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Super Ichiban Travel Blog Part XIX: Epilogue [II]
Nov 6th, 2009 by Dan

No Game Overview today, we’re gonna finish this up since I didn’t get to it today (World Series business)

And so it came to pass that I went to Japan, saw some baseball, and came back home with a greater appreciation and understanding of Japan. If you remember the first entry in this series, I outlined a set of questions that I wanted to try and address while I was out there. Here’s what I found along the way:

1. What do they do during the 7th inning stretch out here?

I’ve addressed this myself in a previous article, but there are slightly different customs in the 7th for a Japanese baseball team. As recently as last year, there was a tradition of firing off a stream of balloons that make a streaming noise. It’s a really striking and cool sight, at least in video, but I didn’t get to see it in person.

Sadly, the tradition seems to have ended this year thanks to H1N1. When you’ve got a whole stadium full of person-filled balloons flying around, launching spittle everywhere, I guess you can forgive them for changing their mind about this tradition this year. I can only hope that it will return when the flu concerns start to disappear, but it’s also possible this great tradition is gone forever.

2. What kinds of crazy foods do they serve at the concession stands?

Yet another question that I’ve done my best to highlight as many times as I could in each entry. Each stadium had food ranging from typical American food, like hamburgers and hot dogs, to more typical Japanese food like takoyaki, miscellaneous bento, and curry. I’d say it was the highlight of the trip really, especially that seafood pizza I got in Fukuoka at the Hawks game.

3. Just how rowdy do the fans get during games?

Given the more typically restrained culture in Japan and the insistence on not bothering others (combined with the supposed American boisterous, wild behavior), I thought that Japanese games would be more restrained, controlled, and structured. I was half right on that.

The Japanese are plenty loud in baseball games, but in a very structured way, like I thought. Each team’s fans cheer for their own hitters with specific cheers for each batter, but, beyond that, they keep quiet and definitely don’t really boo the other team at all.

There’s only one rare exception: drunk fans. Since beer flows throughout almost the entire game, some fans drink without restraint and end up screaming randomly, but it’s rare. Very unlike a passionate fanbase.

4. How different is it to fly internationally on a Japanese carrier compared to a domestic carrier?

There was another article almost completely about this, but the differences are subtle and distinctly Japanese. I hoped that we might have more space on the plane, but the space was tighter, due to a smaller average size for Japanese people. Other than that, the expectations I had were all spot on. The food was way better, the service was more polite and more attentive, and, overall, I had a much better time of the flight than I’ve had on domestic carriers.

5. Do cities outside Tokyo get crazy during game releases? At least one major game franchise (Pokémon) will have an iteration released while I’m out, but I won’t be in Tokyo when it comes out.

I was a day off from catching this release and it didn’t seem all that wild out in the area, but within all the stores, the game was sold out and impossible to find anywhere other than a Pokémon Center.

6. How rock and roll do the Japanese get? If I can, I’m going to try and make it into a show somewhere.

Didn’t make it to any shows. I’ve got no opinion on this.

7. Is the fashion at Harajuku as crazy as everyone says it is?

Another shame, I was in Harajuku on a school day and during work/school hours too. I hear Sunday’s the big Harajuku day, but I didn’t see much.

8. Sumo. Great sport or greatest sport?

I’m torn on this one. Sumo is a great thing to see and experience, but I’m a little bummed at how long it takes for a match to happen. Just as soon as we’re ready to finally start, it’s done. It’s great to see and all, but I think that it might be better to just watch the highlights reel the way they do it at times on ESPN 2.

9. Is Akihabara still the mecca of electronics that it once was?

I don’t know why I end up inflating expectations on this sort of thing, but I always figured Akihabara for some kind of wild, Neo Tokyo, super-exaggerated, sprawling, mega-techno city. Instead Akihabara spans, at most, 6 blocks by 3 or 4 blocks filled with curry, music stores, movie stores, anime shops, video games, and straight-up electronics shops.

Was it ever bigger? I have no idea, but it doesn’t quite feel like the one-stop shop that it should be and it feels a lot less epic than people made it seem.

10. How much cool stuff can I find in a used game store?

Lots of cool stuff. From arcades with vintage games to the most obscure Famicom or any other random Japanese system you’ve never even heard of. The best thing I ever got were those great Mario noise keychains. Good stuff.

