Japan has many traditional sports that have come and gone in popularity over the years, but one that seems to continue to capture the imagination is sumo. After a pandemic and a bit of procrastination, a friend of ours offered us the opportunity to go to the main sumo stadium in Japan, the Ryogoku Kokugikan, to watch sumo of every size, stature, and ranking slap, push, and throw each other out of a ring for our amusement.
Ryogoku Kokugikan National Sumo Stadium
The stadium itself is just across the street from the station, although you’ll need to go around the corner to reach the main entrance.
After the pandemic protocol, we entered the main hall around 10 AM. Here’s the deal: They start pretty early, usually around 8:30 AM, but today they started a few hours later. This is when the amateur sumo have their bouts. As the day progresses and matches finish, the higher-ranked sumo begin to take to the ring. With higher rank, you see more ceremony. Many of the traditions you associate with sumo won’t start until the later afternoon when the mid-ranked sumo fight: sumo standing in a circle around the ring and doing the ceremonial opening, throwing of salt to purify the ring, and the rinsing of the mouth (they just accepted the ladle but didn’t swish, probably another Coronavirus protocol).
If you arrive in the morning, it’s pretty empty. You won’t see many people anywhere. The halls are empty, as is the ring seating. It’s a very mellow time, peaceful even, watching the amateurs cautiously maneuver through the ring. This is the best time to go if you want to partake in two side activities: shopping and the sumo museum.
The sumo museum is closed to the public on match days, so only ticket holders are allowed in. We, unfortunately, didn’t have time to visit the museum. Our schedule just didn’t line up the way we had wanted.
For shopping, there are a few gift stands you can go to buy sumo charms, sumo teapots, various salts, and even fan gear like you would find at a baseball stadium! The day we went, there was even a little baked goods kiosk with bread and massive macarons founded by a former wrestler. The macarons are huge! But pricey! About 400 yen per macaron. Our friends got some sumo mascot pins to commemorate their visit.
Professional Sumo: Makucho and Sekitori
Later in the afternoon, usually around 2 or 3 PM, is when the crowds start to flood in, because this is when the professionals begin to wrestle. These are the Makuchi ranks: the top five ranks, and you may also hear the term Sekitori, which includes a sixth rank called Juryo: all of these ranks are the sumo who receive salaries and are considered professional as a result! You can see an immediate shift in how they perform: The professionals are far more aggressive and use more tactics and footwork to maneuver around the ring. Some of the aggression is pretty intense: The initial slam of their bodies can be pretty deafening and a bit uncomfortable to hear. The slaps are also really powerful: one wrestler almost got knocked out from a well-placed slap moving upward and hitting him under the chin. Make no mistake: The wrestling is very intense and can be violent at times.
The last match of the night is saved for the Yokozuna, or the top-ranked wrestler. The Yokozuna is a position for life, or until you retire. The expectation is that when you start to wane with your skills and you can’t thrill the crowd or consistently win, you retire. The current Yokozuna, Teronofuji (formerly Gantulga Ganerdene), is actually Mongolian! He was crowned Yokozuna back in 2021, and became the first Mongolian to achieve the position. Mongolians have a similar tradition of wrestling, so its no surprise that they would have their eyes on competing in the sport abroad. He is a very imposing force of nature, easily defeating his opponent in the ring when we saw him on the penultimate day of the season.
Sumo is an incredibly complex sport, and I’m not going to pretend that I know anything beyond the most basic of rules. If you’re interested in more granular facts, you can check out this awesome guide from NHK. Otherwise, if you like live sport and are looking for a uniquely Japanese experience in the world of sports, I’d highly recommend grabbing yourself a pair of tickets and spending a day at the stadium.