Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Nishinomiya

On the Reality of Culture Shock

Koshien Stadium
Koshien Stadium, 2010

Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Chunichi Dragons vs. Hanshin Tigers
Koshien Stadium
Central League, Nippon Professional Baseball
Nishinomiya, Japan
16:00


Outside of the Game:
After what was my first legitimately good night's sleep of the entire trip so far, I decided to celebrate with the Washington Plaza's breakfast buffet, followed by a victory soak in the tub. The hotel included some odd bath salts to enhance the experience, and they turned the water an unhealthy shade of green. That said, after testing to make sure I wouldn't end up looking like Kermit the Frog at the end of the experience, the hot soak in the green stuff with the ambient music machine turned up full blast was perhaps as relaxed as I've been in a very long time.

I had until a night game to kill, so I did more wanderings about the capitalist orgy of Osaka. I started out going to Sennicimae Doguya Street, which is another of the specialty markets in town. This one sells restaurant supplies. This isn't just limited to things such as utensils and cooking apparatus, but also signs and things similar. Most importantly, you know all those plastic display foods that the restaurants have in their front window or counter? They come from someplace, and that someplace is likely here. Space constraints in my suitcase was all that prevented me from buying a big plastic display bowl of niku udon, although I did go a little nuts on chopsticks and other tableware.

Sennicimae Doguya
Need a fake food display? There's a store for that.

It is at this point that timing and tactical errors came into play. Osaka is well-known for its food, so I wanted to make sure I sampled some of the local cuisine for lunch. One of the highest-regarded udon places in the city was right by my hotel, but it turns out that it is closed Wednesdays. I decided instead to go to a traditional Japanese pancake (okonmiyaki) place down the street. I was seated in front of the chef's grill, ordered a pork pancake, and went on planning the rest of the afternoon. As I took my first bite of my lunch, I noticed the chef grilling up a prawn pancake on the same grill on which he made mine.

A cultural exchange quickly followed. I was eventually able to communicate that I did not spit out my food because I did not like it, but because the chef had just committed attempted murder. Even with the limited contact to shellfish, I had a mild allergic reaction, but nothing too serious. Once again, the mortification of the staff was immense, but in this case, I was more inclined to accept it. I have to imagine I would be dead if I stayed in Japan for a month due to cross-contamination.

The brush with death behind me, I forged on to Osaka Castle. The thing about castles is that they were made to be hard to get to, so it was a bit of an adventure finding out how to breach each successive series of moats and walls, even with helpful maps to show the way. Eventually, my marching and counter-marching was successful enough to get my to the castle itself. As with most things in Japan, it is a reconstruction built on the original foundations. I tried to get change for my 10,000 yen note before buying a ticket from the ticket machines, but the attendant told me it would be okay (mildly amused by my concerns), and lo and behold, the machine in fact gave out change in coins and bills in multiple denominations. It's the future right now, people.

Osaka Castle
Castle gardens

I had enough time, so I got an audio tour for the festivities, and then went up to the top floor to take the ever-present "suggested route" from the top down, which progressively gave the (often grisly) history of the castle from its inception, to its construction as an impenetrable fortress, to its subsequent multiple captures, razings, and rebuildings, to the modern day. There was a particularly noteworthy diorama made of one of the major battles at the castle that was illustrated in a famous paneled silk screen. In a bow to consumerism, you could even dress up as a samurai and have your photo taken. I demurred and finished up the tour, took a walk around the castle temple and gardens, and then headed back to the hotel to switch up gear for the game.

I had to take an auxiliary train line out to the game, but it was a straight shot and went without incident on the way out. On the way back, I got my first real taste of what I'd come to expect of using public transportation when leaving a major sporting event. The entrance to the train station was a sea of people for the length of a good football field. Once you managed to get through the turnstile gates, the corridors to the trains themselves were a cattle ramp of humanity. But the people were, for the most part, patient and behaved, and as trains kept arriving as a regular clip, it was nothing like the sea of agony that comes with trying to get an orange line train after a Yankees game, or trying to get to the 7 at Shea before they made the station renovations last year.

Post-game train station
Deep breath, keep moving

I got back to the hotel, picked up my laundry, and pretty much settled in for the night. The crush back to the trains had left me famished for some reason, so I absolutely inhaled a box of base cookies from the Koshien Museum (after arranging them first in proper diamonds), worked on the scorecard a little, and then made sure everything was packed up for my train back to Tokyo the next morning.


The Stadium & Fans:

Center to Home, Koshien Stadium
Center field to home plate at Koshien Stadium

The train station for the park dumps you off across the street and a large plaza from the stadium proper. The plaza is flanked on one side by a big fan pavilion filled with food and merchandise stalls, with the big official team store on one side and the majestic tiger statue perched at the crossing to get to the stadium.

Hanshin Tigers fans are well-known as the most fervent in Japan, and their home stadium at Koshien is one of the historical jewels of the league, home not just to the long-lived Tigers, but also the most famous high-school baseball tournament in the country. Imagine, if you will, that Fenway Park also hosted the NCAA Final Four championship every year, and you can sort of get the scope of what this park means.

Temple at Koshien Stadium
Baseball as religion

And I'd also like to definitively answer the question of whether Japanese or American fans are more devoted to baseball. And I will answer it with this: around the back of Koshien Stadium is a Shinto shrine -- an actual religious place of worship. In that shrine is a statue to baseball, and that may be enough to seal the deal, but next to the shrine proper is a Hanshin Tigers merchandise store and a Tiger's logo above the place to leave prayers and devotions. Let's just think about that for a moment, shall we? Can you imagine a giant baseball in St. Patrick's Cathedral? With a Yankee's logo above the devotional candles or a Mets merch store by the altar? If that doesn't just blow your mind, you aren't paying proper attention.

