Saturday, July 3, 2010

Sendai

On Hiding from the Burning Eye



Kleenex Stadium Miyagi
Kleenex Stadium Miyagi, 2010

July 3, 2010
Nippon Ham Fighters vs. Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
Kleenex Stadium Miyagi
14:00
Pacific League, Nippon Professional Baseball
Sendai, Japan

Outside of the Game:
After breakfast, a quick subway ride got me to Tokyo Station and my train up to Sendai. It was a two-hour ride on a double-decker train, and I spent all of it trying to finish up my scorecard from the game the night previous. So lost in the work, I almost missed the dulcet chimes notifying me that I had arrived in Sendai.

Another city that got some radical remodeling courtesy of World War II, it was redesigned into a pedestrian paradise of wide, tree-lined streets and conveniently straight thoroughfares. A quick stop at the visitor center got me a map from a helpful counterperson, and a short walk brought me to my hotel, the Sendai Kokusai.

Having an hour to kill before I had to leave for the game, I walked around one of the Ichibancho covered market, and there I saw the first picture of Godzilla I had seen in-country, a giant multi-story billboard on the side of a building. After meandering around the market, I stopped at a park in the north end of town that had a statue dedicated to a famous sumo wrestler Tanikaza, because how can you not stop at the statue dedicated to a sumo wrestler?

A ten-minute commuter train ride got me to and from the game, getting me back to the hotel at about 5 PM. At the hotel, I packed up everything for traveling the next day, took an epic soak to wash the day off, and then headed out for dinner.

As per my local specialties directive, I was off to a restaurant serving the pride of Sendai: gyutan, better known as cow tongue. Perhaps a bit dubious at the outset, at least I was sure that cow tongue grilled in front of me over charcoal, at an establishment that served nothing else but said tongue, was extremely unlikely to have any cross-contamination problems with shellfish.

Tongue restaurant
It's actually quite good.

Umami Tasuke is located in a restaurant alley just off one of the main shopping drags in town, and the staff at the hotel mentioned this place had an English menu. (They did. It read, verbatim, "Cow Tongue, 900 yen.") The place was a tiny, Japanese-style restaurant, with a few floor tables in one alcove and a counter situated around the grill. Four serious-looking men manned the counter. One on the right was clearly in charge of the oxtail soup, the one in the center manned the grill with scorched chopsticks, the next was in charge of rice and barley, and the last and youngest dealt with the customers.

I placed my order with the young man, and the head grill chef sliced a few pieces of tongue from a large slab (and I'm positive I don't want to know how that slab is constructed) and began his cooking rituals. A few minutes later, he plated the meat and handed it over the counter to me. I dug in, and it was actually excellent. This immediately led to one of the more unwanted thoughts of my entire life, to wit that I bet my tongue tastes delicious. After quickly downing one plate, I ordered another, to the approving nod of the stoic grill chef.

Fully sated, I made my way back to the hotel for some final packing and finishing off my scorecard from the day's game. Then it was off to a completely normal and in no way notable sleep.


The Stadium & Fans:

Home to center, click to see all the photos
Home plate to center field, Kleenex Stadium Miyagi

Outside of a rather unfortunate name, Kleenex Stadium Miyagi has a lot going for it.

The train station for the stadium was fully decked out in team colors and logos, so it would be a fairly hard thing not to know at which station to get off. I think I even heard them playing the team fight song. In case you were particularly oblivious, it was called "Baseball Station" in several signs.

The stadium was a short walk from the station and seemed to be part of a larger athletic complex. There was a large fan area in front of the stadium, including a "Sweets Town" that sold all manner of candies and such. There seemed to be particularly a lot for the kids at this stadium, as there was also a mini-tram ride around the entire stadium and extra activities areas in back for tikes as well.

Out in front, there were the regular fan club, merch huts, show stage, and the main club store. There was also another baseball diamond laid out in the ground, with the bases and plate inset in Plexiglass. I couldn't read the signs, but I could only assume that this was the location of a previous stadium before the current incarnation.

There were seated and picnic bleacher areas that had their own entrance in the back of the stadium, and all the other areas of the park entered through front gates. The outfield and luxury seating well walled of as per regular Japanese procedure, so you don't have the run of the place when you get in. The main interior area overlooked the pavilion outside and had basic stalls and concessions. In addition to this area, there was a special food area upstairs from the main entryway that had more advance culinary fare (including the steak and rice bowl place where I grabbed lunch), and a desert concession (where I got a specialty sundae named after an Eagles player in a plastic helmet -- I mean, how couldn't you?). The upper food court was equipped with "Oriro Desent Devices," and I frankly was a little disappointed that whatever emergency they were there to assist with did not happen so I could see them in action. Then again, I probably shouldn't go around wishing for disasters, no matter how cool the equipment might be.

