Wednesday, June 21, 2017

zTravelogue: I Love The Hanshin Tigers

For my last night in Osaka I went to Koshien Stadium to watch Osaka's beloved Hanshin Tigers play the Yokohama DeNA Baystars. I think this was the best live sports experience of my life.

Tigers fans are notoriously passionate, possibly the most rabid fans in Japan. The Tigers are also perennial losers. Taken together, they were called the Red Sox of Japan until 13 years ago, and fans still use that analogy to explain their vibe to foreigners. When I went to the game they were in first place but the guys who took me assured me that it wouldn't last for long. They are 4 games out of first place as I write this.

I was invited to the game before I even left the US and I jumped at the chance, name dropping Kosuke Fukudome in my reply email after checking the roster and recognizing the former Cub. That I knew who Fukudome was put me in good stead as he is one of my host's favorite players.

I work closely with the two guys who took me to the game but I've only met them in person a handful of times. Most of our interaction is by phone or email. But they like to drink beer and watch baseball and we get along well so I was sure we would have fun.

In order to foster more eating and drinking in Osaka restaurants and bars, the local government started this "Premium Friday" summer program where corporations are incentivized to let employees leave early so long as they go out and have fun. Sort of like summer hours crossed with beer bash. As luck would have it, my last night in Osaka was the first Premium Friday ever so I went out with a large contingent of colleagues.

People in Japan love to drink, and if you aren't drinking speedily or volumetrically enough booze, someone will say "Will you drink my sake?" I Apparently this is trash talk (I think it sounds more like smack in Japanese) so when someone explained what was going on I started telling everyone "Oh, I'll drink your sake!!!" Aggressively. But it went over well (Osakans love humor, even misguided American humor) and I drank a lot of sake and malt liquor and ate some beef and fish and headed over to the subway.

A ticket from Umeda Station (right by my hotel) to Koshien is 270 yen, or about $2.50. As with all trains and subways in Osaka it was immaculate and the AC was forceful. We got there in about 20 minutes. I got off the train and the weather was perfect.

Koshien is the oldest stadium in Japan but you'd never know it. It looks modern and spotless, although the stadium itself doesn't look like much from the outside.

On the way in my hosts got all excited when we passed a trinket stand. They bought a bunch of what appeared to be unrolled condoms with very large reservoir tips and insisted that I do so too. They were balloons. More on this later.

We also passed a bunch of food vendors. Suffice it to say that ballpark food in Japan is different than what they serve in the Bronx.

Later we passed some higher quality merch. I abstained.

Then we went inside. The first order of business was getting more beer, then we found our seats in right field, near Fukudome. I settled into my seat and I was not prepared for what I saw. An entire section in left field was blue jerseys--Baystar fans. And they had flags and drums and trumpets and chants. It was hardcore. And it was clear that I would never run out of beer--the vendors are 21 year old girls in pink Asahi outfits carrying small kegs in backpacks. They are ubiquitous.

The Tigers fans soon clapped back. Turns out they have their own band in center field, sort of like the Bleacher Creatures only more musical. They even have a conductor. The whole crowd got into it.

One of my friends disappeared, presumably to go to the bathroom, and returned with two yellow Tigers jerseys. He told me "This is my gift to you so now you are a Tigers fan! And now we will wear them." I'm the fat guy on the right.

They don't play Take Me Out to the Ballgame during the 7th inning stretch. Instead they do this.

That's what the balloons were for. Fun, right? But that wasn't my favorite moment of the game. Here's my favorite moment of the game.

Top of the fifth inning, Fujinami, their 6'5" 19-year-old fireball-throwing future phenom with control problems (think of an Asian Nuke LaLoosh) gets into a jam. Japanese managers let their pitchers try and work out of it longer than Americans do--it only gets worse and he gives up three runs (one unearned) and they pull him with two men on. Iwakazi comes in and gets out of the inning but gives up two more runs. My friends are pissing and moaning, in English, throughout. "Oh, bad control!" "He trying to kill me!" "I've been saying he too young!" "Ug. Tigers." It really was kinda Red Soxy.

