Thursday, June 30, 2011

Sapporo

On Why America Sucks at Everything, and Other Non-Baseball Topics


Flight to Sapporo
Domestic flying

Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Sapporo, Japan

Outside of the Game:
This was when things got reals, yo, I had managed, more or less, a day a game of baseball in Japan, but now the teams at the ends of the Japanese earth were requiring me to up my game and include air travel as part of the equation. While reachable by train, Sapporo lacks a bullet train line (at the moment), and a regular train ride would take about as long as the plane ride over from America. It is, however, only an hour and a half plane ride from Tokyo. This choice seemed pretty obvious.

As with most things, the Japanese have an awesome travel deal for tourists with the JapanAir pass. It is slightly different than the JapanRail pass in that it cannot be used for unlimited air travel for a single fee, but it does offer extremely discounted airfares. It essentially makes any single-segment air trip in Japan (Tokyo to Sapporo, for example, is a single segment) about $120, roughly a third of the retail price. And that beats an eighteen hour train ride like a mule any day of the week.

It saddens me that there is nearly half the population alive in America today who has absolutely no knowledge of when air travel was awesome. Before the hijackings in the seventies, before the drug wars in the eighties, and definitely before “sexually aggressive pat-downs to children” period in our post-9/11 world, air travel was a glamorous and fun way of getting around. Even in the contemporary first-class cabin, any last semblance of air travel being fun and convenient has been wrung dry out of the process.

… In America.

Because I have had some culture shock moments traveling in Japan, but none comes even close to describing what I experienced my first time flying in Japan.

I was taking the 1 PM flight to Sapporo, so I decided to be on the conservative side and allow for Mr. Cock-Up by getting there at least 2 hours early. It was a short train ride to the Yokohama main station, where there was an express running to the airport. I managed to get there with over two hours to spare.

Upon arriving at the airport, it was a simple matter of finding the ANA counters, which, frankly, were hard to miss, being a bank of counters and kiosks about two city blocks long. I took out my reservation email for my Japan AirPass and waited in a curiously short line for ticketing and check in.

When my turn came, I was greeted by a cheery attendant who took my reservation, and started happily typing away on the computer. She then looked a little confused, and asked why I was here. Assuming standard security mumbo-jumbo, I told her I was on vacation, but she quickly apologized and asked why I was here so early. I innocently said to make sure I caught the plane.

Now she looked a little sad. She asked if I'd rather take the noon flight to Sapporo instead. I was already starting to lose my footing with the familiar here. I asked why, and she asked if it wouldn't be more convenient for me to leave earlier, or was I here to do some shopping? There was still some semblance of reality that I could grasp, but by this point it was sometime after 11:00. I asked if I had time to make that flight, and she told me sincerely there was plenty of time. Trust in Japan, I thought. Fine.

I asked how much it would cost to move to the earlier flight. Now I clearly had just hurt her feelings. No charge, she assured me, and the known world started quickly slipping away. I was probably just staring blankly for a while, waiting for someone to burst out of a back room screaming, “It's a cookbook!” But that didn't happen. It was just the smiling face placidly awaiting my next decision. I said yes to the earlier flight, and so she went back to happily typing away on the computer, and after the issue of isle or window was sorted out, she asked about my bags.

I gestured to my one carry-on, filled to breaking with a week's accumulated crap, and she came out from behind the counter, took me over to the bag measuring device, and told me I'd have to check the bag. It was nearly 11:30 at this point, and I once again asked her if I really had time to make the noon flight. “Hai,” she said smilingly in a way that made me feel awful for ever doubting her.

I went over to the next counter and another disturbingly short line to check my bag. The counter person asked a few questions, and then gave me a bar coded claim ticket and took my bag. It was after 11:30 at this point, and I hadn't even been through security yet for a noon flight.

I located the nearest security checkpoint, and found myself utterly baffled by the lack of any lines at all for security at the second-biggest airport in the capital. There were long tables jutting out of the security checkpoint, with signs explaining what you needed to take out of your bags and whatnot, and a big stack of trays into which to put the scanables. There was then a doorway that led to the scanning area. A-ha, I thought. That is where the line will be.

There was no line.

Once you walk through the doorway, you are at the security scanner. You scan your boarding pass at a machine that gives you a security receipt (which also notifies you of any gate changes), dump all your items on the conveyor, walk through a regular old metal detector and collect your stuff. Front to back, passing security took two minutes, if that.

Domestic terminal
Domestic terminal

I was going to spend more time wondering what in the hell we as a country are doing wrong, but it was nearly 11:40, and I had a flight in twenty minutes. I jogged around until I found my gate, and realized that they hadn't even begun boarding yet. Perhaps the flight was delayed? Nope, they just hadn't boarded yet. I then saw a sign that warned everyone to please be at your gate no later than ten minutes before your flight for boarding. At this point, I just wanted to drop everything and scream, “WHAT?” at the top of my lungs, but promptly at 11:45, they began boarding.

Boarding was announced with a flip board that began with “Pre-Boarding,” for the elderly, pregnant, injured and the like. When those had boarded, they flipped to the sign reading “Priority Boarding,” for all the frequent fliers and big shots. When they had boarded, they flipped the sign to “General Boarding,” and everyone just went on the plane. No calls by isles, no back to front: just get on the damn plane.

You scan your boarding pass and get a final boarding receipt (which will tell you about delays, seat changes, and et cetera), and you walk onto the plane like a human being, go to your seat, and sit down. The entire process took about five minutes for the entire plane, and then waiting ten minutes for stragglers. And this was a full-sized plane, not some flying bus. I nearly cried at the beauty of it.

