I’m not particularly a huge sports fan and yet still going to a baseball game in Japan was very, very high on my list for our trip this past April. Sports represent a way to interact with the locals where language doesn’t matter and in Japan that’s especially useful given that language was a big problem. And so, on the evening of our first full day in Japan, the four of us piled on to a train and headed 30 minutes north from Kamakura to Yokohama to watch the Bay Stars take the field.
We had seats out in the bleachers, near the band and some of the more enthusiastic fans. This is the band who, along with a cheer leader and a few other die hard fans, travels to all the games every season. It is unclear how they afford to do so or if they have real jobs, but being a dedicated fan seems to be hard work.
Player introductions had some similarities to those in Yankee Stadium, mostly in that each player has a specific cheer tied to his name and which the fans scream incessantly until acknowledged by the player. In the case of the Bay Stars there are also mascots on the field, a male and female, and at one point during the pre-game festivities the woman knocks the man over and plays him like a Taiko Drum. That was less similar to the pre-game I’m used to.
The game play is similar to US baseball, though much slower. They offset that by starting evening games at 6pm but jetlag, slow play and the woeful performance through 7 innings by the home team had us dragging a bit. Fortunately the fans around us kept the energy levels high. Also, we were able to sample the local snacks and even run out across the street to 7-11 for refills on drinks at more reasonable prices. Another interesting difference is that relief pitchers have a sweet ride from the dugout to the mound. I’m a bit surprised MLB hasn’t adopted this as another branding opportunity during the game.
Some 3+ hours into the game things picked up a bit. Prior to the 7th inning the visiting team has a 7th inning stretch performance, with songs from the band, cheering and the release of hundreds of reasonably phallic balloons up into the air. It cams as something of a surprise but we also quickly realized why we were handed balloons as we entered the stadium earlier that evening. In the middle of the 7th it was our turn to sing, cheer and launch balloons into the sky.
The 8th inning brought more excitement because the home team finally started to play some baseball and score a few runs. There were a pair of home runs which tied the game and which led to a cycle of cheers which was amazing. Apparently a home run triggers something by which the cheering goes on loop until something else happens. In this case it meant an extended period of raucous fun from the fans.
Also, remember how I mentioned above that sports can bring people together and overcome language and social barriers? I 100% believe that’s true and the home runs had us quickly making friends with the fans around us, with high 5s and cheering. Except one guy in our row. He steadfastly refused to partake in the high 5 action. Not because he didn’t understand – he clearly did – but because he wasn’t interested. He was actively avoiding cheering with us. It may have been the most entertaining part of the experience, or maybe that was the Chu-Hi talking, but it was a ton of fun either way.
I was very fortunate that @ThePointsJock saw a tweet of mine about wanting to go to a game. He offered to arrange everything for the four of us and his insight and experience made it a spectacularly easy and mildly intoxicating evening. In turns out that a big part of the secret is that, like many other things in Japan, the 7-11 is where the fun begins. By which I mean that’s where you buy the tickets. And snacks. And drinks.
I put this at the top of my list for things to do in Japan and while it was not the only amazing part of the trip it absolutely was one of them. Completely worth it and I’d do it again next time.
I also would be remiss to not thank @ThePointsJock again for all his help and being such a generous host. Truly amazing.
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