As hockey is to Canada, as soccer is to Brazil… as potatoes are to Poland, so is baseball to Japan.
Far and away the country’s most popular sport, for Japanese, baseball is something close to a national obsession.
The yearly high school baseball championship is televised nationally to millions (enjoying widespread popularity similar to that of March Madness in the US), baseball-related manga number in the hundreds, and Japan consistently produces some of the best major league talent in the world.
Although, not much of a fan myself, I knew going to a Hanshin Tigers game (Osaka’s beloved pro team) at ultra-famous Koshien stadium was something I had to do before leaving.
Getting there however, would prove difficult.
Early in the week I tried to buy tickets to Sunday’s day game at the 7-11. In Japan, you can buy tickets to anything (sports, concerts, bullet trains) from a convenience store. Unfortunately though, they were all sold out by Tuesday.
After telling a Japanese friend about my failures, they suggested I just go with my friends to Koshien stadium before the game and buy the tickets there. Even if 7-11 said the game was sold out, it wouldn’t actually be completely at capacity. Fine, I thought, I’ll do it.
Except, the door tickets were sold out too, and we had wasted so much time coming to the stadium!
We considered giving up right there. But no, it was too soon to go home. We composed ourselves and decided to look for a scalper.
In Japan, scalping is very much an illegal practice, still we figured someone must have some extra tickets somewhere, so we started walking around the stadium.
There was nobody to be seen. The game had already started and we were already on our second lap around when we noticed a guy—a young guy, standing uncomfortably next to the entrance, looking awkwardly down at three tickets in his hand.
In Japanese, we approached him asking if he could help us out. Although he held 3, he told us he could only sell 2 (perhaps the other was for him, and in any case, it was located in a different area).
Because we had one more friend on her way to join us, we almost didn’t accept, but being that we were desperate, and hadn’t seen anyone else resembling a scalper in the prior 15 minutes, we figured two tickets were better than none.
Although normally, the cheapest tickets go for 1900 yen each (about 25 dollars), the scalper was selling his seats for less, 1500 yen. Definitely a good deal I thought.
I looked at my friend and told her how much he was selling for. We’d worry about getting the last ticket for our friend later we decided. Before we had a chance to get out the money though, the young guy selling the tickets panicked at our speaking of English, and having only the vaguest sense of how to barter, told us he’d sell them both for just 2000.
In we walked into the stadium victorious and searched for our seats. Immediately it was sensory overload.
Walking the past takoyaki stands, ice cream vendors and other kiosks in the hall, we followed the roar of the crowd to ground level and looked up. The crowd, a packed sea of yellow and white, were at a fever pitch, chanting their team song in unison, “HA-A-AN-SHIN TAI-GA-ZU!”
Soon we found our seats near the top of the bleachers and started taking in the sights and sounds in more detail.
As mentioned before, most of the crowd (about 80% by my count) wore the hometown colors of yellow, white, and black. Many also wore Hanshin towels over their head to protect from the sun, had little toy bats that when struck together made a hollow percussive sound (used for many of the chants and songs) and waived huge team flags.
When it came Hanshin’s turn to bat, we realized that each player had their own unique song the crowd would sing to encourage them with. This means that fans have to know at least 10 songs. They were sung so often though, that even I was able to join in on some of them near the end of the match.
By the third inning, our friend Eri had arrived and was waiting outside. As there didn’t seem to be any other legal option available, we decided that Celia, the friend that I had come with, would take our two ticket stubs outside and then try to sneak in Eri while I waited at our seats. This was decided mostly because Celia is more charming than me, and probably cooler under pressure as well. If committing the crime had required more physical prowess (perhaps climbing a tree, or knocking out and then impersonating a guard ala star wars) I would’ve surely volunteered, but alas Celia was the person for the job.
After nearly 20 minutes of waiting, getting more nervous with each passing minute, I saw them walking up the stairs triumphantly. As they told me later, they had been given trouble by the ticket-taker at the door. Obviously, you cannot leave with ticket stubs that have already been ripped and expect to just come back in. Fortunately however, our Japanese friend Eri with her dark glasses and bucket hat, silently pretended to be a foreigner while Celia did all the talking. Eventually, unable to understand English, and probably more than a little uncomfortable with the situation, security relented and the two were allowed in.
As the game went on, I was almost torn about whether to watch the game (which was exciting in its own right) or the crowd. The babies crawling around in their Hanshin jumpers with little tiger tails, the young beer girls with kegs strapped to their backs sweating through the 30 degree heat with smiles plastered on their faces, and best of all, the giant screens that said stuff like “good” and “nice one” when Hanshin made a play.
And the spectacle didn’t end with the songs, at the top of the 7th inning, seemingly everyone in the stadium took out long tubelike balloons, (we were given some by the drunken louts sitting behind us) blew them up, and then all at the same time let them shoot up in the sky, momentarily blocking the sun. Although that might sound a bit silly, it was a truly joyous moment, one perhaps, you’d have to be there to appreciate.
Finally, in the 9th inning, with the game tied 2-2, the Tigers found themselves with the bases loaded and only one man out. With the crowd going wild, somewhat anticlimactically, the relief pitcher for rival Saitama Seibu Lions hit Hanshin’s batter, putting him on base and clinching the game for Hanshin. Just like that, Hanshin had won 3-2, and the festivities began. People danced and cheered, and sand the Hanshin song again (but this time with dance moves).
After 4 hours in the sun, (and in retrospect, more mistuya cider than I should’ve drank), we grabbed our things and headed home, full to the brim with spirit.
Baseball may not be your thing, and honestly, the action on the field can be a bit hit-and-miss in Japan, but if “fun” is, go see the Tigers. Legally.
You’ll be happy you did.