To watch a sumo match is to immerse yourself in centuries of tradition. It is a way of stepping back in time, to an era when ceremony and ritual were just as important as final victory. Although we didn’t fully understand all of the sumo traditions, we felt the immeasurable respect the Japanese have for their beautiful sport.
Our timing was pure luck. We were in Japan during one of the six annual tournaments, called honbasho. These tournaments run 15 days, and each day has quite a few hours of sumo wrestling matches. The lower-ranking sumo wrestlers, called rikishi, fight in the morning. The best wrestlers, known as sekitori, fight in the afternoon. Since we had no idea what to expect, we showed up when the doors opened. We couldn’t apperciate the subtle differences between novice, average, and expert sumo wrestlers, so I’m not sure it made all that much of a difference to us.
The matches last a few seconds. Rarely did a match last a minute, and that was only when the two wrestlers battled each other to a standing draw. The match suddenly became less about strength and strategy; it became more about endurance. Some sumo wrestlers kept it simple – ram the guy right in front of you and hope he falls over or backs out of the ring, called a dohyo. Others have more complex strategies – wait for your opponent to lunge, side-step, and then use his momentum against him.
Everything is fair game. Want to slap your opponent across the face? Go right ahead. Want to trip him as he goes by? Give it a shot. Pick him up by the belt/loin cloth he wears, called a mawashi? No problem. But you’d better do it fast, because the match will end almost immediately after it starts.
Sumo traces its origins to the Shinto religion, possibly as far back as 2000 years ago. If Jesus grew up in a different part of the world, he might’ve been a sumo wrestler. According to this site, it became a spectator sport about 400-500 years ago. Shinto means “way of the gods,” and sumo wrestling was originally a way to entertain the gods.
The sumo ring itself is steeped in its own traditions and symbolism. Above the ring hangs the yakata, which represents a Shinto shrine. Each of the corner tassles symbolizes one of the four seasons. The referee standing off to the side represents a Shinto priest.
I won’t get into all of the traditions of this sumo wrestling, partly because there are so many of them, but also because I am certainly not an expert. One thing I easily noticed was the throwing of salt onto the floor of the dohyo. The salt is meant to purify the ring from evil spirits. But there are many, many more sumo traditions.
Each day starts off with its own ceremony, called a dohyo-iri, which is the ring ceremony. Sumo wrestlers enter the arena, led by the lowest-ranking rikishi, and walk a full circle around the ring. They face the crowd before turning into the center, clapping, and raising their hands. This is a way for the sumo wreslters to show each other that they are unarmed. The highest ranking sumo wrestlers, called yokozuna, have their own separate ring ceremony.
Once the fight begins, rikishi raise a leg high up into the air, then stamp down on the ring before doing the same with the other leg. This is supposed to ward off evil spirits. Some rikishi will then throw more salt onto the ring or onto themselves. Here’s another good site for understanding what’s going on around you.
We bought tickets for the nosebleed seats, way in the back of the arena, but we lucked out. During the early rounds when the lower-ranking sumo wrestlers are fighting, the arena is fairly empty. We were able to move way down to get a great view of the matches and the arena. We didn’t hang around for the later fights – at that point we’d been watching sumo for 3 hours – but we got a great feel for the traditions and the culture of a beautiful sport. Did we understand everything that was going on? Hell no. Did we have fun with some french fries, beer, and sumo? Absolutely.
Tokyo’s sumo arena is the Kokugikan, which is both really fun to say and very impressive. This large arena is completely dedicated to sumo. There wasn’t a tremendous amount of English, but it was apparent that sumo is trying to reach a Western audience. Since the sumo tournament was in the afternoon, we checked out the famous Tsujiki fish market in the morning and had plenty of time for sumo later in the day.
If you’re ok sitting way up in the rafters, it’s not too expensive to see some sumo, but there’s a catch. The cheap seats are only sold on the day of the match. You have to get to the Kokugikan at 8:00am (if I remember correctly) to buy tickets for about 20 bucks. Then you can come back and check out the matches you want to see. Not a bad price for an afternoon of fun!!