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Super Ichiban Travel Blog Part XIII: Beware the Ninth Ward [II]
Oct 15th, 2009 by Dan

Your guess is as good as mine.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Boy, it’s gonna be tough to meaningfully fill these next few posts, since this day was mostly filled with travel (and no baseball) and the next is filled with baseball and not a whole lot of sightseeing, but I’ll do my best to make this as interesting as possible.

Already off to a great start, I see.

Already off to a great start, I see.

Since we were staying in Kyoto, our flight to Sapporo was based out of Kansai International Airport instead of Tokyo Narita. I’d flown through Kansai once before on my last trip to Japan, so it was nice to see the relatively uncrowded airport yet again. Our merry band of adventurers all queued up for the domestic flight and got to experience the differences between flying in the US and flying in Japan.

Foremost among those differences is the separate check-in and baggage handling sections. In the states, if you’re checking a bag, you can get your ticket at the baggage handling counter when you put the bag in. Out in Japan, you have to get your ticket first before queuing for the baggage check counters. I did not know this, but a combination of looking sad and confused and not understanding Japanese allowed me to just get my boarding pass and check in my bag as I was used to.

Speaking of checking in bags, unlike American airports, the baggage scanning is done directly in front of the passenger. Right before getting to the counter, the passenger puts his bag through a machine and security tapes the zippers down.

After that, you’re free to do what you want until the plane begins to board. The security lines don’t tend to be all that long (especially at Kansai), so I browsed some shops before heading to my gate. Not finding anything good or any food that especially called out to me, I headed to security.

Security has some cool Japanese quirks to it that make things go a bit smoother. Instead of showing your ticket to a security officer, you put the bitstream printed on the ticket up against the optical sensor, which prints out a receipt, for some reason. Your bags go through the machine, like normal, with the computers separate and, at least on domestic flights, you’re allowed to carry liquids on. If the bottle is unopened, there’s no need for concern. If it is, they have some simple tests (either through weight or a chemical test) to verify its potability and you’re allowed to take it into the terminal.

Another, HUGE, plus: you don’t have to take off your shoes for security. Hallelujah.

As a strange aside, one of my favorite things about Kansai International is that it has very spongy, springy people movers. Walking across them is tons of fun.

One uneventful, short flight later and I was landing in Sapporo. Looking out the window as we descended, I noticed that Hokkaido definitely looks “northern,” whatever that means. It also seemed way less populated than the Tokyo area, which makes tons of sense.

A train to Sapporo station later, we were boarding a taxi to get to our hotel. Sapporo looked no different from any other city I’d seen in Japan, except that its buildings weren’t quite so tall. It also looked more like a winter area, a qualification I make based on intangibles like vegetation and, possibly, the drab weather and cool breeze sweeping the city.

Along the (short) way to our hotel, Ken was reading a map to see where we were and Dan and I (that’s right, another Dan) were in the back seat chilling out. As Ken navigated the map, he noted “Aha, we’ll be stopping at the Eighth Ward.”

Dan quipped, “That’s great, because you don’t want to stray into Ninth Ward territory, those guys are rough.”

From then on, the Ninth Ward became a mythical, gang-filled section of Sapporo that Dan and I continuously referred to for the rest of the trip as a running gag. It’s really not that funny when you read it, but we were absolutely entertained by it until we went home.

I’m pretty sure that the whole numbered ward thing refers to districts or streets in Sapporo, but I find our definition funnier.

Our cab arrived at the Sapporo Garden Palace (by this point Dan and I were convinced that “Garden Palace” was Japanese for “hotel” because of how many we stayed at) and we were greeted by doors that heavily reminded me of that part in The Phantom Menace where Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn are fighting Darth Maul on Naboo.

Just look at the picture and stop calling me a nerd for all the Star Wars references.

Just look at the picture and stop calling me a nerd for all the Star Wars references.

Upon checking in, I was given the largest key I’ve ever seen outside of a movie based in the Dark Ages. Seriously, this thing was huge.

I bet I could knock you out just by throwing it at your head.

I bet I could knock you out just by throwing it at your head.

It was also used, as is the case in some Asian hotels, to save energy. Once I walked into my hotel room, there was a slot on the wall for me to put the key in. When the key was in place, a circuit was completed and the lights, air conditioning, and power outlets were all activated for use by the guest. It’s both brilliant and obnoxious, since I could not charge my various batteried gadgets while I was out of the room, but at least I wasn’t wasting electricity in some way.

