Last year I had a chance to see a live sumo wrestling tournament. It was one of the things I had really wanted to do in Japan. It is strange that many Japanese people haven’t seen live sumo ever in their life. But I guess foreigners are generally more inclined towards doing more “Japaneesy” things. I can actually say that because there were mainly foreigners in the spectators!

In Osaka, Sumo tournaments are held in Osaka prefectural gym which is just 10 minutes from my apartment and surprisingly there were some sumo wrestlers even staying in my building’s service apartments. I could see them hanging around in the lobby. How lucky!
Sumo is a Japanese style of wrestling and Japan’s national sport. It was performed to entertain the Shinto deities in the ancient times. Many rituals with religious background, such as the symbolic purification of the ring with salt, are still followed today.  The rules are really simple – the wrestler who first exits the ring or touches the ground with any part of his body besides the soles of his feet loses. Sumo matches take place on an elevated ring made of clay and covered in a layer of sand. A sumo contest usually lasts only a few seconds, but those few seconds are really engrossing!

Six sumo tournaments are held every year: three in Tokyo (January, May and September) and one each in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November). Each tournament lasts for 15 days during which each wrestler performs in one match per day except lower ranked wrestlers who perform in fewer matches. Each day starts from as early as 9am and ends at 6pm. Low ranked wrestlers go in the morning followed by top wrestlers by late in the afternoon. The stars of the sport are Yokozunas – The Grand Champions of sumo. On the last day of each tournament, the schedule is shifted forward by 30 minutes to accommodate the victory ceremony at the end. We went there around 2pm and stayed there until the end. I recommend to be there at the stadium, at least for the top division matches between 15:30 and 18:00. Ring entering ceremonies between divisions are very interesting to watch. Sumo wrestlers parade into the arena wearing ceremonial aprons over their loincloths, and sometimes a former champion demonstrates some classic moves. Frankly, for me, this was the most entertaing part of the day!

All sumo wrestlers are classified in a ranking hierarchy which gets updated after each tournament based on the wrestlers’ performance. Wrestlers with more wins than loses move up the hierarchy, while those with negative records get demoted. The highest of them – a yokozuna cannot be demoted, but he is expected to retire when his performance begins to worsen.

Sumo tickets generally go on sale about 6 weeks before each event and cost between 3,500 to 40,000 yen. Tickets are sold for each day of the 15-day tournament. Even if a day is sold out in advance, a limited number of same-day balcony seat tickets are sold on the day at the stadium. Ring side seats are most expensive and most difficult to get as they are located closest to the ring. You have to sit on cushions on the floor and sometimes there is a risk of injury due to wrestlers flying into the spectators. I would have loved to sit there but unfortunately couldn’t get my hand on those tickets.

The stadium’s first floor consists of Japanese style box seats, which generally seat four people . You have to sit on cushions and remove your shoes. Tickets are sold for entire boxes regardless of whether they are fully occupied or not, i.e. two people using a 4-seat box will still have to purchase all four tickets. These tickets were available but I couldn’t find anyone who was willing to share the price.
On the second floor balcony, there are several rows of Western-style seats. Balcony seats, too, are further classified into A, B and C seats depending on distance to the ring. I was able to get the best balcony seat and I thought it was pretty good. Also, sumo stadiums are not too big, therefore you will get a good view wherever you sit. Furthermore, there is one section for exclusive use by holders of same-day tickets, the cheapest ticket type that can only be purchased on the day at the stadium. You can buy tickets here
or they can be purchased at convenience stores or at the stadiums.

Watching sumo tournament was great fun and I would definitely love to go there again. It is a full day event and the best part is that you are not confined to your seats. We could go out, get drinks and see sumo wrestlers getting in the stadium as per their match schedule. We could also see them getting ready for their tournament. There weren’t many stalls selling food around, therefore many people had bought their snacks with them. There were many vending machines for drink though. I think we can go out of the stadium once and they stamp your ticket, but I didn’t want to take a chance. It was too crowded outside mainly with people who wanted to buy same day tickets. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I wanted to enjoy it to the fullest!

I highly recommend watching sumo up close and personal. There are sumo matches in March in Osaka, you can check the full sumo schedule here

Must do in Japan: Visit a 相撲 Sumo Wrestling Tournament

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