If there is a single sport that just screams “JAPAN!”, it’s sumo wrestling. Even my mom knows the gist of the sport:
“what r u doing?” my mom texts.
“I’m trying to get sumo tickets,” I texted my mom.
“What is [sic] sumo tickets?” she texts back.
“Oh, two fat people wrestling.”
Well, gosh, if you want to be frank about it, mom.
Sumo wrestling is more than that, obviously. Its sport has a rich history, rife with its own cultures and traditions. Everyone wants to go to a sumo wrestling match, but not everyone can. Two reasons:
- Sumo wrestling tickets are super popular among foreigners and locals alike. Duh. So they often sell out.
- Sumo wrestling tournaments happen only six times throughout the year in Japan.
The tournaments, each lasting 15 days, take place in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka with the following yearly schedule:
- January: Tokyo (in Ryogoku Kokugikan stadium)
- March: Osaka (in Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium)
- May: Tokyo
- July: Nagoya (in Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium)
- September: Tokyo
- November: Fukuoka (in Fukuoka Kokusai Center)
By chance, I happened to be in Tokyo in May at the right time. And by chance, I just happened to check for sumo wrestling tickets around that time and…score!
How to Get Sumo Wrestling Tickets
Even if the stars align and you end up in Japan at the right month, you need to check the exact schedule for when the tournament starts. Here’s the official site for sumo wrestling in Japan, which shows the exact dates of the tournaments. They start selling tickets roughly a month before the tournament, and you have to buy the tickets for each day you plan on attending the tournament.
When planning the day (or days) you want to go, keep in mind that the opening days of the tournament tend to be less busy. The trade-off is that the matches, especially near the finals, are more high-energy and exciting. But if you’re just there to soak in the experience, the unique fandom, and the culture, then even the earlier days of the tournament will be more than adequate.
Ticket Types and Cost
Watching sumo wrestling isn’t cheap. Not surprisingly, the closer you are to the dohyo (the battle ring), the more expensive the sumo wrestling tickets. In fact, they’re separated like this:
There are a few rows of floor cushions right by the ring. These are Tamariseki seats. You’re literally in the middle of the action because sometimes wrestlers can get flung into the crowd or charge through because of momentum. Stay alert because having 400 or more pounds of man flesh flying at you unexpectedly can be a doozy. Oh, you’re not allowed to eat or drink while you’re sitting there either.
From my understanding, Tamariseki seats are difficult to get, as you need to phone in and enter a special lottery to be able to get a ticket. And if you win, you have to follow the procedures (in Japanese) to claim your ticket, which costs approximately 14,800 yen (plus other service charges) per seat.
Behind the ringside seats are rows of boxes, where you still need to take off your shoes and sit on cushions. As expected, the closer the box seat is to the ring, the more expensive it is. Box seat tickets start at 9,500 yen to 11,700 yen per ticket. If you’re ballin’ with friends, you can get the whole box for upwards of 37,200 yen. They generally seat four people, so this might actually be a better deal if you go with friends.
High in the stadium are several rows of plain ol’, hard plastic chairs. These are the cheapest reserved tickets you can get and cost between 3,800 yen and 8,500 yen.
At least at the Kokugikan stadium in Tokyo, you can get general admission tickets in the nosebleed section, the fuuuuuuurthest from the ring. But here’s the good thing about these tickets: They’re cheap (about 2,400 yen). They withhold a certain number of these tickets to sell to salivating and hopeful sumo fans to buy last minute, on a first come, first serve basis. So if you want to go on a day where they’re already sold out, try coming here as early as you can to try your luck and snag yourself a ticket.
Where to Buy Sumo Wrestling Tickets
There are several ways to buy sumo wrestling tickets. The easiest way is to buy them online at Ticket Oosumo (click here for English site) or on buysumotickets.com. The main advantage is that you can buy them way in advance, and if you’re not in Japan yet, BuySumoTickets.com offers shipping for additional fees.
