Travel / Unmissable experience

Unmissable experience: Sumo wrestling in Japan

There’s nothing like sumo wrestling anywhere else in the world. In a country so focused on technology and moving forward, sumo remains as the only traditional Japanese sport that can still draw crowds both in the stadium and on television. If I had to pick a single favourite travel moment, this would be it. Hands down.

From the moment you enter the stadium (as a clearly foreign visitor) an interpreter/greeter walks up to meet you. She gave each of us a booklet on the history of sumo wrestling, a schedule for the day’s matches (one in Japanese and one in English), and a few other little things like a plastic sumo wrestler to hang off your phone. She showed us to our seats – we bought the second cheapest tier of tickets which cost around AU$30 each, but she then showed us how to sneak down to better ones.

One tip if you go to the sumo is to go early on in the tournament. There are only six tournaments each year and each tournament goes for fifteen days. We went on the second or third day, so it wasn’t very busy yet. The tickets we bought were for the Western-style stadium seats up the back but we moved forward and sat in the Japanese cushion boxes. We had to move twice throughout the day for people who had bought the box we were in, but we managed to stay up close and personal the whole time.

If you get there nice and early as we did, it is a long day. We arrived around 9.30 in the morning and everything ended just after 6 pm. I wasn’t sure how much I’d like it – I even brought a book with me in case I got bored – but I loved every minute of it. It can get a bit repetitive, but as the day starts with the junior wrestlers and builds up to the most senior ones it just gets more and more exciting. A lot of people arrive after work, so as the wrestlers (or rikishi) get better the crowd gets bigger and you can feel the excitement in the air.

One of the things that make sumo so unique is the many rituals they go through for each and every match. Each team (North and West – the wrestlers are divided randomly into the two teams) enters the ring wearing silk aprons. The rikishi walk into the ring and stand around the circle facing the crowd. Then several of the most senior wrestlers enter the ring and perform a short ceremony with a sword. Everyone exits the stadium, ready to re-enter one by one for their bout.

The referees – gyoji – are dressed in colourful silk kimonos and sandals. You can tell how senior a gyoji is by the colour of his kimono and if he’s wearing socks or not. The gyoji stands in the middle of the ring and calls the sumo’s names. During the match the gyoji moves around the ring, watching carefully, and yells out… something. Words of encouragement, perhaps, or a bit of commentary? As a foreigner, it adds to the mystery of the whole day.

As the rikishi enter the ring they go to their respective corners to rinse their mouths with water and wipe themselves with a towel. The higher ranks throw a handful of salt into the ring. This is meant to purify the ring and protect them from injury. Then they do a series of movements (swaying from side to side and stamping their feet) before taking their places in the middle of the ring. They crouch down and eye each other off.

The rikiski look at each other for a moment, stand up, stretch, crouch down again, stand back up, and go back to their corner. Wipe themselves off again; throw the salt again; crouch back down. The highest ranks have four minutes to mess around before they start the match. Neither wrestler will start until they are completely ready. While these rules are fascinating to see sometimes you do want to yell at them to get on with it! Though apparently a time limit is a recent introduction to sumo – they used to be able to take as long as they liked.

Then the fighting starts. They lunge at each other and it’s on! The match can be over in a matter of seconds or it could go on for a minute or more. To win the match one rikishi has to either knock the other out of the ring or push him down inside the ring. If a rikishi touches the ground with anything other than his feet, he loses. Even if it’s just his hair scraping the ground!

After the match, the rikishi bow to each other and the loser exits the stadium. The winner crouches down while the gyoji says something to him and hands him an envelope (his winnings?). Then the ring is swept and a younger boy dressed similarly, but not as grand, as the gyoji enters the ring. He walks around and sings a few words to each side of the ring. As he does this, the next two rikishi are getting ready for the next match to begin.

If you ever get the chance to go to a sumo tournament, do not hesitate! It’s one of those things you know you is so different to anything else you’ve seen before. It has everything you want while you’re overseas – the day is full of captivating rituals, centuries of history, efficient organisation, and so much excitement all coming together to make one great day.

Have you ever been to a sumo match? What did you think? I’ve never come across anything like it, but maybe you’ve found something similar? Let me know if you have, I’d love to hear about it.

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