Thursday, December 31, 2009

Gamba Osaka 2 vs Vegalta Sendai 1 (Emperor's Cup Semifinal) - December 29, 2009

Two days ago saw the semifinals of the Emperor's Cup. Despite it being an official workday, many people have the final week of the year off and so the game in Tokyo was scheduled for a 3pm start. I had taken the day off in lieu and so headed out to National Stadium to check out Vegalta Sendai take on defending champions Gamba Osaka.

The Teams

I've already seen Vegalta Sendai twice in this tournament, including their most recent victory over Kawasaki back on December 12th, so there's no need to expand on that. But it's my first time seeing Gamba Osaka, who finished 3rd in the J League this season. They are the defending champions in the tournament, and also won the AFC Champions League in 2008. Their star is Yasuhito Endo, who is considered one of Japan's best players after taking the Japanese Footballer of the year in 2008 and Asian Footballer of the Year this season. Gamba is one of only 6 teams to have played in the top league in Japan since its inception in 1993.

Given their pedigree, it would seem like Gamba would have no trouble with newly-promoted Vegalta, but their regular keeper was out with the flu, and Vegalta had also taken the scalps of other J1 clubs such as FC Tokyo and Omiya Ardija, so it was by no means a foregone conclusion.

The Seats

Before I get to the game itself, a small digression on the seating. On the JFA's game page, they listed the seating options on a stadium map (check the bottom of the page). I wanted to sit in the center area on the back of the stadium around section 34 or 35; these sections were listed as open on their site. But when I got there, they had blocked off the entire top deck from section 32 to 39 as you can see in the picture below.

Fortunately, the Sendai fans were so many in number that they were forced to open sections 32 and 33, so I moved there, but it was still crowded and uncomfortable for most of the game. And if you got there late, you would have had trouble finding two seats together. So a big thumbs down to the JFA for not opening the seats in advance and for not updating their website.

BTW, If you are seeing a game at National Stadium on a sunny day and don't enjoy being blinded, try to sit in the away section - the sun is low in the sky and shines directly at the home supporters.

Shinjuku skyline

The Game

Many of the latecomers were still looking for seats when Osaka opened the scoring on a spectacular goal. Defender Michihiro Yasuda had the ball deep in the right and crossed into the box. Vegalta keeper Takuto Hayashi jumped to clear it but he could only manage a weak palm on the ball, which spun weakly in the air. Gamba's Brazilian striker Lucas, with his back to the goal, stepped forward and bicycle-kicked the ball with his left foot. Hayashi had no chance and Gamba had the early 1-0 just 4 minutes in.

A corner kick... punched away

The rest of the half was rather uneventful, with most of the play in the midfield. Gamba seemed able to parry any Sendai chance and they really only threatened once, when a header went off the post, shown in the picture below.

The second half was much the same until Sendai finally broke through. Kunimitsu Sekiguchi had the ball in the right corner when he made a brilliant back heel pass to himself to get in the clear. He dribbled into the box and crossed to Takayuki Nakahara, who drove the ball into the top right corner to tie the game.

But the tie was short-lived. It seemed that Gamba had another gear, and they immediately began to pressure the Vegalta defense. After just 8 minutes, they were controlling the ball well when Hideo Hashimoto tried to cross. The ball was deflected by a Sendai defender and rolled to Lucas, who calmly slotted it home behind a surprised Hayashi.

Even with the lead, Gamba continued to pressure, having at least 3 great chances to add to their account. They seemed adept at finding the trailing player who would then drive a shot wide or high. Vegalta never really came close again and at the full-time whistle, Osaka had earned their place in the final.

Hayashi leaps to grab a cross

This game wasn't that exciting; certainly Gamba showed their class, limiting Sendai to just 6 shots while managing 13 themselves. I was a bit sad to see Sendai fall here as I always enjoy seeing underdogs succeed. But they will certainly provide quality opposition in J1 next season.

This video shows all the goals for those who are interested.

The Emperor's Cup final will be played on New Years Day in National Stadium. Gamba will take on Nagoya Grampus, who won in penalties over Shimizu S Pulse. I'm not going to that game as I've seen both teams and am not sure about the ticket situation.

