Having arrived in the Houston area the previous evening, we were well rested and ready for a day of exploring the region before taking in an evening game at Minute Maid Park. First stop was the Johnson Space Center, a visit both my brother and I had eagerly anticipated.
1. Johnson Space Center
We arrived at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) shortly after it opened at 900 am. Arriving early, we found parking to be ample. Walking up the the visitor center, we encountered the first magnificent site of the day. The space shuttle Independence was placed atop a NASA 747, a mock-up of how shuttles were transported from landing site to launch site in Florida. Being old enough to remember the initial shuttle flight of the Enterprise piggybacking on a 747, it brought me back to the day of that flight so many years ago.
Upon arriving at the visitor center, we decided to take the Tram Tour of the JSC. The $29.95 price seemed to be a bargain for what was sure to be one of the highlights of the trip. Assembling just outside of the visitor center to the right, we boarded the tram and awaited the start of the tour. Once we were underway, we saw something is did not expect to see: Longhorns.
Before this trip, I honestly didn’t know much about the JSC, and the tour guide took the time to explain the history of the Longhorns and the space program. Much of the land that the JSC now occupies what was once a steer farm, and NASA wished to retain some of the history of the land. If you are curious (as I was) about the connections, you can check out the Longhorn Project.
Following the visit with the Longhorns, we passed over a small gully, which contained surprise number two of the tour. In the gully was a five foot alligator. Seemingly unfazed by our presence, the gator sat nearly motionless as we passed by. Apparently, gators occasionally visit the JSC, traveling from Armand Bayou Park across the street.
The Tram Tour is different each day, though there are stops it makes each time. We passed by several buildings on our way to Mission Control. As we walked up to the access point to the old Mission Control, we were informed by our tour guide that access would require us to climb 82 steps to reach the site. Though there was an elevator for those with mobility issues, my brother and I decided to climb the stairs to reach the old Mission Control.
The effort was well worth it. We sat in the gallery seats just behind the controller locations. Unfortunately, the site was being renovated for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch, so we were unable to walk among the workstations. While mildly disappointed, I was still thrilled to be in the same room where the magic happened. In fact, we sat in the seats were the Lovell family watched the Apollo 13 broadcast, not long before their mishap.
Being old enough to remember the final Apollo missions, sitting this close to where a group of people worked together as one was like a dream come true. It reminded me of how far we came so fast in those days, and how we haven’t fulfilled the promise of the future forged by the Apollo program.
Personally, had the tour ended there, it would have been time well spent. However, there was much more to see. Next on the tour was Building 9, which housed some of the new technology NASA was developing for future space mission. While there was plenty to see here, I became transfixed by the Orion spacecraft.
The Orion is the capsule the will house astronauts as we return to space. Orion is expected to ferry four astronauts to the moon, where the yet to be built lander will bring them to the surface. Seeing the capsule buoyed my spirits concerning NASA and our potential for returning to the moon and possibly beyond.
Another piece of technology caught my eye on the floor in Building 9. Mimicking the movement of creatures on Earth, one of the probes was modeled after a spider. Though we didn’t see it in motion, it was intriguing to speculate how it might fare on an alien world.
The 90 minute tour ended far too quickly, though there was still one more place of interest to visit. The Saturn V building caught our attention. In front of the building as an ad hoc museum of the rockets used in the NASA arsenal through the years. While interesting, the Saturn V held the my gaze. The most powerful rocket ever to launch humans into space, the Saturn V is huge, occupying a building more than the length of a football field. Seeing it in person was sobering, a reminder of how amazing the program to put men on the moon truly was.
My brother has remarked that this was his favorite part of this trip. Even though I respectfully disagree, I will return to the JSC in the future, if only to visit the fully refurbished Mission Control.
Never having seen the Gulf of Mexico on the Texas coast, we drove down to Galveston to find some lunch. We found parking near the beach, and walked down to the water near the pier. The white sand and amusement area on the pier reminded me of the Jersey shore. Being a work and school day, there were few people on the beach, which afforded in nearly unfettered access.
Walking onto the pier, we were disappointed to see that it was closed. Returning to the beach, I was captivated by the view of the Gulf. It reminded me of the story of Isaac Cline trying to warn the residents of Galveston that a hurricane was approaching in 1900, and how vulnerable the place seemed to the Gulf.
Lunch was next on the agenda, and we decided on Jimmy’s on the Pier. Arriving late during the lunch rush, we were surprised to see so many people there. Despite being a seafood restaurant, we ordered more land based entrees. Seating was scarce after getting our food, but we were able to sit outside while we ate.
As soon as we were ready to leave, there were people prepared to take our seats. One last walk around the pier section of Galveston was followed by the trip to the hotel to relax before the game that evening. Though this was designed to be a baseball blog, I couldn’t help but share our experiences from the JSC.
Following a busy first full day in Houston, we relaxed before heading to Minute Maid Park for a Tuesday afternoon matinee. Rather than squeeze in any more sightseeing in the Houston area, we stayed close to the hotel before checking out and heading for the stadium.
