It has been quite a while since I have attended a competition in Japan and there have been a couple of things that have struck me so far.
The first is that no matter where a skater comes from there are Japanese fans supporting them. The second is that as soon as a skater hits their opening pose on the ice there is complete and utter silence. There is not one person talking or even coughing. It makes me feel like I am watching a practice until the arena erupts once the skater's performance has ended. The support and respect for the skaters makes me see why the non-Japanese competitors love to come her for events.
I can count on one hand the number of times I have been part of a standing ovation following a performance. Brian Joubert's free at 2006 Cup of Russia, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy's free at 2007 Europeans and Daisuke Takahashi's long program at 2010 Worlds.
I now have to add Mao Asada’s short program to that list - and I was not the only member of the media who was on their feet along with the capacity crowd at the Saitama Super Arena on Thursday night.
If the men's short last night was like a rock concert, tonight was more like a religious experience with Asada's fans paying homage to their goddess. Bouquets of flowers and presents rained down from the stands after her performance covering the ice. Organizers were smart to have so many flower retrievers on standby.
After the disaster in the short in Sochi, Asada performed what seemed like a miracle by finally pulling off a clean triple Axel in the short when it mattered. She went on to land a clean triple flip, a triple loop-double loop combination and earned Level 4 for all her other elements.
Her score of 78.66 broke the record Yuna Kim set at the 2010 Olympic Games.
It was a remarkable night of skating with an unprecedented five ladies scoring over 70 points. The reception that Carolina Kostner received for her "Ave Maria" routine was almost on a par with the Japanese skaters and has her sitting in second place. In fact, the Italian outperformed Asada on the program components marks by more than a point and a half.
Kostner’s triple flip-triple toe loop combination, triple loop, double Axel, and her spins and footwork were all top notch as well. She earned a richly deserved personal best of 77.24 points. There is a real serenity to Kostner's skating this season - it is breathtaking to behold.
Julia Lipnitskaia was back to the strong and reliable skater she was at Europeans in January, checking all the boxes she was supposed to and more in her "You Don't Give Up on Love" short. She opened with a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination, then a double Axel and a triple flip. She had exceptional Level 4 spins which, showed off her incredible flexibility. Lipnitskaia achieved a new lifetime best of 74.54 points to place herself in third overnight.
In a way it was a good thing that the three Japanese ladies skated one after another tonight. I certainly believe it would have been much too difficult for most of the skaters who are not used to competing in front of an audience of this size and enthusiasm. For the Japanese, this is normal.
Akiko Suzuki skated the final competitive short of her career to "Hymne a l'amour" and posted a best of 71.02 points. Some in the audience were surprised by Kanako Murakami's somewhat low score of 60.86 points after a seemingly perfect skate (one person shouted, "You skated better than the points you got!"), but they were unaware that two of her jumps were penalized for under-rotation by the technical panel.
Other stand out performances for me were Gracie Gold and Anna Pogorilaya who will round out the final group on Saturday. I felt sorry for Kaetlyn Osmond when she messed up her layback spin as the rest of her program had been so great until that point and the crowd was really behind her.