Every year Nagoya hosts the Grand Summer Sumo Tournament (Nagoya Basho), one of the six major sumo tournaments held in Japan. This Grand Sumo Tournament is held in July at the Dolphins Arena (Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium), next to Nagoya Castle. Each tournament (Basho) lasts 15 days, during which the wrestlers compete to win the “basho”, which will be determined by the number of victories and defeats accumulated.
If you are in Nagoya in mid-July, take the opportunity to see the tournament!
A brief history of Sumo Wrestling
Sumo was originally a Shinto ceremony that was held to ensure a successful harvest. Its origins can be found in Japanese mythology with the sumo that appears in two of the oldest historical texts of Japan: “Records of Ancient Matters” (Kojiki or Furukotofumi) and “The Chronicles of Japan” (Nihonshoki). The sumo at that time was completely different from the sumo that is known today. There are several theories about the real beginnings of sumo, such as the theory that it originated in Mongolia. It is said to have been practiced for the first time in Japan approximately 1,500 years ago.
During the Heian Period (794-1185), the imperial court gathered powerful men from all over the country to perform sumo as part of a religious ceremony, to pray for a good harvest, national peace and prosperity. Over time this ceremony became a form of entertainment and was set as a regular event in the imperial court calendar.
At this time, the ring (Dohyo) had not yet been introduced to make the tournaments, so the rules were somewhat different. The objective of the combat was to push or throw the opponent down or make him touch the ground with his hand or knee.
In the year 833, during the reign of Emperor Kinmei Tennō, sumo was declared as something more than a kind of courtly entertainment, it became part of military education and training for men. It is here when the strongest men in the country began to compete among themselves.
With the rise of the samurai class during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), sumo became a complete part of samurai training. Sumo tournaments were often held for the shoguns amusement and also a method to raise funds for temples and shrines. The samurai began to gather from all parts of the country to fight. At this moment is when the referee (gyoji) would start having a crucial and important role in the tournaments.
During the Edo Period (1600-1868) these sumo tournaments began to take place throughout the country with or without samurai. Men of great physical prowess began to perform sumo as a profession. In Edo City (the old name of Tokyo), sumo tournaments often became to places of violent fights between the spectators till the point where the shogunate had to ban sumo. In 1684 the government began to grant licenses for these actions and these licensed events became the norm. It was during this period when the first sumo superstars would emerge. The popularity of sumo as a form of mass entertainment continued to increase and special performances were held for the Shogun at Edo Castle. This was the beginning of the first golden age of sumo. And it was at this moment that began the use of the dohyo.
The ring (Dohyo)
Sumo wrestlers (rikishi) fight their fights in the ring (dohyo) which is done according to precise specifications called “Ring Rules”. The dohyo is built by hand by master craftsmen and takes a week to build. The circle and its edges are made of bales of rice straw that are buried in the clay. Once the ring is built, the purification ceremony of the ring called “Dohyo Matsuri” is celebrated.
This ceremony not only purifies the ring, but at the same time invites the Shinto deities (kami) to watch the sumo tournaments. The ceremony is led by one of the tategyoji (main referee) along with two other gyoji. The gyōji take the place of the Shinto priests. The tategyoji will pray for the safety and well-being of the fighters. In the middle of the dohyo 6 elements are buried: torreya nuts, dried chestnuts, salt, washed rice, dried squid and kombu (seaweed). Next, the tategyoji will pour sacred sake into the hole, and around several other places around the dohyō before he puts more clay in the hole. Finally, the yobidashi (calls a professional sumo wrestler, or rikishi, to the dohyō) will cover the hole. The sacred sake is shared with all the attendees.
To conclude the ceremony, the yobidashi will begin in a procession with taiko drums called furedaiko. The procession will give three laps to the dohyo and the announcement of the start of the tournament will be made.
An important note about the dohyo is that, according to the rules of sumo, it is strictly forbidden for a woman to set foot in the sacred ring.
A curious fact about the dohyo, is that in the Nagoya Basho, the last day of the Grand Sumo Tournament, fans break a piece of clay from the ring to take it as a souvenir.
The rules are simple: the fighter who first leaves the ring or touches the ground with any part of his body in addition to the soles of his feet, loses. The tournaments take place in a raised ring (dohyo), which is made of clay and covered with a layer of sand.
A tournament usually lasts a few seconds, but in some cases it can take a minute or more. There are no restrictions of weight or height, which means that fighters can fight against opponents bigger than them or smaller. But the weight does not decide the outcome of the tournament, qualities such as agility and speed or good strategy play a crucial role in a tournament.
The rikishi are placed in the dohyo according to whether they are from the east or the west. The east rikishi always enters first. They enter the dohyo and perform a ritual called shiko. This ritual consists of lifting the leg and trampling. This is more than just a pre warming, then they clap their hands to attract the attention of the gods, and raise their arms to the sky to show that they do not carry weapons. Finally, they again raise their legs and trample to crush any chase away any persistent evil spirit.
