Monday, September 27, 2010

World Travel Fair and Other Updates


I've been noticeably remiss on attending sporting events lately. That's not to say that there's nothing going on here in Tokyo, but it isn't very compelling. The sumo world just ended its September tournament and Yokozuna Hakuho continued to dominate, winning all 15 of his bouts and extending his unbeaten streak to 62, second in history. I used to be a big fan of sumo; when I arrived it was at a peak with lots of interesting wrestlers and excellent competition. But lately there have been few exciting tournaments and a preponderance of foreign wrestlers has rendered the sport completely boring. As well, scandals related to drugs and gambling (on baseball no less!) have hurt their image and kept the fans away in droves. I too have stopped going, although am thinking about attending Chiyotaikai's retirement ceremony on Saturday just to report on it here.

In Japanese baseball, the regular season is grinding to a close. There is a fight for third in the Pacific League between the Chiba Lotte Marines and Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, while the Central League's top 3 teams had pretty much clinched spots back in May. The minor circuit saw Lotte win the Eastern crown, while the Western went to Hanshin. They play in a 1-game championship next Saturday in Niigata. I had hoped to see the final Shonan Searex game but bad weather and other commitments made that impossible.

In other sports, both men's and women's tennis are in Tokyo over the next two weeks. I'm going to try to get out to Ariake for at least one day for each tournament. The F League (Futsal) has an all-day event at Yoyogi on October 16th, which I am hoping to catch, if only to add another sport to the list. And the Asia Ice Hockey League just started their season, with games in Tokyo this coming weekend.

The F1 race comes to Suzuka on October 10th, while basketball's bj League gets started on the 16th. But the Tokyo Apache haven't announced where they are playing their first games, as the futsal has pushed them out of Yoyogi for the opening weekend. Looks like another year of no respect for them.

As you can see, there's lots to see in Tokyo. But too much of it is on weekends now, when I don't have as much time. So there will be extended periods of quiet over the next couple of months, until I head home in December for a nice hockey trip.

World Travel Fair


Although I haven't seen any sports lately, I did have the chance to attend the World Travel Fair at Tokyo's Big Sight complex (above). It was a large trade exhibition that showcased countries of the world, airlines, rental car companies, and other travel-related firms. Below is a picture of JAL's oneworld partners. Note that Mexicana also filed for bankruptcy recently. One poorly managed world perhaps.


There was a 1,200 yen charge to get in, and mostly it was just a chance to pick up brochures and pamphlets exhorting you to visit wherever, but some booths had a little extra to entice you. There was free wine tasting in a few spots, Belgian beer, some shows and contests, and a few ethnic restaurants on hand if you got hungry.


Unfortunately, road trips were not mentioned. It seems most places want you to experience nature and that sort of thing, rather than watch the local sport, whatever it may be. Still, it was interesting to see how each nation tried to market itself. For example, Swiss chocolatier Lindt had a frightening robot, (above) while Taiwan used dancers to illustrate the beauty of their nation (below). It was a well worth a few hours of time.


Boxing is Expensive

As I was leaving, I happened upon the WBA flyweight championship between a couple of Japanese boxers. I don't follow boxing at all, but was still intrigued. Until I saw the ticket prices. The best seats were 50,000 yen (about $600) while the cheapest were 5,000 yen. That's too much for me for a sport I know little about. I watched the bout at home though, and was glad I skipped it as it was rather one-sided and bloody. Not sure that I'll be adding boxing to my list of must-see events in the near future.

Next Up

As mentioned above, there's lots of things this coming weekend, so I'm going to choose one of them. Just not sure which one yet. Either the sumo retirement ceremony, the ballgame in Niigata, the tennis, or the ice hockey. Check back next week for an update.

Best,

Sean

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Blue Jays Spread Their Minor League Wings


Every two years, a few minor league baseball teams do a bit of a shuffle, moving affiliation from one major league franchise to another. The reasons for this are varied, but generally, minor league clubs want to be part of a decent development system that makes for entertaining baseball, while the big boys look for geographic proximity and a stable organization.

Unless you are the Toronto Blue Jays, that is. Two years ago, their affiliation with AAA Syracuse ended and they were forced to sign an agreement with the Las Vegas 51s of the Pacific Coast League. At over 2,200 miles, this is the furthest distance between any MLB club and its top affiliate. Although the agreement between the two is up this season, the only other AAA franchises without a contract are Portland (which will likely re-up with San Diego and move south to California) and Sacramento (which has had a long and successful relationship with Oakland). So don't expect any changes there. (Update: Toronto has indeed renewed their agreement with Las Vegas).

But Toronto has been busy on other levels. A couple of days ago they announced that they would establish a franchise in Bluefield, WV; a market that was recently abandoned by the Orioles after 53 seasons, the longest affiliation in history. Then last week came the announcement that the Jays would again look west, this time remaining in Canada and signing a 4-year agreement with the Northwest League's Vancouver Canadians, who replace Auburn, NY as the short-season squad.

This is great news for me, as I've been meaning to return to Vancouver for some time and will try to do so next summer to check out some games with the Jays' latest draft picks. Bluefield and the Appalachian League are also intriguing destinations.

But an entire Blue Jays minor league trip becomes rather daunting. With other teams in Manchester, NH, Lansing, and Dunedin, a six-team roadtrip comes in at 8,350 miles! Yankees' fans, on the other hand, only have 2,500 miles to see all five of their affiliates, while Atlanta comes in at a relatively easy 1,670 miles for their five teams, four of which are owned by the Braves. (Distances assume starting and finishing in the major league city and taking the shortest route, using Google Maps).