The stupid bureaucratic part of air travel in Japan took all of about ten minutes – if that – and was at no point unpleasant. Doing some back of the envelope calculations, that number is about an hour and a half in America, and soul-crushingly stupid for that duration. Japan: kicking Americas ass in everything since 1950.

Once on-board, you get the normal announcements and pre-flight security notices, but they do all of that while you are taxiing. The flight attendants make maybe two passes through the entire plane during this period, and after the safety video, you get to watch footage of a camera in the nose of the plane as you taxi around and take off.

After take-off, I promptly slept for most of the hour and a half flight, waking up long enough to finish off the scorecard from the previous night as we landed. Once we got to the gate, they opened the doors promptly, and everyone funneled out in about two minutes.

Okay, I bet they lost my bag or something, I thought.

Nope. The baggage claim was right outside of the gate, and bags started flowing from the machine in about five minutes. I got my bag, cursed everything about aviation in America, and went to find the train to Sapporo proper.

The express train in the city took about a half hour and dumped me at the station in the middle of Sapporo. A quick trip to the tourist office got me a map and the directions to my hotel, which was right down the street. After an extended settling in period at the hotel, I went out into the northerly world of Sapporo tom see what I could see. And northerly was key here, as Sapporo is generally much cooler than Tokyo, which can be brutal in the winter (they have special instructions in the tourist guides telling people how to properly dress in the winter so they don’t die), but a break in the temperature was particularly welcome after the triple-digit summer heat.

Shiryokan
Shiryokan

A scheduled night without baseball is a rare thing on these trips, and I find myself a little lost as to what to do with myself during them. I started out by going to Odori Park, which was a block-wide park that runs nearly the entire length of downtown. Once I reached the other end, I kept walking in order to go to another park further on that apparently had a shrine of note. It took a little longer than expected, but I eventually found the nice-enough park and the shrine. And in the park maps, I discovered there was a zoo at the other end, so without anything better on the agenda, I took off in the general direction. Upon arriving, the zoo was closed, but there was a firemen training exercise going on that was worth watching a while, and another map let me know there was a big baseball stadium a short distance away. Even on my day off, baseball finds me.

I would subsequently find out that this was the old park for the Fighters before they built the dome a decade ago, and it was still sometimes used by visiting teams for away “home” games that the NPL often does to give some teams opportunities to have home games in other cities. At the time, all I had was fading twilight, a locked-up stadium, and a lot of unlit signs with a lot of kanji. I took what pictures I could before trying to find the subway back to the city center. The subway cars were of note because there was no “end” to each compartment – each car was connected by an open arch, so you could pretty much walk from one end of the train to the other.

Maruyama Stadium
The old park

Now nightish, I went to the TV Tower that is best to visit at night for its views of a lit-up Sapporo. It was completely tourist, but sometimes you just have to. The elevator ride to the top of the tower listed off interesting comparison facts (taller than the Statue of Liberty, bigger elevator than the Eiffel Tower, can leap tall buildings in a single bound, etc.). Once at the top, it did provide a nice panorama of the city at night, with strategically placed gift stalls in case you didn't get the hint by the gift shop you had to walk through to get in, and the gift shop you had to walk through to get out.

TV Tower
TV Tower

After visiting the tower, I was off to try and find a restaurant recommended in a guidebook, and I passed through Odori Park again. At night, it was taken over by the young. A pack of skate rats were plying their trade by a fountain, and, in case you were wondering, there are hipsters in Japan. A pack of twenty-somethings were also in the park, doing a conspicuous Japanese drum circle in the classic “Oh, how surprising you stopped to watch us doing this very unusual thing in public” way.

Skaters
Eating sh*t is universal

After watching the hipsters and skaters for a while, I was off again to find the restaurant recommended for the local specialty, “Genghis Khan,” a grilled lamb dish named for the beloved murderous maniac. I was able to get myself in the general area of where the restaurant should be, but I couldn't find the exact location. It was supposedly on the tenth floor of one of the nearby high-rise buildings, but the one that seemed to fit the bill only had nine floors.

I decided to give it one more walk around the block to see if I was missing things, when I came across the three most dangerous words I could have encountered: Nikka Whisky Bar. Nikka Whisky is one of the big names in Japanese whiskey, and they seemed to have an upscale bar and lounge here in Sapporo. I am a man of few weaknesses, but if you hit one, you hit it true.


Nikka Whiskey Bar
Hello, beautiful

I walked up to the second-floor establishment and was shown to the bar at a twenty-something bartender's station. She politely gave me the English menu and waited for me to sort myself out. I decided to start with a tasting menu of the 12, 18, and 21 year “pure malts,” which I supposed were somehow better than regular un-pure single malts.

As I was drinking, we got to talking, after she got over her initial Japanese embarrassment at having to speak English. I assured her she spoke English much better than I Japanese, and we talked about my trip, and why it was ironic that this was a Wednesday, and why kanji is awful, and why although she thought New York was awesome, people from there still came here on vacations.

The 21 year pure malt was really quite good, so I found out from her if they took credit cards, and the answer was a dangerous affirmative, and so it began. I had another full dram of the 21 year, and then had a different 15 before I realized I hadn't had dinner. Mustering the last of my prudence, I started to settle up the bill, and I asked her if she knew where the restaurant I originally sought was located. She said she didn't, but added there was one downstairs in the building that served a very good Genghis Khan. And the matter was settled.

Allowing gravity to lead me along, I went downstairs and sidled into a booth at the place and ordered some Mongol warlord. Outside of a large party in the back room, I was the only one up front, so the host was paying pretty good attention to me. He asked if I wanted anything to drink while I waited, and that particular portion of good sense, or even the  short-term memory to remember that I was coming to eat because I was already drinking on an empty stomach, had been previously drowned. Suntory it was.

