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Rika Kihira took the lead after the women’s short program at the Japan Championships on Thursday night at Yoyogi Gymnasium.

Kihira, who was the runner-up behind Kaori Sakamoto at the nationals last year, earned a score of 73.98 points. Four-time national champion Satoko Miyahara is in second place with 70.11, while Sakamoto is third on 69.95.

Wakaba Higuchi (68.10) is fourth, with Mako Yamashita (66.64) in fifth and Marin Honda (65.92) sixth.

Kihira, stepped out of her opening triple axel to “Breakfast in Baghdad,” but was smooth the rest of the way, landing a triple loop and triple flip/triple toe loop combination.

“I felt pretty good today. I don’t know why the triple axel went that way,” Kihira remarked. “I haven’t skated first in the group for a long time. I should have saved one minute to adjust the triple axel in the six-minute warmup.”

Despite the miscue, Kihira feels much better about her position than she did at this point last year.

“I didn’t feel well in the short program (at nationals) last year and it was bad,” Kihira recalled. “I felt better today and had confidence. I need to focus and think about why things went wrong.”

The 17-year-old Kihira earned level fours for two of her spins, but received a level three for the other spin and her step sequence.

Miyahara skated to an Egyptian disco number choreographed by Benoit Richaud but under-rotated the back end of her opening triple lutz/triple toe loop combo and a triple loop.

Skating under new coach Lee Barkell for the first time in competition in Japan, Miyahara earned just a lone level four for one of her spins, while settling for level threes on the other two and her step sequence.

“There were no big misses tonight and I’m glad for that,” Miyahara commented. “I want to land all of my jumps cleanly in the free skate.”

Sakamoto competed to “No Roots” and also under-rotated the second part of her opening triple flip/triple toe loop combo. She was not happy with her effort afterward.

“I didn’t have enough speed on the combination,” Sakamoto stated. “I need to brush up with my coach before my free skate on Saturday.”

Higuchi appeared confident skating to “Bird Set Free,” but was also dinged with an under-rotation on the second half of her triple lutz/triple toe loop combo.

The 2018 world silver medalist did notch level fours on two of her spins and step sequence. Higuchi has been working on a triple axel in practice recently and could try it in the free skate in an effort to get on the podium.

Tomoe Kawabata, who was second at the Japan Junior Championships last month, put on a lovely performance to “The Blue Danube” and is seventh with 65.53.

Looking elegant in a blue outfit, Kawabata showed off a combination of power and grace that had the crowd enthralled from start to finish.

Junior champion Mana Kawabe (56.62) fell on her opening triple axel and is 14th.

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