Exploration of Sumo

Attending a Sumo event is one that most people never forget. Even if you have no interest in the sport it’s still a large part of cultural heritage in Japan and tourists should see at least one match to learn its fascination with the Japanese.

For anyone not familiar with the world of Sumo Wrestling, the sport may seem a bit bizarre at first. However, as you start to get more and more into the sport, it may be nothing short of a fascinating and entertaining experience. Explore with us for those who want to learn a bit more about the sport. Many are curious about how the sport began and how did it reach the mythical status it has today.

Sumo is a sport that spans over 1500 years, Sumo is one of the biggest and most popular sports in Japan. Sumo is essentially a Japanese style of wrestling and it is Japan’s national sport. Sumo involves two wrestlers facing each other in a ring as they try to push each other out of the ring or to the ground.

Sumo holds much importance culturally and historically. Now that you know the basics of what the sport entails and how famous it is in Japan, you may be curious to find out a bit more about it.

Sumo In Japanese Culture

In total Sumo was once part of Shinto ritual and it is still considered a sacred event significant to the country’s culture. It is an ancient sport that holds national pride of being the national sport of Japan.

Ryogoku Sumo Wrestling Stadium in Tokyo

The origin of the sport dates back to at least 1,500 years ago and holds much more importance than any other sport in Japan. From the very beginning of the sport, Sumo has been closely entwined with the Shinto religion.

The sport was performed as a religious ritual at shrines in hopes of a bountiful harvest and as a way to pay respect to the (Kami) spirits or gods. Even now, many of the rituals and practices of Sumo incorporate elements from the Shinto religion and last even longer than the match itself.

The Sumo Wrestler

In Japan, sumo wrestlers are commonly known as Rikishi. Most people describe professional sumo wrestlers with this Japanese term. The word is made of two kanji characters representing “Strength/power” and “Gentleman/warrior”.

Tokyo – sumo training school 

The term reflects the gentleman samurai image and strength and power expected from a sumo wrestler. There is 650 rikishi in total and they will be divided into six divisions.

Rules of The Match

A trip to Japan can be a life-changing experience for many. No doubt, the trip wouldn’t be complete without getting to see a Sumo match. But how does it work and what are the rules? Understanding the match is vital when you finally have an opportunity to see one.

Sumo ceremonial apron named “Kensho-mawashi.”

Dohyo-iri or Ceremony to Enter the Ring

The start of the sumo tournament begins with the rikishi performing a traditional ceremony named dohyo-iri. The rikishi gets into two groups and walks down the aisle clad in their ceremonial apron named “Kensho-mawashi.”

After all the wrestlers gather, they form a circle on the ring and a short ritual will commence before they depart.

Sumo wearing ceremonial “Kensho-mawashi.”

Pre-match Rituals

After the wrestlers have entered the ring, they need to perform some symbolic movements. A notable movement is “Shiko” which involves raising the leg and stomping. The move means much more than just a warm-up.

As a whole, the clapping of hands symbolizes attracting the attention of gods (Kami), raising the arms to show that there are no concealed weapons, and the famous leg raising and stomping the ground to frighten away any evil spirits from the dohyo.

stomping the ground to frighten any evil spirits from the dohyo.

Lastly, the rikishi will need to cleanse themselves starting with a ritual named chikara-mizu. The ritual entails him using the water he received from his last defeated opponent and swilling it in their mouth. Then, the wrestlers perform salt-tossing for the purification of the ring and to protect themselves from injuries.

ritualistic salt toss to purify the ring

The Actual Match Starts

The match starts when the gyoji (referee) signals for the match to begin. Each rikishi has their fists resting behind their respective Shiraki-sen and the moment can seem incredibly tense.

Usually, the rikishi will crouch for more than a few seconds to carefully assess their opponent’s moves. The match will involve a few seconds of circling the opponent, bodies colliding and twisting. For the spectators, the match can seem extremely fast-paced and intense.

Rules of Sumo

The rules of sumo are quite simple. To win, the rikishi will need to force their opponent out of the dohyo (the 15-feet diameter ring). They can also win by making the opponent touch the ground with any part of the body other than their feet.

Beginning of a Sumo Match

There are as many as 82 legal techniques that the sumo wrestlers can use to shove, throw or grapple to gain victory. Any wrestler who steps out of the bounds of the dohyo (Sumo ring) or first touches the ground with any part of their body other than his feet will lose the match.

Forbidden Moves in Sumo Wrestling

In sumo wrestling, forbidden moves are known as kinjite (禁じ手). Any such moves can result in immediate disqualification from the match.

Some of the forbidden techniques include:

  • Punching
  • Grabbing below the waist area
  • Hair-pulling
  • Kicking
  • Hari-te or a 90-degree, wide-arc slap
  • Sabaori or grabbing the opponent’s lower back with a tight grip on the belt
  • Locked fingers behind the opponent’s back. 

Gaining Status or Moving Up The Tournament Ranks

To get a promotion, Sumo wrestlers need to get through the Han-basho tournaments. To move up in the ranks, a rikishi will need to finish the tournament with more wins than losses. If the rikishi has a losing record, it will lead to a demotion.

