Watching sumo in action is a definite must-do cultural experience in Japan and seeing a grand tournament must be incredible. But, if you were like us and don’t have an opportunity, don’t despair, there’s a way to experience this centuries’ old sport up close and personal – as in twenty feet away personal – by visiting a sumo stable. We woke up early and headed to a sumo morning training session, known as asageiko. The tournament season hadn’t started yet so instead I decided to see the practice up close.
There are quite a few ‘beya’ or stables that allow people to watch the wrestlers in training.
You might see on many websites that you must be be accompanied by a Japanese person and so the best way to see a training session is through a guided tour. While I can’t discount this, setting up a visit to the World of Asageiko is much easier (and cheaper) than you might think.
With a bit of preparation and by following the rules, you can easily arrange your own visit to a stable and watch the action entirely for free.
1| Find a ‘Beya’
There are around 45 training stables in Tokyo; most of them are near to the Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo stadium where the Tokyo grand tournaments are held.
The Japan Sumo Association website has a list of sumo stables, and you can then search for the relative contact information online.
The following stables are accustomed to and pretty popular withvisitors: Musashigawa Beya in Uguisudani; Kasugano Beya near Ryogoku Station; and Takasago Beya near Asakusa Station, home of the legendary and controversial yokozuna Asashoryu.
2| Call ahead
It’s absolutely essential to call the stable before, not only to let them know that you’re coming but also to make sure that they’re holding a practice that day. Training is not normally held on a weekend and wrestlers usually have time off for the week immediately after a tournament. Apart from these times you’ve got a pretty good chance of catching a morning training session throughout the year.
The Arashio Beya website has an easy sample script of what to say when you call the stable or you can ask a Japanese speaker to help you. Generally it’s best to call the day before to see if there’ll be a practice and to tell them how many people are coming.
3| Get up at dawn
The time training starts will vary from stable to stable, often beginning around 6am and lasting approximately 3 hours. It’s respectful to arrive towards the beginning of practice and stay for the whole time.
4| Follow the appropriate etiquette
Sumo wrestlers train, eat and sleep together in the stable so essentially you are entering into their home and the way you behave should reflect that. Sumo stables are not a tourist attraction and shouldn’t be treated like one so put away your selfie stick, and shelve any inclination towards smiling or happiness as this is serious business.
When visiting a morning training session, you should:
– Bow to the stable master or other senior who’s leading the practice when you enter and leave the stable, as well as to the wrestlers.
– Keep silent. Wrestlers don’t generally talk to each other and the stable master will also keep his directions to a minimum. It’s distracting and disrespectful to even whisper while watching a training session.
– Sit at the back of the room on a cushion (zabuton) that should be offered to you when you enter.
– Absolutely no eating or drinking, and definitely no smoking. Some stable masters and trainers might smoke during a session
– Some kind of gift to leave as a token of your appreciation also goes a long way too – anything edible and nicely packaged is ideal.
– Use a mask at all times! Yes, it is Japan and this must be followed.
After practice the atmosphere is more relaxed and some wrestlers will be happy to pose for a picture and chat to you if you speak a little Japanese.
I found it fascinating to watch how wrestlers personally interact with each other in a way that reflects the strict system of hierarchy so central to the world of sumo.