Baseball religious statue
Baseball devotional statue

There is a walkway all around the stadium, housing the usual suspects such as ticket booths, team stores, merchandise stalls, places to get your photo taken with the mascots and the rest. There is also a small park laid out in a baseball diamond with a small monument to Babe Ruth in "right field." The Tigers have also embraced some of the finer points of MLB marketing, as they have a fan brick walk in front of one of their entrances.

Babe Ruth
Babe is universal

This is the Tiger's 75th anniversary, and as part of the festivities, they have opened a museum about Koshien Stadium. The museum is half about the stadium and half about Tigers themselves, and since there was no English version of the pamphlet, I understood perhaps a third of everything. There was areas on the history of the team and the history and construction of the stadium, the championships the franchise has won over the years, as well as retired number area for the great players and a hall of fame with plaques. I'm unsure what the difference was between the later two areas. Another section of the museum talked about the history of the high school baseball tournament that plays yearly in the stadium. There were other areas on the construction and history of the stadium and the effect of manga on baseball in Japan, and the Tigers in particular. There was also an interesting exhibit on the scoreboard at Hanshin Stadium. To the best of my understanding, it used to be a manual scoreboard until very recently, and most of the player names that were put up there were hand-painted by the scoreboard keeper. The exhibit itself was lined with examples of those tiles. What I imagine is the highlight of the visit is a chance to go out onto the deck below the center field scoreboard and peek through the batter's eye during batting practice. (The special tarmac that they put up for this is taken down during the game.) Even though I didn't understand anything not in English, the museum was actually very well done.

Tigers Museum
Hall of Fame in the Museum

The stadium is one deep bowl that circles the entire playing field, with a second luxury and broadcast area above home plate. The Tigers have also latched onto another new piece of MLB fashion by having a mini LCD screen going around the barrier between the lower and upper decks behind home plate, in addition to the main scoreboard in center and the smaller board behind home plate. The left and right sections of the lower deck are accessible to ticketholders in either area, but the area behind home plate and the outfield cheering areas are only accessible with tickets to those areas. I didn't even bother to try and get into the luxury area.

The infield is all dirt with no grass, and from what I can tell, this used to be the style in most Japanese parks, though more recently most have switched to the American style of grass (or, more likely, turf) surrounding the pitching mound area. The old way is preserved there.

Much talk has been made of the Tigers and their fans, and it is borne out by two things. Firstly is that a ticket to a Tigers game is one of the hardest to get in all of Japan, as the team gets near capacity for most of its games. The second is that the opposing cheering section, while present, was only in a tiny section of part of the left field bleachers. Tigers fans dominated the entire stadium except for that postage-stamp spot of blue out in the boonies of the seating area populated by visiting fans that had found a way to get seats.

And the crowd was the largest and loudest I had experienced up until this point. It wasn't just the hardcore fans leading the cheers in the right field bleachers and the rest of the crowd adding some muted support. The entire crowd was loud from start to finish, to the last pitch in the last at-bat. To their credit, the small contingent of Dragons fans did make themselves heard, but the Tigers fans had them on sheer volume, to say nothing of enthusiasm.

Balloon launch
Now, that's a balloon launch

The balloon launch in the 7th inning was particularly impressive with a full house of amped fans. It actually took the grounds crew a little while to clear all the balloons off the field.


At the Game with Oogie:

Full house
Packed in tight

As this was a Tiger's home game, it was packed to the gills, and likely a sell-out. I was half-way up the bowl right behind third base, which gave a slightly better view of the field because it was just above the foul ball fencing that circled the park. There were all Tigers fan around me, most notably a team of little leaguers just in front and to the right of me. In a somewhat perplexing turn of events, they had their names sewn on their uniform, but Velcro attachments for their numbers. One would think that their names would be the thing that you'd want to be able to change easily, but perhaps their number for the game reflects what position they are playing. That's at least the best guess that I was able to come up with.


The Game:

First pitch, Dragons vs. Tigers
First pitch, Dragons vs. Tigers

This was a tightly fought match-up from start to finish. The first three innings went fairly briskly for both teams. In the top of the fourth, the Dragons clean-up hitter Wada sent one out of the park in right field to break up what otherwise was another 1-2-3 inning. The Tigers came right back in the bottom of the fourth. A leadoff single was erased on a caught stealing, but three more singles in the inning brought across the tying run. The Dragons threatened again in the top of the fifth with a leadoff double that moved to third with one out on a fielder's choice, but the Dragons couldn't get him home. Both teams traded missed opportunities for next few innings (the Dragons got bases loaded with no one across in the 7th, and the Tigers stranded a couple on base in the same period) before the Dragons broke through in the 8th. A leadoff single was sacrificed over to the second and then brought home on a single. The Tigers stopped the bleeding there, throwing out that runner at home when he tried to score on a double to right, but they could do nothing the next two innings, and the Dragons held on for the win, 2-1. I had seen the Tigers twice so far, and they had lost both times.

One additional item of note was the fact that they used little electric golf carts to bring in the relievers from the bullpen. It was was just one other thing to hearken back to late 70s baseball (as long as you replace the electric cart with a gas-guzzling Lincoln, but you get the picture.)

The Scorecard:

Dragons vs. Tigers, 06-30-10. Dragons win, 2-1.Dragons vs. Tigers, 06-30-10. Dragons win, 2-1.
Dragons vs. Tigers, 06/30/10. Dragons win, 2-1.

I used the Scoremaster again. The only scorings of note were a 1-6 fielder's choice put-out against the Tigers and two outfield assist put-outs against the Dragons in the eighth inning.

