I recently wrote about the history of sumo, which is a Japanese style of wrestling that can be traced back through history to 23 B.C. While delving into the intricacies of the sport, I realized that its complicated history, and lack of international recognition, could really discourage somebody from seeing a match.
Sumo wrestling is Japan’s national sport for very good reasons – it’s exciting, complicated, unpredictable, and really fun to watch. Despite the number of Japanese fans and viewers dropping in recent years, sumo is still a fascinating piece of Japanese culture. It has the power to both enthrall and confuse foreigners who don’t yet know that it’s more than two large gentlemen fighting in what looks like nappy-thongs. It’s worth seeing a sumo match in Japan even if you don’t follow the sport, but deciding which matches to see and how to choose the right seats or tickets can be complicated, so we’re going to break it all down for you with these top tips.
Before we share our wealth of sumo knowledge, let’s give you a little breakdown of what sumo wrestling is.
What is sumo wrestling?
You can find out more about the history and intricacies of sumo wrestling here, but if you don’t have time to read it here are the basics. Sumo is a style of wrestling that has been practiced in Japan for around 1000 years (that we can accurately and historically say for sure). It has deep spiritual roots, with many if not all of the rituals used today originating in Shinto practice. When you watch a sumo tournament you’ll notice that the movements are regimented and repeated with each match which in my opinion is even more fascinating when you consider they’ve been doing those same movements for over 1000 years.
The word sumo means “striking one another”, which describes a sumo match relatively well. Wrestlers enter the circular ring known as the dohyo, and after several rituals such as stomping the feet and throwing salt in the ring, they “fight” each other until one sumo is forced to touch the ground with anything other than the soles of his feet. A sumo wrestler can also win a match by forcing his opponent out of the ring. Bouts last a very short amount of time (seconds to a minute or so on average), especially when compared to the amount of preparation that goes into each match, but that only serves to increase the excitement.
There are no weight requirements. Instead, wrestlers are divided according to their skill level and how many matches they’ve won previously. There are many different divisions (we’ll discuss them in detail shortly), tournaments last two weeks, and are held 6 times a year, which means there are plenty of opportunities to see some sumo during your trip to Japan, you just need to pick a time of year that coincides with a tournament (which is easy enough to do, considering the tournaments are held at the same time every year.
Let’s get into six different tips for seeing sumo while you’re in Japan.
1. Book your trip around the sumo schedule
While sumo wrestlers train all year round, their main tournaments (honbasho) happen six times a year and last for two weeks (which means plenty of opportunities to catch a match). The tournaments are organized by the Japan Sumo Association, who also decide which wrestling hopefuls get to train as sumo wrestlers each year. They’re also in the same places each year, so if you want to plan ahead and ensure you catch a bit of sumo, you can choose your flights based on the same dates every year.
|January||Hatsu Basho||Tokyo||Ryogoku Kokugikan||1st/2nd Sunday|
|March||Haru Basho||Osaka||Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium||2nd Sunday|
|May||Natsu Basho||Tokyo||Ryogoku Kokugikan||2nd Sunday|
|July||Nagoya Basho||Nagoya||Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium||1st/2nd Sunday|
|September||Aki Basho||Tokyo||Ryogoku Kokugikan||2nd Sunday|
|November||Kyushu Basho||Fukuoka||Fukuoka Kokusai Centre||2nd Sunday|
So, if you plan to visit Japan in January, March, May, July, September, or November, then you should be able to book your tickets around at least one day of sumo. You’ll have a good chance of seeing some of the best sumo wrestlers no matter which venue you go to, but if you can, try to watch a match in Tokyo, at Ryōgoku Kokugikan Sumo Stadium. There are three tournaments held there every year (as you can see on the schedule), and sumo fans say that it’s truly the best place to enjoy the sport because of the atmosphere and popularity of the venue. Plus, there’s a sumo museum inside if you want to learn more about the sport.
Don’t be disheartened if you’re only able to see a bout in one of the other cities – unless you’re a die-hard sumo fan you’ll probably have just as much fun!
2. There are three different seating options…
…and if you pick the wrong one, it could ruin your day, and your legs. The three main seating options are as follows:
Japanese-style floor seat boxes
These provide what many travelers are hoping for – an authentic Japanese (whatever that means). They are small, sectioned off squares big enough for around 4 (non-sumo) sized people. There are no chairs in the boxes so you’ll be sitting cross-legged on the floor, which can be a challenge for us westerners who aren’t used to being so flexible for long periods of time, or those with back or knee issues.