When all the schedules are out, I will try to put together some simple franchise road trips to see which ones might be the most enjoyable. For now though, I've got Vancouver and Bluefield on my radar for 2011.

Best,

Sean

Friday, September 17, 2010

Why the Wild Card Sucks (and how to fix it)


The AL East sees the two best teams in baseball fighting it out for the pennant. The winner gets to enjoy the playoffs while the loser...gets to enjoy the playoffs. Such is the influence of the wild card, which allows the best second place team in each league a spot in the post season. It removes the excitement from pennant races, which are the most important part of a baseball season. That's why it sucks and needs to be fixed.

How to fix it

There are other imperfections in MLB, most notably the difference in teams per league. This is unfair to NL squads who have less chance to make the playoffs (1/4 or 25%) then their AL counterparts (2/7 or 28.6%). In a single season, that may not be significant but it does make a difference over an extended period. In particular, the NL Central has 50% more teams than the AL West, which makes a Cubs' division title that much more unlikely than one for the Mariners.

The other problem is the unbalanced schedule caused by interleague play. Teams with geographic rivalries (Yankees/Mets, Cubs/White Sox, etc) play each other 6 times while often their divisional rivals play those teams not at all. This season for example, the Jays had interleague games against Arizona, Colorado, San Diego, and San Francisco, St. Louis and Philly. 5 of those 6 teams are in the playoff hunt. The Yankees meanwhile got 6 against the Mets, and 3 each against Arizona, Houston, LA Dodgers, Philadelphia. Not really fair.

Jayson Stark of ESPN advocates another wild card team, but I am not happy with that idea. I think the point of the long season is that the best teams advance and then play each other in longer series. More playoff teams is not the answer. Instead, here is what MLB needs to do.

Expansion

Fifteen teams in each league is not going to happen. So in order to level the playing field between the two leagues, add two more teams to the AL. Portland, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Sacramento are all large markets that have AAA teams (well, Portland has lost theirs) and might be able to support a major league franchise. Of course, none of the big 4 sports will put a team in Vegas and Sacramento will be voted down by the A's and Giants, so let's stay that MLB decides to add teams to Portland as well as Salt Lake.

Realignment

The next step is to realign into four divisions of four teams. I would see the following as workable:
AL East      NL East
NY Yankees NY Mets
Boston Philadelphia
Baltimore Washington
Tampa Bay Florida

AL Central NL Central
White Sox Cubs
Toronto Atlanta
Cleveland Cincinnati
Detroit Pittsburgh

AL Midwest NL Midwest
Kansas City St. Louis
Texas Houston
Minnesota Milwaukee
Salt Lake Colorado

AL West NL West
LA Angels LA Dodgers
Oakland San Francisco
Seattle San Diego
Portland Arizona
See how nice that looks? This makes 8 potential pennant races, keeps most divisional rivalries intact (Cubs/Cardinals is the most glaring one that would be lost) and removes the need for a wild card. Toronto escapes AL East purgatory too, good for their fans but probably not for the franchise who enjoy all those Boston and Yankee roadtrippers.

Meanwhile the White Sox and Cubs would be playing most of their games outside their time zone, which would definitely cause some problems. So we'll give them more of the expansion money.

Scheduling

The next step is to balance the schedule. It has to remain at 162 games, and the interleague rivalry matches must also be kept. Therefore, every season, each division plays its counterpart plus one other division from the other league. This means that the AL East and NL East teams would meet every year, and then the AL East would take on the NL Central one year, the NL Midwest the next, and then the NL West after that. Three game series are the norm in interleague play, so each team would get 24 balanced interleague games. Then the geographic rivals would get 3 additional games to match what is happening these days. In the divisions above, I've listed these rivals on the same line and think that this should be maintained year to year. Yes, Toronto and Atlanta are not natural rivals, but with 6 games annually, something could develop.

With 27 interleague games on the slate, there's 135 games left. This works out nicely to 7 games against teams in other divisions in your league (84 total) and 17 games within your division (51 total). Yes, there's a small imbalance with home and away matches but that is not significant enough to derail the plan.

That's it. A nearly balanced schedule, no wild card, and the possibility of 8 pennant races. Now that I've fixed baseball, I'll look at improving the NHL playoffs to make their season more meaningful.

Problems

I'm obviously ignoring many problems that would arise with this plan; dilution of the product, teams losing divisional rivalries, and the fact that Bud Selig likes the Wild Card. Oh well, it's just for fun. Enjoy and let me know your thoughts.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Yomiuri Giants 5 at Yakult Swallows 2 - September 15, 2010


With my friend Meg in town finishing up her 12 parks tour of Japan, I decided to make a final visit to Jingu this year to join her in watching the Giants and Swallows. Yakult is technically still alive in the playoff race, lying 6.5 games back of 3rd place Yomiuri with 18 games left, but another loss would pretty much seal their fate. And so it came to pass.

The Game

Yoshinori Satoh got the start for Yakult against Tetsuya Utsumi. Satoh started by walking the first two Giants on 8 straight balls and I thought we were in for a long night, but he struck out Michihiro Ogasawara and Alex Ramirez before inducing Shinnosuke Abe to fly out. He then settled down, yielding just two hits and a walk over the next four frames.

Norichika Aoki pops out

Meanwhile Utsumi was also solid and we were still scoreless after 5 innings. That's when the rains came, just a light mist at the start but turning into a steady drizzle shortly thereafter. This seemed to affect the pitching as the Giants exploded for 4 runs in the 6th, including a 3-run double from Edgar Gonzalez (below grounding out in an earlier at-bat).


