Friday, September 3, 2010

Not All Domed Stadiums Are Indoors

It is officially the hottest summer in Tokyo since 1946 when they started the modern era of monitoring the weather in Japan. Tokyo has had over 50 straight nights where the low did not go below 78 degrees F (25 C) and the average temperature for August was slightly above 98 degrees F (35 C). Humidity is still up there although it has dropped minimally. Certainly no where near a comfort zone for people from Arizona. I have avoided going to any baseball games because I didn’t want to sit out in the heat for three hours sweating my way through multiple hand towels.

Finally I decided that a game in one of the domed stadiums would be a nice break. Three hours in an air conditioned environment watching an always entertaining Japanese baseball game. My friend from the Keio Plaza Hotel joined me. After we bought tickets for the sumo that begins on the 12th of this month, we had a sushi lunch and then grabbed the train to Saitama and a visit to the Seibu Dome to see the Seibu Lions play the Orix Buffaloes.

We made it to the stadium early and had a shaved ice sitting in the shade with a nice cool breeze blowing but I still smiled satisfactorily thinking of the nice air conditioned interior of the stadium. The stadium is a huge concrete ring that has a framework in the center over the field and there is fabric stretched over the framework. Here’s the catch, the entire dome is supported by huge sets of steel tubes and is open to the outside. There are no walls. You are actually sitting outside. We would be in the record breaking heat for the entire game.

The bowl of the stadium is carved out of a hill much like Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. In the top sections the cool breeze is quite evident but in the lower steam basket seats that I purchased, the breeze was rare.

My friend and I sat like a couple of overcooked Nikuman (steamed pork buns) for three and a half hours.

We were however, entertained by an interesting baseball game. All the scoring came in the bottom of the 6th inning but both pitchers got themselves into many jams and then pitched their way out of them. On the field it is baseball just like baseball in the US.

In the stands though, it is as far from being at a US baseball game as you can get. The first things you notice are the food stands. You can get udon noodles, yakitori, curried beef, rice omelet, yakitori, tempura, bento lunch boxes (we were going to have bento but at the end of the 6th they had sold everyone of them), gyudon (beef in sauce on rice) and katsu with ebi (fried pork loin cutlet with fried shrimp in panko; pickles and shredded cabbage; includes a bowl of miso soup) which is what we had. It was the best meal I’ve ever had at a baseball game.

There were also traditional baseball foods. Outside the stadium there was a truck selling hot dogs and brats. Inside I saw a person carrying what looked like a chili dog and I could smell sausage and sauerkraut coming from behind me. I saw a guy carrying a plate of small cocktail sized weenies that he had sprayed ketchup and mustard over. Of course there was popcorn too but it comes in a sealed plastic bag inside a red and white striped square cardboard container. You open the bag and dump it in the box I guess.

The beer vending in Japan is another interesting affair. Ninety nine percent of the vendors are young girls with nice smiles and high pitched voices. They chant out the name of the beer they are carrying in small kegs that they have strapped to their backs. They wear uniforms in the colors of their brewery so you know which brand they are selling as well.

There must be a rule that says they have to be in constant motion because these young girls are up and down the aisle with such frequency that you can always get your favorite brand because it’s going to come by real soon. You just have to wave and they’re in the aisle in seconds pouring you a cup. There are a few videos on Youtube that shows how the young girls switch their kegs. Do a search on Japanese Beer Vendors and you can watch the process.

However, the most amazing aspect and the biggest difference between Japanese baseball and American baseball is the fan participation. There is never a quite moment during the game for nine innings. The right and left field seats are occupied by a cheer band for each team. Numerous trumpets, at least 20 drums and a few tubas are blaring away the entire time that their team is at bat. The visiting team has a traveling band that makes as much racket as the home team so the din of banging music and chants is continuous.

The fans along side the band get into the routines and at times there are choreographed movements where they shuffle a few steps to left and then they turn and shuffle on back to the right. There are team songs and songs for specific players. The fans in the regular seats are all familiar with the tunes and the routines so they sing along as if there were out in the bleacher seats.