Odd signage
Little worries about the signs, however.

The main seating bowl behind home plate was a multitude of special areas, with luxury boxes in the building behind home plate and on the wings behind first and third bases. Small on-field seating areas were located on the outfield side of each dugout. There were two big scoreboards out in center (and the one in right-center had bleacher seating underneath), and the outfield seating was alternating picnic areas and boxes of bleachers. The stadium was one of two in Japan that also had the narrow LCD displays, running along the bottom of the luxury boxes behind home plate and under the ads on the bleachers,a long with auxiliary scoreboards around the stadium. And, in perhaps a last gift for my last game, they showed the players names and numbers on some of the scoreboards in romanji (a.k.a Western lettering).

The foul ball patrol was there in force, but in a little bit of a twist, the whistles that they used to warn of foul balls were "screaming eagle" whistles, so there was a bit of the home-town flair.

Pre-game show
Pre-game show

The fans were numerous and involved. Except for a smallish enclave of visiting fans (located in right field instead of left here for no apparent reason, as the home and visiting dugouts were swapped), the game was nearly full of homers, and it was nearly full. The local rally was the waving of Eagle's flags and towels, and the seventh inning extravaganza was the seemingly common screaming balloons followed by the fight song.


At the Game with Oogie:

Ballpark grub
In-game rice bowl

I had tickets in the lower deck behind home plate in one of the premium sections. Under normal circumstances, this would be a great thing, but after being rainy and overcast all morning, Mr. Sun decided to come out to play, and his love was bright and merciless. And coming straight in from center field. I actually thought about bailing to the food court area after an inning or two until I saw a bunch of fans around me make desert hats out of their team towels. Towels are an... I've done that bit already. And so with my trusty towel, I too turned my hat into a shade, and was able to survive the travails of the suddenly sunny weather. (Although my peripheral vision was severely reduced. On one foul ball up and straight back, I had no idea where it was, except that the whistling of the foul ball monitors was quite close. The irony of getting brained by the first foul ball I'd actually touch was apparent, but thankfully unfulfilled.)

I was in an area mostly populated with season ticket holders. What was particularly nice was that there was one extremely strident team supporter right behind me, who I imagine is usually in the rooting area. He was singing along with the cheering section, and hearing him in isolation behind me was actually the first time I could clearly hear what some of the songs were.

There were also two Western fans to my left, who seemed to be relations of some of the gaijin players on the Eagles. At one point during a late-inning rally, the more gregarious of the two tried to start up an American-style player chant instead of the Japanese singing, which the fans in the area gamely went along with bemusedly, but temporarily.

American cheering
Cheer like 'Mericans


The Game:

First pitch, Fighters vs. Eagles
First pitch, Fighters vs. Eagles

This would be the second time that I saw the Eagles, but my first for the visiting Nippon Ham Fighters. (And the team is owned by the corporate entity "Nippon Ham," with the team being the "Fighters." So it is the "'Nippon Ham' Fighters," not the "Nippon 'Ham Fighters,'" though that way is, of course, much, much funnier.) It would be a fairly typical Nippon League game, with the pitchers both going deep into the game, and small ball being evident throughout. The Fighters scraped out two runs in the first, after the Eagles' pitcher was just barely unable to get out of the jam he got himself into. The Eagles were able to get one back the next inning, but the scoring on both sides ended after that. Although there were some opportunities on both sides, nothing came across, and the hometown Eagles dropped one to the Fighters of Nippon Ham, 2-1.


The Scorecard:

Fighters vs. Eagles, 07-03-10. Fighters win, 2-1.Fighters vs. Eagles, 07-03-10. Fighters win, 2-1.
Fighters vs. Eagles, 07/03/10. Fighters win, 2-1.

Once again, there was no local scorecard in the program (although there was a machine that allowed you to purchase said programs, something I've never seen before). So back to the Scoremaster book for me, though it was not nearly as tortuous an experience as recording the previous night's game. Besides a ground rule double (the first and only I saw in Japan), there was not much scoring of note, although the entire process was greatly helped along by a) my experience up to this point, and b) the scoreboards that actually showed player numbers (instead of just positions) and the player names in Western characters.

The Accommodation:

Sendai Kokusai
Sendai Kokusai

The Sendai Kokusai was the nicest hotel I had booked for the entire trip, which made sense, as it was the one I was likely to spend the most time in, and it was also the one where I'd be staying for my last night in-country, so I might as well get the fancy in when I could. I don't think I realized how upscale the place was until I sauntered into the marble-floored entryway looking like I had just been rolled by a rampaging gang of clothes wrinklers. The staff was too polite to mention how poorly I looked, and let me register and leave my bags before heading out to the game. After the game, they even more politely didn't mention that I looked as bad as I did before, with the added benefit of being completely soaked in sweat from sitting out in the sun all afternoon like some sort of crazy person.

