February 25, 2024

Giving ex-wrestlers a new career is a positive byproduct of a new tourism boom in Japan centred around the ancient fighting art.

Cuddling a brick wall

At a popular sumo-themed restaurant during the lunch rush in Tokyo, tourists are piled into booths surrounding a raised ring called a dohyo. After tourists woof down pork katsu and a steaming bowl of stew, cooked by sumo chefs before they strip down to their loincloths, the show begins.

The experience, costing ¥11,000 ($110) a person, is also educational and a lot of fun, as the sumo wrestlers ham it up for the audience. After a bout of wrestling between two sumo giants, who demonstrate some basic instructions, the audience is invited to put on a “fat suit” and take on the wrestlers themselves.

While the experience is like trying to cuddle a brick wall, the former champions usually let their amateur opponents win – eventually.

Yasuhiro Tanaka, general manager of Way Co, outside his sumo restaurant in Tokyo. Christopher Jue

“When I was a professional, I didn’t need to worry about [opponents] being injured,” says retired champion Jou Ko Ryu. “Once you are in the ring you have to win. But if we fight the tourists I worry they will be hurt.”

At 35, Jou was forced to retire last year. He is 135 kilograms, a relatively light weight in a profession whose competitors eat 10,000 calories a day.

“I didn’t realise how much physical pressure I was under,” he says, referring to the intense daily training. Jou started wrestling aged seven and became a professional at 22.

As more and more tourists flock to Japan, strain is growing on its traditional crowded sights. Officials also say visitors want more unique experiences, such as getting up close and personal with a sumo wrestler.

Foreign tourists spent a record ¥5.29 trillion last year as visitor numbers surged to 25 million, data released by the Japan National Tourism Organisation this week showed. This was below the record 31.9 million visitors in 2019 when more Chinese tourists were travelling, but numbers are rising fast.

Australians made up a large proportion in 2023 at 613,000, the eighth-biggest national group. Tanaka says about 40 per cent of his customers are from Australia.

While Australian visitor numbers were down 1.4 per cent on the previous year, the numbers are showing signs of surging this year with more flights now linking Australia and Japan. There were 23 per cent more Australians visiting in Japan in December 2023 compared to December 2019.

Other attractions beyond Japan’s temples, restaurants and ski slopes are also gaining popularity. Tokyo’s Robot Restaurant, popular with Australians before it closed down during the pandemic, has been replaced with a new ultra-kitschy attraction, appealing to a more adult audience.

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Performers at Tokyo’s new samurai restaurant. Christopher Jue

Samurai Restaurant Time is an over-the-top dinner cabaret show held in a basement in Tokyo’s Kabukicho nightlife district. It features an endless parade of lights, robots and scantily clad samurai warriors in an extravagant combination of traditional Japanese folklore and futuristic anime. It is not for everyone, but you’re unlikely to see anything like it anywhere else in the world.

While most visitors are tourists, some locals are huge fans.

“I started coming to the robot show during the pandemic and never stopped,” says 58-year-old Kozo, who says he has seen the show an extraordinary 450 times. “There are not many show clubs like this in Japan which combine robots and lighting.”

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