However, getting promotions can be a very difficult challenge for a sumo candidate. Only those with an impressive record for many consecutive tournaments can move up in ranks.

Once a rikishi reaches the Yokozuna ranks, he will not face any demotions. However, if the rikishi fails to win a championship or maintain their supremacy for a significant amount of time, they will need to resign.

Sumo Rankings

In Sumo wrestling, there will be divisions instead of weight classes. In Japan, people call sumo rankings “banzuke” and it entails a total of six divisions. The sumo ranking of a sumo wrestler will determine his salary and what type of privileges he will get.

Each sumo wrestler will get a rank within the following six types of divisions:

  • Makuuchi (幕内)
  • Juryo (十両)
  • Makushita (幕下)
  • San-dan-me (三段目)
  • Jonidan (序二段)
  • Jonokuchi (序の口)

Among these, the top Makuuchi division is further divided into five subdivisions. They are – the highest rank Yokozuna (横綱), then followed by Ozeki (大関), Sekiwake (関脇), Komusubi (小結) and Maegashira (前頭).

A Day in The Life

The life of a sumo wrestler is extremely difficult. They live the most disciplined and regimented lives compared to any other athlete in the world. All sumo wrestlers need to live in a special stable (home) known as “Heya” to live, train, and sleep in.

Each heya is run by a trainer, known as oyakata. The oyakata is also a former sumo wrestler and extremely strict and regimented. An oyakata will dictate everything from a rikishi’s training to their meal. A rikishi must live their life according to hundreds of years of tradition. However, the hardest life may be led by the young ranking wrestlers.

Sumo stable known as “Heya” to live, train, and sleep in.

The younger lower-ranked wrestlers need to get up the earliest to prepare food, clean, serve food and wait for the other higher ranking wrestlers to begin their meal before eating themselves. After training, they will need to take a bath last and even get the last meal choices during dinner.

Sumo Wrestlers Meals

A rikishi will generally have not more than two meals per day. The wrestlers will consume their main meal at noon and there will be an evening meal as well.

While normal people may believe breakfast is the most important meal of the day, that’s not the case for a rikishi.

They are busier with doing chores around the stable and training before their main meal. Let’s be honest, no one wants to practice wrestling with a full stomach. Traditionally, a rikishi’s diet is to consume about 4,000 calories each day.

The main food they consume is the “Chanko-nabe”. It is a hearty stew that consists mainly of proteins, vegetables, and broth. There is no set recipe for this dish and the ingredients will vary depending on the cook, sumo stable, seasonal availability, and personal preference.

Live Sumo Wrestling in Japan

On your next trip to Japan, make sure not to miss the opportunity to witness an intense sumo match. Most matches are held all day from 8 am to 6 pm at stadiums or arenas. Main matches will take place in the afternoon and you can enjoy some matches of lower rank players in the morning.

Official Ticket Office Online For Sumo

However, the stadium will only start to fill up in the afternoon. Make sure not to miss the main event as the atmosphere will reach its peak during them. This atmosphere is not comparable to any other sports event in the entire world.

 ticket office at Ryogoku Kokugikan, arena used for sumo

Other than the match, the pre-match rituals alone may be the most fascinating traditional experience for an international visitor. Stadiums will sell snacks and drinks and you may want to enjoy those during the event. If you want, you can pre-order bento boxes (pre maid boxed meals) as well.

Tournaments throughout Year

Sumo tournaments are known as hon-basho (本場所). In Japan, there will be six tournaments in total each year. Three of these tournaments are held in the Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo. The remaining three tournaments are held in Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka.

Each of these tournaments will last for 15 days and starts on a Sunday. The tournaments are:

  1. Hatsu-basho – happens in January at Ryogoku Kokugikan
  2. Haru-basho – happens March at EDION Arena Osaka (Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium)
  3. Natsu-basho – happens in May at Ryogoku Kokugikan
  4. Nagoya-basho – happens in July at DOLPHINS ARENA (Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium)
  5. Aki-basho – happens in September at Ryogoku Kokugikan
  6. Kyushu-basho – happens in November at Fukuoka Kokusai Center

Getting Tickets to a Sumo Tournament

You can book tickets in advance for national sumo tournaments through Sumo Wrestling’s official website. You can buy tickets from other official vendors as well but only a few balcony tickets are sold on the day of a match.

Another option is to purchase tickets from convenience stores in Japan. But to do this without any problem, having a good command of the Japanese language might be necessary. If you want to buy tickets for one or more of the 15-day tournaments, you should face no problem.

For most weekend matches and matches held on national holidays, tickets will sell out fast. So its always recommended booking tickets in advance. The price of tickets will vary depending on the type of seating.

Types of Seating

The ticket price for a sumo tournament differs depending on the type of seating you choose. So before buying the ticket, you may want to know which type of seating is available. There are three main types of seats:

1. Ringside seats (溜席): Without a doubt, these are the best seats available in the house. From this seat, you will have the best view of the match as you’re the closest to the ring.

