El Béisbol: The road trip to Mexico begins

The road trip to Mexico began rough.  I spent the week before departure moving the contents of my apartment into a storage unit, writing a scholarship essay and hastily trying to prepare for the road trip to come.  I would be heading out onto the open road, from Seattle south through Oregon and California and on to Tijuana for a single game.  After the game in Tijuana the plan was to drive back into the US to head east to Phoenix and then turn south through Nogales and deep into the heart of Mexico.  The majority of teams in the Liga Mexicana de Béisbol (LMB) are located along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, so the itinerary had a simple directive: keep driving south… all the way to Cancún.

The LMB road trip through Mexico

The LMB road trip through Mexico

Leaving Seattle on July 18th, I had to hustle because the LMB season would end on August 15th . The distance from Seattle to Cancun was 3,816 miles and a total of sixteen stadiums stood between me and the end of the journey. Not to mention that eventually I would have to turn around and drive the same route home.

Like usual, my departure took forever.  I kissed my girlfriend Caroline ‘goodbye’ and then proceeded to the apartment I was vacating to put the ‘final touches’ on cleaning it out… which ended up taking about four hours before I was even ready to disembark.

I turned the van out onto I-5 in the early afternoon and made it as far as Fife (near Tacoma) before my hunger got the better of me.  Spending a few minutes in Taco Time couldn’t hurt, right?

One #5 Natural Soft Taco later I was back on the road.  The sun was resting easy in the west as the van passed through Kelso, WA when I had a funny thought: where was my computer bag? It wasn’t in the usual spot, next to me on the passenger seat. This bag not only contained my laptop, but also my passport, about $500 in pesos and all my important paperwork.

I brought the van to a screeching halt on the side of the freeway and frantically dug around the cabin interior but it was nowhere to be found.  Then I realized that the last place I had seen it was at the Taco Time back in Tacoma… two hours behind me but no choice but to go back.

Somewhere around Chehalis, a beat-up old F-250 powered its way beside my van. A girl cranked the passenger window down.  She leaned out and gestured to the tail of my van, “your tail light!”

When I pulled off the freeway the entire tail light assembly was dangling outside of the chassis by a single wire, awkwardly resting on the bumper.  Fortunately, I had a roll of duct tape in the van, which I used to jerry-rig the lights back into place.

The sun had set when I arrived back at the Taco Time and retrieved my bag.  To my delight, the bag was there and the contents intact. The ladies working there were so very nice. They had kept the bag safe in the office and were hoping I would return soon.  Finally, I was able to get back on the road and head south again.  This delay had cost me over four hours; I drove as far as Salem, OR before the need for sleep overcame me and I pulled into a rest stop for the night.

The next morning, I awoke to early morning fog and started up the van. I drove straight through the day, stopping only in Medford, OR and Sacramento for gas.  Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, I discovered that the A/C which had just been repaired before I left Seattle was only pumping out warm air… just my luck, heading to Mexico and I don’t have air conditioning.

Late that night, I finally crossed over the last mountain pass and entered L.A. County, where my cousin Dan Lawson was waiting to let me couch-surf.  The next day, I made the short trip to San Diego where another cousin, Tiffany, would let me crash at her place before I finally crossed into Mexico for the first time.  I made repairs to van’s tail light, purchased car insurance coverage for Mexico and set my cell phone for 2G services (per my T-Mobile carrier).

At that point, crossing into Mexico seemed so intimidating. Tiffany’s house was only three miles from the border. I had made reservations for the night in Tijuana, and the first scheduled baseball game of my LMB journey was that evening. Based on my past experience travelling in Japan, I knew to write down explicit directions to the Bed & Breakfast just in case my GPS and cellphone didn’t stopped working after I crossed the border.  Finally, I got up the gumption to say my good-byes and cross the border.

Unlike my experiences with American borders, the entry to Mexico was simple: I navigated the van through a series of turns, speed bumps and border guards without even stopping.  Finally, I turned a corner and there was a sign suspended above the road “Bienvenidos a México,” and a freeway sign indicating directions to two highways, neither of which were in the instructions I had written down… so I just kept driving forward.
Welcome to Mexico

My first impression of Mexico was that the streets were narrow, the speed limit significantly slower and all the radio stations were in Spanish.  I had been in Mexico less than five minutes and already I was lost.  Fortunately, my phone was still connected to T-Mobile and I was able to get directions to the B&B, accommodations that I had found via the website AirBnB.com.  It was a beautiful home in a beautiful neighborhood, overlooking the fraccinamiento and valley below. Immediately, I was impressed by the security that was taken in that neighborhood.  The carports were all gated and the houses were clearly fitted with alarms.  The neighbors had a guard dog who barked at anything and everybody who passed including me. The husband of the host was there when I arrived at TJ Casa de Diego B&B.

As the time for the game approached, I climbed back into the van and followed my precisely written directions back down the hill to the eastern side of Tijuana to Estadio Gasmart.  Mexico is known for crazy drivers and the city of Tijuana has certainly contributed to that reputation.  Comprised of school buses that treated stoplights like yield signs, riding public transportation must have been quite an experience. Everyone else did stop for red lights but traffic was fast moving and moved across the road seemingly without regard to lanes.

My arrival at the stadium grounds involved trekking up a winding dirt road, Itreally didn’t meet my expectations of where a ballpark would be located. Sure enough though, a parking attendant waited for me at the top.  My Spanish is pretty rudimentary, and through some gesticulation, we were able to discern that the ticket (bolleto) was free but parking was 35 pesos.  Apparently, it was Gasmart employee appreciation night.  I had arrived early and the ballpark was still fairly empty.

Estadio Gasmart is short in stature, and about the size of a minor league ballpark and the entrances are flanked with tall red pillars emblazed with the Tecate Beer logo. My free ticket was good to sit anywhere in the lower portion of the stadium.  Recently renovated, the outer concourse was wide and open to the sun.  Small booths of food vendors lined both sides of the walkway.  I strolled through the concourse perusing the wide variety of vendors and wares.  I encountered the El Florido girls, clad in tight-fitting spandex body suits, and couldn’t resist a photo-op with the ladies and their porcine mascot.