A plan was hatched to grab dinner in Old Ramen Alley that night, so the six of us went out to explore the city in search of old ramen. Along the way, we passed one of the great landmarks of Sapporo, the Sapporo TV Tower. We marveled at how very…tiny it seemed. It was not a very imposing structure in the cityscape, since its height was dwarfed by several buildings in the downtown. Ken assured us that this wasn’t always the case, but it was rather anti-climactic.

Its smaller than you think it might be from this shot.

The tower is a decent landmark, assuming you are in the narrow stretches of the city that can actually see it.

Eventually we came upon an entrance to the underground and what we thought would be the subway entrance. What we did find was even cooler.

Sapporo is a pretty northern city. To give you context, it’s on the same parallel as the border between North and South Dakota and it also intersects Oregon. They hold a snow festival here every year where they display ice sculptures. It can get pretty cold (Wikipedia says they get 248 inches of snow every year)

Sapporo’s answer, underground tunnels that traverse most of the city. You can get to most subway stations inside the much warmer, heated underground and many stores have connecting tunnels in their basements. It’s all very cool for getting around in the winter and I wish we had this up on campus when I used to be in school.

We eventually boarded the right subway and that was fairly uneventful aside from seeing a funny ad.

Japanese basketball?! What will they thing of next? Japanese baseba-...oh...

Japanese basketball?! What will they thing of next? Japanese baseba-...oh...

We got off the train, got back aboveground, and took a few seconds for me to shoot a picture of the reason I knew that Sapporo was a city before heading toward the Ramen district.

Anyone else craving a cold one right about now?

Anyone else craving a cold one right about now?

Old Ramen Alley is a pretty neat part of Sapporo. It’s a narrow…alley…filled with ramen shops…There’s also a New Ramen Alley somewhere in Sapporo, but we never got a chance to check and see if it had an ironic title.

Old Ramen Alley. I bet it would be tough to traverse during the busy lunch rush.

Old Ramen Alley. I bet it would be tough to traverse during the busy lunch rush.

You’ve gotta wonder how so many ramen shops could thrive in such a confined space, but the answer, according to Ken, is that each serves a slightly different variant. The one we were headed to had crab ramen available, which was pretty exciting to me.

The shop was a pretty tiny place with room for about, at the most, 15 people. Since we were the only customers there when we got there, we spread out in the restaurant.

From front left to right: Stacy, Alex, Ken, the top of Gregs head, and Dan

From front left to right: Stacy, Alex, Ken, the top of Greg's head, and Dan

There was no doubt on my mind what I wanted, but we had to wait a bit before the crab ramen was done. We entertained ourselves by inventing commentary for the sumo match up on the tv.

Is that a white woman right in the front row of that match? I think sumo is one sport where I can appreciate being reasonably far from the amazing views offered in the front row.

Is that a white woman right in the front row of that match? I think sumo is one sport where I can appreciate being reasonably far from the "amazing" views offered in the front row.

The crab ramen came out.

Is your mouth watering too?

Is your mouth watering too?

You can bet that I loved every bite!

One of the bites that I loved.

One of the bites that I loved.

It was perfectly cooked crab with a full, tasty broth enhanced with corn and other vegetables. Up to that point, I’d yet to have ramen that convinced me it was worth gushing over. This pushed me way over the edge.

Not much else happened that night. Dan and I wandered around Sapporo for a bit and checked out a Yodobashi Camera before eventually walking back to the hotel from Sapporo Station and confirming that a taxi was absolutely unnecessary for getting to the station. There was baseball tomorrow and we were excited for it!

One last thing worth mentioning. On our way to the ramen place, we came across this dude driving down the street and hollering at some girl.

I wonder if there are drivers in Japan who insist upon buying American cars instead of domestic vehicles.

I wonder if there are drivers in Japan who insist upon buying American cars instead of domestic vehicles.

I was shocked to not only see an American car in Japan, but one that was so old and with the steering wheel on the American side. All I’ve gotta say is that this guy’s got cool taste in cars.

Super Ichiban Travel Blog Part XII: The Curse of the Colonel [II]
Oct 13th, 2009 by Dan

The greatest sign Ive ever seen anywhere in the world.

The greatest sign I've ever seen anywhere in the world.

