Thursday, April 12, 2012

Nippon Ham Fighters 1 at Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks 3 - April 10, 2012


As my time in Japan winds down, I'm making a last visit to those stadiums I haven't seen in a while in order to review them for Stadium Journey. Fukuoka was one I thought would be difficult to get to as flights are not as cheap as those to Sapporo. Recently though, StarFlyer, another low-cost carrier that flies out of Haneda, initiated a Wednesday special to Fukuoka for just 10,000 yen one-way. The Softbank Hawks just happened to be playing the Nippon Ham Fighters on Tuesday night, so I was able to fly down for the game that day and fly back on Wednesday using the cheap ticket.

Fukuoka Dome


Built in 1993, the Fukuoka Dome was Japan's first stadium with a retractable roof (below). In 2005, the naming rights were bought, and the venue is now known as the Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome, or Yahoo Dome for short. I prefer the original name and will refer to it as such.


The dome is a 10-minute walk from Tojinmachi subway station, which is itself just 15 minutes from downtown Fukuoka, so it is easy to get to. The venue is part of a larger complex called "Hawks Town" which consists of a mall, several restaurants including a Hard Rock Cafe, and a Hilton hotel (called the Sea Hawk in keeping with the theme). The surrounding area is next to the waterfront and there is a beach just on the other side of the highway, although I didn't immediately see how to access it. If you have time and the weather is nice, it is worth exploring this area before the game.

The Hawks have been one of the NPB's most successful teams, and are the defending Japan Series champions. As such, they are charging much more for tickets than the other clubs, with seats behind the plate going for as much as 10,000 yen. The seats are the big and comfy type, but $120 is way too much for a baseball game in my mind.


If you like to be close to the action, the S reserved seats are 5,500 yen, still a bit overpriced. The best bet might be the outfield reserved seats listed at 1,800 yen but marked down to 1,000 yen at the game I went to. If you are not interested in getting inside the stadium, you can try the museum experience. Above the outfield seats is a museum dedicated to Sadaharu Oh, the world record holder with 868 home runs. For just 1,400 yen, you can visit this and see the game. This used to be a restaurant (similar to Windows in Rogers Centre) and I sat here a few years ago and found it bizarre as you can't hear the sounds of the game. In 2010, the Hawks decided to create a museum to honour Oh, who managed the team for several years and is now the chairman. I would have liked to have seen this but time did not permit on this rather quick visit.


Despite being much larger than the Tokyo Dome in terms of size, Fukuoka Dome only has a single seating bowl with 32 aisles that provide access from the main concourse. You can walk around the entire concourse, but it gets busy when a crowd of 35,000 fans is on hand.


There are a few displays worth noting as you wander. First, at every gate there are "V" shaped pillars that commemorate each of the Hawks' 15 Pacific League titles as well as their first two championships in the Japanese Baseball League.


There is a Material Wall that simulates a pitchers mound and home plate, exactly 18m44 apart (that's 60'6" for those who don't know metric).


Finally, the entire Hawks roster is shown under their place of origin. Brad Penny (#31) is there; he joined the team but is currently off the active roster after suffering an injury in his first start; Wily Mo Pena (#8) is another MLB vet who is with the squad.


Don't try to enter the good seats without a ticket, each aisle is manned by an eager usher who will not let you pass unless you are ticketed for that specific aisle. Once in the seating area, you are again limited to how far you can go as plastic fencing blocks you from moving to a different section of seats. Not good if you are trying to get pictures, but you can enter the outfield sections at any time as they are the cheapest.


Food options are not as good as at some other parks in Japan and I struggled to find something unique, settling on a chicken burger in a focaccia bun. It came with a soft drink for 780 yen, not exactly cheap eats. Interestingly, you fill up your own drink here, something I've not seen at other ballparks. If you want something unusual, the fried squid (below) should fit the bill. As usual, explore all the options and you should find something to enjoy.


For me, that is where the fun ended. I am used to Japanese ballgames being loud with the presence of the two cheering sections in the outfield, but the Hawks take things to the extreme. To begin, there is an MC named Max, an overly hyper DJ from Chicago who started working here in 2007. He first appears before the game to get things going with lots of rah-rah and then becomes more and more irritating with between-inning appearances (called Max Time!) to interview fans and spout the Hawks slogan, which is "V V" this year (for victory victory - you can see the logo on the yellow banners above). You'd have to live in Japan for a while to appreciate just how bloody awful this is; foreigners acting goofy is a staple of Japanese TV and seeing it brought to the ballpark was depressing.