1. Minute Maid Park, Houston, Texas
We arrived at Minute Maid Park late in the warm and humid morning, finding parking plentiful across from the stadium. Unlike last evening, we had more than sufficient time to stroll the grounds before heading into the ballpark. As mentioned before, this was not our first visit to Minute Maid Park (our first visit game in September 2003), but we did not build in much time to explore the park before that game).
Wandering around the stadium we discovered there was much to see. Perhaps my favorite display outside the park was The Plaza at Minute Maid Park. It featured statutes of beloved Astros players, as well as a tribute to the Astros playoff teams of the past. Considering how few teams make good use of space outside the ballpark, the displays here was a refreshing exception to the rule.
The increasing warmth and humidity prompted us to enter the stadium to seek some relief a bit earlier than planned. Upon entering the ballpark, it was clear that the roof was closed (in contrast to the game the previous evening). When I asked a stadium employee why the roof was closed, the terse response was “because is 89 degrees in Houston”. Though I have been to Houston only twice, I assumed that the population was well attuned to heat and humidity, even in late April. The response reminded me of what I might hear in the Northeast; so much for Southern hospitality.
Undaunted by the response to my question, we continued to explore the inside of Minute Maid Park. While there were most definitely changes in the ballpark, some of the exhibits did not. Most notable were the the Phillips 66 Home Run pump and the wall art in the concourse in left centerfield. The biggest change was the flagpole in centerfield. In truth, I was not a fan of that part of the stadium, and I was glad to see it go.
With the roof closed, Minute Maid seemed like a much different place. In fact, it seemed almost dank in comparison to the open roof game the night before. Following our tour of the park, and the obligatory visit to the concession stand, we headed for our seats. For this game, our seats were on the third base side, about halfway up the section.
The Astros’ opponent for the 110 pm game was the Anaheim Angels. The Astros starter was Justin Verlander, former AL Cy Young winner and MVP (2011). By this time, Verlander was 35 years old, an age at which a number of hard throwing pitchers begin to lose their edge. Because of this, I watched Verlander closely during his start.
Verlander worked much harder than I expected. At the end of the Astros at-bat, he sprinted to the mound, getting to work immediately. Though his velocity was still in the mid 90d, his pitch selection and changes in speeds made him much more effective. Obviously, he learned that with age, natural ability needs to be augmented with hard work in order to remain successful. Verlander gave up two runs and four hits in his seven innings, while striking out nine.
The closeness of the game resulted in a fairly quick affair, with the Astros prevailing 5-2. Since our next ball game was about 24 hours away in Memphis, Tennessee, we did not linger long in Houston. The remainder of the daylight hours were spent covering miles. After about three and one-half hours, we called a day in Marshall, Texas.
Day 7 of the 2018 Baseball Trip started at the Comfort Suites in Marshall, Texas. Our target for this day was Memphis Tennessee, to take in a Memphis Redbirds game at AutoZone Park. A rainout the night before meant we would be treated to a doubleheader, with the first game starting at 500 pm.
1. Little Rock
About half way through the drive, we stopped for lunch in Little Rock Arkansas. Neither my brother or I have ever been in Arkansas, and Little Rock seemed like a fine town in which to sample life here. Parking near the Arkansas River, we walked around Little Rock for a while before looking for a place to eat.
We settled on Gus’s World Famous Chicken, located on President Bill Clinton Avenue. Arriving about lunch time, there was a crowd, but it didn’t require us to wait. After picking up our orders, we sat in the back of the seating area. Not long after we sat down, one of the waitstaff came around with an aluminum bowl filled with French fries. Apparently, at Gus’s, you can have your French fries topped off as often as needed!
Everybody at Gus’s was courteous and kind. Being from the Northeast, we have become accustomed to people always being in a rush, barely taking the time to notice what is going on around them. Our brief stay in Little Rock reminded us that there are places where people take their time, with smiles on their faces.
After lunch, we wandered along the Arkansas River, following the trails in a nearby park. Being a school and work day, there were relatively few people in the park, allowing us an opportunity to investigate the area with few distractions. After about an hour of walking, it was time to hit the road again. We left Little Rock with a very positive impression of the place. The Arkansas Travelers play in nearby North Little Rock, so it is possible we may return here in the future.
As we neared the Arkansas/Tennessee border, we encountered rain, the first rain we’d seen on the trip since Biloxi, Mississippi. Knowing that the game the night before in Memphis was postponed due to rain, I was becoming increasingly concerned that the same could happen tonight. Because of our tight travel schedule, we would have to skip the games in Memphis if there was a rainout.
Luckily for us, the rain was in the process of ending when we reached our hotel in West Memphis, Arkansas. The rain slowed us down reaching the hotel, so we only had time to drop off our bags and head to the ballpark in order to catch the beginning of the first game of the doubleheader.
2. AutoZone Park, Memphis, Tennessee
Weaving our way through downtown Memphis, we came upon AutoZone Park, home of the Memphis Redbirds. Arriving before most people left work, finding parking was simple. Walking from the parking lot to the stadium, it was clear we were in an older section of Memphis, based on the architecture.
