Saturday, September 18, 2010

JapanBall 2010 Wrap Up: Bullet Trains, Bento, and Baseball Friends

Ah, jet lag! You're an evil thing that has rendered me unproductive the last couple of days. My mind has been racing with story ideas and the urge to write, but my fingers have been heavy on the keyboard. Today is the day I fight back!

The reason I'm suffering from jet lag is we recently returned from our two-week vacation in Japan. The first week was spent galavanting across the country with twenty-one new friends to watch five baseball games.

Beef bento on Shinkansen to Sendai

We started the tour in Tokyo, but we didn't stay there very long. Our first game was in Sendai, the capital of Miyagi prefecture. We took a mini tour of the city before the game.

Rakuten ema at Osaki Hachimangu Shrine in Sendai

We were up early the next day to travel from Sendai to Yokohama.

Marty Kuehnert speaks to the JapanBallers in Sendai

Before we left, we had a brief audience with Marty Kuehnert, the first foreigner to be named general manager of a Japanese baseball team. Marty was fired not long into his job at the helm of the Rakuten Golden Eagles, but he's still with the team as a senior advisor. In addition, he teaches sports management, marketing, and media at Sendai University and Tohoku University. Straightforward with a keen sense of humor, Marty is an expert in all aspects of Japanese baseball and a great guy to know.

Omusubi (rice ball) bento representing Date Masamune

My husband and I have been to Yokohama to visit the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum (amazing place!), but this was our first overnight trip. I enjoyed walking around the waterfront and the area near our hotel, and I was surprised to see a lot of Western-style architecture. It makes sense considering Yokohama was a strategic port and was influenced by the Westerners who visited. We walked along the Yokohama Rinko Line Promenade, which reminded us of the High Line in New York. Then it was game time, where we were joined by Brandon Siefken, who provides stats and analysis about Japanese baseball to scouts and regular fans.

Brandon Siefken, number cruncher and a fan of spreadsheets, joins us in Yokohama

I was excited to see my favorite stadium, Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium, home of the Toyo Hiroshima Carp. On the way there, I had the omurice bento, but I knew okonomiyaki was waiting for me in Hiroshima.

Omurice bento. There's rice in there, not cheese!

Ellie and Shelley display their okonomiyaki

It was a high-scoring and exciting game at a delightful ballpark in Japan. You can't ask for anything more than that. Well, JapanBaller Shelley wanted a low-scoring pitcher's duel, and most people cheered for the home team to win, but you get the point.

Japan's gritty, industrial city doesn't receive the accolades that Tokyo or Kyoto do, but I enjoy Osaka. Before arriving in Japan's third largest city, I fortified myself with another delish bento.

Salmon bento

Once we were in the Kyocera Dome, we visited with Eric, a Montreal native who is in Japan with the JET programme. He's actually a fan of the Hanshin Tigers, the more popular team based in Osaka, and he enjoyed bonding with Paul, our JapanBaller from Toronto.

Eric is in denial of the Expos' change of address.

All day the JapanBallers predicted a blowout of the Orix Buffaloes at the hand of their opponent, the Chiba Lotte Marines. Baseball is a fickle sport, and the Buffaloes proved us wrong and gave us the best game of the tour.

On the train from Osaka to Tokyo, I enjoyed a lovely veggie bento as I watched the rain fall.

Vegetarian bento. Mostly.

Our last game of the tour was in Saitama prefecture, not far from Tokyo, for a contest between the Nippon Ham Fighters and the Seibu Lions. The weather from Typhoon #9 backlit the Seibu Dome in a spooky purple.

Seibu Dome in the rain

For the third time on the tour, we had the privilege of hanging out with Wayne Graczyk, Japan Times columnist, Yomiuri Giants translator, ticket obtainer, and JapanBall Media Guide publisher.

Wayne Graczyk (center) is upset he couldn't find pizza at the Seibu Dome.

