NILS Fukuoka Times

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What’s Happening Now in Fukuoka & Japan August 2023


Renewed interest in sumo proves big pull for tourists – Tokyo Prefecture

Their interest piqued during COVID lockdowns and by a new Netflix drama, a fresh rush of foreign tourists are flocking to Japan for a look inside the insular world of sumo. Japan’s national sport — hundreds of years old and steeped in tradition — has long been a source of fascination outside the country, but those in the industry say interest has spiked in recent years, with some making the most of the new attention.

Tickets for the thrice-weekly event, which includes commentary in English and a slap-up meal, go for 11,000 yen each and were sold out for the following six weeks. One of the stars is former top professional wrestler Takayuki Sakuma, aka Jokoryu, who stands 1.87 meters tall and weighed 170 kilos at his peak.

Former amateur sumo wrestler John Gunning, who competed for his native Ireland and commentates — in English — on Japanese television, said there has been a “huge increase” in the sport’s popularity abroad over the last five to 10 years. But that popularity grew even more during COVID, when people stuck in lockdown explored new interests. And the release this year of “Sanctuary”, a new Netflix series set in the world of sumo, also helped to introduce the sport to a new audience.

The Japan Sumo Association last year also launched an English-language YouTube channel, “Sumo Prime Time”, whose videos rack up tens of thousands of views. Ken Miller, 68, shows groups of American tourists the area of Ryogoku, a mecca for the sport, including the Kokugikan arena. Each one pays several hundred dollars for the experience, and he says he is booked up for the next year. Three times a year, in January, May and September, Kokugikan hosts the top stars of sumo in national tournaments in front of more than 10,000 cheering fans.

Tourists have long been able to visit the hallowed interior of a heya, one of the traditional “stables” where sumo wrestlers live and train according to strict traditions. But because of the growth in interest, many stables have banned individual visits and only allow group tours booked through an agency, said guide Yuriko Kimura.

Inside, visitors must stay seated and quiet so as not to disturb the wrestlers while they train. One stable, Arashio in central Tokyo, has a large bay window where dozens of people gather every day to watch the training sessions. Yuka Suzuki, 61, the wife of the former master who installed the window, said that the original aim was to chip away at the reputation of sumo being “secretive”. She added that she hoped that as a result, Japanese people would start to rediscover their national sport, which she said was essential for its survival.

Sales of Japan’s most convenient train ticket/shopping payment cards suspended indefinitely Nationwide

When arriving in Japan, ordinarily one of the first things you’d want to do is to get yourself a Suica card. That’s not an option now though, as sales of the rechargeable e-money card, issued by East Japan Railway (JR East), have been suspended.

Suica has become an extremely convenient and near-ubiquitous part of daily life in Japan. Originally only used for buying tickets for JR lines, Suica cards can now be used on a variety of train and subway lines operated by other companies as well, and they’re also a way to quickly and easily pay for all sorts of things, from vending machine drinks to Uniqlo T-shirts to restaurant bills.

Suica, and the similar alternative card Pasmo, are especially handy if you’re new to traveling in Japan. Since all you have to do is tap the card on a pad to pay, there’s no need to hold up the line behind you at the ticket machine or cashier as you try to count out coins in a currency you might not be accustomed to using yet.

Suica/Pasmo cards are also handy because they save you the hassle of having to calculate your train fare before you get on the train. Instead of looking up at a map of Tokyo’s massive rail network and trying to find the name of the station you’re headed to (which might be written in Japanese kanji only), you just tap your card as you enter the gates, tap it again when you exit at your destination, and the fare is calculated automatically. They’re also a godsend if you’re traveling with family or friends, since it saves your group the trouble and time of everyone having to stop at the machine and buy tickets before every train/subway ride.

Unfortunately, due to the ongoing global semiconductor shortage, JR East and Pasmo Co. have simultaneously announced that they are suspending sales of Suica and Pasmo cards as of August 2. The companies had already suspended sales of “unregistered” Suica and Pasmo cards in June, but the extended suspension now includes registered cards (for which the purchaser provides their name, date of birth and phone number).


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