As I mentioned in the first Tokyo blog post, we were lucky enough to be in Tokyo during their summer Sumo Tournament. This was really a special experience that I thought it deserved some more discussion. Below are some tips and tidbits that are interesting to know if you’re interested in going to a Sumo Tournament while you’re in Japan.
- Find out if the Sumo Tournament is in town: Six tournaments are held every year: three in Tokyo (January, May and September) and one each in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November). Each tournament lasts for 15 days during which each wrestler performs in one match per day except lower ranked wrestlers who perform in fewer matches.
- Buy tickets in advance: Tickets are sold for each day of the 15-day tournaments. For those coming from abroad, tickets can be purchased in advance through the official vendor or via buysumotickets.com. Alternatively, they can be purchased at convenience stores or at the stadiums but the tournament seats tend to sell out well in advance so I don’t advise waiting to get to Japan before buying the advance tickets.
- Pick the right seats: Three types of seats are available: (1) Ringside seats: Located closest to the ring, ringside seats are most expensive and most difficult to get. Ticket holders sit on cushions on the floor and are exposed to the risk of injury due to wrestlers flying into the spectators. (2) Box seats: The rest of the stadium’s first floor consists of Japanese style box seats, which generally seat four people (although there are a few with higher and lower capacities, as well). Shoes are removed, and spectators sit on cushions. Tickets are sold for entire boxes regardless of whether they are fully occupied or not, i.e. two people using a 4-seat box will still have to purchase all four tickets. Box seats are further classified into A, B and C boxes according to distance to the ring. (3) Balcony seats: On the second floor balcony, there are several rows of Western-style seats. Balcony seats, too, are further classified into A, B and C seats depending on distance to the ring. Furthermore, there is one section (top row of the arena) for exclusive use by holders of same-day tickets. This is the cheapest ticket type and can only be purchased on the day at the stadium.
- To get a better view, show up early: Most spectators don’t show up until the top division (Makuuchi) matches start around 4 PM. There aren’t many ticket checkers once you get inside so you can easily sit closer. You may even be able to sit on the first floor until someone comes and kicks you out. If you purchase the same day tickets, most people enter early, place their things on the seats to save them, and then don’t come back until after 4 PM. You get one re-entry into the stadium so if you don’t want to search for seats later like we did, go in early and claim your seats and then come back to them later (after you’ve been kicked out of closer seats :P).
- Get up close and personal with the wrestlers: Right outside the stadium there are a number of sumo fans standing along the path the wrestlers take to enter the stadium. The different classes of wrestlers enter at different times during the day and you can get really close to them as they walk by. We saw a couple wrestlers go right by us but we didn’t have our cameras ready.
- Pre-fight rituals: The pre-fight rituals before the actual fighting can be frustrating. The higher ranking the wrestlers the more posturing the wrestlers do before the fight. I’m not exactly sure why they do so many little false starts, rice tossing, and belly pounding but here is an example of one pre-fight routine. These can get a little old as you watch a lot of fights but it is bearable. For the more marquee fights, you’ll see people holding banners enter before the wrestlers. These are sponsors for that specific match and the winner gets a cash reward from those sponsors. The final fights of the day were between yokozunas and they had lots of sponsors. Here’s a clip of my favorite match of the day.
- Yokozunas are special: At the pinnacle of the sumo hierarchy stands the yokozuna (grand champion). Unlike wrestlers in lower ranks, a yokozuna cannot be demoted, but he will be expected to retire when his performance begins to worsen. When the Makuuchi division begins, the Yokozunas have a separate special entrance and they are accompanied by two Makuuchi wrestlers. The man that sat next to us during the tournament told us that if yokozunas lose, the spectators on the first floor usually get mad and start throwing their seating mats.
- Sumo is currently dominated by Mongolians: The Mongolian yokozuna wrestler Hakuho is the Michael Jordan of Sumo. He recently broke the record for most tournament wins and continued to extend that record during the May 2016 Tokyo Tournament that we saw. This is his match in Tokyo. Other Mongolian yokozunas include Harumafuji and Kakuryū.
- Visit a Sumo Stable if the Tournament is not in town: Sumo stables are where the wrestlers live and train together and where all aspects of life, from sleeping and eating to training and free time, are strictly regimented by the stable master. There are about forty stables, all of which are located in the Greater Tokyo Region, especially in Tokyo’s Ryogoku district. However, sumo stables are neither public places nor sightseeing spots. Only a small number of stables accept visits by tourists, and they insist that tourists are accompanied by a person who is fluent in Japanese and closely familiar with the customs of the sumo world.