Next up

That's it for 2009! January 2010 promises more sports including an American football game in Tokyo, the final week of Top League rugby, and then the trip to the south for the Leafs road trip. Stay tuned for all the news and have a Happy New Year everyone!


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Touring Kyoto

Kyoto is often called a beautiful city. I have to disagree. As the picture below shows, Kyoto, like all Japanese cities, has far too many bland buildings stretching as far as the eye can see.

I think it's more accurate to say that Kyoto is Japan's most beautiful city, which is likely true for the wonderfully diverse areas you can wander when outside the downtown core. There is little doubt that Kyoto is the best city for tourism in this country. Unlike Tokyo, which is a testament to constant change, Kyoto has maintained much of its historical areas and buildings, offering plenty of surprises to those who take the time to venture off the beaten path.

I don't want to write a post detailing all of the attractions here. I'll mention a few of the sights that I saw this weekend that might not make it on a typical top ten list. If you are going to Kyoto yourself, take the time to research the city - it's big and the attractions are not all in the same spot. In fact, it's best to divide the city into areas and concentrate on one or two areas per day. I'd guess you'd need 4 or 5 days to really see everything here, although you may get tired of all the temples after the tenth one or so.

The people at Japan Guide do a good job listing all the main sights in Kyoto and there's little I can add. So I'll talk about a few places you might not find on your map.


OK, actually Sanjusangendo is well-known, but I'm putting it here as a good starting point. The name of this temple refers to the length of the hall, 33 ken, where a ken is the distance between the pillars, which is just under two meters. It's famous for an annual archery contest known as Toshiya which takes place every January.

From the outside, there's a nice garden and path that you can wander around, but the hall itself isn't anything special. It's when you go inside that you will be amazed. After removing your shoes, you follow a path that takes you to the front corridor. When you turn the corner, you will notice that along the entire length of the hall stand 1001 life-size statues. Each of these statues is over 700 years old and represents the 1000-armed Kannon or Goddess of Mercy. Guarding these statues are 28 guardian deities, each of which is considered a national treasure. Each of these guardian deities has an English explanation which is actually more detailed than that in Japanese. Unfortunately, pictures are not allowed - there are even signs say that your camera must be examined upon exiting.

On the back side of the hall are artifacts, including bows and arrows used in the Toshiya competitions centuries ago, which are fasicinating. All-in-all, Sanjusangendo is well worth the 600 yen admission fee and a good place to start your tour as it's a short walk or bus ride from Kyoto station.

Close up of a demon on the roof


Located just down the street from Sanjusangendo, Yogenin is a small temple that was initially built in 1594 and then reconstructed in 1621 after a fire destroyed the original building. What's interesting is that during the reconstruction, the remains of Fushimi Castle were used. This castle, which was being dismantled at that time, was a key element in the founding of the Tokugawa shogunate, the last family of shoguns that ruled Japan from 1603 to 1868.

In 1600, Fushimi Castle was under control of Torii Mototada, who served Ieyasu Tokugawa. The castle came under siege from an army led by Ishida Mitsunari, an enemy of Tokugawa. Despite being severely outnumbered, Mototada managed to defend the castle for 10 days, before finally succumbing. When they realized they were to be defeated, Mototada and his retainers all committed seppuku, the ritual suicide that has become legend and is often referred to as hara-kiri in the west. But it was Mototada's ability to fend off Mitsunari for so long that allowed Tokugawa to attack elsewhere, which proved a critical advantage in the next battle.

When the castle was dismantled 20 years later, they took the floorboards on which the suicides had occurred and used them as the ceiling in Yogenin. It is now known as the "Blood Ceiling" and you can still see the blood in the shape of heads, arms, hands, and feet. The tour guide will point out the various forms on the ceiling and it gives pause to consider that these people died over 400 years ago. There are also drawings by Tawayara Sotatsu throughout the temple that are very well-known in Japan and depict exotic animals such as white elephants.

