Japan's superfans travel far for figure skating heroes

HELSINKI (AP) You could be forgiven for thinking this year's world figure skating championships took place in Japan, not Finland.

The stands were full of red-and-white flags, Japanese skaters got huge cheers, and companies from the country dominated the advertising on the rink's boards.

That's because Japan is firmly entrenched as skating's spiritual home, with a legion of dedicated fans ready to follow their favorite skaters around the world.

''When I was a small girl, five years old, I was always watching it on TV, all the skating competitions,'' said Kikuko, who didn't want to give her family name, as she sipped a beer Sunday below a display of Finnish hockey memorabilia ahead of the exhibition gala skates.

In the decades since Kikuko first fell in love with skating, she has followed her favorite skaters to competitions in France, South Korea, North America and Spain.

Championship organizers didn't provide an official number for tickets sold in Japan, but arena staff and Japanese journalists estimated that up to 2,000 fans from the country - typically middle-aged women - were in attendance at the Hartwall Arena this week. They had plenty to cheer as Yuzuru Hanyu, a heartthrob for Japanese supporters, won men's gold on Saturday.

Taisuke Goto, a journalist with Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper, says skating's popularity there began with Japan's first home Winter Olympics in Sapporo in 1972, grew with the worldwide fame of skaters like East German Katarina Witt in the 1980s, and went into overdrive when Shizuka Arakawa won Japan's first figure skating gold at the 2006 Olympics.

Many Japanese fans prefer to focus on individual stars rather than follow team sports, says Goto, who estimates skating is Japan's most popular sport among women. Three-time world champion Mao Asada is seen ''like a daughter, like a sister'' by many. When she's skated at major competitions, ''they prayed in front of the TV and were watching, will she make the triple axel (jump) this time, or not?''

Paradoxically, many Japanese fans say it's easier to see top skaters in Finland, a 10-hour flight from Tokyo, than at home.

''It's so difficult to get a ticket for Japanese events. It's easier for overseas,'' says Yasuko Izumizaki, a teacher of English who was watching Sunday's exhibition gala. There's a thriving secondary market for tickets, with Japanese skating fans getting hold of extra passes to international events via third parties in other countries, or foreign friends on online figure skating forums.

It's a hobby that can easily eat up savings and vacation allowances.

Izumizaki and her friend Kumiko Uchiyama planned to travel back from Finland almost as soon as the championship ends.

''We don't see much of the country,'' said Izumizaki. ''I took such a long vacation for this competition, so I don't think I can (go to next year's Olympics).''

With the next two Winter Olympics to be held in South Korea next year and China in 2022, it's a tantalizing prospect for Japanese skating fans, but the lottery system used for tickets means many will be disappointed.

Still, it's a safe bet there will be plenty of Japanese flags in the stands.

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