We were greeted at the entrance of AutoZone Park by an old fashioned sign announcing the game time (which was actually incorrect). From the start, we were impressed by the ambiance of the urban ballpark, and we had just reached the entrance!
Per our custom, we toured the inside of the ballpark before settling into our seats. As we were walking around taking pictures, it was obvious we were in a classic ballpark. Unlike many ballparks we have visited, we were able to access just about the entire outfield via the concrete walkway.
Completing a lap around the inside of the ballpark, we headed for the team store. My attempt to purchase an International League ball was thwarted, as the item was not yet fitted with a UPC code. Without the code, it could not be scanned or purchased . Assuring me that the ball would be available later, the store manager suggested I come back for a ball.
After leaving the team store, we went to the concession stand for dinner. Of course, I indulged in hot dogs, which were greasy but good. The concession stand offered a wide variety of food and drink, but we did not partake in the offerings. With food securely in hand, we went in search of our seats.
Our seats were located a few rows behind the Redbirds dugout, giving a spectacular view of this beautiful stadium. While waiting for the action to began, I spent the time admiring the view of downtown Memphis. Almost immediately this ballpark became one of my favorites, and we’d only been there less than 45 minutes. In fact, all of my favorite ballparks (both MLB and MiLB) have an urban backdrop. While I’m not sure why, the urban aspect to the backdrop seems to give the ballpark more character.
Due primarily to the early start to the doubleheader (first pitch for the first game was scheduled for 500 pm), there were very few people in the park. The Redbirds’ opponent for the doubleheader was the Round Rock Express, the Triple A affiliate of the Houston Astros. As is customary for minor league double headers, each game would consist of seven inning games.
The first pitch for game one occurred at 504 pm in front of a nearly empty stadium. On the mound for the Redbirds was Daniel Ponce de Leon, who was promoted to parent club (St Louis Cardinals) not long after this game. de Leon was roughed up this night by the Express, allowing six runs and 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings.
The Redbirds’ offense was as ineffective as their starting pitcher, managing just one run on three hits. With the game well in hand, my attention turned to the beautiful stadium as evening rapidly approached. After the final out of the first game, there was a 35 minute intermission during which we walked around the concourse.
Not wanting to bother the staff at the team store, I decided to forego trying to buy the International League ball. It still wasn’t available, so I left. However, my brother was insistent, and the manager provide a ball for us at no charge.
For game two of the doubleheader, the Memphis team came out wearing Chicks uniforms (the name of the team from years ago). The Redbirds were the Chicks for many years before becoming the Cardinals’ Triple A affiliate. Game two started at about 745 pm, when the ballpark had is maximum crowd.
The Chicks featured an opener in game two, with Sam Tuivailala taking the hill for the first inning. Austin Bibens-Dirkx started for the Express (who would be promoted to the Rangers shortly after this start). Unlike the first game, pitching dominated. Bibens-Dirkx threw a complete game in a losing effort, despite giving up two runs in six innings.
The low scoring affair afforded a quick pace, with game two clocking in under two and one-half hours. As typical happens during night games, the crowd thinned out before the game ended about 915 pm. The rainout the night before allowed us to spend more time at this beautiful ballpark than originally expected, taking in its ambience and charm. AutoZone Park was named the best minor league ballpark in 2015, and based on what we’ve seen here, it was well-deserved.
Living a distance from Memphis, I’m not sure when I’ll return here again. If I do, I’ll make sure it’s when the Redbirds are home, as this ballpark is worth it.
Day 8 of the 2018 Baseball Road Trip began at the Knight’s Inn in West Memphis, AR, following a doubleheader at AutoZone Park the night before. Our ultimate destination that day was Chattanooga, TN, to catch a Lookouts’ game in the evening. Google Maps informed us that the trip would take a litle more than five hours to reach AT&T Field, home of the Lookouts. That left plenty of time to explore Memphis during the morning hours.
Our first stop in Memphis (upon the request of my brother Jeff) was the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Seeing the motel in person proved to be a sobering experience. Dr King was killed before I was three years old, and of course I don’t remember the tragedy. However, walking through the motel and seeing the room where he stayed, connected me to the event more intensely than I expected. Though the balcony where he died is inaccessible (as is his room), seeing the layout lends perspective to the videos of the event I’ve seen all my life.
Following our visit to the room where Dr King was assassinated, we made our way to the main section of the National Civil Rights Museum. Though we arrived at the museum just about as it opened on that sunny morning, there were lines of school children and visitors waiting to enter. As was the case with our visit to the rooms on the second floor of the motel, strolling though the museum was more powerful than I anticipated.
We spent about an hour at the museum, and could have spent more. However, there were other sites we wanted to see in Memphis, but I’m glad this was our first stop. If you visit Memphis, this is a must-see.
Our next stop was Sun Studio, on Union Avenue. This stop was my idea; how could I pass up an opportunity to see one of the crucibles from which rock and roll sprung? Well, for a moment, it appeared as though it might not happen. Unbeknownst to us (but probably known to the locals), there is not much available parking immediately surrounding the studio. After several approaches, I was about to give up, but my brother insisted we try again. Finally, we were able to secure a spot close enough to the studio to take the tour.