Someone needs to do a serious scientific study on the affect of alcohol on inter-language communications, because (obviously up to a certain point) I can't help but think it helps. With his limited English, and my limited Japanese, the host and I managed to get information back and forth to each other effectively, and it only seemed to be more efficient as any semblance of sobriety quietly got his hat and sternly left the building. We started talking about my vacation, and baseball in general, and all manner of things, in great spirits. When he went in the back to deal with the party, he told the grill chef what I was doing, and then we started talking about baseball as well, he being a big Fighters and and all. As with last year, a little bit of “kompai” goes a long way towards bridging the language gap.

Seriously: double-blind study, government funding – I can't believe that some enterprising grad student hasn't latched onto this like a pit bull on a tasty baby.

Anyway, at some point I managed to get the check and try to head back to the hotel. Then, I made a discovery that was unique to myself that evening and had clearly never been discovered up until that point in history. If you are what one might charitably call less than sober, you can keep yourself moving in a relatively straight line by using the earthquake guide strips in the center of the Japanese sidewalks. I found this surprising, because in a country of millions of people who presumably drink every now and then, you'd imagine one of them would have discovered this before that night. But nope. It is one of those mysteries of science.

After a little sojourn on a bench watching the canal pass by the road for an indeterminate amount of time, I made it back to the hotel, and I woke up the next morning with a yukata over my street clothes, so I seemed to at least have had the right idea at some point.

The Accommodations:

Hotel Montery
Hotel Montery
I was staying at the Hotel Montery Sapporo, another in the chain of high-end hotels I had stayed in last year during my second run through Tokyo. It was in an old Western-style building, and wouldn’t seem out of place in older sections of New York or Boston. The rooms were fairly spacious, if on the small side for a Western-hotel. The bathroom had its own full-sized swing door, and the bathroom had a full-sized tub. The furniture in the room was all high-quality wood, and there was a full-sized dresser in one corner that helpfully held all my luggage.

As soon as I checked in, I made use of the one hotel facility nearly immediately. With all the insanely hot weather lately, I filled a hotel laundry bag with pants and shirts to rehabilitate into general use. When I brought them down to the front desk, they helpfully assisted me in filling out the necessary forms, and then, to my great chagrin, they took out my sweaty, smelly clothes one by one and put them on their nice wooden desk to confirm all the items they received. To their credit, they did not break character once, even after pulling out the pants I had worn the previous day in Yokohama.


On Pre-Scotch

Sapporo Dome
Sapporo Dome, 2011

Thursday, June 30, 2011
Chiba Lotte Marines vs. Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters
Sapporo Dome
Pacific League, Nippon Professional Baseball
16:00
Sapporo, Japan

Outside of the Game:
For some reason, I was particularly hungry upon waking the next day. I got presentable and went downstairs to avail myself of the extremely well-appointed breakfast buffet in one of the many event rooms in the hotel.


Light breakfast
Light breakfast

Put bluntly, I destroyed the thing. I just kept eating and eating and eating, and if there was ever someone who got his money out of a fixed-priced buffet, especially one as fancy as this, it was I. I think one of the busboys actually was watching me after a while, whether out of curiosity, awe, or revulsion, we will never know.

After I had finally eaten my fill, I went out to kill the day before the game. One can hardly go to Sapporo without a trip to the namesake brewery, and so I had a visit slated for the morning. The directions on the map seemed rather straightforward, and I set off confidently, with, as will be seen, nothing to back up said confidence.

A short time later, I found myself not where I thought I was and with no idea how I managed to get so far off track, or where, incidentally, I was. After tentatively striking out in several other directions to get my bearings, I finally triangulated my location, which was nowhere near where I needed to be. By keeping it to simple right-angle marches, I managed to get to a subway station that took me to a station closest to my goal.

Another short walk later, and I was at least in the neighborhood, but signage for one of the city’s biggest attractions was surprisingly scarce. After wandering around several parking lots, I caught sight of the famous Sapporo Brewery chimney, and just walked as unerringly as possible in that direction.

This took me past the indoor practice facilities for the Fighters that were near the brewery. There was little to be seen from the outside, although there was a crowd of fans waiting by one of the entrances, no doubt waiting a glimpse of the players inside who were likely practicing for the game I would be going to later that evening.

After far too long a trip, I finally arrived at the Sapporo Brewery. I made my way to the Sapporo Beer Museum on the campus and took a look around. The stylish museum is a top area about the history and brewing process, while the lower level centers on ad campaigns throughout the years. As part of your admission, you get a ticket for a discount drink at the Sapporo bar, conveniently located near the exit of the museum, right by the gift shop.

Beer elves
Beer is made by elves

Now, I haven’t had a beer in at least five years, probably much more. I drink wine with meals and scotch when I want to drink. However, it seemed wrong not to have a drink given the current circumstances, having access to the freshest Sapporo beer in the world. I used my token to buy a beer ticket in the vending machine, and then brought the ticket to the bar, where a perky bartender gave me a perfect pour. Beer is not bad, I grant. It was an excellent brew and hit the spot, but I’m going to stick to scotch.

Sapporo beer
One a year

After my drink, I went over to the beer garden to get some lunch. I ordered up some more Genghis Khan and utterly confused my waitress by not ordering a beer with my lunch. She was nice enough to me, even though I was an apostate. I devoured lunch, apparently not sated by breakfast, and headed back to the subway stop to go back downtown.

