PHOTO: The country has top-notch soccer competition, but you'll pay far less for a ticket than Premier League teams. (photo via Flickr/Miki Yoshihito)
There are a few staple reasons to visit Japan, the type of sights and experiences that feature on everybody’s bucket list, but it’s probably fair to say that sport doesn’t always get a mention on lists dedicated to being a tourist in the country. But for every succulent dish and breathtaking vista, every ancient bit of architecture or cat cafe, there’s a sports stadium or tournament going undiscovered somewhere in Japan.
Japan has a unique sporting diet. While the UK has a passionate relationship with cricket and sports fans in the United States spend their evenings following the NBA or NFL, Japan’s national sport is sumo wrestling, closely followed by Western games like baseball and soccer. It’s also hard to ignore the incredible rise of the Japanese rugby team, which beat South Africa 32-34 at the World Cup in September 2015.
PHOTO: Sumo tournaments are big-ticket events where you can get very affordable tickets. (courtesy Flickr/Better Than Bacon)
The top sumo event in the calendar is the Grand Tournament, which takes place every two months in places like Nagoya, Osaka, and Sumida City, and lasts for two weeks at a time. Prices range from 3,800 yen (around $33) for an arena seat to a 38,000 yen ($334) VIP box. For the merely curious, it’s recommended to attend the midday and morning events, as tickets can be easy to acquire. Friday and Saturday evenings attract huge audiences.
True sumo aficionados can also book to visit a sumo “stable”, a place where wrestlers train. It can require a bit of an investment in time and patience (sessions usually run from 6 to 8 a.m. and access may hinge on a local hotel having a bit of cachet with a local team) but there are few more authentic ways to experience traditional Japanese sport. Bear in mind that appropriate behavior (like sitting cross-legged on the floor) can be expected in sumo stables.
The J-League, which began in earnest on February 25, has been Japan’s top-flight league since 1992. As one of the more accessible competitions in the world (tickets go for $17-$60; compare that to the $118 of London’s Arsenal), the J-League is an option even for shoestring sports tourists. There’s also a thriving soccer betting culture in Japan, with the best odds available at William Hill, including for lower league teams like J1’s Gamba Osaka and Urawa.
One of the more unique Japanese soccer traditions has parallels to the English FA Cup. It's the Emperor's Cup, which throws thousands of teams of all levels of skill, from high school to J-League into a tournament to see who comes out victorious on the January 1 final. The winner qualifies for the Asian Champions League and gets to wear a “kamon” or emblem of a three-legged crow on their shirt.
Japan has held baseball in high regard since the Meiji Period, an era that encompasses the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The country's recent performance in the World Baseball Classic shows that the sport is stronger than ever in Japan. Grouped into the Central and Pacific leagues, the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization includes twelve teams from across the country, from the island of Hokkaido in the far north, where seven-time winners Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters play, to Kyushu Island and relative newcomers Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.
As of mid-March, the 2017 Japanese baseball season has just begun but tickets for some events are already sold out through June. An event like Saitama Seibu Lions versus Fukuoka Softbank Hawks on April 7 can attract around 20,000 people with tickets priced at around $15 for an infield seat. That pre-season rush is testament to the enduring (nearly 140-year) popularity of the sport.
Japan offers a sporting landscape that will be familiar to many Western travelers, but with a traditional twist. It's really hard to find a country more dedicated to martial sports like sumo.