Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011

2. Sumo

Forget kabuki; sumo is better theater. If you happen to be in Tokyo during one of the three grand tournaments — 15-day events in January, May and September — you can catch some of the action at Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo's National Sumo Hall. Bouts, scheduled throughout the day, usually last for just a few intense seconds (bodies lock, twist, ripple, drop) with a lot of posturing (stretching, stomping, salt-tossing) in between. Try to be inside the arena at the start of a new round, when the rikishi parade into the arena wearing ceremonial aprons over their loincloths, and sometimes a former champion demonstrates some classic moves. Note: The morning and midday contests are not usually well attended, so the hall will be quieter, the competition less stimulating, but tickets are easier to come by. Book ahead if you want to go on a Friday or Saturday evening, when the place is packed with cheering spectators who like to throw their seat cushions after a particularly heated match.

If it's not tournament season, try to catch an early-morning training session at a beya, or sumo stable. Some are more foreigner-friendly than others; recent scandals (including charges of bout-fixing) have put many on the defensive. Have a Japanese speaker call the afternoon on the day before you want to go, to make sure the team is not on tour and that visitors are permitted. You might ask the staff at your hotel if they have an in with one of the teams. Sessions might start as early as 6 a.m. and are usually over by 8 or 9 a.m. Inside the stable, keep quiet and out of the way; you may have to sit on the floor, legs crossed. And don't take flash pictures. You might be expected to make a small donation.

Click here for a complete list of active stables; many are in Ryogoku, a few minutes by train from Akihabara on the JR Sobu Chuo line.

General admission tickets for Ryogoku Kokugikan are sold as same-day seats on tournament days: $20 for adults, $2 for children ages 4 to 15 (kids under 4 get in free); tickets are cash only. The box office opens at 8 a.m., and competition begins at 9 a.m. and lasts into the evening. Click here for the full tournament schedule. Take the JR Yamanote line to Akihabara and transfer to the Sobu line for Ryogoku station; the stadium is next door, and Kokonoe-beya is a 5-minute taxi ride from there. The Toei Oedo line also stops at Ryogoku station.