Yakult replied with a 2-run homer from Kazuhiro Hatakeyama in their half of the 6th. But Utsumi was replaced one batter later and the Giants relief corps, including ex-Blue Jay Micheal Nakamura, proceeded to shut down Yakult the rest of the way.

Pinch hitter Kenji Yano added a solo homer in the 9th for a bit of insurance as the Giants won 5-2 in a well-played if somewhat pedestrian affair. Yakult is still 6.5 games out of 3rd though as Hanshin lost, but I doubt they can make up the ground. Really, since they are a game under .500 (61-62-4), they shouldn't be part of any playoff discussion but that's what happens when half the teams make the post-season.

Minor League pennant race

The rains from last night have continued today and the minor league game between Shonan Searex and Giants has been postponed. This is unfortunate as the Eastern League is having a great pennant race. Yomiuri leads by a half-game over 3 other teams including the Searex with just a week left in the season. What's really interesting is that the second place teams are all 55-45 with a different number of ties, hence the different number of games left. The winner will play in a 1-game championship with the Western League in Niigata on October 2nd. I'll keep you posted; here's hoping the baby Giants are knocked off by somebody in the next week.

Update (Sept 17): The game has been rescheduled for Saturday, September 25th. It'll be the last game of the season and hence the last Searex game ever, and if the teams are still close, might decide the pennant. There's also a futsal game nearby after that so I'll try to catch both.

Best,

Sean

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

MLB 2011 Schedule released - no trips for me


MLB has released their 2011 schedule and the news wasn't particularly good for me. I usually look for two things to plan a baseball trip: a new stadium (not happening) or an intriguing Blue Jays interleague series on the road. Unfortunately the Jays are in Cincinnati, Atlanta, and St. Louis; none of those cities are particularly enticing for me at this point.

I was hoping that Toronto might have a series in Houston as the state of Texas is the only place I haven't revisited since the 2001 trip. But the Astros make their first appearance in Toronto instead. Of course, the Blue Jays are in Arlington in mid-July but that's a regular occurrence and not something that'll get me planning a trip.

The season might begin in Taiwan and if that happens, I'll try to get to see that but otherwise, next summer looks to be a quiet one on the MLB front.

Best,

Sean

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

World Judo Championships - Day 5 - September 13, 2010


Yesterday was the 5th and final day of the World Judo Championships. It was the open competition for both men and women, which meant any judoka could enter regardless of weight class. It is said that the essence of judo is in the open competition; the implication being that smaller athletes can use technique to defeat a larger opponent.

Therefore, I was hoping for some variety in the entrants, but generally it was only the bigger athletes who were present. Many of those I saw on Day 1 were back, as well as some judoka who only participated in the open competition.

In the women's tournament, the final bout was a rematch from the +78kg class with Japan's Mika Sugimoto again defeating China's Qian Qin, although this time she did it with a throw, having won on Day 1 when Qin committed 4 shido. That's Sugimoto in white below while Qin is in blue.


On the men's side, there were 3 Japanese in the final four along with +100kg champion, Teddy Riner from France. Riner defeated Hiroki Tachiyama in one semi-final while Daiki Kamikawa knocked off Keiji Suzuki in the other. Both Tachiyama and Suzuki won their bronze medal bouts which left us with just the final.

Kamikawa is a university student while Riner is a 4-time world champion, yet Riner is just 7 months older, having turned 21 back in April. Clearly the Frenchman would be the favourite, but Kamikawa was no slouch, having defeated +100kg silver medalist Andreas Koelzer of Germany with a perfect ippon in the second round.

Riner was strong early, but he couldn't find the necessary strength to throw Kamikawa despite several attempts and after 5 minutes, there was still no advantage. Which brought us to sudden death, where Kamikawa became more aggressive, nearly completing two throws but not enough to gain a winning point. After 3 more scoreless minutes, it was up to the judges to declare the winner.


In this situation, the referee and two judges each hold up a flag denoting who they believe fought the better bout. Kamikawa was wearing white and the referee and one judge held up a white flag while the other judge held up a blue one (below). Kamikawa was the world champion much to the delight of the crowd. Riner was visibly distressed by the decision, wagging his finger as much as to say "No Way" but I felt it was the right call. With the loss, Riner was unable to set a record with a 5th world title.


Despite the upset, I found the judo today to be rather dull at times; there were few ippons and mostly a lot of grappling and defensive posturing. Having the world men's open title decided by a split decision was disappointing, I would have liked to see the final action be a decent throw rather than judges raising flags, but it symbolized what was a disappointing final day for me.

Japan Dominates

Over the 5 days, there were 8 tournaments for each gender, which means 64 total medals awarded (two bronze are given in each tournament). Naturally Japan dominated the medal table, tallying 23 total, including 10 of 16 golds. France was second with just two golds and 6 total, so the rest of the world has some way to go to catch up to Japan in its homegrown sport.

Next Up

Tomorrow I'll check out the Giants and Swallows with Meg who will be hitting stadium #11 on her two-week journey across Japan, then on Thursday we'll go out to Giants Stadium for a minor league game.

That'll end the baseball season for me but there's plenty to see coming up. Top League Rugby is back, the J League still has two months left, the Emperor's Cup is underway, the bj League starts in a month, and there is a futsal league with a couple of teams in Tokyo that I'll be checking out shortly. As always check back regularly for updates.

Best,

Sean

Friday, September 10, 2010

World Judo Championships - Day 1 - September 9, 2010




Japan is the birthplace of judo and Tokyo was the site of the first two World Championships in 1956 and 1958. In the intervening 52 years, the championships have been back to Japan twice (Osaka and Chiba) but this is their first return to Tokyo. Good news for me as it started on a Thursday which gave me a chance to head over to the Yoyogi National Gymnasium to catch the action in 4 weight classes.

