As a sports fan in Japan, it can be quite hard to catch live action for a number of reasons.
First of all, you have the time difference between the UK and Japan. Recently it was kicked back an hour, so the previously rather inconvenient eight hour gap has now become a massive pain in the arse nine hour difference. One hour might not sound like much but when Saturday afternoon football is kicking off at midnight instead of 11pm you do notice the difference.
The second, and perhaps bigger issue is the fact that I am contracted to work on Saturdays and Sundays from 9.30 until 6ish. Pulling an all nighter instead of catching the last train home for the sake of a drab 0-0 game isn’t really an option I’m keen to explore; I’m looking at you, Manchester derby.
The same goes for live sports in the flesh. The large majority of local football here kicks off on a Saturday afternoon or, at a push, early evening – just as I’m finishing work. All things considered, I’ve had to get my feed of sports in other ways. I’ve blogged previously about watching a sumo tournament, which was awesome and gave me a sports fix of sorts (although I’m not sure if it’s a ‘sport’ in the true sense of the word), however the sumo only comes to Tokyo three times a year.
There’s good news and bad news.
The good news is that there’s another incredibly popular sport in Japan that is often played on Monday and Tuesday nights – my days off. The bad news? It’s baseball.
I have been fairly vocal in the past about how much I despise cricket; I think it is quite literally the most mind-numbing, monotonous sport in the world…and I watch Formula One. Now, I know baseball and cricket aren’t quite the same, but if you strip it down then the basic premise is that people throw a ball, hit it with a bat and run, right?
Well, sort of. In my desperation to actually catch some live sport (and embrace the culture, and all that jazz..), I accepted a colleague’s invitation to watch a game between the Yakult Swallows (yes, really) and Chunichi Dragons at Yakult’s Jingu Stadium. The thought of getting served booze by hot girls with backpacks full of overpriced beer whilst watching live sports is probably what swung it for me. Let it never be said that I don’t approach things with an open mind.
As I mentioned in my post about Summer Sonic, buying tickets for events here in Japan can be something of a struggle if you don’t speak the lingo. Thankfully, my colleague James sorted the tickets through a local friend of his who is a season ticket holder. It’s not what you know – it’s who you know.
After stocking up on beer, yakitori and buying a mini umbrella (more on that later) we headed in to the ground. Upon entry we were greeted by the single most lax security check I have ever seen. You were asked to open your bag and as long as there was no prohibited items visible you were free to go in. Basically, all we had to do was make sure our beers were under a jacket in our bags and it was all good. A far cry from the borderline cavity search you’re subjected to at football grounds in the UK!
The four of us made it to our seats in time for the player introductions and national anthem, and once this was out of the way, three of our party set about actually trying to understand the rules. I’m still not 100% sure, but I reckon I could watch a game of baseball now and sort of understand what’s going on.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the crowd was a lot louder and more vocal than I anticipated. It made for a great atmosphere and also helped those of us who didn’t quite understand what was going on at times; when the home crowd is loud, something good must be happening, right?
Talking of which, let’s get on to the umbrellas. Before the game, whenever I mentioned to a Japanese person – mostly students – that I was going to watch the Swallows, they all took great pleasure in telling me about this custom that Swallows fans have involving mini umbrellas. I didn’t quite get it – but essentially the fans sing a song and hold mini umbrellas up in the air whenever the team hits a home run. I’ll let the video below do the talking…
I couldn’t wait for a home run – I was like an excitable child with my umbrella! Thankfully, the Swallows racked up a massive six home runs, winning the game by a crushing 6-2 scoreline. The pick of the home runs being a monster of a strike from Tsuyoshi Ueda, which even a novice like me who didn’t really understand the game could see was an impressive hit. Do I sound like I know what I’m talking about? I do? Good.
One thing I loved about this game was the atmosphere between the two sets of fans. With Swallows being on the verge of the title – and the Dragons having a season to forget – both fanbases were united in their desire to see the Swallows seal the championship to prevent the unpopular Yomiuri Giants winning it. I guess they’re like the Manchester United of Japanese baseball. In fact, at the end of the game the Dragons fans stayed behind and sang a song wishing the Swallows luck for the rest of the season. A little bizarre, but a nice touch I guess.
Despite the game lasting three and a half hours (THREE AND A HALF HOURS), I left Jingu Stadium feeling like I’d been a bit harsh towards baseball in the past. To tar it with the same brush as cricket was incredibly cruel, as it’s much more entertaining than that. It probably helped that the team I was ‘supporting’ was incredibly dominant this year, but they were crap last year so I’m still claiming to support the underdog.
All in all, it’ll never be my favourite sport but it’s certainly one I’ll enjoy watching. Now, what do I watch until the baseball season starts again?