You can buy the seats one box at a time, so many choose to share the box with just one other person, as opposed to three, as it gives you room to stretch out. They’re also divided into categories like any other arena seating, with A, B, and C categories with A being the closest and most expensive (obviously). Prices vary from around 40 – 50’000 yen ($380 – $476), so this is definitely a pricey option, but if you’re going to spend the whole day watching sumo then why not treat yourself?
Arena-style seating (chairs)
If crossed legs on the floor aren’t your idea of fun, the next best option is the arena chairs, which may be more comfortable and more affordable. The only downside is they’re situated behind the box seating, so they’re further back from the action – not so far away that you won’t see anything, but if you have bad eyesight you might struggle to see from the chairs that are the furthest back. It’s still a viable option though, with most still being able to enjoy the entire day from these seats without issue.
As with the boxes, seating is categorized into A, B, and C, with A being the closest, and C being the furthest seats in the arena (maybe bring some binoculars). Prices range from around 4’000 yen to 10’000 yen for the A seats ($38 – $95), which makes it the cheapest and potentially most comfortable option.
Ringside floor seats
Ringside floor seats are luxurious, close to the action, and completely unavailable to the general public, so there’s no point considering them (sorry). Keep an eye out for falling sumo wrestlers during the matches, as the ringside seats are sometimes where they fall!
3. You should buy tickets in advance
Once you’ve figured out when to travel, and know which honbasho your trip coincides with, you should absolutely book your tickets in advance, as there’s a chance they’ll sell out well in advance. In fact, if it’s really important to you to see sumo during your trip, you could even check and book the sumo tickets before you book anything else, and plan your trip around that.
With your budget and seating preference settled, there are a few ways you can book tickets to sumo. They’re sold at the venues and sometimes at convenience stores in Japan, which is obviously completely unhelpful information if you’re not already in Japan. Plus, the ticket sales system is automated, and in Japanese, so could prove trying even if you’re buying tickets for your next trip while you’re already there. Your best bet? The internet.
BuySumoTickets is a well-trusted site that allows you to choose the tournament and day, and then will send you your tickets to your home address, or to your hotel in Japan when you arrive! Obviously there’s the official JSA sumo tickets page, and there are other resellers (although the Japan Sumo Association accepts no responsibility for tickets sold through these sites). Alternatively, you can book tours through sites like JTB, which plan tours that include Sumo.
Really there are lots of different options, but the best one is whichever one works for you and your travel plans.
4. You don’t have to watch the whole day of sumo
The schedule for sumo tournaments can be a little complicated, or at least requires a little working out. A day of sumo wrestling at every honbasho begins at 8:30 AM for the first 12 days, and 10 AM on days 13-15. The action concludes at around 6:00 PM. Not only is each tournament immaculately timed in the most quintessentially Japanese way, but the day is divided between the different divisions of sumo, which are many.
For fans of sumo (or people who actually live in Japan), a day isn’t much of a sacrifice, and they won’t think anything of wasting away the hours at the arena. If you’re just visiting Japan for a short period, your time might be really precious to you, so the thought of spending the entire day inside might be enough to put you off completely. Don’t worry! Lots of spectators, even sumo fans, skip the morning sessions and just head to the arena for the exciting parts.
You can read more about the detail in my aforementioned article, but in short, sumo is broken down into different divisions with rising levels of skill. The top division is maku-uchi, which contains the top ranks of wrestlers – Yokozuna, Ozeki, Sekiwake, Komusubi, and Maegashira. These are the athletes you really want to see if you’re short on time, and they usually begin to wrestle from 4:00 PM (so we’d recommend getting there for 3:30 PM at the latest).
Just as a small side point… if you do have a day to spare, watching sumo is a great way to spend it. It’s a wonderful sport, and bouts in the lower divisions can be just as exciting if you’re new to the sport. Some of my favorite sumo bouts have been between up and comers in the lower divisions, who you’ll then see sometime later up against the powerhouse division 1 wrestlers (with the occasional crowd-shocking win). Plus, don’t feel that just because you’re in an arena you’re missing out on sights you could be seeing – sumo is one of the oldest and most interesting parts of Japanese culture, and encompasses centuries of Japanese culture and religion.