Yoyogi National Gymnasium

Built to house the swimming, diving, and basketball events in the 1964 Olympics, the Yoyogi National Gymnasium actually consists of two buildings. The second, smaller gym is where the bj League's Tokyo Apache play, but it is the larger facility in which the judo is being held. It's an interesting looking venue from both the outside and inside as you can see below.



There are two levels of seating; for the tournament the lower level seats are reserved and cost 5,000 yen while the upper level seats are unreserved and going for 3,000 and 1,000 yen. No need to splurge here as the gym is small enough that you can see well from anywhere. However, only one side of the arena seemed to be open to the public, the other side was reserved for athletes, coaches, and other officials.

One cool thing was a giant judogi that must be used for the really, really, really big weight classes.


The Rules of Judo

A quick guide to the basics of judo for those who are not familiar with it.

Two competitors (judoka) face off in a match that lasts 5 minutes, with brief stoppages when they leave the mat area. In international competition, one judoka is in white while the other is in dark blue.

The object is to score more points than your opponent. Points are generally achieved by throwing or pinning your opponent. There are three levels of points: ippon, waza-ari, and yuko.

Ippon (one point) is the highest level and indicates the immediate end of the match. Ippon can be achieved in 3 ways: throw your opponent on his shoulder or back with force and speed, pinning him on his back for 25 seconds, or forcing him to tap out due to a hold.

Waza-ari (has technique) is awarded when the throw lacks in one of the three elements necessary for ippon or when the pin is between 20 and 25 seconds. Two waza-ari equals ippon, so essentially waza-ari is like a half-point.

Yuko (effective) is awarded when the throw lacks in two of the three elements necessary for Ippon, or the pin lasts between 15 and 20 seconds. However, no amount of yuko will equal a waza-ari, it is used merely as a tiebreaker.

There are also penalties, known as shido, which are given for being too defensive or for not attacking, among other offenses. Shido are similar to yellow cards in soccer, while red cards are known as hansoku-make (loss by penalty) and signify immediate defeat. An example of a hansoku-make would be to lift a prone opponent off the mat and drive him back on to the mat.

Two shido equals one yuko for the opponent, while three equals a waza-ari and four is considered an ippon and immediate defeat.

Should the match be tied after 5 minutes, a 3 minute "Golden Score" period is played. Much like sudden death, should a judoka get a point during this time, he will win the match immediately. If the match is still tied after Golden Score, the referee and two judges will then decide the winner, without consultation. Each independently raises a white or blue flag to indicate who they feel is the winner and the judoka with more flags is awarded the match.

Aesthetics and etiquette are an important part of judo with the beauty of an ippon throw being well respected and a big hit with fans.

At first glance, it seems like a simple sport, but there are nearly 100 recognized techniques that can be used, based on throwing, grappling, striking the body, and defense. I can't even begin to explain them so read the Wikipedia link if you are at all interested.

The Format

When the championship started, there was only the men's division and a single open competition where weight was not relevant. Over time, it has evolved to where there are seven weight categories for both men and women as well as an open category (where anyone can enter regardless of weight) that has been revived this year.

Each of the first four days has 3 or 4 tournaments with the heavier athletes performing on day 1 while the lightest are on day 4. The final day is for the open tournament.

Each tournament is a simple knockout until the final 8 are reached. If you lose in this quarterfinal round, you still have a chance at a bronze medal through the repechage system. This is where the four QF losers are matched up, with the winners then advancing to meet the semi-final losers for a bronze medal. Naturally the SF winners meet up for the gold medal. In this way, there are no 4th, 6th, or 8th spots. There are two bronze medals, while the bronze medal losers are given 5th place and the repechage losers finish 7th.

The Preliminaries

The first day saw the men's +100kg and -100kg (but above 90kg) weight classes and the women's +78kg and -78kg (but above 70kg).

The morning and afternoon are spent getting to the semi-finals in each of the four categories.
The first matches got underway at 10 am and all four mats were in use for about 4 and a half hours. I missed the first few matches but the program had the brackets so I was able to get caught up pretty quickly. There was no rest between the matches, all 4 mats were in continual use until near the end of the preliminaries. It was certainly fun to watch and learn, but you missed quite a bit while focusing on one match. Ippons were very common and the best one was from Japan's Takamasa Anai (1st in the world, below in blue in a later match against eventual bronze medalist Thierry Fabre of France) who flipped Lukas Krpalek (12th) of the Czech Republic in just 5 seconds.


I should note that there are world rankings for judoka and the program lists the top 15 from July 23rd and I'm using those here, though I suspect they are slightly out-of-date. As well, the brackets are seeded for the top 8 only so you can get top judoka facing off early.

As such, there were plenty of upsets early on. In the +100kg class, Japan's 3rd-ranked Keiji Suzuki lost to #15 Janusz Wojnarowicz of Poland in the first round, hugely disappointing the home fans. Meanwhile, American Kayla Harrison (#14) defeated France's top-ranked Celine Lebrun in the quarter-finals.

The Opening Ceremonies

Once the semi-finalists were determined, there was a 90-minute break before the opening ceremonies. Fortunately you were allowed out of the stadium so I was able to head over to Harajuku station to pick up some snacks for the afternoon. When I returned, it was time to get things started.

A 100-person shamisen (a Japanese 3-stringed instrument) ensemble, known as Oyama-kai, opened things up with a performance (below).


Then calligrapher Koji Kakinuma used a giant brush to write "Ippon" in Japanese. This was really interesting. You can see him and the brush below, and the way it looked on TV below that.