I wish I bought me a Dragon Quest slime too.

11. Is Coco Curry House Ichinbanya still amazing?

YES! So good. Oh man was it great. I need to go back out there or buy some curry mix and get it shipped in.

12. How long can Dave and I sing in a karaoke box before we’re kicked out to salvage what’s left of the clientele’s hearing?

Two nights, but, to be fair, we did travel from Hiroshima back to Tokyo to avoid the karaoke police. It was definitely fun.

13. Do I have the nerve to go to a public bath?

Turns out I don’t, but I also didn’t really go looking for them. It’s also possible that I wouldn’t have been admitted since there can be some anti-foreigner sentiment in those types of establishments.

14. Is the Japanese train system as punctual and efficient as advertised?

While it has its share of idiosyncrasies, the train system runs punctual to a ‘T’. Not only do they show up precisely when they say they will, but they almost never miss their arrival time. The only time a train was even remotely late was the shinkansen to Fukuoka. Even then it was only 10 minutes and I’d bet that the Amtrak never keeps it that punctual.

15. What’s the strangest item I can find in a vending machine?

Turns out nothing too bizarre for the States. Soda and the occasional alcohol or cigarette machine. Even those suckers are harder to buy from nowadays thanks to a crackdown on youth consumption of both.

Capsule machines are kind of a different story, I guess, but they’re mostly anime, video game, or sports team merchandise. Nothing like the famous women’s underwear stories.

16. Are Japanese arcades really dying?

Well, I saw a few, but it’s not so easy to tell what’s going on with arcades when you’re looking at them in Akihabara. I do know that I didn’t see all the fighting game cabinets that I thought I would, but they seemed to be doing ok when I saw them. I didn’t get enough exposure to the arcades to have an informed opinion.

Super Ichiban Travel Blog Part X: Boredom on the Orient Express [II]
Oct 7th, 2009 by Dan

Todays post brought to you by Coca-Cola (Not really! Please dont sue me!)

Today's post brought to you by Coca-Cola (Not really! Please don't sue me!)

Ok, so I’m being a little dramatic in the title, but with David gone and most of the day occupied by riding bullet trains across Japan, the day was definitely on the dull side.

The thrilling remains of a lunch eaten on an exciting train ride to Fukuoka.

The thrilling remains of a lunch eaten on an exciting train ride to Fukuoka.

Most of the train ride was spent playing Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor, an SRPG whose setting is within the JR Yamanote line of Tokyo. The coolest part of the ride was the fact that we had to take an underwater tunnel to get to Fukuoka, since it is on Kyūshū, one of the four major islands of Japan. There was one other major event that occurred: the bullet train, shining example of punctuality, was ten minutes late to Fukuoka. So jarring was this tardiness that I almost got off at the wrong stop anyway because we it was time, we had to be there. I’m sure it’s not the first time the Shinkansen has been late, but it was the first (and last) time any train anywhere in Japan was late when I was there.

Station, taxi, hotel. Hoo boy…the Tokyo Garden Palace, The Official JapanBall Tokyo Hotel of Choice, had a decent-sized single that they put me in. This hotel, the Fukuoka Garden Palace, put me in a hotel room single smaller than the smallest single dorm room. Funny thing is, this wouldn’t be the smallest hotel room, by any means, that I’d stay in on the trip. That title goes to the room in Kyoto, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

My spacious room in Fukuoka.

My spacious room in Fukuoka.

Most of the group decided to head to the local Hard Rock Cafe, but I opted not to go because I was doing my best to avoid as much Western food as I could while I was out in Japan. Beyond that, I’m not even a fan of the HRC when I am in the states thanks to its overpriced, mediocre food. Instead I hung out in the room and watched tv/uploaded pictures for a bit before catching a cab to the the Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome.

This idol was on tv giving a concert. I think she sings a lot of anime songs, because she sang the theme songs from Neon Genesis Evangelion, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Pokemon, Sailor Moon, and many others.

This idol was on tv giving a concert. I think she's famous from anime, because she sang the theme songs from Neon Genesis Evangelion, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Pokemon, Sailor Moon, and many others in her set. I have no idea who she is

The taxi dropped me off near the stadium, but it was far too early to start to get to my seat, so I decided to investigate the nearby “Hawks Town.”