A light lunch
A light lunch

With some more time in the afternoon, I went over the Hokkaido University Botanical Gardens. In addition to the extensive greenery, the gardens also housed several small museums devoted to the first curator of the gardens, the native indigenous people of Hokkaido, and a small natural history museum that was the oldest museum on the island. The natural history museum was a Victorian affair of wooden glass cases holding stuffed specimens of the fauna on the prefecture that I enjoyed a little too much.

Natural history museum
Natives exhibit

I spent a relaxing late afternoon wandering the grounds until it was time to head to the game. I swapped out kits and grabbed the subway to the stadium. After the game, it was late enough in the trip and late enough when the game ended that I just took a subway back to downtown, went back to the hotel, and crashed for the night.

The Stadium and Fans: 

Home to center, Sapporo Dome
Home plate to center field, Sapporo Dome
The Sapporo Dome is located a middling walk from the nearest train station, but it is extremely easy to just follow the straggling path of fans constantly on their way to the park. Because for a Thursday-night game, the stadium was absolutely packed, and this seems to be a regular occurrence.

This may have something to do with the incredible amount of fan-relations done by the Fighters. During the pre-game, there were several on-field activities, including letting children run the bases (greeted along the baselines by players and mascots) and playing catch on the field while the players warmed up. The fans got to stay on the field with the mascots and cheerleaders during the player introductions, and they were brought back on the field during certain between-inning events, one of which featured Ronald McDonald leading the fan, mascots, and cheerleaders in YMCA. I have evidence.

Given the remote location, a sizeable contingent of Marines fans were in attendance and bouncing up a storm, especially during their ninth-inning comeback run. 

The stadium itself is located at a high vantage point over the city, and outside one of the north entrance, there is even a patio seating area for visitors to look down on the city below (or at least if the weather was clearer than it was the day I went). This main entrance is enclosed under a glass ceiling, and several restaurants and stores are located in this atrium. Apparently, there is also the ability to go up into the observation deck in the top of the stadium, but it is not open before games on game days, or some such restriction.

In the back of the stadium is a practice soccer field, as the local soccer team also plays in the dome. There is a walkway all around the top level of the dome, but those are only exits once the game lets out. There is a lengthy tunnel that connects the north and south ends of the stadium, and there are player memorabilia and hands prints the length of the tunnel to keep you occupied during your walk. There is a large parking lot by the south entrances, providing another vantage point of the stadium.

The inside walkways are split on two levels and are incredibly spacious by Japanese standards. Concessions and merchandise stands line the lower and upper walkways, and visitors can walk the entire circuit of the stadium without interruption. Access to certain sections of the one-tier stands is regulated from the upper walkways and entry down into the main seating bowl is segregated from the outfield cheering areas.

You can walk right up next to the main scoreboard in right field, and there are two giant baseballs in left and right field. I had thought they may have been home run apple-type things, but there was a home run in the game, and they remained silent and unlit. There were also some special “Cinderella Seats,” but outside of some obvious guesses, I’m not sure what they were for.

In dead center field, there is a HotDog Park an extra level of stairs up. It has some specialty concessions, a glass smoking area giving a nice vantage to the field, and a large children’s play area looking down onto the ballpark.

At the Game with Oogie:

Ham scoring
Ham scoring

For this game, I was up on the first base side about halfway down the baseline, with some rather nice seats. I was sitting in front of a pair of ladies who chatted nearly constantly during the game, to the best of my understanding, about the game. They always excused themselves to me when they got up, which was nice of them, but unnecessary, as they weren’t interrupting me in any way.

Ronald
Corporate synergy

In wandering around the stadium pre-game looking for food, I ran across Ronald McDonald, or the Japanese version thereof. Disbelieving, I snapped a photo and was off, before I heard him say “besuboro,” at which I looked back and Ronald flipped me a thumbs-up. Sometimes I wonder if I imagine half of the things in my life. As I wolfed down a chicken box, I had plenty of time to contemplate the encounter, and it at least appears real. There’s a picture.

The Game:

First pitch, Marines vs. Fighters
First pitch, Marines vs. Fighters

This is one that nearly got away from the home team. To start, both sides traded singles in the first, and the Marines got someone in scoring position in the top of the second before ground-out ended things. The Fighters struck back-to-back doubles to get one across in the second, and take a 1-0 lead.

The Marines came back in the top of the third with a single, stolen base and double that tied it up, but the runner on second was cut down at home trying to take the lead on a subsequent single, leaving it 1-1 at the break of the third. The Fighters answered back with a single, stolen base, and double of their own to take back the lead, and just for good measure, they doubled again, to make it 3-1 in their favor.

The fourth went quietly for both sides. A minor threat came and went for the Marines in the top of the fifth, but the Fighters led off the bottom of the inning by taking the first pitch out to right field. They tacked on another tally with a one-out walk and stolen base brought around by a two-out single, leaving the score at 5-1 after five innings. Both sides went quietly until the eighth. The Marines got a leadoff single, followed it up with a double, and brought the lead runner home on a fielder’s choice, leaving it 5-2 after the Fighters went in order.

With a three-run lead, the Fighters brought in their closer and got ready to celebrate their win. Except that they would need to wait a while. A leadoff single was followed by a deep double that brought the runner home, making it 5-3 with no outs. A pop-out to second restored some sanity, but it another quick single sent home another run and put the tying run on first with only one out.

The runner on first promptly stole second, and made it to third on an errant throw by the catcher. The closer then plunked the batter on the second pitch, making it first and third with one out. A walk on four pitches loaded them up, and the Marines fans in attendance were bouncing their ever-loving hearts out.

The closer got a gut-check visit, and then induced a weak pop-up back to the mound for the second out. After fighting for six pitches with the next batter, he forced a ground ball back to the mound, and finally closed it out 5-4, ceasing the bouncing of the visiting Marines fans.

