Everything you need to know about sumo wrestling

Everything you need to know about sumo wrestling

Loincloths? Top-knots? Chanko nabe? Japan’s raucous obsession explained for novices and future fans of this ancient sport
sumo wrestling
A sumo tournament in progress inside the Ryogoku Kokugikan. Due to Shinto tradition, no women are allowed in the ring, lest they compromse its 'purity.' (Photo by Flickr user wilhelmja)

Sumo wrestling may have an obscure history, but wrestlers, officials and devotees show an unflinching dedication to its rituals.

The good news is that sumo is engaging to neophyte tourists and rabid fans alike. Between the traditional top-knots, the mawashi loincloth, the sacred clay ring, the colorfully-attired referee and the rites of throwing purifying salt on the ground before the wrestlers lock in combat, this sport is the perfect blend of athleticism, history and cultural exhibition.

The atmosphere on tournament day is almost like a town festival. Wrestlers can be seen in and around the Ryogoku Stadium throughout the day in their robes and wooden sandals. Hawkers sell food outside the stadium, and the souvenir shops do a roaring trade. But despite the frivolity of the fans, the wrestlers themselves are dead serious, with an intense concentration in their eyes as they approach the ring.

Tips for seeing sumo in Ryogoku

•Sumo wrestling tournaments in Tokyo are held six times a year. Three of the events are held at the Ryogoku Kokugikan stadium, which sits beside the Sumida River in eastern Tokyo.

• Tickets for the Ryogoku Kokugikan events are available at the stadium on match days, but be warned that they often sell out well in advance. A spot beside the ring, where spectators sit on square cushions and are occasionally the victim of wrestlers crashing out of the ring, costs ¥14,300, but the cheapest seats will only set you back ¥3,600. A four-person box starts at ¥36,800, but the boxes usually have room for five or six people.

• During tournaments, bouts begin for lower-ranking wrestlers early in the morning, but the 'big boys' do not take the ring until the evening. Unless you are a hardcore fan, there is no need to show up as the doors open. That being said, if you arrive early in the morning, you can sit in the premier ring-side seats until the proper ticket-holders arrive.

• Many of the wrestlers' stables are located in the vicinity of the stadium. The buildings are generally tucked away in back streets and only have a small plaque revealing the location. Here, the stable master and trainer puts the wrestlers through their paces every morning. The quarters also have living areas on the upper floors. Although casual visits to sumo stables are not encouraged, a number of tour agencies can arrange visits for small groups. See the Tokyo City Tour package.

• The Sumo Museum is also in the grounds of the Ryogoku Stadium. Albeit small, the museum has an eclectic collection of sumo memorabilia, like woodblock prints from the days before cameras and ceremonial loincloths worn by champions of the past.

• Sumo wrestlers are encouraged to eat chanko nabe, a concoction of vegetables, meat and seafood that is cooked in a large pot. The wrestlers build up their amazing girth by consuming vast amounts of the dish. There are several specialist chanko nabe restaurants close to the stadium, with Chanko Tomoji (3-24-4 Ryogoku, Sumida-ku, tel. 03 3631 4889) most highly recommended.