Ryogoku is a popular entertainment spot, where people in Edo go for recreation and relaxation. The river banks beside Ryogoku bridge are lined with food stalls and restaurants, and both the bridge itself and the roads along the shoreline are crowded with people out enjoying the fine weather. In the springtime, many people enjoy taking a stroll along the river bank, which is lined with cherry trees. In the early spring, when the cherries are in full bloom, huge crowds turn out to have a picnic under the trees, and gaze up at the delicate pink blossoms.
Those people who can afford it may take a luncheon cruise on one of the many yakatabune (pleasure boats, or "floating restaurants") that conduct tours on the river. The yakatabune are large, fancy boats with roofed cabins, usually large enough for ten to twenty people. Wealthy merchants or samurai will hire the boats for an entire day, and take their family or some guests on a party cruise.
There are tables inside the cabins where guests can eat and drink while they watch the river scenery. In addition to the cruise, customers can enjoy a nice meal and perhaps some on-board entertainment. The more expensive pleasure boats even have geisha working on them, to serve the customers food and sake (rice wine).
The yakatabune specialize in long, leisurely cruises up and down the river. However, there are a great many other types of boats to be seen in this area. The Sumida river is one of the busiest thoroughfares in the entire city. There are hundreds of ferry boats taking passengers to various parts of the city, as well as barges and other cargo ships transporting goods to and fro. At times, the river is so packed with boat traffic that it seems amazing that the boats do not collide with one another.
Although many people come to Ryogoku to take a boat ride or to stroll along the river, the biggest attraction that draws people to visit the area is the sumo wrestling tournaments that are held several times a year. Sumo is the most popular spectator sport in Edo, and some fancy tea houses even have semi-professional sumo matches to entertain the customers. Most neighborhoods hold local sumo matches on special occasions, allowing the neighborhood boys and young men a chance to show off their strength and technique. However, these matches cannot compare to the excitement and splendor of the professional sumo tournaments held in Ryogoku.
Sumo is a very ancient sport. Nobody is really sure when it started, but there is evidence that sumo matches were held as part of the rice-planting festivals in ancient Japan, two or three thousand years ago. According to the Nihon Shoki, Japan's oldest history book, in the year 642 a nobleman named Hakusai (or perhaps Hakuzai) arranged a sumo festival to celebrate the opening of a new shrine he had built. This is the first written record of a sumo match. The Nihon Shoki records a famous sumo match in the late 600s, between two of the greatest champions of that era -- Nominosukune and Taimanokehaya.
Sumo seems to have started out as part of a religious festival to pray for good harvests, but over the years it slowly evolved and developed. For over 300 years, until 1174, a sumo festival was held in Kyoto every year on July 7, to entertain the Emperor. By the 1300s and 1400s, sumo was already as much a sport as a religious celebration. During the sengoku jidai (the age of warring states), many sumo wrestlers were more or less professionals, and some daimyo set up special training halls to train young rikishi (sumo wrestlers). Matches were often held between the top champions supported by competing warlords.
After Tokugawa Ieyasu established his capital in Edo, many groups of rikishi began to hold exhibitions in the city and charge the spectators money. At first, the bakufu tried to discourage this. But sumo was so popular that eventually, in 1645, the Shogun passed a law allowing sumo festivals to be held in the city at certain times of the year. Today, sumo is a very popular spectator sport, and the matches held in the spring and fall at the Eko-in hall in Ryogoku are always packed with spectators.
As the crowd of spectators approaches the hall where the basho (sumo tournament) will be held, they are greeted by the sound of the Yagura-daiko (tower drum). This huge drum is mounted on top of a tall yagura (tower) just outside the main hall. The organizers of the tournament beat the drum loudly to announce that the sumo matches are about to start. The sound of the Yagura-daiko can be heard all over the city, so people know that the tournament is about to take place. The yagura is 16 meters high, and constructed of enormous cedar logs. The reason it is so high is so that the surface of the Sumida river can reflect the sound of the drum, so the echoes can be heard all over the city. The Yagura-daiko is played on two occasions every day: "yose-daiko" (coming drum) is played early in the morning to gather people, and "hane-daiko" (leaving drum) is played at the end of each day's matches to request the audience to come back again the next day ("Hane-daiko" is not played on the last day of the fifteen-day tournament).
People start to assemble inside the great hall early in the day. The matches start around noon, with the very lowest-ranking rikishi (wrestlers) competing first. By the time the top-level wrestlers are ready to compete, the place is packed. The bouts are all very formal, and preceded by elaborate rituals as the two wrestlers prepare to face off. The huge men stomp on the dohyo (the platform of earth where the ring is located) and toss salt into the ring to purify it. At last the gyoji (referee) tells them to get ready, the time for preparation is over. The two wrestlers crouch down, touch their fists to the ground, and charge at one another. The rules are pretty simple. The first person to fall down or step outside the ring is the loser.
After a long afternoon of watching the exciting sumo bouts, you might expect the people to be exhausted, but the fun isn't over yet. In the evening, as darkness falls over the river, the sky is lit up by multicolored fireworks. Fireworks festivals are held several times a year in Ryogoku, usually to coincide with the sumo tournaments. The bakufu often pays part of the cost for these festivals, in order to provide entertainment to the hard-working citizens of Edo.
The broad, grassy riverbanks are crowded with people who have come to see the show, and out on the river hundreds of yakatabune and other boats give spectators an even closer view of the spectacle. The fireworks burst in bright showers of sparks, glittering in all sorts of bright colors. Although festivals only take place a few times a year, they give people a welcome break from the busy bustle of daily life in the city.