From the outside, the studio is a fairly unassuming profile. It belies the studio’s iconic status, and as might be expected, the place was busy. Just inside the right door was a small counter where we could buy soft drinks and snacks, as well as a small souvenir area. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long for the next tour, which began promptly at the top of the hour.
The first part of the tour wound us through a museum of the early days of the studio, complete with displays of musical instruments and equipment. As a lifelong fan of rock and roll, I drank in the experience. The tour through the museum lasted about 40 minutes, followed by a visit to the studio itself.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the stroll through the museum, the studio is what I truly wanted to see. Sun Studio is still a working studio, as our informative and engaging tour guide reminded us. Though ancient by today’s standards, there was undeniably a presence in this place. Elvis recorded his first hit, That’s Alright Mama, in this very location. For me, it was almost a spiritual experience, knowing I was standing where Elvis helped popularize rock and roll.
On the floor of the studio, there is a taped “x” in the spot where Elvis stood when he recorded his first hit. Our tour guide told us that when he first visited, Bob Dylan bent down and kissed that spot. When our guide asked in anyone in the tour would like to do the same, two people actually did!!! While I was truly enchanted by the place, that was not my idea of fun.
The tour concluded in the studio, and we were welcome to stay for a while before the next tour. However, the size of the crowd made viewing the studio difficult, so we chose that moment to leave. If you have a deep connection to rock history like me, you cannot leave Memphis without visiting the studio.
With precious little time left before we had to head out toward Chattanooga, we headed for Beal Street. Visiting during the day most assuredly did not afford us the best taste of the area, though we did manage to obtain some feel for the place. Walking down the road, I couldn’t help but hear “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohen echo through my head.
After a quick walk up and down the street, we were forced to start on our way to Chattanooga. Of course, we only scratched the surface in Memphis, and I have every intention to visit this place again, making sure to see Beale Street at night. Before heading out on the road, we stopped at a Memphis Welcome Center in preparation for the drive. Memphis had one more surprise for us. Inside the center was a statue of B.B King, which was fitting considering his deep ties to Memphis.
2. Memphis to Chattanooga
Leaving Memphis shortly after noon left us about seven hours before game time in Chattanooga. Luckily, the weather was clear, and the traffic driving across Tennessee this afternoon was generally light. Being from the Northeast, we were pleasantly surprised by the light traffic on Interstates across the Southeast. Even during times when traffic should be relatively clear across the Northeast, there is seemingly some problem (be it slow drivers in the passing lane, people afraid to pass trucks, accidents and endless construction) that slows our progress below an acceptable level.
The drive itself was non descriptive, though we did notice many dead armadillos along the highway. Not knowing much about armadillos, I suspected that they lived further south, where winters are largely mild, even at night. Unfortunately for us (and the armadillos), we did not see a single specimen alive along the side of the road. Following a quick stop for lunch we were on our way again, reaching the hotel in Chattanooga shortly after 500 pm. We stopped long enough to drop off our luggage and freshen up before heading out to the park for the 700 pm game start time
3. AT&T Field, Chattanooga TN
Arriving at AT&T Field about 45 minutes before game time, we found parking at a public lot down the street. Being unsure of the parking layout at the stadium itself, we decided to park away from the field. We have found that parking near the stadium, especially for a well-attended game, can result in a significant slowdown exiting the vicinity.
The ballpark is located on a hill, which is evident as you approach the park. From a distance, it was not clear how to access the park on the hill, until we got closer. There is an escalator behind home plate that makes reaching the ballpark easier, especially to those with mobility issues. As we usually do when visiting a ballpark for the first time, we walked around the outside of the stadium taking pictures. Following the short tour of the outside of the park, we entered the stadium behind home plate. Before going to our seats,, we visited the concession stand, where I partook in a couple of hot dogs, which were unremarkable.
Taking our seats just before game time, we discovered that the seats were directly in the line of the setting sun. That resulted in some difficulty seeing the action that occurred in left field for the first part of the ballgame. On this evening, the Chattanooga Lookouts hosted the Tennessee Smokies in a Southern League game. Skies were clearing, and the temperature at first pitch (717 pm) was about 70 degrees. Despite being a Friday night (which typically means a good crowd), AT&T Field was only about half full.
Sitting down the right field line, we discovered that many of the seats further down the line were in fact general admission seats on an aluminum platform. These seats followed the wall into right field, though there were not many fans in the seats. Overall, the ballpark was on par with some of the Double A stadiums we have visited in the Eastern League. The sight lines were good, and from our seats we had a great look at the field.
Early during the game action, Lookouts catcher Brian Navaretto was injured by a bat during a backswing at the plate. Navaretto was visibly shaken after the incident, wobbling while trying to walk with help from the trainer. Despite his best efforts to remain in the game, it was clear he could not continue. Upon leaving, he received a standing ovation from the hometown crowd.
After scoring a run in the top of the second, the Smokies tacked on four more runs in the top of the fourth, aided by a critical error by the Lookouts. That outburst essentially put the game out of reach. The Lookouts scored their only run in the bottom of the third. Once the game became out of reach, Lookouts fans starting leaving, and by the end of the game, there were few fans left.
