2018 Baseball Road Trip – Day 8 (Memphis to Chattanooga Tennessee)

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.

1. Memphis

The famous sign for the Lorraine Motel. I’ve seen this sign in pictures for much of my life. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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.

One of the exhibits from the National Civil Rights Museum. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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.

Sun Studio, Union Avenue, Memphis TN. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

From the outside, the studio presents 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.

Sam Phillips’ early broadcast booth. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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.

Amplifiers on the floor of Sun Studio. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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.

Beale Street. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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.

B.B. King welcomes you to Memphis! (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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.

Google Maps showing us the way to Chattanooga.

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.

AT&T Field from behind home plate shortly before game time. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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.

The view from our seats. You can see the sun wash we experienced until sunset that evening. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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.

The scoreboard in left field at AT&T Field. Note the haze in the distance, caused by sun wash. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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.

AT&T Field at night. By the time this picture was taken, much of the crowd had already departed. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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.

2018 Baseball Road Trip – Day 9 (Chattanooga Tennessee back to Maryland)

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 depiction of the 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.

The Diamond, home of the Richmond Flying Squirrels. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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, but the weather that weekend was cloudy and cool.

Our seats for the game. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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.

The Flying Squirrels Miguel Gomez reaches third without a throw following a wild pitch the bottom of the 1st inning. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Though the Yard Goats scored three run in the in the bottom of the 3rd, Hartford would 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.

The Diamond at night. Note that the crowd had thinned out considering that the Flying Squirrels had put the game out of reach. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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

Kyoto/Nishinomiya, Sunday September 23, 2018

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.

Kondo Hall, the largest structure at the Toji Temple complex.

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 Pagoda on the grounds of the Toji Temple. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes).

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.

Toji Template residents sunning themselves on a rock in a manmade pond. (Photo credit; Jeff Hayes)

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.

Getting from Kyoto to Osaka, as depicted by Google Maps.

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.

The direct train line to Koshien Stadium took about 20 minutes on a very crowded train.

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.

A ticket for the Hanshin Tigers game on a September, 23, 2018. It took some time to decipher the vital information in order to find our seats.

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 view from our seats. Note the all dirt infield to the right. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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 scoreboard at Koshien Stadium. The scoreboard bares a vague resemblance to the old scoreboard at Wrigley Field. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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.

Sunshine trying to break through the clouds at Koshien Stadium toward the end of the game.

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 fan 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 top of the Pagoda at the Toji Temple. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Hiroshima, Monday, September 24th, 2018

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 Kyoto-Hiroshima trip depicted in Google Maps.

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.

A map of the Hiroshima Streetcar stops. In addition to getting you where
you’d like to go, it afforded a great way to view Hiroshima.

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.

The Atomic Peace Dome. A UNESCO Heritage site, this vantage point superimposes the Dome on the modern Hiroshima in the background.

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.

The Peace Museum from a distance. The Atomic Peace Dome is to the left in this picture. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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.

Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium in Hiroshima

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.

My Hiroshima Carp ticket. Almost all of the vital information is in Japanese.

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.

DeNA BayStars fans in the upper deck in right field at Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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.

A manhole cover seen on the asphalt walkway back to Hiroshima Station. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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.

Kyoto at night, from the Kyoto Tower. Even with the clouds, the mountains are visible to the west. (Photo: Jeff Hayes)

Following the visit to the tower, we headed back to the hotel, exhausted from a long but fun day in Hiroshima.

Kyoto/Osaka, Tuesday September 25th, 2018

1. Kyoto

We started the day in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, where we had been stationed during this portion of our 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.

Along the banks of the Kamo River in Kyoto. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes).

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.

The fabled Bamboo Forest of Kyoto. If it wasn’t for the throngs walking through, it would be a very peaceful place. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes).

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.

Togetsu-kyō Bridge in Kyoto. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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.

One of many temples we saw in Kyoto, complete with women dressed in geisha garb. However, we discovered that being dressed like a geisha does not make her a geisha. (Photo credit: Melissa Willis).

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.

Even though there are many cultural sites to see in Kyoto, my memories are filled with images like this. Plus, there are snow monkeys up there!

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.

Google Maps showing the Osaka Loop Line. After arriving at Taisho Station, we walked 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.

The information on this ticket is more difficult to decipher than most NPB tickets. We needed assistance finding our seats.

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.

The view from our seats. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes).

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 roof of the Kyocera Dome. Its appearance was eerily reminiscent of the bottom of an alien ship. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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 on the agenda.

