Following a rainy and humid day exploring Tokyo the day before, we started our 2018 Japanese baseball tour at the Tokyo Dome. After spending the previous two nights in Shinjuku, we checked out of our hotel. We were planning to travel on the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo Station to Kyoto Station after the game, so we needed to arrange for our luggage to get to Kyoto.
There are restrictions on the size of bags we could take on the Shinkansen, and our luggage was too large to bring on the train. The hotel in Shinjuku offered a service to send out bags ahead of us to the hotel in Kyoto for a reasonable fee. We packed clothes and toiletries for a couple of days (since it would take two days for our luggage to get to Kyoto), and had the rest sent ahead.
1. Getting to the Tokyo Dome
With the smaller bags, we headed from the Shinjuku Station to Tokyo Station, where we would locker our bags until the end of the game. Shinjuku Station is large and intimidating, even to locals who use the station on a regular basis. We knew we had to take the Chuo Line to get to Tokyo Station, but finding the line inside Shinjuku Station proved a formidable task.
After some false starts, we purchased tickets for the line at a ticket machine, and we were on our way. We finally found the line, and it was a 15 minute trip to Tokyo Station. Once in Tokyo Station, we needed to find lockers, which proved almost as challenging as winding through Shinjuku Station. We tracked down some lockers, and secured our bags. Paying for the lockers presented another challenge, since it appeared paying with cash was not the easiest method.
Having figured out the lockers, we headed for the Marunouchi Line. Finding this line was not as difficult, but did require some time and effort. Unfortunately for us, the map of Tokyo Station left something to be desired, so some legwork was required. If you are not experienced using mass transit in urban areas, using the Tokyo Metro could be overwhelming. Tip: do as much research as possible BEFORE heading for the train station.
While it wasn’t available to us for this trip, Google Maps is an invaluable resource for riding the train system in and around the Tokyo area. If you don’t have it on your phone, download it; the app is a MUST for traveling on trains in Japan.
Though it was a Saturday morning, the train to the Tokyo Dome was crowded, likely due to the game. The trip from Tokyo Station on the Marunouchi Line to Korakuen Station took about 15 minutes, including a short walk (less than 500 meters) to the Dome.
2. Tokyo Dome
The Tokyo Dome is the centerpiece of the Tokyo Dome City, a complex featuring shops, rides and an indoor playground for the kids. We have heard about this complex for years, as well as seen pictures. However, as often happens, the buildup for the Tokyo Dome City overshadowed the complex itself. While there were places to eat and shop, it seemed to be fairly pedestrain, and held little in the way of interest for us. Perhaps it was a matter of perspective; for a family with children, the place may have a different charm than it did for us.
Our interests in the complex were within the Dome itself. The Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) Hall of Fame is located within the Dome, having moved there is 1988. Seemingly modeled after the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown NY (USA), the Hall contains many exhibits from the past , as well as displays from the present. Like the Baseball Hall of Fame, there are rows of plaques commemorating NPB greats of the past, including players, managers, officials and executives.
Walking among the displays gave us the flavor of the NPB and its past. Unfortunately, almost all of the displays were in Japanese, so some of the history was lost on us because of the language barrier. Nonetheless, the story of the NPB was laid out sequentially, from the beginnings of baseball in Japan through the 1934 MLB barnstorming tour, which gave birth to the modern game. Much like our visits to the Cooperstown shrine, we found ourselves taking many pictures, as well as enjoying the history of the place.
Of course, there was a tribute to Babe Ruth, who some in Japan credit with the surge in popularity of the sport after starring in the barnstorming tour. In addition to the past, there were many displays of the present day game with uniforms and posters of the starts of the NPB. Even though the NPB Hall of Fame is smaller than its American counterpart, we spent more than an hour learning about Japanese baseball.
Upon leaving the NPB Hall of Fame, we were drawn to the Giants Team Store. Not surprisingly, the team store was huge, housed within the Dome itself. In addition to the usual souvenirs (including dolls and noisemakers, which are wildly popular in Japan), we were presented with not only apparel for the Giants, but other NPB teams as well. The store was packed, as might be expected before a game, and maneuvering through the crowded store proved tricky. Despite the large selection of items, I left with only baseballs with the Tokyo Dome insignia. My sights were set on seeing the my first NPB game!
3. Seeing the Game
Thankfully, the tickets for the game were fairly easy to decipher, and we didn’t need any help finding our seats. We obtained our tickets from a broker, meaning that we did not have much choice over where we sat, although for our first NPB experience, it did not much matter. That was a good sentiment, because we were located at the very top of the upper deck behind 3rd base.
After finding our seats, we strolled across the upper deck from foul line to foul line, taking pictures. We have been all of the domed stadiums that host MLB games, and the Tokyo Dome seemed larger than all of them! The place is cavernous, with a capacity of 44,000 for baseball. Looking closely at the field, we could see lines that appeared to be yard markers. In addition to baseball games, the Dome hosts high school and college level American style football.