The flags of the 111 participating nations were marched out with Japan's arriving last and we all stood for the Japanese national anthem. Then it was speech time, with Tokyo mayor Shintaro Ishihara providing the most amusing moments when he decried the judo at the Beijing Olympics to be boring and hoped that we would enjoy a return to the real meaning of the sport (i.e. beauty, etiquette, etc - I guess the Olympics were rather dull for him).

Marius Vizer, the president of the International Judo Federation, then declared the championships officially open and we were ready for the medal matches.

The Medal Matches

First were the repechage and semi-final bouts. The two outer mats were covered up and each weight class held its two matches simultaneously in the center.

In one -78kg class semi-final, Harrison defeated 3rd ranked Ukrainian Maryna Pryshchepa,while 5th-ranked Japanese Akari Ogata won her repechage to advance to the bronze medal match.


In the +78 category, Mika Sugimoto (Japan, unranked, pictured above in white) advancing to the final while fellow Japanese and #2 Maki Tsuchida lost to #3 Qian Qin of China. I should point out that Sugimoto is quite short for her weight class, coming in at around 5'5".

Anai also advanced to the final in the -100 class, while world #1 Teddy Riner of France edged Japan's Kazuhiko Takahashi (#4) in a golden score battle in the +100 category.

This left 3 matches for each weight class: one for the gold medal and two for bronze medals. The third mat was covered and now each match would occur individually. The bronze medal matches were mildly interesting with Ogata and Tsuchida winning for Japan while Takahashi lost.

I was looking forward to the gold medal matches but they turned out to be anti-climatic. Harrison won her match against Brazil's Mayra Aguiar (#13) with just a single yuko during sudden death. She was naturally ecstatic to bring home the USA's first women's world judo gold since 1984. That's her and coach Jimmy Pedro (who won a gold in 1999) below just after the match.


Next up was the +78 class and Sugimoto defeated Qin who compiled for shido for non-aggressive behaviour. That's her below, hanging her head in shame for winning the championship in that manner I guess. She was smiling later though, so perhaps just exhausted after chasing Qin around the mat.


The two men's matches went as expected with Anai defeating Henk Grol (Netherlands, #10) based on Grol accumulating 2 shido. That's Anai celebrating below as Grol lies defeated behind him.


The final match was between Riner and Germany's 9th-ranked Andreas Toelzer. It went to a Golden Score and Riner won it with the throw shown below which was awarded a simple yuko.


I say that these final matches didn't meet expecations because there were no ippon throws, which is what people really want to see. Still, judo is as much defense as attack (if not more) so it shouldn't be surprising that the last matches were more sparring than anything.

Afterwards, the medals were presented. That's sumo Yokozuna Hakuho presenting Harrison with her gold below, while the following picture shows Sugimoto and Tsukada awaiting their medals.



The national anthem of the champion's country was played, which made the local fans happy as "Kimi Ga Yo" was heard twice. Japan was obviously the big winner on the day with 2 gold and 2 bronze but France also did well with a gold and two bronze themselves.

It was nearly 9pm by day's end, which meant I spent over 9 hours there. Of course, there was the break but still it was a very interesting time. So much so I plan to return next week for the open competition and suggest to anyone in Tokyo who has some time this weekend to check it out, even just for a few hours.

Notes

One of the interesting things about judo is that upsets are common so you never know what is going to happen. In many individuals sports where there are two competitors, the first rounds are usually run of the mill. In tennis, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal almost always advance to the semi-finals these days for example. But here, one bad move and you are done.

On the same note, to be world champion, you only have to win 5 or 6 matches in a day. In team sports, champions are decided over months, but in this case, you have to bring your best on just one day. That's why it was exciting to see unranked Sugimoto win as well as Harrison, who is moving up the ranks. In the men's side, both #1 seeds took the title, but there were times that they were in trouble.

All in all, a very exciting day and I'm looking forward to Monday's action.

Next Up

After the judo on Monday, there's a couple of ballgames I'll check out next week with my friend Meg who will be completing her 12 NPB parks in 14 days tour. One is the Giants at Yakult (yet again) on Wednesday and then I'll take her to the Giants minor league stadium the following day to see the soon-to-be-gone Shonan Searex. Check back next week for posts on all these and other events.

Best,

Sean

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Toshiba 2 vs JR Kyushu 0 - Japan Industrial Leagues Intercity Championship - September 7, 2010


After a weekend of watching way too long baseball games in Hiroshima, I decided to return to the Tokyo Dome for the Industrial League's Intercity Championship. I had been to a few of the qualifying games back in June as well as last year's title tilt, and the games are always fast paced and excellent quality.

The Tournament and Teams

As a quick refresher, the Tournament pits 32 teams from all over the country in single knockout form. Most of these are company teams although sometimes an amateur club team makes it. All games are played at the Tokyo Dome over 12 days, with most days having 3 games. The players are generally in their 20s and played university ball although some come straight from high school. Some go on to be drafted by the NPB teams while Jun Tazawa went straight to the Boston Red Sox after his team won the championship two years ago.

Each region has several qualifying tournaments to decide who participates. Once the teams are set, they can receive players on loan from other teams in the same region that didn't make the final cut. I find this a bit peculiar as it seems like stacking the deck for the bigger regions, which have an advantage with more teams from which to choose temporary players.

The Intercity tournament is also famous for the incredible cheering sections. Each team has a dedicated group of employees who double as the cheerleaders and band. They lead the other employees and fans in raucous cheering throughout the game, and there are awards given for those groups that can get the most fans or show the most spirit, among others. These groups are far more enjoyable than the cheering sections that populate the pro games here as they have more variety between the different groups, based on the company or industry.