My room was actually about average-sized for a nice, American hotel room, although it still had the standard combo toilet from the future and the command console by the bed, which, while queen-sized, was inexplicably only about four inches above the floor.

The hotel didn't just have a restaurant, but a floor of restaurants, in addition to a shopping mall in the basement and a hotel bar that took over most of the lobby floor of the hotel. It was the first place in Japan that I felt completely out-of-place in, and not because I was American, but because I was not nearly rich enough to be staying here.


On World-Moving Travel


Delayed flight
Guess if the delayed flight is mine. Go on. Guess.

Sunday, July 4, 2010
Hoboken, NJ

Outside the Game:
Seeing Godzilla for the first time the previous day had put the seed of another thought in my mind that was germinating, but not yet fully formed. It was something else fairly synonymous with Japan that I hadn't experienced yet, something of significance...

At around 4 in the morning, there was an earthquake. At least, that was my working hypothesis (later confirmed with a Website about Japanese earthquakes). I was having a dream where my parents were trying to wake me for school on a day when I really didn't prefer to go, prompting them to keeping shaking me harder and harder, until I finally awoke, screaming at them to just let me sleep.

Things are fuzzy at 4 AM under the best of conditions. Throw in your subconscious mind playing tricks with you and your entire room, nay building, shaking pretty severely, and it is positively a recipe for mental anarchy. Facts suddenly became clear, and there is that moment of clarity at the point of realization that why, yes, in fact, the entire building I am in is shaking rather intensely, I am nine floors above said quaking ground, and why didn't I pay more attention to the helpful and copious pamphlets provided by the hotel for just such occasions?

By now, the command crew was back on the bridge of the HMS Ooogiebrain, summoned frantically by the night staff accustomed to nothing more than playing a movie. Briefings were being held, committees have been formed, the passive voice was being used. I made a break for my slippers and the emergency flashlight (installed in every room in Japan -- I remembered that much of the pamphlet), when the shaking stopped. A quick base of the palm to the side of the head confirmed this was not a dream. The muffled sounds from the rooms around me confirmed that I did not just imagine this. For some reason, I felt compelled to stay very still. After a good five minutes of no further shaking, I made my daring break back to the safety of the blankets.

Using the console by the bed, I turned on some calming light jazz radio and stayed very, very motionless for a good half hour. The building having made no untoward moves for a half hour or so, I slipped back into a very, very cautious sleep.

I awoke somewhat rested but in no way relaxed. I had an over-priced but beautiful breakfast at the French restaurant at the hotel, checked out, and then made my way to the station for the first of my trains, casting an occasional doubtful and castigating eye downward to the earth that made betrayed my trust so fully.

I had a train back to Tokyo, and then a train back out to the airport. After my adventures on the way out, I decided to get to Narita extra early, just in case. Little did I know how early.

One of the last things they show on the airport express train is a list of airlines that are located in which terminals, and then a list of the flight statuses for the rest of the day. Although there were threats of rain later in the afternoon, it was a cloudless blue sky all morning and page after page of happy little "On Times" flashed by. Except one. I think you can guess where this one is going.

It turns out that my erstwhile plane coming in from Houston ran into some mechanical trouble and had to be replaced. This resulted in a two hour delay to my departure, which, added to my earliness for the original departure time, gave me a good four hours or so to kill.

To be fair, the Continental staff were quite nice about the whole thing, and gave me a food voucher without even having to ask for it. Still, four hours. The idea that I could watch a ballgame in that kind of time did pass through my head. Instead, I was doomed to stalk the terminal with a boarding pass to nowhere soon. Thankfully, the airport was fairly extensive, with a central mall, and two food courts, and even an observation deck. Not wanting to get trapped in the terminal area too early, I trudged through every non-restricted area of the airport, visited every store, and weighed every food option. I eventually spent the exact total of my voucher on cold sebu and roast duck, and then contemplated how to kill yet another hour. The answer came in the form of a 200 yen "massage" chair, that with small, almost negligible, changes could be made into a torture device of the highest magnitude. It did its manhandling as designed, however, and I finally relaxed for the first time that day.

Voucher
Voucher

Eventually, I could take no more and decided to go through security about an hour before boarding was supposed to begin. Security and immigration were painless, and I strode with false confidence towards my gate. As the gate came into sight, unsurprisingly, I saw no plane. However, as I reached the gate itself, the plane, lying seemingly in wait, rolled up to the gate. Well. Okay, then.

