We take you through a day at the sumo, with all-new procedures, restrictions and perks for spectators.

Last year was a tough one for Japanese sumo, with the coronavirus pandemic throwing a spanner in the works for the sport’s annual indoor tournaments, which are traditionally held six times every year–three times at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan and once each in Osaka, Aichi and Fukuoka prefectures.

While the Osaka tournament in March 2020 went ahead without spectators for the first time in history, the Tokyo tournament in May was called off completely due to the state of emergency. After that, fans in Aichi and Fukuoka missed out on attending their local tournaments in July and November respectively, as these were moved to Tokyo to keep wrestlers from travelling outside of the capital during the pandemic.

The events in Tokyo went ahead with spectators reduced to 2,500 people, or around a quarter of the venue’s capacity, before being gradually increased to 5,000, with countermeasures in place to safeguard visitors from coronavirus transmission.

▼ Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan

So what exactly are those countermeasures, and are they enough to make spectators feel safe during the pandemic? Our Japanese-language reporter Ikuna Kamezawa was keen to find the answers to these questions, so when tickets were released for this month’s Osaka tournament, which has been moved to Tokyo once again by the Japan Sumo Association, she booked herself a seat on opening day and headed out to investigate.

▼ Ikuna boarded a train at Shinjuku and alighted at Ryogoku, the closest station to the sumo stadium.

▼ After a short two-minute walk she found herself outside the Kokugikan (National Hall), the venue for the current 14-28 March tournament.

The entrance looked very different to the one she was used to seeing pre-pandemic, with covered walkways now set up to keep crowds separated.

▼ Hand sanitisation stations with automatic sensors were in place for visitors to use before entering the building.

▼ Once inside, all visitors had their temperature checked…

▼ …And the usually crowded stores and hallways were eerily empty

While the reduced seating capacity initially made her think tickets would be hard to secure, it was actually the opposite, because unlike previous years, Ikuna had no problem securing a good seat with a great view.

▼ Spectators can sit at empty seats near the ring before going to their allocated seat once the big matches start in the afternoon.

Of course, the number of spectators choosing to stay home has increased during the pandemic, but the empty seats around her really made Ikuna realise the true extent of those numbers.

▼ Signs on every second seat indicate they’re required to remain vacant, to keep spectators apart.

The reason for the low number of attendees at sumo matches isn’t just due to people wanting to avoid crowds. Some people attend sumo specifically to interact with the famous wrestlers, while others like the experience of drinking while watching the bouts. Others use sumo matches as a way to entertain contacts and business clients.

All these drawcards are off the table during the pandemic, though, as drinking, loud talking, and contact with wrestlers are now prohibited, which means a day out at the sumo has become a more staid affair.

▼ Signs and announcements around the stadium highlight the importance being placed on safety

Currently, drinking, eating, sitting next to each other, cheering, and stopping to wait for wrestlers or coming into contact with them are all prohibited in the National Hall. 

For many, taking a photo with their favourite wrestler is a highlight of the day and well worth the price of admission. In fact, there’s usually so much to do at the venue that some spectators can spend a whole day there without taking a seat inside the main hall until the afternoon. Ikuna was happy to forego all that during the pandemic, though, instead walking around the hall to catch a view of the ring from different seating areas.

After investigating the spectator seating, Ikuna took her own seat in a spacious box and was pleasantly surprised to see the people around her behaving themselves incredibly well. Everyone appeared to be consciously watching their manners, and no matter how exciting a bout was, people refrained themselves from shouting or making any noise.

The attitude of everyone around her put Ikuna at ease as she watched the rest of the bouts for the day, and she was truly grateful for everyone’s joint cooperation to make the experience as safe as possible. In fact, Ikuna says she felt safer here than walking out on the street, due to the fact that there are so many coronavirus countermeasures in place around the venue.

▼ Don’t forget to sterilise those hands!

▼ Ikuna was happy to see both staff and spectators fully masked up at all times.

There may be quite a lot of restrictions in place, but there are actually a few perks for visitors. The sumo association is holding a lottery for attendees with some gorgeous prizes, and “Japanese Outfit Day“, usually held on specified days during the tournament, is now being held every day, which means spectators dressed in traditional outfits like kimono will be able to receive a free Kokugikan curry, a photo badge of themselves, and a cardboard print.

▼ The stadium’s specialty, Kokugikan curry, usually retails for 400 yen (US$3.66).

On the second floor there’s an “AR Movie Signage” system where you can pose alongside your favourite sumo wrestler through the magic of augmented reality for 1,000 yen.

Another new offer from the sumo association is the “Sumo Collection”, an online trading card service. Users can receive a limited number of wrestler trading cards every day just by logging in on their smartphones.

One of Ikuna’s acquaintances has been logging in every day, and without knowing what they were doing they were somehow able to achieve the number one ranking nationwide for wrestler Tsuyoshi Azumaryu.

If you’re like Ikuna and find online trading cards confusing, then these wrestler cutouts may be more up your alley. Free and easy-to-use, these are the next best thing to actually posing with a wrestler in the halls of the stadium right now.

▼ Life-size dimensions add to the realism.

After enjoying her day out at the sumo, Ikuna was actually surprised at how safe she felt at the stadium. It may not be for everyone, especially with the no-alcohol, no-shouting, no-meeting-wrestlers policy creating a less energetic atmosphere, but those interested in the actual bouts will be grateful for the sumo association’s efforts to keep spectators safe at the events.

The association’s decision to keep fighting–literally and figuratively–during the coronavirus pandemic is in line with the spirit of their wrestlers, especially the smallest ones who vow to fight using everything they’ve got. It hasn’t been an easy ride for them, though, with one young wrestler losing his life and another his job to COVID-19. Here’s hoping the coming year brings happier times for the sport, the fans, and the athletes as well.

Photos © SoraNews24
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