Sunday, July 11, 2004

Climbing Mt. Fuji

The past five days have been quite eventful: I have climbed two mountains and interviewed Bobby Valentine and two former Major Leaguers, apart from my normal activities. As my time in Japan winds down, expect more e-mails packed with stories like these. I should note that the second of the two mountains was Mount Fuji, as some of you know. The account of that climb will occupy most of this post.

On Wednesday, Conor and I climbed Mount Takao, a sacred mountain rising 599 meters above sea level, technically within metropolitan Tokyo. It was less than an hour's train ride from Shinjuku Station, astounding considering the presence of plant and animal life and the silence. I probably felt more at ease on the mountain than at any time since I arrived in Japan. We started climbing around 3:30pm, at the tail end of a 90+ degree afternoon. As such, by day's end my t-shirt was as soaked as if I had gone swimming in it. The road to the top was dotted with Buddhist and Shinto statues, and the view of Tokyo from the mountain was quite impressive. There were a handful of other climbers, but it was more or less silent but for our own conversation and the occasional bird call. Even better was the trip back down the mountain. We took the long road down, through a heavily forested side of Takao-san (note: the proper names of mountains are followed by "san"). By the time of our descent the sun was setting, so the forest was bathed in the fading light of the setting sun. No one else was on this trail, and it was mind boggling to think that such serenity could exist so close to the giant mass of sensory overload that is Tokyo.

The following day, Thursday, I went to Chiba Marine Stadium in mid-afternoon for my scheduled interview with Bobby Valentine. His interpreter, Shun, met at the front gate and brought me to the field. I watched batting practice and milled about with members of the press, who were waiting for Valentine's daily press conference. The conference began around 3pm. His facial expressions as he fielded questions were priceless, as were his responses to questions. While it was too windy to hear the questions asked by reporters or Shun's translations, I could hear Valentine's answers, which were heavily laden with sarcasm. (I have to imagine that the sarcasm was not translated into Japanese.) His responses included such gems as "The team with the most wins is at the top of the standings" and "I hope to win as many games as possible in the second half." I waited another 45 minutes after the conference to talk to him, interviewing former NY Mets Benny Agbayani and Matt Franco while waiting. Agbayani spoke effusively of his appreciation of Japanese fans, while Franco spoke highly of the Japanese level of play. At about 4pm I spoke to Bobby one-on-one in the Marines dugout. I should have asked one of the photographers who snapped pictures of us talking for a picture (photographers followed Valentine everyone he went on the field). He gave me a cool reception at first, his responses curt. Admittedly, he was not the ideal source to shed light on the more abstract question of the significance of baseball to the Japanese people: he is a manager, and the focus of his thoughts is winning (as Agbayani told me). As the interview progressed, however, he warmed to me and spoke greater depth. Regardless of the utility of the interview for my article, I was glad to talk to have the opportunity to talk with him. I think it was useful to have a professional's perspective of the game, if only to remind myself that it is just a game, that my abstractions are several levels removed from the reality on the field.

The next step on my quest is a game between the Japanese and Cuban national teams on Tuesday.

And now, at last, I come to Mount Fuji.

Climbing Fuji was an item on my list of things to do in Japan, but I had never given much thought to what it would entail. In my mind it was "Fuji," the mountain present in so many Ukiyo-e prints and as emblematic of Japan as cherry blossoms and "Hello Kitty."

I will never think of it that way again.

Conor and I began discussing a Fuji climb several weeks ago, but our plans were vague. We figured that since we would not be able to leave until late Friday afternoon, after classes finished, we would not have enough time to start at the base and still make it to the summit in time for sunrise. Thus we planned to take a bus to the fifth stage, halfway up, and hike to the top from there, as most people do. This would have given us plenty of time to reach the summit before dawn.

Unfortunately we did not consult a bus schedule to see when the last bus to the fifth stage departed. We found out just after arriving in Kawaguchiko, a gateway town to Fuji, that they stop running just after eight o'clock, meaning that the last bus left just as we disembarked at Kawaguchiko Station. Having no back-up plan, we plotted our next move. Not wanting to spend the entire weekend out of town, as waiting until the next day would entail, we floundered about the station until some amused taxi drivers offered their help. They pointed out that we could take a cab to a site at the foot of the mountain, from which it would take nine hours to reach the summit, by their estimate. While it would not get us there by dawn, it was better than hanging out Kawaguchiko for the night.

Little did we know what awaited us at the end of the cab ride.

We expected some sort of send-off area at the foot of the mountain, where climbers could buy food, water, and other essentials. Oh, how wrong we were. The cab dropped us off in an unlit field near a site marking the entrance to the sacred grounds of Fuji. No lights. No vendors. No other climbers. As we left the cab, we wondered whether we made the right decision to ascend at night, an impression confirmed by the "Ki wo tsukete" [Be careful] that were the driver's solemn parting words.

So there we were, in a pitch-dark field, without a map and unclear where the trail even began. We had nothing but a tiny flashlight clearly not designed for mountain-climbing whose battery life we expected to be short-lived, several bottles of water and Pocari Sweat [a Gatorade-like drink] that we wisely purchased at a convenience store near campus, and backpacks full of warm clothing to don when we reached higher altitudes. At about this time, as we made our final preparations to climb in the darkness, my adrenal gland kicked into overdrive. Why exactly are we going through with this? Will we make it to the top, or back down, for that matter? Will find people along the way? Will we manage to eat at some point? (Neither of us had eaten dinner, expecting to find something at the fifth stage. The only food we had was a block, literally, of something called Calorie Mate, similar I suppose to Power bars.) And yet despite these concerns, we went ahead.