The Scorecard:

Marines vs. Fighters, 06-30-11. Fighters win, 5-4.Marines vs. Fighters, 06-30-11. Fighters win, 5-4.
Marines vs. Fighters, 06/30/11. Fighters win, 5-4.

I was on the Scoremaster again. Besides needing some fancy re-arranging necessary by the copious replacements and pinch hitters put in for the shortstop of the Marines, the only thing of note is that I finally got the umpire names for a Japanese game.

The scoreboards always show the umpire names in kanji only, and with no way of translating them, I can at best write down the kanji and hope I have the industriousness to try and work them out later. (Spoiler: I do not.)

It finally occurred to me this game that I had a shiny new camera with a shiny new optical zoom with which to pick up the numbers of the umpires sleeve, which would allow me to get their names out of my JapanBall book. And after several innings of trying to develop my mental powers to force umpires to turn to the left a little bit for sake of all things holy, I was able to track down my first umpire squad for a NPB game. And I think I may be the only person in the universe who cares.

The Accommodations:
I was at the Montery Sapporo again. My dry cleaning was waiting for me when I returned after the game, each item individually wrapped and pressed, and then placed in larger bags just to be sure. They were in much better shape than when they were delivered, and the wrappings actually helped with packing. At this stage in the trip, dirty clothes outnumbered clean by a healthy margin, so I was able to pack in the wrapped clean clothes with the knowledge they wouldn’t get skunked in the travel.

I spent a goodly bit of time repacking all my bags that night so make my main bag smaller so that I could use it as a carry-on on my flight the next day. I trusted the Japanese airlines, but not enough to put my only bag with them on a two-stage flight to the other end of the country.


2011 Japan II

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Yokohama

On Sweating Out One's Soul




Yokohama Stadium
Yokohama Stadium, 2011

Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Chunichi Dragons vs. Yokohama BayStars
Yokohama Stadium
Central League, Nippon Professional Baseball
Yokohama, Japan
18:00


Outside of the Game:
I think sleeping in full-on air conditioning for the first time in a few days was detrimental to me, as I woke up at much less than 100%, but functional enough to keep going. I packed up, went down and had breakfast in the ryokan, and then went for a walk to clear my head. I definitely felt better once I got outside, so the constitutional did some good, even if I didn't feel all there.

As I was walking around, I crossed paths with a group of grade schoolers on a field trip. There was a long line of them, and I was walking past the lot of them, when a small voice from somewhere in the group croaked out a timid, tiny, “Gewd mahning.” I didn't see who it was, but I turned to the group and said, “Good morning” back, and that was all that was necessary to get the ball rolling, as I was soon greeted with an endless refrain of the same from the entire group. Have you ever had sixty Japanese schoolchildren melodically shouting “Good morning” to you at once? It's quite a thing.

I checked out of the ryokan and dragged my bags down to the station. I got a ticket for a slightly earlier train to Yokohama and then went out to the track to get my unsurprisingly on-time train.

Shin-Yokahama Station
Shin-Yokoahama Station

My train dumped me in Shin-Yokohama Station, and I made a quick stop at the tourist office there to work out the rest of my trip downtown, as well as how to get to the airport the next day for my first flight within Japan. I left a short time later, with all the schedules and maps I could possibly need and the absolute knowledge of where I was going. The certainty of some things in Japan was just gratifying.

A short train ride later dropped me at the station near my hotel, which was incidentally also right across the street from the stadium for that night’s game. It is important to note that the distance from the station to my hotel could not have been more than five blocks, which I walked completely in the shade. By the time that I had completed that walk in the shade, I was drenched head to foot in sweat. I would later determine this to be because it was about 100 degrees with 98 percent humidity that day, but still.

It was thus drenched in sweat that I arrived with my bags at the super-nice, luxury Hotel Yokohama Garden. The staff didn’t blink an eye at my obvious derelict condition, and nearly forced me to sit in their nice lounge chair while they processed my reservation and ventured that I might want a water.

After ruining their chair and dropping off my bags, I set off into the blazing Yokohama for some sightseeing. I wandered through Yokohama’s sizeable Chinatown and got some dumplings for lunch in the shade and cool before heading to the harbor.

China Town, Yokohama
Town of Chinese

Now, if you name a place “Harbor View Park,” there are some unstated promises in your establishment, especially when it is 100 degrees out, and perhaps one’s temperament isn’t where it should be.

But I’m here to tell you that you have to do a large amount of walking and climbing through that park before you even get a hint that there’s a harbor. To be fair, you are eventually rewarded with a spectacular panoramic view of the entire harbor and environs, but boy, does it make you question the founding principles of the park name for a while there.

Harbor View Park
To be fair, you could see the harbor

I climbed down to the waterfront proper and slunk from shadow to shadow as I traversed Yamashita Park to avoid bursting directly into flames from a sun that just seemed to get hotter and hotter. Upon reaching the other end of the park, I headed back to my hotel, check-in time having arrived, and had the most necessary shower and soak of my entire life.

My hotel being literally across the street from the stadium, I was fairly certain of my ability to get to the game in time, and a nap in the air conditioning was very much in order.

The stadium is part of Yokohama Park, so about two and half hours before the game, I went across the street and started to take in the sights. A group of fans were camped out in front of the stadium garage, no doubt waiting for players, and I took a shaded walk through the adjoining park before going to the stadium itself.

During the walk-around, I had my biggest “gotcha” moment, as I poked my head over a wall in the back of the stadium to see a briefing happening for all the stadium workers. I popped off a quick picture before ducking back down, but in the shot, two of the workers were giving me the Japanese “V,” so ninja I am not.

Spotted
Oh, so you saw me...

