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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 XVII: In Which Our Hero Casually Greets Professional Players [II]
Oct 29th, 2009 by Dan

Thats the second largest autographed baseball Ive ever seen!

That's the second largest autographed baseball I've ever seen!

The last full day of the trip! Even though I was ready to go home, it still felt like I had unresolved business out in Japan. I wanted to go home and be back in my apartment and not traveling, but I also wanted to stay and watch more Japanese baseball and chow down on more curry.

After an early morning check-out from the Tokyo Garden Palace and a short taxi to the train station, we made our way deep into the station’s bowels, down several storeys on our way to the station that housed the shinkansen bound for Sendai. Along the way I got my last taste of onigiri, only this time it finally looked like it normally did in the cartoons.

Finally, onigiri that lived up to the expectations and stereotypes I held.

Finally, onigiri that lived up to the expectations and stereotypes I held.

Deep in the cavernous depths of the station, the stations were so tall that I saw my first double-decker trains. The Poke-craze continued down there too as I saw whole trains decorated with Pokemon characters.

A summer travel-themed Pokemon train.

A summer travel-themed Pokemon train.

The train ride to Sendai was rather uneventful. Once again I failed at napping, but I did get more Devil Survivor time in and achieved another of the six or so endings of the game, but this is all boring, so let’s fast forward. Sendai is one of the major cities of the Northern part of Japan, but we didn’t really have much time to explore. Our train arrived in what seemed like the heart of the city and we left the station to go to our hotel, a grueling 300 meters away. We were too early to check-in, but our bags remained while we all spread out to explore and I set out to get Min a gift.

Pictrued: What I should have got Min. Not pictured: The book of piano music that I actually did get him.

Pictrued: What I should have got Min. Not pictured: The book of piano music that I actually did get him.

If you saw the spoiler above, you already know what I got Min. Thinking that I might see something cool in there and looking to kill time, I stepped into a music shop to see what kind of stock they had. Since an instrument was totally out of the question, I was about to head out of the shop when I noticed a huge shelf of music books. Inspiration struck and I remembered that Min is a pretty good piano player who plays both on a keyboard in his room and on a grand in a Hopkins practice room. Shelf browsing produced a book containing a “greatest hits” piano selection from the Final Fantasy series.

Unrelated: This public sink does everything. Soap dispenses from the left, water from the right, and holding your hands over the inside (closest to the handwasher) activates a hand dryer.

Unrelated: This public sink does everything. Soap dispenses from the left, water from the right, and holding your hands over the inside (closest to the handwasher) activates a hand dryer.

My next task was to find a replacement sake cup for the one I broke. Lucky for me, there was another Seibu Loft right next to the train station. After exploring the building with the music shop and seeing a convenience store and an anime/manga store, I went back to the station to explore the Seibu Loft, hoping that they would have the sake cup, unlike the one in Tokyo. Lucky for me, they not only had the same set, but an even better looking one. I decided to keep the more spartan one whose glass I replaced and get a new set for a gift.

I did see a ridiculous timepiece at the Seibu Loft that I have to share here:

When retro goes too far.

When retro goes too far.

Another welcome surprise in Sendai was spotting some Eagles-themed vending machines. Like the Carp in Hiroshima, the Fighters in Hokkaido, and the Hawks out in Fukuoka, the Eagles are pretty much the only team in their region, allowing them to spread out and create an identity for the team, unlike the over-congestion of teams in the Tokyo area. This sight started to turn me to the Eagles, but for the time being I was still wearing my Marines jersey and looking to root for Chiba that night.

Looks like the lame crushed penny machines are on this side of the Pacific too...

Looks like the lame crushed penny machines are on this side of the Pacific too...

Lunch that day was pretty cool too. I ordered a dish that was the “kitchen sink” of this omelet restaurant. It was complete with shrimp, crab croquettes, hamburger steak, a tempura shrimp, and the Japanese-style omelet that has rice nestled inside the egg.

Rice inside omelets...strange, but delicious.

Rice inside omelets...strange, but delicious.

Once enough time had elapsed, it was time to check-in and then hop on the train toward Kleenex Stadium.Miyagi. As I waited for my bags to be retrieved from the back room, I noticed a steady stream of surprisingly Marines-themed dress coming out of the elevators. It suddenly dawned on me that we were staying in the same hotel as the Chiba Lotte Marines. These were the players coming down to the lobby to head over to the stadium to prep for the game!

Instead of freaking out, I decided that I would play it cool. When one player walked by, I pointed at my jersey and then at him and nodded to show my support. Since I’d received my bags by then, I shot out a smooth ganbare as I passed by him. When the elevator discharged another Marines player, I said the same and headed upstairs to my room.

After dropping some stuff off and settling in, we met again downstairs to take the train to the JR station. Like other teams in good fan regions, the stadium station, nicknamed Baseball Station, was chock-full of Eagles decals, colors, and spirit. My kind of station.

