The ultimate guide to watching sumo wrestling in Japan

Sumo in Japan goes back a long way and has strong spiritual links to the nation’s past. While it’s a display of brute strength, it’s also a discipline wrapped up in tradition. We’re taking a look at what sumo is, where you can watch it, and how the rules work. 

Sumo is one of Japan’s biggest exports. Every year, thousands of tourists travel to the country, hop on the rail network, and go from venue to venue, checking out the nation’s sumo tradition on their way.

A brief introduction to sumo wrestling

You’ve probably seen sumo wrestling in action on your TV or YouTube, but have you ever wondered what’s going on when outsized grown men are slapping at high speeds into each other?

Sumo is a contact sport. Two wrestlers line up in a ring that the Japanese call a dohyo. The idea is for each wrestler to knock the other off his feet. A wrestler loses the match if any part of his body except for the soles of his feet touches the floor, or if he’s pushed outside the dohyo. Wrestlers are not allowed to use illegal maneuvers and techniques called kinjite. 

Sumo wrestlers aren’t like regular athletes in the western world. Wrestlers, called rikishi and sekitori, according to their rank, have to live in a kind of barracks or stable, called a “seya.” Here their masters determine everything for them, including their eating, training, and wrestling timetables. They even have power over the clothes that they wear. 

Where to watch sumo wrestling

Sumo is one of the national sports of Japan and deeply embedded in the culture. It’s no surprise, therefore, that you can find dohyo rings all over the country. 

Tokyo is one of the most active sumo locations in Japan. The city hosts three of the six Grand Tournaments at the famous Ryogoku Kokugikan from January to September each year. Sumo tournaments in Tokyo constitute a significant event and run for fifteen days each, featuring some of the biggest and best wrestlers in the world. 

If you plan on visiting an arena in Tokyo, timing is essential. As you might expect, the opening and closing days are the most expensive to attend. Prices are lower if you visit the tournament on off-peak days or outside of the weekend (when the majority of Japanese watch the championships). Even if you miss an event, it’s worth heading to Ryogoku as it is the sumo district, home to many sumo stables, chanko restaurants and lots of other sumo-related attractions.

Tokyo doesn’t have a monopoly on Grand Tournaments or lesser tournaments. You can find other venues in cities such as Osaka and Nagoya. The sumo tournament in Nagoya is hosted at the Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium and begins, like the others, at 8am. If you travel to Osaka, you can watch tournaments at the city’s Prefectural Gymnasium. 

How to watch a sumo tournament

How you watch a sumo event is similar in concept to watching a play or a concert (or even a sports event) in a western country. The tournament organisers divide seating into different classes, all with corresponding prices. Many seating options are available to the general public, but some aren’t. 

In Japan, sumo wrestling box seats are different from the box seats that you might find at a western opera venue. Box seats are small, square, tatami mats with space for four to six people. You put the mat on the floor and then sit on it. Most Japanese locals bring their own cushions, but you don’t have to. Space can be tight, so if there are six of you, you might want to purchase two separate box seats. 

The second type of seating is arena seats. This type of accommodation will be more familiar to tourists traveling to Japan. Here you sit on benches or individual chairs set back from the dohyo. The seats closest to the ring are the most expensive, with prices falling as you move towards the rear of the arena. The front seats tend to sell out fast, so make sure that you book early if you want to sit ring-side. 

Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo arena
Photo by Ryan Miglinczy on Unsplash

When to watch sumo wrestling in Japan

Because Sumo is steeped in tradition, there are many rules for when the tournaments can run.

Grand Tournaments begin at 8am and finish at 6pm and run for fifteen days. Tournament organisers will usually make tickets available to the public two months before the first bout, but you’re sometimes able to find some seating from the box office on the day – although it’s best to book in advance to avoid disappointment.

Some venues have strict rules about how many times you’re allowed to enter and leave the arena on a given day. The Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium, for instance, only allows you to come and go once, so be sure to use your toilet break wisely. 

While wrestling begins in the morning, the main action happens between the hours of 2pm and 6pm. This time of day is when higher-ranking wrestlers step out into the dohyo and thrill audiences with their power and wrestling skills. The afternoon, therefore, is the best time to attend if you want to catch a glimpse of some of the big guns.

Tournaments become more competitive and intense towards the final few days as weaker contestants are eliminated. By the end, only those at the top of their game remain. Tickets are, of course, more expensive later on in the proceedings, but it’s the best time to visit if you want to see the cream of the crop. 

The sumo grand schedule will run as follows in 2020: 

  • The January Tournament will run from January 12th until January 26th, at Kokugikan arena in Tokyo
  • The March Tournament will run from March 8th to March 22nd and be held at EDION Arena in Osaka (also called Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium)
  • The May Tournament will run from May 10th until May 24th and will be at the Kokugikan
  • The July Tournament will run from July 5th to July 19th and be held at the Aichi Prefectural Area also called Dolphins Arena
  • The September Tournament will run from September 13th until September 27th at the Kokugikan
  • The November Tournament runs from November 8th to November 22nd and is held at Fukuoka Kokusai Center