Welcome To The Cheap Seats At Japanese Baseball
David Peffley visits the kyujo - the Japanese ballpark
Baseball, aside from being the most popular spectator sport in Japan, possesses this distinction: In a country that's extremely expensive to travel in, baseball is relatively inexpensive entertainment. And the best view is from the cheapest seats of all.
One doesn't have to be a baseball fan to enjoy the experience a live game in Japan. Certainly, fans will appreciate the high quality of baseball as evidenced by Japanese players such as Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui all proving their worth in the American Major Leagues. However, a growing number of expatriates not previously showing an interest in the sport, have ventured to the kyujo (ballpark) and returned with a new passion.
Baseball History in Japan
Baseball has been played in Japan for well over 100 years and professionally since 1934. And, as in the case of sumo, Japanese traditions also grace the baseball diamond.
Baseball is considered virtually sacred by more than a few Japanese, and many an anthropologist (both amateur and professional) has drawn parallels between the game and Japanese society and culture. Indeed, much of the preparation, strategy and management practices seem particular to Japanese game, so much so that the learned Western baseball fan may find himself scratching his head.
The Experience of Seeing a Game in Japan
But seeing a Japanese ballgame has much more to offer than just that. A trip to the kyujo offers an occasion to see Japanese people relaxed and at play and offers you the chance to interact with them in unique fashion. Such interactions are always unpredictable and plenty of fun.
Japanese are renowned for working hard and for long hours. But at the ballpark, they dispense with the inhibitions of daily life and root like mad for their Lions, Tigers or Carp.
When you join them, you'll make new friends, most likely drink a of couple beers, substitute the traditional baseball game hot dog for some yakisoba or takoyaki and learn about the game from your new Japanese friends. Japanese at the ballpark are always excited to ask you about baseball, discuss the differences, and ask you what you think about Ichiro or Matsui.
Americans generally have a tendency to attend a baseball game to relax. And that option is available in Japan. You could spend 3000-5000 yen, to buy a seat close to the action, luxuriate, and perhaps strike up a conversation with your neighbor. But then, you could do that at an American ballpark or while watching the game on TV at the local bar-and without spending the roughly 4000 yen.
I REPEAT: THE BEST SEATS ARE THE CHEAP SEATS!
For around 1500 yen, you can buy a ticket for the bleachers and actually participate! The fans of the visiting team sit in the left-field seats, the fans of the home team, settle in right field.
"Outfield seating" at the Japanese ballpark is actually somewhat of an oxymoron, as the fans will be standing, chanting, and waving banners the entire time their team is up to bat - in other words, half the game.
Each player will have his own chant, which will be accompanied with a rhythm section replete with horns, drums, and other assorted noise makers. You'll learn these chants, you'll tap a favorite, you'll repeat it in your sleep-even years later.
If you do choose to "sit" in the bleachers, beware that this is not the library and while your adopted team is at bat, you'll be shouting back and forth with your neighbor just to be heard. For three hours, they will cease to be Japanese and you will cease to be the foreign visitor; you will all be integral members of the oendan (pronounced "o-en-dan") - the cheering section of your adopted team.
You'll cheer, you'll shout, you'll laugh, you'll have a fantastic time. And if you're inclined, after having spent three hours, drinking, eating, and cheering for your new favorite team, you just might go out for more of the same with your new friends at a local yatai (street-side food stall) or izakaya to celebrate victory.
The When, the Where, and the How of Going to the Game in Japan
Generally, the baseball season begins around the end of March and ends at the end of September, with the Nippon Series (the seven-game championship which crowns the Japanese baseball champion) taking place in mid-October. Most games are played in the evening, around 7:00 P.M., with some weekend games starting around 1:00 P.M.
Six teams belong to the more prestigious Central League, with six in the Pacific League. If at all possible, you want to see Central League match-up. Your first choice should be to catch a game involving either the Tigers or the Giants, preferably a home game (the Tigers are based near Osaka and the Giants in Tokyo).
The Giants, fueled by their popularity and the vast resources of the Yomiuri News Corporation, revel in the popularity of the New York Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys, and Manchester United combined, have a very loyal fan base throughout the archipelago. The Tigers are sometimes compared with the Chicago Cubs due to their perennial ineptitude, yet have the most rabid and engaged fan base.
Whether the Tigers are in first place (rare) or 27 games out of first place (much more likely), their fans will maniacally support their club to the bitter end. Other exciting venues to catch a ball game include the Yakult Swallows' Meiji Jingu Stadium or Hiroshima Stadium.
You can usually get tickets at Japanese travel agencies such as JTB (www.jtb.com) or at the park itself. Alternatively, if you have a Japanese-reading friend, you can get tickets at convenience stores which are less likely to charge fees.
If the game happens to be sold out though, as is often the case when the Giants are playing, don't fret, tickets can always be acquired from scalpers outside the stadium. I have found that the scalpers generally speak enough English to negotiate with. As first pitch approaches, the price of tickets becomes more reasonable-sometimes below face value.
Kanto Baseball Stadiums
The Central League Yomiuri play at the Tokyo Dome, commonly referred to as the "Big Egg". Due to the Giants' popularity, this is the toughest ticket in Japan. If you would do well to plan ahead and get your ticket as far in advance as possible. The Big Egg can be reached from the north side by taking the Marunouchi subway line and getting off at Korakuen Station.
If the Giants aren't playing at home, you can still see exciting Central League action at Meiji Jingu Stadium, home of the Yakult Swallows. The Swallows have their own loyal fan base who poke blue and green umbrellas into the air to celebrate the successes of their club.
Most impressively, Jingu Stadium boasts beer vendors who carry small kegs of beer on their backs through the bleachers to provide you with fresh draft straight from the tap.
The stadium is easily reached from Tokyo Station by taking the Marunouchi Line to Akasaka Mitsuke, where you'll transfer to the Ginza Line. Get off at Gaienmae and leave via Exit 3. You may also want to arrive early and check out the famous Meiji Shrine nearby.
Without a doubt, the finest baseball venue in Japan is the venerated Koshien Stadium, home of the hard-luck Hanshin Tigers - there's no baseball venue in Japan quite like it.
Definitely leave time either before or after the game to circle the ivy-covered stadium and browse the ubiquitous souvenir stands for any Tiger relic you can possibly imagine, and many that you can't.
After the game, you may want to sample one of the many izakaya behind Koshien. The atmosphere is electric both inside and out. If you happen to be in the area in August, an exciting alternative to professional baseball is the annual Japan high school baseball tournament. Take the Hanshin Line, which connects Osaka with Kobe and get off at Koshien Station.
One of my best experiences at a Japanese baseball game was at Hiroshima Stadium, watching a Carp-Giants game. Carp fans are probably second only to Tigers fans in the all-important area of sheer manic lunacy. The stadium is located directly in between Peace Park and Hiroshima Castle. A motivated sightseer can take in Peace Memorial Park and museum, Hiroshima Castle, relax and wander in the beautiful Shukkei-en Garden and catch an evening Carp game all in the course of a day. I did it and highly recommend that you give it a shot.
If you're planning to be in Nagoya or Fukuoka or want to see a game at another ballpark, they can all be reached conveniently by rail. You can get directions and most likely tickets from any travel agency. I have always had good luck with JTB. You can walk in right off the street. They are willing and helpful and will almost certainly have a friendly agent who can speak English.