Before I continue, I want to provide some basic facts about Mount Fuji so to give a sense of what exactly we were getting into (from The Mount Fuji homepage):

The highest mountain in Japan, Mt.Fuji is 3776-meter high. Mt.Fuji, which had been a sacred mountain, appeared the present form about 10,000 years ago. More than 200,000 people climb to the top of Mt.Fuji in a year. 30% of them is foreigners. Now, Mt.Fuji is a mountain which the people from the world can be friendly.

3775.63m above sea level
Consists mainly of basaltic lava(about 50% silicon dioxide)
Mountaintop temperature: -18°to +8°C (monthly average)
atmospheric pressure 630 to 650 mb

History of Mt.Fuji
Tens of millions of years ago, when the archipelago of Japan was separated from the continent, Fossa Magna was formed. After that,Mikasa Sanchi was formed. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, Komitake is formed by volcanic eruption. Tens of thousands of years ago, Kofuji volcano repeated eruption,covering Komitake volcano. Ten and few thousands of years ago, Shinfuji volcano was active for along time,until the recent form Mt.Fuji appeared. Since recorded history, ten and few times of eruption was repeated to create form of Mt.Fuji now. Most recent record of eruption is that of HoeiZan in 1707.

* * * * * * * *

At 9pm we began, our puny flashlight illuminating the trail. We were moving through the thick forest that covers the lower half of the mountain, and thus could see neither moon nor stars. We frequently came to clearings that appeared to be forks in the trail, but we always managed to find our way. We expected to find way stations at the stages we passed, but found nothing but abandoned shacks designated "Station such-and-such." Nor did we find other people along the trail. It was just us and the mountain.

It was the fifth stage, at a clearing in front of an abandoned building labeled "Fifth Station" [we later found that the fifth station from which most climbers depart is on a different trail] that we had out first sign indicating that we had made the right decision to climb. Prior to this stage we had noticed the forest thinning, with patches of sky visible between the trees. At this clearing, however, we were treated to a sky filled with more stars than I have ever seen in my life, including the skies over the Rocky Mountains, with the Milky Way (in Japanese, Tennogawa, or "river of heaven") clearly visible. Never before I had seen the Milky Way spread out across the sky, indeed looking like a river of heaven. It was a moment to give one pause, and I stood there for several minutes sweaty, muscles aching, and very happy to be alive.

We continued on, finally encountering civilization at the sixth stage. We reached the sixth station at 11pm, two hours into our climb, and found that it was manned and provided food for climbers. We rested for a half-hour, having perhaps the most satisfying bowl of udon noodles I have ever had. We also purchased walking sticks, the definite Fuji souvenir, which is branded with stamps whenever one reaches a way station on the way up. Comforted by finding other people on the mountain, we moved on. The flashlight died not long after we renewed our climb, but by then we had cleared the treeline and thus climbed by moonlight. The trail became much steeper and rockier at this point. The real climb had begun.

We were no longer alone on the trail at this point, as it was filled with climbers who started at higher stages, all of us trying to reach the summit by dawn.

At the risk of sounding cliche, there is nothing that clears one's perspective better than climbing a mountain, particularly one as daunting as Fuji-san. I had come to the mountain annoyed about a presentation for Japanese class that had gone less-than-splendidly, and preoccupied by dozens of other concerns. The fears that accompanied the start of the climb quickly drove these from the forefront of my thoughts, but as we climbed Conor and I still discussed current events and other topics. As we reached the higher stages, however, conversation ceased but for the occasional Lord of the Rings reference (we were, after all, two guys climbing a volcano). Everything that constituted my life suddenly seemed less important than the next breath, the next step, the next station, the summit. Is this a cliched sentiment? Of course. But it was exactly as I felt as we moved closer to the top. It was my will versus the mountain, and, more importantly, my will versus myself. The struggle was as much a struggle to overcome the resistance of my legs, which made it very clear that they wanted me to stop, and the resistance of my mind, which kept telling me that I was doing a very stupid thing, as it was a struggle against the 4,000 meters of rock that are Mount Fuji. I am proud to say that my will won, that we did not stop for the night at a way station. Did it hurt? Yes, to which the soreness of my legs and the cuts on my hands (from using my hands to break my falls on the sharp volcanic rocks that constitute the climbing surface) attest. But I am better for it.

And so we climbed, stopping briefly at way stations for water, breath, and at one point to buy flags to hang from our walking sticks (a nice touch, I thought). Every stage offered a view of the world below better than the one previous. We reached the final station before the summit at 4am, a half-hour before sunrise and an hour from the peak. We were within view of the torii gate that marks the summit when dawn broke, so while we did not make it all the way to the top for sunrise, we were as close as possible without being on the summit, no mean feat considering that we reached the summit more than an hour before expected. After pausing to admire the dawn, we continued on, stumbling through the torii at 4:45am. In less than eight hours we had scaled the entire mountain. After having a small snack and getting the final stamps branded on our walking sticks we found room to nap in a hut at the summit, trying to keep as warm as possible on the windswept summit.

We began our descent at 9:15am, along a winding trail even rockier than the ascending road. Legs sore, it was perhaps more difficult than the hike up the mountain. We finally reached stage 5 [the one we planned to start from] at 12:15pm and took a bus back to Kawaguchiko. Several hours later we boarded a bus back to Shinjuku, and, after an American-sized steak dinner, parted ways.