The colorful scoreboard was more entertaining than the game at times. Note the scattering of fans in the left and centerfield seats. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes).

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.

Shinjuku, Wednesday, April 3rd, 2019

Shinjuku at night. Shinjuku is probably my favorite part of Tokyo..

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.

The view from the train, traveling north toward Fukushima. The snow capped mountains in the distance reminded us that it was still winter in part of central Japan.

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.

Snow showers descending out of the mountains toward the train outside of Fukushima.

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.

Domino’s in Fukushima. Not pictured here is the Denny’s just down the street. Almost reminds me of home. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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 franchises 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.

A display in the Fukushima train proudly announcing that baseball and softball will be played here in the 2020 Olympics. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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.

Meiji Jingu Shrine in Shinjuku. The sprawling complex has several central buildings, as well as trails for hiking. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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.

The view from our seats in Meiji Jingu Stadium. Unlike most of the NPB games we’ve seen, this one was lightly attended. Perhaps the fact that the game time temperature for the 1800 start was about 5 Celisus (about 41 degrees Farenheit) had something to do with the small crowd. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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 are 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).

For the exchange of the lineup cards, the managers, coaches and umpires were bundled up against the cold. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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).

Wladimir Balentien, the LF for the DeNA BayStars.

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 four 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.

Despite the cold, the BayStars fans filled the left fields stands, the traditional seating for opponet fans at NPB parks. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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.

RF Yuhei Takai receiving a Tsubakuro doll (the Swallows mascot) after hitting a three run homer to tie the game. It is customary for players to receive a doll after hitting a home run in Japan. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

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.

Sendai, Japan Wednesday, April 4th, 2019

1. Getting to Sendai

After seeing a ballgame in Shinjuku Tuesday night, we rose early to take the train from Shinjuku to Tokyo Station to catch the Shinkansen to Sendai for an early afternoon ballgame. Since we were leaving Tokyo for a few days, we checked out of our hotel, taking our luggage with us. Typically, we would not take the train during morning commute in Tokyo (considering the crush of people during this time), but we made a reservation on the Narita Express. This gave us some breathing room while lugging our bags.

JR tickets from Shinjuku to Sendai

Upon arriving at Tokyo Station, we boarded Car 9 (the Green Car) on the 0910 Hayabusa (the Falcon) for Sendai station. During the one hour and 30 minute trip, we were treated to sweeping vistas of the terrain. While a flight would have been shorter, taking the bullet train afforded us a view of Japan that was well worth the extra time.

From the Shinkansen, headed north toward Sendai. Snow capped mountains in the distance reminded us that it was still winter in parts of Japan.

Arriving at Sendai station around 1040, we were too early to check into our hotel (located across the street from the station). However, we planned for this. Within Sendai station were rows and rows of lockers, many large enough to easily hold our bags. Conveniently, we were able to pay with our Suica cards. Luggage secured, we headed out toward the ballpark.

2. Rakuten Seimei Park Miyagi

Initially, we planned to take the subway from the station to the ballpark, a distance of a little more than a kilometer. Confused by which direction was which down in the subway, we abandoned this option, and instead decided to walk. The weather was cloudy and cool, perfect for an early April stroll. The walk also allowed us to take in more of Sendai.

A manhole encountered on the way to the ballpark in Sendai. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

We were far from alone on the walk; it seemed as though much of Sendai was headed to the park for the early afternoon game. Reaching the park well ahead of the start time, we had plenty of time for pictures. Like most Japanese ballparks, there was plenty to do and see outside of the park, with games, food stands and places to purchase team apparel.

There were signs outside the park indicating the stadium was cashless, meaning we needed to buy a card to make purchases within the ballpark. This was something we had not yet seen. Should you plan to catch a game in Sendai, this is something to consider.

Outside of Rakuten Seimei Park, shortly before game time. Like many NPB ballparks, there was plenty to see and do, including live entertainment. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes).

Our seats were just to the third base side of home plate, at the top of the lower level. These seats allowed for a great view of the field. For the 1300 start, the Sendai Rakuten Golden Eagles hosted the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. Unlike other parks we’d visited, there was less English here, with just some on the scoreboard and on the field. In a strange sense, it felt like we were really in Japan, as Sendai is NOT an international city (like Tokyo or Osaka).

Rakuten Seimei Park Miyagi was as appealing as expected, in spite of the gray skies. The capacity is small compared to other NPB ballparks, holding less than 25,000 people. Nearly every seat in the park was filled, even with the early afternoon start. It seems that, unlike MLB contests, the start time of the game does not curtail crowd size. Like some MLB parks, it was interesting to note that the home team’s dugout was on the third base side.