El Florido girls and mascot

El Florido girls and mascot

When the game began, I was surprised to find a former Seattle Mariner: Russell Branyan, starting at first base for the Toros de Tijuana (TJ).  The game against the Sultanes de Monterrey began with Herberto Gonzalez on the mound for the home team.  There was no blood until the top of the 3rd inning when Sergio Perez hit a lively triple and Agustin Murillo walked; with runners at the corners, Luis Alfonso Garcia knocked a double and brought in two RBIs for Monterey.

The Toros answered in the bottom of the inning with four runs: a solo homer by Eloy Guiterez, over the right field fence and into the “Toroland” children’s playground.  As the rally got going, Toros rallied in the bottom of the 3rd on hits by Blake Gailen and Arturo Rodriguez. The score jumped 4-2 for the Toros, as the DJ pumped the crowd with calls for “ruido” and “vamos – hit!” The fans showed their excitement, cheering and spinning matracas, large wooden rattles that spin on a handle while a thin piece of wood scrapes against a gear fastened to the handle. The effect produced seemed similar to a playing card in the spokes of a bicycle, only quite a bit louder. The inning ended for Tijuana with a pop fly from Abel Martinez.

I sat along the first base line (just past the visitor’s dugout), sipping on a large cup of Tecate “frosted” with a deep red paste called “escarcha”.  I expected it to be spicy, but found the taste was a bit bitter instead.  The Toros cheerleaders were doing a routine on the field while the El Florido girls spontaneously joined them, dancing their way out onto the field.

Beer "frosted" with escarcha

Beer “frosted” with escarcha

The mascots for the Toros were hysterical.  In particular, the monkey/gorilla strutted around the sidelines causing the most ruckus.  He molested the visiting players when they were on-deck, by trying to hump them.  His lewd dancing with the cheerleaders elicited boos from the TJ fans.  In response, he mooned the audience in a Club America speedo.  Club America is the Mexican soccer analog to the New York Yankees: a team with a lot of money and a lot of championships. This really irritated the local fans, and they called him a “puto” from the stands.

The Sultanes replied to the Toros in the top of the 4th inning: Ramon Rios tied up the score with a double. With two outs the Sultanes rally 6-4. Heberto Gonzalez replaced Ortiz on the mound for TJ.

Not to be outdone, Tijuana’s Torrero tied it back up in the bottom of the 4th with a double. Energy in the ballpark was really high; Pharell’s “Happy” blasted from the PA system. In the row in front of me an old man started dancing. He swayed back and forth, his arms make short strokes through the air by his sides.  A thrilling play at the plate ended the 4th inning for the Toros, as Torrero tried to slide in.

The 5th and 6th innings belonged to the Toros, scoring two runs each inning, off a homer by Miguel Olivo and some bad pitching by Adrian Guzman of the Sultanes.  The score is now 10-6 for the Toros.

In between the top and bottom of the 5th inning, Arturo Rodriguez receives the Golden Glove trophy.  The ceremony takes place in the infield, with various LMB officials praising Rodriquez; all of it projected on the big screen. Estadio Gasmart is a fairly new stadium, equipped with a nice A/V system. The camera operators flirt with the pretty girls in the audience.  A kiss sounded over the PA and then a startled young lady would find herself pictured on the Jumbo-tron. Some waved shyly; others reveled in the attention as the men in the audience cheered.

Vendors walked through the aisles selling everything from vuvuzelas (small plastic horns that project noisy sounds) to matracas.  I flagged one down and asked to buy a Toros head band. In Spanish he tells me it was diez pesos, but I didn’t understand, so he asked for a dollar instead.  From behind me, a couple of guys interjected letting me know that  $1.00 = 13 pesos)… three pesos higher than the correct price of ten pesos, not a great amount, but enough to make me decide that not to buy. The vendor being rebuffed, walked away grumbling.  I thanked my new friends and told them about my journey.  This being my first game of the LMB and being so close to San Diego, I don’t think they were very impressed buy none-the-less they encouraged me.

A vendor selling matracas

A vendor selling matracas

When the 7th inning stretch rolled around, the Toros were up by 2.  The club band paraded through the concourse.   A few of the fans followed the band, dancing and reveling to the beating drums, blazing horns and rattling matracas.  On the field, the cheerleaders performed another routine.

Scoreless for both sides in the 8th, the Sultanes attempted a rally when Agustin Murillo doubled and then scored off Adan Munoz’s single.  Unfortunately, Humberto Cota ground out to end the game (the bottom frame was unnecessary for the Toros). Final score: 10 – 7.

Toros victorious, the happy crowd flowed out of the stands and onto the concourse.  Night had fallen and only the stadium floodlights and light poles in the parking lot broke through the darkness.  Instead of closing up shop though, the little food booths fired up their grills as people meandered to the far end of the concourse.  In a wide section of the brick walkway, a different band was busy piercing the silence of the night; a tuba, an accordion and several horns embellished the polka-sounding rhythms.  The young people gathered in a large crowd, pairing up to dance with each other.  I enjoyed watching the dance for a while for before I headed back to the van.

Against the odds, I correctly back-tracked across the city of Tijuana, which now laid silent and dark, to the B&B.  Only the guard dog across the street was awake to greet me.  I let myself in quietly. As I lay in bed, in the rented room, I relived my first day in Mexico in my head as sleep crept up upon me.

MajorLeagueRT Featured on Razzball Radio

Thanks to Nick Cappozi of Razzball Radio for a great interview about road tripping.

Finally Home!

I arrived in Seattle on August 21st with 204,996 miles on the odometer. That puts the Mexico trip total at 9,426 miles (or 15,170 kilometers). All twenty fingers and toes intact, this was a long but successful trip!

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MajorLeagueRT arrives in Mexico City

After two weeks on the road, I’ve arrived in Mexico City. So far, we’ve covered the entire Northern Division of the Liga Mexicana de Beisbol. As well as traveling to Oaxaca to see the Guerreros play and tonight the Diablos Rojos del Mexico play the Rieleros of Aguascalientes.

Follow the action with photos on Facebook and get live updates on Twitter.

At the Foro Sol stadium, holding 10 tickets representing all the ballparks Joseph has seen so far

At the Foro Sol stadium, holding 10 tickets representing all the ballparks Joseph has seen so far

Major League Road Trip goes to Mexico

It’s time to announce the third leg of my Major League Road Trip.  This time I’ll be traveling to Mexico to see a ballgame at all 16 LMB ballparks.  The clock is on since the season ends on August 15th.

