NJPW: The wild ride of attending a Wrestle Kingdom in person

Wrestling (Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images)
Wrestling (Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images) /

Earlier last year, while I was preparing to present my honors thesis on nuclear warfare, I desperately tried to hang on to any train of positive thinking I could imagine. I thought, what if I went to NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom? What if that’s the motivation for my first trip outside of the country?

I roped a few friends into the idea, bought our tickets, got my passport, and spent six months preparing to spend almost a month in Japan. My mom wasn’t thrilled; my dad was absolutely thrilled. As the date got closer I realized not only could I see NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 14, I could also see Fantasticamania, I could see almost any other promotion I wanted.

I hope this piece gives you a little insight, if you feel you might want to make the trip. It won’t go into too much detail – half the fun is going in somewhat blind – but it will be wrestling-heavy. Let me preemptively say that going to Wrestle Kingdom in person is something you definitely want to do even if you only have the most peripheral interest in Japanese wrestling.

You learn pretty quickly that there are no rules on a ten and a half hour flight – people just start spreading out, we’re fed modest amounts of food on a tight schedule by kind flight attendants like an overweight cat, I watched Fiddler on the Roof for the first time in my life. It’s really not bad, but it is a ten and a half hour flight.

Landing in Japan was both exciting and a weird nightmare, because it was light when I left, and it was light when I arrived, ten and a half hours later in the winter.

First things first: Even besides the prevalence of the English language, everything else (especially in the large metropolitan areas like Tokyo) operates on such a high level of common sense that anyone with two brain cells to rub together can get comfortable with moving around after a couple days. When all else fails, Google Maps is really your best friend.

But now, I’ll skip to Wrestle Kingdom.

The pre-show atmosphere is just darling. It’s so many people all in one place for the same reason, and that reason being a shared love and fervor for pro wrestling. This being an enormous spectacle (both in terms of size and significance) meant that there was activity all around the Dome for hours up until the show.

Day 1 was exciting in that size and significance) meant that leading up to the shows, the space around the Dome and Suidobashi (especially near the NJPW shop) was packed with people — and so many cosplayers.

There were more BUSHIs and Desperados than I could keep track of, and two people who I could only assume were professional Tanahashi and Nakamura cosplayers; more glitter and lipstick and nylon and hairspray than I honestly expected.

In line for the tickets, Chris Charlton was wandering up and down the line, talking to people for his podcast. I pulled him out to express my appreciation for the English commentary team and we talked about winners and losers for these two nights. I may have told him that Naito was going to be double winner or I would spit on the floor. I may have also told him Kota was going to be double loser — not that I wanted him to be, but that my heart told me that had to be the outcome.

Outside, we wandered around Korakuen Garden up until the doors opened. We could hear Ibushi’s theme play inside the Dome every few minutes, muffled and distant. I may have prayed a little for Naito, but that’s between me and the universe.

Wrestle Kingdom itself, both nights, is kind of a blur if I’m being totally honest. There are vignettes that persist, aesthetically poignant in an event that can’t be described sufficiently when attended live, and the bigger moments that rippled through the audience and stay with me for obvious reasons.

Night 1 felt, as someone who easily and frequently suffers from choice paralysis, like a fever dream. I drank early and often — get any shochu sours and you won’t be disappointed — and feverishly kept up with the six multi-man matches before the title matches started. I’ll just say this: I was so excited to see El Desperado come down the ramp that I kicked over my drink.

The ladies section was ideal in that it was close to the entrance ramp and also close enough to the ring to hear Zack Sabre Jr. screaming obscenities. So, if appropriate, go for one of those tickets.

Some general highlights:

  • A Texas Death Match but live sounds really good in theory, but suffers a bit when you can’t really see what weird stuff they’re doing down outside the ring. Thankfully the huge screens helped with that.
  • On that note, I kept having to pull my eyes from the screen and watch the real people fighting in front of me. It’s just, understandably, hard to really take in everything that’s going on.
  • Seeing Hiromu’s new feather coat with my real eyes was transcendent. Also the pop when he won over Ospreay was enormous.
  • Okada dollars rained down on us, driving home his entire gimmick with unbearable intensity. I DID get one though.
  • Jay White continued his crusade to be one of the most insufferable people in New Japan by almost searing my eyebrows off with the heat from his pyrotechnics.
  • Another huge pop when Naito won over White — it was clear that Naito was the favorite to win. Also I was so excited that he won that I, again, kicked over my drink. This time it was just ice.

