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JAPAN: Tokyo (Ryogoku Kokugikan / Ryougoku Sumo Hall)

If you plan on visiting Tokyo during the months of January, May or September, you really should try to include a trip to the Ryogoku Kokugikan (Ryougoku Sumo Hall) to watch a sumo tournament.

Sumo, which originated in Japan, is a competitive, full contact sport where the rikishi (wrestlers) try to either force one another out of the circular dohyo (ring) or to touch the ground with anything other than the soles of their feet. A rikishi can also lose a match if he uses an illegal kinjite (technique) or if his mawashi (belt) comes completely undone. Watching a sumo tournament, one can’t help but wonder how the mawashi manages to stay on despite all the tugging and pulling on it!

The matches take place in a ring called the dohyo, which measures 15 feet in diameter. The dohyo is constructed on top of a platform made of clay and sand. A new dohyo is built for each tournament. There is usually a structure resembling the roof of a Shinto shrine suspended over the dohyo.

The sport is very interesting to watch as it spans many centuries and has preserved countless ancient traditions. Even today, it remains very ritualistic incorporating such elements as using salt for purification, which dates back to when sumo was part of the Shinto religion. The wrestlers’ lives are highly regimented also. They are required to maintain a communal lifestyle where all aspects of their daily lives are dictated by strict tradition.

Sumo has an exacting hierarchy where the wrestlers are ranked according to a system that dates back to the Edo period. The ranks are as follows (in ascending order): komusubi, sekiwake, ozeki and yokozuna. Rikishi are promoted or demoted based on their performance in six honbasho (Grand Sumo Tournaments) held throughout the year. In addition to the professional tournaments, exhibition competitions are held at regular intervals every year in Japan. Also, once every two years the top ranked wrestlers visit a foreign country for such exhibitions.

Ryogoku is a district in Tokyo known as the heartland of sumo where rikishi are a common sight. Of the six professional Grand Sumo Tournaments held every year, Ryogoku Kokugikan stages three: in January, May and September. Opened in 1985, the hall has the capacity to seat 13,000 people. Although it is primarily used to stage sumo tournaments, the venue has also hosted boxing, pro-wrestling and live concert events over the years. There is a Sumo Museum located on the first floor which displays items linked to sumo, like colored woodblock prints, banzuke tournament record books and ceremonial aprons worn by the top-ranked rikishi.

The neighborhood is home to several dozen sumo stables where the wrestlers live and train. It is possible to observe sumo practice during the early morning hours but most require advance reservations. There are also several restaurants which feature chanko nabe on their menus. Chanko nabe is a hot pot dish containing a variety of vegetables, seafood and meat which serves as the staple food for the rikishi. You will be interested to know that many of these restaurants are actually owned and managed by former wrestlers.

A day in Ryogoku will certainly prove to be an interesting one whether you are there to watch a tournament or just explore the area.

The hall is located just one minute away on foot from the Ryogoku Station on the JR Sobu Line.

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