Our seats at Rakuten Seimei Park Miyagi. Despite the clouds and cool weather, the park was essentially filled. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

As was the case in other NPB ballparks, we were limited as to how much of the park we could access. This did hinder of our ability to fully explore the stadium, as well as take pictures. However, the view from our park was excellent, with only the far left field corner obscured. After the typical pre game pageantry, the first pitch was thrown precisely at 1300.

The Golden Eagles struck first, scoring three runs in the bottom of the first. Due mainly to his inability to contain the Golden Eagles offense early, the Fighters starting pitcher lasted only 1 2/3 innings. The teams settled into the game by trading scoreless innings through the fifth inning. The Golden Eagles offense erupted once again in the bottom of the sixth, scoring eight runs and putting the game out of reach of the Fighters.

Increasing sunshine provided some relief from the gloom and cool temperatures. The park seemed to come to life as the sun came out.

As the game continued, the clouds slowly dissipated, with sunshine providing some warmth toward the end of the game. The increasing sunshine also lifted the veil over the ballpark, revealing its colors. The Golden Eagles won the ballgame 11-3, with a game time of nearly 3 hours and 40 minutes. Rakuten Seimei Park is a cozy ballpark, barely larger than the biggest MiLB parks in the US. Its size holds a charm not generally not found in MLB parks. If it was not so far away from Tokyo, I would readily visit the park again.

On the way back to the hotel, we discovered the Golden Eagles team store. In the store we found a MUCH larger selection of team apparel than at the ballpark, which allowed my brother to find a Tohuku jersey (a reference to the region of Japan). We noticed many older Golden Eagles fans wearing the same jersey at the game. Following some exploration of nearby Sendai, we had an early dinner, then relaxed after a long day.

Yokohama, Sunday April 7th, 2019

The last stop on our 2019 stadium tour brought us to Yokohama Stadium, the home of the Yokohama DeNA BayStars. Unlike the previous stops on the tour, the weather was much more agreeable, with a hint of spring in the air.


1. Getting to the game

The cherry blossoms were in full bloom in Tokyo. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

We did not go straight from our hotel in Tokyo to the stadium. After walking through Tokyo (admiring the cherry blossoms), we headed out in search the Seibu Lions team store in the Ikebukuro section of Tokyo. We took the Marunouchi line from Tokyo Station to Ikebukuro station, a journey of about 20 minutes. After a few false starts, we found the Seibu Department Store. The Lions team store was located on the 8th floor. The team store was surprisingly small, but my brother was able to get a Lions jersey.

From the Ikebukuro station, we took the Fukutoshin line to the Nihon-Odori station, with the trip taking about 50 minutes. From the station, it was a short walk (about 400 meters) to Yokohama Stadium.


2. Yokohama Stadium

It was a beautiful afternoon at Yokohama Stadium, as the DeNA BayStars took on the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants. We arrived about an hour before the 13:00 start, which gave us time to explore the surroundings. Unlike most Japanese ball parks, there wasn’t much to see outside the park, so after a cursory look outside we entered the ballpark.

Quite intentionally, the BayStars team store was located just beyond the gate. Of course, we perused the store, purchasing apparel and a yearbook (completely in Japanese). Prices here were higher than other team stores. For example a Giant cap sold for nearly 10,000 yen (about $100 USD). Not yet possessing a Giants cap, I was tempted, but ultimately passed on the opportunity.

The information on the ticket was barely discernible, so we heeded advice given early on to show our tickets to team employees until they showed us our seats. We sat on the left field side, beyond third base in the lower level. Even an hour before the game, the stadium was packed (which we found to be true just about everywhere in Japan).

The view from our seats. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Just before of the start of the game, there was an audible murmur in the crowd, as a young man walked out to the mound to throw out to the first pitch. The crowd clearly knew who he was, though we didn’t have a clue. The young man was a member of a J-Pop band, whose name escapes me.

A celebrity throwing out the first pitch. We later learned he was a member of a J-Pop band. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The lineups were announced before the start of the game. Quite unexpectedly, the lineup announcements were in English, which was a first at an NPB game. In fact, the announcements sounded as though they were being made in an American ballpark. The English continued for each at bat, a nice touch for a foreign baseball fan. Unlike the other ballgames we saw in Japan, there were many foreign fans in attendance. Our entire row was comprised of Americans, except for the Giants fans sitting next to us.

Very MLB like scoreboard in Yokohama.