The Accommodation:
Once again, I was at the Washington. The humidity being what it was, I left a couple pairs of my pants to be laundered the night before, and due to some translation errors, I wasn't able to pick them up until after the game instead of before.


2010 Japan I

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Osaka

On Dreaming of Electric Sheep

Kyocera Dome
Kyocera Dome, 2010

Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles vs. Orix Buffaloes
Kyocera Dome
Pacific League, Nippon Professional Baseball
Osaka, Japan
16:00

Outside the Game:
I had a breakfast at the ryokan with an Australian couple and got to speak English (or some approximation thereof) for a while. Of all the Caucasians I saw in Japan, a majority of them were from Australia, which makes sense since the distance from Australia to Japan is roughly the same as the East Coast of America to Europe, so the tourist densities are about the same. The guy in this couple had been working there all summer, and his girlfriend had been visiting him the last two weeks before they were both heading home.

Breakfast tea
Civilized morning

Given the brutal beating my feet had taken the day before, and the fact that I didn't have to be at the ballgame in Osaka -- just a half hour away -- until 6, I beat the neighboring room into the tub room and soaked my feet for a good hour until check-out time was approaching. Then I packed up, caught my train, and it was time to get off in Osaka by the time I had really even settled into the seat.

Osaka is the second-biggest city in Japan, and it also has the second-biggest subway system. The Shin-Osaka Station that services the bullet trains and other main JR lines is a little north of the city itself, so it took a little bit of a subway ride to get to downtown. My hotel for the next two days was a few blocks from one of the main downtown subway stops. Having a fifty-fifty chance at guessing the right direction, I managed to pick the wrong one and had to backtrack considerably in the mid-day sun before eventually getting to the hotel.

After dropping of my bags and getting settled in, I decided to see a little of Osaka before I had to get to the game. One of the most famous areas of the city was right around the corner from my hotel: the Dotombori. It was apparently some sort of neon dreamscape/nightmare at night, so I walked around a little during the day to see what the transformation really was. I also walked up one of the high-end shopping streets to get to America Mura, which might as well be "Little America" in the way that New York has "Little Italy" and "Little Japan." Seeing America through another cultural prism was frankly a little too honest and insightful a look into the empty consumerism that is the majority of our culture.

Dotombori
Daytime Dotombori

Speaking of which, there was an Apple Store nearby, and it was one of the most frightening places on Earth. The new iPhones had just come out, and the store was filled shoulder-to-shoulder with Osakans standing silently along long island counters looking at the new phones. I was going to make a serious attempt to locate the alien pods before it seemed like a better idea just to leave.

I went back to the hotel by way of the Ebisubashi shopping arcade, stopping into one of the many video game halls enclosed within. Some of the more insane things I saw was a floor dedicated to photomanipulation photo booths that were filled with school-age Japanese girls, and a coin-op "Typing of the Dead" machine (complete with keyboard). One of the top floors had an old combo mechanical/arcade baseball game that I played (poorly) for several minutes.

Ebisubashi
Ebisubashi

I stopped back off at the hotel to drop off my accumulated materials from the afternoon and pick up the my bag for the game, and a quick subway ride got me to the stadium and back with no problems.

After the game, I decided to head back out into the properly contexted Dotombori. Now, you hear a lot of people throw around terms like "Blade Runner on Acid" about certain cityscapes, and as an urbanite yourself, especially one that just spent some time in Tokyo, your jaded cosmopolitan response is generally, "Whatever." Then you go and find yourself confronted by something like a five story neon Buddha-looking guy and penguin Ferris wheel. I'll say that again in case you missed it: five-story neon Buddha-looking guy and penguin Ferris wheel. You lose a sanity point just reading that; imagine what it was to gaze upon. Even if the rest of the glittering neon eye-storm that is Dotombori could be ignored, that image will live in your mind a long time.

Dotombori at night
Night-time Dotombori

In my nocturnal wanderings I stopped off in another video arcade. As it was jam-packed, I realized what some of the machines that I had seen in the other arcade earlier were: card games. From what I could gather, it seems that there are actual arcade games that interact with collectible cards sold separately that you can then play against the computer or other human opponents. Oh, you wacky Japanese!

I had done a lot of walking around that day and was actually crashing pretty hard, so I went back to the hotel a little on the early side and promptly zonked out as soon as my head hit the pillow.


The Stadium & Fans:

Home to center, Kyocera Dome
Home plate to center field, Kyocera Dome

The Kyocera Dome is a multi-sport and -event arena relatively close to downtown Osaka, serviced by a JR line as well as a subway line, both of which dump you a short walk to the stadium. Said stadium, at first glance, looks like a slightly rejected mushroom from one of the Mario Nintendo games. In perhaps a little inferiority complex moment, the ownership has seen fit to call the complex "Osaka Dome City," in thinly veiled reference to its bigger brother Tokyo Dome City in Tokyo, even though corporate sponsorship has since changed the formal name to the "Kyocera Dome."

I found the advertising for the team to be particularly bi-polar. On the one hand, there was a poster for the team as samurai, all manly and whatnot, embracing the traditional macho iconography for yakyu. On the other, there was a poster for some kind of Ladies Night event (from what I could gather), that showed the team as slightly effeminate  manga boys. It is rare that you see both ends of a spectrum so clearly defined.

Manga baseball
Secure in their masculinity

For all its oddness, the Kyocera Dome was actually pretty interesting from an architectural standpoint. It has very unique lines and is non-linear in most places. On top of that, the dome itself looks like some species of UFO from the inside. It would of interest to find out what the locals think of it.

The aliens are already here

Proving that art is nice but commerce is better, there is an entire mall built into the "basement" of the dome complex that houses the team store, the fan club, and various other stores and restaurants. In the main team store, they had MLB merchandise (the first I had seen in Japan), including a weird Mets mechanical pen (which of course I bought).

