We arrived at Shiyakusho Station in Nagoya, a little late and a little disoriented as we almost always seem to be when we’re traveling. We were busy looking for signs to direct us to the Grand Sumo Tournament, when I caught my first glimpse of one of the wrestlers making his way out of the station: He was tall and heavy, but a very muscular kind of heavy. He was wearing a yukata robe, and his long hair was slicked back into the traditional topknot style. “I think we can follow him”, I whispered to Brent.
When most people imagine Japan, sumo is probably one of the first things to come to mind along with sushi and cherry blossoms. The Grand Sumo Tournament, which is held 6 times a year, is a chance for travelers to see this iconic sport first-hand. But, is it worth making a sumo tournament part of your trip to Japan?
Why to Skip It
Ringside box seats (which are so close to the action that they include a warning about inadvertent tacklings by falling wrestlers) can be up to 14,300 yen (about $143). Chair seats can be purchased for as low as 2,800 yen ($28) at the box office on tournament days. Since we were traveling to Nagoya specifically to see the tournament, we didn’t want to take the risk that the seats might sell out, so we opted for the slightly more expensive reserved tickets. 6,400 yen (about $64) bought us two uncomfortable seats at the back of the gymnasium. Even these “cheap” seats were a little above our usual daily budget, so our day at the Grand Sumo Tournament definitely fell into the splurge category for us.
A Japanese Experience?
When I told some of my ESL students that Brent and I were going to see a Grand Sumo Tournament, they seemed a little surprised. While they all watched sumo on TV occasionally, they indicated that usually only hardcore fans are interested enough to buy tickets to a live match. Sumo may be Japan’s national sport, but attending a sumo tournament isn’t exactly a typical weekend activity for the average Japanese person. In fact, I learned that baseball is slightly more popular in Japan as a spectator sport. One of my students even commented “it’s just two fat, sweaty guys fighting – why would you want to watch that?”
When I went to the tournament, I was surprised by the number of Western tourists in the crowd. While the majority of the audience members appeared to be fans, there were also a significant number of foreigners, like myself, who had clearly come for the cultural experience. It gave the tournament a slight touristy feeling, which I hadn’t expected.
A tournament day consists of dozens of matches, each of which include an elaborate pre-match ritual. After entering the sumo ring, called the “dohyo”, the wrestlers repeatedly stamp their feet, squat, extend their arms, and generally try to intimidate one another. They also throw several handfuls of salt into the ring to purify the area. I found the pre-match rituals fascinating for the first 20 or so fights; but once I recognized the pattern, I started to feel a little impatient as I waited for the ritual to end so that the exciting part could begin. The rituals last longer than the fights themselves, which are usually over in a few seconds. It seemed like a lot of build-up for such a brief moment of action. We watched about 6 hours of the tournament, and I would estimate that about 30 minutes of that time involved actual fighting, while the rest of the time was devoted to preparation.
Why to Go
Live Sports are Awesome
Prior to the Grand Sumo Tournament, I think my last live sport experience was a first-year homecoming football game in university. Thus, the atmosphere of live sporting events is kind of novelty for me. The audience members cheered as their favourite wrestlers entered the ring, and spilled their beers in excitement during the fights. Some groups started loud chants and wore matching outfits that looked like the sumo-equivalent of baseball team jerseys. It was such a fun atmosphere and the energy of the crowd was exhilarating.
It’s Easy to Understand
I only had a vague idea of the rules of sumo before we attended the tournament, but I understood the basics after watching only a few matches. While the strategies are complex, the rules can be boiled down to one key concept: The first wrestler who touches the ground with any part of his body, or is forced outside the ring, is the looser. This makes it a fantastic sport for a lay-person to enjoy because you don’t need any prior knowledge to start following along with the matches, and placing mental bets on the winners.
There are no weight classes in sumo, which means that wrestlers often face-off against men twice their size. While a bigger size provides an obvious advantage in sumo, it doesn’t necessarily determine the outcome of each match. We enjoyed trying to predict the victor as we watched the wrestlers stare each other down during the pre-match rituals. And we couldn’t help but cheer each time a wrestler was defeated by a man half his size. Sometimes, the loss was as simple as a stumble and one foot out of the ring; other times, the crowd yelped as wrestlers rolled violently off the platform. Even after 6 hours and countless matches, the results never became predictable. It was always surprisingly, and always exciting.
Overall, despite the expense and a few dull moments, I’m glad we went to a Grand Sumo Tournament. The more matches I watched, the more interested I became in this unique, and unexpectedly compelling sport.
Tournaments are held in Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, and Nagoya. Each tournament typically begins on a Sunday and runs for 15 days. Check out Ticket Oosumo for tickets and dates.
Have you been to a Sumo Tournament? Is it something you think you would do if you traveled to Japan?