This year's finalists were Toshiba from Kawasaki, a city in Kanagawa prefecture immediately south of Tokyo. They are traditionally a strong team who have taken 6 titles overall, the last just 3 years ago. Kawasaki is also a strong city in this tournament, having crowned 11 champions since 1973.

JR Kyushu (the Kyushu branch of Japan Rail) was making their 13th appearance in the competition. They won the 1936 title under a different name but that was their only championship.

In Japan, you sit on the same side of the field as the team you are supporting. This leads to some interesting imbalances. Since Kawasaki is so close to Tokyo, Toshiba is able to fill their half of the Dome with their employees. There are 42,000 seats in the entire stadium so Toshiba fans (i.e. employees) probably took 20,000. But JR Kyushu comes from far-away Kyushu, the southernmost island that is several hours away by train. So they had about 3 sections of fans. A bit one-sided but there was plenty of room on their side of the field, so that is where I sat. (There are several sections in the infield seating that are reserved for those who are just baseball fans which cost 2,400 yen. There are also some balcony seats on the second level for 1,500 yen.)


Both cheering sections were loud and proud, but I preferred the JR Kyushu group as they had a shinkansen balloon (above) and were dressed as train conductors during part of the game.


The Game

Both teams had given up just 9 runs in their 4 victories, while Toshiba had scored 20 compared to JR Kyushu with 18. So a low scoring game was expected and that's what we got.


Nonetheless, Toshiba started quickly in the bottom half of the first off Masamitsu Hamano. Rookie Ryoichi Adachi led off with a liner that diving third baseman Yuki Tadakuma couldn't quite corral as it bounced out of his glove for an infield hit. Adachi was sacrificed to second by Masaya Iseki, and scored (below) on a single by Shota Fujiwara (above). Quickly 1-0 Toshiba.


They added another in the 3rd when Adachi again led off with a single, went to second on an Iseki groundout, then to third on a Fujiwara groundout before scoring on a clutch single from Keiji Ikebe, who was on loan from JX-ENEOS, another Kawasaki team that did not make the tournament.


After that, the story was Toshiba starter Takashi Fujita (above). He was essentially unhittable, throwing a combination of breaking stuff and fastballs that kept the JR Kyushu hitters constantly off balance. He allowed only 3 singles (that's Noriaki Utamura getting one below) and no runner even made it to second. Even then, he wasn't overpowering, barely hitting 140 km/h (87mph) on the gun and only notching 3 strikeouts. But he only needed 107 pitches over the 9 innings as the JR Kyushu batters were unable to make solid contact. A great pitching performance to take the title and give Fujita the tournament's MVP award (given to the top player on the championship team).


Adachi went 3/4 and scored both runs; he was one of three players to win the rookie award for the tournament.

Hamano also threw a complete game but was the hard-luck loser. He yielded just 7 hits and 2 walks with 6 Ks but was bested by a superior pitcher. He was awarded the MVP for the runners up though.

The game time was a terrific 2:04 (an extremely fast rate of 1.89 PPM). An excellent display of pitching and defense by both teams made this a hugely enjoyable evening.

After the game, they had the closing ceremonies where awards were given out and speeches made. A rather anti-climatic ending to the tournament.

Toshiba celebrates while JR Kyushu hang their heads in shame below


Next Up

The World Judo Championships are in Tokyo and I'm going to check out a day of it tomorrow. Check back Friday for a post on that.

Best,

Sean

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Hot Historic Hiroshima


Japan has endured a scorching heat wave that seems to have lasted for all of August. Temperatures are regularly above 35C with stifling humidity. Hiroshima was no different for the five days I was there so I didn't spend much time outside other than at the ballpark. I did still take in a couple sights, one of which is world renowned and another that is not.

Gembaku Dome and Peace Museum

Hiroshima is sadly famous for being the first of two Japanese cities to be destroyed by the atomic bomb. The most famous reminder of this event is the Gembaku Dome (A-Bomb Dome) which is the remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. Located just a few hundred meters from the hypocenter, it looks the same as it did back on August 6th, 1945, although naturally some preservation work has been necessary.


Just a few minutes away is the Peace Museum, located in the Peace Memorial Park. The park itself has a number of small memorials that are worth seeing, but the museum is where you will spend most of your time. The photo below is of the Memorial Cenotaph which contains the names of all those killed by the bomb.


On a previous visit to the museum I felt that they glossed over Japanese involvement in the war, but they've added new displays that bring more attention to the fact. It presents a more balanced look at the events preceding the bombing and then dozens of stories from those who survived and burnt clothes and other possessions from those who didn't. There are also some models of the city before and after that give you a real understanding of just how much damage was done. I can't imagine visiting Hiroshima and not going here; it's just 50 yen and you'll never forget it.

One other place to go is the hypocenter, the precise spot on the ground below which the bomb exploded. I found standing right at the hypocenter to be quite powerful as it is just a small marker on a nondescript side street without any tourists. It is hard to believe that just 600 m above this point was where the bomb ended 70,000 lives instantly. That's the marker below, next to a hospital.


As you walk around the city, you might find some similar markers that show how that area looked after the bomb.

Just across the street from the Gembaku Dome is the old baseball stadium. It was permanently shut as of September 1st, so I am not sure what is going to happen to it. I'd guess that they'll tear it down eventually and develop something there as the land is too valuable to just keep an unused stadium there.


Shukkeien

A few minutes west of Hiroshima Station is a beautiful Japanese garden known as Shukkeien. It was built in 1620 and contains a large pond with several small islets. There is a long walking path that takes you around the garden, with many shaded areas that offer respite from the heat.