As I rambled, they were setting up for the various pre-game festivities, and I was wondering why everything wasn’t in fuller swing. As I was trying to work out one of the stadium maps, one of the workers came up and asked me if I needed help. And not just in English, but in “teenager dude” English. He helpfully explained that they don’t open the stadium until an hour before the game, and then told me what entrance I had to use for my ticket.

Pre-game mascots
Pre-game mascots

Armed with that knowledge, I headed back across the street for an hour more in the air conditioning, as the weather hadn’t settled down all that much since mid-day.

I came back over just as the pre-game show was getting warmed up. The Dragons and BayStars cheerleaders were having some sort of competition. There looked to be some sort of quiz going on, and then there was a dancing contest, and then the mascots showed up, so it became more of a show. A little before gate opening, I got on line and got swept into the stadium with the crowd surging to claim unreserved seats.

Hotel view
The stadium from my hotel room after the game

After the game, it was simply a matter of crossing the street (after a long detour necessitated by barriers to keep people funneling to the train station by closing down the stairway that would let me just cross the street to the hotel). I stayed up for a bit, watching the activity outside the stadium and the fans clearing out and stadium workers closing up shop. About two hours after the end of the game, they turned off the lights at the stadium, and I made my way to my very comfortable bed.

The Stadium & Fans:

Home to center, Yokohama Stadium
Home plate to center field, Yokohama Stadium

Yokohama Stadium is a single-level bowl stadium. The entrance and promenade area is raised up from the surrounding street, and connects up with the adjoining Yokohama Park in the rear.

The interior is ringed by a walkway that houses the concessions and merchandise stores. There is an upper level that allows people higher up in the seating bowl to get to their seats easier, and it also houses the “Victory Court” concession. The bleacher cheering section areas are closed off from the field-level seats and are accessed by a separate entrance.

Pre-game cheerleader fight
Pre-game cheerleader fight

An unintentionally hilarious item was a sign they had put up, stating how serious they were about access control near a non-public area of the stadium. On this poster was then very clear pictures of exactly every type of identification that they would accept, because such things could not possibly be of use to someone trying to violate that access control.

The stadium was pretty full for a Tuesday night game, and the fans were well-represented both in the pre-game shows and in the stands. They were loud, and grateful, as the heroes of the game got rapturous cheers and applause whenever they stepped on the field.

There was also a “fan of the game” contest during mid-inning on the main scoreboard. One of the people picked was a sweaty chunky guy in a yukata out in the cheering section, who stripped off more and more of the robe as they kept cutting back to him, to the loud approval of the fans. (He won the contest.) It seems that some fan behavior is directly comparable no matter what side of the ocean you’re on.

Fan of the game
Fan of the game

Since I was just across the street, I stayed for nearly all of the victory celebration after the game, which went on much longer than I expected. Even as they were dismantling the stage after the hero interviews, the mascots and the cheerleaders were off by the home cheering section, throwing freebies into the adoring fans.

Dear MLB: This is called fan service. Look into it.

Speaking of mascots, the BayStars had a starfish character, which is to be expected, but one of the other mascots can only be described as a huge grinning baseball with his tongue sticking out. I have not received an adequate rationale for that guy.

For such a low-achieving team, the fans were die-hards. From my hotel, I was able to see people claiming their seats for the next day’s pre-game show the night before. That, my friends, is dedication.

At the Game with Oogie:

Lens limit
"Lens limit" doesn't translate in Japanese

I was sitting on the third base side, just far enough down that I was in the no-man’s land between the home fans behind home plate and the visiting section that extended towards the left field bleachers. I was worried about being finally finished off by the sun after so much careful hiding, but the much-anticipated late-day shadows reached my seat just before game time. From where I was sitting, I could see my room at the hotel across the street.

One guy sitting lower in my section was using a camera that was about a fourth of his total height, with all the lenses and whatnot attached to it. It had a tripod and he and the camera were taking up two seats. It gave me a clear context for why American stadiums have camera limits for visitors.

The Game:

First pitch, Dragons vs. BayStars
First pitch, Dragons vs. BayStars

The lowly BayStars had their day this night in Yokohama, though it started rather inauspiciously. The Dragon’s leadoff batter Araki walked, and then stole second. This prompted a stoppage of play as 200 something flashed on the scoreboard and flowers were brought out to him at second, and he was greeted by applause from the crowd. I couldn’t figure out what it could be. He couldn’t possibly have stolen 200 bases in the season already. No further explanation was given in English, so I guess I’ll never know. And he didn’t help the Dragons, who went down in order after his walk and steal.

The BayStars came out swinging, lining a single on the first pitch they saw, and the runer was promptly sacrificed to second. A fly out to center raised the specter of stranding him there, but two more singles came back-to-back, bringing him home and leaving first and second with two outs. The next batter walked, and the following singled, sending the lead runner home, but the trailing runner also tried his luck and got nailed by the right fielder, ending the inning 2-0 BayStars.

The Dragons got right back into it with three straight singles getting a run across, but a double-play killed the inning and the rally, and the BayStars went in order, leaving it 2-1 BayStars. The Dragons pulled even with two doubles in the top of the third, and that would be as close as they got for the night.

The bottom of the third was a massacre. A single was followed by a strikeout, and that would be it for the outs for a while. A single, walk, and single brought home the lead run and loaded up the bases for the BayStars light-hitting right fielder, with zero home runs for the year.

You see where this is going.

He took the second pitch way out over the left field wall for a grand slam, to the rapturous joy of the fans. (Incidentally, the stadium scoreboard gave him a “Nice Play!” for his achievement, which makes one wonder what you’d need to do to get a “Good Play!”) Two groundouts ended the inning, leaving it 7-2 BayStars. Both sides forwent scoring in the fourth, but the Dragons tried to make a game of it in the fifth. A one-out single and double got sent home by a two-out single to narrow the gap to 7-4. But the BayStars promptly strung together three singles to get one of them back, 8-4 at the start of the sixth.

