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The area of Ryogoku in eastern Tokyo is the spiritual home of sumo in Japan, where most professional sumo wrestlers live and train in stables. As the national sport of Japan, sumo wrestling can be traced as far back as the 8th century.
It was in and around Ryogoku in the 17th century that the first organised sumo competitions began. Today a handful of stables allow fans and tourists inside to watch the gruelling daily sumo training sessions.
Here’s how you can watch sumo training in Tokyo.
Professional rikishi and apprentice sumo wrestlers live together in sumo stables in highly hierarchical and heavily regimented groups.
Sumo is dominated by tradition and becoming a rikishi means committing to a strict lifestyle and code of conduct until you retire from the sport.
The vast majority of the sumo stables where sumo wrestlers train and live are in Ryogoku in eastern Tokyo. Called heya in Japanese, the stables are housed in fairly anonymous looking buildings that could easily pass for a regular apartment blocks.
When not taking part in tournaments, sumo wrestlers train very early each morning. A handful of stables allow visitors to watch sumo training sessions.
On the day of the training session, a tour guide will meet you outside Ryogoku JR Station early in the morning. They’ll provide an overview of the rules and a brief history of sumo before taking you to the sumo stable to watch the training session.
As sumo training begins at the crack of dawn tours usually join a training session that is already underway.
The tour group will be led into the sumo stable at a time convenient for the rikishi and the stable master. You will then sit on a raised section of flooring that directly faces the training area.
Watching a sumo practice session is a fascinating insight into the sheer dedication it takes to become a full time rikishi.
Sumo training sessions usually last for a couple of hours and are an essential and extremely physical part of a wrestler’s routine.
After an initial warm up session, the lower ranked and younger rikishi carry out one-on-one sumo bouts in a homemade ring under the watchful eyes of the stable master and coach.
When not taking part in bouts many rikishi lift dumbbells, perform endless squats and lunges or study their stablemates’ technique during their practise bouts. Occasionally the stable master will offer advice or an instruction whenever a rikishi loses a practice bout.
The stable’s senior rikishi wear white belts in training sessions which denominates their higher rank. They train towards the end of the session, when the lower ranked sumo wrestlers watch in a respectful silence and cater to any of their needs, promptly bringing fresh cups of water and towels whenever they’re gestured for.
At the end of the session the sumo wrestlers warm down with a series of stretches that look like they ought to be impossible, before respectfully bowing to the Shinto altar in the corner of the stable.
It is important to remember that sumo training is incredibly serious business and that this is not a tourist attraction. Sumo stable tours are only allowed under the condition that guests are on their best behaviour and do not cause any disruptions.
When watching a sumo practice session you will be expected to watch in total silence and to not create any distractions. If you cause any problems whilst watching the sumo wrestlers train you will be told to leave.
At the end of the training session the rikishi usually relax and unwind. Many of the lower-ranked sumo wrestlers will be happy to pose for photos on the street outside the stable.
As the historic home of sumo in Japan there are plenty of other sumo-related sights to see whilst you’re in Ryogoku.
There are six sumo Grand Tournaments held each year, and three of these take place in Ryokogu at the grand Ryōgoku Kokugikan Sumo Hall just outside Ryogoku JR station. The three other tournaments are held in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka.
Sumo tournaments are held at Kokugikan Sumo Hall every January, May and September. Each tournament lasts for fifteen days and the rikishi with the fewest losses is determined the champion and awarded with the enormous Emperor’s Cup.
Tickets are sold by the day and go on sale a few weeks before the start of each sumo tournament. Tickets usually sell out pretty quickly and those for the final day of the tournament usually sell out instantly. Weekend dates also sell out pretty quickly as these are the days most people can attend.
Tickets for midweek are usually easier to come by as the main bouts start when most people are still at work.
Inside the Ryōgoku Kokugikan Sumo Hall is the Sumo Museum, which houses a small but excellent exhibition displaying various historical artifacts integral to the history of sumo.
