It may seem strange to suggest to a tourist in Japan to watch what is quintessentially an American sport, but like many things that Japan has assimilated, due to cultural differences, there have been some errors in the translation. The rules and the game are essentially the same, however it is the crowd and the fans that makes it the event that it is and a worthwhile excursion for any tourist in Japan.
It might also come as a surprise to hear that baseball is one of the most popular sports in Japan. The local Hokkaido team, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters (more on the team names later) are based in the spaceship-like Sapporo Dome. It is an enormous enclosed area with seating capacity for 40,000 Japanese fans. It is also the venue of the annual Toyota Big Air competition.
As was mentioned earlier, it is the fans that make the game fun to attend. There are dedicated cheer squads for both teams, which take turns in blasting horns, cheering, chanting, clapping, waving flags and generally making noise for their side when they are batting. They even have special songs (and routines) for each batter. It feels very Japanese, but the crowd also have special little plastic batons that they bang together instead of clapping – a marketing success no doubt.
There are also the other rituals that are carried out, like the releasing of balloons during the middle of the seventh innings. These balloons are inflated using special souvenir pumps to avoid people filling balloons with nasty influenza viruses from their bodies and propagating them around the stadium – another marketing homerun.
It wouldn’t be baseball without beer, and there is something incredibly convenient about it being carried around and freshly poured from a backpack keg and brought to you in your seat. Sure, the beer comes with the same caveats that most Japanese bars come with – that is, 25% frothy, foamy head. And also the beer comes in an unsatisfying plastic cup. But at ¥650 without the need to move, it’s pretty awesome.
However, if you were chasing a hot dog to eat at the ball game, you might be disappointed. Fast food of choice is Coronel Sanders very own KFC, with a plastic foamy cup of beer, of course.
Team names are a little unusual in that they often don’t even feature the name of the area that they are from. For example the Orix Buffaloes are based in Kobe/Osaka, but are named after the company that owns them, Orix. Likewise, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters are based in Hokkaido and owned by Nippon Ham – they don’t actually fight Japanese cured meat products, as entertaining as it would be to imagine.
For all the fun and Japanese uniqueness, it is still a baseball game, and with that comes all the good and bad aspects of the sport. It is a simple game with easy to understand rules and concepts, however it can be slow (which can be a bonus, allowing for more time to drink). The season runs from late March until October, so if you find yourself in Japan outside of winter and are after a different Japanese experience, it’s worthwhile attending a game, especially if you can bring a few friends.