I also, at some point, drew this:

Side note: If you spend two days looking for an issue of Weekly Pro Wrestling in convenience stores like I did, next time just go to the bookstore down the stairs from the Dome — they have like, everything.

Night 2 general highlights:

  • The 6-man gauntlet match was hard to watch from our seats, but exciting. We could all hear Robbie Eagles yelling, which was fun.
  • The energy surrounding Liger’s retirement match with Dragon Lee and Hiromu was electric; hearing Liger’s theme for the first time as the precursor to him wrestling in a match was something — I think several people around me were crying. I loved this, and I was also remembering seeing him during Super J Cup in Tacoma, his theme thundering in an old theater, smoky and cramped, just about the most humid place on earth, absolutely perfect.
  • Overall, I’m not sure how the audience reactions translate on the stream (I only very recently rewatched some of the best matches) but night two had so many fun spots, high among them being when SHO and YOH dramatically revealed they had been wearing protective cups the entire time.
  • Suzuki coming out after Moxley’s win caused a ripple effect of hands clutching pearls, as it were. I think I grabbed the knee of the person sitting next to me. I was sad that it seemed I would never get to do the Thing (you know) but as soon as Kaze Ni Nare started playing we all realized we got our chance. It’s as good in person as you think it is.
  • Tanahashi vs Jericho was received so positively — all of us were so excited to see these two older legends just go at each other and clearly have so much fun doing it. I have to say here as a new wrestling fan, I don’t totally get Jericho. I still don’t, but I understood a little better seeing him and his entrance in real life.

I can’t cover every match, obviously — the recaps exist already and are good — but to convey the feel is important to me. A friend once said, when I started watching wrestling, that as soon as I go to a live show it’ll be all over. There are certain emotions that you experience while watching wrestling on a screen that hit you ten-fold in person, but that goes for almost anything.

Okada vs Naito was one of those moments where I realize that wrestling is the best and worst thing to happen to me, because there are few things in life that have, so far, given me as much life and as much joy as being at that match in person. I cried when Naito hit the Stardust Press, the Dome almost exploded when he pounded his chest and climbed up to the top rope — that move got the biggest reaction of the night, and this was the same show in which Thunder Liger wrestled his very last match.

There’s not much to say that hasn’t already been said, but the outlandish degree of euphoria over Naito’s win followed by the shock and disappointment from Kenta’s run-in was like a balloon popped. If there were any people in the Dome who were happy by that spoiler they were drowned out by the roar of fans who have been waiting for the LIJ roll call in that place for years. It was incredible.

My 18 or 19 days spent in Japan were pre-planned for some outrageous travel, but I got sick in Osaka. Fine, I thought, I’ll follow Fantasticamania around for the rest of my trip.

And so I did. All but the show in Ehime and the shows on the 19th and 20th I attended in person, and they were loads of fun. The small shows were especially grounding — they felt like the house shows I go to all the time in Seattle: intimate, despite the big names of the contestants. I left every show feeling better than when I arrived.

It was harder here, not knowing much Japanese beyond enough to get me around, ask important questions, and be polite. I chose to buy most of my tickets day-of, and as long as you can find the window with the prices on it and you have cash, you’re fine. One time I had trouble finding the window and there was someone there who was very excited to help me in English. Life finds a way.

I get to see a lot more Lucha Libre in the Pacific Northwest than you might expect, but I rarely get to see CMLL talent, so this was as much a treat for me as it was for the Japanese audience. Masks, more cosplay, so many kids; In Nagoya I found myself two seats away from the rudo entrance and deep in Los Ingobernables fan territory, so despite the language barrier, my neighbors and I got along like a dream.

There’s a special mention here for the KBS Hall venue, with one wall an enormous stained glass window. I really, truly think that more wrestling shows need to happen with the backdrop of a huge stained glass window.

