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.

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.

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)