The Baseball Station in Sendai has a lot of Eagles pride.

The Baseball Station in Sendai has a lot of Eagles pride.

Kleenex Stadium Miyagi has a pretty unfortunate name thanks to the evils of corporate name sponsorship, but it’s actually a really nice ballpark. Since the team is so new (started in 2005, I think), the stadium is filled with open hallways, bright colors, and a modern look.

Its unfortunate that thinking about this place makes me think of blowing my nose.

It's unfortunate that thinking about this place makes me think of blowing my nose.

Outside the ballpark they had a stage with live music being played and a bunch of food stalls and games for kids. Also present were these go-karts that had the names of the mascots written on them…but there was something strange about the naming convention.

Clutch...

Clutch...

...Clutchina...

...Clutchina...

...and...Mr. Carrasco...? Where did he come from?

...and...Mr. Carrasco...? Where did he come from?

Since the Eagles were having a great year (they ended up finishing in second place), they were also advertising for the Climax Series and selling merchandise, but they chose a different phrase from the Lions and Hawks.

Its super different. Now it says Go *TO* Climax

It's super different. Now it says "Go *TO* Climax"

The other great thing about the stadium was that all the employees were dressed like Gordon’s fishermen.

They make fishsticks in between innings.

They make fishsticks in between innings.

Before the game, I picked up a Masahiro Tanaka jersey, one of the two real ace pitchers for the Golden Eagles. When I noticed that he would be taking the mound for the game that night, I decided to switch allegiances and throw on my Tanaka jersey that night. It turned out to be a good choice for me, since the Eagles won 9-5 and I found myself drawn to the team, allowing them to become my Pacific League team.

Batting Practice at Kleenex Stadium Miyagi

Batting Practice at Kleenex Stadium Miyagi

The only real downside of the Golden Eagles is that they suffer from too many mascots. Aside from Clutch, Clutchina, and Mr. Carrasco, there were two walking cacti, a hawk-man with wings and talons, and three gnomes. Too many mascots…

You can see tons of the mascots in the distance.

You can see tons of the mascots in the distance.

Another great thing was this group of drunk salarymen whose boss had way too much to drink. All game long (that he was there for), he was yelling and rooting for Todd Linden, no matter who was up. It was hilarious and the crowd around him started to join in and scream about Linden too.

The outfield and the scoreboard.

The outfield and the scoreboard.

The game was fun, but the most hilarious part was when I got back to the hotel. Right when I arrived, staff was setting up spaces for people to wait for the players to arrive, but I quickly noticed that all of the fans awaiting the players in the hotel were young ladies. I got to walk past a bunch of groupies who cared nothing about me on my way up to my room. Another crazy early morning was ahead of me. The last day…

Super Ichiban Travel Blog Part XVI: Unstoppable Force, Meet Immovable Object [II]
Oct 27th, 2009 by Dan

When you’re on a 2.5 week trip, it hardly seems like it’s ever going to end, but it was my last day in Tokyo and it felt pretty surreal. It would be my last chance to tie up all my loose ends, so I headed out to get my final souvenirs and replace that stupid sake cup that I broke.

The plan was to go over to the Square Enix store to grab a CD for Min, the Tokyo Seibu Loft to try and replace the sake cup, somewhere to find another bag because my suitcase was now too full to travel, the Tokyo Dome to get Fighters jerseys for Eric, and maybe a CD shop to look for a live Persona music DVD/CD.

It would be a busy Thursday as I worked to get everything done and have enough time to see the sumo tournament I had tickets to and catch the ballgame that night. It doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but it involves a lot of train switching and walking and nothing really opens until 1000 or 1100.

They text just as much as we do out in Japan, if not more.

They text just as much as we do out in Japan, if not more.

To make a long story short, my day was met mostly with adversity. The first two or three stores I went to didn’t have travel bags. As I mentioned in a previous post, the Square Enix store was closed because it was Thursday, so the long trip out there was a waste of time too. The only real highlights were being able to get Eric and Danielle’s jerseys, the Persona DVD/CD (and a few other soundtracks), and my final CoCo curry lunch of the trip. All the running around the city got me back to the hotel with barely enough time to get to sumo (only an hour and a half left of matches that day) and a guarantee that I’d be late to the stadium in Chiba.

Frustrated, I finally reached the station by the sumo venue. How did I know it was the right one?, I hear you ask.

Lucky guess, I suppose.

Lucky guess, I suppose.

Sumo has a religious context to it too, a first for any sporting event I’ve ever seen. Because of that and probably the national germophobia, I was required to purify my hands at the gate after entering with hand sanitizer. It was strange, but I also got a sweet sumo fan out of it, so I couldn’t really complain.

Exhibit A: Sweet sumo fan.

Exhibit A: Sweet sumo fan.