Most notable to me was how quickly all the CMLL wrestlers won over the audience, Dulce Gardenia especially. I suppose it becomes tradition, after a few consecutive years, to shower the visiting team in support for the short time they’re here, but it was still hilarious to watch the New Japan folks wrestle with being booed for doing normal wrestling things against wrestlers whom the crowd has decided they love more.

It’s so comforting to me that no matter where they go, luchadores (regardless of moral placement) will get sad and leave the ring if they don’t get their name shouted enough. It’s just one of the many, many relatable concepts that play out in pro wrestling.

The last show I attended, the show at Korakuen on the 17th, was excellent. I found Douki’s new shirt and bought it, spotted Harold and spoke to him for a few minutes, drank an incredible hibiscus sour, and met some new friends on the balcony, who were other audience photographers with some really impressive lenses. That’s another thing: The Japanese audience photography scene is ruthless. Inspiring, but ruthless.

At that show, there was a man who spoke English at the merch booth who spotted me and came over immediately, asking me if I needed anything. He also, without prompt, told me that Titán and a few others were doing signings in another room down a hall I never would have found on my own — someone was already announcing this but I couldn’t understand so it flew right over my head.


Unknown to him, I had the incredible need for Titán to sign my jacket, which I had made in honor of his own patch- and sequin-gilded jackets, because they’re cool and he’s one of my favorites. Long story short, Titán was happy to sign it, and while I was too excited to go back and thank the man at the merch booth in that moment, I hope somehow he knows he helped me get something I wanted so, so much.

Somewhere in all this I attended a Dragon Gate show and realized what I had been missing all along. High production value, great aesthetic and atmosphere, some of the best wrestling music I’ve ever heard. Korakuen Hall is nice in that even the high seats have a decent view. It was a great show, which you can watch on YouTube with the link below:

There was also a DDT show in Itabashi Green Hall, which was the smallest venue I’ve ever been to besides a dive bar that’s smaller than my current apartment. Again, very intimate, a lot more interesting and endearing interaction between the wrestlers and people in the crowd, many of who were clearly regulars to these shows. It was fun, inviting, and I saw a man slap another man’s chest nearly to ribbons. I also got to see a lot of wrestling from the guys in Damnation, which I quickly realized is one of my favorite stables.

I also scored a ticket close to ringside for the Just Tap Out show with the match between TAKA/Taichi and Douki/El Desperado, which I was personally indescribably excited for. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t go specifically for that match (which I have to write some long, horribly romantic article for eventually), but the entire show was great. There was a Stardom recruitment, some kind of survival gauntlet match involving an entirely masked unit, and a real diversity of wrestlers, all talented with a lot of heart.

This article has gone on so long and it’s so self-serving, I need to close it soon. Overall, I’ll just say this: it’s not hard to get around Tokyo, especially when you go with a specific purpose in mind. For example, after realizing I wasn’t fit for strenuous travel, I decided I wanted to see as much wrestling as possible. That was easy, thankfully so!

Food is everywhere and it’s incredible, if you feel under the weather get one of those vitamin c drinks from the vending machines or a 7/11 — but be warned: it tastes like a really sexy lemonade, it might make you cry — and live politely but without irony. Go to the small wrestling shops and buy something embarrassing, talk with other people in the audience, walk around aimlessly until the sun comes up, who cares?

I won’t be the foreigner who waxes poetic about it being a paradise — Tokyo (and the rest of Japan) is like anywhere else: full of people who are presumably just trying to live with as much dignity and purpose as possible — there’s struggle, there are bad experiences I don’t experience there as someone who people generally wanted to stay out of the way of. But as someone who grew up fantasizing about faking their own death and starting over somewhere far away, the exposure to bustling Shinjuku and the electric crowds in Korakuen Hall comforted me with the thought that this was a place I could probably disappear into, if I really wanted to.

Next. The Ghost of Dean Ambrose. dark

I will also say that in realizing just how much I appreciate and enjoy Japanese wrestling with my entire heart, it felt incredible to dive in without pretense and be there in person. It’s inviting, it’s comforting in its distance, and it was refreshing to bond and connect with people over photos and gestures and universal emotions.

If you get the opportunity to go – especially for wrestling, especially for Wrestle Kingdom – do it. You won’t be disappointed.