There’s nothing like a sumo match. Salt throwing, knee slapping behemoths in a sandy ring, waiting for some unspoken cue to attempt to topple each other over. I saw my first sumo tournament from the cheap seats of the Tokyo Kokugikan (sumo stadium) and something in me became thoroughly captivated by this sweaty sport with its not-so-sexy champions.
Yet there are only six grand sumo tournaments a year. What can you do if your time in Japan falls outside of those weeks??
A tournament might be an amazing experience, but you can get up close and really personal with the sport’s huge wrestlers during a morning practice at a sumo stable.
All sumo wrestlers – yes, even the famous ones – eat, sleep and practice at a sumo stable (or sumo “heya”.) Many of the more famous ones are permanently closed to the public, but often smaller stables with less-well-known wrestlers are willing to let respectful travelers come in to witness the wrestlers “at work”.
Visitors typically arrive in the early morning, as wrestlers begin practice around 6am. While there, you may witness anything from group exercises (think lots of squats and leg raises – these guys are in shape!) to practice bouts. At the stable I visited in Tokyo’s Ryogoku neighborhood, we had to sit on the side of the room and weren’t permitted to talk with the wrestlers, but both still pictures and video footage were permitted. I had the privilege of watching a group of six or seven young wrestlers engage in a “round-robin” style bout for over 30 minutes. At a practice like this, you might not have the glamour of stadium lights or lots of colorful pre-bout theatrics but you get to see the sport in its rawest form, like watching sandlot baseball or a touch football game.
Tourist agencies like JTB Sunrise Tours or My Tokyo Guide can hook you up with a sumo stable visit where you might even get to taste some chanko-nabe (the traditional wrestler’s hotpot). You can also call directly to the head of some sumo stables to secure a seat at a morning practice. If you’re Japanese is rusty (or non-existent, and that’s okay), you might try going through a volunteer guide. Thanks to Senichi-san of the Tokyo Free Guides, I got to visit a morning practice a few years ago for the cost of a bottle of sake for the stable owner.
For more on how to see an official sumo tournament, visit this site.