Sumo Wrestling: A national sport born from ancient traditions

  • Bunnik Tours
  • 26 Nov 20

When we think of sumo wrestling our minds take us to large Japanese men in a ring wrestling until someone hits the ground. But it is so much more than this. Read on as we uncover the history, the traditions, and the sumo lifestyle.

Sumo Wrestlers, Japan by Bob Fisher, Unsplash

Sumo Wrestlers, Japan by Bob Fisher, Unsplash


Shaped over thousands of years, the first instance of sumo wrestling dates back to ancient Japan, the third century, when sumo wrestling was used as part of religious Shinto rituals at temples and preformed in front of priests. As the years went by it evolved and was used as an entertainment performance, played a role in Japanese courts, and was used in charity events before the first tournament took place in the late 1600s.

Sumo Wrestlers
Photo Credit: New York Public Library, Unsplash

Today, sumo wrestling is considered Japan’s national sport and has a huge following throughout the country. Professional wrestlers (known as rikishi) are treated as celebrities, earn big amounts of money and sell out stadiums during the tournaments. Despite it being so popular with the masses in the 21st century, the sport still upholds many of the traditions from years ago.

Shinto rituals still occur before matches with the wrestlers raising a leg and stamping down on the ground multiple times, slapping their hands together, and throwing salt onto the ring as an act of purification. Their hair is pulled back into a topknot (a nod to the Samurai), the referees dress in traditional robes (a nod to ancient Shinto priests), and the ring they fight on (called a dohyo) represents the ground of the temples were sumo use to take place in ancient Japan. Outside of the ring tradition leads the lives of the rikishi, from what they wear, to what they eat and where they live; professional wrestlers are some of the most disciplined athletes in the world.

Sumo WrestlersPhoto Credit: Alessio Roversi, Unsplash

Living together in training stables, rikishi follow a strict daily routine. Perhaps one of the most fascinating facts about their lives in the stables is what they eat. In sumo wrestling there is no weight limit, which means it is advantageous to be larger than other competitors. On average, wrestlers eat upwards of 10,000 calories per day! Their staple meal? Bowls and bowls of Chanko-Nabe, hot-pot style stew that is made up of broth, bok choy and meat.

There’s much more to sumo wrestling than meets the eye! Our Japan Discovery small group tour includes a sumo wrestling demonstration and Chanko-Nabe lunch experience, allowing you to meet the people behind the sport and learn more about their rich traditions.

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