MLB merch
Overseas ball

Upstairs and outside the dome, there was the more familiar "fan city" area, with more stalls and vendors (the Buffaloes apparently had some sort of sponsorship with Budweiser) and the stage for the mascot show before the game. The Buffaloes have a foam human boy and girl characters, and then there's some green... I'm going to go with pickle... thing and a giant pink gorilla. I don't pretend to understand all of this for a moment.

The interior of the Kyocera Dome was spacious and well-lit, in stark contrast to some of the other places I'd visited so far. To be fair, this seems a much newer facility than the others. It was also much larger, as the stadium had a good three levels, with luxury areas and boxes as you would find at a MLB park, and they also had the on-field seating seen at other parks in Japan. The ultra-luxury area behind home plate even had personal air conditioning vents worked into the seats.

It also had a bit of Oakland Coliseum Disease, in that the uppermost decks were clearly not expected to sell any tickets for the near future, and large swaths of seats were covered over with player pictures and the like to lessen the effect. But you could walk around to any section of the park largely unhindered, and there was a nice navigational element in that the interior walkways had little maps at regular intervals to tell you where you were in relation to home plate. And, in a stunning advancement in Japanese baseball science, the park had auxiliary scoreboards in addition to the main one in center, and the smaller one behind home plate that actually showed player numbers! It was a great victory for all scorer-kind.

Mascot show
Pre-game mascots

The crowd was quite sparse for the game, and I'm not sure whether that is a reflection of the fanbase as a whole, how the team was doing at the moment, or if it was just because it was a mid-week game. There were two, somewhat abbreviated, cheering sections in their respective fields who kept up the cheering for all of the game, but the crowd in general was not very loud at all, especially after the scoring stopped in the first inning. Even the balloon festivities in the middle of the seventh were not as spectacular as at other stadiums because of the lack of volume of screaming condom-looking things flying through the air. But, as always, the fans that were there were watching the actual game.


At the Game with Oogie:

Japan scoring
Scoring, the universal language

I was sitting right behind third base for this game. Seated behind me were a couple from Australia (or possibly New Zealand. After watching Flight of the Conchords, I was afraid to ask). They were also carrying a copy of of the English JapanBall guide, and were following the game closely, though we did talk a little during the course of the game.

Sitting across the isle from me was an older Japanese man. Every now and then throughout the game, he would nod off and then be awakened by cheering, check out the situation, and then eventually go back to sleep. When the Buffaloes sealed the win, he started cheering very loudly, and then watched the post-game player of the game show with great interest.


The Game:

First pitch, Eagles vs. Buffaloes
First pitch, Eagles vs. Buffaloes

This game got over early. After a 1-2-3 top of the first, the Buffaloes got two straight singles, who were both driven home by the the number three hitter jacking one out to deep center. And that was pretty much the game. Each team squandered some opportunities (the Eagles had a two-out triple go for naught in the second and had bases loaded without getting a run across in the seventh, and the Buffaloes had a man on third with one out in the sixth that didn't come across and a runner thrown out at home to close out the eighth), but the game was over in the first. The Eagles only used two pitchers, and the Buffaloes Kisanuki went the complete game for the 3-0 victory. The post-game hero interview had the home run hitter and the winning pitcher flanked by all the mascots and the cheerleading squad.

The Scorecard:

Eagles vs. Buffaloes, 06-29-10. Buffaloes win, 3-0.Eagles vs. Buffaloes, 06-29-10. Buffaloes win, 3-0.
Eagles vs. Buffaloes, 06/29/10. Buffaloes win, 3-0.

I was back in the Scoremaster book for this game. After the first inning, this was a fairly standard pitcher's duel, and the managers didn't even do the ceremonial "inning of 27 pinch hitters" in the seventh that I had come to expect. Outside of the 7-6-2 put-out at home to end the eighth, there was no scoring of note for the game.

The Accommodations:

Washington Plaza Hotel
The room wasn't much bigger than this, but it was big for Japan.

I was staying at the Washington Plaza Hotel in Osaka, which was a slightly more upscale "business hotel" than I had been residing in up until this point. It had its own large entrance-way and its own restaurant, and more hoity-toity services than the other hotels. They actually let me check in early, for one thing.

The room was also noticeably bigger than my previous ones. All the elements of past rooms were there, just larger, but there was even a proper closet at the entrance. There was the slightly larger bathroom from the future, an actual desk not built into the wall, and a slightly larger bed with the control panel command console. (Since the hotel was so close to Dotombori, one of the added features of the console was a control for ambient classical background music to drown out some of the street noise from below. It was a very welcome feature.) The bathroom from the future even had monogrammed towels with the hotel's name on them, so, you know, fancy.


2010 Japan I

Monday, June 28, 2010

Kyoto

On a Day without Yakyu

Kyoto
View down to the city from a temple

Monday, June 28, 2010
Kyoto, Japan

Outside the Game:
Kyoto is a quick bullet train ride from Nagoya, and I actually got up promptly enough to catch an earlier train than the one I intended. One of the advantages of traveling to visit things at 2 and 6 in the afternoon is that you generally aren't traveling during peak commuting periods. This was not the case today, as I was making an early start of it to get the most of my day in Kyoto, which just happened to be Monday rush hour.