I know that I will resume my normal ways, caught up in the ebb and flow of public affairs and the things I must do, but I hope I will always retain that "next step, next station" perspective somewhere within me. I know I will never forget standing near the summit of Mount Fuji after climbing for eight hours, watching the sun rise of the clouds arrayed around the mountain, aware that for all the apparent insanity of our hastily prepared ascent, it was the wisest thing I have ever done.

P.S. I have already updated pictures from the climb to my photo page.

Sunday, July 4, 2004

Independence Day

Independence Day

I just wanted to send of a quick e-mail for the Fourth, as mine draws to a close and yours begin. Mine was woefully lacking in barbecued meat products, namely hot dogs, and fireworks. And, of course, I miss the company of you all, who I have celebrated the holiday with at one point or another. It doesn't quite feel like a holiday if no one around you celebrates it.

I spent the day in Yokohama, Tokyo's appendage -- the two cities combined are one of the world's largest conurbations. As you probably expected, I went to a baseball game, my second of the weekend (the other was in the west suburbs of Tokyo on Friday night), and the tenth stadium I have visited. I only have two left to see, in Hiroshima and Sapporo, which I plan to travel to in early August. Thankfully Yokohama Stadium was outdoors, as it was sunny and in the nineties all day. It felt a lot like Shea Stadium, including orange and blue colors.

Last Wednesday my program visited a Japanese elementary school, which confirmed that children the world over have excessive stores of energy and are more than eager to release that energy in the presence of new people. I observed a gym class, where I was made to look foolish due to my lack of fine motor skills. Who knew spinning a top could be so hard!?!?

I will leave you with that anecdote, although I want to add a follow-up to something noted in my last e-mail. This coming Thursday I have an interview scheduled with former Mets and current Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine. I will be sure to let you know how it goes.

Finally, I added a few pictures from this weekend to my photo page. Check it out.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Tokyo summer

Summer has arrived in full force in Tokyo, though the rainy season has been slow to make its presence known. (This will probably change this week, with a giant typhoon roaring through the archipelago.) It has been mostly warm and sunny, not bad but for the lack of green, open spaces where one can take advantage of the weather.

It has been a long time since I last wrote, but I will try to update you as best as I can. As some of you know, I had a whirlwind, jet-lag-inducing trip return to the United States in mid-May (nine days, meaning that by the time I adjusted to the time change I was headed back to Japan). Between the work I had to make up and the copious amounts of jet-lag-induced sleep, not much of note happened in May.

June has been more interesting. Earlier this month I went to the New York Bar, featured in "Lost In Translation." It probably serves the most expensive drink in Tokyo (but with plenty of competition), but the view makes it all worthwhile. We went on the eve of the rainy season's first storm, and had a great perch from which to watch the clouds saturate the skies over Tokyo. The following weekend I had my first capsule hotel experience. As many of you surely know, capsule hotels are designed for people who miss their last trains. They are named because the sleeping compartments are supposedly capsule-shaped; I expected plastic sleeping tubes. The name, however, is a misnomer. The hotel was more like a dorm. Each floor had a small number of beds, stacked in twos. The sleeping quarters were more like enclosed bunk beds than capsules, with a shade that could be drawn for privacy.

Last weekend I went down to Fukuoka, the largest city on Kyushu, for some R & R, having finally recovered from my return. The ostensible reason for going was to visit my seventh professional baseball stadium, the Fukuoka Dome, home of the defending champion Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. The dome is a retractable dome styled after the Toronto Skydome, but I think it looks more like a giant beetle that emerged from the Korea Strait and died on the shore. The Hawks fans, meanwhile, must be the best in the Pacific League, second only to Tigers fans in the Nippon Professional Baseball League. Unlike nearly all other teams' fans, they cheer throughout the game, even when the Hawks are in the field. The game itself was rather lackluster, as the Hawks dominated the lowly Orix Blue Wave 12-3, this the second game of a series in which the Hawks won all three games, outscoring the Blue Wave by a total of 34-11.

Perhaps the best part of my trip, and quite possibly one of my favorite moments since I arrived in Japan, was last Saturday night in Fukuoka, after the game. My hotel was in Hakata, the city's central district and after the game I ventured out to explore. A canal bisects the district. A row of food stands housed in tents and picnic tables lines the canal for more than a mile, and late Saturday evening every stand is full of boisterous folk drinking and eating freshly grilled delectables. I found a spot at the counter of one of the tents and ending up eating and drinking with a group of locals for almost two hours (and talking in Japanese, of course). The farther you get from Tokyo the more earthy the people get; the food stands of Hakata are worlds away from the department stores of Tokyo.

Speaking of which, I have been to several now, and they are unlike anything I have ever seen, especially on weekends. It suggests that the depiction of Japan as an anti-consumption society is not entirely accurate. Endless crowds flood into the department stores as soon as they have free time, spending untold amounts of money.

Since returning from Fukuoka, I went to a kabuki play last Wednesday. Kabuki cannot be compared to Western theater. The emphasis is on the performers, not what is being performed, so all of the action on-stage is heavily exaggerated. There is no expectation of the viewer to suspend disbelief. That said, the play I saw was the story of a supernatural Buddhist monk who, to spite the Imperial government, sealed away the dragons that controlled the rain, causing a drought. The court dispatches a princess to seduce the monk and get him inebriated, giving her clearance to free the dragons. The plan succeeds flawlessly, and, in an unexpected twist, the monk, enraged by the deception, transforms into a thunder god and vows to hunt the princess down. Needless to say, quite entertaining.

The only other happening to report is that I am hard at work on an article about Japanese baseball, which will hopefully appear in The New Republic. This article has led me to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, and, more recently, to an interview with the director of the MLB's Japan office. It may also lead me to an interview with a certain American managing in Japan, but that remains to be finalized.

