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Tokyo Dome baseball

Passion, interest in Japanese baseball thrive

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Fervent fans support a sport rich in history

 The Arizona Republic — May 29, 2012

TOKYO – With an upper-deck ticket tucked away in my back pocket, I arrived 4 1/2 hours early for a late-April Sunday afternoon game between the Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers at the Tokyo Dome.

Japan baseball fans at Tokyo Dome

Japanese baseball fans waiting for standing room tickets outside the Tokyo Dome

It was my first Japanese baseball game, and I wanted plenty of time to explore the Dome’s environs and visit the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, which adjoins the stadium.

I assumed the complex would be relatively deserted at 9:30 a.m., but after a five-minute walk from the train station, I couldn’t believe what I saw as I approached the Dome. Several hundred people — some of whom had appeared to have camped out the night before — were in an orderly line snaking up to a ticket window that hadn’t even opened yet.

They were hoping to get standing-room tickets for that afternoon’s game. Only about half of them would eventually get inside the stadium, and even then, their view of the action would be blocked by so many people standing in front of them, they would end up watching the game on one of the many TVs located throughout the Dome’s concourse.

True, it was a holiday weekend in Japan and the Giants and Tigers are two of the country’s most popular teams. But I had not expected to see this level of interest for a regular-season game just three weeks into the season between the third- and fifth-place teams in a six-team league.

Tokyo Dome

The Tokyo Dome is the most-recognizable venue for baseball in Japan

Once I went inside the Dome, I was even more surprised at the depth of the fans’ passion for a game the baseball-crazy Japanese call yakyu. From the first pitch through the final out, the intensity of the fans was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced at an American baseball game. I wasn’t sure if it felt more like being in the stands at an SEC football game or a zealot-packed political rally.

“It’s much noisier than Major League Baseball games,” said Wayne Graczyk, the dean of American baseball writers in Japan, who I met after the game for pizza and beer at a sports bar near the Dome. Graczyk first began writing about Japanese baseball in 1975 and is now a baseball columnist for the English-language Japan Times. He also is the longtime editor of the Japan Baseball Media Guide.

“Whatever the reason, since the early 1900s when colleges here first started playing baseball, it hooked on, and it’s been a passion of the Japanese people ever since,” he said.

Japan Baseball Hall of Fame

Entrance to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

This day at the Dome proved to be my most memorable experience during a weeklong trip to Tokyo. With its labyrinth of trains and subways and dearth of English street signs, the world’s largest metropolitan area — home to more than 30 million people — can be bewildering and even downright intimidating to foreigners. Going to a ballgame brought a much-needed sense of familiarity, and at the same time, offered a fascinating glimpse into Japanese culture.

Before the game, I spent a couple of hours touring the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. I learned that baseball started here in 1872 when Horace Wilson, an American teacher living in Tokyo, wanted to come up with a way for his students to get more exercise. So he taught them to play baseball. Wilson was posthumously elected to the Japanese Hall of Fame in 2003.

Also enshrined is Sadaharu Oh, the only Japanese player I had ever heard of before pitchers Hideo Nomo and Hideki Irabu were signed by major-league teams in the 1990s. Known for his distinctive “flamingo” leg kick, Oh holds the world career home run record of 868, 106 more than Barry Bonds. Oh played his entire 22-year career with the Yomiuri Giants, retired in 1980 and later became the Giants’ manager.

Sadaharu Oh plaque in Japan Baseball Hall of Fame

Plaque honoring Sadaharu Oh in the Hall of Fame

Like any good sports museum, there’s an interactive exhibit in which visitors can test their skills against some of the greats of the game. In this case, they’ve set up a virtual batting cage with a video screen displaying some of Japan’s toughest pitchers in their windup. You get three swings at the screen with a small plastic bat. A cardboard-cutout umpire connected to a computer announces if you made contact.

Luck of the draw, I went up against Yu Darvish, perhaps the most intimidating pitcher in Japanese history. Before joining the Texas Rangers this season, Darvish pitched from 2005-11 for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, compiling a nifty 93-38 record with an ERA of 1.99.