A nice usher lady took me to my seat in the arena and I saw some great bouts. There’s a lot of starting and stopping in sumo that I really didn’t understand, so each match takes a really long time. Rather than explain it, I took a video of the match:

There are so many videos because of the limit in how long an upload can be on Flickr.

Once I’d had my fill of watching the most awesome wrestling style on the planet, I decided to head on over to Chiba Marine Stadium. Before I got too far, I noticed barricades being set up for spectators to wait and watch the departing sumo wrestlers. A steady stream of those already done with the day’s matches flowed out of the stadium and excited fans waited for a chance to take a picture.

Leaving the arena for the night.

Leaving the arena for the night.

One older lady walked right up to a sumo wrestler, but he brushed her off. As I was walking toward the station I noticed a much younger, very good-looking lady stop to talk to the same sumo and he gladly stopped to chat with her. It’s comforting to know that sumo wrestlers are men just the same.

They may have the mass of three men, but they still have the brain of one.

They may have the mass of three men, but they still have the brain of one.

By the time my train and taxi made it to Chiba Marine Stadium, it was already dark out and the game was just getting started. I bought my jersey, but not before almost going insane listening to the Marines fight song on endless loop, and made my way to the seats.

Your usual fake grass outdoor ballpark. At least the dirt is real here.

Your usual fake grass outdoor ballpark. At least the dirt is real here.

The Marines are one of the few Japanese teams managed by an American, Bobby Valentine, in this case, and, contrary to what you might think, the fans of the team totally love Valentine. Despite the fan adoration, the team did not renew his contract in Chiba, so it was his last year managing the team. Fan response was vehemently against letting Valentine go, so much so that the cheer section carries a large Bobby Valentine flag with them to every game. Still, the team is looking to go in other directions, so they’ve even ignored the fan petitions and pleas to keep Valentine. With his dismissal, the lone, remaining American manager is Marty Brown, who was fired from the Carp this season, but will go on to manage the Eagles next year.

An early shot of the scoreboard.

An early shot of the scoreboard.

Since Ken was there and, if you recall, he loves the Lions, I was actively rooting for the Marines, even though we were seated within the Lions section. I was lucky this game, because it was one of the few where the home team prevailed, with the Marines eventually winning 6-3, bucking the home team loss trend of the trip once again.

The last out for the Lions walks dejectedly off of the field. Reminds me of the episode Good Grief in Arrested Development.

The last out for the Lions walks dejectedly off of the field. Reminds me of the episode "Good Grief" in Arrested Development.

Chiba Marine Stadium was nothing really to write home about. The decoration was mostly spartan and kind of reminded me of late 80s stadiums in the States. Most of the atmosphere comes from the ōendan. If you remember from that Buffaloes game, those guys go nuts all game long, waving their flag and jumping up and down to their fight song. They really get into it and make it lots of fun.

Yet another shot of the field

Yet another shot of the field

Another game marked off, we now had only one left and only one more full day. Since we had to catch a very early shinkansen, I had yet another boring night as I packed up what I could and turned in for the night. To Tohoku and Sendai tomorrow!

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.

Super Ichiban Travel Blog Part IX: It’s A Small World [II]
Oct 5th, 2009 by Dan

Good riddance! I mean...Ill miss you!

Good riddance! I mean...I'll miss you!

The day opened with some sadness. David, who had already missed a week’s worth of school, had to finally head home. In fact, most of the tour was going home unless they paid to go to Tokyo Disney Sea or had other plans in Japan to attend to and once that was done, we’d be down to eight, including myself, who were going on to see the rest of the teams of Japan.

My morning was dominated by a briefing for the rest of the tour, since Bob and Mayumi would not be accompanying the final eight on the rest of the tour. After we were fully briefed on the intricacies and tricky finer points of the trip, it was time for me to head back to the room and help Dave prepare to go home.

After seeing David off and wondering how the rest of the tour would be when pared down to so few, I decided to grab some chow for lunch at a Go! Go! Curry! we spotted the day before after karaoke. I’ve never mentioned it on the blog before, but Go! Go! Curry! is one of the few Japanese curry shop branches in the States and the only one I know of on the east coast (there’s a location in New York City) and I’ve had curry there once, so I was eager to compare.

The gorilla on the signage is the logo for Go! Go! Curry!

The gorilla on the signage is the logo for Go! Go! Curry!

Just like the GGC in America, the restaurant was decorated with Yankees paraphernalia, mostly centered around Hideki Matsui (his player number is 55, the Japanese word for 5 is go, you do the rest). Just like the curry place at Meiji Jingu, GGC had one of those sweet curry ordering machines, so I put in an order of tonkatsu curry (CURRY! The official food of Dan’s JapanBall trip to Japan!) and scarfed it down before heading back to the hotel.

Go! Go! Matsui!

Go! Go! Matsui!