Map of Mexican Baseball League (LMB) Teams

Map of Mexican Baseball League (LMB) Teams

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My schedule should work out like so:

Depart Arrive Distance ETA
20-Jul Seattle 22-Jul Tiajuana 1277 18
23-Jul Tiajuana 25-Jul Torreon 1163 20
26-Jul Torreon 26-Jul Monclava 206 5
29-Jul Monclava 29-Jul Monterrey 150 3
30-Jul Monterrey 30-Jul Reynosa 197 3
31-Jul Reynosa 31-Jul Saltillo 197 3
1-Aug Saltillo 2-Aug Aguascalientes 300 7
2-Aug Aguascalientes 5-Aug Mexico City 337 7
6-Aug Mexico City 6-Aug Puebla 85 2
7-Aug Puebla 7-Aug Oaxaca 205 4
8-Aug Oaxaca 9-Aug Veracruz 276 5
9-Aug Veracruz 12-Aug Tabasco 327 6
13-Aug Tabasco 13-Aug Campeche 275 6.5
14-Aug Campeche 14-Aug Quintana Roo 296 5.5

Nickelback, Google Translate & Red Miso Katsu

This chapter begins with a change of plan: instead of heading to Nagoya on Saturday the 27th, I decided to stay in Tokyo for one more night because the Sumidagawa Firewoks Festival was being held that evening. Little to my knowledge, ‘hanabi’ (fireworks) are a very big deal in Japan and during the Summer Festival, in fact, there is competition over the Sumida River, which coincidentally runs through Asakusa where I was staying.

I managed to get the last bunk at the Sakura Hostel (which will be important to the story later). Making fast friends, I hung out with a Kiwi named Thomas Wilde who was searching for a bunk that evening. We wandered around the area looking for a place to stay in one of the many hostels located in the maze of unnamed streets and alleys that make up Asakusa. On a whim, we tried the love hotel next door to the hostel but there was no one there during the day. As we stood outside Hotel La Cachette wondering what to do, an old man rode by on a bicycle and shouted something that I am sure was obscene. So we decided to get some lunch from the market nearby, and as we rounded a corner another man on a bicycle rode by. His t-shirt was in English; he realized we could read his shirt about the same time we finished reading it, and a sheepish grin crept across his face. The shirt read, “Nobody knows I’m gay.” So much for subtlety… we grinned back in acknowledgement of his deep secret as he rode by.

Pachinko!

A pachinko machine

A pachinko machine – sort of a cross between pinball and a slot machine

As the afternoon drew on, we wandered into a Pachinko parlor. I been to many a casino in my time, but this was something quite different than anything I seen before. Pachinko is a game that could be described as a cross between a slot-machine and a pin-ball machine. Since gambling is illegal in Japan, pachinko skirts the restriction by spitting out the ball-bearings for the gamer to collect in plastic tubs. Then the “gambler” cashes in their winnings by weighing the amount of ball bearing collected and redeeming them for prizes, which they can sell back to the establishment for cash.

Thomas and I met up with another American from New Orleans named John. He had travelled extensively and been to Japan before. Together, we made our way toward the riverbank to see the fireworks display, stopping at a Lawson convenience store for big cans of Kirin beer. The park along the river was packed with people. We walked along the sidewalk looking for a spot with an unobstructed view but to no avail. Eventually, we found a small spot by one of the omnipresent vending machines with a view slightly obstructed by an overhead rooftop. But as we stood, necks craning to see the fireworks display a funny thing happened.

Order within chaos – Rain at the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival

First a few sprinkles fell, then within a few minutes an all-out deluge began to pour from the sky. All the people with great views of the fireworks were left without shelter from the rain. However, in very Japanese fashion, a group of around one million people slowly and orderly filed out of the park and down the sidewalk toward the subway stations and their homes.

The three of us stood under our ledge watching the people pass. Briefly we were joined by a Japanese ‘punk’ whose personal fashion sense reminded me of Guitar Wolf. He chatted with us to the extent that his English and our lack of Japanese language was limited to. Our new friend said something to us in Japanese, motioned off into the distance and then struck off into the rain soaked crowd.

Japan is the most orderly country I have ever experienced. Even litter on the street is uncommon. Had such an even occurred in the U.S. six people would have been trampled to death in the ensuing chaos. But for a short period time, we got to witness the streets of Asakusa in disarray. The blocks between the riverbank and the nearest subway station were populated with soaking wet people wearing traditional garb, palm fronds and garbage had found their way into the streets but yet no one appeared to have lost their composure.

Upon returning to our hostel, we changed into dry clothes and agreed to head out the downtown because it was [Friday] night. Our experienced friend suggested going to Shinjuku to see the most densely populated part of Tokyo.

Shinjuku red light district, missing the last train & hookers in Kanda Station

If you’ve ever seen video footage of the crowded streets of Tokyo it was most likely filmed in Shinjuku. The world’s busiest crosswalk sits below the dense neon jungle of advertisements that cover almost every vertical surface in the area. Behind this wall of Noble gases sits the Kabukichō red light district; several blocks of various types of hostess bars fill the area. Well-dressed young Japanese men smoke cigarettes outside the bars whilst Nigerian guys hustle passers-by with promises of “titties for days,” and other more lecherous experiences to be had inside each establishment. As tempting as that was, none of us were in the mood to drop 100,000 Yen to find out if these promises were true. I used a Chris Rock line to escape their annoying pursuit, telling one Nigerian guy, “There’s no sex in the Champagne Room!” However, we spent so much time wandering through the narrow streets that we didn’t realize that time was marching on. Midnight is when the last trains leave in Japan, and if you don’t have nearby accommodations or plan on staying out all night you’ve got to make the last train.

Upon realizing that we were all about to turn into pumpkins, we hurried back to Shinjuku Station. In our rush, we accidentally boarded the train going the wrong direction on the Sobu Line. Three stops down the line we had to disembark and change platforms, while waiting and hoping that another train would come our way. Fortunately, the crowded platform indicated that was the case. However, this train only travelled as far as Kanda Station, which was still quite a distance from Asakusa.