Nagoya Station
Salaryman Parade

And it put into focus a reality about life in Japan. 99.99% of it is lived with a strict "no touching" rule. You bow instead of shaking hands. You wave instead of hugging. Financial transactions are facilitated by special bowls where you place your money and the cashier places your change, all to prevent the horrors of inter-human contact. And then, outside of whatever the Japanese do behind closed doors, there is subway. Now, while the exaggerated urban legend of subway conductors wedging in as many people as possible to trains so the doors can close may not make the mark, it is not all that far from reality, as during rush hour, every last inch of space in a subway car is efficiently taken up by human flesh, and you find yourself ever so politely wedged into the person's back in front of you. Being a couple inches taller than the average citizen in this case provides some strategic advantages, to be sure. Even still, I got to the station in plenty of time for the train and killed some time watching a fastidious elderly technician fill one of the innumerable drinks machines on the track with eminent care.

The bullet train was uneventful, dumping me at Kyoto Station. In what would be a good indicator of the rest of my navigation experiences in the city, I immediately went the wrong way, and ended up exiting the station at the exact opposite end at which I needed. Some quick "sumimasen" and map pointing later, I was on my way to the correct exit, and my traditional ryokan inn. It being early morning, I just dropped off my bags and headed out into the city after buying a one-day unlimited commuter pass from the helpful hotel staff.

Not having any particular goal for today, I started by visiting the first temple complex that availed itself, which was nearly next door to my ryokan, Hijashi-Honganji. The "problem" (if it can be called that) with Kyoto is the same affliction affecting Rome and certain other areas of Europe: there are so many wonders piled into such a small area that individual items that taken in isolation would be a masterpiece just becomes part of the background of the utterly epic other works around them. And in the "city of temples," it can blur quickly with the insane density of the treasures.

Higashi-Honganji Temple
Dragon fountain
And in Kyoto, nearly everything is wedged in by design or necessity. The non-main roadways that dump out into the major thoroughfares, for example, are narrow slots barely large enough to allow a car to pass, yet through some inherent social bargaining both human and vehicular traffic both manage to utilize.

It is also one of the only cities that wasn't extensively remodeled by the US in the 40s. In England, the most common phrase you hear in relation to historical buildings is "Henry VIII" (as in "... before it was destroyed by Henry VIII"), and in Ireland, it is "rebel leaders" (as in "... where the rebel leaders were held/executed"). In Japan, that phrase is "bombing during World War II" (as in "The city was completely destroyed by bombing during World War II."). Kyoto was one of the few cities to escape that phrase, and unlike Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they didn't get to pay for it in a big way at the end of the war (although Kyoto was on the short list to get the "special greeting" from Uncle Sam, before being removed at the insistence of Secretary of War Stimson). War is war, which is unfortunate, and the Japanese expansionist imperial regime brought that war on themselves, but despite all that, it is comforting to know that at least one city in the country avoided utter destruction.

There was a suggested one-day tour for Kyoto, and since I had one day to spend and not a great depth of knowledge on the place, I decided to follow it, more or less. It brought me down to the main temple district in the south east of the city, hitting the main sites of Kiyomizu-dera. As fate (or any of the involved gods) would have it, it had been overcast and drizzly all morning, but as soon as I got to the wide and unshaded confines of the temple area, the sun came out in force and seemingly vaporized all the clouds in the sky. Thankfully, one of the first things I ran into at the first temple complex was a Buddhist devotional exercise that was underground in darkness, the Tainai-meguri. You follow prayer beads along the wall in the darkness in an attempt to gain some insight through the sensory deprivation. Not only was it out of the sun, but it was quite a unique and tranquil experience, until some other Americans entered behind me and the children started complaining loudly that it was dark down there. So it goes.

Nishi-Otani
Nishi-Otani

The temples were just striking, and even in the scorching sun, it was hard not to get lost in the tranquility of the surroundings. After going through the temple complexes themselves (and wading through the sea of tourists that were heading up to the temples by mid-afternoon), there were several historic side streets full of tea gardens and shops (and more temples) that I wandered through for most of the early afternoon.

Kyoto Streets
Crowded streets

Completing as much of the temple circuit as I could, I headed back to downtown proper to try and find a washi store I read about. Washi is traditional Japanese paper, and I figured I had to at least take a look. However, the directions in the book I had were not exactly specific, and we had already established my complete inability to navigate the city well. A half-hour search that got increasingly desperate followed. I eventually asked at one of the countless police kiosks, and the officer was able to direct me to the one alleyway in the area that I had not explored to get to the store. Some good did come from wandering around all the sideways and alleyways south of the main drag in town, as I got a glimpse of real-life geisha. There are plenty of tourist geisha that wander those districts of the city, but the geisha proper don't go out in public much, as tourists have a tendency to be rude to them, and apparently their enthusiasm includes physical contact and near assault on their persons. She seemed suitably circumspect of an American wandering down the same small roadway as her, so I gave her as much room as the narrow confines would allow and tried to look as non-threatening as possible, which was probably not that effective given how haggard I was at that point in the day.

Geisha
A fleeting glimpse

After that much searching, I went to town once I got inside the store. Paper, notebooks, decorative items, even coasters all went into my bag. And particularly surprising was that everything I bought ended up being under $50, which nearly prompted another rush of purchases, only restrained by my limited and dwindling luggage space.  After getting all my wonderful washi packed up, I decided I has a little more tourist left in me. I took the subway up to the Imperial Park and wandered around for a while. I made the poor choice of going out the main passage exit, just as the sun managed to make one last attempt to burn me to ash.

Bleary, battle-worn, and sun-blasted, I decided to make one last foray before retreating to my hotel. I took the subway to Nijo Castle, the shogunate palace for Kyoto. As it was getting close to last admission, a helpful, yet creepy PA system suggested in rather strident tones to go to the entrance of the castle immediately before the gates closed.