There are three video boards above the outfield seats but two of them are used exclusively for advertising. These were given the names "Left Wing Vision" and "Right Wing Vision" in an obvious attempt to show that regardless of political bent, commercialization is the key to happiness.

In fact, that was the main theme I took away from my visit here - spend, spend, spend. Moreso than most ballparks, I found myself inundated with commercials, right from when I walked through Hawks Mall on the way to the stadium. There are logos everywhere around and even Max got into the act, interviewing a couple of young ladies in English for a local language school.


There was a dance team (above) and at least six mascots to further aggravate me. Everything here is just so overboard that by the end of the evening, I desperately needed a drink in a quiet bar. Fortunately, the two fans in front of me were more than happy to show me to one of their favourite haunts, but more on that later. After all, there was a game to be played amongst all the noise.

The Game

Bobby Keppel started for the Fighters and gave up a run in the first inning on 3 consecutive singles. The Fighters got that back in the top of the 2nd when Dai-Kang Yang tripled off Hiroki Yamada and was singled home by Makoto Kaneko. Keppel did not appear from the dugout for the 2nd (turned out he was experiencing tightness in his shoulder), and Masahiro Inui came in to take over.




Inui pitched well for a couple of innings, but in the bottom of the 4th, he walked Hiroki Kokubo, an 18-year veteran who began his career in 1994 with the then-named Daiei Hawks. Although he played three seasons with the hated Giants, he returned to Fukuoka in 2007 and has been a solid contributor since. With Kokubo on first, Nobuhiro Matsuda crushed Inui's first offering well foul. No worries though, two pitches later Matsuda launched another shot, this one staying well fair to give the Hawks the 3-1 lead.


That was all that Yamada and his relievers would need as the Fighters never really threatened. Brian Falkenborg pitched the ninth for his 6th save of the season and the Hawks ran their winning streak to five games.


Most fans stayed for the celebrations afterward. For about 30 minutes there were hero interviews, singing of the team song, fireworks, and more balloons being released. I must say that the fans seemed to really enjoy themselves here and I am probably just an old scrooge who likes a more quiet and reflective atmosphere at the ballpark.

Notes

The Fighters' Dai-Kang Yang is an interesting case study on the difficulties of translating non-Japanese names into English. He is Taiwanese and thus his name consists of Chinese characters. His last name (Yang) means sun and is pronounced Yoh in Japanese, which is how he officially registers himself with the NPB. However, on their English site they still use Yang. I'm not sure which is right, but for consistency within English, I'll use Yang here.

Tommy

Remember that drink I mentioned earlier? As I was leaving, I noticed that one of the ladies in front of me had dropped her ticket, so I picked it up and handed it to her, saying in very simple Japanese "Excuse me, you dropped this". Well, they were stunned at my language abilities (those foreigners who live in Japan will understand this experience;, even the most tongue-tied are praised for their linguistic talents) and promptly asked me the normal questions (i.e. country of origin, time in Japan, age, marital status, which team I root for, etc). We talked for a while and I mentioned that I was looking to grab a nightcap and they told me about a place they knew, so off we went.

They ended up taking me to Tommy, a small "karaoke snack" run by a flamboyant drag queen who keeps your glass filled up all night long. At just 3,000 yen for unlimited shochu or whiskey, it is much cheaper than similar places in Tokyo and very relaxing. Once the karaoke started, it wasn't that quiet, but by then my headache had been washed away and all was good until late in the evening. I have no idea how to get there as it is hidden in the back alleys of an area known as Nishi Nakasu, but there are hundreds of similar places in that neighborhood, so if you can find a local to guide you around it could be a very interesting experience.

Next Up

I'm planning to see an AFC Champions League game featuring FC Tokyo on Tuesday evening and then traveling to Nagoya for three games in three days. Those will be my last games as a resident of Japan and somewhat bittersweet as I've certainly seen my share of events here over 15 years.

The last two weeks here will be spent preparing for the move and then I'll be in Singapore for 10 days where I hope to check out an S League game. Then it's home to Canada for the summer, starting with a 3-game set between the Mets and Jays. It will be busy, so check back often to see what happens.

Best,

Sean

2 comments:

  1. Sean -

    Your comments mimic some of mine when I visited Fukuoka Dome. I copied and pasted some comments right from my site below:

    The music was way too loud - ruined the 'game experience' for me. There were too many 'loud' commercials between periods.

    The music played drowned out listening to the 'cheering section/crowd' which is one of the things I really liked about visiting Japanese baseball.

    It was my least favorite stadium to visit.

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  2. Not at all surprised to hear that Meg as I know you prefer the sounds of the game as well.

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