Once I’d returned to the lobby, I ran into Leon, who I learned hurt his leg at some point earlier on the trip. Although he paid money to go to Tokyo Disney Sea, he realized that he wouldn’t be able to manage wandering around a theme park and being on his feet all day, so he offered me his ticket for free. Since I didn’t really have anything on the agenda besides running errands, uploading pictures, and writing, I took him up on his offer and…had to check out and check back in, since no longer needed a double. After I did that, it was off to Tokyo Disney Sea!

Its Mickey Mouse! TOKYO DISNEY SEA!

It's Mickey Mouse! TOKYO DISNEY SEA!

…but first we must digress into an educational treatise on the Japanese rail system.

On this blog I have lauded the Japanese rail system for its punctuality, ubiquity, and general usefulness. It’s time to scale back on the praise parade. You see, the Japanese rail system is marred by what I’m calling overcomplexity.

Let me illustrate my point with a look at the New York City subway system. Within NYC there exists the MTA that runs the subways, the buses in the city, and the regional rail lines that all lead to the city. One entity runs all of this. Subway fare is not transferable to regional rail tickets nor is it transferable to bus fare, but the same subway card will allow you to ride any subway in New York City. Best of all, your trips are all a flat rate. You can swipe the card once and ride the train all the way to the furthest reaches of the city and it would cost the same as taking the subway one stop over. It’s simple, assuming you can decipher the railway maps which are, admittedly complicated, and the stops don’t help to indicate which way the train is going.

On that last point, the Japanese trains seem to be pulling ahead. They clearly indicate, based on platform, what the next stop is and all the trains have easy-to-understand railway maps that clearly express what stops the train will be making. It’s all downhill from there.

I’ve already mentioned that certain teams have their own rail lines that lead to their respective ballparks, but I don’t think that fully captures the extent of how confusing Tokyo’s rail system can get. When you include the Greater Tokyo area, you’ve got a total of 30 operators (realistically only about four or so within Tokyo itself) each with their own set of rail lines that have stops peppered throughout Japan. Compare this with the one operator in NYC and it starts to make sense just how confusing this can get. By our hotel there is a stop for the Tokyo Metro and a stop for the JR Railway. These are two, ostensibly competing, companies each operating their own lines that sometimes stop in the exact same stations throughout Tokyo. Lucky for us, the largest provider is the East Japan Railway Company, known in the vernacular as JR, and we picked up JR rail passes that allowed us, as tourists, unlimited access to all railways (and even that ferry in Miyajima!) and shinkansen that they operated throughout Japan, but it still presents needless complication in getting around the city. On the day that Dave and I went to the Square Enix store, we rode trains run by three different companies. Each time we switched, we had to buy completely new tickets from non-standard machines.

While we’re on the subject of tickets, as I’ve mentioned before, the Japanese rail system works something like the DC Metro in that you’re required to pay for how far you went on the train. That’s no problem on maps that feature English to let you know what the Kanji translates to, but some are far enough out of the way or not considered touristy-enough to not offer any English guidance at all before buying a fare. It can get confusing and difficult rather quickly.

As I’ve mentioned before, Japan is a small enough country, geographic area-wise, that there is a uniformity in the train paradigm that covers the entire island. Every rail system, no matter where it is, operates along these lines.

With that, we’re ready to dive back into our Disney narrative.

Since I was completely on my own when I was at the ballpark, I took some video and recorded some commentary within the video that I may or may not repeat within the text. Enjoy!

After making my way through the unbelievably large Tokyo Station to get to the train that would take me to Tokyo Disney Sea (hereafter called TDS), I finally arrived at the proper station and was greeted by Disney music and the kind of perfectly-crafted space that Disney is so famous for producing for its theme parks. To my right was the route to Tokyo Disney and to the left was TDS, or so it seemed. I wandered around lost for ten minutes, eventually entering the stores they had conveniently set up to trap tourists, until I realized that I had to take a shuttle to TDS, just like in Walt Disney World.

The Tokyo Disney monorail. Notice the brilliant attention to detail, down to the Mickey Mouse-shaped windows.

The Tokyo Disney monorail. Notice the brilliant attention to detail, down to the Mickey Mouse-shaped windows.

I was quickly thrown for a loop when it seemed that Western designers had failed to properly accommodate their Eastern patrons. By now I had become accustomed to the British-minded pedestrian patterns of Japan (which reflect their driving patterns). Since I should be on the left, the escalator I want to take is, nine times out of ten, on the left. At TDS, I was struck with confusion when I saw that the up escalator was on the right. It seemed that Disney’s attention to detail overlooked this small fact, but that’s ok, I had a monorail to catch.

On the way to TDS...after I loop through Disneyland

On the way to TDS...after I loop through Disneyland

I arrived at the station, it was time to board, except for one obstruction. Remember what I said earlier?

Every rail system, no matter where it is, operates along these lines.

