January 16, 2008
Bob Kapur's Journal from Japan
By BOB KAPUR - SLAM! Wrestling
Boarding the plane for Japan last week, I couldn't help but ask myself a few questions? Am I as crazy as people say, traveling halfway across the globe to go see a bunch of wrestling shows? Is it worth spending the money to fly this far for only a week? Did I remember to lock the front door? The following journal details the answers to those questions and more.
January 2nd and 3rd
After landing (now January 3rd, since we crossed the international date line), we took the shuttle bus to the Tokyo Dome Hotel (we were staying about five minutes away). One of the guys saw TNA's Tyson Tomko -- there for the next day's New Japan show -- in the lobby and wanted to get a picture, so we all went inside. A TNA camera crew saw our group and interviewed us for the Dome Show special that they'll be airing on Spike TV on January 17th. We then walked to our hotel, checked in, and headed back to the Tokyo Dome. The week after New Year's is a huge holiday in Japan, so the area around the Dome was lit up with festive lights and decorations. Afterwards, we headed up to the hotel bar for a drink where some of us tried sake. On the way down, we had another unique brush with greatness. One of the guys had accidentally leaned up against the buttons and we stopped at every floor. At one, the doors opened and who should be standing there but Smackdown's number one announcer, Sho Funaki, who was more than happy to pose for pictures and sign a few autographs -- funny how things work out. Back to the hotel afterwards where I fell asleep watching a dubbed episode of Full House (not funny in Japanese, either).
Simply put, today was an amazing day. One of the selling points of Mayfield's trips is meet-and-greets with different wrestling stars -- and boy, did he deliver. Today's lunch was with Hayabusa. For people who don't know, Hayabusa was a star of the FMW promotion who had a great future in front of him, until his career was cut short after he broke his neck after a failed springboard moonsault attempt and was paralyzed. He spoke with us for over two hours, talking about his career highlights and thoughts about the wrestling industry. Upbeat and positive despite his condition, when asked about his best wrestling match, it was with a smile and a twinkle in his eye that he answered, "maybe my next one." As Hayabusa signed the various items that everyone had brought, a couple of us noticed Scott Steiner leaving the restaurant and, despite some intimidation because of his size and crazy reputation, approached him for a photo op as well -- turns out, he was a really friendly guy. Outside, Hayabusa took photos with us and judging from the crowd of fans that surrounded him, it's clear the Japanese fans haven't forgotten him, despite his not having wrestled since 2001. As we watched the throngs of fans line up for pictures with him -- and he was happy to oblige them all -- it dawned on me that while in North America, wrestlers may be somewhat looked down on by the general public, in Japan they are looked up to.
After lunch, we went to the Tokyo Dome for the traditional January 4th show, the sixteenth such event hosted by New Japan Pro Wrestling, this time featuring the stars of TNA Wrestling. The Dome was quite the sight -- to think about some of the history that has taken place in that building is quite awe-inspiring. Our seats were fairly high up in the stands, but not too far that we couldn't see the action. And fortunately, there were mammoth video screens at the entrance ramp just in case. Though the Dome was only about half full, with the entire stage set-up, and the elaborate videos and pyro effects for each wrestler, the entire presentation was akin to Wrestlemania (though puroresu fans would probably cringe at the comparison) -- it was really an amazing spectacle.
In watching the event, there are major differences between Japanese and American shows. While over here the crowds are generally vocal throughout the match, chanting and yelling from bell to bell, in Japan, it's quite the opposite. There, the crowd sits back, silent for the most part out of respect for the performers in the ring. Appreciating the sport more than the entertainment, they applaud politely for rope breaks, clean escapes, and after extended exchanges of punches and chops. No distracting "This is awesome!" or dueling "Let's go wrestler!" chants that tend to take away from the match; it's actually very refreshing to see and (not) hear.
The matches themselves ranged from good to excellent. The TNA guys fared very well and the crowd seemed to appreciate the international flavour they brought. Kurt Angle and Yuji Nagata stole the show with a brilliant match -- probably Angle's best since his move to TNA. The last few minutes saw a series of ankle locks and reversals that was incredibly exciting. Angle retained the Third IWGP Heavyweight Championship, setting up an inevitable unification match against Shinsuke Nakamura who won the Real IWGP Championship from Hiroshi Tanahahi in the also-stellar main event. The card also featured stars from All Japan Pro Wrestling, Zero-1 Max, and Dradition. One standout was Brother Yashi from All Japan's Voodoo Murder faction -- his pre-match promo was so entertaining, I think he would be a big star if he were to do the same on American TV -- it doesn't matter that I had no idea what he was saying; it was the way he said it that really captivated. Other big names that appeared that most North American fans would know are Masato Tanaka, Jushin "Thunder" Liger, and the Great Muta. I would recommend the DVD to any fan, as it was that good of a show.