The straddling rainbow bridge (below) marks the center of the garden. Being so close to Ground Zero, the garden was completely destroyed in 1945 but has been rebuilt to the previous situation. A nice place to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. There is a small 250 yen entry fee but it is well worth it.


Miyajima

One place I didn't visit this time is Miyajima. It's about 30 minutes by train from Hiroshima Station or you can take a slower and cheaper tram to Miyajima-guchi, from where you catch the ferry over. Miyajima is considered one of Japan's 3 best views so if you are in Hiroshima for more than a day or two, you should definitely head out there.

Getting Around

Central Hiroshima is quite small and I walked everywhere despite the heat. But there are plenty of trams that go from Hiroshima Station to the Gembaku Dome and other tourist attractions. A one-day pass is 600 yen and a single ride is 150 yen that you pay when you disembark. Note that the passes are not sold on the streetcars but you should be able to get one at your hotel. There are also passes that include the ferry to Miyajima for 840 yen.

Eating

I found one great restaurant a couple of blocks south of the Kanayama-cho tram stop. Known as Kawasou, it serves okonomiyaki and teppanyaki, which is fried on a grill in front of you. Excellent service and reasonably priced, it's open well past 4 am and has English menus that are not that well translated. Below are the manager and one of his staff who have no idea that they are now on the internet.


Other Sights

Given that I was at the stadium or a bar for most of my time in Hiroshima, I didn't see as much as I could have. But this guide is extremely comprehensive and lists a lot of restaurants and bars as well.

Hiroshima is definitely one of Japan's best cities for tourism; if you visit Japan, make sure to include a couple of days here on any itinerary.

Best,

Sean

Monday, September 6, 2010

Weekend Games Split in Hiroshima


More on Mazda Stadium


The weekend games were both 3pm starts and it was hot! I found that standing on the concourse in the shade behind home plate was not bad as a breeze would blow through and keep you relatively cool. It's also a good place to stand to watch the game itself, but if you want to keep your spot, you'd be there for a good 6 hours, so not highly recommended.

Although the gates open 4 hours before game time on the weekend, the reserved seating areas down below are closed off until 2 hours before. That is a long time to spend walking around in this weather, so most fans sit in the shade and wait patiently for the aisles to be opened. When they do, it creates a funny scene as hundreds of fans make their way down the aisles at the same time.


The unreserved seats in the second deck are open at the same time as the gates since fans want to get there early to save their favourite spot. At this time, you must have a ticket to go upstairs but once the rest of the seating area is open, you can go up to take pictures.


During batting practice there are guards reminding the fans that batting practice is going on and to watch out for foul balls. A bit unnecessary I thought until a Hanshin coach, trying to hit some pop flies to his catcher, fouled two balls straight back into the stands, nearly beaning one poor fan.

After the 5th inning, fans sing a song while doing a silly dance, led by their mascot Slyly. What I found interesting is that all the beer vendors have to do the dance too. Each one goes to the bottom of the aisle, removes his keg, and then dances and sings. We all know that selling beer is the noblest profession and these fine individuals shouldn't be forced to perform such humiliating antics. The picture below doesn't do justice but in the bottom right you can see a beer guy enthusiastically dancing while Slyly leads some children on the field below.


Here's a view of the seats completely filled:


Still some empty seats near the back of most sections as it wasn't a sellout. The capacity is around 33,000 and attendance on the weekend was around 31,000 both times, so a few seats were still available.

Saturday's Game - Carp 8, Tigers 3 - Huber's Homer Hurts Hanshin Hopes

For this game I chose the unreserved 2nd deck seat, sitting above first base among the Carp faithful. The view was quite nice as you can see below.


Minor league journeyman Giancarlo Alvarado (below, known as Gio here in Japan) got the start for the Carp and promptly hit Matt Murton with the first pitch. Coincidentally, Murton led off the previous game by being dinged as well. Alvarado must hate the Tigers because he then hit Keiichi Hirano on the foot, causing Hirano to writhe in pain before being removed from the game. Not good news for the Tigers there, as Hirano's, leading the league at .354, was replaced was Katsuhiko Saka, a lifetime .123 hitter.


Things just got worse as Alvarado walked Takashi Toritani and Takahiro Arai followed with a 2-run single (below). Four batters and already two runs and I thought it was going to be another marathon. But Craig Brazell grounded into a double play and although Alvarado walked Tomoaki Kanemoto and hit Kenji Johjima to load the bases, Shunsuke Fujikawa was caught looking to end the threat. Thirty-two pitches, 3 hit batsmen (tying an NPB record), two walks but only two runs; Gio was some kind of magician to get out of that mess.


In the bottom half, the Carp manufactured a run off Hanshin starter Naoto Tsuru. Eishin Soyogi was sacrificed to third after doubling and scored on a sac fly from Soichiro Amaya.

In the second, Alvarado was hit on the hand by a Murton comebacker, but recovered in time to throw him out. It looked like he might not be able to continue, but he shrugged it off, then served up a solo homer to Saka to give Hanshin a 3-1 lead.

I thought Gio was in trouble and might be pinch hit for in the bottom of the 2nd, but he came up with two runners on and crushed the first pitch just foul. Tsuru didn't make the necessary adjustment though and Gio sent the next offering deep into the left field gap to tie the game at 3, sending the fans around me into a frenzy. It's always good when your pitcher gets a hit, but a 2-run double is really a most unexpected gift.

Tsuru was removed after just two frames and replaced by Masashi Sajikihara, who immediately gave up a walk to Amaya and a run-scoring double to Kenta Kurihara as the Carp took the lead 4-3. It was the second consecutive day that the Tigers had blown an early advantage.