Due to the thinned out crowd, our getaway was smooth and quick. The warm evening was quickly turning into a chilly night, not surprising for late April. As ballparks go, it was about average for a Double A team, though it wasn’t without its charms. Our timing was good; unfortunately, the Lookouts are on the chopping block. MLB’s plan to eliminate 40 minor league teams leaves Chattanooga on the outside looking in. Hopefully, for the sake of the fans and the community, AT&T Field will host baseball in 2021.
Day 9 of the 2018 Baseball Road trip began with us checkling out of the hotel just outside of Chatanooga Tennessee after 800 am. The plan for this day was to make the trip back to Maryland after a hugely successful tour of ballparks through the Southeast US. The day started sunny and relatively warm, and we expected traffic to be light, considering it was a Saturday. Conditions seemed ripe for an easy drive home.
Google Maps showed a drive time of 9 hours and 9 minutes with much of the drive on Interstate 81. In preparation for the trip, we knew that we would be passing by a couple of towns with minor league teams. The first was Knoxville, Tennessee, the home of the Tennessee Smokies. They were out of town, as we had just seen them in Chatanooga the night before. We also passed close to Kingsport, Tennessee, the home of the Kingsport Mets. The Mets, the advanced Rookie League team of the New York Mets, are a member of the Appalachian League. They play a short season, meaning their schedule did not start until the end of June.
About 5 hours into the trip, near Roanoke Virginia, I asked my brother if any of the minor league teams on our way back to Maryland had a home game that night. A quick searched showed that only the Richmond Flying Squirrels were home. Not quite ready to end the trip, we decided to make a relatively large detour, and headed for Richmond Virgina. While that destination did take us off the best path back, Richmond is only about 2 hours from home, so it was not as much of a detour as it seemed
We continued along Interstate 81 until we met Interstate 64, and about 2 hours later, we were in Richmond, Virginia. Our destination was The Diamond, the home of the Richmond Flying Squirrels. The AA afflilate of the San Francisco Giants, the Flying Squirrels hosted the Hartford Yard Goats. We arrived less than an hour before game time, having secured tickets for the 605 pm start via the web on the way to the ballpark. Not surprisingly, the game was well attended, and the best seats we could get were for the upper deck.
Because of the sizeable crowd, we parked near the far edge of the parking lot, and made our way to the ballpark. We got to our seats about 20 minutes before the first pitch, which gave us just enough time to get something to eat. This was not our first visit to The Diamond. We came down to Richmond in May of 2017 to see a pair of games against the Harrisburg Senators. During those games, our seats were much better, as the weather that weekend was cloudy and cool.
The first pitch occurred precisely at 605 pm. After a scoreless top of the first, the Flying Squirrels jumped on the YardGoats starter Parker French for three runs in the bottom of the first, adding two more in the bottom of the 3rd. The Flying Squirrels outburst continued in the bottom of the 5th, plating three more runs.
Though the Yard Goats scored three run in the in the bottom of the 3rd, the Goats could not pull much closer. As the evening wore on, with the outcome of the game all but assured, the crowd started thinning out after 6th inning. By the end of the game, more than half the crowd had left. Considering we still had a two hour drive home after the game, a dwindling crowd would make exiting much easier.
As mentioned earlier, this was not our first trip to the Diamond. A much more extensive review of the stadium can be found later in this blog. Overall, it was a pleasant experience at a nice AA stadium. It was also a great way to end the trip, squeezing in one more game before heading home.
Luckily for us, the exit from the Diamond was swift, and we headed north of Interstate 95 toward Maryland. The trip was smooth until we approached Maryland. The combination of traffic and rain slowed our progress, as it took closer to three hours to finally reach home
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.
Day 2 of our Japanese baseball tour moved us to Kyoto. We chose to stay in Kyoto for a few days, since it was the ancient capital of Japan and would afford us an up close view of Japan the way it used to be. My brother chose a hotel close to Kyoto Station, as we would be traveling on the Shinkansen the next three days.
After the rainy and humid conditions in Tokyo, the sunshine in Kyoto was a welcome relief. Following an early breakfast, we went out exploring nearby Kyoto. The hotel was located within walking distance of MANY temples, as well as parks. Walking through local neighborhoods on the way to see the temples, we could not help but notice vending machines nearly everywhere. As we later find out, vending machines are ubiquitous throughout Japan.
About ten minutes from the hotel, we found the grand complex of Higashi Hongan-ji. There are several temples and shrines in the complex, spread out over a few city blocks. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the complex contains the largest wooden tower in Japan, the five story Pagoda. This structure may be one of the most recognizable in Kyoto, and is spotlighted at night.
The largest structure in the complex is Kondo Hall (pictured above). Not accessible to the public (like most of the structures here), the Hall is the centerpiece of the temple. Strolling through the complex, we could almost feel the spirituality. It didn’t take long to see why Kyoto is so popular with tourists and Japanese alike.
