Sunday, September 13, 2009


Today I went to the first of the 15-day September sumo tournament. (There are six every year - three in Tokyo and three elsewhere in the country.)

It was an absolutely amazing experience. I got to watch many matches in rapid succession, from up close and far away, and including the enormous amount Shinto ritual that is still embedded in it. Additionally, as someone who did (traditional) wrestling in middle school and high school for 5 years, I love the concept of an intense individual sport that's based on aerobic endurance and complicated moves and counter-moves.

A few quick tips for those of you who want to see sumo if you're in Japan, and then some pictures and videos:

1) Buy your tickets early. It helps to have a Japanese speaking friend help you. You can't buy them online, but you can in most convenient stores. Also, even if the store says they're sold out, they might not be, and so you should try a different chain.
2) Go early, or at least midday. The most junior matches started at 8:30 AM, and the final 15 with the best wrestlers was from 4-6 PM. I got there at 2:30 PM, before it was too crowded, and so was able to see plenty of matches.
3) Building on #2, if you go early, you can go right up and sit in the first or second row. No one asked to see my ticket or asked me to move. Sumo is amazing up close.
4) Finally, there is an English commentary option. You can rent a radio for 100 yen (~$1), with a refundable 2000 yen deposit.

Now, a word about how sumo works. The two competitors, wearing only loin-cloths are in a circle. Which ever player either touches the ground with any part of his body except the bottoms of his feet, or steps outside the circle loses. Grabbing loin-cloths is allowed, as is (it appeared) smacking with an open hand. That's the game. Each match is single elimination for that day. Most wrestlers get to compete again each day (and so the commentators would often report each wrestler's stats from the last tournament, such as 9 and 6, before each match).

Before each skill category, the wrestlers all enter in their fancy aprons. Very neat to see. The guy in the center is one of the officials. I saw a few different ones, each with a very fancy kimono.

Here's a close-up of another official .

When not competing, the wrestlers wore kimonos, the quality of which correspond to their skill category. This guy doesn't look to happy though, as he may not have done well in his match. (He spoke zero English, and so I could not ascertain whether he won or not.)

So, this is what a wrestler looked like right before a match. I'm not sure the purpose of the funky arrow things in from of him, but each wrestler always made a big deal of spreading them out (half left and half right) before crouching to begin a match.

This is what the top over the ring looked like. Very neat.

Before each match, there was a whole series of rituals. The wrestlers would stamp (to get rid of evil spirits), and throw salt on the ring (for purification). There was also some kind of ritual involving swishing holy water, spitting it out, and then wiping ones' face with a holy towel.

Now, the moment you've all been waiting for. An actual match. Check this out:

One more match, from close up:

Just a few other pictures:

This is Bulgarian wrestler, who was very good. There are now a reasonable number of foreigners in official sumo. Most are Mongolian, Korean, or Hawaiian, but an increasing number come from Eastern Europe, like Bulgaria and Georgia.

The highest ranked wrestlers had their own entrance dance, and even more special clothes to wear.

There was lots of clean up after each match, both to rake the dirt, and spread around the copious amounts of salt that were thrown.

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