This was one of the days I was most looking forward to on the trip. The Hanshin Tigers may not have the raw popularity of the Yomiuri Giants, but they’ve definitely got the most rabid fanbase in the entire country. Beyond that, Koshien Stadium is said to be the “soul of Japanese baseball,” most likely because, beyond the already crazy Tigers that play there, everything from college games to the high school championships are housed within Koshien. It’s a storied stadium most often compared to Wrigley Field or Fenway Park here in the States.

A statue-type thing in the open-air vendor area outside of Koshien.

A statue-type thing in the open-air vendor area outside of Koshien.

We’re not ready to get too far into that yet, I’ve still got a little bit of Kyoto to cover before we got on the train to head for Nishinomiya. My morning was mostly occupied with wandering around the Kyoto station area to check some stuff out. I started out with going to the local Bic Camera to check out the games in stock. It turns out that quite a few others had the same idea, as there was a queue outside the shop just before the shop opened at 1000 that morning.

Maybe theyre trying to get some shopping in before the work day starts?

Maybe they're trying to get some shopping in before the work day starts?

Out of curiosity, I asked about the availability of the new Pokemon games that had come out the day before. They were predictably completely sold out. Browsing the shelves, I found a copy of a game I’ve been wanting to import since I played Elite Beat Agents, Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan. The sequel was nowhere to be found, but I definitely picked up the game to play during my downtime on the tour.

Not Ouendan, but the Japanese boxart of the game I played the most in Japan, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor. The US boxart is near identical, the only difference is the placement of the title to accomodate the ESRB rating.

Not Ouendan, but the Japanese boxart of the game I played the most in Japan, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor. The US boxart is near identical, the only difference is the placement of the title to accomodate the ESRB rating.

My need to browse video games now sated, I headed into The Cube to take a look around and grab breakfast. I spotted a Mister Donut, one of the more famous donut shops in Japan, and I decided that I would break my Western food boycott for the morning to sample this Japanese take on an American staple. Boy was I surprised when I spotted the donut you see below this text. Not only did the Japanese understand that donuts should be tasty and sweet, but here they were, out-American-ing the Americans with their chocolate donut, topped with powdered sugar, and filled with cream.

Just looking at that picture has probably raised your blood sugar to dangerous levels.

Just looking at that picture has probably raised your blood sugar to dangerous levels.

After taking about a week off of my life just by eating that donut, I decided to climb back up to the top of The Cube to see what it’s like in the daylight and snap some shots for David.

A different sight in the daylight, this is The Cube. There are folks gathering for a concert that will begin in an hour or two.

A different sight in the daylight, this is The Cube. There are folks gathering for a concert that will begin in an hour or two.

At the top was the familiar Happy Terrace, which looks completely different without the ambient light and lovers seated at the benches.

Sorry folks, no creepy happy picture of me this time. I didnt have someone else to hold the camera.

Sorry folks, no creepy "happy" picture of me this time. I didn't have someone else to hold the camera.

Still, it’s a completely relaxing rooftop to hang out on and I could see myself taking lunch breaks up there.

Its very peaceful.

It's very peaceful.

Dave and I were excited about the prospect of taking pictures of the Kyoto skyline from the top of The Cube, but it turns out that the Kyoto skyline isn’t really that interesting (to me).

Thanks to my amazing photographic skills, you also get to see my ghostly reflection in the glass as a bonus.

Thanks to my amazing photographic skills, you also get to see my ghostly reflection in the glass as a bonus.

After that it was about time to start taking trains to head to Nishinomiya, so I made my way down to the platform and eventually hopped on a local line. It was reassuring to see the number of Tigers fans increase the closer we got to Koshien, especially since some of them have very elaborately decorated clothing.

An example of an extremely customized jersey. The name, number, and other patches on his jersey were all hand-sewn (or ironed) on. Not content with what he already has, he seems to be shopping for more patches.

An example of an extremely customized jersey. The name, number, and other patches on his jersey were all hand-sewn (or ironed) on. Not content with what he already has, he seems to be shopping for more patches.

We eventually reached Nishinomiya and swapped onto the Hanshin train line that conveniently (and coincidentally!) ran to Koshien where we were immediately greeted by a sea of yellow and black jerseys and merchandise, both on display and on the tons of fans in the area. I don’t think I saw a single Baystars fan in the area. I made my way around and eventually bought a Takashi Toritani jersey and an awesome super deformed patch to eventually iron or sew on at home.