I gave Darvish no trouble. “Batter out,” the cardboard umpire barked in barely discernible English after I swung and missed for the third time. The next batter was a Japanese boy who looked to be about 12. He promptly doubled off the wall.

Japan Baseball Hall of Fame virtual batting cage

Facing Japanese pitching greats in the Hall of Fame’s virtual batting cage

The first thing visitors see when entering the museum is a trophy case full of memorabilia from the inaugural two World Baseball Classics in 2006 and 2009, both of which were won by Japan. It made me wonder about the quality of play in Japan. How does it compare to American baseball?

“A lot of people ask me about the level of play here,” said Graczyk. “It’s higher than Triple-A, but lower than the major leagues.”

And what about the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, winners of last year’s Japan Series, Nippon Professional Baseball’s equivalent of the World Series? How would they have fared in the majors?

“I don’t think they would have made the postseason,” he said. Would they have had a winning record? “Probably not.” But Graczyk added that he thought there are enough high-caliber players in the country — as evidenced by the success players such as Darvish and Ichiro Suzuki have enjoyed in the U.S. — that a Japanese all-star team could possibly make the playoffs in MLB.

View of the Tokyo Dome from above

    View of “The Big Egg” from the Tokyo Dome Hotel

It was now two hours before game time — when they were scheduled to open the gates — and a large crowd was already lined up waiting to get inside. Before going in, I walked over to the Tokyo Dome Hotel and rode an elevator up the 40th floor for a better view of the stadium. I could see why the Dome, which opened in 1988 and was the first covered baseball venue in Japan, is commonly referred to as “The Big Egg.” From above, that’s exactly what it looks like.

I was surprised to learn that the Arizona State football team once played a game at the Tokyo Dome. In 1990 ASU faced the University of Houston in a regular-season game called the “Coca Cola Bowl.” Apparently the Sun Devils’ secondary was suffering from a severe case of jetlag. They gave up 716 yards in the air by Houston quarterback David Klingler in a 62-45 loss, a record that still stands as the most passing yards in an NCAA game.

After grabbing a quick lunch of traditional Japanese noodle soup at a stand outside the stadium, I entered the Tokyo Dome. From the inside, it looked comparable to most of the cookie-cutter domed stadiums built in America in the 1980s. Functional, but not exactly bursting with personality.

I took a walk around the concourse to check out the concession stands. They had all the usual ballpark fare found back home, including hot dogs, hamburgers and ice cream. But the stand that seemed to be the busiest was selling something you won’t find at Chase Field — a bento box. This is a traditional Japanese meal served in a plastic box. You get some sort of fish or meat, rice, pickled vegetables and other local delicacies that you likely won’t be able to discern, each in their own compartment.

Tokyo Dome Bento Box concession stand

Bento box concession stand inside the Tokyo Dome

I had tried a bento box a couple of days before in Tokyo. Even though I had struggled with the chopsticks, it made for a quick and tasty lunch. I had paid 400 yen (about $5) for mine, about one-third of what they were charging at the Tokyo Dome.

In addition to domed stadiums, artificial turf and the designated hitter, it seems the Japanese have imported something else from American baseball — the art of concession-stand price gouging.

The Dome was filling up and I took my seat. Before coming to Japan, I had looked on a map to find where the cities of Yomiuri and Hanshin are located. Then I found out that many Japanese teams aren’t named for the cities in which they’re located, but rather their corporate owners. Yomiuri is a huge Japanese media conglomerate and Hanshin is a railway company.

The Giants, though, are most closely associated with Tokyo, and the Tigers play their home games near Osaka. Graczyk told me the Giants — historically the most successful franchise in Japanese baseball — are somewhat akin to the New York Yankees. People either love them or hate them.

Tokyo Dome scoreboard

The starting lineups on the Tokyo Dome’s scoreboard

I had gotten a sense of this at my hotel that morning when I told Iida, the front-desk clerk, I was going to the game. Iida barely spoke English but he had no trouble summoning the words when I asked him if he rooted for the Giants. “No,” he said without hesitation. “Why not?” I asked. “Giants are here,” he said, with his hand at eye-level. “I like the teams here,” he added, dropping his hand a couple of feet.

