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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.

Super Ichiban Travel Blog Part VII: i believe lions [II]
Oct 1st, 2009 by Dan

i believe lions was printed on the interior of the Lions jersey I bought.

"i believe lions" was printed on the interior of the Lions jersey I bought.

After an intense and draining day, it was finally time to get back to Tokyo for the last leg of the main tour and to catch some more baseball action!

It’s hard not to love Hiroshima and the Chūgoku region in general. Nowhere else in Japan did I see such devotion to a baseball team as I did in Chūgoku. Convenience stores in both the smallest regional stations and the largest Shinkansen stations sell Hiroshima Carp tea, Hiroshima Carp trinkets, and even Hiroshima Carp onigiri.

I bought Hiroshima Carp-themed food as often as possible. Gotta support my favorite team!

I bought Hiroshima Carp-themed food as often as possible. Gotta support my favorite team!

The city had to pull itself out of extreme tragedy and I don’t think you can fault a place whose mayor personally sends a letter of protest in response to every single nuclear test that its known about since the city was reestablished. Tokyo has excitement, Kyoto has history, but Hiroshima seems to have a lot of heart and I dig that.

Unfortunately, Hiroshima is far from Tokyo, so most of our day was eaten up by a bullet train back.

When asked why he slept all the way back, Dave responded There was no action.

When asked why he slept through the whole train ride, Dave responded, "There was no action."

Have I mentioned that all shinkansen have snack carts that sell bentos, snacks, and drinks throughout the trip or that they’re punctual to a fault? Other than that, there’s not much to say. We got back to Tokyo, put our stuff down, had a bite to eat, and then began our journey to the Seibu Dome to see the Saitama Seibu Lions play.

I don’t know if I’ve talked about this before, but the most fundamental difference between Japanese baseball teams and American teams has got to be the corporate ownership. Sure, there are teams in America who have corporate shareholders or who are fully owned by a company, but I think that the culture is geared more toward a single owner, like George Steinbrenner, for example, rather than huge companies.

If you hadn’t guessed, it’s the opposite in Japan. The naming convention for most teams goes City/Area Name of Origin, Company Name, Team Name. So, in the case of the Lions, you have the city they’re in, Saitama, the company that runs them, Seibu, and the team name, Lions. It’s kind of complicated and it’s interesting that in most cases (the Carp excluded), the city gets left out and gets marginal billing. If you’ve heard of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, chances are you didn’t even know they were in Hokkaido, just that they were owned by Nippon-Ham (which consequently meant they had a funny name).

Why do I mention this? Well, as I’ve mentioned before, it was really seeming like none of the teams had any identity in their hometown. Sure, there was Tokyo Dome City for the Giants, but the area not immediately surrounding the stadium had almost no reference to the fact that the Giants played there.

All that changed when I noticed a lone sign in the train station on the way to the Seibu Dome.

Its not anywhere near as dirty as it sounds.

It's not anywhere near as dirty as it sounds.

Finally! A poster representing the team we were going to see! Cryptic, bizarre, and slightly sexual message notwithstanding (explanation to follow), here was evidence that someone in Saitama loved the Lions.

The illusion came crashing down when I remembered one key fact: I was about to board a train on the Seibu line. While they’re certainly not the only team to own a private rail line that stopped at its stadium, Seibu was cheating, at least in terms of what I was looking for. Of course the company that owns the baseball team is going to advertise its team on the train that will eventually lead to its stadium. So, again, unlike Hiroshima, this was not a region that clearly adored its team, with decent reason, I suppose. Tokyo is a complicated city to love a team in, considering that there are four teams within a reasonable distance to root for (and most root for the Giants).

Now to address the poster. The playoff series in Japan is called the Climax Series. It makes sense when you think of the definition of climax, but it’s one of those things that you’d never see in the states without eliciting laughter (like when they tried to bring Calpis (read it aloud) to the states). The Climax Series is also unique in that, unlike the way it’s done in the states, it has only three teams competing in each league. The first place team gets a bye while the second and third slog it out in a best of 3. The next stage is a best of seven, but the first place team starts off with one win to reward their excellent play in the regular season. After that they play the Japan Series, which is the Japanese version of the World Series (also best of seven, but with no advantages).

On the Seibu line, we met some fellow baseball fans en route to the park. One of the fans was so devoted to the Lions that she had her toenails painted blue to show her support. The other girl was a closet Fighters fan who loved Yu Darvish, but explained that he just came off the DL, so he wouldn’t be pitching in that night’s game.

Save it for the athletic center!

Save it for the athletic center!

Much like Skymark Stadium, the Seibu Dome stop was immediately adjacent to the Seibu Dome (how about that?), but the area was better decorated to reference the team with shops, stands, and blue Christmas lights.

The Seibu Dome...or is it?

The Seibu Dome...or is it?

Dave and I wandered the area, taking in the sights, and I picked up a nice Lions jersey. While the quality was great, it turns out that the team is sponsored by Nike, meaning the jersey was a bit pricier than I had hoped. Another strange aspect of the jersey (beyond the “i believe lions” printed on the inside of the button flap) was that the armpits had “holes.” Maybe they were intended to allow better air circulation, but they’re just confusing and uncomfortable and it means you must wear an undershirt with the jersey, unless you want hair poking out of your underarms.