From there, a few of us were in the mood to eat, so we headed over to the Hard Rock Café. Coincidentally, many of the TNA roster were there as well, including Scott Steiner, Christopher Daniels, A.J. Styles, Christian Cage, Jeremy Borash, Team 3-D and Jeff Jarrett himself. Once more, the wrestlers accommodated our requests for pictures and autographs, and they couldn't have been more generous with their time. Daniels was particularly excited about having wrestled at the Dome, telling me he had waited for that night for 15 years. "To be there in that building, wrestling for a title (he competed for the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship), was amazing, I can't even believe it," he said.
Back at the hotel, then, to see if tomorrow could even begin to compare with the events of the day. So far, the trip has exceeded expectations.
Even though it's obvious you're in a different country, walking around Tokyo, you see a lot of familiar cultural landmarks. Convenience stores like 7-11 are on nearly every other street corner. There are a lot of western-style coffee and donut shops. Heck, other than the wacky burgers like the triple-decker Big Mac with a one-inch thick egg patty on it, even the McDonald's are pretty much the same.
Until you see a place like the Imperial Palace Garden.
Surrounded by a moat in the middle of the city, the garden is a remnant of the feudal days of Japan from centuries ago. The peaceful serenity of the garden is a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the city that surrounds the expansive area. The clash of cultures is nowhere more evident than crossing the bridge from the ancient wooden doorway to the sidewalk where, across the road, a new highrise is in development. A similar incongruity was seen at this night's All Japan Pro Wrestling show where the traditions of Japanese wrestling were put aside for one night as the roster put on a show that seemed to be catered to us gaijin.
The first sense that this would be a different type of show arose in the second match, where the nWo Japan team started hurling profanities at us (we were quite prominent in the crowd, thanks to a connection of George's that got us front row seats) in English. It was actually pretty funny their sense of how North American heels act, and they pulled no punches in insulting us, swearing, insulting our mothers, and shooting us the finger and crotch chops repeatedly. The second instance was Abby taking the fight into the crowd, which I gather from the reaction of the crowd, was very uncommon. Lastly, the Voodoo Murder faction also played up to us, even grabbing my VM towel to choke out fellow Canadian Joe Doering.
After the show, we headed back to the hotel where plans were made for the next day's festivities.
Maybe it's American -- or in this case, Canadian -- arrogance, but one thing that surprised me about Tokyo (other than how good strawberry Kit Kats taste; yep, they have strawberry Kit Kats there) is that for a major global economic centre, they really don't speak a lot of English. While some of the people know a bit of the language, for the most part, we had to fake our way through it. Fortunately, most restaurants have picture menus, though it didn't help one of the guys who thought they were ordering a McChicken sandwich and ended up getting a McShrimp burger instead. Lucky for me, the local transit system has plenty of English signs. Which was helpful, since while most of the other tour members opted to stay near the Dome for a women's show, one other guy and I navigated our way across the city to go see a Big Japan show.
To say BJPW is fan-friendly is an understatement. The show started off with the entire roster coming out with boxes of plastic balls. The roster started lobbing them into the crowd -- each one was autographed by one of the wrestlers, making for an interesting souvenir -- though that wasn't the only one. Indeed, the company sells the most interesting merchandise I've ever seen, things that are so weird you wonder what their marketing group was smoking when they conceived of them. You couldn't find a straight BJPW t-shirt, but if you wanted a Rubik's Cube with pictures of the roster on it, it's available. Blow-up fluorescent light tubes, BJPW tool belts, Kleenex box cozies designed to look like a wrestling ring complete with plastic ring posts and elastic ropes? All for sale. Strange stuff.
As to the matches, they were incredibly fun, though not for the faint of heart. One match featured a larger guy who delivered the sickest headbutts I've ever seen. In one sequence, he thunked his opponent with a series of them that were so hard and loud, we could hear the impact in the second row. Other highlights of the undercard included 2 Tuff Tony (an American) running into the crowd during his introduction, sending the crowd scrambling while waving a barbed wire baseball bat. Numazawa's match was a hilarious blend of violence and comedy. In addition to his patented light tube smashes, other highlights included he and his partner Abdullah Kobayahi using a variety of sports-related items on their opponents, including kicking a barbed wire covered soccer ball into their bodies, and a baseball spot which saw them tee off on their opponents with baseball bats, run around the ring like they were rounding the bases, and then slide into home in the form of a low dropkick to their opponents' faces. Genius. The main event was a No Rope, Barbed Wire, Flaming Board, Barbed Wire Board, Concrete Block Death Match between Masada and Ryuji Ito for the BJPW Championship. As described, you can guess this wasn't exactly a Flair-Steamboat mat classic. But then again, Flair and Steamboat didn't include craziness like a German Suplex onto a pile of cinder blocks, or a Death Valley Driver through a flaming board, or whipping a guy with barbed wire, or a giant superfly leap from a high scaffold onto an opponent covered with a barbed wire board. This match had me jumping up and down screaming like a crazy person, and was one of the most insane things I have ever seen.