The Dragons went in order, but the BayStars added two more runs in the bottom of the inning on two singles, a double, and a sacrifice fly. The Dragons went in order again, but the BayStars weren’t done yet. A hit batsman started the bottom of the inning, and a single and double brought him home and left two on. The BayStars second baseman then lined a triple into the right field corner to bring them home. At the end of seven, it was 14-4 BayStars.

The Dragons got one back on a solo shot in the eighth, but that was about the story of the game already. The BayStars walk away with a laugher, 14-5.

The Scorecard:

Dragons vs. BayStars, 06-28-11. BayStars win, 14-5.Dragons vs. BayStars, 06-28-11. BayStars win, 14-5.
Dragons vs. BayStars, 06/28/11. BayStars win, 14-5.

This was in the ScoreMaster book again. There wasn’t anything particularly interesting from a scoring perspective, but this was a hard one to keep track. There were a lot of substitutions and switching positions, and the pitcher’s slot bounced all around the Dragon’s lineup. It was like scoring a Bobby Valentine game all over again.

The Accommodations:

Hotel Yokohama Garden
Hotel Yokohama Garden

The Hotel Yokohama Garden was previously mentioned as my body repository for the night. It was the fanciest hotel I stay at this trip, and had the benefit of being right across the street from the stadium. This was a luxury Western-style hotel that was clearly used by business-types for the most part. There were copious meeting rooms and areas, and businessman-type amenities.

For whatever reason, I got a room on the top floor of the hotel, so I could just about see into the stadium from across the street. There was a tiny balcony in my room, but it was only for emergencies if all the escape equipment out there was any indication.

The room was a full-sized Western room and bathroom, with a full-sized closet. In addition to the huge bed and room, there was a full-sized working desk that came with its own computer and monitor, which I felt compelled to use as much as possible, because my room came with a computer.

It was very convenient to the game, and very worth the extra money I splurged on it.


2011 Japan II

Monday, June 27, 2011

Kyoto

On Another Day without Yakyu

Kyoto
The city from Eikando

Monday, June 27, 2011
Kyoto, Japan

Outside of the Game:
It was another early travel day, but with nearly a solid eight of sleep in front of it, it was not nearly as bad as previous days had been. In the early morning of Fukuoka, I got all my belongings together again, and then headed out for the rail station down the street.

I arrived particularly early for the train, and after brief thoughts of getting a ticket for an earlier train, I settled in for some serious waiting about. At this early hour, all of the station kiosks were not open yet, but I found one to buy some breakfast. It was then that I found out that they sell tiny little bottles of whiskey in the train station bodegas. I have no idea how I went so long without knowing this information, but it struck me as important at the time. I didn't buy one just then because it was on the pricey side and I didn't want to indulge until I was sure my money situation was worked out, but it was carefully noted for later.

My train eventually came on time, as they all seemed to do. This one was a little bit nicer than the “average” bullet train, with fancier seats. I'm not entirely sure what the significance is, but it didn't cost any more than normal, and it made my nap a little nicer. I spent the trip working my scorecard from the previous night's game and getting up-to-date with this thing, which I will achieve right when we get to the period at the end of this sentence here.

On the second leg of the train trip from Fukuoka to Kyoto, I was sitting next to a salaryman on his way to Tokyo who spoke some English. He asked if I was American, and then asked why I was in Japan. I explained what I was doing and braced for the inevitable. Instead, he asked if I was “sort of” a big baseball fan. Sort of? In Japanese eyes, this insanity I was perpetrating was something a “sort of” big baseball fan would do. I absolutely shuddered to think what an actual big baseball fan does for his kicks around these parts.

After I got the station, I immediately went to the nearest Post Office ATM, and successfully retrieved 20,000 yen from my account. With that bit of business behind me, it was a much easier walk to the ryoken.

After dropping off my bags, I decided to set out to see the world again. I began by going to the Higashi-Honganji Temple right across the street from the ryoken. It was undergoing renovation, so I made a quick pass to see the dragon-head fountain before heading off to the subway station.

Higashi-Honganji Temple
My favorite fountain

The problem, such as it is, with Kyoto is that you could spend a month there, and while you would continue to be greeted by treasures each greater than the last, you still wouldn't have time to see everything the city had to offer. On my previous visit I went into the heart of the tourist district, so I decided to head further north this trip through, and hit an area called the “Philosopher's Path,” which crossed several important cultural landmarks along its route.

I got to the subway stop near what one map identified as the start of the path, and upon getting to an exit, I was trying to orient myself to find out the right way to go. I was approached by a Japanese geek who offered to help. I don't mean it pejoratively; I mean to identify him as one of my own.

He almost immediately recognized my problem. He told me to ignore the fact that one exit was seemingly much closer to where I wanted to go than the other. He said in all cases, follow what the signs say and not what the map implies. And I was less than surprised when he turned out be correct, as the exit indicated by the sign dropped me exactly where I needed to be.

With an endless string of cultural delights waiting, I just decided to follow the path and go into every temple and shrine along the way until I ran out of day. The first stop was Konchi-In, which started me off on a state of mind completely divorced from mundane matters and transfixed on natural beauty and ancient buildings whose wood and tatami had a smell that was nearly a tangible thing. By the time I wandered on to Nanzen-Ji, I was somewhere else entirely.