Wayne and I scoured the stadium for pizza, Wayne's personal favorite, but to no avail. I settled for chili-and-cheese covered potatoes, which seemed like a great idea at the time. Wayne had Combos, which he carries around with him at all times. The game was great, another high-scoring affair (sorry, Shelley!) to end the JapanBall trip. Four brave (or crazy?) souls – Ellie, Shelley, Meg, and Jim – stayed on to see seven more games on the See-It-All option. My husband and I stayed in Tokyo and recovered.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Game 5: Nippon Ham Fighters vs Seibu Lions. A Concrete Umbrella Keeps Typhoon #9 at Bay

I could see the driving rain outside my window as the Shinkansen sped from Kansai to Kanto. The rain was the product of Typhoon #9, a tropical system that had annoyed residents of Okinawa earlier in the week. We had a taste of the stormy weather the previous night in Osaka, but the Kyocera Dome kept us dry during the game. The JapanBall tour was nearing its end; the group was returning to Tokyo to see our last game, the Nippon Ham Fighters against the Seibu Lions at the Seibu Dome in Saitama. 

The purple hue of Typhoon #9 at the Seibu Dome in Tokorozawa, Saitama

The dome is actually a giant umbrella. The stadium was an open-air when it was first built in 1979, and the cover was completed after the 1998 season. The cover is referred to as an umbrella because it doesn’t enclose the stadium. The walls behind the seats are open, allowing air to come through. The design is sometimes compared to Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners. 

The umbrella covering the Seibu Dome
Open sides of the Seibu Dome
Concession stands line the open sides of Seibu Dome
It’s a good thing the Lions added the umbrella because Typhoon #9 was still depositing rain during our commute on the Seibu train line from Ikebukuro Station in Tokyo out west to Tokorozawa in Saitama Prefecture. The game would certainly have been cancelled if that concrete umbrella weren't protecting the players and fans.

The final game of the tour didn’t disappoint in terms of power. We saw two more home runs (no grand slams, though) and a two-run triple. Kazuhisa Ishii was Seibu’s starting pitcher, more proof that you can go home again. The five-time Japan Series champion with the Yakult Swallows spent four seasons in the Majors with the Dodgers and the Mets before returning to Nippon Professional Baseball. In our final game of the 2010 JapanBall tour, Ishii gave up two runs in six innings in the Lions' 8-3 victory over the Fighters of Sapporo. Had Yu Darvish pitched, the outcome probably would have been different.

On this tour we saw two grand slams, one by Lions DH Takeya Nakamura in Game 1 in Sendai. Nakamura is a big boy whose nickname is “Okawari-kun,” which means “one more bowl of rice.” I suppose he asked for seconds a lot as a child. We also saw six Japanese cities in seven days; traversed 1,270 miles across the archipelago; took bullet trains, subways, and taxis; sang teams’ fight songs; ate incredible food; made new friends, Japanese and North American; and had a wonderful time.

I guess I'll have to return next year, when I'm inducted into the JapanBall Hall of Fame.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Game 4: Chiba Lotte Marines vs Orix Buffaloes. The Game Was Close, and the Seats Were Closer

There are two Japanese professional baseball teams that call Osaka home. The Hanshin Tigers are the favored team with a rabid fan base and commercial success. The Orix Buffaloes? Eh, not so much. It’s tough to be the redheaded stepchild in a baseball-mad city, and we though it would show when our JapanBall tour group arrived at the Kyocera Dome in Osaka to see the sad-sack Buffaloes against the Chiba Lotte Marines.

The Kyocera Dome is a spaceship on the streets of Osaka

The Kyocera Dome peaks through the buildings of Osaka, like a spaceship that landed in Japan’s third largest city. The inside is much the same. Look up at the ceiling, and you’d think a UFO was hovering above you. At first, members of our group wedged ourselves into the narrow seats, wondering how in the world we would sit in that cramped state for three hours. Luckily for us – and sadly for Orix – that UFO must’ve beamed up most of the fans because our section was sparse. 

The UFO is landing
The Kyocera Dome holds more than 36,000, but attendance on this night was 14,000+.