Still having an hour to murder, I walked around the gate area, making two purchases. One was a bottle of water that nearly depleted all my non-convertible Japanese change. The second was a mid-range, duty-free bottle of single malt Japanese whiskey. Hey, the plane was finally here. A man can celebrate.

And so time passed until it was nearly time to board. First Class and the elite club bastards were just starting to board when I heard my name. And this gave me pause, because it was the first time I had heard anyone actually say my name in over a week. It gave me further pause because this could not be a "Good Thing." I got out of line and went up to the counter to find my fate.

I was informed that one of the power outlets in my row wasn't working. And I replied that this was nice information and I'd work something out, and hey, didn't they see I was second in line when the pulled me over here to tell me this world-breaking news? They apologized and let me board with the elite crowd, and, lo and behold, as soon as the people in my row showed up, I arranged to share the one working power outlet with them for the duration of the trip. Truly, we live in an age of miracles.

I was in the first row after First Class again, so I had legroom to spare and stretching space for days. Not as out of it as I was on the flight in, I settled down to do some work on this and watch some TV, but unlike the flight out, I did take several sporadic short naps that all but assured that I'd have the maximum amount of disorientation when I landed. Blinking out into the sunlight that should not be there, I dragged myself through customs, got to my car service limo, and promptly passed out on the ride back to Hoboken to the point I had to be physically shaken awake by a patient livery driver needing specific directions to my apartment. Thus began the jetlag of my discontent.

Back home
Almost home

The Accommodations:
Hoboken, sweet Hoboken.



And so it goes. Barring anything out of my control, I am going to go back next year and finish seeing the last five teams. I may also do a few repeats to sit in a rooting section or some variant thereof. One thing I will be doing before I return is taking a Japanese class (or at least one in kanji) so that I can be slightly more sure of not accidentally killing myself while dining.

Japan swag
Swag



2010 Japan I

Friday, July 2, 2010

Tokyo

On Breaking a Streak

Japanese Whiskey
At least it ended productively

Thursday, July 1, 2010
Tokyo, Japan

Outside of the Game:
My time in Osaka complete, I had to grab a bullet train back to Tokyo at the Shin-Osaka station just north of town. Even though I was scheduled for a night game, it was still a three-hour ride, so I had to leave relatively early in the morning. After getting some decent bunk time, I had to choose between getting breakfast at the hotel, or using the last of the super spa salts and soak for a while. A quick inventory of my blisters made the decision rather easy.

My first indication that perhaps something might not be going my way this day was getting off on the wrong subway stop in Osaka on the way back to the train station. It was a straight shot, and I just wasn't paying proper attention to what was going on. Hang on to that piece of information, dear reader. Travel fatigue was getting to me in a big way.

My subway mistake was minor, and I still got to the station in plenty of time to catch the bullet train back to Tokyo without further to-do. Upon arriving at Tokyo Station, things continued to get interesting, in the Chinese curse sense of the word. When I left Tokyo last time, I had exited through the Shinjuku Station, and not Tokyo Station proper. Tokyo Station is a much larger entity by half, and it is also undergoing massive construction. I got off the bullet train tracks, which turned out to be at one far corner of the station, and was completely unable to get my bearing, find a map or information desk, or anything else useful, as the renovations had changed around the regular layout of the station, making the helpful maps useless. Getting increasingly flummoxed, I found a station master office, and implored pathetically for assistance. The staff were extraordinary helpful, and actually took me inside, sat me down, and then provided me with detailed maps on how to get to the subway line I needed to and then how to get to the hotel once I got off the subway. That, my friends, is known as customer service.

And although I had detailed maps in hand, I didn't understand part of the directions, which was to get on another subway line than the one I eventually needed to transfer to. Undaunted, I kept following the signs for the second line, and followed them, and followed them, and followed them, as the Hanzomon line wasn't at the station I was at, but the next station up the line. And although you can walk there, it is not suggested to take that multi-block and -stair trip dragging along some very heavy and unwieldy luggage.

Eventually getting to the subway line I needed, it was a short ride to the hotel, where I was again able to check-in early, drop off all my stuff, and head out for the game.

Now here's the thing. I made all my travel plans in January of this year. I worked out all my routes and whatnot, and for the most part, I used Google Maps, which provides kanji names on the maps, which I can't read. To this point, it had worked out. That's strike one. Secondly, the ticket that I had for this game came from a general ticket brokerage without easy designation of the teams involved on the outside. That's strike two. Then, as I mentioned before, I was suffering from a good bit of travel fatigue at this point, so I wasn't really in the mood to double-check things. Swing and a miss, sit down.