Suitably quickly, I availed myself to the entrance, removed my shoes, and began the castle tour circuit. One of the notable features of the castle was the "nightingale floors" installed everywhere, which is basically anti-ninja technology. The floor and joists are constructed in such a way that any step on the floor makes a noise similar to the song of a wooden-sounding nightingale. (It also made me wonder how anyone got any sleep, but I suppose some sleepless nights are better than getting ninja-ed at three in the morning.) I inevitably gave into every tourists temptation to try and get across the floor silently, and it is disappointing to know that I missed my career calling by about 500 years, as I was able to cross a section silently. I sheepishly accepted the praise of a staff member, whom I did not see right around the corner from where I was making my dry run assassination attempt. Okay, perhaps it is just as well I didn't get the chance to be a spectacularly unsuccessful (if quiet) ninja.

Nijo Castle
Castle moat

After the castle, there is a winding tour of the estate gardens that, unsurprisingly, drops you at a gift shop, which I shamelessly indulged in (but to my credit, I didn't get the samurai sword letter opener). There was a large party of Australians in the shop with me, and I took the opportunity to get some English out of my system.

But brothers and sisters, I am here to give you good tidings: an age-old question of our existence has been revealed -- there is a greater power than ourselves, and it is good.

After I dragged my dehydrated ass back to the ryokan, cleaned up, and soaked for a good hour or so, I headed back out into the mercifully dark city to try and muster up something to eat. The nearby train station was mentioned as having several fine eateries, and so I went back and started going up a series of elevators that went higher and higher, culminating in a rooftop terrace filled with restaurants. The u-shaped terrace had over a dozen restaurants, mostly catering to the tourist trade, proudly offering menus in English, Korean, Chinese, and other sundry languages. Walking all around this terrace was getting tiring, but I took one more turn before going back to settle on a fix-priced multi-course place some vaguely-remembered path behind me. And that is when I saw the kobe teppanyaki restaurant.

A one-stroke question-answer followed.

"Kurejitokado?" ("Do you accept credit cards?")
"Hai." ("Yes.")
"Ichi, kudasi." ("One, please.")


It is best in these situations not to dwell on things such as price. After determining that we were keeping this under six (yen) digits, I ordered the dinner that looked the best, and just went with it.

Said experience began with a kimono-swathed hostess taking my drink order, placing my appetizers on the table, and then retreating once everything was delivered. The tables were all built into a counter overlooking downtown Kyoto from a location just slightly lower than the Kyoto Tower. The attendants absolutely disappear when not at the table so you are not disturbed. To summon them back, you have to press a discreet call button located on the table. This I did to check the identity of something rather shellfish-looking on my appetizer plate. After to a rather complicated and extensive back and forth, this supposition was proven true, and somehow a great embarrassment to the waitstaff, who were apparently of the opinion they should have known this quirky fact of my metabolism ahead of time. It also prompted them to ask my status on every last ingredient they put before me, which was appreciated, but unnecessary for the rest of the evening, as it turned out.

The hostess then returned with a plate of raw beef that would tempt Buddha, a pan, and various other accouterments. The pan was heated on an electric in-table range, and then a slice of gorgeous beef fat was dropped into the pan, followed in good time by a slice of the kobe once the fat began melting. Some sugar was added, and complex chopstick manipulation of the cooking meat was undertaken. An egg was also whisked with chopsticks and placed next to my plate. As the meat finished cooking, it was dropped deftly in my plate, and some simple pantomime instructed me to dip the meat in the egg, and consume.

At any moment before this, if you had told me that I'd eat anything better than the veal I had once at Pietro's in New York, I would have punched you in the throat until you were dead, and you would have died agreeing with me, because the last thing I would do is let you smell that veal, pounded so thin it was nearly transparent, breaded to a thickness that mocked science's ability to measure it, cut with a fork because nothing as crude as a blade was necessary to rend it, and so succulent as to melt in one's mouth without chewing.

Kobe beef
Gone too quickly...

That this was the best beef I had ever had was not even a question worth raising, as the answer was so self-evident as to render the inquiry ludicrous. It was merely now a consideration of whether this was the best thing I had ever eaten, period. And it was at that moment that -- depending on your point of view -- I either became the most despicable blasphemer to an old faith, or a shining, dappled convert to a new, better god; because of that much I am sure -- I touched the hand of a god.

As the attendant began cooking the rest of the meat, and the accompanying vegetables and noodles, I honestly started having deeper thoughts on what was transpiring. Did I deserve to eat this? What had I done with my life up to this point that could justify it? What was I going to need to do to make up the necessary moral deficit I was incurring? One meal was making me question my place in the universe and aspiring to be a better person.

It was simply extraordinary, and at a few times, my attendant checked to make sure my rapt enjoyment was not some other allergic reaction. Desert came and went, as did the bill, but I can still taste the meat, and I think I always will. And that actually makes me feel better about the world.

Kyoto Station
Descending at night

I eventually left the restaurant to see the rest of the observation deck and head back to the hotel, in a daze that has not yet quite lifted.

The Accommodation:

Matsubaya Inn
Ryokan living

As I mentioned, I stayed in Mastubaya Inn ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, while in Kyoto. Frankly, Kyoto, heartland of Japanese culture, seemed the place to do it. This particular ryokan was slightly modernized, in that they rebuilt it completely with a steel frame, and then reconstructed the interior with all the original floorboards and other materials. But I didn't really have a chance to look at the place until I came back in the afternoon after my wanderings.

There is a three-tiered footwear policy that you have to take in affect. You wear your street shoes on the downstairs area, before switching to slippers to go upstairs to your room. Once you pass the main vestibule to your room, you remove all footwear before going onto the wicker mat flooring in the room. And then, if you are going to the bathroom, there are special bath slippers for that. Take notes, kids, this is important.