Nothing like team branding to get people in a shopping mood!

Nothing like team branding to get people in a shopping mood!

The shopping mall wasn’t too huge and it contained the usual Japanese staples: clothing stores, restaurants, an arcade, and a toy store. Looking to kill some time, I entered the Toys R Us and was reminded that Pokemon is still king in this country.

Pokemon and Doraemon, that is.

Pokemon and Doraemon, that is.

The toy store had its share of toys from other anime and video game series, but Pokemon dominated the list by far. Whether it was the arcade machines near the door, the figurines, the plush toys, or the other merchandise, Pikachu and his pals were the most represented in the store. I also found a great, kind of creepy looking Woody mask.

Its both awesome and kind of creepy the way those empty eyes seem to stare into your very soul.

It's both awesome and kind of creepy the way those empty eyes seem to stare into your very soul.

After successfully killing the aforementioned time, I decided to make my way to the stadium to take some photos and complete by jersey-buying ritual. Corporate name sponsorship is nothing new to baseball. From Tropicana Field to LandShark Stadium and Citi Field, there are tons of examples of MLB ballparks with corporate sponsors. Even Japan has its share of them, so I initially thought nothing of the fact that the Hawks played in a Yahoo!-branded ballpark, assuming that the corporate representation would be fairly standard when compared to other stadiums. Note the foreshadowing…

Not to mention that Yahoo! is kind of a dying brand out here in America. I have a feeling this ballpark may change names soon.

Not to mention that Yahoo! is an increasingly irrelevant brand out here in America. I have a feeling this ballpark may change names soon.

I kind of liked Hawks Town and the surrounding area because it seemed to show team spirit. The escalator up to the ballpark was specially painted to show pictures of the mascots, which was also pretty cool. I started to notice a problem when I saw a sign showing what you couldn’t bring into the stadium.

Is it just me or does it look like the final picture is saying No burgers with cigarettes inside!

Is it just me or does it look like the final picture is saying "No burgers with cigarettes inside!"

It’s not immediately obvious from the picture, but I was concerned about the number of mascots populating the bottom of the sign. Wow, I thought, there sure do seem to be a lot of them. Most of the ballparks had multiple mascots, but I’d say the average count was three. The Giants had four space bunnies (mom, dad, two kids), the Swallows had three (dad, boy, and girl), the Buffaloes, Tigers, and Marines had two each, and the Carp had one on-field and one for merchandise (the Phanatic knockoff is the former and the young boy is the latter). Represented in this picture were six Hawks. I realized why when I got up to the stands set up outside the ballpark: merchandising.

Gotta collect all the mascots!

Gotta collect all the mascots!

Say you’re a team located in a country that trends toward owning complete collections of things. Say you’re a team that wants to make money. Why not have a ton of mascots so that, while some will only collect the ones they like, plenty will try and complete the whole set. Release limited editions with different costumes or even uniforms and you’ve earned yourself quite a bit of cash. It’s brilliant marketing.

Also brilliant marketing.

Also brilliant marketing.

You already know about my hatred for domed stadiums, so I won’t retread old ground, but the Yahoo! Dome’s youth works toward correcting some of those problems. Unlike other domes in Japan, the Yahoo! Dome has a retractable roof, so fair weather can be enjoyed when it’s there while too hot days and rain can be bypassed. There was an ever-present threat of rain that day, so the dome remained tortuously closed that night, bringing my Games in Dome count up to 2.5 (the Seibu Dome counts for half).

Another result of the domes youth is newer, corporate food stalls.

Another result of the dome's youth is newer, corporate food stalls.

As I made my way to my seat, the full stadium greeted me in all its ad-filled glory. Aside from the batter’s eye, there was not one spot missed by the clever ad-space leasing crew.

Not a bad field, for a dome, buy why bother with artificial turf when youve got a retractable roof?

Not a bad field, for a dome, buy why bother with artificial turf when you've got a retractable roof?

The upper sections of the stadium were filled with luxury boxes, something that was lacking in most of the smaller or older stadiums I’d been to on the trip before today.

Someone needed to tell the Yahoo! folks that theres such a thing as too much luxury.

Someone needed to tell the Yahoo! folks that there's such a thing as too much luxury.

