Commentary

Pitching Japan, where baseball and blossoms beckon

Updated: June 13, 2008, 9:22 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com


• Photo gallery: Baseball in Japan

Kyoto is captivating on this warm spring night.

The occasional geisha scurries across a wood footbridge. Tourists pose for pictures underneath blossoming cherry trees and inspiring temples. Locals gather in parks to drink beer during parties dedicated to the sakura (cherry blossom) season. Restaurants tucked into narrow, lantern-lined streets beckon with menus of sushi, sashimi, shabu-shabu and sake.

But I'm ignoring all of it at the moment while heading up an elevator off Kyoto's Kawaramachi Street, heading for a more cultural, more meaningful site – a site where I can experience some true history, a site off the usual tourist route where I'll find the true Japanese character.

I'm headed to the Fenway Park bar, where the 2004 and 2007 World Series play on a continuous loop and the owner confidently informs me that the Yankees suck.

If a gin joint dedicated to the Red Sox seems out of place in this world heritage city, it should not. Japan loves baseball and a trip to this country is an even more rewarding fix for the fan than a two-week road trip with Crash Davis and Nuke LaLoosh.

Catch the next Dice-K and Ichiro at a Nippon Professional Baseball game anytime from April to October and anywhere from Sapporo to Fukuoka. Join in the country's passion at the spring and summer Koshien high school tournaments that turn teenagers into national heroes. Watch a Little League team practice year-round, even in the snow of winter, and see the players bow to you as you approach the diamond.

Cherry blossoms
Jim CapleAhhh, one can experience cloud nine under the cherry blossoms, which frequently play host to picnickers and partyers alike.
It all certainly beats sitting through another August doubleheader in Arlington's 100-degree heat.

Ichiro, Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka may be in America, but you can find entire museums dedicated to them here.

The newest is the Dice-K museum, which opened this spring in Wakkanai, Japan's northernmost town, which is located on the tip of the island of Hokkaido.

Wakkanai is so remote it is closer to Russia than Tokyo and so ravaged by weather that high barricades line the highway to keep snow from drifting across the road.

The city, which the Lonely Planet guidebook notes for its kelp-drying beds, hopes the museum will lure tourists, but whether you think the trip is worth the effort largely depends on whether you feel a compelling need to see the cork from the champagne bottle Dice-K popped after the Red Sox won last year's World Series. (The delicious crab in Wakkanai, however, is well worth the trip.)

More interesting and far more accessible is the Ichiro museum, which is located across the street from the airport in Nagoya (on the way from Tokyo to Osaka).

Run by Ichiro's father, who lives next door, this curious museum contains apparently everything the player ever touched, from his childhood Transformers toys to his dental retainer from junior high to the Hooters costume he wore as part of rookie hazing with the Mariners. About the only thing missing is his umbilical cord, though that may be in storage.

Given the way Ichiro treats his equipment (he keeps his bats in a humidor and once brought a bat back to his hotel room to atone for throwing it carelessly on the ground), it is not surprising that every item in the museum is as meticulously maintained as the Shroud of Turin.

This fascinating museum prompts several questions: When did Ichiro's father start planning for this museum? Why didn't his mother throw all this stuff out, like so many old baseball cards? And if Ichiro's shoes are here, and his shoe polish, as well, what items didn't make the cut?

One thing is abundantly clear, however: If Ichiro fails to reach Cooperstown as a player, his father at least should be named the Hall's curator.

The museums are worthy visits, but bigger feasts await inside the baseball stadiums throughout the country.

The NPB season parallels the MLB season, providing fans ample opportunities to blow horns, bang Thunderstix and sing in each team's organized rooting sections, as well as cheer the remaining players and figure out just what some of those concession foods really are. (Ticket prices are about what you would pay in the United States.)

And if you go to the Tokyo Dome, you can try to figure out what this sign, mounted at one of the stadium's restaurants, really means:

It is the soft and juicy handmade hamburg steak which shut up the taste of beef. Since you plan an order, it is the hamburg steak of the boast roasted carefully. The dish which put and made the heart – the time of one [pleasant at Vicky's] … pleasing.

The games are compelling enough. But Japanese stadiums generally are an unwelcome throwback to the 1970s, when domes were considered both state of the art and the future of sport.

The amazing thing is not so much that half the teams play in domed stadiums but that the country is still building them. The Sapporo Dome, for example, opened in 2002, a full decade after American major league owners started bitching that they needed taxpayers to build them retro parks like Camden Yards. The nondomes aren't much better.

"There's a distance at Japanese games,'' said Jim Small, MLB International vice president for Asia. "Part of that is physical, because there's a net that goes from foul pole to foul pole and you can't get access to the players; players can't sign autographs.

"You're looking at the game through a cage.''

By far the best ballpark is the oldest. Venerable Koshien Stadium, outside of Osaka, has a bit of the feel of Wrigley Field and old Tiger Stadium.