The area just outside the subway platform is lined with stalls selling all kinds of Tigers gear.

The area just outside the subway platform is lined with stalls selling all kinds of Tigers gear.

One of the most interesting things about Koshien Stadium is that there is a shrine just next door. Even more interesting is that this shrine seems to cater to baseball-related prayers.

A baseball-themed statue housed within the shrine.

A baseball-themed statue housed within the shrine.

For those unfamiliar with Shinto traditions (as I am), worshippers are able to go to shrines, purchase ema, wooden plaques for prayers and wishes, and pin them to the prayer/wish board. I’m oversimplifying, but that’s the basic idea (you can learn more from the wiki link I put up earlier or through your own research).

Most of the ema for sale at this shrine are baseball and/or Tigers-related.

Most of the ema for sale at this shrine are baseball and/or Tigers-related.

I’ve been told that many of these boards are prayers for the Tigers to succeed. I think that’s way cool.

I dont think I can spot a single non-baseball-related ema.

I don't think I can spot a single non-baseball-related ema.

If there’s one thing I absolutely love about Tigers fans, its those loose, flowing pants they love to wear. They’re typically yellow, white with pinstripes, or black, and they also typically feature pictures of Tigers or sewn on patches. The Tigers definitely have my favorite fans in all of Japan.

Its a long-distance shot, but you can see a few pairs of Tigers pants in this shot.

It's a long-distance shot, but you can see a few pairs of Tigers pants in this shot.

While it’s not totally unheard of to see a rival mascot at a ballpark (see the Buffaloes game for reference), I don’t think I’ve ever seen the rival mascots posing for pictures around the rabid fans of the home squad.

Im hoping that I missed the part where they all boo him and throw fruit at him.

I'm hoping that I missed the part where they all boo him and throw fruit at him.

Worse still, I saw the opposing mascots hanging out together!

Now heres a couple of Benedict Arnolds. Shameful.

Now here's a couple of Benedict Arnolds. Shameful.

For all their rabid love for the team, the Tigers haven’t won a Japan Series or really come all that close (aside from a loss in the 2003 Japan Series) since their only win in 1985 thanks to the Curse of the Colonel! :cue scary music:

This is the scariest picture of the Colonel Ive ever seen.

This is the scariest picture of the Colonel I've ever seen.

There are a few American fast food franchises that have made it big in Japan and Kentucky Fried Chicken is one of the bigger ones. While locations in America have all but abandoned the Colonel statue as a fixture of their stores, just about every KFC I’ve ever seen in Japan has themselves a statue of the famous Colonel Sanders, sometimes dressed up for whatever location he’s occupying.

One such Colonel Sanders, lightly decorated in Lions garb.

One such Colonel Sanders, lightly decorated in Lions garb.

The story goes like this: After finally winning their first Japan Series (the Tigers were founded in 1935) in 1985, the fans, already rabid without a reason to celebrate, went absolutely crazy to celebrate the victory. As the mob made its way to Ebisubashi Bridge, they began a pretty cool ritual where they called out a player’s name and a member of the mob who looked like him would jump into the canal the bridge spanned. Unfortunately for the Tigers, not one of the Japanese fans looked like one of the key components to their championship team, Randy Bass. Since all gaijin look alike anyway and, more importantly, the Colonel had a beard, one rabid fan grabbed a Sanders statue from a local KFC and tossed it into the canal in place of an actual person. Little did he know that this casual disregard for the property of a KFC would anger the spirit of Colonel Harland Sanders, cursing the team to failure until the day they finally recovered the statue.

You know, he doesnt seem all that much like a vindictive evil spirit to me.

You know, he doesn't seem all that much like a vindictive evil spirit to me.

As I said earlier, the team has really only come close to even approaching a Japan Series title once in 24 years, with most of the other seasons ending in last or near-last place. The moral of the story, never anger the spirit of a chicken-loving Southern gentleman.

You can dress him up in your teams colors all you want, but that wont guarantee hell come around.

You can dress him up in your team's colors all you want, but that won't guarantee he'll come around.

There is hope for Tigers fans who actually believe in curses. Just this year, on 10 March, the upper-body of the cursed Colonel statue was located while completing a beautification project on the Dōtonbori River. The right hand and the lower-body were located the next day, but his glasses and left hand remain at large. What does this mean for Tigers fans hoping for a return to glory after 24 years? So far, nothing. Despite a weak start to the season, the Tigers were in serious contention for the Climax Series up until their last game with the Swallows. Unfortunately, the Swallows were able to knock the Tigers out of the playoffs, but perhaps next year the curse will be lifted and the Tigers can once again win a series.

