Watch Japan's national sport
Sumo is Japan’s national sport, and it has deep roots in Japanese culture and history. It has ancient origins, and records appear in Japan’s oldest books—the 8th century Kojiki (“An Account of Ancient Matters”) and Nihon Shoki (“The Chronicles of Japan”).
This sacred sport originally started as an offering to the gods for peace and good harvest. Since the Edo period (1603-1867), watching sumo has become a popular pastime for the public, and even today, sumo tournaments have their own unique rituals. Salt is sprinkled to purify the ring, which is made of heaped up soil. No shoes are allowed on the ring, women are not permitted to wrestle, and wrestlers undergo strict training in all aspects of their daily lives.
Watch a match, cheer for your favorite wrestler, and above all, appreciate the spiritual nature of an ancient sport.
Sumo rules are pretty simple—the wrestler needs to force his opponent out of the ring or knock him down within the ring. The match may end in a few seconds when one wrestler loses his balance in the early stages, or it may last for several minutes between two well-built wrestlers.
Professional sumo wrestlers compete in the Grand Sumo Tournament, which is held six times a year for 15 days in four cities. One match is held on each day and the winner is decided on the last day. The number of wins and losses determine the ranking and the honorable title of yokozuna (grand champion) is given to the top-ranked wrestlers.
The spectator seats surround the ring. The ringside Tamari seats offer the best views. Tickets are pricey, costing well over JPY 10,000, and they tend to sell out fast. Behind are the Masu box floor seats, which can fit up to four people. Spectators can enjoy beverages and lunch boxes at these seats. Further back are box seats with tables and second-floor balcony seats, which are more affordable options. The price of each seat varies depending on the distance from the ring. Tickets go on sale about a month in advance and can be purchased on the official ticket sales website or at convenience stores. Some second floor balcony seats are available for same-day purchase, but they often sell out early in the morning, so research ahead of time.
During the tournament, matches continue from morning to evening, starting with the newer and lower ranked wrestlers. The Makuuchi tournament, which features the biggest names in sumo, starts after 4 PM JST and is televised every day. The yokozuna are the last to appear, so the number of spectators increases as the evening progresses.
*Note that there may be entry restrictions and suspension of same-day sales due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check for the latest information on official pages.
Japan Sumo Association
The Ryogoku Kokugikan hosts three of the six annual Grand Sumo tournaments. You can catch the games in January, May, and September.
Sumo has been a popular form of entertainment for the public since the 17th century. Back then, sumo games were held in Ekoin Temple in the Ryogoku area. The current Ryogoku Kokugikan building was completed in 1985 after being burnt down and reconstructed. When it’s not hosting sumo, the building serves as a venue for boxing and music events.
Ryogoku Kokugikan’s specialty is yakitori (grilled chicken) and it’s the perfect accompaniment to a sumo match. The yakitori is grilled in the venue’s basement kitchen and topped with homemade sauce. You can also buy T-shirts and towels embellished with pictures of sumo wrestlers at the store even when the matches are not in session.
Ryogoku Station is about a 10-minute train ride from central Tokyo, and the stadium is a one-minute walk from the station on the JR Sobu Line, and a five-minute walk if you’re taking the Oedo Line. It’s also close to tourist spots such as Asakusa and Tokyo Skytree.
Every year in March, the Grand Sumo Tournament moves to Osaka. Hosting the two-week long games is EDION Arena Osaka (Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium). It’s within walking distance from Namba Station on the Osaka Metro Midosuji Line and Nankai Line as well as JR Namba Station.
The Namba area is one of the most lively parts of Osaka. It’s packed with shops and restaurants offering local delicacies like deep-fried skewers, takoyaki octopus balls, and grilled squid. After watching a sumo match, you can choose to pay a visit to Osaka Castle, just 20 minutes away by train. Relax at the lush green park surrounding the castle or enjoy views of the city from the castle tower. The edifice is particularly beautiful at night, when it’s illuminated.
The July tournament takes place in Dolphins Arena in Nagoya City, Aichi Prefecture. It’s located in the Ninomaru grounds of Nagoya Castle, a five-minute walk from Shiyakusho Station on the Meijo subway line.
Nagoya Castle was built in 1615 by Ieyasu Tokugawa, the founder of the Edo shogunate. It has been designated as a special historical site due to its historical value.
The central part of Nagoya is located on the south side of the castle. Try some local delicacies after a game at the Osu Shopping District—about 1,200 shops stand along four arcades and you can find Nagoya’s famed red miso dishes, confections made with red bean paste and other treats.
The November tournament is the final event on the annual sumo calendar and it’s held in Fukuoka, the largest city on Kyushu island. The venue, Fukuoka Kokusai Center, is a multi-purpose facility which hosts exhibitions, concerts, and sports events. It’s conveniently located next to Hakata Port.
After enjoying a match, head to the food stalls at night for local dishes like tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen. About a hundred of these stalls line the streets of Tenjin, Nakasu, and Nagahama.
Fukuoka Kokusai Center is about 10 minutes by bus from JR Hakata Station, Tenjin Station (Nishitetsu line and subway), and Gofukumachi Station (subway).
Ryogoku, the mecca for all things sumo, is located in Sumida Ward. The Sumida area is dotted with sumo stables—training bases for sumo wrestlers. You can even spot them around town.
Morning practice sessions are held at the stables from 6 AM to 9 AM. Some are open for observation, so inquire in advance. You may also be able to join a tour led by a staff member well-versed in sumo stable etiquette. It’s the perfect opportunity to see the wrestlers up-close as they train.
Visitors looking to learn even more about the sport can drop by the Sumo Museum* on the first floor of the Ryogoku Kokugikan. The museum was opened in 1954 to preserve items related to sumo. It houses nishiki-e (brocade pictures), ranked lists, ornamental aprons, and other interesting artefacts. The museum is also a center for research and study of the history of sumo.
*The museum is temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After exploring the Ryogoku area, feast on chanko-nabe—the quintessential sumo dish. This hot and hearty protein-rich stew is eaten by sumo wrestlers as a part of their weight-gain diet. There are several restaurants in the area that specialize in the dish.
Sumo wrestlers are not divided into classes according to their weight, so the bigger you are, the better. The dish is prepared by apprentice wrestlers for their seniors and leaders. It’s made in large quantities in a huge pot, and the wrestlers gather around the table to share it.
Chicken has traditionally been the ingredient of choice. Wrestlers believe that a two-legged creature is more auspicious than a four-legged one because in sumo, if you have all four limbs on the ground, you lose.
In recent times, a variety of ingredients such as meat, seafood, tofu, mushrooms, and veggies are used to pack the dish with flavor and nutrition. However, the night before the opening day of the tournament and on the final day of the tournament, chicken is the go-to choice.