In exchange for the fans, the UFO dropped down the strangest mascots who performed bizarre pregame festivities. We saw a goya (Okinawan vegetable) riding a motorcycle onto the field. He then wrestled with a primitive man. I thought I was at a minor league game in the States. Or watching the Mets.
Goya antagonizes the crowd . . .
. . . which awakens the primitive man
A smackdown ensues

Once the game started, we were able to spread out and enjoy what we thought would be a rout by Bobby V’s former team. Orix starting pitcher Chihiro Kaneko had other ideas. After giving up 3 runs in the first inning, Kaneko, who was riding an 10-game win streak, settled down to shut out the Marines for the next 7 innings. Former major leaguer and 2-time World Series champion So Taguchi put the Buffaloes ahead with a pinch-hit, 2-run home run in the bottom of the 7th. Orix reliever Yoshihisa Hirano tried to blow it in the 9th, but held on for the 5-4 win

Chihiro Kaneko upped his record to 15-7 with his win over the Marines
41-year-old So Taguchi returned to Japan this season and hit the game-winning home run

Wherever I am, I’m reminded of the unpredictable nature of baseball. What we thought would be a dog of a game ended up being the most exciting one of the tour. That’s what makes baseball great, on any level, in any country.

The Best Way to Eat Tempura

I finally met my friend Kubota-san in person tonight. He's a colleague of my husband's, and he's been one of my best supporters on Facebook. To meet him in Tokyo for dinner was a great treat for both Marc and me.

He took us to Tsunahachi, a tempura restaurant in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. Having a counter seat was the best way to see the tempura being prepared, and having Kubota-san as our guide was the best way to enjoy tempura as the Japanese intended. Upon Kubota-san's recommendation, we ordered a la carte rather than choosing a set menu.

Tempura chef at Tsunahachi
We started with shrimp, squid, and scallops, which Kubota-san says is a basic selection and a good way to begin the meal. Afterward, we had vegetables, rice with kakiage (tempura mixture of different ingredients), miso soup, and tsukemono (Japanese pickles). Along the way, Kubota-san gave us tips on the Japanese way to have tempura: with salt, with grated daikon added to tempura sauce, and how eating mozuku (seaweed in vinegar) cleanses the palate between different kinds of tempura.

It was a wonderful meal that Marc and I probably wouldn't have had on our own. We thank Kubota-san for introducing us to the beauty of tempura!

With Kubota-san in front of Tsunahachi

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Game 3: Hanshin Tigers vs Hiroshima Carp. No Spider-man Catches, but an Exciting Game

If you're lost on the way to a baseball game in Hiroshima, follow the mass of Carp jerseys through Matsubaracho and Higashikojinmachi. Listen to the shopkeepers hawking their wares on either side of the narrow street: Takoyaki, edamame, and yakitori make great snacks before a game. See the man dressed as a mug of beer trying to entice you to have a cold one. In the distance, beyond the sea of parked motorcycles and bicycles, stands the red façade of Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium.

Fans on their way to a Hiroshima Carp game
Follow the fans
Kara age vendor
Guy dressed as beer
Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium

As you enter the gates, you’ll notice the concourse is wider than most Japanese stadiums. The food is different than what you’d find in Tokyo, too. Teppan and okonomiyaki are sold at the concession stands, but if you’re craving a hot dog, they have that, too. 

Inside Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium
Grilled goodies
Rice balls
More culinary variety
If it’s a hot and sunny day, you’ll be relieved when your seat is in the shade on the lower level. As you look around, you’ll notice the oendan (fan club) sections of both teams are in the direct sunlight of the upper outfield stands. You’ll be amazed that the fans of the visiting Hanshin Tigers of Osaka, 175 miles away, are louder than the fans of the home team. 

Covered seating at Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium
Hiroshima Carp fan club
Hanshin Tigers fan club
Serious Tigers fan
When you look toward the openness of center field, you’ll see the Shinkansen (bullet trains) pass. If it weren’t for the super high-speed trains zipping by, you may be reminded of Citi Field in New York or the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. (Citi Field gets my vote.) 

Bullet train buzzes by Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium
Bullet train in the outfield
View of Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium
Celebrating 60 years of the Hiroshima Carp
You’ll be amazed at the kindness of strangers as a man escorts lost members of your group to their seats. You’ll become friends with the little girl across the aisle because your group of foreigners fascinates her. 