Officially there are 82 techniques called kimarite through which a rikishi can win the fight. But only about a dozen are used regularly. For example, yorikiri, oshidashi and hatakikomi are the most frequent kimarite used. Besides kimarite, sometimes a fight can end in a disqualification if one of the fighters commits a fault (kinjite), such as hitting with a clenched fist or pulling the hair, etc…
Other important sumo figures
Other important figures in a sumo battle are the Gyoji, the Yobidashi and the Shinpan.
The Gyoji is the referee of the tournament. The main responsibility is to referee sumo matches but they are also responsible for announcing the tournaments by megaphone, keeping records of the the fighter results, and determining the technique used by a particular fighter to win a fight.
The Yobidashi is the one who calls each fighter before the tournament. He calls as if singing while holding a fan pointing to each side of the dohyo. Other responsibility is to build the dohyo for the tournaments and for the sumo stables.
The Shimpan are judges who sit around the dohyo. These, when the case arises, go up to the center of the dohyo to discuss the Gyoji verdict.
How is a tournament day
The professional sumo is divided into six classified divisions. Wrestlers are promoted and /or demoted within and between these divisions based on the merit of their win / loss records in official tournaments. The higher a fighter’s rank within a division, the stronger the general level of opponents he will face. In turn, each rank is subdivided into East and West.
Sumo is an event that lasts all day. The tournaments are conducted in order, from the lowest divisions to the upper divisions.
8:00 – Doors open
The stadium opens its doors and the spectators take seats while the drums rumble announcing the start of a new day of tournanents.
8:30 – Preliminaries
The day starts at 8:30 in the morning with the younger wrestler tournaments, the Jonokuchi (序ノ口 or 序の口), Jonidan (序二段), Sandanme (三段目) and Makushita (幕下) divisions are the first fight.
Most of the spectators skip these matches and arrive in the middle of the afternoon, when the fighters of higher divisions begin their tournaments.
14:20 – Juryo division ceremony
14:40 – Juryo division tournaments
15:45 – Makuuchi division ceremony
The tournaments of the upper divisions Jūryō (十 両) and Makuuchi (幕 内) begin. But first, each round of fighting is preceded by a special procession called dohyo-iri where the rikishi stand outside the circle of the dohyo wearing their mawashi (silk loincloth) and perform a kind of ritual: they clap and rub their hands to make sure that the gods are watching, and to symbolize the cleansing process. Before leaving the ring, they make a movement with their mawashi to show that they do not hide weapons.
As the day progresses the atmosphere of the stadium becomes more interesting. The intervals between the matches are also lengthened since they include longer preparation times and there is more pregame action between the high ranking fighters.
15:50 – Yokozuna ceremony
The Yokozuna champions make a ceremonial entry into the dohyo accompanied by two Makuuchi fighters.
16:15 – Makuuchi division tournaments
The fighters of the top division fight each other until the final bouts begin between the top-ranked fighters at around 5:30 p.m.
18:00 – End of tournaments and bow ceremony (Yumitori shiki)
The winning fighter of the last combat rotates a Japanese bow around his body, a tradition that has been carried out for hundreds of years.
Drinks, food and snacks
You should not miss the sumo snacks and drinks. You can eat and drink freely during sumo tournaments, including alcohol. On each floor of the stadium there are small food stalls where you can find sushi, yakitori, yakisoba, etc… Or you can also choose to reserve a special bento box to enjoy more the event. There are even several vendors who are walking around the stadium selling snacks, drinks and ice cream.
1. If you are in Nagoya and don’t want to miss the opportunity to attend a tournament day. You can book the tickets online or queue to get an unnumbered ticket (this ticket is the cheapest, 2900 yen). To get this ticket you have to queue up early in the morning, before the ticket offices open (around 7:30).
2.Once you have got your ticket, queue at the entrance of the stadium and when the doors open (8:00 in the morning) run to get the best seats (unnumbered seats).
3.If this is your first time, you can choose to stay or watch the tournaments of the younger fighters or, once you have taken the seats, you can go out to do some sightseeing and come back around 2:00 – 3:00 p.m when the torunament starts in the highest division (take care that the re-entry permit is only for one time).
4.Always carry cash with you, since most of the small food and gift establishments inside the stadium do not accept credit cards.
5.Around 2:00 pm, chanko nabe, the food of sumo wrestlers, is served for only 400 yen (Nagoya basho). The chanko nabe is a soup that carries vegetables, fish and meat. This is the basic food that wrestlers take every day to maintain their weight.
Take the Meijo subway line to Shiyakusho station. From there you will arrive iwithin 2 minutes.
1-1 Ninomaru, Naka-ku, Nagoya
8:30 a.m – 6:00 a.m
Check the Sumo Japanese Association website.