Destination of the Week: Ryogoku Kokugikan

Greetings! In an effort to try and be more active on my Japan Travel Tips blog, I will be starting a new segment called the Destination of the Week. Every Monday or Tuesday I will try to choose one particular part of Japan to talk about, be it a city or an attraction.

The first destination in this series is appropriate to discuss because it deals with the Japanese sport – and tradition – of Sumo wrestling. Recently the Ozeki wrestler Kisenosato, a native of Ibaraki prefecture, won the first Sumo tournament in his long career. This effort, combined with his performance last year (despite not winning a tournament he won more Sumo bouts than any other wrestler), has made him eligible for promotion to the sport’s highest rank of Yokozuna. This is expected to happen later this week.

With a high-profile scandal damaging the sport’s reputation in 2011, there is no doubt Kisenosato’s efforts have aimed to positively promote the sport of Sumo, not just for tourists but for the Japanese themselves – there has not been a Japanese-born wrestler promoted to Yokozuna in almost 20 years.

So with Kisenosato’s promotion as a backdrop, the Destination of the Week is the Ryogoku Kokugikan, the home of Sumo.

Ryogoku Kokugikan in 2006. Photo from flickr/CC

About the Ryogoku Kokugikan: This building is actually just over 30 years old, having been completed in 1985. The original Kokugikan opened in 1909, but was taken over by Allied Forces at the end of World War II. Tournaments were relocated to other venues in following years, before another Kokugikan opened in Kuramae, north of the original site, in 1950. Kuramae Kokugikan hosted Sumo tournaments until the end of 1984, at which point they returned to their original location in a new facility.

While the Ryogoku Kokugikan also hosts other sporting events, including boxing and professional wrestling, it’s main purpose is to host three of the six annual Sumo tournaments in Japan – in January, May and September. Each tournament lasts 15 days, with the Emperor’s Cup trophy going to the top-division wrestler with the most wins.

Did You Know: The Kokugikan is also home to the Sumo Museum, which helps to preserve and cultivate the sport. Located on the first floor of the Kokugikan, the museum is open on weekdays, except national holidays, from 10 AM to 4:30 PM.

Costs: If you visit the Kokugikan when there is NO tournament in progress, admission is free to everyone! But during tournaments admission is only open to those actually attending the tournament.

Purchasing tickets to Sumo tournaments requires some skill, especially for tourists. In most cases you have the option to purchase either regular seats on the upper level of the Kokugikan, or tatami-style box seating on the main level. Ringside seats are the most expensive to get, but as you’re the closest to the action there is no food or drink allowed in the ringside seats!

In recent years, sales of tickets in English have been possible through the Japan Sumo Association via their official ticketing website. Purchased tickets can be picked up at will call on the day you are scheduled to visit. Tickets should be purchased as soon as the ticketing window opens, as they are very popular… for example, in the January 2017 tournament all 15 days were eventually sold out.

There are other agencies whom you can purchase tickets from, but at a mark-up. One example is Buy Sumo Tickets, who will attempt to purchase tickets for you on your behalf. Their service charge is 1,200 yen for each ticket purchased. You can pick up your tickets at a 7-Eleven store in Japan, or they can be mailed to either your place of stay in Japan or to your residence overseas for an additional charge.

JTB, one of the top tour agencies in Japan, offers Sumo tickets starting at 9,500 yen per person. The tours includes a visit to the Sumo museum and a view of the day’s main bouts from the upper level reserved seating, accompanied by an English-speaking guide. For an additional charge you can enjoy eating chanko nabe – the protein-rich stew that is the traditional meal of Sumo wrestlers – after the matches are done. Bookings can be done through the website.

How to get there: The JR Sobu Line (the Yellow Line) stops at Ryogoku station, within a short walking distance of the Kokugikan. The Sobu Line connects with the Yamanote Line at Akihabara, two stops away, and with Shinjuku on the other end of the city.

What’s nearby: A short distance from the Kokugikan is the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which aims to show the Tokyo from centuries ago. (admission is charged)