The Grand Sumo Tournament takes place in Tokyo 3 times a year, with a total of 6 tournaments happening every year in Japan. We live close enough to the Sumo Hall (or Ryōgoku Kokugikan), and we’d been talking about going for a while. So when the September Grand Tournament was announced and two of our friends mentioned THEY also wanted to go, we made a plan to go together.
Thankfully, there is an English site you can use to buy tickets online, and it’s really easy to use. I was able to get the tickets on the internet, and then pick them up at will-call the day of the event, before it began.
Sumo tournaments go for about 3 hours, from 3pm to 6pm. In the beginning, the hall is relatively empty, as most people won’t come until later to see the main event. But since most movies these days will keep you seated in the dark with your popcorn and soda for at least 2 hours, hanging out at the Sumo Tournament for 3 was no big deal.
What’s great about going to a sumo match is that the hall is relatively small, so even if you get the ‘nosebleed seats’ (I’m using the baseball/football term here for comparison), you still have a great view and feel pretty close to the action.
As you can see from the picture above, the seats on the first level are all boxes of 4, and they are cushions on the floor. These seats are relatively expensive and will usually sell out before the ones on the upper deck. As a foreigner, I would have found it difficult to sit on my knees in seiza, or in some variation of that, for the entire time. I can usually go for about 20 minutes before I start fidgeting and losing feeling in my legs!
Since we had no idea what to expect, we bought the nosebleed tickets. Against something like a movie theater, the rows are pretty well-spaced and the incline is steep. So even if you’re short, you will be able to see over the heads of the person in front of you. Every seat had a great view!
Also, you can leave the hall once and re-enter. A lot of people will do this after they check out the food options, and decide they don’t want anything. The food isn’t too expensive, and you can order things like bento lunches or the famous Chankonabe, which is what a lot of sumo wrestlers tend to eat. And there are beer girls walking around, if you need a drink. Very much like a baseball game. There were even hot dogs. Sadly, I didn’t get one.
A lot of my students have said that apparently, not many Japanese people go to the sumo matches. Part of this is due to the fact that the tournaments run during the week, from 3-6pm, and most people can’t take the time off. And when they have days off on the weekend, there are other things they’d rather be doing. I found this interesting since we saw a LOT of western tourists and old Japanese people there. I guess it makes sense.
So we got to the venue and followed the mass of people over to the hall. It was easy enough to spot, since you can actually see it from the platform at the train station. The hall has its own stop, so it’s really easy to get to. There were a lot of stands outside of the hall selling gifts, food, beer, etc.
After we got our tickets and got in to our seats, we had some time to relax and look around before everything started. Andre and I decided to go out and get beer and snacks for everyone, so we left them at the seats and left the hall, to go over to a convenience store. This is common practice, supposedly, and it’s the reason you can leave and re-enter the hall once only.
The matches started while we were out, and they were preceded by what Mark called ‘the Parade of Champions’. All of the wrestlers set to compete that evening came out and stood on the ring.
The way the tournament works is that the wrestlers compete for a week or two, and whoever comes out with the most wins is the champion. It’s pretty cut and dry. Also, the stronger or more famous wrestlers will compete later in the evening, which is why the hall is generally empty at the beginning of the competition. Each wrestler only has one competition per day. I heard that the wrestlers really can’t compete for more than a few minutes, as it might cause a heart attack. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but I guess it would make sense, since, although they are muscular, their bodies are already under a lot of stress, due to their weight.
Oh, and we saw a Geisha. This was actually my FIRST Geisha spotting IN JAPAN. A lot of people come to Japan and see tourists wearing Yukata, or wearing a rental Kimono, and they think they are Geisha. They are not. You can tell which ones are *actual* Geisha, since their faces are usually painted white, and they’ll often have an escort with them (or some rich old business man on their arm). In our case, the Geisha was accompanied by 3 other women, 2 of which I think were Maiko, based on the hair styles and makeup.
The matches themselves were incredibly short. Every fighter had their own style, but none lasted more than a minute or two, tops. I guess it can’t last too long, when the ring is so small. But it was actually really exciting to watch some of the matches, regardless of how long or short they were.
All in all, it was a great first experience, and I definitely plan on going back. I also think it might be something that we try to take visitors to, if they happen to visit while a tournament is on. It’s a must-see, I think, even if it might not be TOO exciting.