5. You don’t need to know the rules of sumo to enjoy sumo
This might sound weird, but hear me out. During my first trip to Japan, we found ourselves with some time to kill (shocking considering I’m such a meticulous planner), and we decided to buy tickets for a baseball game. Full disclosure, I don’t know anything about baseball (it’s not really a thing in the U.K.), but we knew about its popularity in Japan and decided to give it a go.
Aside from an embarrassing faux pas where I cheered for the wrong team to a flurry of surprised looks from those in the stands around me, we had a fantastic time and really felt like we were experiencing a piece of modern-day Japanese culture. We didn’t really need to know who was winning (or who we should be cheering for depending on where we were sitting) to enjoy something that millions of Japanese people love.
It’s the same with sumo – you don’t need to know everything about how the sport works to appreciate the athleticism, skill, and centuries of tradition. You won’t be lost at any point, as the basic rules are incredibly easy to pick up – each sumo tries to knock the other to the ground – it’s that simple. And in its simplicity, it’s very exciting. If you enjoy the matches, you’ll probably need to learn more about the techniques and divisions, but for your first foray into Japan’s national sport, you’ll need nothing more than a few delicious Japanese snacks.
What if your travel plans aren’t that flexible, and you can’t make any of the tournaments? Or perhaps like us, you didn’t realize sumo was something you’d like to have seen until you were already there, and subsequently can’t get tickets?
6. You can still see sumo even if you can’t make a tournament
You can still experience the timeless cultural phenomenon that is sumo wrestling by booking in to see a morning training session. Heck, even if you can make a tournament this is an incredible experience. Not only is it infinitely cool, with the right know-how you may be able to see the action for free! There’s a fantastic article here that gives you a complete step-by-step guide, but I’ll give you a quick rundown.
First, find a sumo stable (shukusha) that’s accessible to wherever you’re staying. There are about 46 of them in Japan so you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding one you can get to. You can see training sessions during tournament times if the tournament is in Osaka, Nagoya, or Fukuoka, but of course, you might then just prefer to see a match. Use the JSA’s website to find the right one and make a note of the contact details so you can practice a little Japanese before you call (you’ll need it).
You can’t book to see a training session in advance, and most people simply call the day before they want to go as training sessions are held every day. There are actually sample scripts you can use online, but if you’re not confident then ask a Japanese speaking friend or your host to help you. Ask the stable if the session is going ahead, whether you can attend and at what time, and let them know how many there are in your party. Training sessions start from 6-7 AM, and it’s considered disrespectful to arrive late or leave before it has finished, so take that into consideration if you’re more of a night owl than an early bird!
Speaking of manners, you must be sure to follow the appropriate etiquette, so here are a few helpful tips!
- Hush! You must stay silent and mute your devices during training, which is a serious affair. Even the wrestlers themselves refrain from talking and making a lot of noise, so you should too. Don’t even whisper amongst yourselves, lest you be attacked by an offended sumo wrestler (kidding, of course, about the attack, not about your silence).
- No eating, drinking, smoking (even if the wrestlers are doing it). You may be offered tea while you watch, and you may not, but either way, keep in mind it will be considered rude to disrupt everything by going to the bathroom mid-session.
- If your camera makes any noise whatsoever, refrain from taking pictures during training, and if it doesn’t, try not to go too crazy with the pictures. Some stables won’t want you to take pictures at all, so it’s best to ask before you go, and some will be happy to pose for a few shots with you after training is finished. Don’t be surprised if they seem much friendlier by that point, and don’t be offended if they’re not – every stable is different.
- You’ll be directed to an assigned area with a cushion or two to sit on, and you’re expected to stay there throughout the session as a sign of respect to what’s happening. Cross your legs, sit on them, or put them to the side, but whatever you do don’t point the soles of your feet towards the dohyo if you can help it.
- Finally, if you can bring a gift as a token of your appreciation (you’ll find a helpful guide to that here. A box of sweets or tea is fine, anything to show you’re grateful for being able to be there.
Enjoy sumo however way you’re able to see it!
Whether it’s at a match, during a training session, or on TV while you’re there, sumo is a wonderful experience. However you’re able to enjoy it, it’s worth checking out if you’re interested in Japanese culture and history. As I’m writing this, COVID-19 has created waves of uncertainty throughout the travel industry (as well as creating many other serious concerns), so if I’ve given you a hunger for a bowl of sumo wrestling why not check out some of the action online. NHK regularly upload highlights of tournaments, and one of my personal favorites – Jason’s All-Sumo Channel – offers daily videos when the tournaments are taking place.
Have you seen a live sumo match? Tell us all about it in the comments!