There’s no escape from the advertising, even the armrests were adspace.

Down to the armrests you can find ads in the Yahoo! Dome.

Down to the armrests you can find ads in the Yahoo! Dome.

Worse than that was that between at bats the jumbotron even showed a commercial for whatever product they were hocking that day. There is no peace in Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome to enjoy the game of baseball without an ad screaming at you.

Even the free fan they gave me was advertising a new piece of software.

Even the free fan they gave me was advertising a new piece of software.

There are two things which I will always associate with the Yahoo! Dome: ads and this guy.

If you couldnt tell, this guy is the white dude in the photo.

If you couldn't tell, "this guy" is the white dude in the photo.

I’m not quite sure if he’s a major part of every game or if he only comes out a few times, but this guy will always be the unofficial mascot of the Hawks. He knows Japanese well enough to speak it in a lame, cheesy, game show announcer voice and he appears in video segments before the game and during most of the between inning video segments. I’m not kidding when I say he’s as corny as they come. There’s just something about him that screams inauthentic, but it seems like the Hawks and the fans are totally into it.

Let’s talk about the actual game. There was yet another rare instance of the Japanese national anthem being played. That’s only the second occurrence in six games and all of them were in Pacific League games.

In six games weve only heard this twice. A far cry from the USA.

In six games we've only heard this twice. A far cry from the USA.

Another thing I noticed were the elaborate team introductions. Beyond just the usual name and number, they go and put up height, weight, hometown, and handedness. It’s nothing beyond what you’d get on a typical baseball card, but it’s more than I’d seen before on the trip, so I thought I’d snap a shot.

All thats missing is Likes: Long walks on the beach

All that's missing is "Likes: Long walks on the beach"

This game also marked the first time I’d seen something kind of interesting for the kids. Instead of having the typical player introduction, a mascot and a kid went out to every position on the field (That’s nine mascots, up from the six I mentioned early. That’s right, there’s some sort of grandfather hawk and an uncle hawk and something else). The cool part is that each of these kids is there when a player comes out on the field. I would have killed to be out on the field before a baseball game to meet a ballplayer as a kid. Hell, I’d kill to do it now!

Here we have some green, old Hawk mascot. Its like theyre just making up Hawk variants.

Here we have some green, old Hawk mascot. It's like they're just making up Hawk variants.

The game itself was a solid affair. It was close for most of the game, but the Hawks were ahead 3-1 by the time the game entered the ninth inning. Some teams would give up, but they’re not the Golden Eagles. Thanks to a pitiful performance by their closer, the Eagles were able to knock in six runs in the ninth, four of which came from a grand slam. For the rest of the trip, my fellow tourgoers and I would remark that a team was not yet safe in the ninth until it had passed beyond Grand Slam Range.

If only she knew what kind of heartbreak was awaiting her that night.

If only she knew what kind of heartbreak was awaiting her that night.

As a quick aside, at the ballgame I ate something I’d never had before and would absolutely love to have again. Tell me, would you trust a pizza from a place called Strawberry Cones?

Everyone knows that Strawberry Cones is synonymous with pizza!

Everyone knows that Strawberry Cones is synonymous with pizza!

I saw the stand and almost dismissed it off hand for being Western food in Japan, but then I saw a picture of one of the pizzas they offered, and I knew I had to try it. Only one problem, the guy in front of me got the last one. The only thing left to do was pray for symmetry and walk around the stadium searching for another stall.

The pizza in question. Yes, those are shrimp, calamari, and other miscellaneous seafoods.

The pizza in question. Yes, those are shrimp, calamari, and other miscellaneous seafoods.

I know what you’re thinking. “Seafood pizza? Come on Dan, that can’t be good…can it?”

Yes. Yes it can.

Yes. Yes it can.

And that was all she wrote for the Hawks and Fukuoka. We took a cab back to the hotel and got set to head back to Kyoto the next day. It would be our home base as we went to see games in Nagoya (the Dragons) and Nishinomiya (the Tigers). I’ll close with a picture of the hat of my favorite vendor at the Yahoo! Dome.

Its blurry, but its the best I got. This is the hat of a takoyaki vendor at the Yahoo! Dome.

It's blurry, but it's the best I got. This is the hat of a takoyaki vendor at the Yahoo! Dome.

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