The 'love hotel' La Cachette in Asakusa

The ‘love hotel’ La Cachette in Asakusa

The three of us decided that it was farther than we were willing to walk, but we could split the cost of a cab instead. So we made our way out of the subway to search for a taxi. The station was under construction and it was difficult to find our way out, but when we finally exited we were greeted by a somewhat surreal group of women clustered around the doors. They all carried the same clear vinyl umbrella and shouted “Massa-GEE” as they grasped at our hands. Not that I’m above experiencing a massage at 2am but another biological urge were far more pressing and I needed find a restroom badly.

Pushing through the crowd of women, who grabbed at our wrists and tried to pull us back toward their lairs, we found a taxi idling nearby and after a bit of gesticulation and a phone call to the hostel, the driver agreed to take us back to Asakusa. We arrived near the love hotel, because the surrounding streets and alleys are a spaghetti maze. Either way, we had to find our way back to Sakura Hostel through the darkened alleys. Poor Thomas still didn’t have a place to sleep so we decided to sneak him into the hostel lobby and he would just chill out on the couches in front of the television. John and I went off to bed, but apparently poor Thomas got kicked soon after and had to spend the rest of the night wandering around Asakusa.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see Thomas again in person. The next day I had to get a move on early; I was leaving Tokyo for the first time and heading to Nagoya to see the Chunichi Dragons take on the Yoimuri Giants. However, I had made an egregious oversight when changing my plans the day before. The ballgame in Nagoya was the earliest to start (at 14:00 or 2pm) and I was over two hours away by train.

Taking the Shinkansen Super Express to Nagoya for Chunichi Dragons game

Leaving from Tokyo station, I boarded a shinkansen: as bullet trains are called in Japan, for the first time. In Japan, the trains leave the station on the mark (a train that is more than 30 seconds behind schedule is considered late) and when they arrive at the platform they are so precise that the doors open directly in front of markers painted onto the cement of the platform. Upon leaving the station, the trains live up to their moniker of ‘bullet train’ as you can feel the inertia push your body back into the seat upon acceleration.

However, I was to be disappointed this leg of the journey because the train stopped so many times between Tokyo and Nagoya that it easily added an extra hour to the journey. As the clock ticked toward 14:00 I began to get anxious. The train finally arrived at Nagoya Station about an hour after the game had started and I made my way to from the JR rail platform to the subway lines. Fortunately, the Nagoya Dome has its own station on the loop around Nagoya so I was able to get there fairly quickly.

Arrival at the Nagoya Dome in the 8th inning

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The walk from the subway platform to the stadium involves going up a long tunnel plastered with large posters of all the Chunichi Dragons players, the mascots and even the cheerleaders. Finally, I arrived outside the dome with my pack in tow. Somehow, the gatekeepers didn’t have a problem with me bringing my ginormous bag into the game and I was able to find my seat up in the nosebleed section, three tiers above home plate. The seventh inning was just ending and the score was 0-1 with the Dragons behind the Giants.

The Dragons were never able to match the Giants lone run on the scoreboard but their fans never gave up, chanting until the last strikeout that ended the game. In a stroke of good luck, the Nagoya Dome is air-conditioned which made watching those last two innings so much more comfortable considering that I had just run up several flights of inclined corridors and stairs in the heat and humidity of summer. Nagoya, I found out later is considered the balmiest part of Honshu (the main island of Japan).

Upon exiting the Stadium, I wandered over to the nearby mall which had a food court. It was so similar to an American Mall that with the exception of food selection I could have easily mistaken it for somewhere in Suburbia, USA. Except for the ubiquitous Starbucks, all the restaurant chains were Japanese so I chose to try one called Pepper Lunch. They served up a delicious peppered steak on rice which I devoured in what was probably a heinous display of lack of Japanese table manners. My starving appetite had been satiated though.

Now I needed to find the hostel which was near Higashibetsuin Station off the Meijo Line. Since the Meijo subway line runs in a big circle around the city, it was easy to get to the right station but from there I was, once again faced with finding the hostel in a neighborhood where I couldn’t read the street signs, had no GPS and my lack of language skills made getting directions very difficult. I must have wandered around in the rain and darkness for about an hour asking directions from multiple people before finding a bookstore close enough for the clerks to point me in the right direction. Finally, I arrived a hot, sweaty and wet mess at Hostel Ann, which is an oasis in the Naka-ku neighborhood of Nagoya.

Searching for the Hostel in the rain. Visiting Nagoya Castle.

Anne, the hostess gave me a tour of her urban oasis, which is a hostel in the style of a traditional ryokan with a small garden, a common bathing area and a parlor for socializing with the other guests (a mix of Koreans, Americans teachers and French during my stay) and a mixed gender sleeping area full of bunks which were more like cubby holes than beds. The bottom bunks were not elevated above the floor, instead the floor was covered with woven mats and a light mattress was placed on top of the mats in each bunk. I found it a cozy place to dry myself off from the rain outside.

In the morning, I took off with the intention of exploring Nagoya. Borrowing an umbrella, I made my way to the metro station. Five stops away on the Meijo Line, is Nagoya Castle near Shiyakusho Station. I made my way in the rain around the moat to the main gate. Walking around the grounds, I made my way past the statue of [name], the samurai who oversaw the construction of the castle. On the boulders which make up the castle foundation are carved different symbols which function similar to that of a cattle brand: they are the unique markings of the daimyo who contributed them to the construction project. I found this interesting because of the sheer number of large rocks which make up the foundation and how far away many of them were transported. It must have been an enormous undertaking to build the foundation, not to mention the rest of the castle.

 

Apparently, Oda Nobunaga was born was born in the castle around 1534. He was responsible for initiating the campaign to unify Japan after the Sengoku period in the 16th century. Live actors portraying figures from the Nobunaga era wander the grounds playing out a drama of the life and times of Oda Nobunaga. I encountered one of these actors, “Shingo,” as I approached. Dressed as a Shogunate-era soldier he held his spear over his head with both hands. Dressed in black and wearing a sugegasa (conical hat), he shouting loudly in Japanese and made an imposing figure standing there on the rain-soaked gravel path. Shingo’s presence transformed our surroundings five hundred years into the past and put the history of the castle into perspective.

