Tokyo Wrestling Diary
Since I was a little kid, I’ve always wanted to go to Japan. My uncle’s wife was born there. The two of them would go on long trips, bringing back all sorts of pictures and souvenirs from their journeys. Something about Japanese architecture always caught my eye; while other children dreamed of whatever it is normal American children dream of, visions of cherry blossoms and enormous Shinto shrines danced in my head. As I got older, I developed Japanese pop culture interests as well. Like many, I had a thoroughly embarrassing-in-hindsight anime phase, but I discovered a few other interests that would last a lot longer. One of them was Japanese music, specifically indie rock. And the other was, of course, Japanese professional wrestling.
As a teenager I fell in love with Japanese wrestling hard, from the physical battles of New Japan to the flashy early days of NOAH’s green mat (which of course lead into discovering the wrestlers’ All Japan 90s heyday) to the punk-rock-meets-lucha vibe of Toryumon Japan. Back in the early 00s, before widespread broadband made wrestling from the other side of the planet a far less rare commodity, I found myself lucky enough to live near a Japanese mall that had a video rental store. This store existed for recent Japanese immigrants to continue watching their own native country’s television, receiving programs recorded straight off TV a week or two after they aired; thankfully for me and my rapidly growing Japanese wrestling addiction, this included all sorts of Japanese wrestling programs. From there a lifetime of watching way too much professional wrestling began, which has endured all the way through the present day.
Along the way I’ve been privileged to see a lot of great Japanese wrestlers live – I was there in the front row for Samoa Joe vs Kenta Kobashi (Samoa Joe literally kicks me in the face during that match, which I guess is the closest I’ll ever come to five seconds of fame). I made a very long trek up to Buffalo to see CIMA the first time he came over to the States, and many more trips have come in the 11 years since. But for a long time I thought the idea of going to Japan to see live wrestling there was an impossible dream, mostly due to financial reasons. As I approached the end of my 20s this year, it started to seem a little more possible. Then this past January everything suddenly came together at once: I had an unexpected financial windfall at the same time the well-known @Alan4L was planning a group outing to Tokyo based primarily around seeing Invasion Attack (but obviously, many other shows too!). I quickly realized that it was within my means to go just as Alan’s trip was coming together, and I decided that it was time to finally make my boyhood dreams come true. It was time to travel all the way to Japan.
Nearly two weeks after my initial flight, as I sit here back at my desk in the midtown Manhattan offices ostensibly working but writing this screed instead, what strikes me more than anything else is just how magical this trip was. Practically everything that could go right did, and conversely there was almost nothing negative to speak of. I’ll talk about this more at the end, but the language barrier ended up being far less of a factor than I expected. As we’ll get into momentarily, the shows all ranged from fantastic to mind-blowing. The non-wrestling sightseeing and culture stuff I did was all wonderful. And most significantly, everyone involved in Alan’s trip was just the most wonderful bunch of people you could ever want to share two weeks of your life with. Seriously, I cannot give enough props to everyone on this trip, from the entire European contingent to my fellow Japanese culture nerd Joey Bay to Matt from the part of Canada I forget exists to, most especially of all, my wonderful and gracious host Dean Knickerbocker who I roomed with for about half the trip. And that’s not even counting our numerous friends we met up with who live in Japan already (the lucky bastards). Everyone on this trip was just the nicest and coolest group of people you could ask for, and they really helped make that experience what it was, so again, from the bottom of my heart, thank you all!
Most of the shows we went to were not sold out and tickets could be purchased at the door, however it is in your wallet’s best interest that you acquire them ahead of time if you can. Even going to the Korakuen Hall box office the day before the show to buy your tickets is a good idea, simply because it will save you money. You save either 500 or 1000 yen per ticket, depending on the show, if you purchase them ahead of time instead of at the door. But for the most part if you’re unable to do so you’ll find tickets at the door are still available. Prices vary but you are basically looking at a minimum of 4,000 Yen (about $35 US) to get in the door, with better seat locations costing more. My favorite seats of the trip were probably at Wrestle-1, third row from the bottom of the Korakuen orange seats, which cost 7000 Yen (about $65ish dollars US). For New Japan shows you can use an online site called Ticketbo which allows you to purchase tickets that are saved to your cell phone as a scanable barcode image. This is how we got seats in advance for the Invasion Attack show as well as the 4/1 Korakuen, and it was remarkably easy. Finally, for Dragon Gate shows (which can often sell out or at least leave you with only standing room available at Korakuen) your best bet as a gaijin is to contact Jae, who runs I Heart DG and lives in Japan, where he has connections to the DG office.