Wednesday, May 5, 2004

The Happy Smile Super Challenge Japanese Baseball Stadium Tour

Today is Children’s Day, the final day of Golden Week, which is a string of national holidays in late April/early May. As such, a large portion of the country is off work for the week, meaning that this is perhaps the busiest travel week of the Japanese calendar, with Japanese crowding airports and train stations on their way to destinations foreign or domestic. With no classes for the week, I too was on the move. With my friend Conor, I went to Nagoya and Osaka, where we did the Happy Smile Super Challenge Japanese Baseball Stadium Tour (5 yen to whoever gets the reference): four stadiums, four games, four days.

After struggling to get tickets, battling the Golden Week crowds, and overcoming the fatigue of watching four games in as many days, we succeeded, getting an excellent glimpse at the varieties of Japanese life in the process. Rather than craft an entirely new account of the journey, I will provide excerpts from the 10-page journal entry I wrote about it. I should also note that I have already posted my pictures from the trip to my photo page. So without further ado, here are my notes and observations from six days in western Honshu.

"Conor and I arrived at Tokyo Station in early afternoon. Prior to boarding the shinkansen [bullet train] we dined at a kaiten-sushi [conveyor-belt sushi] restaurant in the station, an excellent start to our journey. Kaiten is one of the best means of serving food I have ever seen. Sushi is served on plates color coded by price. Chefs continually replenish the dishes circulating on the conveyor belt. It is frightfully easy to eat large quantities of sushi when it is served in this fashion.

"We departed Tokyo at approximately 3pm, arriving in Nagoya just before 5pm. The shinkansen is an incredible way to travel. Naturally it saves a lot of time (if only it were feasible in the United States). The seats are spacious, and the legroom is equivalent to business class on a commercial jet...the Japanese landscape as seen from the train is rather plain, if not downright ugly: houses and industrial sites as far as the eye can see.

"Upon arrival in Nagoya we set out in search of the youth hostel located in the heart of the city, on the edge of its major nightlife district, the area around Sakae Station. After some confusion we found the hostel, which was, at best, uninspiring. A 1970s era dormitory-style building with Japanese-style rooms, the hostel had two rules, which, combined with the colorless décor, led us to dub the Nagoya hostel the 'hostile hostel.' The two rules were 1) the front door locked at 11pm, the functional equivalent of a curfew, and 2) limited bath times, in this case 8pm to 10pm for males. On top of this, the hostel seemed largely uninhabited: the only other guests we encountered were those with whom we shared a room...Despite the limited hours and depressing accommodations, however, Conor and I managed to enjoy Nagoya.

"After checking in on Thursday, we went to an izakaya attached to the hostel for drinks and a bite to eat [including the first of the weekend’s many edamame pods], after which we set out to explore the city. Nagoya is Japan’s fourth largest city and is a major transportation hub between Kanto [Tokyo's region] and Kansai [the area around Osaka], serving as the gateway to Honshu's Sea of Japan coast. It was unfortunately leveled during the war, so it lacks some of the historic character of Japan's other cities. It struck me as being a slightly bigger version of a Midwestern city (think Milwaukee or Cleveland). It was without question different from Tokyo, lacking the electricity that propels the ubiquitous crowds of that city. It also seemed considerably less international, again similar to a medium sized Midwestern city. As such, it was welcome relief from the never-ending rush that is Tokyo. We wandered around gazing at the neon lights and myriad clubs of the entertainment district, but, mindful of our curfew, did not indulge.

"The following day we did some sight-seeing, perhaps the only sight-seeing we did all weekend. We saw 'Nagoya Castle,'a replica of the original castle, which was destroyed during the war. The castle was the seat of Tokugawa Ieyasu before he seized the shogunate, and is famous for a pair of golden dolphins perched on the roof...After touring the castle we proceeded to Nagoya Dome to purchase tickets for Friday night's game, the first leg of the tour.

"Nagoya Dome is home to the Chunichi Dragons, one of the Central League's six teams [the others being the Giants, the Hanshin Tigers, the Hiroshima Carp, the Yokohama Bay Stars, and the Yakult Swallows]. Nagoya Dome is a standard fixed-roof dome, uninspiring to the extreme. At least Tokyo Dome has devoted fans to give it some life; the Dragons fans were by no means as devoted. Granted, the Dragons were roundly defeated by the Bay Stars, but I have seen other teams' fans noisily defiant in the face of defeat. In short, the fans were tame, much like Nagoya itself, unremarkable and, indeed, slightly depressing. In fact, we left the game after the seventh inning with the Dragons trailing 9-2...

"I want to comment briefly on the phenomenon of team mascots and logos. In the U.S., costumed mascots are at most a tiny distraction from the game, and teams design their icons to emphasize their strength, admittedly a tall order for teams named after small birds. In Japan, however, teams emphasize the friendliness of their team names, in fitting with Japan’s 'kawa ii' [cute] culture, in which fuzzy things and cute, squeaky voices are at a premium. (The most prevalent examples of this are advertisements: numerous TV commercials and billboards feature people dressed up in various cutesy animal costumes. Also of note is a morning show on Japanese television that has a ten-minute puppy segment, literally ten minutes of puppy footage every morning.) As for baseball 'kawa ii,' the most extreme case I have seen thus far is that of the Yomiuri Giants, which use a rabbit derived from the team's 'YG' symbol to represent the team. Additionally, every team has a female version of its mascot, which usually acts like a cheerleader. In the case of the Dragons, they were represented by male and female versions of a wimpy looking cartoon dragon, plus, inexplicably, a somersaulting Koala. This is one aspect of Japanese baseball I could do without.

