Updated: Sep 25, 2021
Explore the history of Japan’s national sport, watch a sumo bout and try wrestlers’ favourite meal.
Ryogoku is the home of sumo, a sport and martial art unique to Japan that was first recorded in a manuscript dating from 712.
Ryogoku’s connection with sumo dates from the mid-18th century. With the construction of Ryogoku bridge that brought together two significant provinces (Ryogoku literally means both provinces), the area became an important site. To reflect its status, work began to construct temples, which was funded by sumo tournaments.
Eko-in temple was the host of these bouts from 1768 to 1909 when the first Kokugikan sumo hall was built nearby, with a seating capacity of 13,000. Today, Eko-in remains the spiritual home of sumo. After passing through the torii gate, you will see chikara-zuka (mound of strength), which was presented by the Sumo Association in 1937 in recognition of the central role the temple has played in the sport. New wrestlers visit the site in the hope of receiving extra power.
Soak up the atmosphere
Today’s Ryogoku Kokugikan, or Ryogoku Sumo Hall, dates from 1985. Each year, in January, May and September, it hosts sumo tournaments, drawing thousands of fans and bringing the neighbourhood to life.
The best way to experience sumo is via a live bout, when you can feel the intense power of the wrestlers as well as the anticipation and excitement of the crowd.
If you’re visiting Tokyo during tournament time, it is possible to buy tickets, which is easiest at the stadium. Tickets are sold in advance for each day of the 15-day event, and there are a limited number of same-day seats. Choose from ringside (most expensive), box (hosting four people on cushions) or balcony (individual Western-style seats).
On the way to the arena, Kokugikan-dori Street has a walk of fame for sumo that is similar to the one in Hollywood. Wrestlers who have received the highest title in sumo, yokozuna, are presented in traditional poses in statues, along with impressions of their hands. On tournament days, you’re likely to also see colourful decorative flags and hear pounding drums.
Live like a sumo wrestler
Sumo stables, where wrestlers live, eat, sleep and practice year-round, are typically very private, but several tour companies organise early morning visits that include watching a training session. It’s sometimes even possible to have lunch with the wrestlers afterwards.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the number of wrestlers living in the area, Ryogoku is the best place in Tokyo to enjoy chanko nabe, a hearty stew of chicken and vegetables in broth. It's the go-to meal for wrestlers as it is reasonably healthy, protein-rich and high in calories. The local tourist information centre provides maps of some top restaurants that serve the famous dish.
Learn sumo’s history
The Sumo Museum, which is located inside Ryogoku Kokugikan, provides insights into sumo’s history and has an extensive collection of sumo-related items including sumo dolls, original woodblock prints and kesho-mawashi, the large embroidered aprons worn by the highest-ranking wrestlers during ceremonies.
To check out a real-life sumo ring, head to Ryogoku Edo Noren. The ring is set in the centre of a replica street from the Edo period (1603–1868). On weekends, the facility offers cultural events such as sumo matches between visitors and former wrestlers.
There is much more to Ryogoku than just sumo! The area is home to lots of museums, such as the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which showcases the history of the capital, and the Sumida Hokusai Museum, presenting the works of ukiyo-e master Hokusai, creator of The Great Wave. Other options include the Japanese Sword Museum, Tokyo Origami Museum and Ryogoku Fireworks Museum.