Japanese Baseball: Root, Root, Root and Buy Me Some Eel
HANAMI, or cherry-blossom viewing, is jokingly referred to as the most popular spectator sport in Japan. In truth, the title belongs to baseball.
But “spectator” is a misnomer, because attending a baseball game in Japan involves active, enthusiastic participation.
On a Sunday afternoon in April, I was crammed into a seat in the upper deck of the Tokyo Dome to watch the biggest rivalry in Japanese baseball — Japan’s version of a New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox match-up. The Yomiuri Giants were set to battle the visiting Hanshin Tigers, whose devoted fans made up nearly half of the crowd of about 44,000 in the jam-packed stadium.
As soon as the game began, so did the coordinated cheering. Led by cheer captains in the outfield bleachers, the batting team’s fans chanted, sang and rhythmically banged plastic bats for every pitch to every batter. Their deafening, synchronized roar dominated the dome. Each hit ignited a burst of still louder cheers and frantic towel waving.
“It’s a manifestation of perfectionism,” said Robert Whiting, the author of several books on Japanese culture and baseball. “If you are going to be a fan, then you have to go all the way.”
Yet the fans of the team in the field maintained a respectful hush, interrupted only by an exuberant wave of applause after each out. Questionable calls were never booed. No jeers rang out when an error was made. These fans radiated only love for their teams.
Love and an endless reserve of energy. After 12 innings of play — and 4 hours 36 minutes of sustained cheering — the score was still tied, 6-6. And that’s when everyone packed up their paraphernalia and quietly shuffled out of the stadium. Game over.
The lack of resolution was unnerving. But in Japan, ties are not uncommon because games are called after 12 innings — win, lose or draw. The game I attended was only the Giants’ ninth of the season, but already their second tie.
Otherwise, the rules of game play for the 12 teams in Nippon Professional Baseball, Japan’s equivalent of Major League Baseball, are largely the same as those used in the American version. As in the United States, there are two major leagues in Japan, with one, the Pacific League, allowing the designated hitter, and the other, the Central League, eschewing it.
The regular season runs from early April to October, with each team playing 144 games, compared with 162 in America. It is followed by playoffs that culminate in a championship series, called the Nippon Series, in early November.
The Giants were the Central League champions last year, but lost the final series to the Pacific’s Saitama Seibu Lions, 4 games to 3.
Even visitors who aren’t particularly interested in the sport itself will find that attending a baseball game in Japan provides an illuminating peek into Japanese culture and an opportunity to taste some culinary curiosities. Concession stands around the stadium offer a dizzying variety of food options — many of which are completely unidentifiable to untrained foreign eyes.
One recognizable item, however, is the ubiquitous bento box. Stacked neatly beside photographs of their contents, the boxes can contain pretty much anything — sushi, tofu, grilled eel, rice balls with egg, and pickled vegetables are just some of the possibilities.
Fried mashed-potato balls are a pleasant substitute for French fries, but the more daring will opt for takoyaki, small dough balls filled with octopus. Hot dogs are also for sale, though it’s much more fun to battle a bowl of slippery soba noodles with chopsticks. And if the Baskin-Robbins ice cream stand is familiar, some of its perplexingly named flavors — like the refreshing Popping Shower (it’s minty) — are not.
To round out the gustatory experience, try sipping some sake or whiskey.
The long lines that are common at concession stands in American ballparks are blissfully absent. Perhaps that is because Japan has beer girls.
Running up and down the aisles with pony kegs strapped to their backs, the smiling young girls are easy to spot in their colorful uniforms and matching caps (not to mention their shorts with hemlines as short as sartorially possible). In a subtle nod to Daisuke Matsuzaka, a favorite Japanese player now pitching in the United States, one girl selling Asahi beer — and practically glowing in her neon orange, lime green and royal blue uniform — had a Red Sox towel tucked into her shirt and matching bright red knee-socks.
For the benefit of beer girls and fans alike, shrill whistles warned of every incoming foul ball, after which officials rushed to the impact site to check for injuries. The seats closest to the field even came with protective helmets and gloves.
Furthering the calculated effort to accommodate all and irritate none, glassed-in smoking lounges featured televisions showing the game. And for entertainment during some of the lulls between innings, Giants cheerleaders in white gloves and orange leg warmers flipped and danced on the field.
A few days after the tie in Tokyo, I caught a Tigers home game against the Chunichi Dragons at Hanshin Koshien Stadium, the country’s oldest, having opened in 1924. Situated just outside Osaka, Koshien was packed with the home team’s fans, which made their seventh inning tradition a spectacular event. After gleefully blowing up jumbo baseball-bat-shaped balloons — a seventh inning stretch of the lungs, not legs — the crowd released the colorful balloons in unison to awesome effect.
The former Yomiuri Giants pitcher Hideki Okajima, who now plays with Mr. Matsuzaka for the Boston Red Sox, described Koshien Stadium as a “party house” in a recent e-mail exchange (conducted with the help of a translator). He added that while playing for the rival Giants, he “almost feared visiting Koshien because of the fans there. When Tigers hitters are at the plate, fans don’t stop singing, beating drums and waving the flags.”
And the game I attended was no different. Living up to their raucous reputation, the fans created a heady, carnival-like atmosphere.
Two innings later, when the Tigers clinched a 4-3 victory, the crowd offered a second, equally dazzling balloon display. As the players celebrated in the middle of the dark brown, all-dirt infield, fans cheered and balloons rocketed around the stands like confetti fireworks. On this night, there was plenty of joy in Mudville.
WHERE TO FIND BEER GIRLS AND BALLONS
The English version of the Nippon Professional Baseball official Web site, www.npb.or.jp/eng, has a calendar listing all coming games in 2009 and information on all 12 teams.
WHERE TO WATCH
The Yomiuri Giants play at the Tokyo Dome (1-3 Koraku, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo), and their last regular season home game this year will be on Sept. 27.
The Hanshin Tigers play at Hanshin Koshien Stadium outside of Osaka (1-82 Koshien-cho, Nishinomiya), and their last regular season home game will be on Sept. 20. Balloons can be bought at the stadium.
The Tokyo Yakult Swallows play across town from the Giants at Jingu Stadium (3-1 Kasumigaoka-machi, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo). Their last regular season home game will be on Sept. 30.
Although it may be possible to buy same-day walk-up tickets at the stadiums, Giants and Tigers games often sell out so it is recommended that visitors purchase tickets in advance.
For Giants home games, print-at-home tickets are available online at gticket.e-tix.jp/en/ticket_pc_en.php (in English). Prices run from 1,700 yen for the outfield bleachers, about $17.35 at 98 yen to the dollar, to 5,900 yen ($60) for seats behind home plate.Tickets for the other teams cost generally slightly less. They can be bought in advance at stadium ticket windows or at convenience stores (including FamilyMart, 7-Eleven, Lawson and ampm), through a variety of machines, some of which are difficult to identify and all of which are in Japanese. But if you present the relevant information written in Japanese (including date, venue, teams and preferred seat location), store employees are often happy to help navigate whatever type of ticket kiosk is located in the store.