Soccer (サッカー, pronounced saa-kaa) may be overtaking baseball in popularity – a recent survey of Japanese boys shows that more of them want to be soccer players than baseball players, although a recent poll showed businessman to be the top choice for boys and the third top for girls. Still, professional baseball attracts large crowds, comparable to attendance at Major League Baseball in the United States. In fact, attendance has been rising and in 2015, the top-drawing team, the Tokyo Giants, averaged over 42,000 a game and a total of 3 million spectators, more than all but six MLB teams (and that was playing 9 fewer home games).
Enough of statistics. (Click the links, if you must.) Let’s play ball! Or はじめ! (hajime, let’s begin, as the locals would say). On Sunday, five of us went off to the Tokyo Dome to see the Yomiuri Giants play the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. A short subway ride later, we found ourselves outside the Dome, with its white tiled roof and a huge crowd of fans, orderly and well behaved as ever.
I wore my Giants’ cap and jersey, the latter graced with the name of Giants’ star Hayato Sakamoto, purchased when we first went to a game in 2010. Sakamoto was 22 then and a rising star – now he is one of the established veterans. I high fived it with a couple of other fans wearing the same jersey.
The rules of the game are basically the same, 3 strikes and you’re out, etc., but everything else has a Japanese take including, surprisingly for a country which has imported huge numbers of foreign words, the word for baseball, 野球 or yakyu, the Kanji characters for which signify “field” and “ball”. Here are some highlights, in no particular order:
- The fans: Although there were fans of the visiting team sprinkled around the stadium, a large contingent of them was concentrated in left field, dressed in red Carp shirts. As the Carp came to bat in the top of the first inning, they made a tremendous din, chanting, clapping, waving banners, all supported by incessant drumming and brass instruments.
The home fans were strangely silent until … the bottom of the first, when it was their team’s turn at bat. The Carp fans tucked away their instruments, and flags, and their cheers died down and now it was the Giants’ turn. This alternation went on all through game. As each team came to bat, their fans went wild and the others grew quiet. The Carp fans made up for their smaller numbers by jumping up and down – every other seat – for innings at a time. P.S. to Dodgers fans: Almost everyone arrives before the game and almost no one leaves before it ends. And just about everyone arrives by subway or train at one of the stations that ring the stadium, so no overcrowded lots and the stadium clears really quickly.
- The beer: The highlight for everyone. The Giants don’t have an official beer – it’s come one, come all. It’s how you buy it. Even before the game starts, pretty young women, each toting a massive keg on her back, dash down to the bottom of the aisle, turn, bow and then run up the stairs. You wave when the girl carrying your preferred brand appears in your aisle and she comes and serves you at your seat. They do this for all nine innings – service keeps going to the very end. These women are, without question, the fittest human beings on the planet. You can also buy shots and sweet treats the same way.
- The food: Yes, you can buy hotdogs. But why not try a rather yummy bento box, complete with tasty Japanese dishes? But get your order in early. Fiona and Laura went off in search of them in the third inning and had to go round the stadium because so many of the vendors were sold out.
And when you are done, do not, repeat do not, throw your food and packaging on the floor. Put it all in the helpfully provided plastic trash bag you are given with your order and deposit at the top of the aisle. Result – the floors are so clean, you could eat off them, before and after the game. The only trash we saw was left behind by a know-it-all English guy who spent most of the game explaining it to his Japanese neighbor.
- The cheerleaders: The cult of the cute is in full swing at the Tokyo Dome, never more so than when, instead of a seventh inning stretch, the cheerleaders came out accompanied by a posse of cheerleading kids, seemingly around 8 to 10.
- No bullpen was visible – it’s underneath the stadium. So no photograph of that.
- There is a super-giant screen, on which we made a brief appearance although we were too slow to catch it on camera. So no photograph of that either, I’m afraid. No Kiss Cam, either, as Japanese are not given to PDAs (public displays of affection).
A baseball game actually took place although, as you can see from the final score, it was a bit of pitcher’s duel. My man Sakamoto struck out in his only appearance as a pinch hitter. This Carp player fared no better. Still, each team hit a home run and the Giants scratched out a run in the bottom of the eighth. The batter of the game-winning RBI ended up with a weird looking toy and the game MVP award.
As always, we were shepherded into and out of the stadium by many many attendants . As we left, one of them pointed at my cap and gestured to me to hold on to it. I thought he was trying to get me to duck as I went through the quite low door. But what he meant was, hold on to your cap. There was a blast of wind from some wind tunnel effect and my cap went flying. A kindly fan caught it and returned it to me. And off we went to dinner at our favorite/only Western restaurant, a pizzeria called Bamboo. (おいしかった. Look it up on Google Translate and say it to the waiter after your next Japanese meal.)
Next up on our sporting calendar, a trip in mid-May to see FC Tokyo of the Japanese professional soccer league. We are being accompanied there by our new Facebook friend, Yohei, a Japanese college . . . baseball player.