The wildly popular Hanshin Tigers play here, but the stadium may be better known as the home of the Koshien national baseball tournament staged each spring and summer.

Japan's equivalent of our NCAA basketball tournament, the Koshien turns teenage players into household names overnight. Dice-K became famous for pitching 17 innings (and 250 pitches) one game, appearing in relief during the next outing and throwing a no-hitter in the one after that.

Watching these hopefuls march into the stadium amid the pageantry of the Koshien, listening to each school's raucous student sections and feeling the overwhelming emotions of the game will so return you to your own high school days you'll want to pack Clearasil.

The games, the tournaments, the player museums and, yes, the Fenway bar, are all great fun. But for me, the one can't-miss location in Japanese baseball is in Hiroshima, directly across the street from the A-bomb dome skeleton, ground zero of where the atomic bomb detonated and as many as 100,000 people died in an instant. Touring the A-bomb memorial is as sobering, and as important, as a visit to Dachau.

Then, as you leave this disturbing memorial, you step across the street and immediately find yourself staring at, of all things, a baseball stadium. Although slated for replacement, Hiroshima Municipal Stadium is the home of the Hiroshima Carp, who started play just four years after the atomic bomb destroyed the city.

The stadium is no jewel; it's reminiscent of the Rangers' sun-baked old stadium in Arlington. But I've always found its very existence so close to the A-bomb site remarkable, ironic and, most important, reassuring.

It's a different baseball experience and more than a simple "time of one pleasing,'' to be sure, but that's the whole point of travel.

ROAD WANDERINGS: JAPAN EDITION

If you do travel to Japan for baseball, consider going in early April. That way you can catch the start of the NPB season and the last of the Koshien spring tournament. You can see the cherry blossom season, as well. How big is the cherry blossom season in Japan? The networks and newspapers keep meticulous track of the blooms as this verbatim account from a morning paper demonstrates:

Cherry blossom season off to early start in Tokyo, Shizuoka, Kumamoto

Kyodo News

Cherry blossoms in Tokyo, Shizuoka and Kumamoto prefectures became the first in the nation to bloom this season after they were caught opening at designated observations areas across Japan, the Meteorological Agency announced Saturday.

Among the several varieties of sakura [cherry trees] in Japan, the "someiyoshino" in Tokyo and Shizuoka opened six days earlier than usual, while the trees in Kumamoto flowered two days earlier, said the agency, which reports annually on the closely watched barometer of spring. … It was only the fourth time Tokyo had led the archipelago in opening the cherry blossom season. The other times were March 23, 1979, March 24, 1993, and March 20, 2007 … .

The someiyoshino sakura at the shrine and on the grounds of the meteorological agency's regional branches in Shizuoka and Kumamoto were certified as having the first blossoms after officials saw five or six flowers on the trees in bloom. The agency made the official announcement the same day …

When you have a state agency in charge of counting blossoms and comparing historical trends, you know cherry blossoms are serious business.

Why?

Well, for one thing, the trees are breathtakingly beautiful when in bloom. And, two, it's an excuse to party.

The normally reserved Japanese are crazy for the blossoms, and they head to the parks to drink while looking at the trees.

The afternoon The Road Warrior was there, the park was jammed with people setting up blankets and blue tarps on the ground for picnics, with plenty of beer to go around. The youngest employees in an office are sent out to stake a spot for the veteran workers. It's quite the scene and a great way to spend an afternoon.

ROAD WANDERINGS: ZAMBIA EDITION

I was 32 hours into a 12,000-mile journey to Zambia for a story and had arrived at Johannesburg's airport so early in the morning that the airline counters had not opened up, yet.

I still had five hours left before checking into the hotel in the city that is the farthest I could possibly travel from my home in Seattle. I was a little sleepy and, I admit, a little cranky.

Then I noticed the carry-on bag of the man standing next to me. The faded white lettering spelled out "Seventh International Conference on Concrete Sidewalks.''

I wasn't sure which was more disconcerting, that this man had been to an international conference on concrete sidewalks or that he had possibly been to seven of them. But I was definitely sure that I was glad to be a sportswriter.

Reading the lettering more closely (hey, there isn't a lot else to do at the Johannesburg airport at 4:30 in the morning), I noticed the site and dates of the conference were Orlando, Sept. 9-12, 2001.

"Excuse but I couldn't help noticing your bag,'' I said. "You must have had quite a time getting back to South Africa that week.''

The businessman nodded.

"Yah, I was at Disney World when I saw the plane flying into the World Trade Center on a TV, so I thought it was a Disney movie," he said. "I thought there was no way it could have been really happening.''

He apparently wound up catching one of the first planes out of the country when the flight ban lifted.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His Web site is at jimcaple.net, with more installments of "24 College Avenue." His new book with Steve Buckley, "The Best Boston Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Boston Fans," is on sale now.
Send in your comments and travel questions to Jim, aka The Road Warrior.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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