If you want to experience sumo but are not in Japan when a tournament is on (or simply cannot get tickets), visiting a morning sumo practice in Tokyo is highly recommended. I recently joined a tour to check it out. Here’s my report.
Tachiai practice: mountains of flesh collide - image © Chris Rowthorn
I had been to several sumo tournaments (known as “basho”) but I had never been to a morning sumo practice. So, I booked a tour with Get Your Guide and stayed in hotel in Tokyo’s Asakusa district in order to be near the meetup point (saving a crosstown journey at an early hour). I received several emails from the company I booked through and one from the provider giving meeting instructions, including a map and pictures of the spot. It was all very clear and easy to follow.
I showed up at the meeting point at 7.30am as instructed and was met by the guide, Yoko. She greeted me warmly and explained the plan. We were soon joined by a family from Australia who were the only other members of our group that day. We hopped on a local bus for the short journey to the sumo beya. Sumo beya (or heya) are places where sumo wrestlers live and train. Many of them are located in the Ryogoku or Asakusa districts, which are near the Kokugikan (Tokyo’s main sumo stadium).
Our guide Yoko in Asakusa - image © Chris Rowthorn
En route to the sumo beya, Yoko gave us a very informative booklet about sumo and gave some simple background on sumo. The Aussies had lots of questions, especially their two children who were excited to see the wrestlers up close. After less than five minutes on the bus, we arrived at a stop near the sumo beya. The sumo beya we visited is called Tachinami Beya. It has produced several ozeki-level sumo champions.
Tachinami Beya - image © Chris Rowthorn
We waited outside the beya for a short while for them to open the doors. While we were waiting, a young man came out with the recycling from the house. Yoko explained that he was the most junior wrestler in the house, which makes him responsible for all kinds of housework, as well as dressing the hair of all the senior wrestlers into the chonmage hairstyle required of all sumo wrestlers. He was about 13 years old and already both muscular and chubby and someone you wouldn’t want to get into a shoving match with. We’d see more of him later.
We were soon admitted to the sumo beya by an attendant. There was a large viewing area which we shared with a group from another tour company. We sat on the floor, but chairs were provided for elderly people and those with bad knees and backs. Yoko instructed us not to sit with our feet pointing toward the dohyo (sumo ring), which is considered sacred.
Soon, a few sumo wrestlers entered from a side door. With no fanfare, they simply set about doing various warmups and stretches, led by a senior wrestler. This part of the practice is fairly slow and can get a bit tedious, but be patient. If nothing else, it’s a good chance to learn how to count in Japanese as the wrestlers count over and over to 10 in Japanese. Just when you start to get a bit bored, the real action starts.
The trainer ordered two of the senior wrestlers into the dohyo. They assumed the tachi-ai position and at the trainer’s command smashed into each other. The sound of their colliding bodies filled the room. It was visceral and intense – much more so than the bouts I had seen at sumo stadiums, due to the intimate nature of the surroundings. I literally felt the collision.
Senior wrestlers sparring - image © Chris Rowthorn
The two senior wrestlers went bout after bout until they were streaming with sweat and covered with sand from the dohyo. We saw every manner of throw, fall and grip. Sometimes one marched the other out of the ring, other times they body slammed their opponent to the ground, with a thud you could feel in the room. It was hard to restrain cheers or exclamations, which would have burst forth in a real sumo basho.
Then, for a bit of light relief, the young man we had seen outside earlier appeared and the trainer ordered him to him to spar with one of the senior wrestlers. I had expected that the sumo wrestlers would be solemn and fierce, in keeping with the mood of most Japanese martial arts, but there was a lighthearted vibe to this part of the practice. The senior wrestler went a bit easy on the kid. The kid, for his part, gave his all. The trainer was smiling and joking as he coached the kid and we spectators laughed along as the big guy gently marched the kid out of the ring as the kid furiously resisted. As you can see, the kid gave a pretty good account of himself, including giving some pretty good face slaps to his opponent.
The kid gets a workout - image © Chris Rowthorn
After sparring, the wrestlers warmed down by performing what might be called “the sumo conga” in which they walked around the dohyo while clinging to the mawashi of the man in front of them.
Sumo conga line - image © Chris Rowthorn
Finally, it was time for pictures. The wrestlers approached the front of the viewing area and invited members of the crowd to take pictures with them. Everyone who wanted a picture taken with them had a chance. This is about a close as you can get to actual sumo wrestlers without wrestling them. I was interested to see how lighthearted and personable the wrestlers were. They seemed as interested in the visitors as the visitors were in them.
Picture time - image © Chris Rowthorn
Overall, it was an interesting and excellent close-up look at sumo. Frankly, I wondered why I had waited so long before checking it out.
If you’d like to see an actual sumo tournament, see our How to Buy Tickets for a Tokyo Sumo Match page.
Tokyo Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Tokyo guide
- Check Tokyo accommodation availability and pricing on Booking.com – usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Tokyo
- You can buy a Japan SIM card online for collection on arrival at Tokyo Narita or Haneda airports. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Compare airline flight prices and timings for the best Japan flight deals. Check my guides to arriving at Narita Airport and at Haneda Airport.
- If you're visiting more than one city, you might save money with a Japan Rail Pass – see if it's worth it for you
- A prepaid Suica card makes travelling around Tokyo much easier - here's how
- World Nomads offers simple and flexible travel insurance. Buy at home or while traveling and claim online from anywhere in the world