After this show came the biggest gap of my trip without a wrestling show – two whole days! On 4/2 I saw Odaiba (life-size Gundam!) and Akihabara (uh, lots of smokey arcades and tiny anime stores!). On 4/3, I went to Kyoto for a look at historical shrines and bamboo groves.
April 4: Nosawa Produce – Tokyo Love VI: Road to the Future!!
Venue: Shinjuku FACE
This was, honestly, a building that I was almost as excited to see in person as Korakuen, as FACE used to be the main building for the short-lived Dragon system competitor El Dorado. Nowadays you may know it as the home to the new LIONS GATE project from NJPW. This venue is basically a concert hall-slash-nightclub a few floors above a typically smokey Japanese arcade (there are a lot of places where smoking is still allowed indoors in Japan, if you didn’t know, and arcades are one of the worst offenders; whereas at least restaurants and live event venues sequester smokers off into a little enclosed room or onto a patio or something, arcades and pachinko parlors just let people smoke everywhere). It comes complete with a one-drink cover, something you’ve probably come across in similar bar/club indie wrestling venues in the US. I used my drink ticket on a lemon sour that was honestly so delicious it probably had almost zero alcohol in it, but what can ya do. Anyway, the venue itself is really neat looking once you’re in there. It’s the rare venue that actually looks sort of bigger in person than on TV (most of the time it’s definitely the other way around; it absolutely will throw you how much smaller Korakuen looks when you get in there), for some reason. It has a cool, dingy indie vibe to it and the fold-out chairs are far more comfortable than most of the seating at Korakuen. Two thumbs up for Shinjuku FACE!
Main Event: Masaaki Mochizuki def. Minoru Tanaka in 20:56, 1st defense of his Tokyo World Heavyweight Championship ****1/4
There were three main events on this trip that came together in a “holy crap how is the universe working in my favor like this” sort of way (after I had already begun making the plans to come!), and this was the first one. Mochizuki is, in my opinion, one of the five greatest wrestlers of all-time. Minoru Tanaka is a guy who maybe did not have the most consistent career but is someone I really enjoyed at times, especially in the New Japan junior division (both as himself and as the masked HEAT character). Years later when I finally watched some BattlARTS I really enjoyed him there too. So basically you had one of the best ever against a guy who used to be one of my favorites in front of a tiny Shinjuku FACE crowd for the “Tokyo World Title” that Mochizuki had apparently won on the last Tokyo Love show. This match ended up delivering big-time, with both men putting on a hell of a main event that went nearly 21 minutes. The theme was each of them using their deadly kicks on a specific limb to set up submissions: Mochizuki used vicious leg kicks to set up the ankle lock, while Tanaka used kicks to Mochi’s arm to repeatedly set up the cross armbreaker. Had these submissions and limb work played into the finish the match would have been even better (instead it was just Mochizuki hitting the Sankakugeri to the Face to win), but as it was it was a hell of a main event between two junior veterans, easily the best match on the trip to this point!
Undercard Notes: Oh man, where to start here? It was just such a bizarre card with so much variety! The opening was an offer match from Daisuke Ikeda’s Vaccine Fight promotion; I went in honestly expecting it to be something of a BattlARTS throwback, but instead it was a pretty standard (but good!) tag match. The second match saw Kikutaro and Stalker Ichikawa, both in their Stan Hansen parody gimmicks, defending their “Tokyo Intercontinental Tag Titles” (yes, they were the current champions) against Pancrase’s Hikaru Sato & Ryo Kawamura. If that sounds like among the most random things you’ve ever heard of, you’d basically be right. Kikutaro spent the entire match saying “lariat” in his (pretty awesome) Hansen impression at various volumes, and then he got mad at Stalker for throwing a weak lariat by comparison. The match ended when the two of them squared off, each hit a lariat on each other, and then both collapsed and were immediately double pinned to lose their titles. It was honestly one of the funniest comedy matches I’ve ever seen. Match three featured the utterly terrifying team of current Wrestle-1 double champion Yuji Hino and former Makai Club shooter Kazunari Murakami taking on another ex-shooter Hideki Suzuki and Apache Pro heavyweight Tomohiko Hashimoto. This was a super-wild brawl that eventually saw the brawl come right into our section, as Murakami whipped one of his opponents right into our chairs as we scattered out of the way and then beat the crap out of him right in front of us. Again, I need to reiterate how incredibly scary that man is in person! A more light-hearted tag match followed as the father/son team of Mitsuo Momota and Chikara took on the venerable dream team of CIMA & Kaz Hayashi, CIMA eventually scoring the pin on Chikara via Meteora. Finally, in the semi-main the Tokyo Gurentai team of NOSAWA, MAZADA, FUJITA and KIKUZAWA (pulling double duty!) faced Team Dory of Dory Funk Jr, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, DDT boss Sanshiro Takagi, and Seiya Sanada. The match was mostly built around Dory, who eventually got the victory with his signature spinning toehold on FUJITA, and the crowd (filled with lots of old people, presumably who came out for Dory) went nuts for him.