I wasn’t kidding. The Tokyo Disney Resort Shuttle requires passengers to buy a ticket to board. Not only that, but despite the fact that the train travels in one direction and the fee is flat no matter where you go (¥250 per trip, which, if you’ve done your math right, means I’m out another ¥500), you have to insert your ticket at the entrance and at the exit, just like every other train in Japan. This is beyond asinine and stupid. This is the kind of nickel and dime-ing that I would expect in America. This is Tokyo Disney, a park built by Americans in Japan.

My ire over having to pay to ride the tram to TDS was softened by the amazing thoughtfulness of the train itself. The handholds were shaped like Mickey Mouse heads. I would hear about how great these were from Nora and Jill for the rest of the time they were on the tour.

This is the Disney touch that makes people go nuts for this stuff.

This is the Disney touch that makes people go nuts for this stuff.

As you’ve seen in a previous picture, the windows were mouse-shaped too.

Seeing the world through Mickey Mouse-tinted glasses.

Seeing the world through Mickey Mouse-tinted glasses.

I rode the train, which only went one direction (I can’t complain about this enough) for two stops to get to TDS, which would have only been one stop going the other way. Come on Disney, I paid ¥250 for this ticket! Make it go where I want!

While on the train (and immediately after disembarking) I began to notice that, despite it being early September, it was clearly Halloween season at TDS. Some of the Japanese, who go everywhere fully equipped, were carrying whole bags of Disney paraphernalia to put on before entering the park. Mouse ears, Daisy costumes, even Disney-themed face masks were in full force before I entered the park. I suddenly remembered that I knew that Jack Skellington and The Nightmare Before Christmas were super popular out here in Japan. It was only natural that the park would be making a big deal about Halloween.

TDS is centered around exploration, most notably exploration at sea, but not exclusively, which is why it’s not, as I presumed, a water park. The opening area is Mediterranean-themed and tries to reference Venice, Italy in its architecture, which would reinforce the Sea part of TDS, but, as we’ll see later, there’s an Arabian/Agrabah/Aladdin-themed area, which is the exact opposite of the sea, so go adventure!

Early on in the park I came across a strange sight: a group of three gaijin (“foreigner”) performers putting on a show. They all spoke heavily accented Japanese and seemed to be making a point of doing so and acting ridiculous. It wasn’t offensive or anything, it was just strange to see Americans (or Europeans or Australians, I don’t really know) putting on a show here in Japan in TDS in Japanese. Sorry I didn’t tape more.

Right near the performers I spotted a McDuck Department Store, so I had to enter (I LOVE Duck Tales). I was not at all prepared for what I saw inside.

A portrait of Scrooge inside his store.

A portrait of Scrooge inside his store.

The place was packed to the gills with people and all the shelves seemed to feature only one character. Upon closer examination, all of those characters were one I didn’t even recognize. I picked one up to investigate and saw that it was Duffy the Disney Bear.

A smaller, keychainable version of Duffy The Disney Bear.

A smaller, keychainable version of Duffy The Disney Bear.

Never heard of Duffy? Neither had I. A cursory Internet investigation turned up evidence that this little fellow was a failed experiment in Walt Disney World as The Disney Bear in 2004ish (in that he failed to catch on), so they rebranded him as Duffy the Disney Bear, a teddy bear given to Mickey by Minnie to keep him company when out to sea. My investigation also points to him debuting sometime in 2006. Each month they release new clothes for the bear and the Japanese have “gotta catch ’em all!“, so they flock to the Duffy-dedicated store to get the latest fashions.

I’m not kidding when I say these were flying off the shelves. Employees streamed out of back rooms every five to ten minutes to restock the rapidly depleting shelves. They were that popular. You think the line for Mickey is long? The line for Duffy is supposedly the longest at TDS.

My clever excuse to make use of this picture I took of Mickey and a random family.

My clever excuse to make use of this picture I took of Mickey and a random family.

Since I’m part of the problem (really because I have a friend whose last name is Duffy), I found myself queuing to buy the above-pictured mini-Duffy in one of the four long queues that wrapped around the middle of the shop. As I stood in line I quickly realized that I stood in the wrong line. The couple in front of me had baskets full of mini-Duffys, arms full of regular-sized Duffys, and another basket filled with this month’s outfit, a pumpkin costume for the bear. This was going to be a long wait. When all was said and done, the couple in front of me (older folks, mind you) had spent ¥68700 on Duffy merchandise. To put that in American perspective, that couple spent, based on today’s exchange rate (which is close to the one I got in Japan), $767. It boggles the mind.

Youre making a killing on these bears, McDuck.

You're making a killing on these bears, McDuck.

I continued exploring the park and saw that they transitioned from Venice to a more American riverboat feel. In that area was another character more popular in Japan than the states, Stitch. A good choice to express that Halloween vibe they love so much, Stitch is the character most commonly seen, outside of Mickey and Minnie, on baseball team merchandise outside of the Disney area. From the riverboat area, we transition to a Cape Cod-type area.

