To be completely honest, when I boarded the plane in Boston my way to Tokyo, the thing I was looking forward to most about Japan was not shrines or temples or even the food. It was baseball. Japan is the one other nation in the world that features a world class professional baseball league and I was determined to get tickets.
And not only did we get tickets, we got tickets for the Hanshin Tigers.
The Hanshin Tigers.
If you aren't familiar, let me provide a little background.
Baseball in Japan
Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) is the twelve team baseball league in Japan. Like Major League Baseball, it is divided into to leagues (Central and Pacific), and like MLB one league uses a designated hitter (Pacific) while the other does not (Central). The rules of the game are the exact same as in the United States with only one notable exception, that games can end in a tie if tied after 12 innings. American teams today feature many Japanese players (the Tigers fans in the photo above asked me about Junichi Tazawa) and there are even a few Americans playing in the NPB.
Two of the most historic teams and highest payroll teams in NPB are the Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers. The Giants are the oldest team in the league and play in Japan's largest city, Tokyo. They have a storied history, winning more Japan Series titles than any other team. The Tigers play in the oldest ballpark in Japan in Osaka, a city not quite as big or as important as Tokyo and a city has a bit of a chip on its shoulder because of that. They have a rough history, winning only one Japan Series and are said to be subject to a curse (one that has to do with KFC's Colonel Sanders). These teams have an amazingly fierce rivalry that is compared that of another baseball pair -- the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
Besides their extremely frequent comparison's to the Red Sox, I knew one other thing about the Tigers -- they are said to have some of the most enthusiastic, committed fans in all of sports. I knew I wanted to see a baseball game in Japan and I knew the Tigers were the team I wanted to see.
Japan is a very modern country. One thing that we cannot do in Japan that I would expect to be able to do, however, is buy baseball tickets online. Buying tickets to a game requires either showing up to the ticket office at the stadium or purchasing from a kiosk at a convenience store.
Convenience store kiosks are in all of the ubiquitous 7-11/Family Mart/Lawson/Sankus stores around Japan. The machines have a copier/scan function in addition to their ticket selling function. The ticket terminal allows for purchase of tickets for all sorts of things: baseball games, concerts, Universal Studios and Disney Tokyo, buses, and more. Unfortunately for us, only the copier/scan functions of the kiosk have an English button. We knew that there were baseball tickets somerwhere in that Japanese terminal, however, and so we visited 7-8 stores clicking on random buttons on the machines, cycling through every Japanese menu and option until we finally the button that had a Hanshin Tigers logo.
At that point we went up to the cashiers and kindly asked if they could help us understand the ticketing options (which were only in Japanese). An extremely friendly person with a small amount of English skill helped us successfully purchase our tickets.
Heading to the Park
Like pretty much every place in Japan, you get to the baseball stadium via train. Funnily enough, the quickest train to Hanshin Koshien Stadium is via railroad operated by the Hanshin Railway Company. Many teams in Japan (but not all) are named after a corporate sponsor, not the city they are in. (The Yomiuri Giants, for instance, are named after the Japanese media conglomerate Yomiuri.)
Differences between a game at Fenway and at Koshien were apparent even before we entered the gate. Fans lined up to enter the stadium very clearly had boxed food in grocery bags that security quickly inspected and then let pass. There is no ban on bringing food into the park. There is a ban on bringing bottles or cans into the park, but not on bringing alcohol into the park. If you would like to bring a brew into the stadium, that wouldn't be a problem as the gate agents would only take a moment to pour it for you.
Wondering around the concourse before finding our seat, Kelsi and I saw a variety of traditional American ballpark food and food that was distinctly Japanese. Hot dogs, sausages, and KFC were all available next to bento boxes, sushi, Japanese curry and Osaka's two most famous dishes- takoyaki, which are like savory octopus doughnuts that aren't fully cooked in the middle, and okonomiyaki, which are savory Japanese pancakes with lots of meat and vegetables cooked inside. We opted for the Japanese curry and enjoyed it very much. During the game we would see beer women going up and down the aisles selling draft beer from a small keg on their backs.
Then it was time to find out seats.
Watching the Game
The pregame activities featured things you would see in the United States, including a ceremonial first pitch and the national anthem, although only about 1/3 to 1/2 of the stadium seemed to acknowledge the national anthem with most people remaining sitting. After the national anthem and as the teams took the field there was a second ceremonial first pitch, this time thrown with the teams on the field.
The game itself was simply a good baseball game. There was the normal sort of plays and strategy you'd see in American baseball (a well done hit and run, a sacrifice bunt). Players had walk up music as they approached the plate. Things seemed normal and I had a great time watching solid baseball as the Tigers stormed to an 8-2 win, an especially sweet victory after a bit of a losing streak.
What was most different about the game was not the baseball, but the fans.
The way the fans watched the game reminded me more of soccer club fans than baseball fans. They waved giant Hanshin Tigers flags in the outfield bleachers and sang chants and songs while their team was up to bat. Fans sit quietly and politely while their team in is the field, but once they are up to bat the cheering is non stop. This was even true of the small but very noticeable and enthusiastic away team fans in right field, dressed in solid red for the Carp.
The most fun and unexpected part of the night came during the seventh inning stretch. At Fenway they play Sweet Caroline in the eight, at Hanshin they do this:
And then on the final play of the game as the Tigers nab the last out and secure victory:
After the game the the victorious Tigers lined up on the first baseline and bowed to the fans. The vast majority of fans then stayed in their seats waiting for the introduction of "Today's Hero", an immediate post game interview with the MVP of the game.
The fans ate the whole thing up. After the hero was paraded around the field and left, chanting and singing went on for at least another 20 minutes. As Kelsi and I headed towards the exit, we stopped to take a photo of me in front of the field when we were approached by two Tigers fans who gave me their plasstic-baseball-bat-nunchuk-cheering things that seemingly everyone else in the stadium had. They were more than happy to pose for a picture with me.
Due to our travel light philosophy, Kelsi and I have not gotten any souvenirs in Japan. That said, those plastic bats are currently tied to the outside of our backpack. We'll see how long we're able to carry them...
The game was amazing and will definitely be one of the highlights not only of Japan, but of our entire trip. If you find yourself in Japan, you should take the time to take in a baseball game.