Sumo Wrestling: Japan’s National Sport
Japan’s National sport is…. sumo wrestling!
Yes, the sport of large men wearing minimal clothing fighting to push each other outside of a small circle.
While simple in theory, there is actually so much more to the sport than first meets the eye. I had the opportunity to attend the July 2021 Sumo Grand Tournament in Nagoya and it was quite the experience!
The Sumo Grand Tournament is held six times a year in different locations around Japan. Since I happened to be in Nagoya during the July Tournament, I knew I had to watch.
Getting tickets and understanding the matches can be a bit tricky, so I made this guide to give you everything you need to be well prepared to watch and enjoy sumo for the first time. Enjoy!
Table of Contents
- How to Get Tickets to a Sumo Match
- 2021 July Sumo Grand Tournament – Nagoya
- Sumo Wrestling: A Ritualistic Sport
- Food and Souvenirs
- Final Thoughts
How to Get Tickets to a Sumo Match
If you don’t need tickets and just want to read about what the tournament is like, jump to this section.
As a foreigner, getting tickets to a sumo match can be a bit tricky. Not only do they tend to sell out quickly and there is limited English support, the real kicker is that foreign credit cards aren’t accepted on the official sales website (at least as of July 2021).
Don’t let these hurdles stop you though! Being able to see the tournament in-person is worth the trouble.
As mentioned above, I wasn’t able to buy tickets off of the main site because international credit cards are not accepted. (I haven’t had this issue purchasing other things, so I am not sure why this is the case with sumo tickets.)
While I couldn’t buy tickets, this website was super helpful for becoming familiar with the different seating sections, price breakdowns, and tournament dates.
Although much is in Japanese, I was able to understand most of it using Chrome’s Google Translate feature.
If you click on -> More Information, you will be brought to a page that shows a calendar view of the current ticket availability based on the different seats. (More on seat types below).
The days of the tournament are listed along the top, and the type of seats are on the left. X- not available. O- available. ?– limited quantity.
A description of the different seating types follows. Basically there are two types of seats: masu,マス (mat) and isu, イス (chair). Mat seats consist of a small tatami space that you and your party share. These are more expensive (~¥15,000/person) compared to chair seats (~¥5,000/person), but they are much closer to the action.
Both mat and chair seats are further defined with the letters (S,A,B, and C). S seats are closer to the ring while C seats are further away.
Once I knew the date and type of seat I wanted, I was ready to call the telephone reception service.
It was a bit nerve-wracking to call, but luckily the receptionist was very patient and helpful even with my limited Japanese.
During the call I gave my Japanese phone number and received a reservation number in return. Instead of paying for the tickets over the phone, the next step was to head to the convenience store…
At a Lawson convenience store, I used the special Loppi ticketing machine. Entering the reservation code from my call, I was able to search and find my tickets. After verifying with my telephone number, the machine printed out a receipt.
The Lawson clerk scanned the printed receipt and rang me up for the purchase. (I was able to use my foreign credit card here to complete the transaction, yay!)
After signing for the payment, I was finally handed a set of sumo tournament tickets! After much effort I was ready to go! It took quite a few steps, but I had done it. Time to head to Nagoya!
If the above ticket ordering procedure isn’t an option for you, there is still the possibility to buy tickets from a third party site. Expect tickets to be around twice as expensive if you go with this option.
2021 July Sumo Grand Tournament – Nagoya
The July 2021 Sumo Grand Tournament took place at Dolphin’s Arena in Nagoya, Aichi. The arena is situated right next to Nagoya Castle (so you can make a quick visit before the tournaments starts), and can be easily accessed by public transportation.
While entry to the tournament officially began at 1pm, many people started to line up about an hour before.
I later realized that getting in line early isn’t that beneficial as all the seats are pre-reserved and the more senior/ prestigious matches happen later in the day.
Because of this, most spectators arrive later. If I had known this, I would have done the same.
Sumo Wrestling: A Ritualistic Sport
Upon entering the venue, I was given a list of the different bouts and current rankings. The tournament begins with the juryo (intermediate division) and ends with the more prestigious and exciting makuuchi (senior division).
In the middle of the stadium is a raised sumo ring called the dohyo. On top of the dohyo, a straw rope ring, tawara, delineates the match boundaries.
The first wrestler to step outside of the tawara or touch the ground with anything other than the soles of his feet is the loser.
Around the ring sit five judges, waiting wrestlers, and other attendants who sweep the dohyo between matches.
These onlookers are very close to the edge of the ring and are sometimes victim to sumos barreling off the stage.
The sumo wrestlers, also called rikishi, are clothed in a simple loincloth called mawashi.
Before the start of each division, there is a ring entering ceremony called the dohyo-iri.
During this ceremony, the wrestlers wear decorative cloths called kesho-mawashi. Additionally, loud sticks are clanged together, the dohyo is swept with many brooms, and the wrestlers are introduced.
At the start of each match, the wrestlers are announced with a song-like cry. Entering the ring from opposite sides (the east and west), the contestants begin a series of rituals.
As a first time viewer, I found the ritual movements intriguing, though a bit bizarre.
Over the span of a few minutes, the wrestlers stomp their feet (shikio, intended to drive out evil spirits), slap their bodies, raise their arms (to show there are no weapons), sit in deep squats, take sips of power water, and throw salt into the arena (shubatsu, to purify the ring before the match).
The rituals vary slightly between the different rankings, and can last up to four minutes.
After all of the waiting, I was surprised to find that the bouts usually last just a few seconds! …an incredibly short time after all the pre-match anticipation! ?
Whenever a match extended past ~20 seconds, you could feel the excitement and tension in the atmosphere grow.
After a wrestler is defeated, the referee points his fan towards the victor’s side.
The winning technique is announced to the crowd, and both wrestlers walk towards their respective east/ west sides. With a final bow towards the ring, the wrestlers leave the arena, the stage is swept, and the next contestants enter.
Food and Souvenirs
In case you get hungry during the tournament (and you might since they last a few hours), treat yourself to cute (and delicious) sumo themed noodles!
In the stadium I found cold kishimen (Nagoya’s special flat, thin noodles) and spicy dan dan noodles for ¥700 each.
The kamaboko (fishcake) sumo was definitely the best part!
You can also buy sumo souvenirs to remember the experience. A popular item is a red sumo handprint with the sumo’s signature scrawled over.
What a cool experience! I really had no idea what to expect at my first sumo match, but was so happy to 1) successfully get tickets, and 2) see such a unique sport in person.
While not the most action packed (after a while the pre-match rituals start to feel quite long), I’m glad to have been able to soak up such a rich and deeply Japanese event!
Have you seen sumo wrestling before? Is it something on your Japan bucket list? Let me know in the comments below what you think about this sport!
Looking for more Japanese experiences? Check out these blog posts for more things to do in Japan!