Sunday, November 2, 2014

Grand Sumo Tournament: One thing worth planning an entire trip to Japan around

I have had the pleasure of attending two Grand Sumo Tournaments during this year in Japan, and it is hands down an event that I would recommend any prospective visitor plan an entire trip around.

Each year, there are only 6 each Grand Sumo Tournaments in Japan - two of which are in Tokyo. Tickets go on sale roughly a month before each event and Saturday and Sunday tickets sell out completely within hours of going on sale. This frenzy is with good reason. Sumo is a fantastic sport. Each Grand Sumo Tournament (GST) runs all day with the most junior divisions competing from early in the morning and matches continuing all day until the highest, Makuuchi division, competes to close out the tournament by 6pm.

We arrived to our first tournament in May, with our lovely guests in tow, at about 2pm concerned that we would bore from an entire day of matches.When Hakuho, a Mongolian-born sumo powerhouse who holds the second longest winning streak in sumo history and has the highest number of undefeated tournament championships, won in the final match up of the day, to win the tournament with a 14-1 record, we could hardly believe how quickly the time had gone. I could have stayed for more.

But, let me back up. Each GST is a 15 day long event. On each day, each sumo wrestler has only one match so that by the end of the tournament they have accumulated a win-loss record totaling 15 matches. It is a sort of round robin, however, not every potential match-up takes place as there are many more competitors in any one division than there are days in the tournament.

Sumo has a rich (and also notorious) history in Japan. Its roots originate in Shintoism where sumo wrestling was originally a way of praying for a bountiful harvest and these connections are evident at each GST. Hovering over the sumo ring is a canopy with Shinto iconography and decoration.

Before entering the ring for a match, the competing  wrestlers throw a handful of salt into the ring. The history behind this tradition is a belief that the salt would serve to purify the wrestlers and the ring. (PS I have read that women are not allowed to enter sumo rings because they are inherently unpure. Sadly, this doesn't surprise me, as many aspects of Japanese culture contain a not-insignificant dose of ridiculous sexist garbage. Moving on... )

Upon entering the ring, the wrestlers clap their hands in order to attract the attention of the gods and then raise their arms out to the sides, palms forward, to demonstrate that they are fighting without any weapons.

Then, in defiance of their own stature, each wrestler will lift his substantial legs, one and then the other, out to the side and up until they are around or above the level of their heads and then drop them quickly to the ground. The purpose behind this exercise is to stomp out any evil spirits.

Each of these rituals will take place multiple times before each match as there are almost always a few "false starts", which I think serve mostly to "psych out" the competition.

As seen here,
not all wrestlers are created equal in the leg lift department ;)
With these rituals taking place between each match, the speed of sumo is similar to the speed of American football - lots of set-up and anticipation for relatively short "plays" that can last anywhere between a few seconds to maybe a minute. Yet and still, it is worth the wait.

It is hard to describe the match itself, but I understand now that it is a sport of strength and significant technique. Avid sumo fans could rattle off significant information about each wrestler, his style and favorite techniques, all of which of course have names.

The fan base is dedicated, zealous and vibrant. I managed to capture a small bit of the energy surrounding sumo, when, at the September tournament, in the last bout on the 13th day, Ichinojo summarily and anticlimactically defeated his opponent Kakuryu in the final bout of the day by using a tactic called "henka" Henka, by all accounts, is a widely criticized tactic that is effectively a side step. If executed properly, as it was by Ichinojo in this bout, a henka move leaves your opponent running himself headlong out of the ring, bypassing the intense physical battle that typically characterizes a sumo match. The astonished and surely disappointed crowd erupted in cheers and jeers, launching their seat cushions wildly into the air:

This is the most unruly thing I have seen in Japan all year (by a Japanese person, obviously the guy who depanted himself at that bar crawl otherwise takes the cake!).

How to Get Tickets

As I mentioned, tickets for each GST go on sale about one month prior to the event. If you want tickets for Saturday or Sunday, you need to buy them the first morning they go on sale. If you are flexible about the dates you can attend, you can typically still get mid-week tickets a week or two before the tournament.

Buying Tickets in Person

You can buy tickets by going directly to the stadium. The Ryogoku JR stop is just steps from the Kokugikan ticket office. The Ryogoku subway stop is about a 6 minute walk to the ticket office and there are a fair amount of signs and maps to point you in the right direction.

The upsides to buying your tickets directly are that you can pick your seats yourself and you can get your tickets for face value (Western seats are around $60-70 USD, box seats, which fit 4 people, are about $320 USD, variable with exchange rate of course). The downside is, of course, that this option requires a physical presence in Japan.

Buying Tickets Remotely

For those not present in Japan, there seem to be two options: 1) the official sumo ticket site ( which provides sales information, online sales (Japanese only) and a phone number to call to buy tickets (not sure if the operators speak English but hotel staff will almost certainly help with this) or 2) use a third party vendor (e.g. that levies a service charges of about $10-15 per person for the convenience.

Tips for Attending Sumo at Kokugikan

Choosing a Seat

There are two types of seats available, Japanese style box seats (in sections A, B and C), which are typically priced to seat 4 and Western-style stadium seats, which are higher up and farther from the ring. I have sat in a section C box seat and in the Western-style stadium seats, and I highly recommend the box seat experience. Tickets in Section A are essentially impossible to get unless you are someone or know someone and seats in Section B are elusive. Section C sells out but not quite as fast, and it is still sufficiently close to the action that you can hear the sounds of the wrestlers making contact and get great pictures withe a decent camera.

If you opt for Western-style seating, try to get a seat in the first row, so you look cleanly over the balcony edge. This is the vantage point from which I took the video above. Keep in mind that video is not zoomed, so it accurately reflects the distance from the ring.


YOU CAN BRING IN FOOD AND BOOZE. And, anyone who knows anything (aka all the Japanese attendees do it). I saw bento boxes and beers and each Japanese style box has a bottle opener attached to it.

If you decide instead, or also, to go out to eat afterward, find a place that serves "chankonabe", a Japanese stew that is a staple of the sumo wrestler diet and can be found all around the stadium.

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