Overall: I had high hopes for this show from the moment I saw the deliciously random card, and it completely delivered. Just a wild, wacky night at a really cool venue. Can’t praise this one enough. I’m not sure if it’s going to hold up on tape, as it kind of feels like it might have been a “you had to have been there” type of show, but live it was super, super fun!
April 5 was another day off from the graps, as instead I attended a Japanese baseball game (alongside Jamie of Dramatic DDT fame). If you have even a passing interest in baseball I honestly can’t recommend this enough. It just so happened that the two most famous teams in the country- Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers of Hyogo Prefecture (the capital is Kobe, a city well-known by DG fans)- happened to be playing a three-game set at the Tokyo Dome while I was there, so we went out to the opening game of the series. Even though the game was an 8-2 blowout in favor of the Tigers, it was still an incredible experience, as we got to see the way Japanese baseball fans sing and chant for their team all night long. Even in the face of a game that was not close for most of it, the supporters section of the Giants was going strong till the very last out, and it honestly shocked me how few people left overall!
April 6: Wrestle-1 Cherry Blossom
Venue: Korakuen Hall
Main Event: Yuji Hino & KAZMA SAKAMOTO defeated Manabu Soya & Jun Kasai, 1st defense of their Wrestle-1 Tag Team Championship ***3/4
On a card full of pleasant surprises, this tag match was a hell of a lot better than I was expecting it to be. To be honest I hadn’t been a huge W-1 watcher going back to their first few shows, only catching a few matches here or there, but this whole event really had the feel of a promotion that’s on the rise (Alan said it best when he declared that W-1 are “rebuilding”, and this basically felt like the ground floor of something that could eventually turn out to be quite good). Their roster right now is an eclectic mix of their own young kids, many who look good, and guys like we have in this main event- veterans of the Japanese indies who are getting a real shot to shine on a slightly bigger stage. Yuji Hino’s success in his role as W-1’s resident unbeatable heel monster has been well documented, but I will just add that he has a real presence to him live and really comes across as someone you can’t take your eyes off of. The former “Tensai worshipper” KAZMA has completely reinvented himself from my vague memories of him, and he basically comes off like a scummy indie guy who looks like he wants to steal your wallet. Soya & Kasai were very effective babyfaces here, taking a hell of an ass kicking and yet constantly making you believe they had a chance with their hope spots. In the end it was a relatively easily defense for REAL DESPERADO, but the match was great fun and totally blew away my very limited expectations going in.
Undercard Notes: A big part of W-1’s future will be their kids, from their total rookies like Kohei Fujimura & Keiichi Sato (who worked a great little 5-minute opener based entirely around Sato’s size advantage and Fujimura doing an awesome fiery underdog routine) to their older kids like TriggeR members Hiroki Murase & Shotaro Ashino (both who looked pretty damn great in their limited time to shine in their six-man tag with brother YASSHI) and DESPERADO member Koji Doi (who I honestly don’t remember doing much in his eight-man tag, but his look is certainly interesting). This could be a hell of a deep roster in a few more years if they continue to develop correctly. On the other end of the spectrum you had some standout veterans. Sanshiro Takagi, the CEO of this promotion who hasn’t gotten in the ring much for them at all (understandable I suppose given his large DDT commitments), wrestled a special singles match in the Ikemen trial series against Jiro Kuroshio that was great fun, featuring Sanshiro’s golden bicycle and a lot of comedy. Jiro has “it” for sure and one would think he was a major factor in the surprisingly large number of women who came out to this show. Meanwhile, Keiji Mutoh can barely walk and yet he still managed to do way more than I thought he would in the six-man tag team semi-main event, squaring off with BJW’s champion Yuji Okabayashi in an incredibly fun exchange. Honestly, the Okabayashi-Mutoh exchanges, as short as they were, ended up being one of my highlights of the entire trip.
Overall: This was easily the show I was least excited for and yet it over-delivered in almost every single way. The crowd was bigger than I was expecting, the atmosphere was fun and laid back, and a lot of matches I hadn’t really been all that excited for going in all turned out to be good to great. I’m definitely going to try and keep a closer eye on Wrestle-1 in the future, because they seem to have something cooking here.