The actual tour is nothing more than the guide moving you from room to room and playing a tape recording. There are no English descriptions, so it helps if you speak Japanese, but this is definitely one of Kyoto's lesser-known but no less important treasures.

From the temple looking back to the main gate


Located near Keage station, Murin-an is a small but beautiful garden that was constructed in 1894 by Aritomo Yamagata, a solider and 3rd prime minister of Japan. Within the garden are his living quarters, a tea house, and a western-style building that was the site of the Murin-an conference held in 1903. This conference was held to determine the direction of Japanese foreign policy just before the Russo-Japanese War.

As you can see in the picture above, the garden is compact, but attractive and quiet despite being near so many attractions. If you want a respite from the hectic temple scene in Kyoto, try a few minutes at Murin-an. Admission is 400 yen but once inside you can relax as long as you want.

Site of the Murin-an conference, preserved as is for over 100 years

Sanmon (Nanzenji)

Nanzenji is a large temple located about 10 minutes away from Murin-an. It is famous for a serene rock garden but I want to briefly mention two other sights here. The first is Sanmon, which is the large main gate. For 500 yen, you can walk up a steep flight of stairs to reach a viewing area. From here you can look west into Kyoto, although the view is somewhat blocked by trees. But it's the eastern view looking into the hills that is much more interesting and relaxing. Take your time up here and enjoy the quiet.

From the top looking to the hills

Sanmon from the ground

Suirokaku (Nanzenji)

Just beyond Sanmon and off to the right is a large vaulted bridge. This is the Nanzenji Aqueduct, built in 1889 as part of the Biwako Sosui or Lake Biwa Canal. It's an interesting contrast to the austere nature of the temple buildings, and was actually controversial when it was built as the style is so different. But now it fits in quite well and offers some nice photo opportunities.

Biwa Canal Museum

Between Murin-an and Nanzenji lies a small non-descript building that might not merit a second glance. But it's worth a look as it houses the history of the canal. Construction began in 1885 and took five years to complete. This museum, which is free, documents all elements of the construction process. There's very little English here, but still interesting to see what they had to do to complete this engineering feat over a century ago.

Behind the museum is the Kyoto Zoo, the second oldest zoo in Japan dating from 1903. Might be interesting if you have children, but certainly not that important given the historical sights around.

Philosopher's Path

After you leave Nanzenji, you can walk toward Ginkakuji along the Philosopher's Path. It's a 2-km long route that follows a small canal and is lined by cherry trees. During the winter, it's not particularly exciting, but during the spring when the cherry blossoms appear, it can be fantastic. The other thing to note here is the large number of cafes along the way - try to stop in one for some Kyoto treats.

Nishiki Market

Back downtown, you may be in the mood for some food shopping. There's no better place than Nishiki Market, which is a narrow shopping street with plenty of local delicacies on offer. It runs parallel to Shijo Avenue, just one block north. I was too busy eating to take pictures, but it's definitely worth checking out if you are looking to try some different types of foods while you are here.



Monday, December 28, 2009

Oita Heat Devils 74 at Kyoto Hannaryz 85 (bj League) - December 26, 2009

Once in a while I take a trip that someone else plans for me. This past weekend was one of those trips, when my girlfriend planned a weekend in Kyoto to do some sightseeing. I've been to Kyoto before and it's always a good place to visit, but now I knew there was a basketball team there. Could the sports gods be giving me an early Christmas present? I checked out the bj League schedule and sure enough, the Kyoto Hannaryz were at home both days! As the Saturday game was in the evening after it was dark, I chose that one and headed over to the gym to catch my 3rd bj League game this month.

The Stadium

Kyoto Furitsu gym is located in the northwest quadrant of the city. It's a 6-minute walk from Enmachi station on the JR San'in Line, which leaves from Kyoto station. You'll need to check a map before you go though, it's not that easy to find. You need to walk north when leaving the station, cross a street at a light, and walk about 4 blocks north before turning left and walking about 2 blocks. You should see it then. It was dark when I arrived and so I couldn't get a good description of the outside of the building, but the entrance was on the north side of the gym.