I had a single room with my own toilet, but I had to share a bathing room with another guest room. Then there was the sleeping area proper. There was a low, round table in the room that carried all the tea accessories. My bags were stashed on the only non-matted part of the floor. The futon bedding was bundled up in one corner and the robe in the other. A LCD TV was bolted onto the wall opposite where the bedding was to be laid out. Instructions for everything were provided in picture and book form on the table.

This was also my first introduction to an energy-saving method used in many Japanese hotels. The electrical system in the room would not activate unless you had a fob from your room key in a special slot just inside the door. The outlet power still works, so you can recharge items and the like, but you can't leave the AC running all day with the lights on, for example.

After getting back in the afternoon. I made a foray across the hall to the bathing room, in my proper bath slippers. It took my a while to realize what was going on in the room. The vestibule had a sink and mirrors, but the interior, with the shower and tub, were all closed off by one door. It finally dawned on me that the entire interior chamber was a water-tight shower area, with a central drain in the floor outside of the tub. While I had become a little jaded to futuristic toilet and bath furnishings at this point, the tub controls in the room still made an impact. You could set the exact temperature of the hot water, and a slightly Portal-ish computer voice gave updates in Japanese that I couldn't understand on the tub temperature and the like. It rode the razor's edge between creepy and soothing.

When I got back that night, I was able to assemble the bedding, get into my robe, and brew the green tea with the help of the instructions. It was all rather civilized, and since I had managed to walk my feet into bloody, blistered stumps, I settled in for a solid night of sleep.


2010 Japan I

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Nagoya

On Unnecessary Stress

Nagoya Dome
Nagoya Dome, 2010

Sunday, June 27, 2010
Hiroshima Toyo Carp vs. Chunichi Dragons
Nagoya Dome
Central League, Nippon Professional Baseball
Nagoya, Japan
14:00

Outside the Game:
I grabbed the breakfast buffet at my hotel in Tokyo, and then I was off to my first other city of the trip. I checked out and dragged my bags onto the subway and got myself to the station to use the first of my inter-city bullet train tickets. It was here that my JapanRail pass was going to start paying for itself.

As with the airport train a couple of days earlier, Tokyo was the first stop for the bullet train, so the pink-jumpsuited cleaning elves attacked the train when it arrived at the station before we were allowed to board. And it was as though they were magical cleaning elves, because they popped out of a tiny door in the side of the track to appear and clean the train. Once allowed to board, the bullet trains seemed like every other train in Japan, which is to say it was clean, quiet, and efficient. And I suppose that was even more of an achievement given how fast we were apparently going. Because the speed was completely undetectable while riding in the train, with the exception of when we passed another bullet train going in the opposite direction, and the noise and blur of it passing gave you an idea of relative speeds that were involved in this endeavor. I spent the majority of the train ride catching up on my scorecard of the night previous and getting some work done on this monster. About two hours after I started, I got off at Nagoya.

Train cleaners
No, really. Pink jumpsuits.

And then I immediately started hitting a rough stretch. As I was running out of money, I decided to stop at an ATM before transferring to the Nagoya subway that would get me to my hotel. There was a bank of them in the station, and even though most of them were for Japanese banks, one or two had the American card agencies displayed. And each and every one of them gave me the error message that my card was not valid and I needed to contact my bank. This engendered a certain amount of concern on my part. Scenarios of my card getting compromised somewhere along the way flashed through my head, and what I was going to be able to do even if I could contact my bank took a stroll through the cerebellum as well. I had some emergency traveler's cheques with me, but I didn't know if they would be enough to get me through a country that still largely cash-based. I had enough money to get me to my hotel, so I decided to get there and then sort out my options.

The subway ride was uneventful, if fretful, and the Nagoya system, although different from the Tokyo system, was equally easy to figure out and navigate. Once I got where I was going, however, it was a different matter. One of the big things in Japan is getting out at the right exit of a station, because some of these things are huge concerns, and exiting in the wrong place can put you at a five-minute walk from the exit you really wanted to get to, and navigating in strange cities is already complicated enough as it is. (To be fair, every last exit to every last station in Japan is marked, and if you can find the map to figure out which one to take, as I had learned to do later in the trip, it is less of a chore to figure out.)

At this early stage of the trip, I managed to choose poorly, and I was hopelessly wandering around trying to find a street location to center myself, and given my bank card situation, I was working with a shorter fuse than average. After twenty minutes of floundering, I gave up and sought direction assistance at one of the ubiquitous 7-11s. (Yes, 7-11. The company has made huge headways into Japan, and now they are almost as common as the other major convenience store in the country, Lawsons.) I got directions, and since I was there, I decided to try their ATM. And my card worked perfectly, and I got my spending money for the next day or so. I later found out that even though an ATM in Japan says they are connected to the US network, only three reliably are: the post office, CitiBank, and 7-11. Go figure. Even with that being the case, one could imagine that they might be able to come up with a slightly more user-friendly error message for those occasions than "Your card is invalid. Contact your bank." I could write one for them, if they'd like. My treat, really, guys.

All my immediate problems resolved, I went to my hotel to drop off my bags before the afternoon ballgame and headed back to the subway station to get me to the Nagoya Dome.

After the game, I got back to the hotel for a clean-up and then headed out for some dinner and walking around. One of my goals for this trip was to get the local specialty in each city when I could. Nagoya was apparently known for spicy pork dishes. One of the guidebooks I had suggested a particular place in the city, and having no other agenda, I made my way there. This place was apparently used to catering to tourists, as they had a full English menu and also had an array of mild versions of the spicy pork for the tenderfeet. I took something on the middling end of the scale and tucked in. With my stomach finally stabilized and feeling better, I was hungry enough to down two bowls of the pork noodle soup pretty quickly before I was on my way. Right by the restaurant was also the only Christian church that I managed to see in my entire time in Japan.

