majesty
That first glimpse of Japan’s most iconic of sports is something few ever forget once experienced. The size of the men in the ring, the simplicity with which the sport can be understood coupled to the depth of history and pageantry involved rarely fails to impress. Many a non-Japanese finds him or herself captivated almost immediately. Lack of Japanese language comprehension counts for little at first as tales of a sport that has evolved from shrine rituals are learned.
Sumo is said to have its roots in a ritual performed in Shinto shrines to show appreciation to resident gods whilst also praying for rich harvests. Offerings including the Japanese staple of rice are buried in the center of the earthen sumo ring, called a dohyo, and the roof hanging above the ring resembles those found on Shinto shrines, is made from the same materials, and uses the same methods of construction as those used at the Grand Shrine of Ise. Senior ranked wrestlers throw salt before each bout in order to purify the ring while the stomping movement of the wrestlers, called shiko, in which they lift their legs high in the air is performed to drive away bad spirits. In many ways, giant sumo wrestlers are seen as a sort of shaman with similar powers.
Add to the pot the fact that since 1757, almost 20-years before the US gained independence it has been a functioning sport of sorts with ranks, record-keeping and champions, and the true majesty of sumo begins to emerge from behind that initial impression of big guys pushing and falling.
Some, this writer included opt to try it out for themselves and dabble in the sport — impossible if over the age of 23 as a pro or female — but accessible in amateur clubs around Japan for men and women alike. And if and when you do take to the earthen ring yourself, any respect garnered thus far will increase ten or a hundredfold as techniques not immediately noticeable and the real physicality of the sport take hold. Stereotypes of unhealthy fat men in strange outfits will soon be banished forever.
Website providing information on sumo
Practical sumo viewing tips by a British sumo columnist
With six official tournaments, each one lasting 15 days, and a handful of regional tours, as well as stables more often than not happy to host visitors, there are numerous ways to see sumo up close and in person year round.
Most head to one of the three tournaments in Tokyo (January, May, September) or those in other areas; Osaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November) to get their dose of pomp and ceremony that goes with the full-on tourneys.
Others prefer to wait for the action to come to them when one day demonstrations or dedicatory events are held around the country in the six weeks or so between each official tournament. If the opportunity arises, attendance at one of these tours is highly recommended as the rikishi are more relaxed than usual and delight in making time for fans looking for photos or autographs. Additionally, the sombre backdrop of Meiji Shrine in Tokyo makes for a great way to see a side of sumo most never know about in early January when the grand champions perform a special ring entering ceremony usually around the 6th of the month, but again check with the shrine for details. This event is open to the public and is free of charge.
Yet another chance to see sumo free of charge and perhaps closer than is ever possible at a regional event or official tournament is to visit a stable for morning practice. Although timing is an issue in that the best time to see morning practice is generally in the two weeks before a tournament — and you really do need to be an early-bird to be at the stable by around 7 a.m. — this is by far the closest you will ever really get to the action. Bookings are generally nor required as a quick call to the stable the afternoon before will confirm if training is indeed being held and if visitors are welcome. Most stables have an Internet presence now, making the search for numbers easier than in years past, so just pick up the phone or have a friendly Japanese speaker help out.
The official tournaments on the other hand do of course require ticket purchase but are far from the incredibly pricey events many would have you believe. True, tickets at the very front and boxes that seat four on the first floor of the stadium in Tokyo are not cheap –14,000 yen for the front row seats and between 36,800 and 45,200 for the boxes (9,200 -11,300 per person). But for those on more of a budget seats can be had on the second floor of the stadium for as little as 2,100 on the day, or 3,600 booked in advance in Tokyo (some prices may vary slightly at non-Tokyo stadiums) with most ticket types on sale at convenience stores and ticket agencies a month before the action starts. An alternate method of purchase is to access the Sumo Association page direct although they will not post tickets to an overseas address.
