A highly ritualized sport that is mixed with elements of Shinto, Japan’s own religion, sumo wrestling is not all that accessible to international visitors. Getting tickets to one of the five annual tournaments is not an easy task, but some of the beya (sumo stables) in Tokyo have decided to open their doors to visitors. Here’s how to join them, as a spectator, for their daily morning practice sessions that take place between tournaments.
How to see sumo training in Tokyo
Watching sumo training for free
For the true cheapos out there (who don’t mind potentially being left out in the rain, literally), there’s a free option: the Arashio sumo stable in Hamacho has replaced one of the walls of its training room with large window panes that allow visitors to watch from outside. Just be warned that there is a bicycle rack right in front of the window, and you’re not allowed to step in between the bikes, so the experience will be at arm’s length. It might be enough for those who just want to get a quick glimpse. If you’re lucky, the rikishi (professional wrestlers) will step outside after the session and may be willing to pose for photos with you—for free. However, there’s no guarantee.
Early-morning sumo training tours
The easiest way to arrange admittance as a visitor to an early-morning sumo training session is to book online. If you go on an arranged tour, your guide will meet you at the nearest station and walk you to the stable. They’ll stay with the group for the duration of the training (which can be anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours, but 90 minutes seems to be the usual length) and provide you with explanations and translations that make the whole experience a lot more interesting and accessible.
If you’re fluent in Japanese and your keigo (the politest form of Japanese) is up to par, you could also call a sumo stable yourself to arrange it, but it might be quite troublesome for most and the cost, which seems to range from around ¥7,000 to ¥12,000 depending on the stable, is the same as when booked through Voyagin or other tour sites.
What to expect at the sumo stable: The training drill
The day we went to check out training at the Oguruma Stable, the rooms smelled like a mix of sweaty gym and baby powder. When we arrived, most of the rikishi were already in the training room and warming up by—you guessed it—doing the famous sideways stomp. The only sound, the thigh slapping and shouting by the wrestlers, was slightly muffled by the wooden walls. This ritual is supposed to expel bad demons from the doyou (ring), while warming up the leg muscles.
It went on for quite a while before the “real” training started. This was also the time when the oyakata (stable master) showed up. He plunged into an armchair and like a kind of sumo godfather started to give curt comments on the fighters’ weight, condition and moves, which were inevitably retorted with an enthusiastic, military-style “hai” (yes!).
Looking around the room, you might wonder why some of the rikishi still look relatively slender while others are around the 200kg mark. The fighters ideally get recruited out of middle or high school and then start increasing their weight very gradually to avoid health issues: ideally, they gain 10-12kg per year. A sumo fighter’s performance peaks from around 27 to 32 years, so most likely, the bigger guys will also be the older guys.
The training progressed from exercises to actual fighting and the younger fighters tried to push their senpai (senior), the heaviest and most advanced among them, out of the ring. At the Oguruma Stable, this was a chap called Amakaze, who weighs over 200kg. He was sporting a big grin as younger fighters half his weight tried to push him out of the ring.
No kicking or boxing is allowed in sumo. The goal is to either push your opponent out of the doyou with flat hands, or to knock him off balance so that he will touch the ring with any part of the body other than the soles of his feet. Another way to lose is if your mawashi (loincloth) comes undone, which certainly would be an interesting end to the match.
Besides the fact that you will be sitting so close to the ring that you can smell the mix of sand and sweat, observing sumo training also gives you the opportunity to see a side of the fighters’ lives you don’t get to see during the tournaments. The hierarchy amongst the rikishi becomes apparent, and even if you don’t speak Japanese, you can see the older fighters both teasing and advising their younger stable mates.
Our video guide to the tuna auctions at the shiny new Toyosu Fish Market
Rules to follow at a sumo stable
When you arrive at the stable, it’s polite to bow to the stable’s usher and anyone you encounter on your way in. You can also say “ojama shimasu” in a soft voice after you have taken your shoes off and stepped up from the genkan (entrance), which roughly means “I am sorry to disturb you.” When you enter the dojo where the training takes place, also bow toward the rikishi without uttering any words and silently make your way over to the cushions laid out for you to sit on.
You don’t need to sit in seiza position (kneeling), but make sure the soles of your feet never point towards the fighters or the doyou. You can’t eat, drink or talk during the training, so as not to disturb the rikishis’’ concentration. If you turn up late, you might not be admitted, so make sure to be on time. Also, you can’t leave early.
While this may sound like a lot of rules to follow, it’s still a far cry from the highly regulated lifestyle that the rikishi follow for the duration of their careers, which dictates everything from training to eating and sleeping times.
Before you leave, some of the fighters will probably be happy to pose for a picture with you. Remember—don’t touch them without asking if it’s okay, and be sure to smile and say “arigatou gozaimashita” while bowing slightly before you leave.
Useful links for arranging a sumo training experience in Tokyo
Once you have made your booking, a guide will email you with the details, including the early morning pick-up time and location, rules and stable names.
Ahead of the tour, you can pop over to the official sumo website and check out your stable’s oyakata, rikishi and their ranks.
While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change.
Hangout with Snoopy and the gang at the newly reopened Snoppy Museum in Tokyo.