The spectacle of Sumo

 Japan Sumo Association

Lonely Planet and Rough Guide's author Simon Richmond recounts his experiences of watching sumo wrestling in Japan.

Photo: Japan Sumo Association

The clashes between the enormous, near-naked wrestlers can be blindingly brief. Even so, attending a sumo tournament is a thrilling and compelling experience. The pomp and ceremony that surrounds Japan’s national sport – from the design of the dohyō (the ring in which bouts take place) to the wrestler’s slicked back topknot – give the sport a gravitas absent from Western wrestling.

Sumo dates back around 2000 years to when it was a Shinto rite connected with praying for a good harvest. By the 17th century, the practice had developed into a spectator sport, and really hit its stride in the post-World War II period when bashō (grand tournaments) started to be televised. The religious trappings remain, though: the gyōji (referee) wears robes similar to those of a Shinto priest and above the dohyō hangs a thatched roof like those found at shrines.

At the start of a fight the two rikishi (wrestlers) wade into the ring, wearing only a mawashi, a 9m long piece of silk twisted around the groin. Salt is tossed to purify the ring, then the rikishi hunker down and start psyching each other out with menacing stares before attempting to throw each other to the ground or out of the ring using one or more of 82 legitimate techniques. The first to fall, or to step out of the dohyō, loses.

Attending one of the six annual bashō can be an all day affair. Matches start at 10am for the lower-ranked wrestlers, with sumo superstars appearing around 4pm and tournaments finishing at around 6pm. Wrestlers are ranked according to the number of wins they have had, the top rank being the yokozuna, the next rank down ōzeki. When not fighting in tournaments, the professionals and apprentices live and train together in one of 53 heya (stables) all run by ex-wrestlers.

Despite their formidable girth (typically wrestlers weigh in at 150kg or more), top rikishi enjoy celebrity status and are constantly in the media spotlight. This has led to recent scandals in the sport with some wrestlers not behaving as the role models they are expected to be to Japanese society.

The Wayne Rooney of the sumo world is Asashōryū, the first Mongolian-born fighter to reach the rank of yokozuna. After a controversy filled career he retired in 2010. Kotooshu, the first European-born wrestler to hold the rank of ōzeki won the Emperor’s Cup in 2008. The 6 foot 8 inch Bulgarian, weighing in at a relatively light (for a sumo player) 152kg has been dubbed sumo’s David Beckham.

QUICK GUIDE

Bashō start on the Sunday closest to the tenth of the month and last for two weeks. The locations are: Kokugikan Hall in Tokyo (Jan, May & Sept); Ōsaka Furitsu Taiiku Kaikan in Ōsaka (March); Aichi-ken Taiiku-kan in Nagoya (July); and Fukuoka Kokusai Centre, Fukuoka (Nov).

Ringside seats (around ¥45,000/£312 for four seats in a tatami mat block) are difficult to come by, but tickets for reserved seats in the balconies (starting around ¥3200/£22 for a western-style seat) are usually available. Unreserved seats (¥2,800/£19) are sold at the door on the day of the tournament at 9am. To be assured of a ticket, line up well before that, especially towards the end of a bashō.

Full details in English about ticket and the sport are found on the sumo association’s website. If you can’t get a ticket, do what all other fans in Japan do and turn on the television: NHK screens each bashō daily from 3.30pm.