Ambling through the complex, we came upon a manmade pond. Within the pond we saw some of the locals, soaking up the late September sun. Having spent more than two hours at the temple, we headed back to the hotel before leaving for Nishinomiya. The visit to the temple had me looking forward to what else we might see in Kyoto in the coming days.
1. Getting to Nishinomiya
Going to see the Hanshin Tigers take on the Yomiuri Giants at historic Koshien Stadium, we would need to take the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen from Kyoto Station to Osaka Station. The trip took roughly 30 minutes, with three stops. After arriving at Osaka Station, we walked across the street to the Osaka-Umeda Station to catch the local train to Koshen Stadium.
Like many train stations in Japan, the Osaka-Umeda Station seemed like a labyrinth of platforms and escalators. While we knew we had to take the Hanshin Line to the stadium, it wasn’t immediately clear where that was in the station. In addition to the Hanshin Line, there was the Hanshin Railway (a private line). The distinction caused some consternation, but once we determined where we needed to get Hanshin Line, we were ready to head to the stadium.
Not surprisingly, the train was packed with Tigers fans headed to the stadium. The trip to Koshien Station took about 20 minutes, with a walk of just a couple of minutes from there to the stadium.
2. Koshien Stadium
Koshien Stadium is a unique ballpark in many ways. It is the oldest ballpark in Japan, having opened in 1926. It is one of only four major league stadiums still in use in which Babe Ruth played (the others being Meiji Jingu Stadium in Shinjuku, Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago). Koshien Stadium is the only remaining NPB ballpark with an all dirt infield.
It was against this backdrop that we entered Koshien Stadium. My brother had a QR code for our game tickets, and obtained our tickets via QR scanner at the stadium. Unlike the tickets we had in Tokyo, these tickets were more difficult to read. We asked a stadium employee which gate we should enter, and the answer was not clear. In order to find the gate, we had to nearly circle the stadium.
When visiting the TokyoDome the day before, we were able to walk around from section to section, taking pictures. This was not the case at Koshien Stadium. Security made it clear that we were to stay in our area, which limited our ability to take pictures of the stadium.
The stadium was packed, with a sold out crowd there to see the Tigers take on the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants. Clouds gradually filled in during the early afternoon, and by the 1400 start, skies were overcast, but seemingly no threat of rain. Even with cloudy skies, the beauty of the ballpark shined through. The stadium dates back to the 1920s, and possessed some of the charms of an older ballpark. Koshien Stadium has a feel similar to that of Wrigley Field (before its modernization). However, the stadium did not show its age, being maintained and groomed well. From the first look, it was clear that this was a classic ballpark; a great place to see a ballgame.
Our seats were located near the left field corner, less than 10 rows from the action. We were located next to the visitors section in Koshien Stadium. As we would learn, there is a visitors section in each NPB ballpark, but not all are in the same part of the park. It was interesting to be so close to the Giants fans, who were indefatigable throughout the game. You can experience the Giants fans chanting here.
The game itself was a tight affair, scoreless after 5 innings. The Giants opened the scoring with a run in the top of the 6th, with the Tigers answering in the bottom of the 7th. A single run in the top of the 8th provided to be the winning run for the Giants, who triumphed 2-1. Toward the end of the game, the sun tried to break out, resulting in a very striking cloud pattern late.
The game time was about three hours and 30 minutes. Unlike MLB games, nobody seemed to be concerned about the pace of play. In fact, we saw a guy served a beer with two out in the bottom of the 9th inning. As we left the stadium, we noticed fans still milling around their sections, slow to exit the ballpark. Clearly, NPB fans see the game as more of an event, and these fans were in no hurry to leave.
Koshien Stadium proved to be a classic ballpark, in the vein of Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. My brother commented this was the stadium he wanted to see on this trip, and it was well worth the effort. Should I ever find my way back to Osaka, I’ll do my best to revisit this place.
The train ride back to Osaka was not quite as crowded as the trip to Nishinomiya, a benefit of a lingering fan base. After arriving in Osaka, a quick walk across the street brought us to the Shinkansen and the ride back to Kyoto. Arriving after dark, we walked back toward the Toji Temple to get a look at the Pagoda at night.
The third stop on our 2018 Japanese baseball tour took us to Hiroshima. Our main purpose was to see the Carp in action at Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium. However, the trip itinerary also included a visit the the Atomic Peace Dome and Peace Memorial Park. Having seen the plane that delivered the first atomic weapon, it seemed appropriate to see the remains of the destruction it helped create.
1. Getting to Hiroshima
From our base of operations in Kyoto, we walked from the hotel across the street to the Kyoto Station. We took the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen to Hiroshima Station, covering the 350 km distance in about one hour and 45 minutes (including six stops). Morning sunshine in Kyoto faded behind cloudiness as we traveled southwest.
The trek covered mainly rural areas, with cities interspersed with the rice paddies and mountains to the north. We noticed many solar farms along the way, but given the weather so far on the trip, I’m not sure useful they were this week.
As we approached Hiroshima Station, we passed close to Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium. Even though we arrived in Hiroshima more than three hours before the 1330 game start time, there were fans already lining up to enter the ballpark. Most NPB ballparks open their gates about two hours before game time, meaning fans were willing to wait an hour or more in line to get inside. We didn’t know why at the time, but we would find out later.
