Last September, I had the chance to join a Sunrise Sumo Tour heading for the Aki Basho, or Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament, at the Ryogoku Kokugikan (usually referred to as the Sumo Hall in English) in Tokyo. The Aki Basho is one of the six Honbasho, or "main tournaments" which affect wrestlers' ranks, held every year. Three of these Honbasho are held in Tokyo (January, May, and September), one in Osaka (March), one in Nagoya (July), and one in Fukuoka (November). The Sumo Tour is available for all three Tokyo tournaments.
To kick off the tour, I went to the Hamamatsucho Bus Terminal to meet my group and was immediately struck by the enthusiasm of the guide. She happened to be a big sumo fan herself, and she filled us in on the history and background of sumo as we made our way to the Kokugikan via subway.
Upon arriving at Ryogoku Station, we walked past the monolithic Edo-Tokyo Museum to the Kokugikan and entered through the special group entrance gate. Since it was still pretty warm out, they were handing out free fans, which were nice little souvenirs. Our first stop once inside was the Sumo Museum, a collection of sumo-related objects and pictures from back in the Edo Period to modern times. The guide was once again indispensable, providing all kinds of detailed information about past wrestlers and the objects on display.
After the museum, we had some time before the top-class matches of the day started, so there was time to check out the other offerings of the Kokugikan. There was a place to try a bowl of chanko nabe, a kind of stew famous for being a staple of sumo wrestlers' diets. There were several large souvenir kiosks selling everything from sumo-themed cookies to t-shirts and cell phone straps of your favorite wrestler (which I bought, actually). Besides the souvenir shops and chanko, there are concession stands selling drinks and snacks; for those of age, enjoying the day's matches with a beer and some popcorn is a rather popular option. Besides all that, just walking around the Kokugikan during a tournament is an experience in and of itself, the hallways abuzz with workers and ushers making sure things go smoothly and the air inside the arena permeated with an electricity of excitement and anticipation for the day's matches.
I made my way back to our tour's reserved seats on the second floor mezzanine level just before the top-class matches were to begin. As a fan of sumo, I always watch it on TV (all 15 days if possible), and I was not just excited about seeing it live for the first time, but also curious about the view of the ring, the sounds of the action, and the atmosphere as a whole. I was very pleasantly surprised that, even from the mezzanine level, I could see the whole dohyo (ring) clearly, hear every hit (they hit hard), and that it was easy to really get into it, especially when a particularly popular wrestler was up. Takamisakari is one such wrestler --a crowd and my personal favorite thanks in no small part to his sincere, emotional facial expressions and over-the-top pre-match rituals (most wrestlers maintain a more stoic demeanor)-- and he never fails to turn the level of excitement in the entire arena up at least a couple more notches. During the pre-match rituals, as he psyches himself up for the imminent clash, he pumps his fists and lets out three loud kiai (kind of like battle cries), and it has become something of a tradition for everyone in the crowd to yell with him in support.
I'm happy to report that he won his match that day.
As before, the guide continuously provided us with information about the proceedings of the tournament, the wrestlers and matches (from stats to trivia), and the various ceremonies that were taking place. We also received small radios with headphones to listen to live commentary on the matches in English.
After the final match of the day and the closing ceremony, the tour was over, and the guide explained to those who needed directions how to get to their hotels from the Kokugikan. If you're not quite ready to end your sumo experience right after the tournament, there is another tour plan available which includes a chanko nabe course meal at a local restaurant.
Here are the details for Sunrise's sumo tours: