There are six major tournaments (honbasho) held in Japan annually—one on each odd-numbered month—and they take place over a two-week period at one of four different venues across the country.
- January: Tokyo
- March: Osaka
- May: Tokyo
- July: Nagoya
- September: Tokyo
- November: Fukuoka
In Tokyo, the honbasho are held at Ryogoku Kokugikan in east Tokyo, a sporting venue mainly used for sumo events with a capacity of about 11,000. Like a boxing match, the seats all face the center ring—the dohyo—where each bout takes place. There are three main groups of seats and several categories.
Best seats in the house: ground seating very close to the ring. These do come with a warning that for those at the very front there is a risk of injury from wrestlers falling from the ring and onto you, as well as restrictions such as no eating, drinking, taking photographs, etc. (these are the seats that people will see in the background when they’re watching on television).
A small box area with 4-6 mats. These are charged per guest per box. There are three tiers of box seats available: A, B, C without about a 20% difference in price between A and C. At some venues you might also find boxes for two people. Photographs can be a little deceptive. These boxes—once you’ve got four people crammed in—are small. Unlike the ringside seats, however, you are free to eat lunch and take photographs. Indeed, many pre-order bento box sets from Ryogoku Kokigikan, some of which cost almost as much as the seat itself!
These are located on the 2nd floor above the box seats. They are the cheapest seats available for pre-booking (¥3,800-8,500).
How do I buy tickets?
Tickets are sold via the official ticket sales site of the Japan Sumo Association (Ticket Oosumo) which is available in both English and Japanese. You should see the website well before the next tournament to check what date and time tickets go on sale. All tickets except for the ringside seats and general admission tickets (more on them below) are available through the official ticketing site. There is also a sales hotline for box and chairs seats for unfortunately this service is only available in Japanese. Note that there is a service fee of ¥1,000 per ticket in addition to the listed prices.
There is no need to go through an intermediary. Not only do they not sell all the types of tickets, but the only purpose these agencies serve is to allow you to “pre-book” tickets via their websites so that you don’t have to be at the computer when they go on sale (they will bulk buy them). And for this they charge a pretty penny. Official ticket prices are shown here so it’s easy to compare, but some of these agencies charge usurious rates, presumably feeding off the misplaced concern that some occult knowledge of the sumo ticketing system is required.
How quickly do tickets sell out?
Quickly. The most popular seats (weekend tickets, two person boxes, etc.) will typically sell out on the day. If you want to stand a chance you’ll have to known exactly which tickets you want and be ready when online sales start. Incidentally, there is a draw for a limited number of seats the month before with results announced two days before general ticket sales begins, but this service does not appear to be offered on the English page (Japanese guide here).
What if all the tickets are sold out?
All is not lost. Firstly, it’s worth checking back on the website over the coming hours and days because it’s not uncommon for a few seats to become available again through cancellations or otherwise. Secondly, there are some re-sellers (e.g. ViaGoGo), but expect to pay. Then there’s the general admission tickets. These are available from Ryogoku Kokugikan ticket office on each day of the tournament for ¥2,200 and allow you to stand behind the last row of the 2nd floor seating. They are sold on a first-come-first-served basis and ticket sales are restricted to one per person.
Getting hold of these cheap tickets involves getting up at an ungodly hour to secure a place in the queue for the ticket office before it opens at 7:45am (about one hour before you will be given a numbered slip by sales staff that shows where you are in the queue). If your number is higher than the number of tickets available, you won’t get one. Typically, 300-350 general admission tickets are available each day and can only be purchased with cash.
You can read more about sumo—the history and the rules—in this post.