I know. Sumo wrestling is something very few Americans think the idea is something they really want to see. The image we have doesn’t really lend itself to understanding the sport. Hell, we have bars that have sumo suits where we play like we know what we are doing in a blow up suit. But this spring as I began planning a trip to Japan, I started looking for a sumo tournament.
And I have to admit here and now, I kept putting off doing this post because there is so much to say. So I apologize that this will be a lot longer than most of my posts. hopefully if it is too long, you can scan through the headings for what interests you most.
Growing up, I’d regularly see the World Wide of Sports on Sunday but I can’t remember seeing sumo wrestling. The sport is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture and yet, in the U.S. it is hard to remember there is even such a sport. With Japanese family members, I kept wondering what it was about.
See sumo wrestling is the national sport in Japan. It got started in ancient times, much like the Olympics did. Sumo is a combination of sports and religious ritual. That’s why the ceremonial part of sumo is so important to observe. In case you missed my post on sumo ceremonies, you’ll enjoy the video & info.
And since I have Japanese family members, it seemed like something I should try to understand. But sumo tournaments aren’t like baseball games… there aren’t that many opportunities. In fact, there are just half a dozen tournaments each year, each having all day matches for 15 days. Somehow, we got lucky and the Nagoya tournament was being held while we’d be there so we made plans to go!
Tips on Attending a Sumo Tournament
There were several things that worked for us or that we noticed by being at the tournament for the day that I think I will share for the onset of this post.
- Take in as much of the day as you can. We got there early so we could watch the first matches. This was a good a good decision because it gave us a chance to understand how matches went and what strategy looked like. And we were learning with the newer or less accomplished wrestlers in the ring as the tournament has three different groupings of wrestlers. It seemed most fans skipped the first set of matches so we could be as enthusiastic as we wanted without disturbing folks.
- Get to know the usher that takes you to your seats. When you arrive at the stadium, you will probably be shown to your seats by an usher. For foreigners, they make sure the usher you get speaks your language. These folks are volunteers who have signed up to be ambassadors. They have a lot of useful tips and information and are enthusiastic to help you.
- Spring for box seats if you can afford it. A box provides traditional Japanese seating so you are on the floor on a cushion. The ability to move around is great and you will really appreciate being up close. In the photo above you see boxes with purple cushions, Kazu and I had a spot to tuck our shoes, a shelf to keep our drinks and papers on, etc. The stadium type seating Americans are used to are all up at the top of the arena. Sure you can see from up there, but buying tickets early and spending a little extra can really help you get into it. And you will be sitting with the hardcore fans who will help you feel the rush. If you can’t quite swing the price, you may be able to sit in box seats early before others arrive. 😉
- Take your good camera equipment. I wasn’t sure if I was “overdoing” and I am pretty sure my nephew thought I was. The big zoom lens and the ability to tweak white balance was important for capturing the day the way it felt.
- Think about food early. We didn’t and it cost us LOL! There were options to order lunches that would be delivered to your box when you buy tickets. Those meals looked pretty yummy. They looked REALLY yummy compared to the little bit of stuff served in the concession stands. Remember, if you attend for the full day, you may want snacks, etc. We ended up leaving midday for a bit which was fine, but we didn’t know where restaurants were, etc. and since we weren’t paying for international phone use, we couldn’t just hop on yelp or something. We wasted too much time trying to find a place to grab a good lunch. If you do leave the arena, make sure you don’t miss the ceremonies at the beginning of each wrestling class. They are cool!
- Pick wrestlers to cheer for and join the fun! Sure, some of the people there have details on who is doing how well in the tournament. They have stats on which to base things. But that’s all extra. In the earliest rounds Kazu and I would simply pick based on whim. We had fun and by talking through the matches, I think we were both learning more than we would have otherwise. As the crowd and the importance of the matches grew, we were able to catch on a lot more and really get into it!
Watching a Match
Wrestlers do a round of stretches first and what’s interesting to the way a match starts, is at least from everything I saw, it is up to the two wrestlers to decide when they are both ready to go. The stretches, the mental process of preparing, etc are done simultaneously.