So what I managed to do was this: I perfectly followed my completely adequate directions to get to the wrong stadium. My actual game that night was at the Chiba Marines. My directions were to the Yokohama Bay Stars, as earlier in the planning process, I had meant to go to a game there. Not being able to read the kanji directions and without the team name prominently on the tickets, the error did not immediately jump out to my travel-addled mind. So I got to the wrong place without incident, wondered where everyone was, and then the penny (yen?) dropped when I got to the stadium. And the group of teenagers hanging out by the stadium started staring at the crazy white guy laughing like a maniac at his own stupidity. Because after 38 or so games on these trips, I wasn't finally undone by weather, or a delayed plane or train, or an act of god, but merely my own stupidity. And I've got to tell you, it was pretty damn funny. I took some pictures of the wrong stadium, but then it occurred to me that I had a chance to make the right game because I always get to the park so early.

Bay Stars
There's no crowds because there's no game today.

I dashed back to the train station and asked the confused counter person the quickest way to get to Chiba from here, as soon as possible. She helpfully told me what train and connections to make, and I dashed back upstairs firmly convinced I could still salvage this thing. I got back to the juncture station I needed in time to make the other train, but I managed to get to the platform just as the train doors were closing and pulling away. It was going to be that close. I had to wait fifteen minutes for the next train, but if I managed to run the whole way to the stadium, I could still get there by first pitch. I waited impatiently for the train, took the long ride out to the station, and then promptly got off to see no one in baseball attire again. It was just five minutes before the game was to start and I was completely lost again. I managed to snag a kimonoed tourist office attendant as she was closing up her booth for the night. Her reward for a hard day's work was dealing with one last delusional American. She immediately spotted my error. I needed to go to a station in Chiba on another line, not the actual Chiba Station. If I took a half-hour monorail ride, I could get within a fifteen minute or so walk to the park.

And there it was. Since it was already game time then, another half-hour to forty-five minutes under the best case, I decided to call it a night. The streak was over. Hit the showers and get them tomorrow, kid.

On the train ride back to the hotel, I contemplated what to do with my night now that I had no game to go to. When I got back, I washed up, went to the front desk, and asked them where the nearest bar or restaurant was that served Japanese whiskey. They gave me directions to a Japanese pub (izakaya) place a few blocks away, and I settled into a counter seat flanked by salarymen drinking away the memories of the day. I got some comfort food and started ordering up the single malts on the menu. Japanese whiskey, at least the ones I had, weren't bad by a long shot, if on the slightly sweet side for some reason. The smokestack salaryman sitting on my right was also downing some whiskey, so we had a common bond that transcended our language barrier. While my Japanese wasn't great under normal circumstances (and after a whiskey or two, it was largely non-functional), but we managed to have a minor conversation based on pantomime and gestures, and "kampai" is pretty universal.

Whiskey menu
So many choices...

Suitably lit-up, I wandered around to west end of the Imperial Park that was a few blocks from my hotel, and walked around in the dimming night for a while, being passed by a myriad of joggers and bicyclists out for their nightly exercise in the utter safety of after-dark Japanese parks. When I got back to the hotel, getting a severely over-priced massage seemed like a good idea. Nearly every hotel in Japan has a massage service, and I finally gave in at the highest prices I had seen up to this point. I washed up while I was waiting, and then got the ever-loving crap kicked out of my back by a woman who weighed 90 pounds soaking wet. And as my drunk self was finally able to feel my feet again, I realized that this wasn't the worst way to spend a day, despite the setbacks.

Night park
At least it was a nice night...


The Accommodations:

Hotel Montery Hanzoman, Tokyo
Hotel Monery Hanzoman

I stayed at the swanky Hotel Montery Hanzoman, a high-end business hotel line that was placed right in the middle of the embassy district by the Hanzoman gate to the Imperial grounds. The hotel was conveniently located right across the street from the subway station, so as long as I remembered to get out of the correct exit, comings and goings were quite easy. The room was a slightly larger version of the room at the Washington Plaza, which was a slightly larger version of the rooms before it. There was a closet, a full bathroom (with a tub so large that I could actually lie in it without my knees being underneath my chin all the time), a separate desk area, and a queen-sized bed, with the now-familiar command console right above the bed.

As this was a high-end business facility, I finally got to see some formal bowing action going on. For most of my trip, I had been staying at tourist places or places low enough on the social totem pole that the full business bowing was not in effect. Of course, I had seen bowing in my travels, from the "'sup bro" bows between younger friends, to the friendly bows of greeting, to the cursory bows during regular commerce transactions, but this was the first time I had witnessed the full spectrum of the official business bows. It was a fascinating dance that followed very strict waltz-like rules, and it was strangely beautiful to watch in action.