Explained Graczyk: “A lot of people here like to root for the underdog.”

The Yomiuri Giants’ uniforms closely resemble the uniforms worn by their American namesake — the San Francisco Giants. Being a loyal Diamondbacks fan, I decided to root against them, too.

The Giants were the home team, but it seemed as if the stadium was equally split between supporters of the two teams. I happened to be surrounded mostly by Tigers fans, many of whom were wearing yellow, while Giants’ fans were dressed in orange. The stadium looked like a giant citrus orchard.

Once the game started, the noise was incessant. There was the constant clanking together of miniature plastic bats with team logos that many fans had brought with them. There also was chanting and singing in unison, orchestrated from each team’s cheering section in the outfield bleachers. Known as an oendan, these sections were the epicenters of organized cheers that reverberated throughout the stadium.

Tokyo Dome baseball sellout

The Yomiuri Giants face the Hanshin Tigers in a soldout Tokyo Dome

I had no idea what the fans were chanting and singing, just that it was loud and in unison. I asked the people sitting next to me to translate the cheers for me, but no one seemed to speak English.

Finally, in the bottom of the second inning, as Giants pitcher Tetsuya Utsumi walked to the plate (there are two six-team leagues in Nippon Professional Baseball; the Pacific League uses the DH, while the Central League — which includes the Giants and Tigers — does not) the crowd broke out in a song I could understand — “Happy Birthday.”

Turned out, it was Utsumi’s 30th birthday.

Later in the game, I took a walk to get a closer look at the Tigers’ oendan in the left-field bleachers. Huge flags were being waved and I heard drums, tambourines and trumpets making music under the direction of a fan holding signs in the front row — like the captain of a cheerleading squad at a college football game. The colors, songs and cheers were different, but the same thing was going on in the right-field bleachers, the heart of the Giants’ oendan.

Hanshin Tigers baseball fans

The Hanshin Tigers’ oendan in the left-field bleachers

What I saw on the field didn’t look much different than back home. There are only a few major rules differences between Japanese and American baseball. The regular season in Japan is 144 games, compared to 162 in the U.S. Japanese teams are each allowed a maximum of four foreign players. And if an extra-inning game in Japan is still tied after three-and-a-half hours, they won’t start a new inning and the game ends in a tie. Games lasting into the early morning hours just don’t work in Japan.

“Around the Tokyo Dome, there’s no parking,” Graczyk said. “Everybody comes to the game by train. And the trains stop running shortly after midnight.”

Utsumi celebrated his birthday by throwing seven scoreless innings and the Giants won, 2-0. After the victory, the Giants’ players bowed in unison to their fans. The following day the two teams played to an 11-inning scoreless tie. Offensive production is way down in Japan the past two seasons; some believe the decline stems from a change to a less-lively baseball introduced at the start of the 2011 season.

Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world. A decent-quality sushi dinner can easily cost $100. A movie theater ticket is $24. Even a cup of tea can set you back $5.

Yomiuri Giants baseball fans

Diehard fans root for the Yomiuri Giants

But baseball is a relative bargain, with prices comparable to what you’d pay to see a Major League game. I purchased my seat — behind home plate 10 rows from the top of the stadium — several weeks earlier online for 2,300 yen (about $29). When I bought the ticket in early April, there were only a handful of seats available in the entire 42,000-seat Dome. More than 3,000 fans were admitted with standing-room tickets, pushing the paid attendance to 45,164.

The Hall of Fame also is reasonably priced. Admission is just 500 yen ($6.25) and they’ll give you a 20 percent discount if you present a ticket for that day’s game.

I’ve attended a hockey game in Latvia, kickboxing in Thailand, and a soccer match in Brazil. Going to a sports event abroad — like a Japanese baseball game — can often give insight into a culture that you just can’t get in a museum, castle or religious shrine.