"...Following the game, we rushed back to the hostel, hoping to return in time to bathe (we hadn't the night before). We were just a few minutes too late, meaning it was another 24 hours until we bathed...Having failed at our quest for cleanliness we set out to find a way to kill the hour we had until the hostel’s doors locked for the night. We found a tiny cigar bar near the hostel...over cigars and coffee we celebrated the first leg of the tour...We returned to the hostel just before 11pm, and shortly after had a long conversation with a fireman in the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (navy) with whom we were sharing a room. Our conversation ranged over a variety of topics: differences between Japanese and American culture, places to visit in the U.S., the Iraq war, and so on. He was especially interested in sex, and was keen to learn how to pick up American women. One must realize that the Japanese are considerably more open about romance and sex. One of the first questions asked by Japanese I have met is usually 'Do you have a girlfriend?' This question is usually asked just after 'where do you come from?' (Keep in mind that I am talking about males; my baseball teammates seemed more interested in my romantic life than my curveball when I first started practicing with them.)

"...We left for Osaka the following morning at 9:30am, arriving in the city an hour later. Fortunately the Osaka hostel was a mere five-minute walk from Shin-Osaka Station, meaning we got settled quickly before the afternoon's baseball game. The hostel is brand new, having just opened in March. While the doors also closed at 11pm, the bathing period was considerably longer (4pm to midnight), the staff was young and friendly, the hostel lounge served as a gathering place every night (with free coffee and tea), and the rooms were clean, comfortable, and had great views of Osaka, since the hostel is situated on the ninth and tenth stories of the building. In short, it was everything the Nagoya hostel was not, a not-so-hostile hostel. We did not linger long after arriving, for the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes were playing the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks at 2pm on Saturday.

"The Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes play in the Pacific League, which, founded in 1949, does not have the storied history of the Central League. Like America's junior circuit (for the uninitiated the American League), the PL has the designated-hitter rule, much to my chagrin. In addition to the Buffaloes, the teams include the Chiba Lotte Marines, the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, the Orix Blue Wave, the Seibu Lions, and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. The Buffs play at Osaka Dome, an oddly shaped dome just south of downtown Osaka...Like Tokyo Dome, it has an entertainment and dining complex on the premises, giving the place a more festive air. Being a Saturday afternoon during Golden Week, there was an excellent turnout. We sat in the second deck of the right field bleachers, unfortunately not in the Buffs cheering section. We did, however, sneak down to the home and visiting cheering sections for brief interludes. While the Buffaloes fans were better than the Chunichi rooters, they were put to shame by the Hawks faithful, who turned out in vast numbers and made noise throughout the game, even when the Hawks were in the field. This was most unusual, given that fans tend to be quiet when their team is on defense. Despite the enthusiasm of the Hawks fans, however, the Buffaloes came from behind to beat the Hawks 6-5, a major improvement from the previous day's slaughter...

"Following the game we returned to the hostel, bathed for the first time since Thursday morning, and got a late dinner at a 'German' restaurant in Shin-Osaka Station...dinner was followed by a cream puff from Beard Papa's, a chain of shops selling a single variety of cream puff that was recently featured in the Economist. We called it an early night, knowing that Sunday would be a busy day.

"On Sunday we left the hostel early to venture out to Koshien Stadium, home of the Hanshin Tigers and in my opinion one of the world's baseball meccas, ranking alongside Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, and Yankee Stadium as one of the greatest places for a fan to pay tribute to the game of baseball. We arrived around 9:30am for the 2:00pm game against the Yakult Swallows, hoping to snag day-of-game tickets. While I had an inkling that the stadium would be crowded and tickets hard to come by, I was not prepared for what we encountered: vast numbers of fans began lining up to enter the stadium well before 10:00am, even though the gates would not open for more than two hours. Keep in mind that this was not a game against the hated Yomiuri Giants, the Tigers’ fierce rival, but the lowly, cellar dwelling Yakult Swallows. Not surprisingly we learned around 10 that the game was sold out, giving us four hours to find tickets. We quickly wrote out a sign in Japanese expressing our desire to buy two tickets and proceeded to circulate around the outside of the stadium hoping we would find someone willing to sell. Instead we got stares from passersby. Children pointed at us and grown men tittered. Apparently holding up a sign in the hope of buying tickets is an unusual thing here. Finally, after more than an hour of futility during which we contemplated throwing in the towel, we were approached by a twenty-something guy wearing several layers of Tigers apparel. He offered us two tickets at 5,000 yen a piece (approximately $50). We accepted his offer and then waited for his provider to arrive from Osaka, more than a half-hour away...when he finally got the tickets, we found that their face value was yen1760 a piece, leading us to demand that he lower the price...he obliged immediately and without a fight lowered his price to yen2000. We soon found ourselves inside Koshien, ensconced in excellent seats in left field foul territory...