The keep of Nagoya Castle stands eight stories high with walls of white plaster and roofs turned teal, the top tier is capped with statues of two golden dolphins. Having suffered a drastic fire in 1945 when it was hit by Allied bombs, the keep was nearly burned to the ground but largely it has been restored and transformed into a museum. Ornate samurai armor and black-powder muskets that stand taller than a man fill the halls. Beautiful paintings of animals are painted on the walls of the residence of lord’s family which has been rebuilt and is in the process of restoration, just below the keep.

After properly exploring the lord’s residence and the keep of Nagoya Castle, I made my way through the pouring rain to Nagoya Station where I found a SoftBank store. Unfortunately, I still was unable to get a SIM card for my cellphone which left me without the ability to use GPS. I returned to the hostel with damp clothes but undiscouraged.

With the sun setting, my stomach reminded me that I had yet to eat. Wandering around the Naka-ku neighborhood, I ran into one of the Korean guests from the hostel. Neither of us spoke Japanese he spoke English well. We found a small restaurant across from the 7-11 that looked appealing.

Nickelback, Google Translate and Red Miso Katsu

Upon entering, the foyer was filled with small cubby holes for shoes and umbrellas. The interior was almost entirely constructed of a dark wood that made the place seem even darker and smaller than it already was. The hostess sat us at the bar directly across from the grill. The young man behind the bar greeted us in Japanese as the hostess stood a respectful distance behind, ready to record our order in a small spiral bound notepad.

Once we ordered beers, things got complicated. Unfortunately, the staff spoke about as much English as we spoke Japanese. However, they were very friendly and the guy behind the bar was to pull up Google Translate on his iPhone. We spent the next hour or so typing messages into the translation interface and passing the phone to-and-fro, having a most entertaining conversation that ranged from NPB baseball to guitars to Nickelback. Throughout, we sampled a number of grilled meat skewers, including a delicacy that Nagoya is renowned for: miso katsu pork. I was really blown away by the delicious food and the hospitality these folks were willing to show us. Yum!

In the morning, I took my leave of Anne Hostel and boarded the shinkansen to Osaka. The train arrived at the Shin-Osaka station via the Tokaido Line. The journey was uneventful for the most part. However, it didn’t take long for me to find myself lost in the bowels of that station, trying to find the connection from the JR station to the city subway to the Midosuji Line.

 

Arrival in Osaka & ORiX Buffaloes

I had made hasty reservations at a hostel named Guesthouse Koma, the only place that had any availability for the weekend. I arrived there in the early afternoon and the staff was still busy with housekeeping. Reggae music softly pulsed through the small common area and lobby as the clerk helped me check in.   This hostel was different than the others I have stayed at; the primary clientele were Korean students on holiday. I would discover that for the first time, I was the only native English speaker in the whole hostel.

That afternoon, Osaka was even more hot and humid than Nagoya: 32º Celcius (about 91º F) not to mention the humidity. I made my way back to the Hanshin-Namba line and arrived quickly at the Dome Mae Station. It must have been Little League Night because the outer concourse, which wrapped around the outside of the stadium was filled with clusters of ten-year-old Japanese boys clad in their baseball uniforms. Emblazoned across their chests were team named the ‘Atoms,’ the ‘Angels’ and quixotically the ‘Youngers’. These little guys made me smile with their subdued boisterousness. They were so well behaved yet had all the nervous energy of little boys anywhere.

http://bis.npb.or.jp/eng/2013/games/s2013073001184.html

The Kyocera Dome in Osaka is home to the ORIX Buffaloes (yes, that is plural with an ‘S’.) The team was formed in 2004 when the ORIX Blue Wave from Kobe (the former team of Ichiro Suzuki) merged with the Kintetsu Buffaloes. Tonight, the Buffaloes were hosting their Pacific League rivals, the Softbank Hawks from Fukuoka.

The usher showed me to my seat, which was at the end of an aisle. I noticed a small group of old men nearby sharing edamame like Americans would eat peanuts at a ballgame. In typical Japanese fashion though, they didn’t throw the shells on the ground.

Only one other person seated in front of me, and he had an uncanny resemblance to Alex Rodriguez. In fact, I wondered about his identity for the first few innings; even though he was on the Yankees DL for the rest of the season, why would A-Rod be watching a Tuesday night ballgame in Osaka from the cheap seats? My curiosity got the better of me and when the 7th inning stretch came along, I passed him one of my Victory Balloons and initiated a conversation. Turns out, he wasn’t A-Rod (which is good considering I’m a Seattleite) but is a flight attendant for KLM. Born in one of the former Dutch possessions in the Caribbean, my new friend explained that he loves baseball and that baseball is a growing sport in the Netherlands due to the influx of people from the Caribbean coming emigrating there.

Kyocera is not a hitter’s park. As I watched the game, I noticed that many hits that seemed destined for beyond the outfield wall fell short. The HVAC system seems to create air currents that push downward on the ball as it gains altitude. However, I did finally determine that you can keep foul balls in Japan.

The air flow didn’t seem to affect Brian LaHair of the Hawks crushed a monster HR into the stands to put the Hawks on the board in the 5th inning. Aarom Baldris answered LaHair in the 6th inning with a solo shot to put the Buffaloes ahead.

[insert picture + caption of 12” hotdog and bun]

When the seventh inning stretch came around, I was ready with my very own victory balloons which I shared with my new Dutch friend. As the cheerleaders did a dance routine to “Day-O” (the Banana Boat Song) we released them in a fury of blue and gold screaming and whistling through the air above.

Takahiro Okada (known as T. and celebrated with his own cheer, complete with T-towel waving) slugged a line drive that brought in Lee Dae-Ho (formerly of the Lotte Giants in the Korean Baseball League) to give the home team a margin in the bottom of the 8th.

In the top of the 9th, Yoshihisha Hirano came in to close out the game for the Buffaloes. In an unusual and startling display of ballpark A/V effects, the scoreboard speakers erupted with an air raid siren and flashed the bold red letters: “WARNING!” repeatedly.   The crowd stood up and cheered as their ace reliever took the field. The excitement was short lived; Hawks third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda clocked at solo home run over the outfield wall to bring the score up to 4-3 but still in favor the Buffaloes. Hirano wrapped up the top of the ninth to end the game without the final frame.

When the game was over, I wished my new friend well and gave him a card for my blog. Then I followed the crowd to the gift shop where I struggled to find a jersey that would fit a man of my size. Typically Japanese clothing is quite a bit smaller than Western clothes even when it is marked as an XL. However, I was able to find one and I exited the Kyocera Dome happy, off into the warm air of the Osaka subway lines after dark.

