If you are the sort of person that talks about NFL linemen strategy or loves a good battle between a MLB pitcher and great hitter, then a day watching sumo is something you would love. Don’t fall for all the blogs that say sumo is slow or boring. If you can watch American football or a baseball game – both where there are long periods of set up punctuated with moments of pure energy – you can watch a day of sumo.
Here is how to schedule the perfect day of getting General Admission tickets for sumo in Tokyo. Before we tell you about our day going to watch Japan’s national sport, Sumo Wrestling, this is the what we should have done:
- 5:40am – be at the Metro stop to head to Ryogoku Kokugikan, the sumo stadium.
- 6:15am – arrive at the line out front of the stadium after a ten minute walk from station to stadium.
- 7:15am – get numbered vouchers for General Admission(GA) tickets that are handed out to people in line at that time.
- 7:45am – ticket sales start in order of vouchers, buy tickets. They say you have to be together but really they only want one person in the party to buy the tickets. $20 for adults, less than $2 for child ticket. Cash only.
- 8:00am – doors open
- 8:02am – go in with the other general admission folks and throw stuff down on seats in Row 14, along the top wall in the balcony (the only GA seats there are) but get them either directly where you came in or the other side (so that the wrestlers who line up “East” and “West” are to your left and right) so that you have a great view of each match.
- 8:05am – leave the venue via the south gate after getting your hand stamped and confirming that you understand there is only one re-entry.
- 8:15am – stop at Dutour Cafe or one of the others near by for coffee – finally! They don’t open until 7:00 or 7:30am (depending on the day) so no reason to try and risk missing the voucher hand out to get coffee before staking out your seats.
- 9:30am – the Edo-Tokyo museum opens at 9:30 and is right next to the stadium. Spend a couple of hours soaking up great Japanese history.
- 11:30am – Grab lunch bento boxes, some tempura to take away or even stop at McDonald’s (which is on the corner out front of the stadium) and carry it into the stadium. Technically the sign says no outside food and food inside is not crazy expensive but there is no bag check and everyone is eating in their seats anyway so bring food if you want.
- 12:00pm – walk back into the stadium and enjoy your lunch from the front row of balcony seats since they are all still empty anyway. I have read that the Emperor himself has watches sumo from these seats and they are awesome. The venue will still be basically empty so sit back and enjoy the constant stream of warm up bouts.
- 2:30ish – the Juryo (intermediate division) ceremony of wrestlers coming in takes place.
- 2:35pm – watch the intermediate guys from your seats in Row 14 and enjoy the pre-clash rituals (and they get longer and more involved the higher the rankings). Salt-throwing starts and intimidation kicks up a few notches.
- 3:45pm – the stadium starts to fill up (both the GA and the regular box seats (four mats per box) on the first floor and chairs seating on the second). The Makuuchi (senior division – meaning really good, not really old) entrance ceremony takes place.
- 4:00-ish pm- ceremony of a Grand Champion and two Makuuchi from both the East and the West takes place (which is very cool) oriented to the Main side of the stadium.
- 4:15 pm- watch the ritual, the personalized pillows, mental intimidation and massive salt-throwing of the high ranked sumo wrestlers until it is time to go home.
Here is what we actually did:
Day 1 (Tuesday May 22): Get up and have breakfast at 6am; take the Metro at 6:45; get to the line at 7:20 to be told we were way too late. Ask guys in line what time they got there in order to get a ticket and they tell us they arrived at 5:30 and were middle of the line. Epic sumo fail.
We change gears and go to Hakone Japan, have ice cream at Lake Ashi, stare in awe at Mt. Fuji before clouds roll in and then enjoy a natural hot spring Japanese bath experience on the way back home.
Day 2 (a Wednesday): Get up at 4:15. Since the Metro starts at 5am….
- 5:00am – arrive at the Metro; realize the first train of our train line doesn’t show up until 5:25. Drat, kids are already cranky.
- 5:50am – Arrive at the stadium and hustle to the line and end up being about the 90th people in line (out of 400 General Admission tickets issued). Kids sit on the ground and watch movies (we brought mobile internet connection from our host home and two iPads).
- 6:30am – Alan ventures for coffee. Nothing opens until 7:00 or 7:30am.
- 7:15am – they issue our vouchers for tickets by handing us a numbered card and a separate piece of paper explaining the rules for buying the ticket.
- 7:45am – tickets go on sale; buy our tickets within minutes of the window opening. We all shuffle forward having been told that each person much buy their ticket themselves. Get near front and be told that only one person should go up to buy the tickets – retrieve cash and vouchers from kids, buy all the tickets, move to new line to enter the venue.
- 8:00am – join the dash of sumo crazy fans to the ‘good’ GA seats. Zip to the far side of the stadium so we could watch them ‘perpendicular’ to the match. This is far better than having a view from behind one of the wrestlers but not as good as facing the “Main” direction where the ceremonies are directed. Most people drop stuff on a seat and then leave.
- 8:45am – Stadium is basically empty. Wrestling starts. We realize we must get coffee, but not sure if we should totally abandon our seats. Kate and I go out and sneak back in coffee drinks and pastries for everyone.
- 9:30 to noon – Explore stadium and watch the warm up bouts from the front row of the plush balcony seats.
- Noon – Judi and John leave to track down lunch and return with a back pack full of McDonalds treats. Judi naps in her seat. Kids do math via the internet. We have all used our one re-entry so we are here for the duration.
- 1:00 to 5:00pm – watch sumo and ceremonies until we have had our fill (actually way past) and then leave to beat the crowds out the door. But we do get to catch an autograph with a wrestler who the entire crowd seemed excited to see.
Interesting sumo things we learned since we had a lot of time to hang out and research while spending a full day at the stadium:
- Target sumo weight is between 400-600 pounds. There are no weight classes so size matters. It is really a game of size, strength, speed and leverage. If I were training linemen for football I would have them come watch sumo.
- Sumo started in the 700AD period and has elements of Shinto religion in it still.
- By Sumo Associate rules, sumo wrestlers can’t drive cars. Not sure why but it’s true. The cool result is you get to see them come from the train or taxi and walk to the venue before the gates open.
- Each school has about 15 wrestlers and can only have one foreigner. It is a strict system or rank and hierarchy so the young guys hardly make a thing, do all the serving at the school and get hazed a lot.
- The match starts when both wrestlers put their hands on the mat but in reality it is just a flick of a finger and then they explode off their line into each other. It is amazing how close their are really, already just a few paces apart, face to face when they start.
The action is constant during the tournament. From 8:20am until the end there is a steady parade of wrestlers and action. Sure, the clash itself is measured in seconds or minutes but the ceremony, introductions, intimidation, ritual, cleaning the ring, judging, changing out of wrestlers to the “on deck” pillows, bringing in the individual pillows to sit on (for the top guys), etc – the flow never really stops. We are glad we finally got to spend a day soaking up Japan’s national sport.