"Koshien Stadium, built in 1924, is the oldest professional stadium in Japan. A plaque outside the stadium reminds fans that Babe Ruth played there in 1934. The stadium's exterior is decked with ivy, perhaps the surest sign of a vintage ballpark. It was a welcome change from the previous days' domes. The Tigers are the second oldest Japanese professional ballclub, having become a pro team in 1935, one year after the Giants. As far as I can tell, Hanshin fans are the most enthusiastic baseball fans in Japan, perhaps in the world. I can think of no team in the U.S. that compares, and I am a Cubs fan! The stands at Koshien were a veritable sea of yellow, as every fan came wearing what seemed like every piece of Tigers merchandise he or she owned, including gloves and scarves (this despite it being 80 degrees and sunny). Moreover, nearly every fan, more than 50,000 strong, had a pair of plastic bats to whack together during the game, meaning the noise was deafening. Lastly, at other games, the hard-core home fans situated in right field make most of the noise, with a strong contingent of visiting fans answering the home team rooters. At Koshien, however, all 50,000 fans but for a smattering of Swallows fans seated in a tiny section of left field cheered like the die-hard fans of other teams...Imagine 50,000 fans singing the same songs and uttering the same chants and you will get a sense of what this game felt like. Of course Conor and I joined in: we did not really have a choice. With a twenty-something guy named Toshihito teaching us the songs and chants, we were able to cheer for George Arias and company along with the rest of the Hanshin faithful. The Hanshin 50,000 also did a Lucky Seven balloon display, with just about every fan inflating balloons and letting them fly. They repeated this after the Tigers won 9-3 thanks to Arias’s two home runs, including a grand slam in the early going. The fans showed their true devotion following the game. It looked as if not a single Tigers fan left for at least a half-hour after the game. All stayed for Arias's 'hero' interview and then stayed even longer to sing and chant some more. Nearly an hour after the game a group of fans was still singing outside the stadium...

"After waiting for the crowds to thin...we finally boarded a train back to Osaka. We dined in downtown Osaka, near Umeda Station. I find Osaka to be quite similar to Chicago as Japanese cities go. While Tokyo is composed of major areas, each with its own things to see, Osaka more or less has a downtown like Chicago's. As such, it feels quite different from Tokyo, with the city’s pulse concentrated in the center...However, exhausted by our quasi-religious experience at Koshien, we were grateful for the hostel's 11pm curfew.

"The following day, Monday, we were slow to rise. Thankfully the final game of the tour was a night game. We walked along Shinsaibashi-suji, an enormous shopping street in central Osaka, before heading out to Yahoo BB Stadium in neighboring Kobe, where the Orix Blue Wave played the visiting Chiba Lotte Marines. Thankfully the Orix fans were more subdued, with most of them arriving a mere half-hour before the first pitch and only a handful of die-hards cheering for each Orix batter...The stadium was another outdoor stadium, which, despite the light drizzle that fell in the middle innings, was a fine place to end the Happy Smile Super Challenge Japanese Baseball Stadium Tour. As Conor and I observed upon first stepping through the gate, Yahoo BB Stadium is the Japanese cousin of Camden Yards, Jacobs Field, and the other retro ballparks in the United States. It is cozy, very new, and features a grass infield and a dirt warning track, unlike other outdoor fields. It was also a family-friendly park, with an extensive playground on the first-base side.

"Of special note was ex-Cub Roosevelt Brown's presence in the Blue Wave starting lineup. He was playing right field and batting cleanup. Conor and I were seated in the first row of the right-field bleachers, within earshot of Brown. With my Cubs cap on, I was determined to get him to acknowledge me as a fan from his Cubs days. Before the top of the ninth I finally got his attention; seeing my hat, he nodded and gave a friendly wave.

"The Blue Wave managed to pull out a 5-4 win in extra innings, though we had to leave after the ninth so as not to be locked out of the hostel. We had a great trip, saw some great baseball, and got a rare glimpse into the Japanese soul. Six stadiums down, six to go."

Thursday, April 22, 2004

From the "Japanese public behavior" file

Rather than greeting released hostages with an outpouring of sympathy and national unity, the Japanese public criticized the hostages for being in Iraq and putting their own interests before those of their country. Wrote the Japan Times:

"While the three were in captivity, they and their kin drew sharp public criticism in Japan, having put themselves in harm's way after being warned to steer clear of Iraq. They were castigated for causing trouble and a fair amount of grief for the government."

Wednesday, April 21, 2004


As promised, I have added pictures from the 19 April 2004 Chiba Lotte Marines game, as well as some more pictures from the Giants game.


It has been several weeks since I last wrote, and while it seems like I have done a lot since then, it mostly involves becoming more familiar with life in Tokyo. Most importantly, I have started playing baseball with the Sophia University team, which has provided and will continue to provide a rare glimpse into Japanese life. Between getting back into playing shape and trying to communicate with my teammates, this may be one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Hardly any of my teammates speak English, and I lack the Japanese baseball vocabulary, making it difficult to ask even the most basic questions during practice. The most striking example was my first time pitching off a mound a couple weeks ago. The catcher spoke no English at all, and could not understand my halting Japanese. Needless to say, trying to get feedback on my performance was nearly impossible.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that in the end this will rank as one of the defining experiences of my life in Japan. My classmates are either foreigners or Japanese who have lived abroad, so without baseball I would not know a purely Japanese social setting. As such, I have noticed several different responses to my presence in their midst. Some of my teammates view me as a novelty and make every effort to practice their English, test my Japanese, and become friends with me. Others, whether for lack of English ability or some other reason, deliberately keep their distance from me. However, whenever I do anything (pitch batting practice, field groundballs during batting practice, attempt to do the needlessly complicated warm-up drills, etc.), the eyes of all my teammates are upon me, normally accompanied by "Go Harisu!" Every day I feel more a part of the team, especially after last Saturday's izakaya party. Izakayas, not quite bars and not quite restaurants, are establishments that specialize in all-you-can-drink parties, usually for two hours. You sit in a traditional Japanese-style room, shoeless and cross-legged on tatami mats, and servers continually bring out snacks, bottles of beer, sake, and pitchers of "sour," a drink made out of a Japanese alcohol called shochu mixed with fruit or flavoring. Saturday night, after a five-hour practice, the veteran players treated the new players at an izakaya near campus. As you can imagine, one feels more accepted in a group after a couple hours at an izakaya.