When I first sat in the crowd for my very first Japanese show, the aforementioned 4/1 New Japan Korakuen event, I described it as an almost religious experience for a hardcore wrestling fan. Basically it felt like the best parts of a circa 2004/05 ROH crowd (who aped a lot of their “clap for spots” stuff from watching Japanese wrestling anyway) without the annoying dueling chants or that handful of obnoxious assholes who came to yell smarky crap in some vain effort to get themselves over. Until I sat in a crowd like this and was with 1700+ people who were just there to watch professional wrestling I honestly didn’t even realize how annoying American crowds were by comparison. The Japanese crowds are able to get loud when they should get loud, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes there’s no greater feeling than being in a mostly silent room of people intently watching the starting moments of a wrestling match. It’s okay to just shut up, which is a lesson I wish American indie crowds would get. Demographically these crowds covered a much wider range than you might expect: far more women attend these shows than you might expect (and I’m not just talking about DG and Sendai Girls, either) and age-wise you’ll see everyone from little kids to middle-aged salarymen to the very elderly. The hardcore wrestling fanbase in Japan simply seems to cover a far wider range than what you’ll see at your typical US indie wrestling show (which tends to be far more in the “dudes from late teens to mid-30s” range), which is probably why the crowds were so much less insufferable to be quite honest!
Since four of the seven events I attended took place here, we’ll just discuss Korakuen as a venue separately before we get into the individual shows. First of all, it’s impossible not to mention that initial rush of feelings you’ll get when you step into this iconic building for the first time. There is definitely a moment of “holy crap, I’m really here” that anyone who’s been watching shows at this building for a while will experience, and it is a profound and wonderful thing. With all that said, I do need to mention that Korakuen has one big downside: simply put, the majority of the seats (the giant orange section that you are more likely than not to be placed in) are very small and thus uncomfortable for people of larger size. It doesn’t matter if someone is sitting next to you or your entire row is empty either, due to the bizarre choice to have two large armrests on either side of you that greatly reduce your available space. For three of my four shows I was in the oranges and had to get up just to relieve severe discomfort numerous times throughout the evening. The other time I was in the brown bleacher-like seating on the East side (it exists on the West too) and that was far more typical to what you’ll find in GA at most US indie shows. You’ll also sometimes have an issue with your seat not being elevated enough above the person in front of you (especially if you’re in the bottom row of an orange section, like we were for DG) and have someone’s head blocking a significant portion of the ring. And the single hallway leading to the merch & food stands, bathrooms, and only real exit gets incredibly cramped during intermission and the end of the show, to the point where you’ll literally be pushing up against people on all sides as you try to get anywhere (in general Japan is not a country I would recommend you travel to if you’re claustrophobic!). Still, even with these complaints, I don’t want to sound like attending shows here isn’t still great, because it is! It’s just once you get past the iconic nature of the building and being in this place where so much awesome wrestling has taken place over the past few decades, most of the other venues you’ll go to are objectively better on marks like seat comfort and being able to actually move throughout the building. The acoustics here are just as great as they seem on television, though, as the sound really carries throughout the place.
With all that out of the way, let’s get into the individual shows! I attended seven events from six different promotions, and keep in mind that there were people on the trip who went to even more! You really can attend a wrestling show nearly every night if you want to! I’ll go into the venue (if different from Korakuen), my recollections of the main event (with my star rating, keeping in mind that for the vast majority of these matches I’ve only seen them live so far so I’m very likely biased), and anything that stood out on the undercard. I’ll also include some random photos I took from the events (with the caveat that I am very, very bad at taking pictures). Let’s get to it!
April 1: NJPW Road to Invasion Attack
Venue: Korakuen Hall
Main Event: CHAOS (Okada/Goto/Ishii) def. Los Ingobernables de Japon (Naito/EVIL/BUSHI) in 19:42.
My flight landed in Japan on 4/1 at around 12:30 pm local time, and I hadn’t slept basically in 36 hours by the time we got to this main event (I didn’t really sleep on my flight and I was too amped up by the time I finally go to my hotel hours later to get a nap in before the show), so to be honest by the time this match began that night I was crashing something fierce. As such I can barely recall any of it besides the crowd’s reactions to Naito in general and the Naito-Okada face-offs/exchanges in particular, which I distinctly remember being electric. I remember liking the match, I think, but given how little of it I can actually remember I’ll have to bow out giving it a star rating. By the time this show was over and I had finally returned to my hotel I slept very, very well, and jet lag didn’t end up being much of a factor for me for the rest of my trip, thankfully (on the other hand it was sure as hell a big factor when I returned to the States!). Again though, the crowd’s reactions to Naito-Okada were so strong they managed to pierce through my general haze. It really did feel like Naito-Okada was the match, which makes sense in hindsight given the sellout they would draw at Sumo Hall about ten days later.
Undercard Notes: I really enjoyed seeing Katsuyori Shibata live for the first time. That was definitely a mark-out moment for me, as a huge fan of his dating all the way back to his Makai Club days. Shibata and Tenzan brought a ton of intensity to their confrontation in the TenCozy-Shibata/Taguchi tag. And seeing David Finlay and Jay White continue their singles match series live was a hell of a treat. The elimination tag was probably the overall highlight of the show though, with the crowd really going nuts for Michael Elgin’s spots in particular.
Overall: This certainly won’t go down as the best New Japan Korakuen show, but seeing an elimination tag live was pretty damn cool. A fun way to start the trip, even if by the end of it I was ready to collapse!