Sumo is a style of Japanese wrestling and is considered one of the national sports in Japan. It has its origins in Antiquity where it was used to entertain Shinto deities. Sumo wrestling has also retained many symbolic and religious rites such as the purification of the ring with salt before a fight. On the other hand, as tradition dictates, sumo is a sport exclusively reserved for men.
The rules of sumo
The rules of Japanese wrestling are relatively simple. When one of the fighters leaves the ring, bounded by ropes on the ground, or touches the ground with any part of his body other than the sole of the foot, he loses the fight. The fights take place on a raised ring called a dohyo made of clay and covered with a thin layer of sand. In the majority of cases a fight lasts only a few seconds, possibly a minute in rarer cases. What is quite surprising about this sport is that there are no weight or height categories, therefore two sumo wrestlers can face each other even though they are more than 100 kilos apart. However, this is obviously not what prevents some people from doing very well (see video below). Therefore, weight gain is a crucial element in sumo training.
The Japanese Sumo Association is the organization which has been responsible for organizing and supervising professional sumo competitions since 1925. Six tournaments are organized each year, three of which are in Tokyo, in January, May and September. The other three tournaments take place in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka in March, July and November respectively. Each tournament takes place over a period of 15 days and each wrestler must fight once per day, with the exception of wrestlers of lower ranks.
The sumo hierarchy
All sumo wrestlers evolve during their career according to a very specific classification called banzuke . You can also have fun checking it out on the official sumo rankings . The latter is updated after each tournament based on the performances of the wrestlers, those who win move up in the rankings and those who lose move down. The first division is called Makuuchi and the second Juryo . We also find at the top of the ranking the yokozuna , the most powerful sumo in the State. Once yokozuna it is impossible to lose his rank despite a defeat but the public is expected to retire if he is no longer able to assume his rank in the ring. It was also common to throw his zabuton , a cushion on which the spectators sit, at the yokozuna if the latter lost his fight. This practice was banned around ten years ago because it was considered too humiliating for the loser. Zabutons are now attached during competitions.
How to watch a sumo match?
To attend a sumo tournament, you will need to reserve your tickets with the tournament seller or on the official Buy Sumo Ticket website . You can also obtain them from local shops or directly on site. Places are sold for each day of the tournament and you will have the choice between three different types of seats:
- Ringside: Located closest to the action, these seats will naturally be the most expensive and difficult to obtain. Be careful though, they are also the most dangerous in the event of an accident. It has already happened that sumos have unintentionally crashed into members of the public after a knockdown and given their weight this cannot be easy.
- Seating in the boxes: Located on the second floor, the boxes are further back from the dohyo and are therefore less expensive. They are only reserved for slots of four places and you are seated on zabutons, the cushions which were formerly used to be thrown on the yokozuna in the event of defeat.
- Seats in the stands: Located behind the boxes, the stands are the most financially accessible places to watch sumo fights. Places are classified according to their distance from the ring and certain places are exclusively sold on the day of the event.
If you wish to attend a sumo tournament, although some places are sold out on the day, we recommend that you do so a few weeks in advance due to the strong popularity of these traditional events. The ringside seats are usually all booked a month before the start of the tournament.
The course of a day of sumo competition
Smaller division matches start early in the morning at 8:30 a.m. with the exception of days 13 to 15 when they start at 10:00 a.m. The second division Juryo matches start at 3:00 p.m. and you will have to wait until 4:00 p.m. to attend the first division Makuuchi matches. The highest ranked wrestlers will finally fight just before 6:00 p.m. The ring entrance ceremonies are also very impressive to watch, especially when you see them for the first time. Break times will be slightly extended depending on the rank of the wrestlers to allow them to better recover. The day-long sumo wrestling tournament finally ends with a victory ceremony.
The atmosphere in the stadium generally increases little by little as the sumo fights go on, until it reaches its peak when the top wrestlers clash. For those who do not have the day to devote to the tournament, we therefore recommend that you go between 3:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.
Other sumo-related events
Since sumo competitions take place every 2 months in Japan, some people may not be lucky enough to be able to attend them. However, competitions are not the only way to see sumo wrestling. Some smaller tournaments take place between two big competitions and certain ceremonies also take place to honor the departure of certain wrestlers at the end of their career. These ceremonies feature the wrestlers and although they are not as spectacular as a fight between top wrestlers, they remain a very good way to discover this Japanese wrestling more closely. Finally, some sumo schools, called stable but named heya in Japanese, even agree to let spectators come and watch training.
How to attend sumo training?
One of the best ways to immerse yourself in the very heart of sumo is certainly to go directly to watch wrestlers train. To do this, it is necessary to go to a stable, this is the place where sumo wrestlers train but also where they live as a community throughout the year. Therefore, although sumo is an individual sport, the wrestlers are very united among themselves. They share training, dormitories, canteens and free time together every day and are under the direction of a stable master. There are around forty stables of sumo wrestlers in Tokyo and most of them are located in the Ryogoku district.
However, the place where sumos live is neither a public place nor a museum and only a small number of stables agree to let visitors in. And again this is only authorized if accompanied by someone who speaks Japanese fluently and who is well versed in the world of sumo. If you are lucky enough to be able to enter, you will then have to strictly follow the internal regulations of the heya and not disrupt the training sessions.
It is therefore quite difficult to manage to visit a stable of sumo wrestlers on your own. If you wish to attend the training sessions which take place in the morning, we recommend that you do so as part of a guided tour through certain organizations which offer this for a fee.
The diet of sumo wrestlers
If there is something that physically characterizes sumo wrestlers compared to the wrestlers we know, it is their weight. Although some wrestlers weigh “only” 100 kilos, the heaviest can reach more than 250 kilos. Which is rather ironic to have as our national sport overweight men competing in a ring in a country where people are among the skinniest in the world. However, it would be a big mistake to think that sumo wrestlers only have fat, they are indeed endowed with enormous muscular power underneath all that fat.
A sumo wrestler eats an average of 20,000 calories per day (we eat an average of 2500) divided into two 10,000 calorie meals. They do not eat breakfast and start their day directly with training. This allows them to have more appetite for the 11:00 a.m. meal where they eat a chankonabe which is their main course. It is a kind of Japanese stew very popular in the country consisting mainly of vegetables, fish and tofu meat. They then add five to ten bowls of rice to their meal and finally drink a lot of beer, up to six pints, during that same meal. Follows after a nap of about four hours to digest this copious meal, before returning to the same menu in the evening at the end of the day.