As for the manner of play and the practices, I find them consistent with a quality I have observed throughout Japanese society: the Japanese call it "makoto," which roughly means "sincerity," but could be more accurately described as the Japanese respect for doing things the way they are supposed to be done. In baseball practice this means expressing one's gratitude upon entering the field or beginning a round of catch by removing one's hat, lowering one's head, and saying "onegaishimasu" (a very polite, respectful way to say please), or shouting support for the team throughout infield/outfield practice. On Saturday, for example, the coach singled out a shortstop for being insufficiently loud during practice and made him scream his lungs out before finally hitting his final groundball.

Makoto manifests itself in a variety of ways, and I think it is what I like most about Japanese society. The Japanese more or less recognize that there are appropriate ways to behave in public and obligations one must meet in whatever public roles one plays. For example, I believe this is the appropriate way to understand Japanese baseball fans. Some Western observers have compared attending a Japanese baseball game to attending a Nuremberg rally, with all of the fans chanting and singing in unison. Having seen two Tokyo Giants game and more recently a Chiba Lotte Marines game (Monday night), I am convinced that this view is downright offensive. Yes, Japanese fans chant in unison from the first pitch to the last pitch, but it is more a reflection of a fan's obligations than a surrender to primal urges. A fan is expected to support all of the players on the team and to follow the game closely: what better way than by standing while your team bats and staying to the last pitch, even during a blowout? Monday night's Marines game was against the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes, and was the second game the Marines played after breaking a 10-game losing streak that sent the team into the cellar. A weather forecast that called for rain meant that much of the stadium was empty, but the Marines cheering section in the right field stands was almost full, and there was not a quite moment at any time during the game.

A few brief asides on the game before continuing on the subject of makoto (though not too much, since I am going to try to write an article on Japanese baseball in the coming weeks that will include more details): Bobby Valentine, former Mets managers, is managing the Marines for the second time, and he is viewed as some kind of redeemer sent to deliver the Marines to the championship (see the picture of the Bobby Valentine shrine on the webshots page); the refrain of the team song goes, "We love, love, love, love Bobby, we love, love, love, love Bobby;" Bobby Valentine apparel is sold alongside player apparel, which I cannot imagine happening anywhere in the United States (I now have a Bobby Valentine t-shirt); Japanese fans remain the most positive sports fan I have ever seen -- during games it feels as if the other team is not even there, since the fans do not react to anything the other team does (home rums, good defensive plays, etc.); Something familiar: "YMCA" played over the loudspeakers, though instead of singing most of the fans whistled along (admittedly being surrounded by a bunch of Japanese people whistling 'YMCA' was slightly unsettling); I recently decided to visit all 12 Japanese ballparks, so expect more notes about "yakyuu" (Japanese for baseball).

I have a couple more examples of how makoto manifests itself. First, train rides are almost entirely silent but for the sound of the train and conversations between students. People mostly sleep. It is a relief to not have to listen to someone jabber on and on in public, and of course reflects the Japanese understanding of public behavior. One more example, which I think sums it up perfectly: at a diner/coffee shop near my house a little while ago my server spilled a little coffee on the saucer just as he was setting it down. Instead of giving me the cup just the same, he returned to the kitchen, cleaned off the cup, and placed it on a new saucer. I have a hard time imagining something similar happening at an American diner.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004


My article on Passover in Tokyo in the Jewish Forward: Japan Teaches One Jew the True Meaning of Diaspora

My Webshots page: Japan

3 April 2004 email

I have been here for about ten days now and every day I find something new and exciting. The mysteries of Tokyo seem endless; in many ways it is a giant maze that invites exploration. I am doing a home stay with a family of four living in a neighboring prefecture (state) called Chiba. It takes little under an hour by subway to reach downtown Tokyo. My host father does not in fact live at home, but rather is stationed with the Japanese Coast Guard on the island of Hokkaido. Thus I am in the house with my host mother and two host sisters, ages 24 and 20. They giggle amongst themselves quite a bit, like another pair of sisters that I know. I am more or less a part of the family now. Every day we joke together, eat meals together, and talk about our days, like any other family. The meals, of course, are fantastic. The varieties of Japanese cuisine are endless. I am sure many of you would be surprised to learn that I have had sushi only once since arriving here. I find myself eating noodles (soba or udon) or donburi (meat over rice) much more often. The other joy of living in a Japanese home is that every day ends with a dip in the ofuro (steaming hot bath), surely one of the finer aspects of Japanese living.

I could not have picked a better time to come to Japan. The old standard lavishes praise on April in Paris, but I am sure Tokyo can give Paris a run for its money. All of the major boulevards and waterways are lined with blooming cherry trees, and every breeze carries a veritable blizzard of blossoms as well as their smell. Every day crowds stream into the city parks to hana-mi (literally 'flower view'), resting on the grass with drinks and food for hours. The other day I went to Kitanamoru park, near the Imperial Palace, for hana-mi with my host family. I will never forget strolling through the sakura, with the smell of the blossoms mingling with the taste of baked sweet potatoes sold by vendors in the park. It is easy to love Tokyo when one is surrounded by such beauty. Naturally the blossoms will soon be gone, and then will come the rainy season. I guess we will see how I like it then.

