Why do people attend sumo tournaments?
To watch the bouts and see their favorite rikishi in action?
Those aren’t the only reasons though, and for many people they’re not even the main ones.
A sumo basho, especially one at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, is unlike any other sporting event. There is an intimacy to it that goes beyond the proximity to the action possible in the ringside seats.
Not that we can discount the thrill of sitting in the tamari-seki.
There aren’t many sports in the world where the best seats in the house carry a health warning.
When you see two 160 kg-plus behemoths flying through the air in your direction, you’ll easily understand why no children, food, or cameras are allowed ringside.
In all honesty though, serious injuries for those seated around the dohyo are rare and mostly involve the black-clad judges who are even closer to the action.
The possibility of being bowled over by a rikishi is an ever-present danger, but that risk is often a big reason people buy those tickets in the first place.
What’s better than a day of watching sumo up close than doing the same and having a story to tell about Hakuho landing on you?
As I noted, the action in the ring isn’t the only reason people visit the arena.
Some fans spend very little time in their seats, especially if they are in attendance from early in the morning.
Indeed back in my own days as a regular spectator, I often spent a whole day in the Kokugikan without once sitting in the seat I had paid for.
On those occasions I might pop inside the doors of the first floor when rikishi I knew were fighting, but mostly I was wandering around talking to wrestlers, yobidashi, oyakata and others involved in sumo.
That was possible because of the intimacy of the sport I mentioned.
Apart from yokozuna and ozeki, every single wrestler enters and leaves the Kokugikan on foot through the same gate as fans use on the way out.
Most take their time heading home once they have finished changing and are out of the shitakubeya (dressing room) after their bout, and are willing to stop and chat. Signing autographs is only allowed for sekitori (men in the two highest divisions) but all rikishi can pose for photos.
Usually it takes about 15 to 20 minutes for lower rankers to make it up from the changing rooms. There are East and West side shitakubeya and a number of stairs rikishi can take when leaving but (veteran tip) if you stand between the door at the top of the steps over the west side hanamichi (aisle where rikishi enter the area to fight) and the closest souvenir stall, everyone will have to pass you on the way out no matter which route they take.
Those souvenir stalls, by the way, sell almost any kind of sumo branded item you can imagine. The JSA doesn’t license outside vendors to sell their merchandise so almost everything on offer is available only at the arena.
The Kokugikan food stalls have a decent variety as well; everything from bento boxes packed with foods connected to the wrestlers whose name they bear, to western style fast food on the second floor.
Regardless of what ticket you have it’s worth watching the sumo from both floors at some point during the day. Of course once the arena starts to fill up you’ll have to stick to your assigned seat, but from early in the morning till almost noon the vast majority of seats are empty and it’s common for fans to move around and sample the action from different viewpoints.
Generally speaking, unless you are physically smaller or at least flexible, the second-floor chair seats will be a more comfortable viewing experience.
Even if you have a ticket for the more expensive first-floor box seats closer to the action, the second floor makes a good occasional respite.
It’s a calming experience to sit up higher with a bird’s eye of the comings and goings around the ring. The design of the Kokugikan makes the second floor seem warmer as well, and that combined with the way the low droning noise seems to float up from the arena can cause you to drift off.
Not to worry though as once the big guns make their entrance the tension and noise level continually rises, making sleeping unlikely.
For first-time visitors, the sweet smell of the bintsuke hair oil rikishi use is one of the most striking aspects of attending a tournament. If you are attending a regional meet such as Nagoya or Fukuoka, you may even find yourself gently moved aside by a rikishi, as the hanamichi in those venues is also used by spectators going to and from their seats and wrestlers heading to the ring and back.
The closeness to the action, the various sights, sounds and smells at an arena that you can move around freely, and the fact that you can chat to the men who fight in the ring makes a sumo tournament an utterly unique experience.
Come for the bouts, stay for the hangouts.