After spending 24 years in the drink, this Colonel statue looks surprisingly...who am I kidding, it looks disgusting.

After spending 24 years in the drink, this Colonel statue looks surprisingly...who am I kidding, it looks disgusting.

Koshien Stadium is, thankfully, one of three ballparks with actual grass growing in them (Skymark and Mazda are the other two) and it features an all-dirt infield that it seems like they over-water before the game.

You can tell its real because its patchy. Dont they have groundskeepers to take care of that?

You can tell it's real because it's patchy. Don't they have groundskeepers to take care of that?

The fans at Koshien are definitely dominant and so rabid, but I was legitimately shocked at how tiny the cheer section that was allotted to the Baystars was. Unlike other ballparks which give whole sections of the outfield, these guys were relegated to a small section. I don’t know if this is just because the Baystars are a marginal team or if this is a legitimate action by the Tigers. If it’s the latter, it just seems contrary to the Japanese culture of polite fairness.

The most pathetic (in size) cheer section we saw on the trip. The flag is being waved by a random Baystars fan in a clsoer section.

The most pathetic (in size) cheer section we saw on the trip. The flag is being waved by a random Baystars fan in a closer section.

That night’s game featured some solid, National League-style baseball with low scoring and plenty of small ball. The final score was 2-1 and the ever-famous Japanese closer, Kyuji Fujikawa, came out to finish the game.

Getting to see a legendary pitcher close out a game is always a plus.

Getting to see a legendary pitcher close out a game is always a plus.

One post-game celebration later, we were on our way back to Kyoto!…Except that the trains were furiously backed up thanks to all the post-game traffic. Our eight-man crew braved the line for about a half hour before even getting down to the platform. The train ride was fairly uneventful, but I was told by Ken that the gaggle of women on the train to Kyoto to go out that night were not interested in me because I “wasn’t tall enough.” I hate to set these girls up for disappointment, but I’m pretty sure that I’m well over the average height for the entire country. Them’s the breaks, I guess.

After we arrived in Kyoto, we all headed back to our rooms. The next day would be spent flying to Sapporo, so we had to get our rest to be up in time catch the proper trains and make our flight. It was also the final day that Jill and Nora would be on the tour, since they had to get back to their jobs at the university they worked at. Our group was down to six, but we were definitely going strong. Only four games to go.

Can they finally break the curse and win the Japan Series this year?

Can they finally break the curse and win the Japan Series this year? Nope. Maybe next year.

Super Ichiban Travel Blog Part XI: “That’s my wife. You no touch.” [II]
Oct 8th, 2009 by Dan

Folks, from here on out, the SITB (that’s Super Ichiban Travel Blog for the uninitiated) will be shifted to a Tuesday/Thursday(/maybe Saturday) schedule (there are really only nine or so posts left, including this one) so that the blog can return to its regularly scheduled programming on MWF. The MLB playoffs have started and here I am still talking about my time in Japan. I need to be covering this! You’ll recall that I wrote daily posts about the playoffs last year. Neither the Marlins nor the Rays made it this year, but that won’t necessarily keep me from adding in extra coverage as I see fit.

You ever find yourself thinking, If only I had my own city...? Mine is in Fukuoka

You ever find yourself thinking, "If only I had my own city..."?

Fukuoka seems like a neat city with tons to do, but we were on a schedule and the place is just too remote for us to make a hub, so off to Kyoto we went.

Cue travel montage.

We rode past Mazda Stadium (Home of the Carp) on our way to Kyoto.

We rode past Mazda Stadium (Home of the Carp) on our way to Kyoto.

It’s a short montage. I only took two pictures and they were both of Mazda Stadium, so I’ll spare you the other one.

I lied.

I lied.

There really was no need for that, it’s clearly an inferior picture, but, oh well, it’s done and I can’t take it back.

We rode past Mazda Stadium (Home of the Carp) on our way to Kyoto.

I'll put the better one back up again.

Ok, the travel montage is actually over now. We arrived in Kyoto, but this time we were staying in a different hotel from before. For some reason, Kyoto has two hotels named APA Kyoto whose only difference is an address. We were at the one located further from the rail station, behind some side streets, and across a path in which several of the folks in our tour were almost killed by bicyclists. The only cool part was that I had to pass a Bic Camera on my way to the train station and you bet that I was going to go in and look for good import games for my region-free systems.

