Sumo Wrestling at Ryogoku Kokugikan

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September 16th 2014
Published: November 9th 2014
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Sunday night 14 Sep
This was one of the top three events on my agenda prior to arriving into Japan. When I thought of Sumo Wrestling, the only thing I could think of was a scene from a James Bond movie where he goes and watches one match while meeting someone. Thus, I had little idea of what to expect. It turned out to be a fairly interesting, but long day.

There are some five or so Bashos (tournaments) every year and it seems a majority of them are held at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo. Each Basho runs for two weeks and I believe every wrestler has a match on each day. This particular Basho I attended started on Sunday 14 Sep and ran until Sunday 28 Sep. My accommodations were at the Hotel Nihonbashi Villa, which was about a 10 minute or so walk from the stadium. Each night, all night long, maybe just once an hour, the drums were beat to indicate a Basho was still in progress. Pretty wild that I could hear those drums that far away, even if muted at that distance.

In case you are thinking of going, the following will give you some idea of what to
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Sunday night 14 Sep. Opens at 8 am every day of a Basho as I understand it.
expect. If you do not buy a ticket prior to your arrival, there are two ticket windows on site : one for advance ticket sales (opens at 10am every day) and one for same day tickets (opens at 8am every day if I recall). You can buy tickets for as little as ¥ 3800 or as high as in excess of ¥ 60,000. I would imagine those 60000 Yen tickets are for the green pad area right next to the Dohyo . In my brief research before I departed for Japan I was informed that the Chaya (think of them as the people that buy up tickets when they go on sale and charge you 2x or 3x face value when you are looking for tickets later) buy up all the tickets the minute they go on sale, so I would likely not be able to buy a ticket unless through them or someone working through them. While I didn't find that to be the case, I did in fact have little options for when I could get a ticket. I bought a ticket on 15 Sep for the 16 Sep matches and in one of the few areas in
Drum TowerDrum TowerDrum Tower

Drums beat regularly immediately before matches begin for the day and after they have concluded for the day. They also are beat through the night, with less frequency. I could hear the drums from my hotel in Nihonbashi on the other side of the Sumida river pretty much all night long.
the stadium in which tickets were still available, for ¥ 3800. My ticket ended up being in the second to the last row in the stadium. I will say this though, I thought I could see the action pretty well even though most everyone in the place was closer to the Dohyo than I was. I did find that when I was buying a ticket for the next day, I could have bought a ticket for the current day for ¥ 9500 that was in the red pad section. Glad I didn't purchase that as sitting with my legs crossed for that long would have been very uncomfortable. I was grateful for the seat I had the following day. Not sure how the Japanese can do that. The affordable seats are actually chairs with a back that are raised off the ground Western style. I highly recommend you shoot for those seats if you have the chance.

I had a bit of a bonus with my ticket on the 16th as there was an earthquake around 12:30 pm that day. I had never experienced one where I had full consciousness, so that was pretty cool. The whole stadium just
Sumo WrestlersSumo WrestlersSumo Wrestlers

With wooden footwear (Geta)
fell silent for about 60 to 90 seconds as everyone had a collective "is that it, or is there more to it?" kind of look on their face. After another minute or so, the matches resumed and there were no further geologic disturbances the remainder of the day. I learned later that day that the earthquake was a 5.6 that was centered off the Northeast coast of Japan. Thus, it was a pretty mild experience in Tokyo, but you could still feel the whole building moving.

The ticket noted that amateur matches start at 8:40 am, and that the Juryo professionals start around 2:15 pm and the Makuuchi professionals start around 3:40 pm. Thus, I thought there would be a significant break in the action during which I would go find something to eat. Turns out that after about say a half dozen amateur matches, the lesser known professionals (Jonokuchi - lowest division followed by the Makushita - Junior grade division) have matches that start immediately thereafter, then the Juryo grade wrestlers begin followed by the Makuuchi grade wrestlers and there are NO breaks in the action. One match after the other, all the way until 6 pm. Following

15 Sep 2014
the last match is the Yumitor-shiki, the Bow twirling Ceremony, and that too will be finished by 6pm sharp.

One thing that was nice about my early arrival is that for most of the morning matches, you could hear the wrestlers bodies slap as their matches began. Later in the day there was too much ambient noise from all of the spectators, so you wouldn't hear that at all.

Each match is the same in form and high in ceremony. The ring tender enters the Dohyo and sings a brief song while facing each wrestler, then steps aside as each wrestler then enters the Dohyo, bow to each other, then go about their match preparation which includes a showing of their strength which includes raising of the arms, high kick followed by a stomping motion of the feet. While this preparation is going on, the ring referree kind of acts as town cryer announcing to the crowd in a kind of "Would any of you like to test the might of these men?". Of course I don't know that since I couldn't hear and likely wouldn't really understand what they were saying anyway, but it seemed something like that. For the Juryo grade wrestlers and prior, the wrestlers address each other in formal stance, then get back up out of their stance to consider their match strategy one more time. For the Makuuchi grade wrestlers, this formal stance taking happens twice before the final stance is taken which then officially starts the match. I believe it is just the Makuuchi grade wrestlers for which Salt is made available on the Dohyo. They use it if they so choose to eliminate evil spirits from the Dohyo. I don't recall if Salt was made available for the Suryo grade wrestlers, but certainly before them Salt was not made available. The referree uses a Japanese Miltary Fan looking kind of thing to signal when it is "time to wrestle". If the fan is pointed in the direction of one of the wrestlers, the stance of both wrestlers is to be taken, but the match will not start at that time. Once the fan is pointed between the wrestlers, that is when it is "time to wrestle" and the match begins shortly thereafter. It seems they have some notion of "offsides", in which case if that occurs, the match is not begun
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Tokyo Sky Tree in the background
and the wrestlers must again take their stances. I have no idea how they detect that an "offsides" infraction has occurred. After the match has concluded, the referree points the fan toward the winning wrestler. For the Makuuchi grade wrestlers, the referree has a stack of envelopes that are given to the winning wrestler. As that is happening, the losing wrestler has already bowed to the judges and Dohyo and departed for the locker room. The winning wrestler eventually does the same on his way to his locker room.

Oh yes, and the rules are very simple. No striking is allowed, but slapping is somehow ok. Once the match begins, you lose if you are first to step out of the ring portion of the Dohyo, or if anything other than the soles of your feet touch the Dohyo. It turns out there are many ways to lose. I am convinced that the way you win is by not losing. If there is a close call about who may have left the ring or touched the Dohyo first, the judges confer immediately after the match while the wrestlers step into their respective corners of the Dohyo to await their
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Opens at 8am ...
decision. The head judge speaks over the PA system to announce how they have arrived at their decision and identifies the winning wrestler.

You are allowed to leave the stadium and re-enter one time during the course of the day. I suppose this is because they know they have limited food options in the stadium, which is odd but true. By about 1pm or so, it seems they were sold out of bento boxes and food of substance so the only thing they had left was mostly dessert kind of items. Since I remained in the stadium the entire day trying to understand and see all I could see of the proceedings, I was starving by the time 6pm rolled around, and they concluded the days proceedings sharply at 6pm.

Additional photos below
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On Site Shinto Shrine

Another moment of Zen for me

The Edo Tokyo Museum is that direction on the other side of the stadium

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