Because I was literally a block or two away from both the UK and Irish embassies, it was of little surprise that BBC International was available on the TV. I have to admit that I left it on most of the time when I watching TV, as I was going through some rather severe English withdrawal at this point. I found myself talking to myself in pigeon Japanese by this point, so it was nice to get some sort of connection back to the mother tongue, though I have to say the complete media blackout that I had for most of the week was nice to have. Russian spies? Did we time travel into the 80s while I was gone?



On the End of Days in the Big Egg


Tokyo Dome
Tokyo Dome, 2010

Friday, July 2, 2010
Hanshin Tigers vs. Yomiuri Giants
Tokyo Dome
16:00
Central League, Nippon Professional Baseball
Tokyo, Japan

Outside of the Game:
After the previous day's failure, I was not about to have a repeat performance. Thoroughly relaxed by the events of the previous evening, I dragged my now-noodly ass out of bed and went downstairs for the breakfast buffet before a quick shower and subway ride up to Tokyo Dome City.

Tokyo Dome City is the marketing name for the sports-entertainment complex around the dome. In addition to the regular team shops and whatnot, there is a shopping/entertainment area and one or two amusements parks all around the "Big Egg." And within the Dome itself was the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, which was my destination for the morning.

I suppose a certain amount of bias could be attributed to its location. I can imagine the uproar if the Cooperstown Hall was moved to Yankee Stadium, for example, but such niceties are less of an issue in Japan. Though the entrance to the Hall is on the ground floor, all of the exhibits are on an underground level one stairway down from the entrance.

Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame
Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame

Unlike Koshien Stadium's museum, they clearly received enough American visitors to require English versions of pamphlets, distributed to gaijin without even having to ask. This made the museum a little more comprehensible than its counterpart in Osaka. There was an area on "Japanese Baseball Today" very similar to the one found in Cooperstown, with each team represented by a locker with some artifacts and a history of the team. A section on the history of the game talks about its origins in America, and then its introduction in Japan, and I'm pretty sure there was a diorama of what might be the first game in Hoboken. There's also displays on the cross-overs between MLB and Japan, talking about all the series that were played between the two, as well as an exhibit of baseball cards of Japanese players that crossed over to the MLB.

Other areas talked about the importance of high school tournaments in Japan (especially Koshien), and in case you thought that corporate sponsorship was only extended to professional teams, Ronald McDonald standing over a little league team would like to disabuse you of that notion.

The Hall of Fame
The Hall of Fame

The Hall proper was a slightly modernist affair from a design perspective, with recessed ceiling lighting and great pillars offsetting the wooden-framed plaques. At the far end of the Hall was a video display showing the previous year's inductees, and I learned that amongst the times in Japan when it is appropriate for a man to cry is his induction into the Hall. The plaques themselves lined both sides of the Hall, and were, unsurprisingly, in Japanese. However, each one had an English translation underneath, as well as a brief description in the English guidebook. I only knew a handful of the inductees by name, but it was pretty fascinating to read about all of them, from the early pioneers, to the more modern innovators and standouts.

There was an interactive exhibit towards the end that had computer terminals that gave overviews of the Japanese game, as well as let you play a few Japanese baseball video games. In the center of the exhibit was a batting simulator allowing you to stand in against a projected pitcher. I felt kind of foolish at not being able to make it work until some other Japanese visitors followed me into the area and were also suitably stumped. I felt better that it clearly wasn't the language barrier that was the problem here.

And in case you were wondering whether the Japanese took their World Baseball Classic victories seriously, there were no less than two exhibits on them, in addition to their other international play. They are clearly very proud of this accomplishments, and it seems to help erase a slight bit of the inferiority complex they still bear towards MLB.

After I had my fill of the Hall of Fame, I went outside and visited the team store and walked around the Tokyo Dome City amusements. Outside of an Adidas store was a statue of the Giants manager with his fists out. Apparently, the double fist bump had become the greeting of choice with the Giants, and the statue invited you to come up and give the manager double knuckles. A counter at the base of the statue counted up how many times people had done so.

Giants' manager statue
Fist me! No, wait...

It was at this point that I was introduced to yet another Japanese line technology innovation. People were already lining up for tickets, and instead of standing out in the sun, they were saving their spaces by taping newspaper or other assorted paper to the spot in line with their name on it, and then going off to sit in nearby shade. It took a while to work out what was happening, but apparently this system works sufficiently well for everyone.

Some more wandering around found me in front of the Baseball Cafe, a touristy theme restaurant based on baseball. So of course I had lunch there. How can you saw no to a place that has a giant Tommy Lasorda sitting above the cash register? All the waiters and waitresses were dressed up in MLB jerseys, and all the tables had team patches inset in them. (I got put at the Expos table, and I'm not sure how I felt about that.) I decided to give it a whirl and try the burger of the day, which was some stroganoff thing. Well, the "burger" was served in a bowl, with a rice side dish, which is just as American as apple pie.

