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 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 XIII: Beware the Ninth Ward [II]
Oct 15th, 2009 by Dan

Your guess is as good as mine.

Your guess is as good as mine.

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

Already off to a great start, I see.

Already off to a great start, I see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyone else craving a cold one right about now?

Anyone else craving a cold one right about now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crab ramen came out.

Is your mouth watering too?

Is your mouth watering too?

You can bet that I loved every bite!

One of the bites that I loved.

One of the bites that I loved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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