Arrival in Tokyo

Saitama Lions

Saitama Lions

The Japanese have been playing professional baseball for almost 100 years.  In that time, “Ya-Cue“, as they call it has become an institution in Japan.  For the most part, the rules remain the same but the experience at a ballgame is uniquely Japanese.

As I write this blog entry, I am riding the Shinkansen (express train) across Japan, past small towns surrounded by groves of bamboo, cypress trees and rice paddies and on through industrial centers to the densely populated cities where the baseball stadiums are located. As the train speeds past, I see small dirt lots baked by the sun and almost always filled with uniformed young men playing baseball in every other town.

Prior to arriving in Japan, my knowledge of Japanese baseball was limited to a crappy Tom Selleck movie and a random Anthony Bourdain episode.  I knew that the Japanese ate noodles at the ballgame but I could only name one team: the ORIX Blue Wave (which doesn’t actually exist anymore) and only because that was the team that Ichiro Suzuki played for prior to his time in the MLB.

To me, Japan was the land of whacky game shows, sushi, bullet trains and all things individually packaged and cute. When an unexpected opportunity appeared in my life, I decided to take a chance and attempt the second leg of my Major League Road Trip.

I came to Japan to experience firsthand the culture of baseball that has evolved over the many years.  My goal isn’t to chronicle a few random games in a season but to put a writer’s touch on the experience of Japanese baseball through the eyes of a Westerner.

My notions of what to expect were vague at best.  In my research for this trip, I had read of deep rivalries like the one between the Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers.  Some of the locations on my itinerary I had never even heard of.  Basically, my plan was to spend 3 weeks traveling across Japan by bullet train, staying in hostels and going to ballgames.  Whatever else befell me, I figured I would just have to roll with the punches.

The logistics of planning a trip like this aren’t as insurmountable as one might think.  Beyond the obvious airline ticket, which I was able to book on All Nippon Air, I figured I would need a rail pass, a scheduled itinerary of home games, a few tickets to start and accommodations for the first week.  I prefer to play a bit loose; it allows me the flexibility to manipulate my schedule in the advent that I make a mistake or get delayed along the route.

Turns out that three weeks was the perfect amount of time to spend traveling around Japan.  The consortium of nationalized railways, known as the JR, has a rail pass specifically for foreign tourists which allows for almost unlimited use of the JR trains across the country.  The JR Pass can only be obtained outside of Japan and has a limit of 21 days.  I picked up my voucher (to be redeemed for an actual JR Pass in Japan) for about $577.00 or 575,000 Yen.

The next issue I ran into was buying tickets online.  Not only are all the team websites in Japanese but without a credit card issued in Japan (or at least a Japanese address) it is pretty much impossible to purchase tickets overseas.  There is an online ticket reseller service called JapanBall.com that I was able to use to purchase my first set of six tickets.  The guy who gets the tickets lives in Japan and mails them to your hotel prior to your arrival.  The plan was for me to pick them up from my first hostel near the Narita Airport.  Hostels aren’t known for being amenable to allowing packages for their guests to be delivered but this place assured me that they would sign for the package and have it for me when I arrived.  I just had to hope that everything went according to plan.

I arrived in Tokyo on a Wednesday, the 24th of July to be more precise.   When I stepped out of the airplane and onto the tarmac, I was immediately and intimately aware of the heat and the humidity.  For an overcast day, the temperature was in the mid-80s and I immediately felt the sweat begin to moisten my skin.  I was wearing shorts and a thin, short-sleeved shirt but I could tell that this weather was going to be a burden for the next three weeks.

My trip to the first hostel was uneventful, the actual town of Narita is only a two subway stops from the International Terminal of the airport.  Within 20-30 minutes I was wandering through narrow one-way streets paralleled by small shops and restaurants.  It was late afternoon and the restaurants were chalking up signs with their specials for the day.  The windy little roads traversed the landscape in a haphazard fashion that left me quickly confused and I found myself backtracking several times before I finally found my way one quarter of a mile to the Azure Hostel.

Tucked away on a side street, Azure Guesthouse sits on the 3rd floor of an innocuous building in a row of unremarkable buildings.   I arrived to a sign on the door that said “Be back at 18:00″ as a light shower of rain was beginning to fall from the sky.  Locked out of the building, I sat on the stoop, thankful to have an overhang above to keep me dry.  I watched the cars pass by (almost all of them Japanese in origin) and all of them driving on the wrong side of the road.  The pedestrians and bicycles hugged the shoulders of the narrow street and I was impressed by the fact that everyone in this country seemed to own an umbrella.

When the hostel staff finally arrived, I was ushered into an open, sparsely decorated hostel finished with dark wood.  The air was still and hot from being enclosed all day and the dorm rooms were clean and furnished with Spartan bunks covered with mats about 2” thick.  My package containing the tickets to the first six ballgames was waiting for me at the front desk.  Inside a thick envelope burnished with the image of a cat carrying a kitten by the neck (a courier brand I would later come to know a Yamato Transport Co.) were six small envelopes containing was appeared to be tickets inscribed entirely in Japanese.  I had to use the dates printed on the tickets to infer which games each ticket was actually for.

To my good fortune, a pair of Norwegian college students checked in to the hostel after I returned from dinner.  We spent the evening conversing in English (some of the best I’ve heard from non-native speakers) on travelling around Japan, universal education in Europe and the merits of flying internationally on Aeroflot.  In the morning, they were nice enough to show me how to use the ticket machines for the subway system (which are amazingly easy once someone shows you how to do it).  I accompanied them back to the airport terminal and then boarded a train for the city.

My next stop was a hostel in Asakusa, which is pronounced “Uh-socks-Uh” not “Ah-sa-ku-sa” like it’s spelled. As the train Skyliner train “whooshed” along the rails past the elevated platforms of the Tokyo Metro, a conductor approached and asked to see my ticket.  Upon showing him, he shook his head.

“I am sorry; you are on the wrong train.  I must give you a ticket and you must pay NOW,” he told me.

I asked how much and he replied, “1600 Yen. I’m sorry.”