New friend
You’ll laugh at Slyly, the Carp’s mascot, and think he looks like the Phillie Phanatic. (He was actually designed by the same company as the Phanatic, so he’s a relative and not a rip-off.) During the 7th inning stretch, you’ll sing the Carp fight song and release red balloons into the hot summer sky. 

You’ll cheer when Tigers first baseman Craig Brazell, who had a watered-down cup of coffee with the Mets and the Royals, hits his 41st home run of the season, good for second in the Central League. Then you’ll cheer even harder when Carp players you’ve never heard of mount a furious comeback. You’ll be disappointed that they couldn’t quite pull it off, but you’ll be happy it was a great game.

You’ll walk among the masses again as fans head home via train or walk to hotels in the area. You’ll hear the chatter of a foreign language, oblivious to its meaning, but somehow you’ll feel right at home.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Game 2: Yakult Swallows at Yokohama BayStars. Another Grand Slam.

Okay, I love Kleenex Miyagi Stadium in Sendai. I think it's charming, family friendly, and filled with great food establishments. It was a wonderful place to have Game 1 of our baseball tour. But the atmosphere inside the stadium during the actual game was a little, well, eh. I'm sure the bases-loaded walk and the grand slam in the first inning which led to the subsequent 14-4 beat down by the visiting Seibu Lions may have had something to do with it. At any rate, I must admit Game 2 on the JapanBall itinerary – the Yakult Swallows against the BayStars in Yokohama – provided a much needed injection of booyah into our gang of baseball enthusiasts.

After an afternoon on our own to explore Japan's second largest city, the group made its way to Yokohama Stadium. The grounds are pretty plain, and the seats and concourse of the old stadium are tight, but the oendan for both teams were rocking.

Yokohama Stadium
Swimming pool at Yokohama Stadium
Pregame concert
Bouncing for BayStars
Gate 2 for our seats
A little tight in Yokohama Stadium
Gift shop
At our seats, we ate dinner and soaked in the atmosphere while we watched the teams take infield practice. We were treated to a nice sunset.

Yokohama sunset
In Japan, the home team is always listed first, unlike in the States. 

Yokohama Stadium scoreboard
Tomo Ohka was the starter for the BayStars
Former major leaguer Tomo Ohka started and won for the BayStars. The 34-year-old right-hander, who played for six teams in his 10-year MLB career, returned to his former NPB team after the start of this season. He allowed 1 run in 6 innings and struck out 7 (if I read the Japanese box score correctly). 

The crowd was pumped for Ohka and the BayStars, and they really went nuts in the bottom of the 6th, when Yokohama scored 8 runs. We saw our second grand slam in as many games, this one off the bat of right fielder Seichi Uchikawa.

Celebrating Uchikawa's grand slam
Fans cheer the grand slam
I'm cannot rave enough about the food at Japanese stadiums. You want a hot dog or a burger? Sure, they have those things. But why would you want to eat that when you can have Almond and Fish?

Almond and fish snack = great with beer
Fan enjoys baseball bento
Nothing helps the fans root for the home team like liquid refreshment, mascots, and cheerleaders. There's nothing quite like those three things anywhere else but in Japan.

Beer girl
Beer girl
Beer guy
Beer girl
Beer girl
BayStar mascot
Parade of mascots and cheerleaders
Cheer girl
Japan's pink Grimace
Cheerleader loads T-shirts into the TBS pig's bazooka
Line dancing
TBS pig
Cute and cool things abound at Yokohama Stadium.

Checking his ticket
Checking other NPB scores
Cool hat night at Yokohama Stadium
Relief pitcher rides the Takashimaya car to the mound
Vinny from Massachusetts, one of the JapanBall tour members, left his camera at his seat while he went to buy a souvenir. No fear of it getting stolen.

Vinny's camera
At the end of the game, the BayStars lined up on the first base side and bowed to the crowd.

Players thank the fans
After the game, a few JapanBallers accompanied Wayne Graczyk, the JapanBall media guide editor, to Benny's Place for a late night snack.

Benny's Place
Benny's Place