I wanted to see a baseball game in Japan before I left. However, the Internet, in its infinite wisdom, made that look impossible. ‘We’ll book your tickets for you, but we need lots of notice,’ one site warned. ‘Baseball is so popular here that you won’t even be able to buy a ticket on game day,’ warned another. Thus, I showed up at Hanshin Koshien Stadium with low expectations. However, a kind, English-speaking security guard noticed me walking up to the ticket counters and helped me purchase a bleacher seat in the Tigers’ section for 2100 yen.
The Tigers’ fans in Japan reminded me of English soccer fans – passionate, with flags and trumpets, special cheers for each player, and a wardrobe of mostly yellow and black (team colors), whether a jersey over a business suit or a full tiger outfit, including the occasional scarf. The cheering continued the entire time the home team was at bat (no golf-like silences for the pitch like at home). While some things differed from the average MLB game, such as a slightly smaller stadium and slightly slower pitching (the fastest I saw was roughly 88 mph), things were mostly the same. For instance, one of the players had ‘Touch My Body’ as his walk-out song. Alas, for all my enthusiasm, I wasn’t a lucky charm since the Hanshin Tigers lost to the Yokohama DeNA BayStars 1-0.
The next day at the train station in Hiroshima, I noticed a lot of people wearing Carp (the hometown team) jerseys – a common one read on the back (in English) ‘No Carp, no life.’ When I showed up at the ticket office, some of the stadium employees, noticing my broken Japanese (‘Hitotsu kippu, yasui,’ or ‘one ticket, cheap’), asked the English-speaking businessman behind me in line to help me buy a ticket. In a kind gesture, he bought an unreserved bleacher seat (1900 yen) next to mine, in Carp territory, and helped direct me into the stadium.
It turned out that Kenji, the businessman, was on travel and ended up at the park in the same way I did – he saw crowds filling Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium (they are headquartered nearby) from his train window and had nowhere else to be that evening. He loved baseball and despite normally being a fan of the opposing team, the Yomiuri Giants, he enjoyed cheering along with the passionate home team crowd. They had good reason to be excited that night since they had started the game behind but kept things mostly even after the fifth inning.
Given the fact that I was talking to a Japanese baseball fan who spoke perfect English, I naturally spent a lot of the game asking questions and making comparisons with the MLB. For instance, the strange character that would show up on screen after an out was a man in kabuki garb yelling ‘out!’ The common cheer I heard, ‘Katobasei!’, means ‘hit it far!’ You didn’t hear the opposing team cheering at either stadium since they were always segregated into a tiny left-field section – what a difference from Nationals games! Hiroshima’s stadium was larger than Koshien Stadium and had concourses on several levels, just like the average MLB park. It was shocking to learn too that players mostly spent their entire careers on a single team – very convenient for the Carp actually since a lot of the national team from the World Baseball Classic played for them.
A big part of going to the ballpark is the food. At Koshien, I enjoyed a big plate of Japanese chicken cutlet curry that cost the same as it would outside the stadium. (As an aside, I was so confused walking back to my seat at Koshien because everyone in the stadium had blown up balloons, made a loud cheer, and then let them go flying. Kenji told me later that a few clubs, including the Carp and the Tigers, do stunts like this in the seventh inning. After all, they don’t have the seventh inning stretch.) You can buy a can of beer for 500 yen and a draft for a little more – the roving concessions workers (exclusively young women) even wore kegs on their backs so you could enjoy a draft at your seat. Kenji took it upon himself to show me a proper ballgame experience. He bought us beers (he wouldn’t allow me to buy a single round) and introduced me to common Japanese ballpark foods like edamame (I didn’t eat the shells like I accidentally did one time in Tokyo), fried squid (good texture), and French fries (‘A little more familiar for you’). When it starts to get cool you don’t order coffee. Instead, you warm up with hot sake. The good company, delicious food, and solid playing (the Carp beat the Giants 7-6) all combined to make a fun experience.
After the game, Kenji decided I ought to try Hiroshima-style okonmiyaki, the so-called ‘Japanese pizza,’ so we walked over to a hole-in-the-wall by the JR station. While it tastes nothing like pizza, Hiroshima-style, with a wheat pancake, cabbage, noodles and other treats layered high, is really good and tastes even better washed down with cold sake and Sapporo beer. Kenji wouldn’t let me touch the bill – again it was his treat.
If there is anything I’ve noticed, it’s been that everyone I’ve interacted with here in Japan has been unfailingly kind and generous. I never would have tried all sorts of delicious seafood in Oarai had Sachi and Yoko not found me. I never would have seen such beautiful cherry blossoms in Saitama Prefecture had Midsuki not driven Chas and me there. I wouldn’t have had the nerve to enter a place with no English signs or picture menus and then had such a fun time chatting with the staff had Kenji not decided to treat me ‘as a guest of Japan.’ I’m very fortunate to have met such wonderful people.
Here are few videos (to capture the feeling of the games):