Back at our seats, we realized we were in the very last row at the top of the Dome. It didn’t take long to determine that it was warm and a but humid in the Dome. Unlike MLB domed stadiums, there was either little or no air conditioning, and experience suggested that the air temperature in the Dome just before game time was probably near 27 Celsius (or 81 degrees F). Judging by neighbors, this seemed normal, but the combination of warmth and humidity made the Dome somewhat uncomfortable for me.
Following pre game pageantry near home plate, the game started precisely at 1400. The Giants’ opponent for the afternoon game was the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, whose home was a short distance away in the Shinjuku section of Tokyo (where we were staying during this part of the trip). Since it was only a train ride away, the Swallows fans were there in force, and in good voice for the game.
The Swallows fans filled the lower left field seats (reserved for fans of the visiting team), dressed in green. Though it may be difficult to see in the above picture, many fans have musical instruments, led by a conductor. During the Swallows at-bats, the fans play and sing songs specific to the hitter at the plate, and do so for all 9 innings. In the bottom of each inning, the Giants fans do likewise. We had seen videos of Japanese baseball games in the past, but seeing it in person was even better than expected. Even in a place as huge as the Tokyo Dome, their songs were LOUD. To get a feel for how it sounds in person, check this out!
The lineups for each time feature some ex-MLBers, including the starting pitcher for the Swallows, Matt Carasiti (who played for the Rockies and Mariners in the MLB stints). The Giants opened the scoring in the bottom of the 1st, scoring three runs off Carasiti. The Giants would tack on a single runs in the 6th and 7th innings, cruising to a 5-0 victory. Giants pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano tossed a 5 hit shutout, striking out 9 while only walking two.
Though the outcome of the game was decided fairly early, there was still plenty to see. We have come to learn that the Japanese treat baseball games like events, complete with cheerleaders and cute characters from pop culture. Most of the pageantry occurred pre game, but like many minor league games in the US, there were games for fans in foul territory in between innings.
NPB baseball also has video replay, but the process includes something we don’t see the in the States. During the video review, the home plate umpire explained what was going on. Unfortunately, we don’t speak Japanese, so we did not get the information. It would seem that this is a common occurrence, based on the crowd indifference during the announcement.
Finally, I learned of a Japanese baseball tradition that might not go over so well in the US. Dubbed Beer Girls, young Japanese women dressed in brightly colored uniforms carry quarter kegs of beer (as well as other adult beverages) on their backs throughout the crowd during the game. As misogynistic as it may seem by American standards, these women ran up and down the stairs tirelessly the entire game, with a smile on their faces the entire time! Speaking for myself, I was amazed and impressed at how hard they worked, and how they could keep smiling through it all.
Leaving the Tokyo Dome after the game presented yet another surprise. Above the exits, signage warned (in Japanese and English) of strong winds just outside of the doors. This puzzled me, since the weather conditions before the game did not seem conducive to strong winds after the game. However, just after exiting, there were indeed strong winds. The winds drop off suddenly, just as suddenly as they had started. It seems as though exiting fans opening all of the exits nearly simultaneously caused a mass exhale from the stadium, resulting in strong winds due to the pressure difference.
My first NPB game experience exceeded my expectations, both on the field and in the atmosphere that is the Japanese game. The venue itself was fairly non descript, but the style of the game, as well as the actions all around is, made a great first impression. It whetted my appetite for more NPB baseball!
4. Getting from Tokyo to Kyoto
Our whirlwind second day in Japan included one more stop: Kyoto. The ancient capital of Japan, it was the perfect jumping off point for our next two games. We would headquarter there for the next few days, enjoying the region while traveling to other cities in Japan for ball games.
First up was getting back to Tokyo Station to retrieve our bags and catch the bullet train to Kyoto. We reversed course from the Tokyo Dome to Tokyo Station, though finding the lockers with our bags once back at the station proved to more than just a trivial matter. As mentioned earlier, Japanese train stations can seem overwhelming, and attempting to locate out luggage eventually tried my patience. Alas, persistence prevailed, and after getting our bags, we headed upstairs to get the bullet train.
We obtained our JapanRail passes for the bullet train the day before (a process that is reviewed in the blog about traveling while in Japan), and we showed them to the attendant as we reached the gate for the train. When the train arrived, we boarded Car 8 (the Green Car), which has reserved seating. The seating was comfortable, and more importantly, had power outlets for our devices.
The trip took about two hours and 15 minutes, as the Tokaiso-Sanyo Shinkansen reached speeds of 180 mph. It was unlike any other train ride I’d ever taken, as it far more comfortable than I imagined. The ride was ultra smooth, and the only way we knew we were traveling that fast was to look out the window. The combination of the coming darkness and cloudy skies made sightseeing difficult at best. Instead, we relaxed and enjoyed the first class accommodations, and before we knew it, we arrived at Kyoto Station.
My brother had the foresight to book a hotel just across from Kyoto Station. We checked in and crashed after a long second day in Japan.