The exhibition is rotated fairly frequently, and portraits of all of the 72 sumo wrestlers to have ever reached the rank of yokozuna in the last 270 years line one wall.
Arriving by train to Ryōgoku JR station you are immediately greeted in the concourse by four near life-size framed hand coloured photo prints of current and former yokozuna, the highest and most prestigious rank that a rikishi can reach.
A portrait of Mienoumi and the handprints of former yokozuna underneath portraits of Musashimaru and Hakuho inside Ryogoku JR station
Beside the current JR train station in the former station building is Ryogoku Edo NOREN, which has been restored and converted into a nostalgic Edo Tokyo inspired shopping and restaurant complex.
Each of the restaurants serve traditional Japanese food and on display in the centre of the mall is a full sized replica sumo ring, known as a dohyo.
Miniature statues and the handprints of eight yokozuna line the street that leads south from Ryogoku JR station towards Eko-in temple.
From the 1830s until the early 20th century, all sumo tournaments were held at Eko-in temple before a dedicated sumo hall was built where the Kokugikan Sumo Hall now stands.
At the southern end of Kokugikan-dori Street is Ekoin Temple. The temple dates from 1657 and was built to commemorate those who died in the Great Meireki Fire, which devestated over two thirds of Tokyo.
In 1768 Ekoin Temple also began hosting sumo tournaments. Known as kanjin zumo, these tournaments were originally held to raise money for temples. Similar sumo tournaments were also held at other temples in Tokyo until the 1830s, when Ekoin Temple became the only venue to host sumo in the city.
Tournaments continued to be held at Ekoin Temple every year until 1909, when the first dedicated sumo venue was built where the Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Hall now stands. Inside the temple’s grounds is the Chikarazumo Monument, erected in 1933 and dedicated to the spirits of former sumo wrestlers.
All around Ryogoku are a number of restaurants that specialise in chankonabe, a protein heavy stew that sumo wrestlers eat daily to stay enormous.
Chankonabe is actually a healthy dish, typically made with chicken, pork or fish, cooked in a broth with plenty of fresh vegetables and tofu.
A sumo wrestler’s portion, however, is big enough to feed a small village, washed down with beer and followed by a few hours’ sleep as soon as it has been digested.
The serving sizes in the chankonabe restaurants are not quite sumo sized but they are very generous. Of the many chankonabe restaurants in Ryogoku, Chanko Tomoegata is one of the finest.
Incredibly popular with the Japanese as well as with tourists you may have to wait for a table to become free, but the experience and the chankonabe are worth a little patience.
Just opposite Ryogoku JR Station is Chanko Kirishima, a chankonabe restaurant owned by and named after a former sumo wrestler. A little less formal than Chanko Tomoegata, the chankonabe here is cooked over a hot plate at your table.
Besides sumo, there are two other very good reasons to visit Ryogoku – the Edo-Tokyo Museum and the Sumida Hokusai Museum.
The enormous Edo-Tokyo Museum charts the history of Japan’s capital city from the Edo period up to the modern day.
The museum documents the incredible development of modern Tokyo with historic models of the city and recreations of old Tokyo. The exhibits that detail Tokyo’s post-war recovery and phenomenal rise are particularly fascinating.
Note that the Edo Tokyo Museum is currently closed due to a major renovation until 2025.
The Sumida Hokusai Museum is a fitting home for one of Japan’s greatest ever artists. The museum is housed in a marvellous modern metallic building in the area where Hokusai spent most of his life.
Ryogoku is in the east of Tokyo and is served by two lines that call at two different stations, both called Ryogoku.
The station with the yokozuna portraits and handprints is served by JR East on the Chuo-Sobu Line. The portraits are behind the ticket barriers at the station’s north exit. This station is just a couple of stops from Akihabara and eleven stops from Shinjuku.
The second Ryogoku station is served by the Toei Oedo subway line and is situated behind the JR station and next to the Edo Tokyo Museum.
If you’re coming to Ryogoku via the Toei Oedo line, leave the station at exit A4 to come out a little closer to the JR station and the main sumo sights.
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