Watching oversized and underdressed men push, pull, lift, and hold each other is not my usual idea of fun. On paper, it actually sounds a bit terrifying but in reality it was scintillating. My first foray into the uniquely Japanese world of sumo wrestling did not fail in surprising and thrilling me. I arrived at the arena with very little knowledge of sumo wrestling; the common stereotypes of very large men comically charging at each other were the extent of my shamefully uncultured knowledge, but I truly left with a new-found appreciation of the sport. Live sport rarely manages to hold my attention, however the speed and simplicity of sumo had me hooked, teetering on the edge of my seat, and cheering on the athletes like I had been a fan for years. This was without a doubt one of my favourite and most memorable experiences in our entire Japanese adventure so if you happen to be in Japan during one of the tournaments, you must go and experience it for yourself!
Getting Single Day Sumo Tournament Tickets
There are six tournaments held in Japan each year: three in Tokyo, and one in Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka, which last 15 days. If you are organised enough, tickets usually go on sale a month in advance of the tournaments but they do sell out quickly. For those who miss out or are more last minute, the best option is to try and nab one of the 400 single day tickets which go on sale each morning of the tournament at the Ryōgoku Kokugikan arena.
It took a bit of planning and queuing but it was absolutely worth it; here’s what you should do to nab those tickets:
- Tickets officially go on sale at 7.45am however the queues start much earlier – when we arrived at 7.15am, half the tickets were already accounted for and most definitely all allocated by the time they went on sale.
- When you arrive, you will be given a numbered slip which indicates your place in the queue – you must remain in the queue and keep hold of your slip as you will need to present it when you buy your ticket.
- Tickets cost ¥2,200 and you have to pay in cash.
- Your tickets are for any of the seats at the very back row of the arena on the second floor – once you have your ticket you should head up there and reserve your seats immediately. To reserve your seat, just place something, anything from a bag to a piece of paper, to indicate that it’s taken – the Japanese take this etiquette very seriously and no one will even consider taking a seat that has something on it… even if you leave the seat for several hours!
Watching the Sumo Matches
So once you’ve nabbed your seats, it’s time to watch some sumo wrestling. The early matches feature junior wrestlers so most are over very quickly but still worth watching to give you a sense of how things work – as with so many things in Japan, there is a certain ceremony and process to the matches. The aim of the game is to force your opponent to touch the ground with anything other than their feet or step outside the circle. To do this, almost anything goes… just so long as there’s no crotch grabbing, choking, or hair pulling… and all the top wrestlers have their signature styles and techniques!
During the early rounds, the arena is pretty empty so you can usually go sit closer to the action and get a better view until the ticket-holders arrive. The arena starts filling up in the afternoon when the more experienced wrestlers are competing… this is when things get really interesting. The matches are more skilful and tense, the crowds are enthusiastic, both combining to create an electric atmosphere. We didn’t know any of the wrestlers but to get into the spirit of things, a certain someone and I each picked a side and cheered on our wrestlers – and boy did we cheer!
Exploring the Ryōgoku Area between Matches
Your ticket entitles you to leave and re-enter the arena once so I would suggest that after watching an hour or so of matches in the morning, you head out to explore the area. Start with a tour of the arena where you’ll find plenty of outlets selling sumo-themed snacks and souvenirs, and the compact but interesting sumo museum. Then head over to the nearby Edo Tokyo Museum and Edo-in Temple, both popular attractions and the latter used to hold some of the tournaments before the current arena was built. A convenient, if somewhat touristy, lunch option is Edo Noren, a small arcade with a selection of traditional Japanese restaurants but it’s worthwhile venturing across to the other side of the station where there are options galore. We settled for Utage, a family-run sushi restaurant offering fantastic lunch deals – a chirashi don for me, and a nigiri set for a certain someone – just the sustenance we needed for a long afternoon of sumo!
Nabe Dinner at Momonjiya
As you would expect, the area around Ryōgoku Kokugikan arena is brimming with restaurants serving chanko nabe, a hotpot dish popular with sumo wrestlers because it is fully loaded with meats and vegetables! We liked the sound of classic nabe restaurants such as Tomoegata and Kawasaki, but in the end decided to splash out on dinner at Momonjiya, a nabe restaurant specialising in wild boar. In our private dining room we feasted on the wild meat course consisting of dishes like braised boar tendons, venison sashimi, wild boar nabe, bear soup, noodles, and ice cream. The food was hearty and satisfying, the flavours were bold and decadent – it was definitely a feast fit for sumo-wrestling royalty!
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