Christian Church
It seemed really out of place.

After dinner, I did some minor wandering around, but with another train to catch the next day and feeling pretty beat after the game, I headed back to the hotel to pack up and get some shut-eye.


The Stadium and Fans:

Home to center, Nagoya Dome
Home plate to center field, Nagoya Dome

The Nagoya Dome had its own subway stop named after it, which made getting their an easy enough thing. It wasn't as far away from the station as Jingu Stadium was, but there was a long walk through the subway station, out into a long elevator ride, and then a smaller walk along a pavilion to get to the stadium proper. The main team store was actually located across the street from the dome, connected to a shopping mall adjacent to everything. The entire dome was surrounded by a paved walkway that had things such as smaller team stores, ticket booths, fan club buildings, and childrens merchandise stores arrayed on the periphery.

Once inside, it was less claustrophobic than the dimensions of Jingu Stadium, and, more importantly, it was the first stadium I went to where I had full access to all areas through a walkway that circled the entirety of the playing field. I was finally able to wander into the rooting areas as the crews were setting up their wares, as I watched Carp fans laying out their flags, tuning their trumpets, and setting up the drums. The organization was once again fairly impressive.

This was also the first stadium I visited in Japan that not only had a legitimate upper deck, but also a club level and luxury area. It was easy enough to get access to the upper deck, but the premium areas were closely guarded by staffers to prevent any hoi polloi from gaining access.

The stadium itself was fairly standard for Japan, although it lacked the on-field seating that the other two parks had, probably due to space constraints placed on the field size due to the dome. There was the huge video screen in center and the smaller screen behind home plate, and the slightly small dimensions of the park itself conformed with what I'd seen from Japan fields so far.

The Sunday afternoon game had the dome about three quarters full, and most of them were home rooters. A small but vocal contingent of Hiroshima fans were located in their traditional place in the left field bleachers, and as always, both sides were vocal and cheering. There was a special ceremony with posters that the team had given away upon entry to the stadium that celebrated one of the Dragon's relievers hitting a saves total. During the seventh inning festivities (accentuated with junior cheerleaders who helped out the senior squad during several points in the game that day), the assembled crowd all held up their posters.


At The Game With Oogie:

Scoring in Japan
All the same

I was actually sitting a little further up the baseline on this game, just into the outfield on the first base side, but still relatively close to the field. I had asked the ticket guys to mix up the views for the games. I was sitting next to an older married couple and their teenage kid. He wandered off early in the game and came back at the end, and I suspect that he was off into the cheering section for most of the game.

Another event helped remind me that I wasn't at home. In one of the middle innings, a woman made her presence known, and I eventually found out that her child had spilled her drink a couple of rows up behind me, and it had made its way down the steep rows of seats. She was excusing herself so that she could clean up spill in my row. Presumably she did this for all the rows behind me, and she continued to do it for all the rows until she got to the landing below me. Of all cross-cultural things that I saw this entire trip, that one in particular perhaps blew my mind the most.


The Game:

First pitch, Carp vs. Dragons
First pitch, Carp vs. Dragons

This game was a first in a couple of ways. It was the first game that the home team lost so far on the trip, and it was also the first game where I saw any errors. The number of errors, at least in the games that I saw, were very low, as evidenced by the fact that I went into the third game without seeing any. In general, they seemed to be well below the MLB average for such things.

After trading zeros in the opening frame, the Dragons scored first in the bottom of the second on a single, a double, and some ground outs. That lasted an entire half-inning, as the Carp tied it up on a single that was brought around on advancing on a putout and legging out a follow-up single. (That was another inherent "late-70s NL" aspect of the Japanese game. Runners would advance on most fly-outs, and even some ground outs, as a matter of course, and first-to-third on a single and scoring from second on any single not hit directly at an outfielder were pretty much givens.)

The Carp would tack on a run in the 4th (on one of those rare errors), and then two in the fifth on a two-run homer by one their stable Westerners. Things largely cooled down for both teams until the eighth, where the Carp put across two more on a small-ball bonanza of base hits and sacrifices. The Dragons tried to put together a rally in the bottom of the ninth, peaking with a three-run homer with only one out, but the next two batters meekly struck out and popped to first, and the Dragons lost, 6-4.

The long stream of disappointed fans flooded the concourses back to the subway station, and this was the first game where there was no post-game victory broadcast from the field.

The Scorecard:

Carp vs. Dragons, 06-27-10. Carp win, 6-4.Carp vs. Dragons, 06-27-10. Carp win, 6-4.
Carp vs. Dragons, 06/27/10. Carp win, 6-4.

Once again, I was manning the Scoremaster sheets. It being indoors, and with a couple of games under my belt, it lacked the extreme difficulty of the game previous.

The Accommodations:

Hamilton Hotel Black
Hamilton Hotel Black, Nagoya

I stayed for one night at the Hamilton Hotel Black in Nagoya. After my adventures in getting there, one of the first things that I asked for at the desk was a map of the area. Once I got back after the game, I thought I wandered into a different place. I thought that I might have accidentally booked into a "love hotel," as the entire downstairs area was filled with young Japanese couples. It turns out that I had just wandered into the hotel's free Happy Hour. While most hotels settle to give you a free continental breakfast, the Hamilton went them extra mile and gave free booze as well. Sadly, there was no whiskey to be had.

Keeping with its clientele (except me, obviously), my room was fun-sized, but a little on the hip and stylish side of things. It still had the prerequisite tiny bathroom and bed and desk and TV, but all the fixtures were in black, and the "Command console" was replaced with an actual clock radio, and the stow-away chair looked a lot like a bongo.


2010 Japan I