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."