A Bic Camera employee demoing Wii Sports outside the store.

A Bic Camera employee demoing Wii Sports outside the store.

Having skipped breakfast that day, I was looking for a quick pick-me-up once we returned to the station that would tide me over until I got to the ballpark for lunch. At a shop on the platform (almost every major platform has food kiosks that carry snacks and newspapers), I noticed a box of something I saw in Metal Gear Solid 3: CalorieMate.

Exhibit A.

Exhibit A.

I honestly had no idea what exactly CalorieMate was, I just knew that it restored Snake’s health meter all the way when consumed, so it couldn’t be all that bad for you, could it? When I researched it a little later on, I found out that the stuff is produced by a pharmaceutical company and that it’s meant to be an energy bar type food. The one I got was a biscuit-type that tasted of lemon, so I was totally ok with it. My favorite part about it was the disclaimer on the box that said something like “Caution: To ensure freshness, please eat your CalorieMate as soon as possible after opening the package.” As I crunched on the bar, I imagined all the strange chemical reactions going on in my body that might be going on or what would happen if you left it out in the open (EXPLOSION!), but in general it wasn’t that bad and I even had one again on the tour.

Not Pictured: Hours later ambulances rushed to the scene to save Dan after his stomach exploded. When asked what could have happened, his travel companions said He exposed the CalorieMate to five minutes worth of oxygen, what did he think would happen?

Not Pictured: Hours later ambulances rushed to the scene to save Dan after his stomach exploded. When asked what could have happened, his travel companions said "He exposed the CalorieMate to five minutes worth of oxygen, what did he think would happen?"

Once we got to Nagoya we had to make our way to the Nagoya Dome, so it was time to board local public transportation. Like any other major city in Japan, Nagoya has a subway system that can be used to easily get around. Its subway also housed the first sign of the fabled “Women-Only” cars I’d heard about before, but had yet to see.

The first time I tried to take this picture, Alexs umbrella was out of focus and in the frame looking like a rather sinister black, phallic object. I think this is the better choice.

The first time I tried to take this picture, Alex's umbrella was out of focus and in the frame looking like a rather sinister black, phallic object. I think this is the better choice.

If you’ve never heard of female-only cars, they’re a result of sexual assault (read: groping) becoming far too common on the ridiculously crowded trains of Japan. Since some of the ones committing assault (read: assholes and perverts) could plausibly claim that it was the crowdedness and bumpiness of the ride, not their evil actions, Japan fought back with women-only trains.

We were all set to make our way to the nearest metro stop and get off right by the stadium, when a conductor popped out and told us this train had reached the end of its line. In retrospect, I’m sure that we could have waited for the next train, but instead we got off and started the long walk to the dome. It wasn’t all that bad, we got a chance to see a little more of Nagoya on the way to the ballpark, but it was a gloomy, semi-rainy day, which put quite a damper on the fun of sightseeing.

Remember all those slime toys and Snoopy toys I mentioned at the Square Enix store? Now you know who buys them: this random van owner in Nagoya.

Remember all those slime toys and Snoopy toys I mentioned at the Square Enix store? Now you know who buys them: this random van owner in Nagoya.

After some walking and following of kids in Dragons gear, we eventually reached the Nagoya Dome, home of the Chunichi Dragons.

Home of the Chunichi Dragons! I wonder why that older Japanese guy is dressed like a bellhop/limo driver and standing outside the stadium.

Home of the Chunichi Dragons! I wonder why that older Japanese guy is dressed like a bellhop/limo driver and standing outside the stadium.

Most of you don’t know this, but, coming into Japan, my favorite NPB team was the Chunichi Dragons. This started back when all they hype about Kosuke Fukudome awakened in me an interest in Japanese baseball. When I investigated his home team, I found a squad that played by National League rules (a plus), wore a nice, blue color (always a plus for me…I can’t resist a girl in Cubbie or Dodger blue), and had a Dragon as a mascot. How could you go wrong with that? Of course, actually being in Japan taught me that the Carp were just waiting for me to show up and adopt them for my own, but the Dragons are easily my second favorite team now. (the Nippon-Ham Fighters claimed third).