If you’re already in Japan and feel up for a challenge, you can also get them at special ticket vending kiosks at convenience stores (Lawson’s, Circle K, Sunkus, Family Mart, and 7-11). You’ll need to be able to read some Japanese, go through a lot of trial and error, or simply ask for help. Really, though, I recommend just getting them online. You get an order number and can claim your tickets at the stadium.
Once you claim your ticket, by the way, it allows for one re-entry, so you’re not allowed to come and go as you please. Choose your break wisely.
Day of the Sumo Match
I attended the Tokyo tournament in May 2016. I bought chair seats for 6100 yen (about 55 USD at the time) for the second day of the tournament (a Monday) and headed to the Ryogoku Kokugikan stadium in Ryogoku.
The day’s matches typically start from 8a.m. and would last until 6p.m. As this was my first sumo experience, I couldn’t wait to witness half-naked men slap their bellies and throw themselves at each other in a thunderous clash of bare flesh. I arrived around 9a.m., but looking back now, the really cool stuff happens at 3p.m. and onwards. The day follows this schedule:
- 0800: Stadium opens
- 0830: Lowest division matches. The stadium is pretty empty around this time so you can sit in the lower seats and enjoy.
- 1420: Mid-division (Juryo) entrance ceremony. Things get a bit more exciting now.
- 1440: Juryo matches.
- 1545: Top division (Makuuchi) entrance ceremony.
- 1615: Makuuchi matches.
- 1800: Bow-twirling ceremony to close out the tournament day.
Wandering around the stadium and general area guarantees that you will run into a sumo wrestler (called rikishi). It was kind of bizarre seeing them walking around and carrying, like, a shopping bag so nonchalantly. All the sumo wrestlers wear traditional style robes and wooden sandals. And obviously huge.
The inside of the stadium is a very large circle with shops selling souvenirs, bento boxes, and specialty snack goods throughout. The foods worth checking out are the yakitori they sell at Ryogoku and chankonabe, a one-pot soup dish that sumo wrestlers are known to eat. About 90 percent of the restaurants in Ryogoku are dedicated to chankonabe.
Quick Guide to the Rules of Sumo
At its core, sumo is simple: One of the sumo wrestlers loses once he leaves the ring OR any part of his body other than his feet touches the ground–could be a knee, his finger, or whatever. Simply, he doesn’t necessarily need to be forced out of the ring to lose. Of course, they’re not allowed to pull dirty tricks like pulling down the wrestler’s diaper-underwear thing (called fundoshi).
That’s it. But allow my inner fitness nerd to geek out a bit about the nuances I noticed about the sport..
First of all, most sumo wrestlers might initially look like the Michelin Man, but I could tell which wrestlers “bulked up” the right way, or were genetically predisposed for more or better muscular gains. If we’re being honest here, some of those butts were so enviably muscular…
As I watched sumo match after sumo match begin and end within minutes of one another, I realized that sumo isn’t simply predicated upon brute strength. That’s a big part of it, obviously, but there are a lot of techniques, special moves (like E. Honda’s slap!), and sly (not dishonorable) strategies involved. There’s a huge mental aspect as well.
The mental game gets pretty nuts (no pun intended), especially since there are no weight classes. You could very well find some small dude pitted up against a honking huge dude that may be twice his size.
When the wrestlers squat and face each other and do their little staring contest, it looks they’re about ready to go. They’re on their hands and ready to charge and everything. Just when everyone else is anticipating a mighty clash of these titans…they just change their minds, get up, and go back to their corners to reset.
This cycle of “ready, set–oh, wait” was admittedly frustrating to watch at first. To the untrained eye, it looks like they constantly get flustered, but they’re actually trying to psyche each other out. If during those several seconds they don’t get their shit together, their hopes of winning and overpowering their opponent can (quite literally) be smothered in an instant. It’s unlike other sports where you have a bit of game time to get momentum going.
I’ve already held the sport in high esteem, but after having gone to one I respect it even more.
It’s clear that people love their sumo. And I loved that I got to experience it. I hope you can, too.