The Lions recognize good talent when they see it. Dave and I were immediately drafted onto the roster when we arrived.

The Lions recognize good talent when they see it. Dave and I were immediately drafted onto the roster when we arrived.

If you were paying attention to the captions, you’ll notice that I implied that the Seibu Dome was not actually a dome, and that’s with good reason. Instead of the hermetically-sealed, ears-pop-when-you-enter style dome that I experienced in Tokyo, this “dome” was simply a covering that went over the field. It was more like an umbrella than a dome. The stadium was open-air, more or less, aside from the non-retractable roof. This creates an interesting effect, according to a fellow tourgoer who lives on Yakota AFB and has adopted the Lions as his team, where the climate control performs terribly. On cold days, it’s unbearably cold while the real scorchers just feel even hotter underneath the canopy.

If you look closely, you can see the outside!

If you look closely, you can see the outside!

The Seibu Dome is a bizarre stadium construction, without a doubt. It feels more like a college ballpark or something you’d watch a dolphin show at Sea World in than a real baseball stadium, but that makes more sense when some context about the team is made clearer. Up until the Lions got 50 M$ (I believe (lions) that’s the figure) for posting Daisuke Matsuzaka to the Boston Red Sox, the teams financial situation had been relatively dire. It’s only natural that the ballpark be so strange when it was open air at first (no doubt cost considerations went into that) and that it not be converted to a real dome when the canopy was deemed necessary. That’s really part of the charm of baseball, when you think about it. The game is played with a standard set of rules in considerably non-standard locations.

Posing for a shot with Dave.

Posing for a shot with Dave.

Frequent readers know I really don’t like dome baseball, but the Dome brings the best of both worlds, to the degree that one can have such a thing, by doing neither very well. I’d still prefer the pure, unhindered air on my face, but it definitely wasn’t as bad as the Tokyo Dome, so I can’t complain too much.

Hanging with the Colonel.

Hanging with the Colonel.

The start of the game heralded in something I’d yet to see in three Japanese baseball games, the Japanese national anthem. Jet lag may have prevented me from noticing at the first ballgame, but I quickly caught on to the fact that there didn’t seem to be a requirement to play the anthem before the game in these parts. I learned that the Japanese have a short national anthem too and that they seem to have different people come out and sing at each game, just like the ballparks in the states.

They may not play their national anthem, but they do have cheerleaders and beer girls.

They may not play their national anthem, but they do have cheerleaders and beer girls.

Much like Skymark Stadium, the Seibu Dome seemed to be pretty empty, which was strange considering that, unlike the Buffaloes, the Lions were in serious contention for the Climax Series. I’ll chalk the low attendance up to it being a Tuesday and leave it at that for now. Another interesting note is that their mascot resembles a grown up Kimba.

This is a cookie, but if you colored it all white, it would look more like the mascot who looks like Kimba.

This is a cookie, but if you colored it all white, it would look more like the mascot who looks like Kimba.

The reduced numbers didn’t prevent the Lions from displaying the same team pride and some of the raucous behavior I witnessed at the Carp game. Perhaps it’s due to alcohol, but there seemed to be an increasing number of fans who were more into it than others. Fans who yelled out things at players that weren’t synced up with cheers. It’s quite easy to drink too much at an American ballgame, but when you consider that the drinks keep flowing in Japan, even beyond the 7th inning (or two hours), you see that it’s easy to get that much wilder after your latest beer in the 9th.

A shot of me enjoying a fine drink at the Seibu Dome.

A shot of me enjoying a fine drink at the Seibu Dome.

Also worth noting, the drink selection is not limited to beer. Most ballparks also have some serious hard alcohol being vended alongside the beer. At our first game in the Tokyo Dome, Mayumi and a guest bought some umeshu, plum wine, there’s plenty of soju, another rice alcohol from Korea, and I even got my hands on a delicious whiskey sour-type drink at the Lions game that packed quite a punch.

We made fast friends with this couple. She gave us a banner as a gift.

We made fast friends with this couple. She gave us a banner as a gift.

I don’t really have any new observations about the game itself, but it was notable in that it was the first home team victory we had on the tour so far. Thanks to that victory, we also got to see something that they definitely don’t do in the states, the on-field interview. The players of the game are usually rounded up and interviewed on the big screen for the fans that remain. Following the interview and a quick photo shoot, the players throw balls into the stands for the fans and head into the locker room.

Impromtu field press conference.

Impromtu field press conference.

Pose for the cameras!

Pose for the cameras!

Another unique feature of the Seibu Dome is that they allow the fans to run the bases and toss the ball around the field after the game.

Fans celebrating on the field.

Fans celebrating on the field.

After we got our fill, we headed back to the hotel. It was the penultimate full day in Japan and David and I were ready to get our fill of Tokyo before he had to go home.

The area just outside the stadium at night.

The area just outside the stadium at night.

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