The visiting Giants had a large cheering section in left field (as is customary in Japan). The section sang a different song for each player. Being the third time we’d seen the Giants, we actually recognized the batters by the fight song chanted by the fans.

The Giants fans cheered loudly when the Giants were at bat, from the 1st inning through the 9th. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Not to be outdone, the remainder of the stadium chanted for the BayStars in the bottom of the 1st inning. Having been to eight NPB games, it still amazes me that the fans have the stamina to maintain the cheering the entire game (want to hear the chanting? Check it out here.) The fans, the warm weather, and the ballpark made this my favorite stop on our NPB baseball tour (though my brother would disagree).

The BayStars fans cheering for their team. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The game itself was fairly one-sided, with the BayStars taking an early lead and holding on for a 5-1 victory. Rather than stretch during the middle of the 7th inning, the Japanese have another tradition we’ve seen at every ballpark so far. Fans inflated balloons and released them when instructed. The resulting display is quite colorful, and view a montage of balloon tradition is available here.

Like most other ball games in Japan, we saw some foreign players, though none of names were familiar. Seemingly, most of the foreign players were fireballers, with fastballs over 95 mph (a skill homegrown pitchers did not appear to possess on a consistent basis).

DeNA BayStars left hander Edwin Escobar. Escobar had brief stints with the Red Sox and Diamondbacks. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The game time was a reasonable two hours and 45 minutes, the shortest game we saw on this trip. Typically, NPB games last between three and three and one-half hours. However, unlike the US, nobody in Japan seems to mind. For the Japanese, baseball is more than a game; it’s an event.

The pageantry of NPB baseball. (Photo credit; Jeff Hayes)

Seeing baseball games in Japan: Part 4: Being a baseball fan in a Foreign Land

During our visits to Japan, we experienced a culture to which we had no direct connection. Even though the culture was different, there were many touchstones from home. Below are some of the customs about which we learned traveling in Japan.


1. The Language Barrier

Traveling to a land where you neither read or speak the language can be daunting. However, we found that in urban areas that there is enough English present to put you at ease. Virtually all signage has English as well as Japanese, so navigating your way is relatively easy.

Traveling outside of the major urban areas could present more of a challenge when it comes to communicating with locals. For example, we found that Fukushima and Sendai had much less of an English presence than Tokyo or Osaka. These cities offered us our real first taste of being in Japan. Still, in these areas, there were still some reminders of home.

Domino’s Pizza in Fukushima, Japan (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

If you plan to travel outside of the more urban areas of Japan, it might be a good idea to load Google Translate (or something similar) on your phone. To be safe, I loaded a version of Translate with a static dictionary, in the event we found ourselves outside of good cell reception.


2. Walking on the left side

The Japanese drive on the left side of the road, and they, for the most part, walk on the left side of the sidewalk, and the left side of stairs. The only large scale exception to this rule we saw was in Osaka, where it seemed customary to walk on the right. Of course, not everyone does this. In Tokyo, this custom seemed less rigid, with people walking on each side (much like you might find in Manhattan). Overall, to be considerate, try to walk on the left side.


2. Interacting with locals

As a rule, it seems as though the Japanese shy away from dealing with foreigners. In urban areas, this not quite as evident as in more suburban or rural areas. In fact, we had a young Japanese woman ask if we needed help purchasing train tickets at Tokyo Station. By contrast, I offered to help an elderly couple in Tokyo carrying boxes that were clearly too large for them. They politely declined and went about their way.

Don’t be insulted if a seat next to you on a train remains empty, even during peak travel times. It’s just their way.

4. Tipping


In Japan, there is no tipping. Unlike everywhere else we have been, the Japanese see tipping as rude or an insult, as though you were paying them extra to do their jobs well. This includes restaurant servers, hotel employees and cab drivers.


5. Eating on the Run in Japan

While most places we’ve been have convenience stores in abundance, there are ubiquitous in Japan. In virtually every urban area we’ve visited, there are 7-11 stores. Just like in the US, you can grab a quick snack or drink. Unlike the US, however, you can actually get a small meal at the 7-11, and even eat it there. In fact, we saw as many people eating at 7-11s as more traditional fast food restaurants.

The 7-11 stores are far from the only convenience stores in Japan. On seemingly every block stood a Family Mart or a Lawsons. These stores have plenty of snacks and drinks too, and some are even located near or within hotels in Tokyo. In addition, there are vending machines almost everywhere, offering drinks and water. If you travels keep you busy, convenience stores and vending machines will keep you fueled until you time for a meal.