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Getting sporty in Japan

From sumo to soccer, people have a passion for sports in Japan, and they love to share that passion with visitors. Whether it’s exploring the tradition and rituals associated with sumo wrestling, hitting fever pitch in a stadium full of football fans, or heading out into Japan’s spectacular natural surroundings on horseback, whatever kind of sport you enjoy, there’s something for you.

There are few sports that are synonymous with a particular country as sumo’s connection with Japan. Dating back centuries, this form of wrestling is a unique part of Japanese culture. While it was once reserved for Japanese competitors, today the sport is open to wrestlers from around the world. To the uninitiated eye, a sumo bout may look like a lot of pushing and shoving, but there’s much to it than that. Sumo is a sport that is steeped in history, tradition and ritual.

The best way to develop an understanding is to experience the thrill of watching a tournament in person. While there are six national tournaments held throughout the year in TokyoNagoyaOsaka and Fukuoka, if you’re visiting Japan in November, head down to Kyushu to experience the latter.

The Fukuoka Grand Sumo Tournament lasts two weeks from November 13 – 27, and while the main action takes place in the Fukuoka Kokusai Center, keep your eyes open as you walk around town as you’re likely to see many of the competitors doing the same as you on their time off.

Sumo has been growing in popularity in recent years, so buying tickets as soon as they go on sale in early October is highly recommended. The arena is fairly small so tickets sell fast – but the fact that it’s not a huge venue means that even if you can only secure the “cheap seats”, you’ll still be in for a good view. The Japan Sumo Association website has all the information you need about when and where to experience the tournaments, and tickets can be bought online one month in advance of the tournament through the official website.

And there’s a long history of friendship between the UAE and Japan through sumo – 43 years’ worth, in fact. Since 1979, the UAE has awarded a friendship cup – actually a large traditional dallah coffee pot – and a year’s worth of free petrol to the winner of each tournament.

Since Japan co-hosted the FIFA World Cup 20 years ago, there’s been no stopping football fever in the country. The Japanese football league, known as the J.League, has fans all across the nation, and is where most of the national team players find their feet in the game, as well as many of the Japanese talents who play overseas.

It’s worth trying to make it to a match if you’re in the country during soccer season. The atmosphere in the stadiums can be electrifying, and wherever you are in Japan, you’re likely to find a stadium full of friendly fans who will be happy to welcome you to support their team.

But it’s not just the local matches that are making waves on the international football scene. In November 2019, 2,000 Saudis travelled to Japan to watch Riyadh-based Al Hilal play against popular Japanese side Urawa Reds in the AFC Champions League, with the Saudi team winning the tournament.

To book tickets for top Japanese football matches, head to the J.League website where purchases can be made online. The season usually runs from February to November, and the 2023 schedule will be announced in January. To see details of friendly matches played by the Japan national men’s and women’s teams, head to the Japan Football Association website and check out the fixtures throughout the year.

Japan’s National Parks are incredible places to explore, and if you’re an equestrian, getting out into them on horseback is an experience like no other. In Hokkaido, the Shikotsu-Toya National Park offers horseback riding in the foothills of Mount Hakken throughout the year. Whether you want to experience the fresh beauty of Japanese spring when the first shoots of green and wildflowers start to emerge, or you prefer to gallop through snowy landscapes, there are few better places to get out into the wild than here. Wild Mustangs offers Western-style horseback riding tours suitable for both beginners and advanced riders, surrounded by beautiful nature.

And there’s also a strong equestrian connection between the UAE and Hokkaido. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s Team Godolphin has stables in Hokkaido, Castle Park, with a capacity for 70 horses. So the next time you see Team Godolphin competing, you might just be watching a horse that has come from northern Japan.

Karuizawa has long been a favourite escape for Tokyoites looking to immerse themselves in nature. Hoshino Resort Karuizawa’s location, surrounded by greenery, water and clean, crisp air, is the perfect spot for long walks surrounded by nature, listening to birdsong in the trees and the trickling of streams, and heading deeper into the woods for a spot of forest-bathing.

It’s also a great place for equestrians to get out into these beautiful surroundings on horseback, and the resort offers riding experiences steeped in nature. Whether beginner or expert, there’s a trail for you. The stables are located about an hour away from the resort at the foot of Mount Asama, and tours are offered for all experience levels. If you’re a beginner or need to boost your confidence there will be time to practice at the stables, before heading out onto the trails accompanied by experienced guides.

After a day on horseback, there’s nothing better than coming back to the hotel for a soak in the hot spring baths, dug over a century ago by Kunitsugu Hoshino, founder of the original Hoshino Hot Spring. Today, the spring’s waters still soothe guests in two different baths – Tombo no Yu and the Meditation Bath.

The former offers both indoor and outdoor baths for soaking up the beauty of Karuizawa’s nature, whether you’re visiting in cherry blossom season, when the leaves turn fiery colours in fall, or when the whole property is swathed in a silent blanked of snow in winter.

The Meditation Bath is designed for long soaks, beginning in a space filled with soft light before moving into a completely dark space that allows the senses to become sharper, leading to a sense of spiritual calmness.

Whichever you choose, it’s the perfect way to reflect on time well spent in nature.

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