The wrestlers face each other, squatting in the ring. Perfectly mirroring each other, they sweep their arms around in a circle, then clap their hands together in front of them, arms outstretched. They move closer, crouch, then lower their heads, fists touching the ground, eyes still locked on one another. They are ready.
Sumo is Japan’s national sport. It has its origins in entertaining the gods of Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion. It has been practised for centuries and many of the old rituals are kept today, such as throwing copious amounts of salt around the ring to purify it before each bout.
Each bout usually lasts mere seconds. The aim is to force your opponent out of the ring, or to cause him to touch the ground with any part of his body other than the soles of his feet. The larger the wrestler, the bigger his advantage as there are no weight categories; hence the size of the wrestlers. The top wrestler is called the yokozuna, a title which he holds for life.
I would highly recommend attending a sumo match if you get the chance. I can’t pretend that I understand the religious significance of the sumo matches, but the rules are easy enough to follow and it made for an entertaining day. Besides, what could be more Japanese than sumo?
Know before you go
If you’d like to watch sumo when in Japan there are 6 tournaments a year in major cities. The one I went to was held in November in Fukuoka. Tickets can be bought at the official sumo website, convenience stores or at the stadiums themselves (in advance).
You may also be able to tour a sumo stable to learn more about the lifestyle of a sumo wrestler which is very regimented and rule-bound. Most of these stables are in Tokyo’s Ryogoku district. Booking onto a tour is advised – foreigners are unlikely to be permitted to tour the stables alone and it is important that the wrestlers are not disturbed during the tour.