Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

As basho sellouts continue, regional tour offers peek behind curtain

by John Gunning

Within 90 minutes of going on sale, tickets for the upcoming Summer Grand Sumo Tournament were all snapped up.

The retirement of yokozuna Kisenosato seems to have had little effect on the sport’s popularity in the capital.

While seats can still be obtained through resellers, the selection is limited, and normally comes with a hefty markup.

For foreign fans, or those planning to visit the county during a tournament, it’s doubly difficult to get tickets, as sellers often require a Japanese address, or only accept payments through domestic credit cards or bank transfer.

Although there are websites catering mostly to the tourist market, orders need to be put in before sales start. Even then, there is no guarantee of getting the seats or days requested.

Same-day tickets are, of course, still sold at the door. While cheap, only the very back row on the second floor is available, and to ensure you get one of the 300 or so tickets sold each day, you’ll need to line up in front of the Kokugikan around 5 a.m. Something to be aware of is that due to heavy demand it’s strictly one ticket per person.

For fans that haven’t already purchased tickets or those unwilling to queue from early morning for seats in the nosebleed section, there is another way to watch sumo.

The spring jungyo (regional tour) has completed the Kansai and Tokai legs of its journey and will be in the Kanto region for the rest of the month.

While relatively well attended, tickets for most of the locations (including ringside seats) can still be bought at the venues in question on the day.

The bouts don’t count for rankings and so lack the intensity of regular tournaments, but a jungyo day offers fans much more than just fights.

Most appealing is the fact that from early morning large groups of wrestlers are milling about among the fans.

Regional tours have a laid-back atmosphere and rikishi (wrestlers) don’t mind posing for photos or signing autographs.

Since they aren’t in a rush to go anywhere, it’s possible to spend a long time talking with wrestlers, gyoji (referees), ring announcers and other members of the JSA while on jungyo.

During one such chat last week in Uji, Kyoto Prefecture, I learned that gyoji Kimura Masatoshi (gyoji names are traditionally written with their family name first in English), who retired in 2018, now works as a driver for hire, and often ferries rikishi around.

There is some irony in that, as prior to his retirement, he was perhaps best known for being behind the wheel when a van he was in crashed into another car and a telephone pole in 2016, slightly injuring himself and six rikishi from Chiganoura Beya.

As there is a lot of downtime for wrestlers on regional tours, they can often be found outside the arena on their phones, taking in some sun or smoking.

That last fact is something that surprises newer fans. It seems incongruous that in this day and age professional athletes smoke, but the habit is widespread in sumo.

Just 30 years ago, sports publisher Baseball Magazine felt comfortable printing photos of yokozuna Wakanohana, smoking while putting on his ceremonial white rope, in a volume marking his promotion to JSA Chairman.

In recent years the media has tended to avoid such images. As a result, most people nowadays aren’t aware of just how common tobacco use is in sumo.

Even if they didn’t smoke before joining the sport, many rikishi take up the habit soon afterward. One of the more recent top division debutants was puffing away most of the day out the back of the Kyoto venue, and he is someone who didn’t smoke until recently.

The vast majority of jungyo events take place in gymnasiums and multi-purpose halls, which means virtually all the first floor seats are directly on the ground with just a thin commemorative cushion to make things slightly less uncomfortable.

Even so, it’s well worth toughing it out if you can, as tickets allowing that kind of proximity to bouts are extremely hard to come by for regular tournaments.

Being up close allows you to appreciate the true power and speed of the top rankers as well as get the best view of activities that aren’t part of those tournaments, such as comedy sumo, performances of jinku (sumo folk songs) and topknot-tying demonstrations.

The spring tour is also unique in that it offers a full day’s schedule free of charge at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine. This year that event takes place on Monday, April 15.

Entrance is limited to the first 6,000 people that show up, and even though it is a weekday it fills up quickly.

You’ll need to bring your own ground sheet (and cushion) and my advice is to get there early (gates open at 8:30 a.m.) and snag a place on the north side of the ring.

That’s the only section that has shade during the hottest part of the day.