For weeks now, you’ve been preparing for Japan. You’ve done your homework and devised a precise game plan. But here’s something you may have missed – Japan is in fact as sports mad as Australia. Have you prepared for this last minute surprise? Here’s a guide to a vital thread in the tapestry of Japanese culture, from traditional sports based on ancient philosophies to international sports imported from the West. Australia, meet your kindred spirit, a brother in jersey, cleats, sweat, tears and glory.
Let’s begin with Japan’s unofficial national sport, sumo wrestling. These larger-than-life wrestlers are the country’s superstars. To watch a dual is to go back in time to ancient Shinto rituals where salt is still thrown on the same clay rings. The rules are simple. Claim victory by forcing the opponent out of the ring or to touch the ground with any part of the body other than the feet. If you’re travelling to Japan, there’s really no excuse to miss out on this spectacle with six major tournaments held throughout the year across the country, each running for 15 days. They are held in Tokyo (Jan, May and Sept), Osaka (Mar), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (Nov).
Japanese martial arts is seen as more than just a sport but as a path to self-discovery and peace. The purpose of many styles is to develop a perfect character.
We start with the most famous of the styles, karate. It features unarmed combat with an array of strikes and blocks by both arms and legs. At the peak of its popularity in the west came the film ‘The Karate Kid’, which led to a catch cry that would endure for years to come – wax on, wax off! For karate fans, you must visit Okinawa, the birthplace of karate. For those inclined to learn a roundhouse kick, there are approximately 400 dojos (schools) in the region to choose from. For those who’d rather not break a sweat, there’s a famous bar in Okinawa dedicated to all things karate, from memorabilia to exhibits, with a Japanese whiskey in hand of course!
Then there’s judo which means ‘gentle way’. It’s a staple of the Summer Olympic Games with the objective being to throw or takedown the opponent to the ground or to force them to submit with a lock or choke. The sport places a huge emphasis on softness and technique. If soft isn’t your style, there’s kendo – the ancient form of Japanese fencing. Although kendo translates to ‘the way of the sword’, today’s version involves bamboo swords and protective body armour blending power, skill and bravery.
The best way to experience Japanese martial arts is to visit Tokyo Budokan. Here, you’ll get to witness tournaments as well as training sessions for all styles.
Snowball fighting is actually a professional sport. Take a seat and catch your breath. Welcome to Yukigassen. Japan has turned every child’s favourite winter pastime into a competitive sport that’s now played in Australia, Canada and across Europe. Think dodgeball but with snowballs. The game is played on an ice-covered court. Two teams of seven players have 90 snowballs at their disposal. The aim: to strike the opponents out of the game by hitting them with a snowball or to capture the opposing team’s flag. Start stretching your arms, you can try Yukigassen at Sobetsu Town in the region of Hokkaido.
America’s game…is also Japan’s game! That’s right, baseball is actually the nation’s most popular sport. Known as yakyu, it was introduced by an American at the end of the 19th century and ever since, the nation has fallen madly in love with the game. Even high school baseball is broadcast nationwide with great interest. Some differences to point out between Japanese and American baseball: in Japanese baseball, the ball, strike zone and playing field are smaller while hot dogs have been subbed out for the likes of bento, sushi and ramen. Talk about super subs!
There are two leagues with six teams in each. The regular season starts in late March with the top three teams from both leagues advancing to the playoffs and finally concluding with the Nippon Series in late October.
For the bigger teams like the Giants, Tigers or Hawks, tickets will need to be purchased in advance while for other teams, tickets are readily available on gameday. Baseball in Japan is a raucous and delicious spectacle that you simply have to experience. To pre-purchase tickets, click here.
In 2015, ‘rugby’ was the third-most Googled word in Japan. The national team, ‘The Brave Blossoms’, pulled off one of the greatest upsets in rugby history, beating mighty South Africa in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. And there are no signs that the momentum has slowed with Japan hosting the next Rugby World Cup in 2019. If you can’t wait until then, you can check out top grade domestic rugby with the Top League. Top teams include the Panasonic Wild Knights of Ota City (Gunma Prefecture) and Suntory Sungoliaths (Tokyo) and tickets are readily available on the day at the stadium. For more info, click here.
If you’re a pro wrestling fan, then you must add Japan to your bucket list. The sport gained prominence in the early 50’s and soon the country added its own twist. You can still expect ostentatious characters and death-defying manoeuvres but without the over-the-top storylines. Puroresu is treated as a legitimate combat sport, mixing wrestling moves with MMA strikes and kicks. No punch is ever pulled, no blow is ever feigned. Korakuen Hall inside Tokyo Dome is the mecca of Puroresu and has hosted some of the greatest fights since its opening in 1962.
So there you have it. Japan is a high-intensity 170 BPM adventure that doesn’t let up until the final whistle. Bring your game face!