1. Tokyo to Fukushima
Since we had time, and the JapanRail Pass at our disposal, the day started with a side trip to Fukushima. We intentionally left after the Tokyo morning commute, arriving at Tokyo Station after 0900. We boarded the Tohoku-Hokkaido Shinkansen bound for Fukushima station at 1000.
Shortly after leaving the Tokyo metro area, we were surrounded by rural Japan, interspersed with smaller towns along the way. Based on our speedometer apps, the bullet train topped out near 180 mph (300 kph). Visiting Fukushima aside, I simply enjoyed riding the train. The ride afforded us an opportunity to see parts of Japan we might otherwise miss.
Sunshine in Tokyo was gradually replaced by clouds as we moved north. A cool start in Shinjuku turned into a winter’s day the further north we reached. The 93 minute trip felt like a trip back in time, as spring reverted to winter before our eyes. Not far outside of Fukushima, the sky became overcast, and the skies opened up. However, rather than a rain shower, we encountered a fairly vigorous snow shower.
By the time we reached Fukushima, the sun was peeking out from behind the clouds. However, despite the weak early April sun, it was cold, with a stiff northwest wind making feel like mid January. We braved the cold to walk around the city. Fukushima, a city of a roughly 250,000, is about 10 miles from the exclusion zone following the earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
Despite arriving near midday, the city was curiously devoid of activity. Walking through central Fukushima, we encountered few people outside. Passing the local high school, we were greeted by some students, who insisted on high-fiving us as they passed. We’ve noticed in our travels that younger people will interact with us, while older Japanese tend to shy away.
Walking down the street from the station, we encountered an older Japanese woman. I fully expected her to walk by without even looking up, as we have seen in the past. However, as she approached us, her eyes brightened, smiled and warmly said “Good morning!” in English as she passed. I stopped in my tracks, as I was stunned. In the moment, I wondered when the last time she said good morning in English.
While we didn’t see many people on this cold afternoon, we did find some reminders of home down the street from the station. Seeing the American franchise in Fukushima, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were exporting something that could change the way the Japanese eat.
After walking through the streets of Fukushima for more than an hour, we headed back toward the train station for the trip back to Shinjuku. On the lower level of the station, there were shops and places to eat. Instead of a meal, we opted to get something from the convenience store there, then headed upstairs to track level.
On the track level, we discovered an impressive model train setup, as well as displaying touting the arrival of the world for baseball and softball with the Olympics in 2020. The Fukushima station was possibly the nicest train station we visited in Japan. Walking through the station to catch the train back to Tokyo, I couldn’t help but wonder if the quiet town of Fukushima was ready for what was coming in little more than a year.
2. Getting to the game in Shinjuku
Following the quick trip to Fukushima, we ate a late lunch and relaxed at the hotel before heading out to the game. Fortunately for us, our hotel was less than 3.5 kilometers from the park. Since there was not a clear path to walk there, we took the Chu-Sobu Line from Shinjuku Station to Meiji Jingu Station. The trip consisted of three stops, followed by a 1.1 kilometer walk from the Meiji Jingu Station to Mejij Jingu Stadium. After leaving the station, it was not clear how to get to the stadium. Once you leave the station, you need to cross UNDER the tracks and head up a gentle slope to reach the sidewalk on the other side.
Once you reach the top of the slope, you will see a stadium. When we were there in April of 2019, the stadium was under construction. This is NOT Meiji Jingu Stadium; it is a stadium for hosting events for the Olympics. You need to walk beyond this stadium, cross the street and walk a couple of blocks to arrive at Meiji Jingu Stadium. We managed the walk and search for the stadium with relative ease. However, if you are traveling with someone who has difficulty getting around, you may want to consider hailing a taxi at the train station.
On a side note, the entrance to Meiji Jingu Shrine is across the street from the sports complex. It is a picturesque park with the shrine in the middle. This is not a place to visit just before a game; the shrine grounds are too sprawling to attempt to cover shortly before a game. Instead, if your schedule allows it, visit the shrine when you have a couple of hours to devote to it.
3. Meiji Jingu Stadium
Like many NPB ballparks, the official team store for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows is not at the stadium. Actually, it about 250 meters BEFORE the stadium on the left hand side of the street. If you have trouble finding it, just follow the crowd. The store is VERY popular, and we suggest leaving some time to browse before heading to the park. Inside the store, we found the standard fare, with a good selection of apparel. My brother scored a colorful Swallows jersey, while I opted for a cap and yearbook (which is, of course, in Japanese). Don’t worry about taking your team store bags into the stadium; unlike MLB parks, the NPB parks are more lax when it comes to bringing bags into the stadium. You will, however, have to open your bag for security before entering the ballpark.
Following the mini shopping spree, we headed for the stadium just up the road. There was not much to see outside, so after a cursory look, we entered the ballpark. We were able to discern the gate through which we were supposed to enter, but after that we had to hand our tickets to stadium staff to help us to our seats.
From the moment we decided to come to Japan to see baseball games, Meiji Jingu Stadium was on our radar. This ballpark is hallowed ground. Beside being the second oldest ballpark in Japan (having opened in 1926), it is one of four major league stadiums in which Babe Ruth played that is still in use (the others being Koshen Stadium near Kobe, Japan, Fenway Park in Boston, and Wrigley Field in Chicago). It should be noted that this distinction will disappear after the 2020 NPB baseball season. For the 2021 season, the Swallows move into the new stadium down the street constructed for use in the Olympics.
From the first view, it was clear that this stadium was a classic, a must see for baseball fans. Cozy by MLB standards, the stadium holds 35,000+ fans (and the seats are a tight fit for visitors), but on this night, there were nowhere near that many people in the seats. Just like night games in the US in April, you run the risk of conditions that are not ideal for watching a game. The temperature for the 1800 start was 41 F, under a perfectly clear sky. The Swallows hosted the Yokohoma DeNA BayStars (a team we would see at home later in the week).
There were some familiar names in the lineup for both teams. For the visiting BayStars, Neftalí Soto was batting second and playing RF. Soto played for the Reds in 2013/2014, and was in the Washington Nationals farm system as recently as 2017 (we saw him play as a member of the Harrisburg Senators).
The Swallows lineup featured Nori Aoki (who played for the Royals, Giants and Mets in the MLB) batting second and playing CF. In LF was Wladimir Balentien, who played for the Reds and Mariners between 2007 and 2009. The Swallows struck first in bottom of the 1st inning with a single run. The BayStars responded with 4 runs in the top of the 4th inning, a lead they would protect through the middle innings. The relatively slow pace of the Japanese game, coupled with the very cold temperatures for a baseball game, had this veteran fan ready to call it a night in the 7th inning. My brother convinced me to brave the cold for just a bit longer, though I wasn’t so sure about that decision.
The Swallows offense came to life on this cold night in the bottom of the 8th, as a three run homer by RF Yuhei Takai tied the game at 4. After a scoreless top of the 9th, the Swallows scored in the bottom of the 9th to win 5-4. The game clocked in at about three hours, which seems to be about average for an NPB game. The cold made it seem longer, but the Swallows comeback, and the crowd reaction to it, made sitting in the cold worth the effort.
The ending was befitting of the venue. We feel fortunate to have visited Meiji Jingu Stadium, steeped in tradition and NPB history. It will be a sad day when the Swallows move out of this historic and beautiful ballpark for a new home just down the street.