I said sorry and handed him the money.  He took it and apologized again.  Then he looked at my train ticket and tried to give me directions to my destination. Apparently, the train had passed my stop already and I needed to disembark, go back two stops to Nippori and then board the Ginza Line to Tawaramachi Station.   In all the man must have apologized to me six or seven times during this conversation.  I didn’t understand why he was so profusely apologetic when I was the one who had made the mistake.  He must have thought I was a rube for only apologizing once for this transgression.  In retrospect, my appreciation for the magnitude of the situation was seriously lacking.

Using the conductor’s hand-sketched map, I was able to navigate my way through the Tokyo subway system to Tawaramachi Station.  With no cell phone GPS to navigate my destination, I struck out on foot armed with a map printed from the hostel website.  There were a couple of problems with this plan; the first was that all the street signs were in Japanese not English transliterations of their Japanese names.  The second problem was that Asakusa, like most old neighborhoods in ancient cities is a rabbit warren of small side-streets and alleys that have no names.

The locals seem to know their way around without difficulty but for me it was a nightmare wandering around with a heavy pack in the heat of the early afternoon. I asked for directions several times but the lack of street signs made navigation nearly impossible for me.

Finally, I sighted a tall building with a neon ‘HOTEL’ sign stretching above the surroundings. I made my way toward this landmark, my shirt drenched in sweat, in a desperate hope that somehow that would be where my hostel was.  Luck was with me that day, as I rounded the bend in a side-street, there stood the pink stucco building which housed the Sakura Hostel.  Inside awaited me air-conditioning, showers and internet access; all of which I really needed at that moment.

A few hours later, I stepped out of the air-conditioned hostel back into the afternoon heat of Tokyo.  I rode the JR Chou line for almost an hour to Shinomachi Station near the Meiji Jingu shrine in Shinjuku.  Jingu Stadium, home of the Yakult Swallows is one of the oldest ballparks in Japan, built in 1926 it was later used in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the surrounding area is a large athletic park that hosted the Olympic Games.

The first thing I noticed as I approached were the long lines of fans queued to enter the ballpark: on the third base side, the Hanshin Tigers fans wrapped around the block in one direction while the Swallows fans queued in the opposite direction waiting to enter the first base side.  I chose to stand in the line with the home team fans (since I always root for the home team), which moved reasonably fast considering the number of people queued.

Joseph at Jingu Stadium

Joseph at Jingu Stadium

In a monumental first, I arrived in time for batting practice. The inside of Jingu Stadium is an open-air, single-level ballpark.  There was little wind that day and no matter where I went I could feel thickness of the air wrap around me.  I pitied the poor soul who had to wear the mascot suit for the next several hours.  As I watched the Swallows players take batting practice, the mascot ran over to a player who had just joined his team on the field, his jersey marked Balentien.  Somewhere deep in my brain I recalled a former Mariner’s prospect by the name Wladimir Balentien.  Vaguely, it seemed to me that he was lauded to be an excellent hitter but vanished from the MLB.  Here he was again playing in Japan for the Swallows.

I settled into my seat along the 1st base line. As the seats surrounding me slowly became crowded, the umpire shouted “Play ball!” and the game began.  Masanori Ishikawa was the starting pitcher for the Swallows. The Hanshin Tigers draw first blood when the lead-off batter made it to 2nd base, advanced off a sacrifice bunt and scored off a double in the top of the 1st inning.  Tesuto Yamata bats first for the Yakult Swallows, answering the Tigers in the bottom of the inning. Even in Japan, the action is always in the cheap seats; the crowd chants “Let’s go Ya-Ma-Ta.”

In the 4th inning, catcher Royji Aikawa clocks a home run over the fence with a runner on base to bring the score up to 3-1 for the Swallows.  All around me the Yakult fans pull out small plastic umbrellas as the crowd cheers.  The crowde does the same for homers blasted in the 6th by Wladimir Balentien, for Lastings Milledge and Keizo Kawashima in the 8th. In all, the Yakult Swallows defeat the Hanshin Tigers 11-1.

taku

Takoyaki being made by hand

I spent some time wandering around the stadium exploring the food options.  Mini hot-dogs are served without buns in small paper dishes.  On advice from another American I met at the game, I tried the takoyaki: chunks of octopus tentacles deep fried in batter and smothered in vinegar-tasting syrup; mayonnaise is optional.  I’d have to say it was not one of my favorite foods in Japan but seems to be as common at Japanese ballparks as hotdogs, nachos or pretzels are in the States.  I washed it all down with a Kirin draft beer (600 yen) served by a reasonably fluent English-speaking vendor.  He clarified for me that the Japanese word for strike is in fact, strike; however the accent is so heavy that it can be difficult to hear.  I would discover that to be common in Japan.

As the top of the 9th inning came to a close, the J-pop fight song blared from the loudspeakers and the DJ Patrick Yu announced the game MVPs, first in Japanese and then in remarkable American English.  Starting pitcher Ishikawa had pitched a full 9 innings and Wladimir Balentien’s three run homer had earned them the honors.  This would not be the last we would hear from Balentien this season.

Sky Tree

Sky Tree

The next day, I spent the morning wandering around Asakusa with an Irish guy named John who I met at the hostel the night before.  Having both arrived the day before; we walked through the Senso-ji Temple and the surrounding market.  We ate at Burger King (his choice, not mine) before we took a rickshaw across the Sumidia River to the Sky Tree, which is the tallest building in Japan.  To see the small but sturdy rickshaw driver pull the two big guys across the bridge and up to the Sky Tree was an amusing site for the locals, but [name], who was a medical student at a local university did it with good humor and refused a tip despite clearly earning one (true to form in Japanese culture).  I decided to pass up the opportunity to ascend the Sky Tree because the wait was almost two hours and I needed to head back in order to catch the train to Saitama for the Seibu Lions game in a few hours.

On the Express Train to the Lions game

On the Express Train to the Lions game

I arrived at Ikebukuro Station to catch the express train to Saitama in time for the game. The seats were plush and comfortable and I sat perusing a complimentary copy of  the JR Express publication.  As the other passengers settled into their seats they cracked open big cans of Sapporo beer and I realized just what a sweet ride I had chosen for the trip. Unfortunately they did not serve any alcohol on the non-stop trip so I had to spend the next 45 minutes nursing my bottle of barley tea instead.