Baseball Cafe
Just like Burger King

After lunch, I headed over to a place that was described as the geek homeland, and I am here to tell you, there is at least one corner of the globe where nerds are running the place, and it is Electric City. This area of several blocks are where the nerds of Tokyo retreat to when the jock samurai get too much, or something. What happens when the dorks take over? Let me tell you. The fact that there are wall-to-wall video game parlors, comic book and computer software stores, and video stores (some adult, some not) is pretty much a given. The fact that personal electronics and computer hardware stores are every five feet is similarly unsurprising, as are the countless hobby stores. But there are also tons of old-school tech stores, with storefronts dedicated just to light bulbs, or wiring, or outlets and plugs.

Outlet store
An outlet store. No, not that  kind.

And then there's the maid cafes. And this, my friends, is where the dark sides of nerds getting some power takes over. On nearly every corner is some woman dressed up in standard nerd fantasy wear (school girls, cat women, maids, etc.). A guide book I have describes it as such. You pay one of these women to be your hostess for a meal. She calls you "master" and serves you the food that you order. You can also play games with her. She'll ask you questions or give you brainteasers, and then rewards you with praise and points that you can use to get discounts or other items. So here it is: you get girls dressed in cosplay outfits to wait on you hand and foot and then reward you for being oh-so-smart. I think the only thing that saves this from being completely over-the-line creepy is that women can get men in dress-up to do exactly the same thing, so there is a swing for gender equality there. But still...

Maid cafes
Somehow not prostitution

After visiting my ancestral homeland, I took a quick ride back to the hotel to get washed up, grab my game bag, and head back to the Dome in time for the opening of the gates. The subway home was also uneventful, and given my early start the next day to Sendai and my utter emotional and physical exhaustion after watching the game, I went right back to the hotel to pack up and go to sleep.


The Stadium & Fans:

Home to center, Tokyo Dome
Home plate to center field at the Tokyo Dome

The Tokyo Dome is one of the biggest parks in Japan, and it lives up to its dimensions. There is an entire patio deck area just across the pavilion from the stadium that has stores and food and fan gathering areas even before you get to the dome proper, which is ringed with stores and restaurants for visitors.

Once inside, the hallways are wide (if not tall), and with the exception of the luxury boxes and area behind home plate, you pretty much have the run of its spacious confines. There's the main scoreboard in center and the auxiliary scoreboard behind the plate, and there is on-field seating, heavily branded by the good folks at McDonalds. The cheering section is more firmly delineated with special "Giants Orange Seats" for full-season supporters, who seemed to guard their prestigious outfield seats very protectively. The upper deck goes three-quarters of the way around the stadium, tapering off to nothing in the outfield.

There are actually three interior levels to the park, with the main promenade level, the abbreviated upper deck, and then a lower level where they had the pre-game cheerleader and mascot show (due to rain outside), as well as more food choices and access to some of the luxury areas. The lower level also housed a Hall of Fame for Giants players, as well as a Walk of Fame for all the musical acts that performed at the Tokyo Dome over the years, leading to perhaps the only time history that Hammer and Paul Simon have ever appeared next to each other.

Mascot Show
Pre-game mascot show

The Giants are the most popular franchise in Japan, and the most dominant in post-season achievements, inviting easy comparisons with the Yankees. Their fan base is the largest in the country, and seen as a little upscale, and the nearly capacity crowd at the game I attended seemed to bear that out. The opponent being the Tigers, there was a large and loud minority filling up the left field bleachers, and going at it in cheer battles with the home team even though heavily outnumbered. All the fans were into this intense rivalry, and the game surely provided them a platform for their various enthusiasms.


At the Game with Oogie:

Japanese scorekeeping
Scoring in the Big Egg

I was perched about halfway up the lower deck right behind first base for this game. In my row, I was wedged between a younger couple who was there with the woman's parents and a group of businessmen out for a game. The girlfriend was perhaps the closest to a clueless fan as I saw in my entire trip, as she was cheering at the wrong times and sometimes joining in on the Tigers cheering (resulting in polite admonishment not to do that by the boyfriend). For all of that, she was still watching the entire game instead of talking on her cell phone to other people, and kept her girlfriend activities (like trying to take cell phone pictures of herself and the beau) to between innings.

Truly, a different world.


