How to See a Sumo Tournament in Tokyo, Japan

Sumo wrestling is such a unique Japanese thing in my mind. So when we planned our trip to Japan, I wanted to see a sumo tournament in Tokyo since they happen several times a year and are actually not too difficult to see. Here is how to buy tickets for the sumo wresting tournament and what the experience was like to spend a day at the sumo tournament at the Ryogoku Kokugikan stadium in Tokyo.

When are the sumo tournaments in Tokyo

There are 6 tournaments a year in Japan as a whole. Three are in Tokyo, while three others are in other cities. Check the official schedule long ahead of your trip and get an idea when the tournament in Tokyo will be. Pay attention to the column labeled “Advanced Tickets on Sale Date”. This is going to be an important date. Check out the site in English here.

sumo wrestling in Tokyo stadium in morning
The sumo wrestling stadium was pretty empty when we arrived in the morning

Purchasing tickets for the sumo tournament

There are a number of ways to see the tournament. Some tour companies will arrange a sumo experience for you as sort of a tour, but if you are patient, it isn’t difficult to buy sumo tickets online and go on your own.

When you have picked the tournament you want to see, be aware of that advanced ticket day. Tickets go on sale at 10am Japan time on that day online. I did this from Europe, which meant staying up until 3am. For much of the US, this is the afternoon. Do the math for your particular time zone because you will need to be online right when the tickets go on sale. They sell out within an hour or two.

Do your research ahead of time and know what days you are available and what type of tickets you might want. You don’t want to be figuring it out right when the tickets are available for purchase since they sell out so fast.

The website above will have a link on the day to buy tickets. This is where the patience comes in. You will be competing with all of the Japanese that want to see the tournament as well.

You probably won’t get your first choice as I saw dates filling up within minutes. I had to refresh many times. Occasionally errors were not very good, but usually implying that the seats I had selected just a few minutes before were already sold out. Often the page just timed out and I had to restart the process several times.

In the end, once you get through the payment screen and to the confirmation, you will get an email. This will have instructions on how to get to the stadium and how to pick up tickets once you’re there.

sumo tournament Tokyo Japan
The sumo wrestling tournament in Japan only happens a few times a year, so plan accordingly

What type of tickets do you need?

Since the online system gets very crowded on the day of public availability, it is worth knowing your options. There are single stadium style seats and box style seats. We ended up with C section seats (the cheapest stadium seats) on the second to top row and it was still a perfectly fine view. The stadium is not large. We were actually, almost intentional feeling, on a row with a lot of other foreigners.

Looking at the B class seats as we came in, they looked a bit more comfortable and had individual cup holders. It might have been nice, but they were not available on the days we could attend. They are also a lot more expensive, and since the stadium isn’t that big, I’m kind of glad we didn’t pay extra to be just a little closer.

On the day of the sumo tournament

Tickets are valid for the entire day with one re-entrance. There are several divisions with the junior division competing in the morning from 8am. The intermediate division started early afternoon and the upper division started mid afternoon. Definitely dedicate most of a day to the sumo. It is well worth watching all three divisions.

With the re-entrance ability, you can go watch for a bit in the morning when it is quiet and the stadium is nearly empty, then head out for some lunch and come back for the upper divisions which are far more popular.

sumo wrestling in Japan full stadium
As the tournament progressed to the higher levels, the stadium filled up

Picking up your sumo tickets

Ride the public transport to Ryogoku station on the north-east side of the city. It is on the Chuo JR line and only a few stops from the Ringline stop of Akihabara. It took use about 40 minutes from Shibuya. If you happen to have an activated JR pass, you can use the ring and the Chuo line all the way without paying extra.

Exit the station and follow the herd toward the stadium. The entrance hall of the station is very obviously where the sumo wrestlers are. There are pictures of past winners with hand prints and heights to compare to. Walk past the flags toward the main entrance of the stadium grounds. Just to the right of the this is a single sign in English pointing at a small terminal. It was super easy to just put the number from our printout into the machine and get our tickets.

Your tickets will have seat and section numbers. The ticket checkers at the front gate didn’t speak English, but there were a group of uniformed women in the main lobby who spoke some. Their entire job seemed to be directing lost foreigners and giving out English maps.

We arrived in the building and started looking around in a stupor. One woman came up to us speaking good English and looked at our tickets. She promptly pulled out a map of the stadium and marked our tickets on it directing us to the stairs and how to find our section.

Food options for your sumo experience

There are some food options in the stadium building. You can also leave and reenter once. Attached to the train station is a small indoor courtyard with a number of food options. It was perhaps more expensive than you might find in a random neighborhood, but not obnoxiously more. We sat at a tempura place around 2pm and had no problem getting a seat. The waitress didn’t speak much English, but was very friendly and helpful. They had a menu in English.

sumo wrestling bout Tokyo Japan
Two sumo wrestlers battle it out

What I learned about sumo wrestling

There seems to be several different aspects of a specific bout. The junior division had the primary obvious contest of gripping the other man firmly and trying to throw or push him out of the ring without being pushed out yourself. This specific part takes maybe 30-60 seconds once they actually get going.

There is a second mental aspect of sumo wrestling that has to do with when the fight actually starts. After watching an embarrassingly large number of bouts in ignorance, I finally used our little portable wifi connection to look up the rules of sumo wrestling.

The two men may commence shoving once all four hands or fists are touching the mat. There seems to be a small game to trying to have the advantage by being the last to put your hands down, or perhaps to show confidence by being the first? We saw a number of false starts, where one fakes putting his hands down to get the other to start. We saw bits of this in the junior league, but it escalated in the upper levels.

The third aspect was some sort of intimidation ritual. From my watching, it involved slapping one’s belly and spraying salt from a bucket across the mat. We heard from one of our neighbor watchers that it was a purification ritual for both the fighters and the mat. While the actually shoving often took less than a minute once they got to it, this stage took 5 minutes easily while watching the upper divisions, with they getting up from the “ready” positions many times before actually going.

sumo tournament Tokyo Japan intimidation rituals
Before the bout, sumo wrestlers try to intimidate each other

Watching sumo wrestling in Tokyo is highly recommended

I went in with almost no expectations and just a sense that I wanted to see sumo wrestling in Japan. It turned out to be a great day, and it was one of the highlights of our trip to Japan. Even without understanding all of it, it was still lots of fun.

If you happen to be in Japan during a sumo tournament, it is well worth trying to get tickets and committing a day to see it. If you can’t get tickets on the website, look at some of the tour operators. We saw some “day trips” on Viator to see the tournament which were more expensive than doing it on your own, but would be an option. It’s also a good option if you’re nervous about all the logistics and would rather have someone else handle the details.

If you aren’t in town at the right time, it is worth looking at options to see sumo wrestling in other ways. There are tours like this one to watch them training. Watching sumo wrestling in Tokyo really is an interesting thing and a unique experience to add to your Japan itinerary.