The train let us off at the Wrigleyville-esque village surrounding the Seibu Dome. I wandered around for a few minutes exploring all the booths stuffed with Lions-themed merchandise before I headed up to the gates of the stadium.  Inside I found it to be stiflingly hot; Seibu is an open-air dome where the roof is covered but the sides are open.  With no wind to speak of, the heat and humidity seems to concentrate under the roof of the dome.  My seat was on the first base side, alone, along one of the walkways.  Behind me sat an old Japanese man, also by himself.  At first he didn’t seem to approve of me, I had noticed that there were almost no other Westerners at this stadium.

The Lions scored two runs in the bottom of the first and another run in the bottom of the second while the ORIX Buffaloes remained with goose eggs on scoreboard. I did notice that players aren’t announced with the fanfare that they would get in the MLB.

Off in the left field stands, tribal drumming and chanting thundered inside the dome. Banners waved as the chant callers shouted out the cheers for each player. Each side would switch turns cheering. When the top of the inning switched to the bottom, the Buffaloes cheering section would come alive, beating their thunder-sticks and chanting for their players.  Between the top and bottom of the 3rd inning, the Lion’s dance team took the field to perform a callisthenic workout, which most of the audience participated in (I was surprised to say the least).

I ordered a Yebisu beer from one of the vendor girls packing a keg around like a backpack for 700 yen and watched the game pondering the guys in track suits kneeling around the stadium seating with whistles at the ready. Turns out they were there to blow their whistles as a warning for incoming foul balls to that section.  Oddly, very few fouls fell throughout the game.

Lions cheerleader wearing a Tokio Senators jersey

Lions cheerleader wearing a Tokio Senators jersey

I decided to wander around the stadium for a while and find something to eat.  The concourse around the inside of the dome is lined with small vendors hawking various foods.  I settled on some grilled chicken on a skewer this time. I found a nice vantage point to watch the game from up above the seats. As I watched the game, I noticed that the Lion’s pitcher #35 Kazuhisa Makita threw with a wicked sidearm. I tried to gesticulate Makita’s pitching style to my neighbor but somehow it didn’t seem to translate. Oh well.

When it came time for the 7th inning stretch, the cheer squad came out onto the field for what the scoreboard called the “Lucky 7”. As a J-pop song blared over the loud-speakers, the cheerleaders performed another routine and the crowd released blue and white victory balloons which squealed as they filled the air.

Finally, the ace reliever for the Lions, Randy Williams took the mound to finish of the hapless Buffaloes in 5-1 victory for the Saitama Lions.

As the game came to an end, I gave a wave to my silent friend the old man and followed the crowd out the gates. Near the exit, a large group of younger fans had grouped up around a chain-linked fence that seemed to have access to the outfield.  Thinking that they were waiting for autographs, I was rather surprised when the gate opened and we were lead onto the field.  Turns out that it was “Fan Appreciation Night” and we were invited to sit down in the outfield turf as the a short movie about the history of the team, which chronicled the early days of the team all the way back to the early 1930s when they were the Tokio Senators. When the vignette ended, the crowd filed out into the night and on to the last train bound for the Tokyo.  The primary mode of transportation to and from baseball games in Japan is by rail, the games usually start a little earlier so that folks can get back home before the trains stop running, usually by midnight.

I hustled through the turnstile and into the last car.  Behind me a few more passengers filed between the sliding doors and filled the car.  As the doors closed, two Westerners made a play for the door and managed to squeeze between as they closed.  A murmur rippled through the car as the two guys sat on the bench near me.  Within thirty seconds a small crowd of little Japanese kids had gathered around them.  I realized these two guys were ball players so I pulled out my guide and looked them up by picture. Turns out I was sitting next to Lions relief pitcher Dennis Sarfate and second baseman Esteban Germán.

As the ballplayers signed autographs and posed for selfies with the Japanese kids, I managed to get in a quick chat with Dennis about my Major League Road Trip, life as a ballplayer in Japan and where to go in Hiroshima (his former team was the Hiroshima Carp). He recommended the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, where the Atomic Bomb Dome stands as a testiment to the savagery of World War II. As the train made its way back toward Tokyo, more and more people exited our car. Eventually the train reached the ballplayer’s stop, let them exit and then continued off into the neon jungle that is Tokyo at night.

Game #12 – Chiba Lotte Marines at QVC Marine Stadium

Japan seems to have saved the best for last: game #12 at QVC Marine Stadium was freakin’ awesome. The Chiba Lotte Marines trashed their division rivals, the Rakuten Eagles 3-0 and I made a bunch of new friends in the Marines cheering section.

QVC Marine Stadium, home of the Chiba Lotte Marines

QVC Marine Stadium, home of the Chiba Lotte Marines

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NPB Game #11 in Sapporo

I arrived in Sapporo for game #11 yesterday. Took me two days to get here via train. The taxi pulled into the stadium as the radio announcer called the last out.  I was able to go inside and watch the Chiba Marines fans celebrate their 5-1 victory over the Nippon-ham Fighters.  The Sapporo Dome is a really incredible structure, it even has an R/C mini-blimp cruising around above the outfield.

Andre’ Layral was right about the Genghis Khan! Grilled mutton + onions + beer = amazing!

Game #10 at Miyagi Baseball Stadium worked itself out.  Being stuck in Sendai, I was able to get a ticket to the Saturday game to see the Rakuten Eagles play the Softbank Hawks.  Had to leave early, but the score was 8-2 Hawks in the top of the 8th inning.  Too bad Masahiro Tanaka couldn’t pitch two nights in a row.

The Sapporo Dome, home of the Nippon-ham Fighters

The Sapporo Dome, home of the Nippon-ham Fighters

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Game #10 – Miyagi Baseball Stadium

So made it to game #10 tonight in Sendai only to find out that the game was sold out. I spent the game wandering through the team village around Miyagi Baseball Stadium and watching the game from the beer garden.  Working on a contingency plan, but its a longshot. I’m only in Japan for 4 more days and I still have to go to Sapporo and back which is 8 hours away.  In other news, the game was a 5-0 blowout by the Tohoku Eagles over the Fukuoka Hawks, and the 16th win for M. Tanaka this season.

Kleenex Miyagi Stadium, home of the Rakuten Eagles

Kleenex Miyagi Stadium, home of the Rakuten Eagles

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