How to... Sumo

Unlike many seasonal sports, the venerable, homegrown Japanese wrestling spectacle that is sumo can be seen throughout the entire year! Big-deal tournaments, not to mention smaller local events, take place almost every month all across the nation. Sumo is a go-to symbol of Japan, but the rules and intricacies might not be as clear. Tokyo Creative is here to help shed some light on all things sumo, and when you can catch this sport live.
Sumo Mural in Tokyo at 
Ryogoku – Photo by Nathan Hosken
Sumo has been played for centuries, with mentions of the heavyweight sport popping up, well, as long as Japanese history has been recorded. Historians say that sumo originated from ancient Shinto practices.
Wood block sumo print image from Art Gallery ErgsArt
The display of strength was primarily seen as a way to ensure a good year of crops and as a way to pay respect to the many gods associated with the religion. Some of the match rituals you can still see today have ties to Shinto.
The tournament line up of sumo wrestlers at Ryogoku in Tokyo – Photo by Nathan Hosken
That said, these days most sumo that punters go to see live and broadcasters air nationally resemble a very different beast. Professional sumo is now an organized event. The Japan Sumo Association leads the sport, organizing all of the country's major tournaments and infrastructure. They have established intricate ranking systems that have been in place for the last couple of centuries. The Grand Sumo Tournaments (more about those below) are the only events that actually cause the wrestlers to go up – or down – in rank.
Ritual before the bout at Ryogoku, Tokyo – Photo by Nathan Hosken
Before we dive into the headline events, it would probably be good to go over the basic rules and rituals of a sumo match. The actual bout is relatively straightforward – two massive dudes enter the ring, and when the referee (gyoji in Japanese, if you want to sound like an expert) says "go", they go at it. To win, a wrestler has to either push their opponent out of the ring or throw them off their feet onto the ring floor. You can win in a few other technical ways – like, if your belt falls off, you are done for that match. If you are just learning about sumo, keep it simple and focus on these big two ways.
Sumo titans in the ring at Ryogoku, Tokyo – Photo by Nathan Hosken
Now, sumo isn’t just about two gargantuan guys slamming into one another. Prior to the sumo match itself, the wrestlers perform a complex set of rituals,  stomping their feet in unison and then heading to their corners to drink special water for purification. This water is believed to give them strength for the upcoming battle. After some more stomping and clapping, colorful banners are presented, representing the prize money on the line for that particular bout. The wrestlers then grab a fistful of salt and throw it on the referee. The gesture is born out of an ancient religious practice and is meant to drive evil spirits away from the wrestler's sacred place, the ring. The wrestlers then sort of circle about for prep, a segment that acts as a psych-out period. Finally, the gyoji tells them to get ready to rumble.
Sumo banners outside of the grand tournament hall, Ryogoku, Tokyo – Photo by Nathan Hosken
So when should you go and see a sumo tournament? You could keep it local and find a smaller (or even amateur) event, but if you are visiting Japan, better to go big and hit up one of the six grand tournaments. Three of these take place in Tokyo – one in January, along with May and September. The other half happen in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November). Tickets go on sale more than a month in advance, and you can buy them online – in English if that’s how you roll.

The last detail to keep in mind when purchasing tickets is where you want to sit. They have regular seats with a cushy, single chair, but they also give folks the option of buying a whole box. You and your pals can take in the event with slightly more space. Boxes run a lot more money, but if you and your friends split it up evenly, it becomes more reasonable and is a fantastic experience.
Individual and box seats available for Sumo matches at Ryogoku, Tokyo – Photo by Nathan Hosken
Wherever you end up sitting, though, sumo is certainly an excellent choice to fill in your “I must experience a traditional Japanese activity” checkbox during your trip to the country.
Procession into the sumo arena building on a competition day – Photo by Nathan Hosken
Sumo-spotting near Ryugoku, Tokyo – Photo by Nathan Hosken
Local Tips: Before the match you can watch all the wrestlers who will be competing (except the current grand champion) enter in procession outside of the area. This is a great opportunity for photos. Another fun thing to do is general Sumo-spotting – even if you are not attending a match or if you are visiting when no tournaments are scheduled –  around the Ryogoku area you can often see sumo wrestlers in their everyday lives, shopping, eating and relaxing. You can also sometimes attend a sumo practice session at one of the local beyas (wrestler stables) in the neighborbood.
Once you get used to it, you’ll be ready to root for your favorite wrestler like a professional fan.
Want to know more? Check out these Sumo-related things to see and do in Ryogoku, Tokyo!

Patrick St. Michel