Youve gotta use spellcheck before you engrave these things...Also, the shot heard down the road? Really?

You've gotta use spellcheck before you engrave these things...Also, the "shot heard down the road"? Really? I'll assume it's a joke since the year is wrong too.

As I traveled through the Cape Cod area, I noticed something that, if it ever existed in Disney, certainly hasn’t in years. Smoking areas. If you recall (if I’ve mentioned it), it’s illegal to smoke while walking around Tokyo and other areas. You’re now confined to smoking areas until they further marginalize smokers like in America.

In Cape Cod I started to notice some of the subtler differences, like the menu. I’m pretty sure I’m wrong about what I think sets are in the video, because when I’ve seen sets in contexts after TDS, it was used to denote a combo meal. (BONUS: There’s a Duffy portrait near the dessert menu)

The Cape Cod area also had some shows, but I quickly moved on to some of the other areas and left the lighthouses behind.

Is this in America or is it in Japan?

Is this in America or is it in Japan?

It was time to encounter my first ride. Now, I’ll have to admit, I wasn’t expecting the grand roller coasters of Universal Studios or anything, but this seemed to be a bit tame, even by Disney standards.

To be totally honest, I didn’t really ride anything at TDS partly because nothing called out to me and partly because I was there by myself. For those who would be interested in riding stuff, rest assured that Fast Passes do exist in Japan too!

Fast Pass, not just for America any more.

Fast Pass, not just for America any more.

Along the way I saw a Mexican/South American area where they had an Indiana Jones stage show (like in MGM) and eventually reached the aforementioned Aladdin-themed Agrabah area. I knew I was there because there was a curry popcorn stand right outside.

It might not sound appetizing, but, trust me, it smelled delicious.

It might not sound appetizing, but, trust me, it smelled delicious.

The Agrabah area was pretty cool. It had shows and shops that sold Disney-themed curry.

What more could you ask for?

What more could you ask for?

They also piped in some Arabic-themed music from Aladdin.

The next area was called Mysterious Island and it had a very steampunk feel to it, probably inspired by 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the Disney Atlantis movie. It was the coolest looking area of the park (to an engineering-type like myself) and I’m pretty sure that their 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (under repair that day) was the very same one that was nixed from Walt Disney World back in 1994.

Nemos lost sub.

Nemo's lost sub.

Despite a lack of evidence on Wikipedia (hardly the most exhaustive search option available) to confirm my supposition, I’m almost sure that this is true of at least some of the parts from the ride, if not all of them.

With that I had explored most of the park and seen what I wanted to see. It was time to head out, but not before going to the major gift shop where I spotted tons of souvenirs catering exclusively to the Japanese crowd among the more traditional stuff. The collectors of Japan would love all the pins and stamps that are often limited editions. The hypochondriac or infirmed would love the character-themed face masks.

If you can name all the characters represented here, youre a bigger Disney fan that I am.

If you can name all the characters represented here, you're a bigger Disney fan that I am.

I was skeptical of what TDS would offer me before I showed up, but I was pleasantly surprised. The park exudes that Disney aesthetic that the company does so well and I found myself charmed by the park despite the hardened heart I carried in. Perhaps I’d visit with friends one day and give it a real chance.

After that it was back to the Tokyo Dome to try and get some better shots of the building that I missed on the first day and then to Akihabara to catch up on some souvenir and personal shopping.

The Tokyo Dome exterior with the roller coaster partially visible.

The Tokyo Dome exterior with the roller coaster partially visible.

I returned to the hotel, grabbed a quiet, solo dinner at a nearby convenience store (instant noodles), and turned in for the night. The laundry that I spent way too much money to get done by the hotel staff was in my room. An episode of Naruto Shippuden came on, reminding me that Dave was gone for the rest of my trip.

It seems that Duffy and Domo-kun are rather disinterested in the show.

It seems that Duffy and Domo-kun are rather disinterested in the show.

It was time to repack and get ready to embark on the rest of the journey without my travel companion. I had a good time traveling with Dave and it was already a bummer not to have him with me as I wandered around Tokyo and the rest of Japan.

Dave (2 September 2009 - 9 September 2009)

Dave (2 September 2009 - 10 September 2009). We'll Never Forget.

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.

Super Ichiban Travel Blog Part IV: In Which Our Heroes Depart Tokyo for Kyoto [II]
Sep 10th, 2009 by Dan

Dave doing his best to look gangsta outside of Tokyo Station.

Dave doing his best to look gangsta outside of Tokyo Station.

