Meeting sumos in their natural habitat

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Maybe you are not into sports. Maybe sumos are a weird concept to you. But hey – welcome to Japan, where basically everything is a weird concept. The sumo world is a fascinating universe and making a visit to the sumo wrestlers’ hoods, and rather to one of the tournaments can be one of your trip’s highlights.

What is sumo?

Sumo wrestling is a sport practised professionally only in Japan. It is an interesting part of the Japanese culture, and it has great cultural importance too. This is something special. This is a sport yes, but also a performance, a festival, a theater, a reality show – where everybody gets engaged.

Where there is sumo wrestling there are sumo wrestlers. This is a group of people who ARE their profession, their sport, their character. They live by specific rules and traditions. They eat, sleep, live and die for sumo wrestling.

Sumo identification

How to tell if you have encountered a real sumo wrestler? The sumos have strongly regulated dress codes. In the ring they are almost naked, showing off their meaty bodies with nothing but a 9 meter long wrap around their mid section.

In their everyday lives the sumo wrestlers are also required to follow a dress code. Depending on their ranking, their clothes have different quality standards, but it is basically a robe they are wearing – even in the winter! For shoes, a wooden sandal that you can hear clip-clopping from far away is common. And for hairstyle a topknot is required.

Sumo wrestlers in Ryogoku, Tokyo, Japan

Sumo wrestlers in Ryogoku, Tokyo, Japan

Characteristics

The professional sumo wrestlers’ average weight is 410 lbs/186 kg. Compared to the average Japanese person’s weight (150 lbs/68 kg), that is an enormous difference. The average life span of a sumo wrestler is 10 years shorter than the average Japanese person. Most likely due to their feeding habits.

Behaviour

The sumo wrestlers live together with their stable colleagues. The hierarchy is always prominent. The lower ranked sumo wrestlers are taking care of the higher ranked ones and has more and less attractive chores during the day.

Every morning it is training time for the sumos, and the lower ranked wrestlers start as early as 5 in the morning. After the workout, it is time for chores like cleaning, cooking or wiping sweat from higher ranked wrestlers.

A sumo wrestler is not allowed to drive a car, due to a lot of accidents that happened in the past.

Feeding

Sumo wrestlers do not eat breakfast. A sumo wrestler eat the same dish every day. Their diet consists of a meat, fish, tofu and vegetable containing stew called Chankonabe, served with rice or noodles and beer. The portion size is of course insanely huge as they worked up an appetite training in the morning and skipping breakfast. After the food intake they sleep. Both after lunch and after dinner it is bed time.

Distribution and habitat

The area where you are most likely to encounter a sumo wrestler is called Ryogoku. In this area of Tokyo you find sumos going to the supermarket, taking the subway or ride the bus, strolling the streets, biking and eating Chankonabe (see Feeding). Ryogoku is easy to access with a subway ride to the station with the same name.

When is sumo season?

Sumo season

The prime time to watch the sumos bouting are January, May and September, when the major sumo wrestling tournaments in Japan take place – and they go on for 15 days! If you happen to be in town for these times you know what to do!

Why the sumo tournament is so fascinating

The atmosphere in the arena is ecstatic. The crowd goes wild then their favorite wins. And even wilder when the underdog wins. This is what you should hope for, and why, if this happens, seat cushions will fly in the air as they get thrown onto the stage.

During the day you get to witness all kinds of body shapes, mood swings, grunting, dancing, rituals, performances and odd things only happening in this country, in this arena, three times a year.

I thought there would be mostly men in the audience, but actually the crowd was maybe 50/50 men and women, or maybe even more women than men. There are also both young and old, families and singles, tourists and locals, couples and groups of friends. Everybody is here.

The wrestlers are celebrities, but more like heroes – and the audience are their super engaged fans. It is like a reality show.

How to get a ticket to a sumo tournament

You can buy your ticket in advance online from one month before the tournament starts. There are different ticket types that are more expensive the closer you get to the ring. Ringside seats are where the action is, you sit on a cushion on the floor and here sumos come flying and there is a risk for getting injured. These seats are the most expensive and popular. Then there are box seats where you get a section seating four people, also sitting on cushions. Further up in the arena are rows with western style chairs. This section is called the balcony and this ticket type you can always get at the same day at the arena ticket office if you come early. It will get sold out.

A typical tournament day

The atmosphere in the arena intensifies during the day. Throughout the day the level of the sumo wrestlers will get higher and higher, and the arena will get more and more full. Prime time os 15:30 to 18:00.

Many fascinating ceremonies, performances, dances and rituals are going on during the day in breaks, before and after the bouts.

If you are at the arena early (because you got tickets for the same day) you might want to check it out to see the difference, but leave the arena to eat/rest et.c. You definitely want to last until the end.

Sumo wrestling tournament in Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo, Japan

Other things you might enjoy in Japan

  • Cherry blossoms
  • Khabuki theater
  • Geisha show

Where to stay in Tokyo

I have stayed in a few places around Tokyo. My first, and most memorable was Yadoya Guest House Green in the area Nakano. The dorm rooms (like everything) are tiny like everywhere in Japan. Nakano is a residential area, so not so touristy and crazy. It is easy to get everywhere and authentic.

I also stayed in more touristy areas, like Asakusa, in Tokyo, but those hostels were a bit crazy, so I moved a lot.

You should at least once get the experience to stay in a ryokan, where you sleep on futons on the floor. I found one inexpensive in Asakusa in Tokyo. The owner is nice, atmosphere relaxed and location is great. Check out Asakusa Ryokan Toukaisou here.

Not convinced? Check here for other options to stay in Tokyo. Why not get something in Ryogoku? Next time I will do that for sure.

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