April 7: Dragon Gate THE GATE OF PASSION
Venue: Korakuen Hall
Main Event: Jiimmyz (Masaaki, Susumu, Kness, & Kanda) def. VerserK (Shingo, YAMATO, Naoki, & Kong) in 19:35 ****
The main event was a very special eight-man tag team affair, with Masaaki Mochizuki taking on the one-night-only moniker of Jimmy Masaaki to team with his fellow Original M2K mates Susumu, Kness, and Kanda. Their opposition for the evening was a four-man team from VerserK. The match was the typical fast-paced DG eight-man in many ways, except with one key difference: the VerserK team absolutely could not get along, and they managed to weave that story into the match in an incredible way that didn’t really detract from it at all. The match managed to be very fast-paced and exciting even as one of the two teams was disintegrating before our eyes, which made it quite the spectacle! In the end, Susumu pinned Shingo with the Jumbo no Kachi, leading to a post-match angle that made it clear what the two sides of VerserK were: YAMATO, Doi, and Naoki on one side and Shingo, Kotoka, and Kong (who had managed to remain somewhat impartial in the unit’s ongoing problems before this but finally picked a side in the post-match here, somewhat surprisingly since YAMATO is one of his best friends and all) on the other. However, rather than book a simple 3 vs. 3 tag to settle things, it was instead decided that all six men would take part in the DEAD OR ALIVE cage match this year, with the loser either losing their hair or their mask (in the case of Kong). We even got a bonus little 30-second match where Mondai Ryu defeated Kong with a sunset flip to determine which masked VerserK member would be forced to take part, so ‘ol Mon-chan managed to avoid this all entirely. Anyway, between the in-ring action, the post-match, and even Mochizuki’s amusing participation (he was basically the train attendant of the Jimmyz train, handing out free stuff as they came out directly in front of us!), this was honestly just an amazing spectacle.
Undercard Notes: In many ways the theme of this Korakuen was “night of the upset”. It began right in the opening match, as Stalker Ichikawa actually won a match!! Okay, he didn’t win the fall, but even being on the winning team (his partner, the beautiful Yosuke Santa Maria, pinned Genki Horiguchi, a shocking result given that Genki was teaming with his regular partner Ryo Saito) is a big deal for Stalker! It continued in match 3, when El Lindaman submitted double champion T-Hawk in a singles match that started slow but really picked up by the end. And in match 4, Big R Shimizu pinned CIMA clean in a six-man tag with the Shot Put Slam! The card featured lots of great action to go with all the upsets, and in particular the second match stands out as being quite great, as the Over Generation youngster team of Yamamura & Ishida defeated Don Fujii & U-T (continuing the Yamamura/Ishida vs. U-T feud that’s quietly been one of the best things going in DG today) in one of the best 10-minute matches you’re ever likely to see. And the “Punch Tominaga’s career on the line” six-man delivered too, with a super-hot Korakuen crowd obviously 100% behind Punch trying to defend his career.
Overall: Obviously as someone who is basically a DG fan above everything else this show was quite the experience for me; legitimately I can say that being live at a real DG Korakuen show has basically been a dream of mine for the past decade, and I’m happy to report it more than lived up to my high expectations! The crowd is a huge part of it, as they are one of the hottest crowds in Japan and they really do make even more noise than you can hear on television. The matches were all great fun and being there for Lindaman, a personal favorite of mine (as anyone who listens to Open the Voice Gate probably knows), getting the biggest win of his career so far by submitting T-Hawk was just so wonderful. Two thumbs up for DG!
April 8: Sendai Girls Pro Wrestling
Okay, so here’s the first and only show I won’t be talking about in this diary. Don’t get me wrong, I attended this show and absolutely loved it — the main event of Meiko Satomura vs. Aja Kong was easily the second-best match I saw on the entire trip (I would go ****3/4 on the star scale, though with the caveat of having not yet rewatched it on tape) but rather than talk about it here, I’m going to write an entire article on the show for the women’s sports website Victory Press! Once that article goes up in a few weeks I will go back and add a link to it here. But again, my very abbreviated thoughts are that this show was amazing!
Sadly, Sendai Girls was my final event at the legendary Korakuen Hall, so it was time to say goodbye. Our entire group decided the only way to do this was to each sign our names in the aforementioned Korakuen graffiti hallway, and I added a little something extra below mine.April 9th was my second-to-last full day in Japan, and rather than going to a pretty lackluster-looking first night of the AJPW Champions Carnival I chose to go see one of my favorite bands, Sakanaction, play in nearby Chiba. I’m told by the rest of the gang that I missed a hell of a main event at least, but I don’t regret my decision: the band played for nearly three hours straight (!) and were phenomenal. While I was in the area I also got to go to the top of a mountain along the Japanese sea (via a ropeway gimmick) and see some breathtaking views of the coastline.
But my brief break from wrestling would be more than made up by my final real day, April 10th. Not only would I be attending the enormous Invasion Attack PPV at Sumo Hall, but (alongside my amazing, awesome, I-seriously-can’t-come-up-with-enough-adjectives-to-describe roommate Dean Knickerbocker) I would also be attending a noon event of Pro Wrestling NOAH at a venue we had not yet been to, Differ Ariake. We assumed NOAH would be over well enough in time for their big brother promotion’s much bigger show, an assumption that proved out to be happily correct. So on the 10th I saw a lot of wrestling (16 matches in one day!!), and it began with….