Bottom of the fifth, runners on first and second, Fukudome comes up to bat. He's 40 but he's still a slugger in this league and you can feel a energy and hope ripple through the crowd as he enters the box. The bandleader calls up their rally song--every batter has their own song, but this time they play the Hanshin rally song (this was explained to me by one of the other guys). You know how sometimes you can just feel a big play coming? Here's what happened. The video is a little over 2 minutes long but I think the payoff is worth it.

That was great. But it wasn't what made me title this post "I Love The Hanshin Tigers." I've never experienced a sporting event like this. Plenty of people were drinking, many heavily, but no one even considered getting into a fight. We were all having fun. There were tons and tons of children at the game. They were all well behaved and all the adults behaved well in front of them. There was passion and heartbreak (the Tigers went on to lose 5-2) but everyone was happy and upbeat. Everyone cheered together and no one took the loss to heart. Everyone knew all the songs and all the cheers, everyone wanted the home team to win and yelled themselves hoarse, but no one was a meathead or a jerk. No one gave the chubby American guy a hard time. Instead, for a few hours on the west side of Osaka on a perfect May afternoon into night, I was passively taken in by a community of people, embraced and accepted and included, and despite the fact that I had no idea what they were singing or why they were singing it, I had a spiritual experience. Those who know me well know that I laugh when people wax overly poetic about sports, and my sister says I'm the coldest person she knows, but God help me I got misty-eyed at the affection on display between parents and children, groups of friends, complete strangers. It was like a cross between an SEC football game, or maybe a Premier League soccer match, and a Quaker meeting. Maybe it was the alcohol, who knows. But I can't wait to get back to another Tigers game.


Mark said...

I was already jealous of Z's Japan trips but now I'm really, really jealous.

rootsminer said...

My 11 year old informed my aunt the other day that he was saving his money for a trip to Japan, but not planning to save enough for a return trip.

Whitney said...

Very cool, Z. Prolific lately.

U2 exceeded expectations by some measure. Really, really good. The Joshua Tree... not a bad album.

T.J. said...

hey, the embedded videos actually played. #success

zman said...

Teedgeus saves!

I realize the last paragraph is a bit hyperbolic, but it's honest. I've been to a handful of big games (game 2 of the 1996 WS; game 1 of the 2008 NBA Finals; 2007 AFC Championship; round 2 floor hockey A-side playoff game) and none of them felt like this.

Danimal said...

That's awesome stuff Z. How did American fans become belligerent assholes? Someone should do a post on that.

Venturing to guess each of us knows many a people that have seen u2 on this tour....haven't heard one iota of negativity.

Currently in the Bahamas visiting newest client site, Baha Mar. It is the boobies....speaking of exceeding expectations. Must get here if you like the big resort thing with beaches, pools galore, beautiful hotel, CASINO!, and good golf.

zman said...

I bumped into a few Americans at the game and they seemed to be in the same cocoon/haze of joy and happiness as me. Even the guy from Detroit!

Mark said...

my wife alerted me to the existence of Baja Mar just last week. Some chef she works with had worked there. It looks sick. The teenager declared that out next vacation. I laughed.

rob said...

this is most excellent, zed. the last paragraph isn't hyperbolic - it's real talk.

TR said...

I think somebody slipped some Molly into Zman at the game.

Mark said...

Phil is openly shopping Porzingis! For missing a fucking exit interview. This is amazing.

TR said...

I think Phil is playing mind games and seeing if he can get an over-the-top offer.

Danimal said...

Hi gheorghies.

Dave said...

what a post! i guess i've got to start saving my money . . . my kids love sports and ian loves sushi, and by the time i have enough to fly the family over there, both kids will be able to drink. is there a drinking age in japan?

Mark said...

I stopped believing that Phil was playing front office chess a while ago, TR.

T.J. said...

Went to a work event last night at the American History Museum, and 78-year-old Kenny Rogers brought the heat as the guest performer.

zman said...


Remarkably, a car that sounds like that and gets around the track like that has less horsepower than a 2017 V6 Camry.

rob said...

do we need an nba draft open thread?

T.J. said...

I'm on it