Nanzen-Ji
Garden at Nanzen-Ji

When confronted with the Zen garden at Nanzen-Ji, I just sat down and watched it, which predicated an interesting event. After sitting down, I glanced at my watch and saw a half hour had passed. And I actually thought the following to myself: “Holy crap: that is tranquil.” This is why we can’t have nice things.

Elsewhere in the temple complex, I scrambled up an aqueduct that had no safety railing to prevent you from plummeting to an unappealing death, yet was curiously unaffected. Walking on an ancient brick edifice with flowing water next to you has quite a calming effect.

Nanzen-Ji
Safety railings aren't tranquil

Emerging out into a late-growing afternoon, I found a tourist café nearby and had the best turkey sandwich of my life as I sat in the air conditioning, drinking water and realizing that perhaps there is a thinner line than thought between heat exhaustion and spiritual enlightenment. Suitably refreshed, I set out again along the temple path. I ended up going through Tenjuan and Eikando, climbing up the latter’s mountainside pagoda to look down on the world, having a run-in with the loudest tiny frog in the world, and spending another indeterminate amount of time looking at the sand in another dry Zen garden.

As it turns out, what I thought was the start of the Philosopher’s Path wasn’t actually the Philosopher’s Path at all, and I’m sure there’s something wise to pull out of the whole situation, but I chose not to. Once on the actual path, I followed the winding trail along the canal it followed, trying desperately not to get caught up in any metaphors. As part of the path was closed for repairs involving an annoying detour, and a mooning couple blocked the way with their oblivious slow walking, I failed utterly to do so, and silently cursed the fact that even silently cursing on the Philosopher's Path was somehow speaking volumes about my state of enlightenment or lack thereof.

At the northern end of the path was Ginkakuji Temple, and I had just about one cultural treasure left in me for the day. The “Silver Temple” included an audio tour available in English, so I had a little more than the usual English pamphlet to help me understand what was happening on the grounds beyond the insane tranquil beauty of it all. The Zen sand sculpture was apparently meant to represent the water reflecting the moon at night, and once again, I just found myself wandering slack-jawed through the whole proceeding wondering how anyone who lived here could do anything but pacifically wander the grounds of these temples every damn day. Having climbed and wandered every last inch of the place, I decided to heed the barking of my aching dogs and head back downtown.

Ginkakuki Temple
Tending the garden

Although apprehensive about the whole idea of bus travel, the last temple was located right at the terminus of one of Kyoto's bus lines, and it was not only the easiest way back to the city, it was also probably my only shot to get back to downtown before the washi paper store I wanted to visit again had closed. And although bus travel is inherently flawed, I'm willing to try anything once, and the Japanese organization hadn't really let me down yet.

Kyoto bus
A non-awful bus

I got on the next flat-fee bus, and tried to follow along with the stops on my map. Twenty minutes later and with no incidents more than increased street traffic the closer we got to downtown, I had arrived at my stop with time to spare.

Morita Washi
Morita Washi

After all of the flailing around last year, it was a relatively easy thing to find Morita Washi this time. I did some enthusiastic shopping for affordable gifts with small luggage footprints, and then walked back down to the ryoken.

After an extremely necessary soak to relieve feet ground to chop meat, I got dressed to go out to dinner. It was approaching the halfway point of my trip, so I was getting to that dangerous tipping point in the zombie movie when zombies start to outnumber living people, or in this case, dirty clothes start to outnumber the clean. All of my overshirts were either wrinkled or skunked through, so I put one of the cleanest, wrinkliest one through the drier, and then I realized what I was doing: I was trying to look presentable for the meat.

Because this was the dinner I had been looking forward to for almost exactly a year now: the kobe restaurant at the top of Kyoto Station. There are those who are of a school of thought that a particularly good or transcendent experience should not be repeated because it can never live up to the original and is thus a guaranteed disappointment. And to those people I ask: How is life without orgasms? I mean, you already had one, so repeating the experience is pointless, right? Been there, done that.

Dinner
Foreplay

Needless to say, the experience again failed to disappoint. I think I may have even sat in the same seat as last time. If I recall correctly, I ordered the second most expensive cut last time, and that was surpassed this time by the immediate ordering of the top meat. Although I had done this before, it was still a glorious thing. As with a lot of the experiences this time in Japan, the lack of complete novelty did not in any way diminish the experience of having a stately kimono-wearing woman grill up some of the best beef in the universe at my table. And knowing what exactly was coming allowed me to pace myself much better this time, and remember to take more pictures, and given my previous analogy, this is all getting disturbing.

Nevertheless, it was worth every last cent, and I am now not sure I can go more than a year without having it again. I am not one to speculate on what withdrawal symptoms may be like for removing oneself from evidence of a beneficent divinity, but I assuredly and whole-heartedly hope to never find out.

Dinner
The main event

In my post-meat bliss, I wandered around the station roof, watching couples stare out lovingly to themselves and the skyline and smugly knowing for absolutely certain in my heart that they had no idea what true love and happiness was unless they went to dinner downstairs.

Kyoto Tower
Kyoto by night

I went back to the ryoken for some deserved rest with a stomach full of joy and feet that were in the drafting stages of a resolution to divorce from my person.

The Accommodations:

Matsubaya Inn
Matsubata Inn

I once again stayed at the Matsubaya Inn ryoken, a traditional Japanese inn a short walk from the station. While last year I stayed in a cheaper shared-bathroom room, I was able to get a suite room for the same price this time. It had a bathing area as well as a toilet in the room itself, as well as a larger room that came with a traditional ceremonial alcove, a small table and chairs, and a small balcony looking out into back-alley Kyoto.

When checking in, I was immediately recognized from last year by the owner.

“Off day for yakyuu?” he asked.

It's fame of a sort.


2011 Japan