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The Heart of Japanese Baseball
Here's what a baseball game in Japan looks like.
Something about the idea of attending a baseball game in Japan intrigued and beckoned me to jump into the unknown.
For one, Japan plays some of the best baseball in the world.
I learned this when they beat Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. Seeing the remarkable display of skill and dedication from players who hailed from the Land of the Rising Sun, I had to witness baseball at it's highest-level for myself.
The videos and articles from the Classic, some funny and some pure awesome showed Japanese baseball fans' passion and excitement. It was contagious, and I wanted to be a part of it.
Baseball in Japan also seemed like an exciting crossroad between culture, food, and the human experience.
Thanks to my Mom, baseball games in America were always a pleasant occasion of sitting in the ballpark, eagerly waiting for a home run with a hot dog and bucket of popcorn in hand.
I left the stadium tunnel and stepped out into the sun, heading towards the stands.
It felt like I had entered a new world that presented a unique fanbase and perspective on a game I thought I knew so well.
An unrelenting energy electrified the air at the legendary Hanshin Koshien Stadium.
The sold-out crowd, over 47,000 bursting fans from Osaka and Kobe, pulsated with excitement and represented the beating heart of the ferocious Hanshin Tigers. They were a fanbase already known for their passion and enthusiasm.
From where I was in the middle of the left field bleachers, I immediately felt their same undeniable camaraderie, ready to pounce on our opponent with the intensity of a thousand tigers.
My neighbor, a boisterous guy with an anticipation that couldn't be contained, led the top of the yell, "Kattobase, O-o-yama!" his cry, urging Yusuke Oyama to slug it hard.
As the player's chant continued, I was caught in the thick of the loud chorus of the entire stadium. The sheer volume and glow of amazement overwhelmed me as I lost track of my inner dialogue and physical self.
Like a gunshot, the crack of a bat meeting ball suddenly resounded through the stadium and created a millisecond of silence—then the crowd erupted into a frenzy.
The white dot zipped through the green field and into the center as the runner on base sprinted past third and toward home plate.
The game's first run was scored as quickly as a bullet, and the sea of people transformed into a wave of high fives, flag-waving, musical fanfare, and thunderous applause.
Swept in the enthusiasm, I jumped up and officially joined the team, exchanging high fives with everyone around me, their faces alight with joy and almost tears in their eyes.
At that moment, I understood what being a part of something bigger than oneself meant.
The first inning closed after that, 1-0 Hanshin. People began to shuffle around me while I took a pause.
"This is going to be an amazing game," I thought. "Now, let's eat."
As I walked through the lively Koshien concourse, I noticed a distinct shift in aroma from sizzling hamburgers and freshly popped popcorn to platters of yakisoba and steaming trays of takoyaki drizzled in oyster sauce and mayo.
The standard 20-ounce plastic cups filled with Budweiser were swapped for Kirin, the most tell-tale sign that I was not in the American league.
There was also the option to bring food and beer in, with only one exception—to drink the beer, you had to pour it into a cup before the game—which I had done thorough research on.
To my delight, the focus at Koshien was on enjoying the game and the company, with food and drink serving as a delicious, convenient, and economic backdrop.
In American baseball, I don't know how to deal with major sports teams taking advantage of me at every chance they get—$12 premium beers, $20 for parking, and an $8 convenience fee even if I print my tickets at home. How does that make sense?
It was a refreshingly simple approach to bring in my feast from the nearby Hanshin Tigers-owned Lawson's: two salmon and tuna onigiri, a large bottle of Oi Ocha Houjicha Roasted Tea, a tall 25-ounce can of Kirin Premium Beer, and two packages of Lawson's famed Karaage Kun, each cradling five tender nuggets.
I settled in the bleachers under a warm but waning afternoon sun.
The boisterous fan next to me returned, holding a giant yakitori skewer. Within a minute, his three other pals started riling him up as he caught the attention of the stadium beer gal with a beer keg in her extra large backpack and had draft beer directly poured into the top of a cup right from his seat.
We had eight more innings to go.
The fundamentals of Japanese baseball were the same as the American version—three outs, the same ball and strike counts, and nine innings—yet key differences in playstyle were easily read on the field.
While American baseball seemed to prioritize power-hitting and home runs, Japanese baseball took a more nuanced approach, valuing finesse, strategy, and teamwork above all else.
The Tigers and Swallows employed small-ball tactics such as bunting, sacrifice flies, and hit-and-run plays throughout each inning.
This playstyle meant that every player on the field had the potential to make a significant impact on both offense and defense, a contrast to the all-or-nothing mentality often seen in American baseball, where the focus is home run or die.