In addition to writing about baseball, Graczyk works for a company — JapanBall.com — that offers baseball tours in which visitors can attend games in all 12 Japanese big-league ballparks.

“It’s one of the things you should see when you come to Japan,” said Graczyk. “It’s just an awesome experience.”

© 2012 Dan Fellner

Tokyo subway map

Photo Essay: Tokyo Mass Confusion

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Mass Transit; Tokyo, Japan

I’ve never climbed Mt. Everest, hiked the Inca Trail, or even bungee-jumped.

But after a great deal of trial and error, I have conquered (barely) one of the world’s most difficult travel challenges – the Tokyo mass transit system.

With 882 stations, Tokyo’s subways and trains transport 40 million passengers to school and work each day, making it easily the largest and most complicated mass transit system in the world.  This map at the Ueno train and subway station near my Tokyo hotel illustrates the complexity of getting around the city. 

I found the map more difficult to decipher than a James Joyce novel. 

Everything is automated so you buy your tickets from vending machines.  And good luck finding someone to ask for help.  In fact, I was surprised at how few people in Tokyo spoke English.

Nevertheless, I only had a few relatively minor snafus.  I got on the wrong train once, but quickly realized my mistake and was able to get off after the first stop and hop-on the correct train across the platform.

When first arriving in Japan, I did fine getting from Narita Airport to the station closest to my hotel.  But what should have been a five-minute walk from the train to my hotel, took me about an hour (in the pouring rain).  In my part of town, not many street signs were in English.

Admittedly, in terms of degree of difficulty, getting from point A to point B in Tokyo is nothing close to scaling Mt. Everest.  But at the end of my week in Japan, I did feel a sense of accomplishment.

Now if I could only figure out how to use chopsticks …

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2012

Tokyo synagogue kippahs for sale

Judaism with a Japanese twist

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Jewish response to tragedy in Japan demonstrates tikkun olam

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix – June 8, 2012

TOKYO- It was the afternoon of Friday, March 11, 2011, and Rabbi Antonio Di Gesu was busy getting ready for Shabbat services at the Jewish Community of Japan’s building in an upscale section of central Tokyo called Shibuya.

At 2:46 p.m., the building started to shake, an alarm sounded, and Di Gesu and the rest of his small staff rushed outside. Standing in a parking lot, he could see buildings in the neighborhood actually swaying back and forth and the ground beneath him made him feel like he was on an airport people-mover.

Tokyo Rabbi Di Gesu

Rabbi Antonio Di Gesu in the sanctuary of the Jewish Community of Japan

“The asphalt was moving – going back and forth,” he recalls. “It was like being in a dream.”

Di Gesu had been living in Japan for two years and had felt tremors there several times before, but nothing close to the 9.0 earthquake – the biggest in Japanese recorded history – that rocked the island that Friday afternoon and triggered a massive tsunami in the northeastern part of the country.

Once it became clear that Tokyo had escaped relatively unscathed, Di Gesu decided to go forward with Shabbat services that evening, even though only four people turned up.

“It was the right thing to do,” he said, noting the Shabbat prayers “had a different meaning this time, as the roaring waters mentioned in the psalms were not a poetical image, but in reality a few hundred kilometers from us.”

Wanting to learn more about Jewish life in the world’s largest metropolitan area, I met Di Gesu on a rainy afternoon at the Jewish Community of Japan in late April during a weeklong visit to Tokyo. I also asked him about the much-heralded Jewish response to what proved to be the most expensive natural disaster in human history.

Centered off the northeastern coast of Japan near the city of Sendai, about 190 miles north of Tokyo, the quake and tsunami led to a meltdown at the nuclear power plant in the region. Nearly 20,000 people lost their lives and more than 300,000 Japanese were rendered homeless. Property damage has been estimated at $235 billion.

As soon as Shabbat ended, Di Gesu was contacted by the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo about getting involved in relief efforts. Even though none of the estimated 2,000 Jews living in Japan had been killed, hurt or even displaced by the tragedy, Di Gesu didn’t hesitate. After all, he thought, what better way to demonstrate one of Judaism’s guiding principles – tikkun olam (repairing the world)?