2. Hiroshima and the Atomic Peace Dome
After arriving at Hiroshima Station, we took the Hiroshima Streetcar to the Peace Memorial Park. Though we paid cash for the trip, you can purchase a one day pass (which might be a nice souvenir), or use the Suica card you bought earlier in your trip).
The streetcar stop for the Peace Memorial Park is less than 10 minutes from Hiroshima Station. Upon exiting the streetcar, the Atomic Peace Dome is immediately visible. A somber reminder of the first use of an atomic weapon, the overcast conditions seemed a fitting dreary backdrop. The Dome is the only remaining structure remaining from that day, as it was directly beneath the air blast.
Upon closer inspection, even the rubble from the blast was left in place. As might be expected, the Atomic Peace Dome drew significant interest, even on this cloudy and humid afternoon. Being in the presence of the Dome was a sobering experience, conjuring images of unimaginable destruction and chaos.
The Atomic Peace Dome is the focal point of the Peace Memorial Park, which stretches along the banks of the Motoyasu River. South of the Atomic Peace Dome is the Peace Memorial Museum. Time was a limiting factor when visiting the museum, which has a Japanese section on one side, and an English section on the other. Among the photographs in the museum is a picture from 1947, in which Hiroshima still lies in ruins. The image shows Emperor Hirohito addressing the citizenry, with the Dome in the background. This is reportedly the first time the Emperor had addressed the nation in person.
2. Getting to Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium
With game time fast approaching, we headed toward Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium for the 1330 game start. From the Peace Memorial Park, we caught the streetcar back toward Hiroshima Stadium. The streetcar stop was about 1.3 km from the stadium. Walking through a suburban area following the streetcar ride, we followed a long asphalt walkway toward the stadium. Clouds were lowering and thickening, with rain threatening at any moment.
Along the walkway, we noticed groups of people sitting or standing, watching TVs broadcasting the pre game activities. Though it seemed a bit odd, especially with rain approaching, we didn’t think much of it at the time.
A quick walk around the stadium showed nothing remarkable, though there were food and souvenir stands around the park. Much like other NPB tickets, the seating information was difficult to decipher. Typically, we can at least glean the gate number from the ticket, but in this case, we were stumped concerning where to enter the ballpark. Eventually we tracked down a staff member, who graciously showed us where to enter.
Our tickets were general admission, which meant we would have to view the game from wherever we could. Soon after arriving, we realized why there were lines to enter the stadium three hours before game time. The general admission seating was long gone. To watch the game, we would need to stand. Unfortunately for us, all of the railing around the ballpark was ringed with fans, sometimes four or five deep. It became clear that our view of the game would be tenuous at best.
The Hiroshima Toyo Carp have perhaps the most enthusiastic fans in the NPB. The team often sells out the entire season (70 home games) just hours after tickets go on sale, so this is definitely a tough ticket to secure. Since it didn’t seem to matter from where we saw the game, we sought out the Carp Team Store. The store was comparatively small, when compared to other team stores we’ve seen. There was not much of interest to us, so I purchased a Carp cap and a program.
Following the trip to the store, we walked around the stadium. The game as a sellout, of course, and we didn’t see many empty seats, even with rain on the way. One thing that struck me about the park was its resemblance to the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati OH. Of course, the Carp modeled their uniforms after the Reds, so I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising the stadium would have a familiar feel. In any event, we got as close to the railing as we could to see the start of the game.
The Carp’s opponent this afternoon was the Yokohoma DeNA BayStars. A light rain starting falling as the game started, and the afternoon was becoming murkier by the moment. Since we could not get close to the rail to see much of the action, we decided to circle the field, popping in occasionally to watch the action.
Following our trip around the park, the rain began to fall more steadily. Conditions were becoming less conducive to watching a game, especially since we did not have seats. Having seen the stadium, we decided to leave before conditions became worse. Heading back to Hiroshima Station, we saw fans in the rain, huddling around TVs along the asphalt walkway we took coming to the park. The devotion of the Carp fans was impressive, to say the least.
With the weather taking a turn for the worse, we cut short our visit to Hiroshima, and caught the next Shinkansen for Kyoto. Arriving in Kyoto after dark, we decided to visit the Kyoto Tower. Located across the street from Kyoto Station, we had seen it during the day, and thought it might afford a nice view of Kyoto at night.
Kyoto Tower is located in a commercial building, along with shops and restaurants. A quick elevator ride took us to the observation deck. The deck was crowded, which limited the amount of time we could spend in any one location. The view of the city lights was impressive, though low clouds may have obscured some of the lights from nearby cities.
Following the visit to the tower, we headed back to the hotel, exhausted from a long but fun day in Hiroshima.
We started the day in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, where we had been stationed during this portion of our Japanese baseball tour. Having arrived at the tail end of the monsoon season, the weather was generally warm and humid, with periodic sunshine and showers. These conditions made being outside tricky, but we braved the elements to explore Kyoto during the morning hours.