The Honbasho (grand tournament) starts early; the venue opens at around 8:20 a.m. most days, a little later in the closing days of the tournament, and bouts between new wrestlers start soon after. Bouts between higher-ranking makunouchi wrestlers start at around 16:00. The “dohyo-iri” that starts at around 15:50, in which all makunouchi wrestlers enter the ring, is not to be missed.
In the end though, whichever avenue you choose to follow for your own first sumo experience it will be a memory that lives with you forever. Try and take it in, snap some pictures and your life will never be the same again.
Japan Sumo Association website / information related to sumo viewing
Sumo-related information on the JNTO website
The modern-era — a sport gone global
The sport has come a long way in the centuries since shrine dedications and the early days back in 1757 when it was a purely Japanese sport unknown beyond these shores. In modern Japan, in the professional ranks, wrestlers (rikishi) from around the world compete side by side with their Japanese counterparts. Nations as far apart as Estonia and China, The Czech Republic and Brazil have all appeared in the salaried ranks of the Makunouchi and Juryo divisions, Estonian ozeki Baruto even winning a top-flight Emperor’s Cup in January, 2012.
2012 saw the first African rikishi enter the sport when Abdelrahman Alaa Eldin Mohamed Ahmed Sharan of Egypt joined the renowned Otake Stable, And whilst Osunaarashi — lit. big sandstorm — as he is known in sumo circles is now competing in the top division. He will debut in Makunouchi in November.
The nation that has made the biggest mark on the sport in recent times is Mongolia. To date an incredible 58 top division championships have been won by rikishi from the landlocked nation on the mainland in the past 11 years. Reigning top-dog as of 2013 is, however, without a doubt Hakuho Sho, a yokozuna grand champion with 27 titles to his name (as of September 2013). Few see him retiring any time soon, and as a result talk in many sumo circles is now centered on whether or not he will one day surpass the 32 yusho won by another yokozuna– Taiho — between 1960 and 1971. Few doubt he will, the only real question is how many he himself will retire with.
An incredibly popular yokozuna in Japan for his humble and highly respectful personality, Hakuho has already moved past the 25 titles claimed by fellow Mongolian Asashoryu between 2002 and 2010, is just four shy of the 31 of the legendary Chiyonofuji in the 1980s and 1990s, meaning that anyone fortunate enough to see him in action today is witnessing history in the making.
Two incredibly popular and increasingly impressive Japanese fighters making headlines making Kisenosato, the ozeki from Ibaraki prefecture, and the Ishikawa born Endo of Oitekaze Beya are ones to watch in 2014.
Kokugikan, the hub of sumo, and the Sumo Museum
The “Kokugikan” is the sumo sporting arena located in Ryogoku, Tokyo, and is commonly referred to as “Ryogoku Kokugikan”. Of the six Grand Tournaments each year, three are held in this arena, making it the hub of the quasi-Japanese national sport of sumo. The Sumo Museum, in which kesho-mawashi (ceremonial aprons worn by sumo wrestlers) or woodblock prints featuring sumo can be found, is also located on the first floor and entrance is usually free.*
*Please note that when a Grand Tournament or other event that requires an entrance fee is being held, you cannot enter without a Kokugikan admission ticket.
Address:1-3-28 Yoko-ami Sumida-ku, Tokyo (first floor of The Ryogoku Kokugikan)
Access:One minute on foot from JR Sobu Line Ryogoku Station – west exit. Approx. 5-minute walk from Toei Oedo Subway Line Ryogoku Station.
Closed:Saturdays, Sundays, national holidays (some parts may be opened), during the year-end and New Year’s holidays. Please click the following link for details(Japanese).
Mark Buckton, writer, sumo columnist
Mark Buckton has been the sumo columnist for Japan’s leading daily, The Japan Times since 2006, and has covered sumo in print and online around the world since the late 90s. He is regularly contacted by broadcast media including the BBC, CNN and others to comment on the sport and is himself also a former amateur wrestler, the first from the UK to be trained in Japan.