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A Mostly Naked Free-For-All

Sumo wrestling dates back some 1,500 years. Originally a religious rite performed at shrines to entertain the harvest gods, a match may seem like a fleshy free-for-all to the casual spectator, but to the trained eye, it's a refined battle. Two wrestlers square off in a dirt ring about 15 feet in diameter and charge straight at each other in nothing but silk loincloths. There are various techniques of pushing, gripping, and throwing, but the rules are simple: except for hitting below the belt, grabbing your opponent by the hair (which would certainly upset the hairdresser who accompanies every sumo ringside), or striking with a closed fist, almost anything goes. If you're thrown down or forced out of the ring, you lose. There are no weight divisions and a runt of merely 250 pounds can find himself facing an opponent twice his size.

You must belong to one of the roughly two dozen heya (stables) based in Tokyo to compete. Stables are run by retired wrestlers who have purchased the right from the Japan Sumo Association. Hierarchy and formality rule in the sumo world. Youngsters recruited into the sport live in the stable dormitory, do all the community chores, and wait on their seniors. When they rise high enough in tournament rankings, they acquire their own servant-apprentices.

Most of the stables are concentrated on both sides of the Sumida-gawa near the Kokugikan. Wander this area when the wrestlers are in town (January, May, and September) and you're more than likely to see some of them on the streets, in their wood clogs and kimonos. Come 7 am–11 am and you can peer through the doors and windows of the stables to watch them in practice sessions. One that offers tours is the Michinoku Stable (1–18–7 Ryogoku). Have a Japanese speaker complete the application form on the website in advance (michinokubeya.com) and you might be able to gain access.

When: Of the six Grand Sumo Tournaments (called basho) that take place during the year, Tokyo hosts three: in early January, mid-May, and mid-September. Matches go from early afternoon, when the novices wrestle, to the titanic clashes of the upper ranks at around 6 pm.

Where : Tournaments are held in the Kokugikan, the National Sumo Arena, in Ryogoku, a district in Sumida-ku also famed for its clothing shops and eateries that cater to sumo sizes and tastes. 1–3–28 Yokoami, Sumida-ku 03/3623–5111 www.sumo.or.jp JR Sobu Line, Ryogoku Station (West Exit).

How: The most expensive seats, closest to the ring, are tatami-carpeted boxes for four people, called sajiki. The boxes are terribly cramped and cost ¥9,200–¥11,300 per person. Cheap seats start as low as ¥3,600 for advance sales, ¥2,100 for same-day box office sales for general admission seats. For same-day box office sales you should line up an hour before the tournament. You can also get tickets through Family Mart, Circle K Sunkus, and Lawson convenience stores.

Updated: 01-2014

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