I had introduced myself to 2 Tuff Tony during the intermission, and after the show, we hung out with he and Masada (another American). They introduced me to Jaki who kindly presented me with a souvenir from his match -- a piece of glass that they had taken out of his back. Gross, yes, but he was so sincere about giving it to me, knowing that I had come from Canada for the show, that I couldn't possibly have refused. Tony invited us to join him for dinner at Mr. Winger's steak house, but unfortunately, we had committed to rejoin the group at Korakuen Hall for the Kaientai Dojo show that evening.
Going to Karokuen was another wrestling fan dream come true, given the history that that building has seen. It's quite an unassuming place, a small hall with quaint wood paneling and plush theatre seats in the bleachers. Still, the greatness that has been showcased there adds an incomparable aura to any event.
The K-Dojo show was almost the complete opposite of BJPW, as it featured a variety of technical matches. There were a few intergender matches that were very well done, and in fact, overall the card was very solid from beginning to end. I'm not too familiar with the company, so TAKA Michinoku, Great Sasuke and Masato Tanaka were the only names I really recognized. After the show, they and most of the other stars were at the merchandise stand to sign autographs which was a nice touch. George used his pull to arrange us a private post-show meet and greet with Tanaka and while we were doing that, a lot of the other wrestlers came by as well, so we had mark-out moments a-plenty. A fun-filled day that ended well into the morning by the time we got back to the hotel.
Electric City in Tokyo defies description. The huge video screen storefronts, the countless electronics stores and giant video game arcades -- it's like heaven for technophiles. Went there today to do some sightseeing and window-shopping. Saw some really nifty video games there, my favourite was one similar to Guitar Hero, but instead of playing a guitar along to the notes, you play the bongos with a set of clubs. Spend the morning there and at a small mall that had no less than 50 different anime stores. I'm not really a fan of anime, but I did manage to find a duty free store where I picked up some inexpensive souvenirs, including a ninja throwing star and a sumo wrestling picture -- contrary to popular belief, the city isn't teeming with ninjas or sumos as I thought they would be; somewhat disappointed in that -- ninjas and sumos rule.
What wasn't disappointing was the special lunch we had with Manami Toyota. Toyota is arguably the greatest women's wrestler of all time, with many of her matches considered as classics. If you've never seen her 60-minute battle against Kyoko Inoue, I suggest you look it up on YouTube immediately. Toyota was an absolute delight, talking excitedly through her interpreter about her storied career between signing autographs and taking pictures. She was so charming that the hours with her flew by and it was nightfall when we left the restaurant. A few of us headed to the Fighting Dojo Colosseo bar, a famous drinking hole that many wrestlers have frequented over the past few years. A couple of Sapporos was the perfect way to toast yet another day full of highlights, with one more still to go.
In Canada, when you want to buy wrestling merchandise, your options are fairly limited. You can go to a company's official site, or go to one of their shows, or go online to an online store like the SLAM! Wrestling Store. In Tokyo, though, they have stores devoted to wrestling merchandise. There are no less than five stores right around the Tokyo Dome devoted to selling nothing but wrestling and MMA merchandise. We spent the morning exploring every nook and cranny of them, looking for various goods to bring back home. Toys, clothing, magazines, other memorabilia were abundantly available, and it was hard to not overspend, or worse, buy too much to fit into our suitcases for the flight back home.
After that shopping marathon, it was time to cap off the trip with dinner at the legendary Ribera Steak House. This is the place where wrestlers to go eat, and the walls and ceiling are covered with hundreds of pictures evidencing that fact. Stars from all countries representing different eras have all been there, where they have been presented with a coveted Ribera jacket (one worker I talked to said he had been in Japan for two years and was only deemed worthy enough to be given a jacket the week before we got there -- that's how special it is to be given one). The place itself is very rustic, with wooden stumps serving as stools, and the air cloudy with smoke and grease. Dinner was a choice of either a half-pound or full-pound steak, served with a side of corn and rice on a sizzling metal plate. To say the steak, which was bigger than my face, was good is an understatement -- one of the group bit into his and he broke out into a goofy grin that I couldn't help breaking into a laugh. Simply delicious. After dinner, we headed back to the hotel lobby where we talked for hours, comparing purchases from the stores, comparing photos, and not wanting the trip to end.
After one last stop at the wrestling stores to pick up the newest issue of the weekly pro wrestling magazine with the Dome Show results, we headed to the airport for our flights back home. I was offered a spot on an earlier flight, so took the opportunity to get home early. Overall, a wonderful trip, a wrestling bonanza, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience ... though, that said, I'm already planning a return visit.
Bob Kapur would like to say domo arigato to everyone who helped make his Japanese odyssey a truly enjoyable time, and in particular: George, Rob, AJ, Bobby, Kurt, Ty, Lonnie, Little Rob, Steve, Brett, Martin, Masa, Fumie, Yoko, Little Masa, and Matt. Thanks for the memories. E-mail Bob at email@example.com.