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.