In 2006 my girlfriend and our friend from the Keio Plaza went to a Yakult Swallows game. We noticed that a large number of people were carrying clear plastic umbrellas tinted green and pink. There was a chance of rain and it had rained earlier in the day so we thought nothing of it. When the Swallows scored their first run we understood why the umbrellas were there. The fans in the entire right field section popped open their umbrellas so that there was a solid plastic canopy of green and pink over the section. Then the home team band started to play their “We just scored a run" ditty while the fans lifted, tilted and spun their umbrellas in time with the song. I believe it is illegal to take an umbrella to any kind of game in the US so you would never see this unless you were in Japan.

Another curious thing I noticed at the Seibu game was a vendor in the stands selling large blue balloons. When the people in front of us bought a pack I noticed they were listed as “Victory Balloons’. I’d seen balloons used in a special way before and so I guess they do it in most stadiums. During the seventh inning stretch the fans with balloons blow them up and they place small whistles in the opening. On cue at the end of some kind of spirit song they all let lose the balloons which go flying in all directions whistling a high shrill note that last for about 30 seconds and looks like a great blue cloud of flying worms.

It’s designed to cheer the team on to victory and everybody reloads at the end of the game if the team actually wins. We were eating our pork cutlets watching this so I didn’t get a picture. That’s how good the pork cutlets were.

Speaking of whistling, when a foul ball went into the stands you could hear plastic whistles being blow all over the stadium. It is a safety warning for people who may not be watching the action. I’d never seen this before.

There was one area of fandom where the Japanese fans were more passive than American fans and that was when they had a chance to get a foul ball. If it came deep in the seats they were like American fans but the people in the front rows didn’t seem to care. If a foul comes along the ground in America, the front row fans are jostling for position while reaching over the wall trying to scoop up a grounder; quite often falling over onto the field. The fans here didn’t even get up to look and a couple of times when the ball bounced into the front row, they just got out of the way to let it go by.

Japanese baseball is a tremendous event to go to. The fans love their team. The entire event from riding the train to the stadium, to eating the food, to listening to the fans and joining the crowd on the way back to the station is an event you won’t find in the US. I try to get to at least one game whenever I’m in Japan during the season. I’ll probably be going again when my girlfriend arrives and when my friend that worked for the CD/DVD company comes back from Paris.

He used to have a general admission ticket for the Yomiuri Giants. The ticket gets you in the gate and if it isn’t crowded you can take an empty seat. He managed to get us tickets, in seats, to the Giants vs. the Hanshin Tigers game a couple years ago. That’s like a Yankees vs. Reds Sox game in the US. It was sold out so he and the thousands of other GA ticket holders sat on the floor in the concourse and watched the game on television while it was going on live just through the entry way.

Interesting side story, his friend is a Tigers fan. The Tigers are from Osaka and his friend lives in Osaka but goes to as many Tigers games as he can. His friend actually works in Tokyo so he left work and went to the game. The problem was that the game went into extra innings and his friend missed his last train home. So what do you do when you’re stuck in Tokyo? You spend the night in the train station, catch the first train home in the morning (2 and a half hours each way), take a shower, change clothes and get back on the train so you can be at work by noon. Many Japanese view their commutes as a way to catch up on their sleep so I’m sure this fellow was well rested when he got to work.

I was shocked about this fellow spending the night in the train station and my friend told me that maybe he went to a manga (graphic novels or comic books) club. These clubs have every manga ever printed including the most recent ones and you pay by the hour to read whatever you want. The clubs have sofas, private reading kiosks, washrooms and even showers. My friend told me there are people in Tokyo who do not have a home but live in the manga clubs. The hourly rate is less that what they would pay for rent so they grab a manga, curl up on a sofa and sleep until it’s time to shower and go to work.

Japan is full of interesting situations that you just can’t imagine happening in America. Anyone who travels here has to be ready to accept that things are done differently than in America. I think travelers get the most out of their trip by embracing the difference and trying to live it while they are on their trip.

I hope you’ll check out my author page and read an excerpt from my novel, A Wind In Montana, at my publisher’s web site.

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