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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 VIII: Tokyo Drift [II]
Oct 5th, 2009 by Dan

The famous and super-busy scramble crosswalk at Shibuya.

The famous and super-busy scramble crosswalk at Shibuya.

Here we are on the last (full) day of the Main Tour. It would be the last day that Dave and I were together in Japan, so we decided to hit up all our Tokyo loose ends. That mostly meant wandering around getting the last of our souvenirs and checking out some of the famous districts within Tokyo.

Our first mission of the day was to head to the NHK building, home of Domo-kun. Other tourgoers told us that the building was in Shibuya, so we hopped aboard the subway and arrived at Shibuya Station, only the fourth-busiest station in Japan with 2.4 million passengers a day, and made our way outside to witness something we hadn’t seen before: a crowded Tokyo. At each end of the scramble crosswalk you can see above, there was a full compliment of tourists and businessmen going about their business throughout Shibuya. Finally, I thought, I’ll have some pictures to prove that Tokyo isn’t the ghost town that Eric thinks it is.

These horns are pretty famous. Ive seen them in videogames.

These horns are pretty famous. I've seen them in videogames.

The NHK building wasn’t as close as we were led to believe, but as we wandered around we ran into some cool storefronts, like the one below.

The second most elaborate entrance to a Disney Store that Ive ever seen.

The second most elaborate entrance to a Disney Store that I've ever seen.

After a long walk, we finally saw the NHK building in the distance. Our morning’s journey would finally come to a close and we’d experience the awesomeness that is Domo-kun!

I dont know what the other NHK mascots name is, but Domo is the only important one.

I don't know what the other NHK mascot's name is, but Domo is the only important one.

It turns out that Domo-kun and the NHK gift shop cater almost exclusively to small children in Japan. All that walking and our hilarious attempts to try and bridge the language barrier to get to what we were seeking was for naught. I still love Domo, but this was a seriously disappointing start to the morning.

What Dan doesnt know is that the smile on his face will be wiped off immediately after entering the gift shop and finding no cool Domo-kun merch.

What Dan doesn't know is that the smile on his face will be wiped off immediately after entering the gift shop and finding no cool Domo-kun merch.

Seriously…why can I buy cooler Domo-kun merchandise on the American Amazon.com page than in the NHK’s very own gift shop?

They lure you in with the giant Domo, but its ultimately a disappointment to anyone over seven-years-old.

They lure you in with the giant Domo, but it's ultimately a disappointment to anyone over seven-years-old.

From the NHK building’s remote location in Shibuya, Dave and I wandered in search of a rail line to get back to the hotel and look up the location of our next hopeful spot, the Square Enix store. We wandered for another half hour or so and even came across a large contingent of teenage girls dressed like goth rockers queuing up outside a concert hall.

The concert hall in question. [Not pictured: hundreds of goth rocker teenage girls]

The concert hall in question. (Not pictured: hundreds of goth rocker teenage girls)

At some point we came across the shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife, the Meiji Jingu. The shine was in a huge park, so David and I gave up on getting to the shrine (we had things to do!) and hightailed it to the nearest Metro station, which turned out to be Harajuku.

The most extreme fashion we saw at Harajuku. I assume it gets better on Sundays when school and work are out.

The most extreme fashion we saw at Harajuku. I assume it gets better on Sundays when school and work are out.

Unfortunately, it was a Tuesday afternoon, so the people who might have been here dressed up in bizarre fashions were all in class or working or just plain not here. That didn’t stop us from wandering around a bit and spotting the essential commandments of Harajuku.

I dont want to know what smorking is, but touting sounds even scarier.

I don't want to know what smorking is, but touting sounds even scarier since its picture does not match its definition in the slightest.

At this point we realized we had no idea where the Square Enix store was (turns out we were looking in the wrong part of Tokyo), so we decided to pop back to the room to do some research and then head back out again. Back to Shibuya we went!

