A beginner's guide to sumo
Sumo wrestling is one of Japan’s most popular traditional sports. And even though the game looks complicated, the rules are fairly simple and the atmosphere of a match is incomparable. Here’s a primer on what the game is all about before you go off in search of the tickets.
Mention the sport of sumo and one of Japan’s most iconic images immediately comes to mind – two muscular men, wearing just a loincloth and an elaborately styled topknot, glare fiercely at each other as they prepare to wrestle each other to the ground. Many overseas visitors have mistaken impression that this revered ancient sport is accessible only to the locals, but it is actually fairly easy to understand and to obtain tickets to a tournament. Here are the basics of sumo wrestling.
What it is
Sumo wrestling originates from the early 1600s, during Japan’s Edo Period. The rules of the game established originally have stayed in place to the present day. In essence, it is both a sport and an ancient ritual. When wrestlers take their place in the dohyo (ring) – a circular dirt and hay arena 4.55m wide – they will first toss salt in the air to “purify the space” while slapping their bodies and glaring at their opponent. This ritual used to have religious significance, but today it is regarded more as a pre-game warm-up and for the intimidation of opponents.
Rules of the game
After a few minutes of pacing, stamping and glaring at each other, the wrestlers get into the starting crouch with one fist resting on the ground. The presiding gyoji (referee) then signals the start of the bout.
To win, a wrestler either pushes his opponent out of the dohyo, or causes the opponent to touch the ground on any part of his body other than the soles of his feet. However, wrestling a 150kg man to the ground is easier said than done, especially since there are about 80 pre-approved winning moves that a wrestler can use. If you are lucky, you may witness some of the more dramatic moves, such as a wrestler grabbing his opponent’s loincloth, and tossing him out of the ring.
How to get tickets
There are six grand sumo tournaments held every year, with three in Tokyo in January, May and September at the Ryogoku Kokugikan. Each tournament lasts for two weeks. Visit the Japan Sumo Association website for the schedule and to buy advance tickets, which are available about a month before the tournament.
Even if tickets are sold out online, it’s possible to get same-day tickets from the sumo stadium ticket office from 8am in the morning. You have a better chance of getting the tickets on a weekday and earlier in the tournament. Each person is entitled to buy one ticket only.
Tips for spectators
- The lowest division matches begin at 8.30am, but most spectators won’t start showing up until 3 or 4pm when the more experienced wrestlers take to the ring.
- Pick seats that are on the shomen side of the ring, which is nearer the front, to get a better view of the game.
- Don’t get worried if your fellow spectators start throwing their seat cushions – it’s a sign that the match is particularly thrilling.
- At the seats closest to the ring, you will have to take off your shoes before sitting cross-legged on the cushions. Do not choose these seats if you are unable to sit cross-legged for extended periods of time.
Address: 1-3-28 Yokoami, Sumida-ku, Tokyo 130-0015
Opening hours: From 8am on tournament days