Sumo 101: Sumo's birthplace

by John Gunning

Contributing Writer

Ryogoku is the center of the sumo world.

The district on the east bank of the Sumida River is home to Ryogoku Kokugikan and several stables.

There are also numerous sumo specific- stores, shrines and museums in the area.

Despite all that, Ryogoku can’t claim to be the birthplace of the sport.

That honor goes to Sakurai City.

Located in northwestern Nara Prefecture, Sakurai is home to a shrine where the first-ever sumo bout is said to have taken place.

Legend has it that in 23 B.C. Emperor Suinin ordered the contest between Taimanokehaya and Nominosukune.

The latter emerged victorious, killing his opponent with kicks.

A modern-day dohyo has now been built on the spot where the fight is said to have taken place.

Nominosukune became recognized as the originator of sumo and his name is still closely associated with the sport.

The Japan Sumo Association maintains a shrine named after him in Ryogoku and a 4-meter high mural of Nominosukune that was part of the old National Stadium will become part of the new Olympic Stadium once construction is finished.

The shrine in Nara where Nominosukune and Taimanokehaya battled is open year-round and located about a 25-minute walk east of Makimuku Station on the JR Sakurai Line.

As the dohyo lacks a roof and is exposed to the elements, it is normally kept covered. If you want to stand on the spot yourself, you’ll need to contact the shrine in advance.

While an interesting and historical place, the sumo shrine is small. Fans traveling to Nara for sumo reasons should combine their visit with a trip to Kehayaza, arguably Japan’s best sumo museum, which is about a 45-minute drive west.

The two-story building houses a full-size ring which is used by-top ranked wrestlers from time to time when regional tours are in the area.

Opened in 1990, Kehayaza exhibits, photos, trophies, keshō-mawashi and numerous items of historical importance and has a collection of over 12,000 separate pieces.

Entrance is free to foreign passport holders and the museum holds regular events including performances of jinku (sumo-style singing).

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