From then on, Gio proceeded to shut Hanshin down for 3.2 more innings, yielding a couple of hits and walks, but keeping them off the scoreboard. He finished with 133 pitches but only 77 strikes, but nonetheless gets credit for a quality start. Given that he hit the first two batters, I'd take issue with the "quality start" terminology in this case though.

Anyway, the game was still close, but Hiroshima added another manufactured run in the 7th in exactly the same manner as their first. This time it was Takuro Ishii who doubled, Soyogi who sacrificed, and pinch hitter Tomonori Maeda who hit the sac fly to make it 5-3.

In the 8th, Kurihara walked and Jun Hirose doubled to bring pinch hitter Justin Huber to the plate. Huber has tons of minor league experience but was never able to stick in the majors. He's also played in both WBC's for Australia. He's a big guy and he showed his power, driving Keiji Uezono's second pitch just over the left field fence (below) to clinch the game.


Closer Ryuji Yokoyama came in to pitch a perfect 9th although Huber's homer eliminated the save chance. The final was 8-3 Carp and suddenly Hanshin is looking vulnerable as the playoffs approach. Their pitching in these last two games has been less than stellar so we'll see if they can turn it around.

Hiroshima scored 8 runs on only 7 hits, but 6 of them were for extra bases: 5 doubles and the homer.

Although this game started terribly slowly, with the first two innings taking nearly an hour, Gio and company sped things up and we were done in 3:18. An interesting game and the highlight of the trip so far.

Game 3 - Tigers 11, Carp 5 - Tigers' Twenty Take Third Tilt

As I left Saturday's game, I again passed by a kinken shop and they had a single for Sunday's game in the Visitor Performance area at a reduced price. I decided to take it as it would allow me a chance to sit with the Hanshin fans for a couple of innings before I moved down to a standing spot to meet up with my friend Meg. She is touring all 12 Japan ballparks as part of the JapanBall experience and this would be her 3rd game in 3 days. I was interested in hearing about her experiences in Sendai and Yokohama as well as her initial impressions of Japan.

On to the game. I watched the first inning (scoreless) standing behind the plate before moving up to my seat. I only spent an inning there it was directly in the sun and I was surrounded by Tigers fans who are not among my favourites. But the seats here are great, a separate section with a nice view as you can see below.


Unless a flag is blocking it.


The band resting while Hiroshima bats...


...then the fans get on their feet when the Tigers come to the plate


The second inning was also scoreless and so I moved back down to the concourse and watched as the Tigers exploded for 5 runs in the third, including a 2-run triple by Toritani (below) and a 2-run homer by Brazell. Thankfully I had left the cheering section as I'd not have enjoyed watching the Hanshin fans celebrate the outburst.


The Tigers added two more runs in the fourth when Fujikawa (below) and Toritani both had RBI singles.


This made it 7-0 and Meg joined me for a quick tour around the stadium, not paying much attention to the game. That was OK as we took about two innings to tour around and neither team did anything of consequence. I left Meg back at her seat and returned to standing behind the plate, just in time for Hiroshima to make it exciting. Amaya and Kurihara (below in a shot from the cheering section) led off the 7th with singles off Tigers' starter Akiyama. After a Shigenobu Shima fly out, Hirose followed with a 3-run homer chasing Akiyama. Reliever Kubota came in and was victimized by some bad fielding when Arai let a weak grounder get through his legs. After Huber struck out, Tsubasa Aizawa hit his first NPB dinger, a 2-run shot to suddenly make it 7-5. Could the Carp complete another comeback?


The answer was no. Hanshin added one in the 8th off Vinnie Chulk and three more in the ninth to complete the route and salvage the final game of the series 11-5 win. The Tigers left town with a half-game lead on surging Chunichi, who swept the Giants over the weekend.

Not a great game to end the series, but not surprising to see Hanshin's offense finally get going. The Tigers pumped out 20 hits on the afternoon with Murton grabbing 3 of them to stay on pace for the all-time hits record, which is 210, set by Ichiro back in 1994. Murton needs 36 hits in 25 games to get to 211, just below his current pace of 1.47 hits/game. He did set a new record as his 175 hits are the most by a first-year foreign player.

With that, I headed back to the station to catch a bus to the airport. The trip was over, and the overwhelming memories will be of heat and long, long games. The average game time for the 4 I saw was 3:42, but that was mostly due to the marathon minor league game on Thursday.

Notes

Japanese baseball teams each have a slogan that changes from year to year. Sometimes, this is something nonsensical English such as "Smart and Spirit 2010 Eagle Fire!" that Rakuten is using this season, other times it is a more meaningful Japanese phrase, and even a combination of the two is seen. Hiroshima has gone for a more direct English phrase this year: "We're Gonna Win". An admirable goal that's better than "We're Gonna Finish 5th" but I found it rather amusing given how poorly they've done this year. The shot below is from the People's Plaza, an underground area near Hiroshima station, where the poles are all decorated with posters of the players along with the slogan. Interestingly the Japanese translation underneath is not quite the same, it says "We're are going to cheer you on", probably referring to this being located where fans are walking by. The slogan on the website is properly translated.


Hirano's injury from Saturday kept him out of Sunday's game but it's reported to be just a bruise and nothing serious.

Next Up

I'm going to check out the Industrial League championship game tomorrow night and then join Meg for one or two of her local games too. As well, the Shonan Searex will cease to exist so I'll try to catch their final road game next Thursday at Giants Stadium. Check back as usual for posts on those as well as a post on Hiroshima.

Best,

Sean