The mascots of the Chunichi Dragons! Theres the pink dragon, the blue dragon, and...the koala?

The mascots of the Chunichi Dragons! There's the pink dragon, the blue dragon, and...the koala?

The stadium facade was pretty neat in places, allowing you to see the people inside eating and also offering neat, artistic takes on the Dragon theme.

A big, blue, Japanese-style dragon. If you look in the left corner youll spot...

A big, blue, Japanese-style dragon. If you look in the left corner you'll spot...

...mini Chunichi-style dragons atop the building near the old-style dragon.

...mini Chunichi-style dragons atop the building near the old-style dragon.

When I got into the field, I noticed something that seemed to be a bit dangerous. The Nagoya Dome doesn’t feature a real warning track. Instead, they’ve got a line that you’d better hope you see on the field, because there is no texture change.

The left half of the Nagoya Dome. Note that there is no real warning track

The left half of the Nagoya Dome. Note that there is no real warning track

The opponent for the night, the (aren’t you tired of them by now too?) Tokyo Yakult Swallows. Based on what I said above, who did you think I was rooting for?

Nothing like a nice afternoon game. Too bad it was both rainy and in a dome.

Nothing like a nice afternoon game. Too bad it was both rainy and in a dome.

Early on during the game I went out in search of food and found a neat takoyaki set that also included fries, chicken sticks, and a drink. I don’t totally remember, but I think 9/10 of the purchase stemmed from the fact that they put the fries over the drink so it looks like you’re drinking fries.

French Fry soda. Yum.

French Fry soda. Yum.

The best part of the Nagoya Dome (aside from the close, 4-2 game that was full of excitement), were the people I interacted with. On my trek around the stadium for my usual jersey acquisition, I steeled myself for the usual attempts at broken Japanese and pantomime to try and get a feel for the available sizes. As I struggled with my Japanese, the clerk all of a sudden burst out with perfect English. It was a shock to hear such great English from an unexpected source. We quickly resolved the size issue and I left with one of my favorite jerseys of the trip in hand.

My second encounter was more of a group thing. Ken, one of the guys on the group, can speak rudimentary Japanese, so he tries to talk to as many people around us in a stadium as possible. Noticing a rather large crowd of rowdy, excited people behind us, he started talking to them. It turned out that they were all bankers out for some post-shift socializing. It was from this group that the line in my title was gleamed from. One of the guys, enjoying conversation with us was telling us about the group. He indicated where the boss was and that they were bankers before going and saying “That’s my wife. You no touch,” to Ken. It was wildly hilarious, but also probably pretty serious underneath the levity of the situation. BONUS: I later looked up at the Boss and noticed that he was at the top of the group and he had a woman in each arm. Maybe sexual harassment ends with the workday here in Japan?

Our favorite group of bankers. Stripes, the aforementioned wife, is the one posing in the photo with her thundersticks.

Our favorite group of bankers. Stripes, the aforementioned wife, is the one posing in the photo with her thundersticks.

The last of the great experiences came from a young, maybe six or seven-year-old girl. Every time a Dragon run was scored or a Swallow struck out, she would run down to us gaijin and high five as much of us as she could. It was absolutely adorable.

Not adorable at all. Kind of creepy, really.

Not adorable at all. Kind of creepy, really.

As we were leaving the ballpark (GO DRAGONS! 4-2 ), I kept on the lookout for Kosuke Fukudome jerseys. His fame would surely keep fans wearing his clothing. In fact, I wore a Cubs shirt with his name written in Japanese specifically for the purpose of interacting with fellow Fukudome fans. My vigilance was rewarded when we found a small boy wearing a shirt and I snapped a quick shot. The young boy and his mother were both impressed by my shirt and wished us a happy trip.

Sorry about the blurry shot, the lighting was terrible.

Sorry about the blurry shot, the lighting was terrible.

The trip back was uneventful (aside from Ken nearly killing an old woman he ran headfirst into) and I made it back to the hotel without incident after a lengthy Shinkansen ride back. Some of the group had peeled off to find an ex-pat sports bar, but I wasn’t interested in hanging out with Americans and eating American food, plus I wasn’t feeling too well (bad takoyaki batch). Awaiting this fatigued traveler was a nifty little treat from the hotel staff. A little something to say “Welcome Home.”

It was a nice gesture. Too bad the room was even smaller than the last one.

It was a nice gesture. Too bad the room was even smaller than the last one.

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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