A day of baseball behind us, our tour was now set to depart Tokyo and journey east to Kyoto, the former capital of Japan. That means that we would get a chance to ride the famous bullet trains for the first time. After a quick taxi to Tokyo Station, Dave and I found ourselves waiting on the platform wondering about the naming conventions behind the various lines of the Shinkansen (the Japanese name for the bullet train). Mayumi broke it down like this: the slowest trains are the Kodama, which means echo. They stop at local stations and generally take longer. The next fastest are the Hikari trains. Hikari means light and, like any good physicist would expect, they are much faster than the Kodama trains. The fastest class of trains is named Nozomi, which means hope. Therefore, hope > 3 x 10^8.

Lost by a nose! Dave vs. a Hikari Shinkansen

Lost by a nose! Dave vs. a Hikari Shinkansen

While waiting on the train Dave and I also noticed a few people smoking, which is nothing too special, until we realized that they were also wearing face masks. It was bizarre to see a man so worried about his health smoking, but, hey, hypocrisy is funny, so enjoy the shot below.

Dave was there so that I wouldnt offend this stranger by taking a random picture of him enjoying a smoke.

Dave was there so that I wouldn't offend this stranger by taking a random picture of him enjoying a smoke.

Cultural lessons from Susan taught us that while Japan is a germaphobic country, the face mask thing is primarily to prevent other citizens from getting sick. They’re so concerned with keeping harmony and not spreading their germs with other people that they keep the masks on at the slightest hint of disease. Still, the vast number of masks that I’ve seen throughout the country make me suspicious that the recent influenza outbreak might have a lot more to do with it than that statement implies.

The train ride was rather long, since we were crossing the entire island, but we eventually made it to Kyoto in the afternoon and stopped to drop our bags off and grab a quick bite to eat. Funny thing about Japan is that while bad people almost certainly have to exist, most everybody is super trusting to the nth degree. Our bags were set in the lobby without any lock or key and we were pretty much guaranteed that no one would touch them just because there was a net over them. Plenty of folks don’t even bother to lock up their bikes when they ride them around. It’s jarring.

It doesnt look like much, but this net is the ultimate theft deterrant.

It doesn't look like much, but this net is the ultimate theft deterrant.

Not yet sick of curry, Dave and I sat down to grab a plate at a place that seemed like it was an Eastern European-themed ale house. They had a robust drink menu that was filled with hilarious Engrish spellings of popular drinks and cocktails. Our meal done, it was time to head right back up to the lobby…after a quick pit stop in the bathroom.

Mmm...Id love a Cuba Lible.

Mmm...I'd love a Cuba Lible.

The entire territory of Japan could easily fit into a good deal of the larger US states. The result of that phenomenon is one of my favorite bits of minutiae related to Japan. In almost every bathroom in Japan (all but one that I’ve observed), the exact same urinals are installed. Thanks to this, all of Japan feels cohesive even when you’re somewhere far away from Tokyo.

Now that we’ve completed that digression, let me get back to the main narrative. Dave and I went up to the lobby and right back out to the Kyoto train station. We were jumping on the Shinkansen again to head up to Skymark Stadium in Kobe, home of the Orix Buffaloes. I cannot emphasize enough how great the rail system in Japan is. Throughout this whole day our train has arrived precisely when it’s been slated to arrive on our tickets and in the station to the minute. Not a delay in sight. Longer Shinkansen rides all feature “stewardesses” who push a cart down the aisles selling food and drinks.

The trains are also filled with friendly people. On our way to Kyoto, Dave and I met a man who went to RIT and worked for Eastman Kodak. At first I found his English very hard to understand, but eventually I got it down and we were able to speak to each other just fine. Thanks to him I learned about the surrounding areas, where Mt. Fuji was, about Toyota in Nagoya, and about how he likes to American football and “Science Fridays” on NPR. It was definitely a pleasant train ride, even if I was exhausted. There was just too much going on to try and sleep.

The approach to Skymark Stadium from just outside the station.

The approach to Skymark Stadium from just outside the station.

Didn’t I just end all the digressions? Rejuvenated from our curry, we arrived in Kobe just steps away from the stadium itself. There was a concessions stand right nearby, some ticket vendors, a nice fountain, and a nice park in the area, but otherwise not much of anything at all. The question of how I’d commemorate my Japanese stadium visits came up again since I hadn’t resolved the conundrum at the Tokyo Dome, so I went over to check out the stand.

I didnt really see any ticket windows, but can this really be the ticket booth for Skymark?

I didn't really see any ticket windows, but can this really be the ticket booth for Skymark?

For my visits to American stadiums, I buy fitted caps from the ballpark and take them home, but I noticed last night that the Giants had no fitted caps that I could find and that just wouldn’t do. The other options, their noisemakers and other miscellaneous charms just didn’t feel right either. I noticed that the Bs, as their team name is often shortened to, had jerseys available for only ¥3500, an amount cheaper than some of the caps I buy. It was settled and the collection began.

One of the entrances to Skymark Stadium.

One of the entrances to Skymark Stadium.

