Working the Festival Circuit in Japan

I wrestled in Yoyogi last Sunday at a festival, and driving back I was talking to an old friend in the US. He was interested in some of what I said and suggested I post about the experience as most fans wouldn’t know about it. I thought to write about my “typical” experience at a festival show, from last September.

It’s pretty clear in the US as to what constitutes “indies”; there are nationally known groups with TV coverage and wrestlers who make a living solely by working in that group, and then there are indies. In Japan, there are 3 tiers, pretty much every group you may have seen would be in the top 2. NJPW is top of course; they and other companies touring full-time with talent and TV coverage are top tier, but there is a middle tier of companies with either only regional touring or no TV coverage but making enough money to be full time income for some or all talent. Some people would consider Osaka Pro, Michinoku Pro, Kaientai Dojo, or the new FMW (if it hasn’t died already as it may have) to be indies, but they all lie fully in the second tier. The bottom rung are the real indies in the same way that indies in the US are seen. Perhaps these groups run shows that make money, but these are groups for wrestlers starting out, only wrestling as a hobby, or as small paydays (or more importantly, a place to sell merch) for talent with a name on a spot by spot basis.

One of these small promotions is Pro Wrestling Dewa, based in Yamagata prefecture, but operating all over the northeastern part of the country, in the same general area as Michinoku Pro. Dewa is owned by “Lock” Suzuki, a professional locksmith by trade and occasional referee for Michinoku Pro and when All Japan tours the area. He also does so for most shows of my home promotion, Hitachi Pro, and so he invited me to work at Dewa and I have since May last year.

Pro Wrestling Dewa site:

Dewa Pro, like almost all indies, has its biggest paydays from festivals. In almost every non-snowy weekend in Japan, cities, towns, or even neighborhoods will have a yearly celebration with traditional Japanese music and dance, carnival games, food stands, and they usually pay to have a special attraction. This may be a celebrity appearance or music act, but sometimes it is pro wrestling. This kind of event is impossible for a top promotion to consider but the money is more than good enough for indies, and the people watching aren’t necessarily fans, so having big names wouldn’t make much of a difference anyway. Typically there is a tight schedule of events and there are about 2 hours for wrestling, so there are rarely more than 5 matches in this case. Sometimes there is an entire afternoon to fill and there could be more, and once Dewa Pro was hired to fill just 30 minutes, and there was one match.

With the background out of the way, here is a summary of the experience of working a festival event with Pro Wrestling Dewa.

Lock Suzuki first asked me in late July regarding shows I could work in the fall. Out of 6 or so, with my work schedule I could only make 2. Yamagata city in late September (the focus of this post) was one of them. This would be Yamagata city’s biggest festival, which roughly translates to “Japan’s Biggest and Best Boiled Potato Soup Festival”. Which it is! There would be 4 matches and I’d go on third as part of the only singles match on the card. I would get small stipend, a parking pass, and have supplemental insurance covered in case of injury. It isn’t much, but still, like anywhere in the world, indies providing even the above support can be rare for a non-name like myself. Typically it is less, or nothing. I could cut down the travel costs by half by taking the regular roads, but I figured it was worth it to prevent a 3.5 hour drive from being closer to 6.

On the day, I wake at 5AM, get ready and hop in the car to leave at 6AM. I don’t do feel well before and during a match with a lot in the stomach, so I just have some yogurt and take two bottles of sports drink for the road and for after the match. (Pokari Sweat… Not too sweet and with more salt than Aquarius, Pokari Sweat is my highest recommendation for your fluid replenishment needs.) I make it to the festival area just after 9AM but with the crowds I can’t make it to the parking area until closer to 10.

The ring had been set up the day before by local talent. It is set up near a river and down a hill of about 2 meters, with a red carpet between ring and the curtain (in the middle of open space, so it isn’t like entrances are dramatic) with CO2 canisters for faux-smoke entrances. it is an awkward way to head to the ring as it is steep enough to bring the fear of a Shockmaster-calibre entrance. Within 2 minutes of the ring are thousands of people enjoying ring toss, a flea market, and marveling at the country’s (world’s?) largest cast-iron pot filled with beef, vegetables, potatoes, and broth.

Because the ring is in the middle of everything, there is no chance to use it for warming up without everyone seeing. The tent used by wrestlers is about 30 seconds from the entrance curtain, and literally in between it is necessary to walk between portable toilets and the lines of people waiting to use them. I would need to spend most of my time in the tent.

My opponent for the day goes by the character “Shinya Nashimoto”. This isn’t just one letter off in English from the famous deceased wrestler, but one Chinese character was changed to “pear” reflecting the shape of his body. He’s native to Yamagata and has been wrestling for over fifteen years and had some experience with sumo before that. He looks very similar and may be considered a parody if he didn’t perform almost identically. This would be the second match we would have in Dewa; we had one in May with my first match in the promotion after having some interaction in Hitachi years ago. He requested to work with me because he felt he could safely hit very hard and couldn’t with a smaller opponent. I’d asked him to lay it in to make things look good back in May, and both he and Suzuki thought it worked out well. I wasn’t so happy with our match in May because it was overly scripted, and honestly I’m horrible with that. On this day we just worked out an opening spot and a finish, and agreed to just go with the flow for most of the match. I again requested him to go hard which would be a later regret, as a spinning kick to the side of my face (my fault, I was dropping to my knees with a sell and he meant to hit my stomach) would give me pain in the eye for two weeks… In any case, it only took a few minutes to go over everything and so there were a few hours to sit in the tent. Or, more often, to just outside the tent, as several of the wrestlers were smokers and this made the tent intolerable at times.

During this time, there was the small child wrestling clinic that Dewa does for kids of age 10 or less or so before each event, with dozens of kids being taught by face wrestlers how to kick, roll, and headlock. During the times I couldn’t stand to be in the tent, I would watch what I could through the line of full bladders.

I came out in the first match to second the heel group but didn’t really do much; this was just to establish myself to the people as a villain. (It didn’t work well, I would find out.) I couldn’t see any of the second match afterward as I was in the tent getting ready, now thankfully mostly alone and smokeless.

I rarely have memory of my matches afterward but what I remember during the match (other than a stiff face kick and some other hard shots) was getting too many cheers. I tried choking, stalling, not breaking at the rope, and a low blow, but couldn’t get booed… There were just too many non-fans watching and they couldn’t be trained in one event to understand what would even be against the rules.

Afterward, in the tent, we shook hands as Nashimoto apologized for the hard kick, but I shrugged it off as my fault. After changing my top, I headed out to watch the second half of the main, which was very entertaining. All Japan’s Tsuyoshi Kikuchi works every Dewa show, usually in the main, and he is always entertaining. After the main, as is typical in most indies shows, all wrestlers from each match climbed in the ring to say good bye to the fans and thank them for coming.

Everyone went back to the tent to change, and this was when the festival was ending. All wrestlers joined the festival workers in a large picnic area for a boxed meal and big bowl of the festival’s soup. It had beef strips, onions, carrots, and lots of potato.

It was a very hearty soup.

We all then went back to the ring to tear it down and pack it into the truck. With about 20 people it takes less than a half hour. After a quick wrap-up and thanks from Suzuki, we all head back, with the Yamagata-based talent trucking things back to storage.

I got in my car, and after a convenience store stop for a couple of sandwiches and rice balls for the road, was home in about 4 hours. Just enough time for a shower and get rested to wake at 6AM for work. The next day would have 12 hours of office work with a sore back and a black eye.

I hope anyone taking the time to read all of this could learn something about this level of wrestling in Japan, and found something to be interesting.