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Searching for Yakitori, the Iconic Snack of Sumo

Eating skewered chicken is a must at sumo matches in Japan

A close-up shot shows skewered hunks of juicy chicken meat steaming and smoking on a grill.
Yakitori is grilled in a dedicated kitchen in the basement of Tokyo’s premier sumo arena.
Takanori Ogawa/Getty

This post originally appeared in the September 30, 2023 edition of Eater’s Travel newsletter, a place for Eater’s editors and writers to share their tips for navigating the world’s most delicious destinations. Subscribe now.

“Ura! It’s Ura!” Up in the nosebleed seats of Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo’s packed-to-the-gills sumo arena, I’m cheering for my favorite wrestler with a skewer of grilled chicken. It’s not that I’m hungry. Japan’s ancient sport, it turns out, goes with yakitori the way American baseball goes with hot dogs. Why? Because a wrestler loses if he touches the earthen ring with anything other than the soles of his feet — and chickens always stand on two feet. So when Ura — a short, feisty underdog whose rotund build makes him look like the Michelin man in a pink silk loincloth — hops into the ring, the crowd waving half-eaten chicken sticks is bringing him luck.

It’s a bucket list moment. Three years as a captive audience to every sumo tournament broadcast on NHK World, my dad’s preferred TV channel, turned me and his small coterie of caregivers into diehard fans. That’s six 15-day tournaments a year, equivalent to 90 total viewing days, roughly a quarter of every year. So when my plans for a spring trip to Tokyo coincided with the May tournament at Kokugikan, I knew what to do: poise my fingers above my computer keyboard the minute online ticket sales went live. I ended up with tickets to Day 14. I already knew what I’d be eating.

Fulfilling my yakitori duty as a fan, though, didn’t prove easy. Despite yakitori’s status as the grand champion of Kokugikan snacks (they’re grilled in a dedicated kitchen in the basement), it was surprisingly hard to find a place to buy it. Wide corridors encircling the arena on two floors are crammed with stalls hawking keychains, plastic topknots (sumo’s characteristic hairstyle), and full-size rubber masks molded from wrestlers’ faces. There’s even a Snoopy plushie in a red loincloth. Sprinkled among the tchotchkes are kiosks selling draft beer, sake, sushi, bentos, and soft serve. By the time I finally find the yakitori, I’ve bought Kokugikan mochi crunch and a stash of sumo tea depicting happy wrestlers basking in cups of the brew. For a faster, more direct route, head to one of the information booths and ask for a map.

When I finally found them, the yakitori stands at Kokugikan weren’t what I expected. Stacks of pre-packaged boxes hold three sticks of grilled thigh meat and two of tsukune, or chicken meatballs — not quite hot off the grill but still good, the delicate touch of the soy-sugar-sake marinade drawing out the umami of the chicken. Kokugikan’s yakitori is so popular that it’s also sold at Tokyo Station, but honestly, unless you’re at the arena watching a live tournament, save your yen.

So does the chicken work as a good luck charm? Ura lost an extremely close match — the referee’s call giving him the win was overturned by a conference of judges. I haven’t given up on the yakitori, though. Next time, I’ll buy two boxes.

Mari Taketa writes about the Hawaii food scene and is the editor of Frolic Hawaii.