When I asked my visiting family members what they wanted to do while in Tokyo, my brother mentioned attending a sumo tournament. Unfortunately, tournaments are only held a few times per year and they missed it by just weeks! However, I had a friend tell me that it was possible to watch morning practice sessions right at the stable (the name for a sumo practice building). We booked a tour guide, since most stables require a Japanese speaker to be present, and she walked us to the stable and we were literally up close and personal to the practice session!
We removed our shoes and sat on a tatami mat about four feet away from the action.
While two of the wrestlers sparred, the rest of the guys were continuously, moving, stretching, practicing. It was quite amazing to watch. (The guy in the squat position spent almost the entire 2-3 hour session in variations of that position. So difficult!)
Periodically, the wrestlers would switch opponents, and begin a new match. A match is over when a sumo steps out of the ring or any body part, other than their feet, are on the ground.
Sumo is a revered sport in Japan, and even watching the practice session, there were many rules of etiquette to obey. We could not talk, move around, eat or drink, or put the soles of our feet towards the ring (this is considered disrespectful), to name just a few. Luckily, pictures were okay. We weren’t sure how the girls would hold up, but they were completely mesmerized!
A few times during the practice, they swept the ring and threw on salt and water, which are purifying rituals.
This man was the master, and occasionally barked orders at the sumo, but, other than that, didn’t seem to pay too close attention to the practice session. We were scared of him!
At one point some other sumo entered, dressed in traditional yukata. Our guide later told us that they were visiting from another stable and came to spar. Sumo are required to wear traditional dress, including geta (flip-flop’s) at all times, even in winter! They must also grow their hair long to be worn in the top knot.
Many strict rules govern the lives of a sumo. They all live and train together (about 10-15 men) in the stable, sometimes well into their late 30’s. Though, if they marry, they are allowed to live on their own. Sumo are also not allowed to drive a car. Apparently, a sumo was involved in a car accident years ago, hence the no-driving rule.
Most people joke of sumo being big guys who eat a lot (and the blow up sumo costume also comes to mind) but, we were all truly amazed at the level of agility and athleticism of these men. They certainly came in all sizes, too. We nicknamed the guy on the right, the “skinny sumo”, and interestingly, there are no weight classes in sumo.
This guy was slamming his hands into this post, and trying to push it. Ouch!
The practice area was small, only a four foot ledge for watching, and the rest of the room was the ring.
We sat right in front of that shrine along the wall. Literally, front row seats!
Here is a closer look at the shrine, of sorts. Sumo has very strong ties, ceremonially to the Shinto religion. Therefore, they still do a lot of the Shinto rituals, dating back thousands of years.
At the end of the practice session, they stretched as a group. They did this leg lift, alternating sides, almost continuously throughout the entire session.
We watched the action for close to two hours and LOVED it, but that was about all the floor sitting I could handle! As Americans, we are not used to sitting on the floor too long, without being able to stretch out. Speaking of stretching….
Their flexibility rivaled that of a dancer!
After practice, they were nice enough to pose for a picture with us. We thought this is was where the tour would end….
But they hung out with us outside for quite awhile, taking pictures and doing the best we all could to communicate. Our tour guide was a great translator! This guy seemed to be the ring leader here. Sumo is VERY hierarchical and the top wrestler at each stable rules the roost.
At one point, the ring leader sent another guy in to get his business cards, and this paper, called banzuke. The banzuke is a listing of all sumo in order of rank, also their hometown, and is published a few weeks before a large tournament. It was printed on this awesome washi paper, and I have since read they are considered collectors items among some fans. He gave us each one as a gift. It looks so cool, I think I will frame it!
It was so fun to see a more laid back version of these guys. In practice they were all so serious!
And one last group shot! (This is my brother Adam, my sister Erica, and my niece, Victoria.)
The stable seemed so secretive and nondescript from the outside.
Then, they began to hose off outside, literally!
Definitely not a sight you see everyday!
The girls all came home sumo fans! They liked practicing the movements at home that evening. Too funny!
Of all the things that I’ve done in Japan so far, this may very well be the coolest! I LOVED this whole experience! Matt was not able to join us this go around, so we are definitely going again- SOON!