April 10: Pro Wrestling NOAH Spring Navigation 2016 Vol. 2
Venue: Differ Ariake
If you’re a Japanese wrestling fan you probably know all about this venue, which has gotten a well-deserved reputation for having dead crowds. Well, I’m here to tell you something that may shock you: I really liked this place! Yes, it is basically a warehouse in the NOAH offices, but getting there was cool- it’s right along the water in Tokyo so we got to take a totally different form of transportation, the neat automated railway that runs along the Tokyo waterfront. It’s a very short walk from the station to the building, where you’re treated to the Ariake Colosseum in the background, the NOAH logo on the side of the building, and another cool logo at the event entrance. Inside it is far more spacious than Korakuen, with an enormous lobby and a lot of seating in the actual “arena”. Honestly, the arena just looks really cool live, with the elevated rampway along two sides of bleachers and a WCW/NWO vibe with the two hanging banners, one NOAH and one Suzukigun. And I’m not sure if we just lucked out or if the building is just miced really poorly (I haven’t had a chance to watch this show back on tape either), but the crowd for this show made plenty of noise throughout. I’ve always heard that one reason why the crowds might be dead here was that it gets very cold in the arena, but it was a warm spring day and I don’t recall it being particularly cold as a result, so maybe that could have been a factor. Either way, Differ was way cooler than I expected it to be going in, so two thumbs up for this venue!
Main Event: Hajime Ohara def. Daisuke Harada in 16:01, GHC Jr. Title Contendership Tournament Final ***1/2
First of all, props to NOAH for main eventing with their juniors here. The foursome involved in this mini-tournament is easily the biggest bright spot in the promotion right now (and arguably have been for a long time), so it makes total sense to put them on top when you can. It’s impossible to discuss this match without also mentioning the earlier two tournament matches though, so let’s start there: in the opener, Harada beat his partner (and fellow GHC Jr. Tag Team Champion, as they regained the belts from Ohara & Kenoh earlier in the week on 4/5- a show I skipped to go watch baseball, but from people on the trip who were there the match was apparently phenomenal) Atsushi Kotoge in just 4:30 with his signature Katayama German. That obviously left him very fresh for the main event. Ohara, on the other hand, went through a grueling battle against his partner Kenoh in the second match; the match went nearly 11 minutes and saw Kenoh use a double foot stomp from the top rope onto Ohara while he laid on a table on the floor (!!), so Ohara spent the rest of the match selling his ribs. Ohara picked up the win anyway with his Muy Bien Clutch (a flash cradle). So when he and Harada came out for the main event- and in a nice little touch, both still had their partners out there with them, showing there were no hard feelings in the kind of thing that you almost never see in American wrestling (partners just having a match against each other but still getting along afterwards because this is supposed to be a sport and you don’t necessarily have to hate someone just because you had a match against each other!)- it was pretty obvious what the story here was going to be. Indeed, Harada worked over Ohara’s ribs and Ohara did some excellent selling for the entire sixteen minutes, which was a simple story and a great one since Ohara was pretty easily the crowd favorite to begin with. In the end Ohara once again pulled out the Muy Bien to pick up the flash pin after surviving loads of punishment, setting him up as the next challenger for Kanemaru’s GHC Jr. Heavyweight Title.
Undercard Notes: We just discussed a couple of the undercard matches already on this 7-match show, so let’s quickly go through some of the rest: Mitsuhiro Kitamiya, the powerhouse youngster who has always been a standout for me in this promotion, looked good again beating fellow young wrestler Hitoshi Kumano (afterwards he cryptically stated this would be his “last match as Mitsuhiro Kitamiya”, perhaps hinting at a name change soon?). Seeing Quiet Storm grunt his way through a meaningless tag match live was honestly kind of an experience, and I’m only half-joking. And the semi-main, a 19-minute six-man tag with a lot of the major heavyweight stars (Marufuji/Go/Nakajima on the NOAH team and Suzuki/Sugiura/Iizuka on the Suzukigun side, so uh I guess five major stars and also Iizuka), was way better than I expected going in. Honestly, just hearing Kaze ni Nare live was worth the price of admission alone.
Overall: Yet another show that I had low-ish expectations for but over-delivered. I haven’t been watching much NOAH lately because the shows have been super-boring on tape, but live at least this one was great fun. And Differ Ariake apparently doesn’t quite deserve its reputation, or at least it didn’t on this day!
After the NOAH show was over, we quickly got our butts down to the Ryogoku district as it was already time to file in for Invasion Attack! Obviously as the only “big” show of the trip this had a unique feel to it right away, and from the moment we first started to head into the building with 9000+ Japanese wrestling fans it was clear this was going to be a special evening.