Where to Catch Sight of Japan's Mighty Warriors

Deeply tied to Shintoism, rikishi (sumo wrestlers) commit their lives to Japan's national sport in priest-like devotion. Now, thanks to the return of inbound tourism, the ancient sport's popularity is bouncing back.
With a history spanning many centuries, numerous ancient Japanese traditions have been preserved through sumo wrestling.

Tokyo's Sumo Town

As tourism to Japan has increased dramatically over the last decade, with the number of overseas visitors more than tripling between 2012 and 2019, the country has seen a huge spike in interest in its unique history and traditions. Getting tickets to a sumo tournament is on many visitors' bucket lists, but matches in Tokyo are only held in January, May, and September. So, what should you do if you visit outside these months?

If you cannot get hold of tickets for a match but you still want the chance to behold the near-mythical warriors, there are other options. The Ryogoku area in Sumida City is famously known as the home of sumo in Tokyo; here you can find many sumo stables where the athletes eat, sleep, and train. Just wandering around at certain times of the day will likely lead to spotting a sumo wrestler popping into a convenience store or frequenting a local restaurant. But if you want to see them in action, one stable in particular has opened its doors, or in this case windows, for those who wish to take a peek into their world.

Arashio-beya (stable) in Hamacho, Nihonbashi, Chuo City was founded in 2002 and is currently home to 14 sumo wrestlers. The stable is taking advantage of the rise in popularity amongst foreign tourists who wish to observe their training sessions. Depending on where you are living or staying in Tokyo, you may have to steel yourself for an early rise, given that the rikishi begin their training at 6:30 am and continue only until 10 am.

Getting Up Close and Personal

The lives of wrestlers in sumo training stables are largely dictated by the rules set out by the Japan Sumo Association.

I awoke at 5 am to ensure I was there at the start of their training and it was one of the only days this year that Tokyo saw some snow. Together with my friend, who came for translation support, we stood and watched the practice for over two hours.

The wrestlers underwent numerous exercises throughout the session, from footwork to grappling exercises, the dreaded burpees, and holding planks with what appeared to be extra large bags of rice placed on their backs for added weight. You could see just how far they were being pushed, with the higher-ranking wrestlers toughening up the lower ranks.

It was odd to see the rikishi in their mawashi (a nine-meter-long belt) whilst we stood wrapped in layers of jumpers and jackets with only the window separating us. They were so courteous of the fact that they had viewers that they occasionally wiped down the window that steamed up during training so we would have an unobstructed view. Once training ended, three of the wrestlers came outside, barefoot in the freezing wet street, to take pictures with those of us who had been watching.

After this, we were permitted to enter the stable and speak to one of the rikishi, Jasper Kenneth Terai (half Filipino, half Japanese) who goes by his sumo name, Koutokuzan. When asked why they get up so early to train each day he explained, "The reason why we start practice so early is because the rhythm of waking up early, practicing, eating, and then sleeping helps us to become bigger and stronger. That is the pattern of our training." If viewers want to watch the rikishi train, they need to get on board with their schedule, as they will not change it for anyone.

I noted that the windows appeared to be a lot bigger than the ones I had previously seen in pictures online. When I asked about this, Terai revealed, "Before we had this big window we had a smaller window, and a lot of visitors would come and watch us practice even then. So we all talked about it and said, 'Why don't we make it bigger so people can see?'"

Preserving a National Icon

Many factors, including the lack of mainstream exposure to sumo wrestling among younger generations, has seen a decline in the recruitment of young wrestlers.

The wrestlers told us they have viewers coming to watch them most days, and that roughly 90% of them are from overseas. Koutokuzan believes that this is because of the sport's uniqueness to Japan: "I think that people from overseas have an interest in coming to watch because it's something that you can't really see outside of Japan." Even in Japan though, a country where many martial arts originated, sumo is special.

"Sumo is different from other sports," Koutokuzan elucidates. "There is nothing you really use besides your own body, and there are a lot of symbols within sumo that represent Japanese tradition such as the garb we wear and the chonmage (topknot) we style our hair in, like samurai. Sumo is not like any other sport, it is more of a Japanese art." In this way you can see why, when people think of Japan, they may think of sumo and geisha together. Both roles fulfill the purpose of maintaining the country's traditions and ancient practices.

Much like that of geisha, the rikishi's appearance is heavily controlled. "We are only allowed to wear kimono or hakama (a type of traditional clothing) when we go out and the fact that we style our hair this way is so that when people see us they know we are sumo wrestlers. We embody that tradition in day-to-day life, in everything we do, in how we live our lives."

This way of life, though regaining some of its lost popularity, is still on the defensive from the modernization that threatens to overtake it. Though the amount of rikishi may not have dropped drastically, recruitment is becoming increasingly difficult. Koutokuzan feels that becoming a sumo wrestler no longer holds the appeal it once did. "There are far fewer people who want to become rikishi. I feel that elementary schoolers and young people may have a lot of interest in sumo itself, but there aren't as many who want to become sumo wrestlers."

Whilst sumo may be struggling to stay relevant in Japan for younger Japanese nationals, those from abroad still behold the sport and its participants with awe and wonder, so it is great to know that stables, like Arashio-beya, are embracing this interest as they push forward.

Writing by Laura Pollacco
Photos by Laura Pollacco
Interview translation by Dylan Jekels

*This article was originally published in Metropolis Japan (April 13, 2023).