Seeing sumo in action is one of the best cultural experiences you can have in Japan and watching a sumo tournament should definitely be on your list.
But 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 and watching the morning training session, known as asageiko.
More and more stables or “beya” are allowing tourists to watch the wrestlers in training and setting up a visit is much easier than you might think. Many travel websites say that for entry into the privileged world of asageiko you need to be accompanied by a Japanese person and so the best way to see a training session is through a guided tour. Usually, these are pretty expensive with tour companies charging around ¥10,000 or more per person.
However, with a bit of preparation and by learning the rules, you can easily arrange your own visit to a stable and watch the action entirely for free.
Step One: Find a sumo stable or shukusha
There are 46 official sumo stables in Japan, the majority of which are located in Tokyo and the Kanto region. However, during a tournament, it is still possible to see a training session in Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka.
Of the six sumo tournaments held each year, three take place in Tokyo (January, May, and September), one is held in Osaka (March), one in Nagoya (July) and one in Fukuoka (November). If you’re in one of the latter three cities around the 15 days of the tournament, there’s a chance that you can catch a traveling sumo stable while you’re there. For Tokyo, it’s possible to watch a session year-round.
Most stables in Tokyo are located in the neighborhood of Ryogoku, a historic district sandwiched between the former Tsukiji Market to the south and Tokyo Skytree to the north. The district is the home of Japan’s national sport and it’s at the Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo stadium where you can watch the Tokyo sumo tournament.
Sumo stables are often housed inside fairly non-descript apartment buildings with the training ground on the bottom floor and the wrestlers’ lodgings above. The Japan Sumo Association website has a list of sumo stables, and you can then search for the relative contact information online (most stables have Japanese websites). Your accommodation should also be able to help.
The following stables are accustomed to foreign tourists:
Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka
When sumo wrestlers travel to other cities for a tournament they’ll stay at a dormitory, or shukusha, which will have a space reserved for training. Some beya allow tourists to watch a morning training session while their wrestlers are at a shukusha, depending on availability. Your best bet is to try in the three weeks before the first day of the sumo tournament. You can check the tournament schedule here.
The following stables will accept foreign tourists at their temporary shukusha:
Ootake Beya Shukusha
Minato Beya Shukusha
Shikoroyama Beya Shukusha
Nishiiwa Beya Shukusha
Step Two: Call ahead
It’s absolutely essential to call the stable before, not only to let them know that you’re coming (and check that’s ok) 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. It’s even possible to visit during tournaments though the training will be more relaxed as wrestlers don’t want to get injured.
You can use this easy sample script of what to say when you call a stable or you can ask a Japanese speaker to help you. Generally, it’s best to call the day before (it’s not possible to make reservations far in advance) to see if there’ll be a practice and to tell them how many people are coming.
Step Three: Get up at the crack of dawn
Foreshadowing events to come, you’ll have to wake up at the crack of dawn to see a sumo training session. The time training starts will vary from stable to stable, often beginning around 6-7 a.m. and lasting approximately three hours. It’s respectful to arrive towards the beginning of practice and stay for the whole time, which does mean you’ll need to leave your accommodation with enough time to find the stable and settle in, as well as be prepared to sit there for the entire training without needing to pee or hallucinating because you didn’t have your morning coffee (…just me?)
Step Four: 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, pocket phrasebook and 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. You don’t have to sit on your knees in the traditional style – cross-legged or with your legs to the side is fine – but you shouldn’t point the soles of your feet towards the dohyo (sacred ring where wrestlers fight) if possible.
- Absolutely no eating or drinking, and definitely no smoking. Some stable masters and trainers might smoke during a session – if you’re not a fan you just have to deal with it (rather than asking them to put it out as one US couple did).
- 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.
- If there’s no way to silence the shutter on your camera then you should refrain from taking photos until the end of practice. Even with your phone, try not to get too snap happy as this can be distracting for wrestlers.
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. Even if the wrestlers aren’t so friendly, the experience is really special; actually seeing the rigorous training routine right there in front of you, you’ll get a glimpse into how wrestlers build their extreme strength and agility day after day. What’s really interesting too is watching how wrestlers personally interact with each other in a way that reflects the strict system of the hierarchy so central to the world of sumo.
It’s fascinating stuff, so don’t miss the chance to see sumo morning training when you’re in Japan!
Updated: Aug 30, 2019