Early last week I had the opportunity to escape from Tokyo briefly, as the program took an overnight trip to the country town of Nikko. Nikko is home to the remains of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, as well as a handful of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples associated with his tomb. The most impressive thing about Nikko is how it demonstrates the seamlessness with which Buddhism and Shintoism merged in Japan. One walks through a Buddhist temple, exits, enters a Shinto shrine, exits, enters a Buddhist temple, and so on in rapid succession. Another interesting note is that the phrase 'hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil' comes from panels decorating the stable at the shrine. The panels depict three monkeys performing said actions. The second day of the trip involved a visit to Nikko National Park, which incorporates several locations in the mountains around Nikko. We saw Lake Chuzenji, a resort lake that at this time of year seemed more like Alaska, and Kegon Falls, a giant waterfall.

Returning to Tokyo after the trip, I gained a greater appreciation for just how crowded Tokyo is. Tokyo moves like a mighty river. Its residents don`t merely move about: they flow. Whether crossing one of the city`s many broad intersections, entering or exiting a train, or streaming through one of the giant train stations, Tokyo-ites are a relentless force that can carry away those who are caught unawares. I do not exaggerate. I experience this every morning going into the city. While it is of course cliche to call the trains crowded, crowded does not begin to describe it. The doors open and no matter how much space is available in the train, everyone on the platform is boarding. After the first day I learned to move as far away from the doors as possible lest I get pushed out of the train as others flowed in. One experiences something similar on the sidewalks in just about every part of the city. Walk too slowly and you are likely to be pushed to the side by a swarm of Japanese rushing somewhere.

In addition to the cherry blossoms, the best part of Tokyo in the spring is without a doubt the new baseball season, which began with the Yankees and Devil Rays playing exhibition games against the Yomiuri Giants (the Yankees of Japan) and the Hanshin Tigers (the defending champions) and then playing against each other. I had my first Japanese baseball experience this evening, when I went with a friend to the Tokyo Dome to see the Giants play the Tigers in the second game of the first series of the season. It is comforting that I can watch a game that is more or less the same 6,000 miles from home. We sat in standing room seats, which were essentially behind the last row of the bleachers. Having adopted the Giants as our team, we sat on the right field side, the designated Giants sections. (It is nice that I was able to to choose freely the team to root for, as opposed to receiving it like an heirloom. And since I could pick, why not pick the Yankees of Japan. NB: my love for the Cubs remains true.) The experience was something like a college football game, but without the rowdiness and with a professional level of play. The die-hards epitomize die hard; the best part of the game was joining in the chants that accompany every player as he steps to the plate and the team songs that are sung repeatedly throughout the game. Unlike American fans, however, the fans are respectful of the other team; when a Hanshin player hit a grand slam that turned out to be the game winner (the Giants lost 5-1), the Giants die-hards clapped respectfully. Imagine that happening at Fenway Park, or anywhere else for that matter. The tone throughout the stadium is overwhelmingly positive. The game would have been better outdoors, of course, but all in all it was a great experience, so great that after the game we went to the ticket booth and bought tickets for next Friday's game against the Yakult Swallows. It is probably a good and bad thing that the Tokyo Dome is a twenty-minute walk from campus. As you can probably tell, I will be back. Often. Especially since Tuffy Rhodes, the three home-run wonder from the Cubs ten years ago is playing center field for the Giants.

I think I have written enough for now. I hope I have given a sense of my life in Japan for the time being. Hopefully it won't change too much when classes begin a week from Monday. I have pictures of most of the things I just described. If there is a demand for them, I will figure out how to upload them. I hope to hear back from all of you. And now, ofuroni hairu.

Shinjuku at rush hour (from 29 March 2004)

Words cannot describe what it feels like to be in Shinjuku Station at rush hour. It seems like the entire population of Tokyo is rushing to one of the numerous train lines that stem from the station, a giant race to get to where one wants to go and it is every man for himself. I was in the area with a group of 15 of my peers, getting a drink for someone`s birthday after spending the entire day doing a citywide scavenger hunt. After a conversation with a confused transportation officer and a bit of luck, I managed to find a train going in the direction I needed to go, but not without sweating a bit. This train system is remarkably efficient and convenient, but when the crowds are flowing past one loses one`s train of thought so to speak. I cannot imagine a busier place in the world.

The scavenger hunt was an excellent way to get acquainted with the city. It brought us to all corners of the city, if only for brief spurts. One of the stops was at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, which features one of the best views of the city around. It is astounding to think about the number of people who live within the space visible from the towers: the Sears Tower's view of the Midwest pales in comparison. Nothing, in fact, is more striking about Tokyo than the people. There are enormous crowds everywhere one goes, even in the 'quiet' neighborhoods. It is exhilirating in a way, but also exhausting. Perhaps the most crowded area is Shibuya, a major youth quarter shown often in Lost In Translation. At the main Shibuya intersection, it feels like charging into battle as two crowds on opposite sides of the street charge into one another.

I know that I picked the right country to come to because I have baseball to watch on TV every night. Last night the New York Yankees played an exhibition against the storied Yomiuri Giants, Japanese equivalent of the Yankees. It marked the return of Matsui Hideki to his former home, and he thanked his fans by hitting a giant home run in his first at-bat. Also of note is that former Cub and current Japanese all-star Tuffy Rhodes has moved from the Osaka Buffalo to the Yomiuri Giants, so I will likely have an opportunity to see him play in a very different setting than the last time I saw him.


I decided to create this blog so as to archive the e-mails containing the accounts of my life in Japan, in addition to web-only updates whenever I find the time. So check it out.