There is a referee in the ring (changes frequently and wear some wild outfits) and judges on each side of the ring too (much more conservatively outfitted). They are there to be sure they understand the results but otherwise it seems the wrestlers wrestle and referees don’t interfere. In the course of an 8-hour tournament of matches, wrestlers were busy getting their heads in the matches but never at the expense of others. How could I not like a sport that embraces such an empowering mindset?!?!
The Rules of Sumo
The rules of sumo are pretty simple. There are two ways a match ends:
- Touching the ring — The soles of the feet are the only part of the body to touch the ring after a match starts. The first wrestler that touches the ground with anything other than the soles of his feet loses.
- Leaving the ring — The ring on the platform is clearly raised and with the sand smoothed out before each match so the referee can see even a pinky toe out there is caught.
You can see both step out or put a hand or knee down, but one wrestler always does it first and with a set of judges all around the ring, most decisions are made quickly and easily. However, we did see a couple of matches where the judges would gather. Other than those rules, I think respect and reference are likely the only framework in which the wrestlers work.
What are Sumo Wrestlers Like?
The stereotype of sumo wrestlers are they are fat guys. I have to admit that many of the wrestlers we saw definitely have some pounds that aren’t muscle. Sure I had heard they are a lot of muscle, but having only seen a few photos of sumo wrestlers, muscle hadn’t necessarily stood out.
Looking at theses guys in the ring as they prepare for a match, you can’t help but notice the calf muscles they have. Serious calf muscles and quadriceps too. The upper bodies vary widely but leg muscles, that looked like a requirement.
I didn’t realize that there were no weight classes in sumo wrestling though. This is really different than the wrestling I watched my nephew take in. Since he is really thin, I was always glad that he would be facing competitors that were similar in size. But check out this group of sumo wrestlers.
Pretty sure you can guess who my nephew and I had to cheer for! Yep, we were screaming for the skinny sumo wrestler — his wrestling name is Takanoyama and he is from the Czech Republic.
You have to wonder what sort of strategies sumo wrestlers employ and when you watch hours of matches, you start to see that there are several different ways to go.
Quick Start & Momentum
I saw several matches where one of the wrestlers got off to a really fast start, lurching toward the other and pushing with all their might immediately with the match’s start. The guy in the photo at right did just that and used the momentum he was able to gain and the strength of his calf muscles to push his opponent backward. I’m thinking that works with some opponents but not others. On that day the aggressor on the left pushed the wrestler out of the ring to the right.
The way sumos push each other, you can sometimes use a persons girth or momentum against them. Or you can simply get someone so off balance, they end up falling or putting a hand or knee down. So it seems to me that one of the greatest things a sumo going for himself is an ability to maintain his balance. So being able to maintain his balance while getting your opponent off balance, is one strategy to take.
Takanoyama uses his speed and agility a good bit. On the day we watched, his speed and agility were used to get another wrestler off balance. That ultimately resulted in the other wrestler going down. Check out a few frames I caught of the match.
We didn’t get good video of it but someone else who was attending did. You can watch the match and see the skinny sumo beat a bigger guy. 🙂
Video of Sumo Matches
Here are a couple of the matches Kazu and I watched…. You may enjoy taking a look. And if you are thinking about taking a trip to Japan, I HIGHLY recommend you check the sumo tournament schedule and get yourself some tickets!
Questions about Sumo Wrestling?
Although I feel like I have written too long a post, I also wonder what I forgot to mention. If you have questions about sumo wrestling, please ask away and I’ll see if I have an answer! If not, I will try to find it!
That is too cool! That is really amazing that you get to go and experience different cultures. What is it that they throw onto/into the ring before they enter and why do they do it? Thanks!
Janice Person says
It is like a powder or chalk…. They all put it on their hands so they can do a good job of holds, etc. some of them even put it on their bellies a bit but the flourish in the ring is a way of offering to sort of the honor of the ring and traditions.
It’s salt to purify the dohyo. Dates back to Shinto practices…