The Game:

First pitch
First pitch, Tigers vs. Giants

Where to begin. This was already a much-hyped meeting between the biggest rivals in the entire Japanese league in a near sell-out at the biggest stadium in Japan. There is an inclination that the game can't possibly live up to the hype, but I'm here to tell you, it did. The Tigers claimed the first hit in the first (to the rapturous joy of their fans), but the runner never got further than first. The Giants answered back with a leadoff double (immediately, of course, sacrificed to third), but he didn't make it home, either. The Tigers got to scoring position in the second, but nothing came of it. And then the Giants struck. A leadoff homer got them on the board first, and the next batter singled and went to third on an error by the right fielder. The next batter was hit by a pitch, and with first and third and one out, of course the next batter laid down a bunt (and somewhere, Sparky Anderson is smiling). The second baseman charged hard and was able to make the throw in time to get the runner from third, but runners were left on first and second by the fielder's choice. The runner on second would come home on a hot grounder that ate up the Tiger's third baseman, before a groundout to third would end the inning.

The Tigers got to scoring position with nothing to show for it in the third, and beside a walk, the Giants did nothing in the bottom of the frame. A two-out double for the Tigers did nothing in the fifth, but a Giant's leadoff double was brought home by a two-out dinger in the bottom of the inning, setting the score at 4-0. Both teams had runners in scoring position in the fifth with nothing to show for it, and then went 1-2-3 in the sixth.

That's when the bottom fell out of the Giant's pitching staff. They would go eight batters before recording an out in the top of the sixth. A single and a walk chased the Giant's starter, and then the pen just exploded. A triple followed, scoring the first two runners on base. Another single brought him home, and then a walk and another single followed. Then the pinch hit brigade started. Yet another single was enough to chase that Giant's relief pitcher, and then a strikeout finally recorded a fraction of an inning, but was followed up with another walk, and the Tigers had batted around. The Giants got the leadoff hitter this time, but the next batter promptly beat out an infield single, but in your everyday 6-3-2 putout, the runner from third was nailed trying to advance on the hit after the throw to first was not in time to get the runner. We were now left with a 6-4 game, and the Tiger's fans cheering their lungs out.

Until the bottom of the seventh. The Giants got a leadoff walk and a single before the number 3 man struck out. A hot shot to first eluded the first baseman, leaving the bases loaded. Another strikeout seemed to give hope that the Tigers could get out of the inning. But then the Giants' pinch hit brigade began. The first got a single, bringing home two runs. The next batter (also a pinch hitter) doubled, leaving second and third with one more across. The next batter got plunked, but the Tigers managed to get the third out on a fly to left, and the Giants batted around and nothing more, but leading 7-6.

Tigers vs. Giants
Rally after rally after rally

Not satisfied with the result, the Tigers came roaring back (I can't believe I just wrote that) in the top of the eighth with a single and a home run by their gajin first baseman that was absolutely crushed to deepest dead center, resulting in the Tigers fans erupting again in one of the loudest songs I'd ever heard. Incidentally, it was also a song I had never heard before, so there may very be a "we came back in the top of the eighth after giving up the lead" song. The Giants went quietly in the bottom of the inning, and the Tigers tacked on some much-needed insurance in the top of the ninth on a two-base error, followed by another longball from their leadoff hitter, giving them a somewhat comfortable 10-7 margin going into the last of the ninth.

The Giants fans made their presence known immediately, singing loudly enough to even drown out the Tigers. But after the first weak fly-out to right, the Tigers fans started counter-singing. When the next batter up took one out of the park to right, it was the end of the goddamn world. Both sides were singing at full volume in overlapping harmonies, with flags blazing and instruments blaring, that it just sent legitimate chills down my spine. The fact that it made less sense that both sides didn't whip out swords and charge at each other across the outfield can give you some indication of the energy at play here. As everything reached a fever pitch, the Tiger's closer was able to finally land the last two outs on a fly out to center and a grounder to second, leaving the Tigers the victor, 10-8.

Crowd noise
No, really, just listen

It was, without a doubt, the most intense regular-season baseball game I've seen in my entire life. And the Tigers finally won a game while I was in attendance. It was also the only game that I saw in my entire trip that exceeded three hours by any meaningful amount of time (clocking in at 4:10), and I gladly would have had it go on another 4.

The Scorecard:

Tigers vs. Giants, 07-02-10. tigers win, 10-8.Tigers vs. Giants, 07-02-10. tigers win, 10-8.
Tigers vs. Giants, 07/02/10. tigers win, 10-8.

Einstein had relativity; Michelangelo had the Sistine Chapel. The Scoremaster card that I filled out for this game, capturing every last move and pitch in this see-saw of nine innings of mayhem, will be known as my scoring masterpiece, if for nothing else than keeping the seventh inning in order from top to bottom and making sense of the small-ball and long-ball madness that drove it.

The Accommodations:
I was the Montery again. Nothing much of note in this regard. After getting back to the hotel from the game, I mostly did some preliminary work on my epic scorecard and then packed up and went to bed to prepare for my early train our to Sendai the next day.


2010 Japan I