Tokorozawa, Monday April 2, 2019

Our first stop on the 2019 Japanese baseball tour was Tokorozawa, on the northwest outskirts of Tokyo. Slated for an 1800 start, the Saitama Seibu Lions hosted the Chiba Lotte Marines at the MetLife Dome. The game marked the beginning of the season for both teams. After a cool day in Tokyo, temperatures were already plunging when we headed out from the hotel in Shinjuku to the ballpark.

1. Getting to the MetLife Dome

There is an old saying in the state of Maine (USA) about how to get somewhere. The saying states that there are a number of ways to get there, but none of them are good. That old saying could apply to getting to the MetLife Dome from Tokyo. There are a few train lines to the stadium, and each one requires at least three station and three train line changes. Needless to say, this trip is not for the faint of heart, especially if you are not comfortable with busy trains and stations.

A screen capture of the route we took from Shinjuku to Tokorozawa for the game. There are several possible routes to the staidum, and I am not sure which is the best. After some quick research in the Google Maps app, this is the route we chose.

From Shinjuku Station, we caught the Saikyo line to Ikebukuro Station. We were on this line for just one stop, reaching the Ikebukuro Station in about six minutes. Because of the game start time (1800), we were forced to travel during the beginning of the commute, which meant a packed car. From here, we changed to the Ikeburuko Line, headed for the Nishi-Tokorozawa Station. We were on this line for 27 minutes (four stops) before reaching the next station. At the Nishi-Tokorozawa Station, we changed to the Sayama Line to the Seibukyujo-Mae Station, and took it for two stops (about six minutes). From the station, it was a short walk to the stadium (less than 250 meters). The entire trip (included line and train changes) was about 51 minutes, and you should build in more than an hour to get the stadium.

A recap of the trip from Shinjuku Station to the Metlife Dome

  • Take the Saikyo Line from the Shinjuku Station to the Ikebukuro Station (one top, six minutes)
  • Take the Ikeburuko Line from the Ikebukuro Station to the Nishi-Tokorozawa Station (four stops, 27 minutes)
  • Take the Sayama Line from the Nishi-Tokorozawa Station to the Seibukyujo-Mae Station (two stops, six minutes)
  • The MetLife Dome is a short walk (less than 250 meters) from the Seibukyujo-Mae Station.

Best advice: use the Google Maps app to determine the best route from your starting point to the stadium BEFORE YOU LEAVE. This simple strategy could save you some frustration later. Be prepared for crowded trains if you travel near the commute, and leave yourself some time to find the train lines you need to catch at each station.

2. MetLife Dome

From the outside, the MetLife Dome looks as the name implies: a domed stadium.

The view of the MetLife Dome leaving the train station. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

However, upon further inspection, it becomes clear that this is not a typical domed stadium. The locals call the MetLife Dome the “stadium with an umbrella”. The stadium was built in 1979 without the dome, which was finished after the 1998 season. The dome covers the stadium, but unlike most domed stadiums in the US, it is open on all sides (hence the description “stadium with an umbrella”). This allows air into the stadium, and crosswinds as well.

Like most NPB ballparks, there is plenty to do and see outside the stadium. There are shops and food stands, and you could even have your picture taken with life like images of the Lions. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Most NPB ballparks have things to do and see outside the stadium, and the MetLife Dome was no different. There were plenty of places to eat and drink, as well as shops for home team apparel. In fact, I was able to get a Chiba Lotte Marines cap at one of the stands, even though they were the visiting team. Given the distance from Tokyo, it was not suprising that we did not see too many foreign faces, or hear much English spoken. After soaking in the atmosphere outside the park, we headed to the gate to enter the ballpark.

My ticket for the game. While I don’t read Japanese, we were able to determine the gate number, row and seats from the ticket.

Much like in the US, stadium security checks bags, but there does not seem to be a size limit to the bag you can bring into the park (as long as it does not get in the way of others). Concession stands were found shortly after walking in, and we decided to get something to drink. Being a distance from Tokyo, ordering was a challenge, since the staff at the concession stands did not seem comfortable with English. However, there was a picture menu available at the window, and I was able to get some water by pointing to it, and indicating how many waters with my fingers. Not an elegant approach, but it did the trick.

The view from our seats. You can see over the left field wall the opening to the outside. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

We were able to walk the concourse surrounding the playing field, taking pictures as we made the loop. We arrrived early enough to catch batting practice and fielding practice. The sun coming in from left field was nearly blinding at times, and wreaked havoc with throws from the outfield to the catcher. Even though it was just practice, many of the Lions players made impressive plays in the field, and throws to the plate.

Unbeknowst to us, this was the Opening Night of the 2019 season for both teams. The Lions won the NPB championship in 2018, and we were treated to the pagentry of Opening Night and the ceremony for winning the championship. Luckily, the festivites took place well ahead of the game start time, and at 1800 we were ready to start the game.

Lineup exchange at the plate just before game time. Note that the managers and umpires are dressed for the cold weather. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

While there were some foreign players in the lineup (there usually are), none of them were familiar. The open air nature of the of the stadium allowed a persistent 20 km/hour wind from the north to penetrate the field, and it became obvious early on that this was going to be a cold night in Tokorozawa. The wind was biting, make temperatures near 8 degress Celsius at game time feel much colder.

A scoreless tie through two innings was broken by the Lions, who scored one run in the third, and two runs in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings each, pushing the game out of reach for the Marines. The Marines did respond with runs in the sixth, seventh and eight, but not enough to overcome the deficit. The pace of play in NPB games is typically slower than MLB games (if that is even possible), and we had only reached the seventh inning by the time the game was three hours old.

A bang bang play at third. Though the call at third was safe, my brother’s picture clearly shows that the throw beat the runner. There is replay in NPB games, but this play did NOT generate a replay challenge. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

By the middle of the seventh inning (when the Japanese release balloons, rather than stretch), the cold had become pervasive. This die hard baseball fan had had enough of the cold, and we did something we have done just a handful of times in the past: leave before the end of the game. By this time, air temperatures were near 3 degrees Celsius, and wind chill values were below zero Celsius (possibly qualifying as the coldest baseball game I’ve ever attended). Having gotten the feel for the stadium and the environment (even in the cold, the fans chanted for every batter; you can get a sense of that here), we headed for the train.

We were hardly alone, as there was a steady stream of fans headed for the train station. This caused a bit of delay getting on the train, and once inside, we noticed that the cell signal was not that strong. Using Google Maps for directions became problematic, but fortunately we were able to recall the steps taken to get there, and reversed them to get back to hotel in Shinjuku.

Think baseball is big in Tokorozawa? (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

While the stadium was nice, with good sight lines and an excellent scoreboard in centerfield, the number of train changes, as well as the cold, lessened the enjoyment of the event. Because of these factors, I am not sure I will visit this stadium again.

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