We actually entered the ballpark after I threw on the jersey and noticed that it seemed a lot smaller and emptier than the Tokyo Dome. Someone explained to me that Skymark Stadium is actually the alternate stadium for the Bs while the Kyocera Dome is the primary and I definitely believe that. Skymark is very nice, but it’s also very small and the concessions seemed underdeveloped. In fact, some of the foodstuffs ran out by the third inning. The comparative attendance was also rather lacking compared to the Dome, but then again it was a day game on a work day (that’s right, they work on Saturdays out in Japan).

The Marines fan section came out in full force, but the stadium is very empty.

The Marines fan section came out in full force, but the stadium is very empty.

Now that I’ve been to two stadiums, I feel that I can start to make some genuine observations about Japanese baseball. The first thing I noticed was that the pitchers are constantly being worked and worked hard. In between innings it’s common to see the pitcher just tossing the ball around with another player to keep loose and warm. On the mound they seem to throw until the managers feel they’ve thrown enough. I remember seeing a pitcher up to 120 or so pitches by the fourth or fifth inning and he stayed in the game until the sixth or seventh. I’ve also noticed that Japanese pitchers tend to pitch a little slower than their American counterparts. Very rarely did I see pitches pass 144 km/hr, which roughly translates to 90 mph.

Buffaloes fans LOVE Tuffy. Hes been in Japan so long that he doesnt even count as a foreign player. The Bs have a history of embracing foreign players.

Buffaloes fans LOVE Tuffy. He's been in Japan so long that he doesn't even count as a foreign player. The Bs have a history of embracing foreign players.

The number of hits appears to be huge compared to the number of runs scored. In the MLB, if you had a game with a combined hit count in the 20s, you can bet that it would be a blowout or a game whose score was 8-9. This is the status quo out here in Japan thanks to all of the selfless hitting. Huge hit counts, but also a lot of men left on base between innings.

Like last game, I noticed a lot more small ball being played at the plate. Hit and runs, bunts to advance the runner, and chops to ensure safe baserunning are the norm. Also normal are the ōendan I mentioned last time. The opposing team brought in a huge crowd, yet again, and they filled up the left field bleachers and went crazy. It’s one thing to cheer like a nutcase all game to prove you love your team. It’s another to travel from Chiba to Kobe, sit in the 90+°F sun, and jump up and down like the Marines cheer squad. These guys seriously were hopping in an alternating formation during a large number of their cheers. I almost got heat stroke just watching them.

Speaking of the heat, the lack of a dome reminded me just how much I love both afternoon baseball and outdoor baseball. It’s much harder to stay properly hydrated, but it’s so much better to be out in the sun enjoying a ballgame instead of in a stuffy, climate-controlled room. I could rant for hours on this topic, so I’ll spare you all the arguments about why non-retractable domes are way less cool.

The Buffaloes mascots. Note that they are NOT buffaloes nor do they look like buffaloes.

The Buffaloes mascots. Note that they are NOT buffaloes nor do they look like buffaloes.

Like the Giants, the Buffaloes also had mascots that seemed to have nothing to do with the team name at all. Neppie and Ripsea are vaguely cowboy-themed white folk and look nothing like buffaloes. Missed opportunity. Their posse did include cheerleaders, rather like the Giants, and during the 7th inning stretch they also snag their fight song, but there were no balloons yet again.

One peculiarity in this ballpark was that they played the Marines fight song during the 6th inning. Our friend Susan said it was to be polite, which is absolutely crazy when compared to Western baseball, but it makes good sense in this case. Where else but in Japan, where the home team gives retail space to the opposing teams for merchandise whose profits will go to the opposing teams would it be ok to listen to another team’s fight song in the 6th?

Despite my Bs jersey, I was impressed by the gusto shown by the Marines, so I was rooting for them to win. Things got interesting when, yet again, the game was tied up and went into extra innings. Dave and I feared that we’d have another 12 inning affair on our hands, but luckily (for the Marines) the score was increased to a respectable 6-3 Marines, giving the visiting team the win, which means that for two straight games the home team has not won. Since Dave and I left during the 8th and the Giants tied it up, we’re pretty sure that we’re home team kryptonite.

One last thing to mention about the game: It seems like the foreign-born players don’t hustle as much as the Japanese-born ones. That could be because they’re older and fatter, but it could also be a cultural thing.

After the game we took the train back over to Kyoto. It was already getting to be rather late, so Dave and I decided to take it easy for the night. We crossed through the station looking for food in the large, 12-story shopping center Bob told us about earlier in the day. After taking the escalators all the way up, we understood why this place was recommended. The views were spectacular all around, but it was too dark for most of the pictures to really come out all that well. We had a quick meal in a nondescript place and headed back to the room after resolving to return in the morning to capture that view.

Ive transcended happy and landed fimly in scary territory here.

I've transcended happy and landed fimly in scary territory here.

Another day was over. It was time to rest up for tomorrow.

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