Above Davids head is the famous Shibuya 109 (BONUS: It looks like a taxi cab is about to drive into Daves ear).

Above David's head is the famous Shibuya 109 (BONUS: It looks like a taxi cab is about to drive into Dave's ear).

When we got back to Shibuya station we finally spotted a landmark we were desperately searching for, the statue of Hachikō. If you don’t know the story, Hachikō was the dog of a professor who took the train from Shibuya every day. Hachikō saw his master off every morning from his front door and met him at the station every evening when he got back from the University. One day, his master suffered a stroke and died at the university, but poor Hachikō could not know such things, for he was a dog. He went back to his master’s house repeatedly after being given away, but eventually realized that the professor was never coming back home. After that, Hachikō returned every evening at the appointed time to Shibuya station to search for his master for ten straight years until he died. He became a hero and a symbol of loyalty and affection for the Japanese and a statue was erected of him at the station where he awaited his master throughout the years.

Dave posing with the cutest, most loyal dog in Japan.

Dave posing with the cutest, most loyal dog in Japan.

Quick research in the room showed us that we never found the Square Enix store because it was in Shinjuku, not Shibuya. We quickly set out again now that our maps were recalibrated. Since we only had time for that stop and little else before we had to be at the ballpark, this would be our last stop for the day. Lucky for us, it wasn’t that hard to find the Squeenix store, although we did manage to end up on the wrong side of the road and had to walk quite a ways before we found a crosswalk.

A picture of Lightening from the upcoming FF XIII. I thnk Daves in the picture too.

A picture of Lightening from the upcoming FF XIII. I thnk Dave's in the picture too.

The Square Enix store sits in a nondescript part of Shinjuku. There are no other stores immediately surrounding it, it has a fairly bland facade (the picture of Lightening and the logo above the shop are the only really standout things aside from the merch in the windows), and it is closed on Thursdays (a fact I would later regret not remembering), but the interior store is definitely cool, if not too small. Since Squeenix’s biggest recent release was Dragon Quest IX, a full half of the store was dedicated to DQ merchandise ranging from slime t-shirts and hats to figurines of iconic DQ monsters (including slimes) and Dragon Quest-themed DS accessories. Also available were plush figures from DQ and Final Fantasy, various Kingdom Hearts and Snoopy (random, I know) related merchandise, KH clothing, and even a section containing soundtracks from their various game franchises. It’s the back room that features the most iconic piece of art within the store.

I dont even want to think about all the uncontrollable fangirls who have licked the floor above Sephiroths face.

I don't even want to think about all the uncontrollable fangirls who have licked the floor above Sephiroth's face.

A just-under-life-size Sephiroth lies encased within the “lifestream” in the back room that contains various pieces of overpriced Square Enix action figures and themed jewelry. Ever wanted a key chain in the shape of a keyblade? It’s here for ¥2000. A replica of the same pendant Squall wears throughout Final Fantasy VIII? Yours for a much less reasonable ¥19000. You can even buy ridiculously overpriced “materia” (read: marble on a chain) for ¥12000.

Beyond this point there be baseball talk.

Beyond this point there be baseball talk.

Our mission accomplished, Dave and walked to the further (and free with our rail pass) JR station about 15 minutes away to head over to Meiji Jingu Stadium, home of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. As Tokyo’s “second team,” the Swallows get about as much respect in Tokyo as the Mets do in New York City. While the Giants play in a nice dome in the heart of Tokyo that even has an amusement park associated with it, the Swallows play in a smaller, open-air ballpark owned by the Meiji Shrine.

One of the gates to Meiji Jingu Stadium

One of the gates to Meiji Jingu Stadium. I forgot to mention in the article, but Dave went to the hotel to work on some homework at about this time.