Jewish Community of Japan building

Entrance to the Jewish Community of Japan building

Di Gesu sent out an email to his congregants appealing for help. One bought more than two tons of flour and had it delivered to the displaced. Another congregant, an 11-year-old girl named Lucie Kapner whose father teaches at the JCC’s Sunday school, single-handedly organized a bicycle collection program. Nearly 100 bicycles were sent to disaster victims in a destitute town.

“I was extremely proud of her,” said Di Gesu. “It meant that her parents had taught her the right things, had instilled in her good Jewish values.”

Other congregants organized food drives and took time off work to help with the cleanup. An account at a Japanese bank was set up for Jews in Japan and around the world to donate money. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other Jewish organizations got involved. All told, Jews around the world contributed nearly $3 million in disaster relief, according to Di Gesu.

“The most amazing thing to us is that we had so much support from abroad – from all over Europe and all over the U.S.,” he said.

Israel was one of the first countries to come to Japan’s aid, establishing a 50-member field hospital in a coastal fishing village that was devastated by the tsunami. When the Israelis finished their work, they left behind most of the medical equipment they had brought with them.

The Chabad House of Tokyo also played a vital role in disaster relief. Rabbi Binyomin Edery, who has lived in Tokyo since 1999, made more than 50 trips to northern Japan, personally delivering aid supplies.

Di Gesu said the Jewish assistance has helped build important “bridges of understanding” with the Japanese public, many of whom had known little about Jews before the disaster, good or bad. “They come with no baggage,” he said of the Japanese attitude toward Jews, adding that in his three years in Japan, the only anti-Semitism he has witnessed came from foreigners.

There are only two synagogues in Japan – one in Kobe and the Jewish Community of Japan, a Conservative congregation in Tokyo that was established in 1953. That original synagogue was torn down in 2008 and replaced on the same site a year later with a sleek, gray-block building designed by an award-winning Japanese architect.

Yarmulkes made from kimono fabric in Japan

A challah cover and yarmulkes made from kimono fabric

Di Gesu said at one time the site was home to a samurai mansion. When going inside, visitors are politely asked to remove their shoes and replace them with slippers, a Japanese custom. The most popular items for sale in the gift shop are colorful challah covers and yarmulkes handmade from Japanese-kimono fabric.

It’s Judaism with a Japanese twist.

The building also contains more traditional Jewish elements, such as a sanctuary, kosher kitchen (meat is imported from the U.S.), a Hebrew school, library and mikvah. About 100 families belong to the congregation, 80 percent of whom are American. Di Gesu said many of the congregants have Japanese spouses.

Visitors to Japan are welcome to attend Shabbat services on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings or enjoy a kosher meal in a congenial atmosphere (reservations are suggested, rsvp@jccjapan.or.jp).

Like most of his congregants, Di Gesu is an expatriate. He was born in Sicily, went to college in Rome, and later graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Before coming to Japan, he led a Conservative congregation in Long Island, N.Y. He speaks seven languages and has translated half a dozen books from Hebrew to Italian.

Tokyo pagoda

A five-story pagoda in the Asakusa section of Tokyo

What’s it like being a rabbi in Japan? “It’s absolutely unique,” he said. “Sometimes, it feels like we’re at the end of the world. We are really far away.”

Di Gesu said there’s a common misconception that Japanese people are not religious. “Being in the religion business, it’s interesting to me how religion pervades everything, even though when you ask them, they tell you, ‘No, I’m not religious.'”

For example, Di Gesu said that at the groundbreaking of the new synagogue, a Shinto priest was brought in to offer a blessing at the request of the Japanese construction crew. “Otherwise, they refused to work,” he said.

Di Gesu misses the multiculturalism of New York City. People say Japanese culture is so homogenous that even the cab drivers are Japanese. But Di Gesu is making the most of the experience, taking Japanese-language classes three times a week and immersing himself in Japanese culture.

“Yes, I miss the multiculturalism,” he said. “But here you can learn about a really rich culture that’s totally fascinating.”

© 2012 Dan Fellner