When we talk about sports in Tokyo, it is the more conventional sports disciplines such as baseball, football or basketball that come to mind rather than sumo wrestling. There are a number of professional clubs in Tokyo with a great reputation within these well-known sports. Baseball in particular is big with two professional leagues and the Tokyo home teams Yomiuri Giants and Yakult Swallows.
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Nevertheless, Tokyo is also the centre of another sporting discipline that is quite unique to Japan. It is the Japanese sumo, which is extremely popular among the citizens. The Japan Sumo Association, not surprisingly, has its headquarters in Tokyo.
Most visitors to Tokyo do not know more than a few things about sumo, and it is this lack of knowledge combined with a genuine curiosity that draws visitors to the sumo stables in Japan.
Before coming, we have checked how to catch a glimpse of the amazing Japanese sumo wrestlers. Since we are not in Tokyo during the sumo wrestling season (January, May and September), there are no official wrestling matches to watch. So we have had to find another way to get to see the iconic sumo wrestler discipline in Japan.
A golden opportunity in Tokyo to see some Japanese sumo wrestling is to attend the daily sumo training. In some stables, you can actually watch sumo wrestling practice during the wrestlers’ morning session.
The national sport originates from the Shinto culture of Ancient Japan. It was originally a discipline to entertain the gods, and many rituals from that period persist within the sumo ring today. Sumo is also continuously a men’s sport and hardly anyone in the Japanese society questions that.
The rules are roughly as follows: whoever first touches the ground with anything other than their feet – or alternatively voluntarily exits – loses the match.
There is a ranking hierarchy among the sumo wrestlers. After each tournament the sumo fighters move up or down the scale depending on their achievements.
The Japanese sumo tournaments last for 15 consecutive days, with rikishi (wrestlers) fighting every day during that period.
For the rest of the year, they concentrate on gaining weight and on their focussed training. The heavier the sumo wrestler, the more chances to knock down the opponent, as well as not to be knocked down himself. Therefore, the food intake plays an important role in a sumo wrestler’s daily routines.
Rikishi eat super healthy food, namely chankonabe which is a stew of fish, meet, tofu, noodles and vegetables. It is rich in proteins and vitamins. Numerous bowls of rice and huge amounts of beer complement the meal. Contrary to popular belief, wrestlers do not binge eat all day long to get fat. That is a common misconception.
The rikishi have only two meals per day, which are very rich, one at noon and one in the evening. In the morning, they begin with a tough five-hour, rigorous training session on an empty stomach. That would not be possible if their bellies were already full. After consuming significant portions of chankonabe for lunch, they need a well-deserved rest for digestion and for the body to store fat most efficiently.
Online, we have found a handful of Tokyo sumo stables in the Ryogoku district that allow visitors to watch their sumo morning training, keiko. This is the district in Tokyo where the majority of the sumo stables can be found. They all have different rules for visitors. Watching an entire session, lasting several hours, up close would mean we wouldn’t be able to leave before the end. To do this would be a serious insult to the sumo wrestlers.
There are generally also a number of etiquette rules that must be followed by spectators. Among other things, visitors are expected to sit in the traditional Japanese position WITHOUT the soles of their feet pointing towards the sumo ring. For the ‘untrained’, it can of course be very inconvenient if you are not used to sitting in this specific position for hours! Another (less demanding) rule is that photos are absolutely WITHOUT flash.
In the Arashio Beya stable, we are allowed to watch the Japanese sumo morning training through a window – standing AND with the option to leave when desired.
The sumo training takes places most days outside the tournament season. However, to be absolutely sure that sumo training actually takes place on a specific day, check the website Arashio Beya
The sumo wrestlers have already assembled and line up in an already marked circle, checking each other out. They all have a focussed and deeply concentrated expression on their faces. We now understand why visitors are required not to talk, not to eat, not to use flash behind the window. Even the slightest movement will most likely distract the wrestlers.
Quite traditionally, the fighters have their hair tied in a vertical topknot. We don’t understand all the specific details and rules of etiquette in the wrestling match, but we do understand the basic rule that whoever gets knocked down is the loser.
The balance of strength among the fighters is revealed by counting who is most often knocked down and has his thighs and body painted brown by the damp clay. As the duels progress, the browner their body parts become.
The winners seem proud of their achievements and don’t seem to be displeased with having speechless spectators. However, we find it quite reassuring to have a window between us and these gigantic and slightly terrifying wrestlers!
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Japanese Sumo Wrestling in Tokyo Japan
Where to Watch Japanese Sumo Wrestling in Tokyo:
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Tokyo sumo stable morning training – how to watch sumo wrestling in Tokyo Japan – Japanese wrestler practice