The hallways within the stadium are narrow and dingy, but the food options are pretty neat. Dave and I ate at a curry place earlier in the day that featured a novel way to order your food. Instead of placing the order with a waitress and having her relay it to the chef, patrons simply select their meal based on text and a picture on what looks like a soda machine, put the money in, and give the ticket that comes out to the chef.

Put money in and tickets for curry come out!

Put money in and tickets for curry come out!

Some of the food in the ballpark was like that and some was your typical ballpark fare, hotdogs, the occasional hamburger, and bento boxes.

I didnt think about it before, but this box of katsu was served at room temperature, which I dont find ideal for eating fried pork.

I didn't think about it before, but this box of katsu was served at room temperature, which I don't find ideal for eating fried pork.

It took me until this ballpark to realize it, but it’s a very Japanese feature in most ballparks, even non-domes, to only have real dirt in the area immediately surrounding the bases and on the mound. The base paths and the rest of the infield is all artificial turf. Even more bizarre is that even outdoor stadiums like Meiji Jingu have artificial turf in their outfield too instead of real grass. It blows my mind, considering how much baseball players absolutely hate playing on artificial turf, that they’d do something so ridiculous in an outdoor ballpark.

Its hard to tell, but if you look closely you can see that the dirt around second base is differently colored than the artificial turf made to look like dirt surrounding it. The grass is fake too.

It's hard to tell, but if you look closely you can see that the dirt around second base is differently colored than the artificial turf made to look like dirt surrounding it. The grass is fake too.

Other than my gripes about the field, Meiji Jingu Stadium is a decent ballpark with a pretty fervent fanbase. The Swallows have a unique tradition of raising umbrellas during their 7th inning stretch and whenever the team scores a run. Hearsay from the tour tells me that it’s a subtle jab at the Giants as a way of saying, “We don’t need a dome, we’ve got umbrellas.” If that’s true, it’s a little weak, but I might be saying that because I developed a strong anti-Swallows sentiment at this game.

Its not a bad ballpark at all once you get over the fake dirt.

It's not a bad ballpark at all once you get over the fake dirt.

My dislike for the Swallows stems from a few arbitrary reasons, but, really, since I’m not from Japan, my feelings about these teams can only come from arbitrary decisions made right on the spot. How else can you explain me becoming a Hiroshima Carp fan?

Reason #1:

At about this point on the tour, I realized that my schedule had me seeing the Swallows four times on this tour!

Domo-kun shares my feeling about the Swallows.

Domo-kun shares my feeling about the Swallows.

Reason #2:

One of the tourgoers, Ken, loves the Swallows (and the Lions). For some (evil) reason, this made me want to root against them. It’s thanks to him that I realized that the Swallows played on fake dirt and grass too.

These player intro slides were the only awesome thing about the Swallows.

These player intro slides were the only awesome thing about the Swallows.

Reason #3:

The most important reason. They were playing my beloved Hiroshima Carp that day.

My favorite NPB player, Akihiro Higashide, hit his 1000th hit against the Carp the same night I was there! This is him accepting a bouquet in honor of the achievement.

My favorite NPB player, Akihiro Higashide, hit his 1000th hit against the Carp the same night I was there! This is him accepting a bouquet in honor of the achievement.

The game turned out better than I could have hoped. Hiroshima creamed the Swallows, winning 9-0 and netting Akihiro Higashide’s 1000th hit just for us. It was a pretty special moment in a great game that I had a good time at.

The always cool Bob Bavasi striking a pose above the dry-eyed Leon.

The always cool Bob Bavasi striking a pose above the dry-eyed Leon.

After I got back to the hotel room, I grabbed Dave and we went out for karaoke again.

Dave making what Im sure he thinks is a cool face for the picture.

Dave making what I'm sure he thinks is a cool face for the picture.

I’d say the highlight of the night was the performance of “Love Shack” by the B-52s.

After a hard night of partying, it was finally time to hit the sack and say goodbye to Dave and most of the tour.

Domo-kun had a little too much to drink.

Domo-kun had a little too much to drink.

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