The venue itself is actually quite big with a capacity of over 8,500, much more than the gyms in Sendai and Tokyo. Even more impressive was the nice scoreboard over center court, a first for me in this league. It was due to the scoreboard that I realized the timeout rule in this league. In the first half, each team gets two 60-second and two 20-second timeouts, but in the second half, the number of 60-second timeouts available increases to three.

There are a variety of seating options, almost laughably so given the small attendance, but you should just get the cheap seats at 1,500 yen. You can sit anywhere in the 2nd deck which is close enough. In the picture below, the black seats near the floor are the more expensive seats at 3,500 yen in the middle or 2,500 yen at the ends. The 5 rows above that plus all the empty seats are the cheaper sit where you want section which is only 1,500 yen. All tickets are 500 yen cheaper if you buy them before game day.

Food options here are also good. On the 1F beneath the main entrance there are several items including some very tasty looking sandwiches (at 800 yen a bit out of my price range), frankfurters, pork buns, and freshly made mini castellas. On the second floor there is a small shop that sells pop and snacks at reasonable prices.

Overall, this is the best of the 3 gyms I've been to in the bj League. Unfortunately, the Hannaryz only play about a third of their home games here. In fact, this was their first game at the Furitsu gym; they usually play at Kyoto City Gym, which is a much smaller venue that holds just under 3,000 fans. They even have a 3rd home gym which is located in nearby Muko City. Guess I'll have to return to see those gyms too!

The Teams
The Kyoto Hannaryz are the only expansion team in this league this season. They've signed Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, once a #3 overall NBA pick, who is more famous for his refusal to stand during the American national anthem. Josh Bostic (pictured below), who was the Division II player of the year last season for Findlay, is also on the team and is 5th in scoring, averaging around 22 points a game. The Hannaryz, named after a local leasing company, are coached by ex-NBAer David Benoit, and stand last in the West at 5-13.

The Oita Heat Devils have been in the league since it started 5 years ago, but have never done much. In fact, last season they were a league worst 8-44 and there were fears in the off-season that they would fold. Based in Beppu (known for its hot springs hence the nickname), the Heat Devils are only 7-13 this season and need to improve handily to secure a playoff spot. Ricky Woods and Mike Bell are in the top 10 in scoring and rebounds, and they have a rookie in 7-footer Rashaad Singleton, who leads the league in blocked shots.

The Game

The first thing I noticed was that Abdul-Rauf was not dressed for the game. Apparently he is injured, which was somewhat disappointing. Next, during warmups, one of the nets was dislodged and so there were workers trying to put it back into place. They had to stop the countdown clock at 3 minutes while the basket was adjusted properly. It didn't take long and tipoff was only slightly delayed, but it's not something you see in the NBA.


The game itself was a study in contrasts. The first half was dominated by the visitors who started on a 9-0 run before Benoit called a timeout to stem the tide. The Hannaryz responded and grabbed a 14-13 lead but Oita rallied to take a 4-point lead at the end of one quarter.

Bell drains a three

The second quarter saw Hannaryz start slowly, taking 4:32 to score their first basket. But Oita wasn't much better, only managing 5 points in that span. But they went on a 8-0 burst and cruised to halftime with a 42-31 lead. It would have been more if Woods could sink his free throws. He was creating chances in the paint and being fouled repeatedly, but ended up going 1/8 from the line in the first half.

Bell blocks a layup by Naoto Takushi

The third quarter was pretty even and Oita was up by 13 with 2:30 to go. But a 3-pointer from Jun Iwasa and a Bostic dunk and then 3-pointer were part of a 12-2 Hannaryz run which cut the lead to 3. A late 3-pointer from Masahiro Ohara gave the Heat Devils a 64-58 entering the final frame.

Bostic drives for a layup

The short break wasn't enough to kill Kyoto's momentum though. Their defense picked it up a notch and suddenly the Heat Devils were stone cold from the floor, getting few clean looks. Bostic drained a basket to tie the game at 67 with just over 6 minutes to go. After Woods split a pair of freebies, John Clifford gave Kyoto a 1-point lead with 4:52 left. Shortly thereafter Taizo Kawabe sank a 3 to make it 72-68 and bring the fans to their feet. Oita was in the midst of an 0-12 shooting streak that lasted 8 minutes and Kyoto took advantage, going from 4 down to 8 up. Oita's inability to score forced them to start fouling early, but Kyoto was too good from the line (21/27), and the Heat Devils were done.