The meaningful playstyle created high stakes for every player at bat and had fans cheering passionately for every move on the field.
They appreciated and admired the skill and precision of well-placed bunts or stolen bases, celebrating even small victories.
Here's what a sequence of baseball looked like.
Koji Chikamoto stepped up to the plate in the middle of the game.
With one out already on the board, he drew a walk to first base, and the fans erupted with cheers and applause as the inning started to gain some rhythm.
The next batter stepped up, eyes locked on the incoming pitch, and connected, sending a fly ball high into the air. The ball was caught, but not before Chikamoto advanced to second.
The crowd roared with approval, chanting "Okay! Okay!" as they reveled in progress.
With the stadium buzzing with anticipation, another player drew a walk to first base, and the energy in the crowd grew ever more intense.
The next batter approached the plate, determined and focused, and with a crack of the bat, the ball soared deep into left field. Hearts raced, a gasp for air, and silence.
The ball shot towards the fence, about a foot above it, threatening to glimpse into home run territory.
In a breathtaking moment, the defending outfielder leaped and snatched the ball from the air, denying a precious and rare home run.
The stadium's energy swelled and then, just as quickly, deflated as the reality of the catch sank in.
However, rows above me in the left side of the stadium, the opposing team's dedicated section of fans lit up, their cheers cutting through the collective groan of the Tigers' faithful.
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Several unique traditions of Japanese baseball caught my attention.
"That's odd," I thought, observing the sea of fans sporting navy Yakult Swallow jerseys, a splash against the ocean of yellow and grey Tiger jerseys.
Reserving a space for opposing fans felt like a far cry but ingenious idea to enhance the enjoyment of baseball for everyone present.
Also, where was the booing? The heckling of players or between fans?
The absence of hostility starkly contrasted my experiences as a San Francisco Giants fan. Walking into Dodgers Stadium without being physically assaulted or verbally shredded before reaching my seat seemed almost unfathomable.
The focus at Koshien was clear. Fans channeled all their energy into waving flags and towels, banging their clapping sticks, and shouting and cheering throughout the game during a resounding musical fanfare from every stadium section.
As fans rooted for their team, they also chanted each player's unique theme song, showcasing unparalleled dedication and passion.
I was very impressed to witness them remember and sing every player's theme song with equal enthusiasm.
Sure, there might have been some fan favorites who garnered a touch more volume in the chants.
A few rows below me, a group of girls cooed "kawaii" as they pointed to the jumbotron of #3 Yusuke Ohyama.
But even #7 Sheldon Neuse, hailing from Fort Worth, Texas, received his due recognition.
As the Naruto theme song played during his walk up to the plate, the stadium chanted, "Homu-run, Sheru-don. Homu-run, Sheru-don."
It was the top of the ninth with one out to go. The score was 1-0, Hanshin still.
The final pitch was thrown, and a fly ball soared into the air as I held my breath along with the rest of the stadium.
When the ball was caught, sealing the game, everyone around me leaped to their feet, clapping and exchanging high fives in an explosion of celebration.
Yet, when the ninth inning and victory of the game drew to a close, something strange happened— everyone remained in their seats.
A few minutes passed by, and the stadium was still full. Puzzled, I wondered if Japan had an organized system for exiting the stadium.
But as I soon discovered, the fans stayed for a reason. A makeshift podium appeared across the field.
Fans eagerly listened, laughed, and cheered during the post-game interviews of "Today's Heroes"—three players who had significantly impacted the game. Even the defeated opposing team fans stayed.
Once the interviews concluded, these heroes embarked on a victory lap around the field as the entire stadium united in celebration, singing the Hanshin theme song:
It was only the 6th game of the season, but it felt like the Hanshin Tigers had just won the pennant.
As I stood and swayed back and forth with everyone in the stadium, mute but sporting an ear-to-ear smile from sheer amazement, I began to reflect on the few hours that had just passed.
I realized that there was more than just fine baseball on display. The energetic crowd and Japanese food were only some elements that truly defined my experience.
The sense of respect, belonging, and unity with my fellow fans at Koshien—from the loud Hanshin Tigers guy on my left and even the cordial Yakult Swallows fan on my right—was the deepest part of an insightful journey to explore what it means to be human together.
The passionate atmosphere at Koshien was a vivid reminder of how culture, sport, and cuisine can unite everyone from all walks of life for an unforgettable experience.
...And maybe, next time, I'll give a slight tip of my hat if the Dodgers score on the Giants. We're all in this together.
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