But do note that there is a risk of injury since sometimes, wrestlers may throw their opponent out of the ring and onto the audience. The spectators from this seat cannot drink, eat or take any photos.

2. Masu (box) seats (枡席): These seats entail a small (1.5 m2) Japanese-style tatami space with floor cushions for 1-4 people. Before entering these seats, you must remove your shoes.

Since masu seats are always sold as an entire box, you need to pay for all seats even if there are only two of you. From these seats, you can eat and take photographs.

3. Chair or Balcony seats (椅子席): Just like the name, balcony seats are western-style and located on the 2nd floor. Since these seats are the furthest away from the ring and all the action, the tickets for these seats are the cheapest as well.

If you want a bird’s eye view of the entire match, you will enjoy these seats. I recommend pre-booking the tickets for these seats as they will sell for a cheaper price at that time. Only a few balcony seats will be free on the day of the match.

Getting to a Sumo Tournament Arena in Tokyo

Each year, three of the biggest sumo tournaments are held in the Ryogoku Kokugikan – Tokyo’s sumo stadium or arena. From the Ryogoku station located in Eastern Tokyo, the stadium is only a short one-minute walk away.

You can also walk for about five minutes to reach the station from the Oedo Line exits of the Ryogoku station. During any tournament season, the whole stadium area will be decorated gorgeously with colorful flags.

Since people are always lining up to buy the tickets for a day’s match or catch a short glimpse of the famous wrestlers, the stadium should be easy to spot. But you may want to arrive early as the area may have too many people just before the match begins.

Etiquette for Watching a Sumo Match

When attending a sumo match, there are a few things that all spectators need to keep in mind. The most important rule of all is to never enter the dohyo (ring). It is a sacred space and regardless of there being a match in progress or not, you should never enter the space.

Also, remember that you may choose a seat in the masu or box seats with traditional tatami settings. Many of us are not comfortable sitting on the floor for a long time. So it’s best to bring extra cushions to make yourself comfortable during the match.

Sumo Museum Tokyo

10 Amazing Facts About Sumo Wrestling

Sumo wrestling is a sport that is extremely unique and unlike any other in the world. So for those who don’t know much about the sport, I have compiled some interesting facts. Here are 10 facts about sumo wrestling that might leave you surprised:

1. Sumo is Not Japan’s National Sports by Law

While Sumo may be famously known as Japan’s national sport to many, it is not the national sport by law. Legally speaking, Japan does not have a national sport.

2. Sumo Originates from a Religious Ritual

The origins of Sumo can go back to at least 1,500 years ago. In the beginning, sumo was a part of the Shinto religion. Once, the sport was a ritual to ensure a good harvest for the year and honor the dead.

3. Sumo Wrestlers weren’t always fat

You may find it shocking, but sumo wrestlers developed excessive weight only recently in the history of the sport. Weight comes at an advantage as there is no weight division in the sport. So all the wrestlers try to get as big as they can to use their weight as an advantage.

4. The Heaviest Sumo Wrestler

Orora Satoshi or Anatoly Mikhakhanov still holds the record of heaviest sumo wrestler ever. In the 2018 Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo Japan, he weighed 296.6 kilograms, more than any of his opponents.

Fall seven times, get up eight

Japanese proverb

5. Sumo Wrestlers Cannot Drive Cars

While it may sound absurd, it’s not false. In the past, there was a sumo wrestler who was involved in an extremely serious car accident. Since then, the sumo association has banned all sumo wrestlers from driving cars.

6. Sumo Wrestlers Must Wear Traditional Clothes

The life of a sumo wrestler is not easy. Because of the strict rules dictating a sumo wrestler’s life, they have no choice over their clothing. As soon as a wrestler joins a stable, he must wear traditional clothing and grow their hair out to form a topknot.

7. The Behavior of a Sumo Wrestler

Thanks to the strict rules governing how a sumo wrestler lives their life, they also need to change their behavior in public. The rules specify that wrestlers must speak softly and refrain from showing joy from winning or disappointment from losing.

8. Women Cannot Engage in Sumo Wrestling

The Sumo Association has exclusively forbidden any women from entering the Dohyo. According to the association, it is a clear violation of the sacredness of the ring.

9. Young People Don’t Find Sumo Interesting

For the longest time, interest in Sumo wrestling has been somewhat in decline. Especially in the younger generation in Japan, they are more interested in sports like baseball or soccer. So the average age of the spectators of any professional sumo event is over 50. 

10. Throwing the Cushion

In a Sumo match, spectators use Japanese cushions to sit on. Strange but true, when the fans are not happy with the results of a sumo match, they will throw the cushions into the ring. If you ever get to witness such a display is an unusual event, you’d be among the lucky ones. It’s quite a rare event to witness.

The Lure of The Ring

While Sumo wrestling can seem bizarre at first glance, it should not take too long to become passionate about the intense sport of sumo. For those who have recently become interested in Sumo, you will find that it has to be experienced to be understood.

Official Site For Sumo Tickets

If your visiting Japan and have the chance to attend a tournament, you may find that the sport can become a real obsession among those who never knew about the attraction of seeing a live event.

Map to Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Hall Tokyo

MT Lee
My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.