The final was 85-74, but the game was much closer, being tied with 6 minutes to go as you can see above. Again the last two minutes took forever as Oita fouled on every possession in a vain attempt to close the gap, but thankfully the Hannaryz made their free throws to thwart the stupidest strategy in sports.
Overall, a very exciting game for the home fans, with an 11-point halftime deficit turned into an 11-point win. I was particularly impressed with Bostic's play. He had 28 points and 20 rebounds, but it was his speed when getting a defensive board and then blazing down the court that was really memorable. It wouldn't surprise me to see him move to a more basketball-oriented country in the near future; it's a shame only a thousand spectators are seeing him play here.

The Fans
For an exhibition club, the Hannaryz have a boisterous if somewhat tiresome crowd. But they are well-trained. Before the game, the fans were instructed to practice their cheers. There are two cheers for when the Hannaryz are on defense: the first is De-Fense, the second is De-Fense, but at a slower pace. Genius. On offense, there were three cheers: Go Kyoto Hannaryz; Kyoto Hannaryz; and Kyoto Hannaryz, again at a slightly different tempo. Truly inventive. But the fans were quick, and managed to get these cheers down pat with just a few repetitions.
I knew that these cheers, when combined with the amazingly-yet-to-be-banned Thunderstix, were sure to make for a loud and aggravating crowd. Sure enough, they screamed on every possession, led on by the scoreboard (see the DEFENSE in red in the picture above) . I enjoy these contests, but the constant, mindless cheering combined with the lack of understanding of the game are really beginning to grate. I don't mind the occasional chant at a key point, but the endless, repetitive yelling is headache-inducing. Why is it that in Japan, to be a fan of a team requires that you make noise all the time? Doesn't anybody watch for the pleasure of the game anymore?
Thoughts on the League

Having complained about the fans, I'll now try to be positive. This league is actually very interesting and it surprises me that more fans don't go out to these games. The gyms are central, tickets are reasonable, and the quality of the game is better than I expected. And as I mentioned, Japanese fans seem attracted to sports where they can make lots of noise, so basketball suits that purpose.

It just seems that the league is poorly marketed. Here in Tokyo for example, I never see a single ad for the Apache. As well, most teams play in several different arenas, which is not conducive to building a strong fan base. Finally, with a stretched schedule that sees teams playing only 4-6 times per month, fans can't be expected to maintain interest over the entire season. It's too bad and I hope the league can build itself up over the next few years. So if you enjoy basketball and live in or are visiting Japan, I suggest you try to see a game wherever you might be. And if you can't understand the bj League website, drop me a line and I'll help you out.



Friday, December 25, 2009

Does Matsui's Move Mean Less MLB on TV in Japan?

Last week, Hideki Matsui signed a 1-year contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. By itself, this isn't a particularly surprising move, but it has enormous implications for televised major league games here in Japan.

There are currently 5 Japanese position players in the majors (Matsui, Ichiro in Seattle, Akinori Iwamura of the Pirates, Kosuke Fukudome of the Cubs, and Kazuo Matsui of the Astros). But for TV purposes, there are really only 2: Hideki Matsui and Ichiro; the other 3 rarely get their games televised here. So what's the problem?

With Matsui joining the Angels, both stars are now on the West Coast. Which means that on a lot of our mornings, they will be playing games at the same time (10 pm EDT or 11 am JST). While Matsui was on the Yankees, we often got an East Coast game at 8 am and then Ichiro's Mariner game at 11 am. Now, who are they going to show at 8 am? Even the Cubs are not appropriate, as their afternoon tilts occur in our overnight and their Central Time zone location means their night games start at 9 am here. Same goes for Houston. Which leaves the woeful Pirates. I can't believe that I'm going to be watching too many Pittsburgh games this season; the team doesn't have much cachet in Japan even with Iwamura there.

