In this age of constant change and evolution, the ancient sport of sumo wrestling has remained relatively the same for the past 750+ years. Originally begun some 1,500 years ago as a celebration of peace on earth and bountiful harvests, the sumo tournament, now held six times a year, still pays tribute to its beginnings through various subtle rites and motions.
Photo: Alan on Flickr
Each sumo tournament lasts fifteen days and sees the wrestlers, called rikishi, facing off against different opponents each day according to their ranking. The rikishi will only face off against others within their division. While each day of the tournament begins at 8:30am and lasts until 6pm, the most exciting bouts are always at the end, and feature the yokozuna (top-ranked) wrestlers.
Arriving at the tournament site early (around 1pm) will allow you to line up with a throng of other fans who want to see the top rikishi enter the site through the front entrance just like everyone else. Dressed in beautiful kimonos, they proceed through the front doors, then head to their respective locker rooms. If you are lucky enough, you can even shake hands with some of them.
As you enter the venue, your tickets will be scanned and then you can be led to your seats by ushers. Once you’ve found your bearings, you might want to get up and walk around a little. You’ll find several vendors stands at which you can pick up relatively inexpensive souvenirs including tournament programs, playing cards, rikishi handprints on square colored paper, drawings of modern-day sumo wrestlers in ancient-Japanese art style, and more.
At around 3:30pm, the top division rikishi make their entrance to the ring and perform a short ring-entrance ceremony. They are all wearing beautiful silk ceremonial aprons that have embroidery representing their wrestling names. The yokozuna end the ring-entrance ceremony with their own special “dance” which is meant to cast out evil spirits and awaken their gods and get their attention. Then, the main event is ready to begin.
Photo: davidgsteadman on Flickr
While somewhat slow-paced, each matchup is preceded by introductions, stare-downs, ring-purifications and other rites. Only when the referee (called gyoji) indicates that the time limit has been reached do the two rikishi square off one last time. When the higher-ranked rikishi touches both hands on the sand-dusted clay surface, the stand-off begins. The first man out of the ring or to touch the ground with anything but his feet loses. Wins-losses records are kept through the 15-day tournament, and the rikishi with the best record at the end wins the Emperor’s Cup.
At the end of each day’s matches, one of the lower-ranked rikishi comes out to perform the closing “bow ceremony” in which he twirls a long bow around his body several times. Tradition says that this started when the winning wrestler was given a bow to commemorate his victory, and out of joy he would perform a dance. The tradition has remained with the sport through several centuries.
Photo: Vanessa Smith on Flickr
Three tournaments per year are held in Tokyo (January, May, September), and one each is in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November). The cheapest tickets are around ¥4,000 and the more expensive box seats start at ¥38,000 for four people.
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It is always possible to watch sumo on television, as NHK broadcasts every day of the tournament (from 3:30 until 6pm), but as is the case with many sports, the live experience is much more satisfying and exciting. The sounds and sights are much more vivid and leave a lasting impression and appreciation for this ancient traditional sport.