Sumo is an ancient, disciplined sport. But best of all, it’s seriously fun. The rules are simple: the rikishi (wrestler) who gets the other outside the ring, wins – but there's so much more going on. Don't miss the chance to see it live if you’re in Tokyo at tournament time.
A sumo wrestler squats prior to a bout at the Tokyo tournament © Meeh / Shutterstock
Sumo is thought to have originated about 2000 years ago, but only became a popular sporting event in its own right in the 17th century. The wrestling matches that were precursors to sumo made up a part of Shintō ritual prayers for good harvests.
Sumo’s whole visual vocabulary is infused with Shintō motifs and ideas. There's a roof suspended over the dōyō (wrestling ring) that resembles a Shintō shrine. At the beginning of each match, the victor of the last match offers a wooden ladleful of water to the next wrestler before entering the ring, for the incoming competitor to perform a symbolic cleansing of the mouth and body. And before entering the ring, each rikishi takes a handful of coarse salt to scatter into the ring to purify it.
Sumo wrestlers throw salt across the ring to purify it before a bout © J. Henning Buchholz / Shutterstock
In the ring
Once in the dōyō, the two wrestlers square off, squatting at opposite ends of the ring. Facing each other, they outstretch their arms to the sides, palms raised, to show their intentions for a fair fight. They both saunter to the centre of the ring, slapping thighs and bellies, with intimidating stares, and then retreat. This charged spectacle is repeated several times until the two opponents settle into a squat for the final staredown.
Wrestlers may grab at an opponent's mawashi (loin cloth) to lift them out © J. Henning Buchholz / Shutterstock
Then, suddenly, they charge at each other. It's exciting – and more often than not over in less than a minute. To the uninitiated, it might not look like much happened, but the winning rikishi will have executed one of several official kimari-te (winning moves), such as oshidashi (pushing one's opponent in the chest) or yorikiri (lifting one's opponent by his mawashi, loin cloth). Size matters in sumo, but scrappy smaller wrestlers can pull off a win by using his opponent's weight against him. (There are illegal moves, too, like top-knot pulling.).
See a Tokyo sumo bout
The action during the Tokyo tournaments, or bashō, takes place at the green-roofed Ryōgoku Kokugikan from mid- to late January, mid- to late May and early to mid-September. Although the best ringside seats are bought up by those with the right connections, box seats (from around ¥10,000/US$90 per person) accommodating up to four people are a great way to watch sumo in traditional style. These are sectioned-off seating areas where guests sit on cushions on the (raised) floor. Attendees in box seats can order food and tea from servers dressed smartly in happi (half-coats) and straw sandals.
A full house looks on at the Tokyo Grand Sumo Tournament © J. Henning Buchholz / Shutterstock
Cheaper tickets are available for standard arena seats and the cheapest option is a same-day general admission ticket (¥2200/US$20). For the latter option you'll have to get there early as keen punters start queuing the night before. Only one ticket is sold per person to foil scalpers.
When a tournament isn’t in session, you can enjoy the neighbouring Sumo Museum with its portraits of past yokozuna (champion wrestlers) and video footage. During tournaments the museum is open only to those attending the tournament; otherwise it’s free to enter.
A sumo wrestler out and about in Tokyo in his cotton kimono © nikalah01 / Budget Travel
Watch sumo practice
If you're in Tokyo outside of tournament season, swing by a heya (wrestling stable) to watch an early morning practice. This is arguably more fascinating, as you get to see the rikishi – literally, ‘the power men’ – up close. Just as impressive as their strength is their astonishing agility.
Arashio Stable is the most welcoming heya. Anyone can turn up and watch through the window when practice is on. Most stables are located in and around Ryōgoku, so if you hang around here you’re likely to see wrestlers walking around the neighbourhood in yukata (light cotton kimono) and topknots. Keep your ears open for their geta (wooden sandals) clopping down the street.
A mixed hotpot – chanko-nabe – the meal of choice for sumo wrestlers © norikko / Shutterstock
Eat like a wrestler
Chanko-nabe – it means 'mixed hotpot' – is the protein-rich stew the wrestlers eat to sustain themselves through gruelling practice sessions. There are a few restaurants around town run by former wrestlers. Koto-ga-ume, owned by the one-time rikishi of the same name, is the best of the bunch. Or go one step further and eat in a former heya at Kappō Yoshiba, which still has the dōyō in the centre of the historic building.
You can watch wrestlers throw down at tournaments across Japan © J. Henning Buchholz / Shutterstock
Sumo tournaments across Japan
If you don’t make it to Tokyo in January, May or September, there are other opportunities to see a match elsewhere in Japan. Tournaments are also held in March in Osaka, July in Nagoya and November in Fukuoka. Check sumo.or.jp for dates and ticket information.
Last updated in December 2017