We utilized local mass transit in Kyoto, as the area was too expansive to walk, given the weather conditions. The concierge at the hotel provided us with bus passes for the day at greatly reduced prices. Should you find yourself in Kyoto, check with the hotel staff to purchase a day pass.
Our first stop was the western edge of Kyoto. Nestled between the foothills of the Hira Mountains and the Kamo River, the view was spectacular, even if the weather did not cooperate. The area was very popular with tourists, and the walkways and the restaurants were jammed on this cloudy and humid morning. We walked toward the foothills, reaching the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove toward late morning.
In quieter times, I envision this place being peaceful, almost spiritual. However, on this day, the masses of people moving through the grove made it less so, though the walk was still worth the visit. At the end of the grove, there was an opportunity to visit some of the local wildlife.
A path in the mountains leads to the Monkey Park Iwatayama. The snow monkeys are located above the grove, about a 20 minute climb into the mountains. Unfortunately, I was unable to make the climb, missing out on an opportunity to feed and walk with the monkeys in the cloud shrouded peaks above. If you are interested in visiting the monkeys and taking in the views of Kyoto (should the weather allow it), you can learn more here.
Following our visit to the bamboo forest, we backtracked across the Kamo River on the Togetsu-kyō Bridge. Wandering along the river was peaceful, especially in between waves of tourists. Sitting along the river offered wonderful views of the mountains, though the higher peaks were obscured in clouds. It isn’t difficult to understand why the Japanese see this place as a cultural or moral center. Kyoto harkens back in time, and is often viewed as the Japan the way it once was.
We ate lunch at a local restaurant just off the beaten path, on the edge of the foothills. In addition to a wide variety of Japanese dishes, the restaurant also offered Italian cuisine. We’ve seen this in our travels across Japan. Perhaps the Japanese view Italian dishes as a “safe” alternative to Japanese dishes for tourists, or maybe they just like Italian food. Either way, having a limited and decidedly non-adventurous palette, I opted for the ravioli, which was surprisingly good.
After lunch, we wandered through the Arashiyama section of Kyoto. Despite the many cultural touchstones of Kyoto, I found my attention was riveted by the natural beauty of this place. Having crossed the bridge back into a more city like setting, we saw geishas in training, as well as a number of temples. In between temples, there were many, many places to buy souvenirs and take pictures. Having spent much of the early afternoon exploring, we caught the bus back to the hotel to rest before the game in Osaka that evening.
2. Getting to Osaka
Following a short rest at the hotel, we started out for Osaka, to catch a a game at the Kyocera Dome between the visiting Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and the Orix Buffaloes. We took the Tokaido-Sanyo bullet train from Kyoto Station to Osaka Station, a trip of about 30 minutes. Upon arriving at Osaka Station, we boarded the Osaka Loop Line (using our Suica card) for the 20 minute ride to Taisho Station. From there, we walked about 700 meters to the stadium.
3. Kyocera Dome
Arriving not much more than an hour before game time, we walked to the Kyocera Dome box office to purchase tickets for the game. At virtually every other NPB ballpark, this might be a risky strategy. Most teams draw very well, with few day of game tickets available. However, the Buffaloes don’t draw well, and to our surprise, there were very good seats available.
Fortunately for us, the box office staff understood enough English help us purchase the tickets. The ticket was more difficult to read than most, with no English and little obvious information containing the location of our seats. We followed some advice given earlier in the trip, and continued to hand our tickets to staff members until we were shown to our seats.
Since we had some time before the first pitch, we visited the team store. Unlike most team stores near or within the ballpark, the store had a large selection of souvenirs and apparel. After paying for the game tickets with cash, I didn’t realize that I had little money left when I attempted to pay for a Buffaloes cap (which was FAR more expensive than I originally thought).
In search of funds, I found an ATM in the stadium. As I had expected, my card was declined, since it was NOT a Japanese issued card. My brother came to my aid, but in my haste, I laid out near $100 USD for a cap that should have cost closer to $30 USD. This was my first mistake with Japanese currency (which was abetted by my misreading of the label). From that point on, I made sure to have enough cash on hand to solve most minor problems.
Returning to our seats shortly before the first pitch, we got the feel for the ballpark. The Kyocera Dome is a large indoor stadium, that seemed even larger with a sparse crowd. The park was reminiscent of Tropicana Field in St Petersburg, FL, in that it felt dim and empty. The Orix Buffaloes do not draw well, and that was evident in the stadium that night. As is typical, there was a sizable contingent for the visiting team in attendance, and there were times when the visiting team’s fans out cheered the home team’s fans.
The Kyocera Dome also has a unique roof. The roof looks like the underbelly of an alien ship, casting a presence over the entire field. Against the backdrop of the huge roof, the thin crowd made the park seem nearly empty. The visiting Hawks scores early and often against the hapless Buffaloes, to the delight of the Hawks’ faithful in the left field stands. Though the Buffaloes did scores some runs late, the Hawks held on for an 8-5 victory.
The fairly sterile environment, lack of fan support, and the poor team on the field made this stop the least enjoyable on our Japanese tour. While we may visit Osaka again, it is highly doubtful that the Kyocera Dome will be in the agenda.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.