It's too early to know what the national broadcaster NHK is going to do. I suspect we might get more Red Sox games with Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jun Tazawa starting and Hideki Okajima in the bullpen. Takashi Saito's move to Atlanta where Kenshin Kawakami is in the rotation might lead to a few of their games being shown. Koji Uehara is on Baltimore and newcomer Ryota Igarashi has been signed by the Mets, so they offer more East Coast options. So we may get even more variety.

It's also possible that they'll skip the early games and just show both West Coast games at the same time on different channels. But I only get one of those channels, so it would mean less TV baseball for me. Which means I'll be continuing with my MLB.TV subscription for another season.

Next up

I'm off to Kyoto this weekend and will be watching another bj League game while there. Next Tuesday I'll be at National Stadium again to watch Vegalta Sendai take on Gamba Osaka in Emperor's Cup semifinal action. And Wednesday is my last day of work! Check back here for reports on those games and preparations for the January trip.

Merry Christmas everyone!


Friday, December 18, 2009

Ryukyu Golden Kings 75 at Tokyo Apache 70 (bj League) - December 16, 2009

After watching my first bj League game in Sendai this past weekend, I thought I would see a game here in Tokyo to compare the experience. So after work, I headed over to Yoyogi's National Gymnasium #2 to watch the Ryukyu Golden Kings take on the hometown Apache.

Getting There

The gym is located about 5 minutes from exit #1 of Meiji Jingu Mae subway station on the Chiyoda or Fukutoshin Lines. As well, Harajuku station is nearby. You have to walk over some bridges and then around the larger #1 gymnasium to reach the #2 gym. There are maps at each station but it's hard to miss the unique structure of gym #1, so you shouldn't have any trouble.

The Stadium

The smaller companion to the national gymnasium that was used as the basketball and swimming venue in the 1964 Olympics, Yoyogi #2 National Gym is a circular arena that seats 3,2o2 fans. It's a very interesting design with a suspension roof, and sloping walkways around the back side. Because it is a circular shape, the court barely fits inside and sitting at the corners provides a great view of the action - you are almost right above the players, which provides a unique point of view.

There are really only two types of seats: the 4,000 yen fixed seats, which are slightly closer, and the 2,500 yen open seating, which are great, especially in the corners. In fact, the more expensive seats (they are the orange ones in the picture above) lack backs and are not as well positioned. With the circular arena, there are no true sideline seats - instead these seats are too far from the floor but still relatively low - this is not a good way to watch the game. There are a few courtside seats but these seem to be reserved for season tickets.

There were two food stands: one just offered some fried chicken and snacks, while the other offered a more complete curry meal from a trailer parked outside (see below) which I was told was quite good.

The Teams

The Ryukyu Golden Kings are based in Okinawa, the first pro sports team there. They are the defending bj League Champions, and this is their third season in the league. They came into the series leading the Western Conference with a 13-3 record. They are led by two Indiana Hoosier alumni in George Leach and Jeff Newton.

The Tokyo Apache lost the final to Ryukyu last season, but have been a strong team throughout their first 4 seasons in the league, when they were coached by Joe Bryant, father of some guy named Kobe. This year however, they are under new management and a new coach and are struggling mightily at 5-11, good for last place in the East. Their top scorer is Julius Ashby who played his college ball in Colorado.

The Game

I thought I'd recap the game here but found that the Japan Times does a much better job than I could.

Some additional points that I found interesting. Tokyo went on a 20-4 run to end the first quarter, but then Okinawa went on a 20-4 run to start the 2nd quarter. Tokyo never recovered from that turnaround.

In the 4th, Bryan Simpson of Ryukyu, who was a serviceman in Okinawa before being drafted by the Golden Kings, had an alley-oop followed by a flying dunk that made the score 59-49 and seemed to end any chance of a Tokyo comeback. But the Apache kept it close enough and were just 7 points down with a minute to go when they started the foul-a-thon in an effort to close the gap. With Ryukyu's poor foul shooting, this was a good gamble, and sure enough they closed the gap to 2. But the Golden Kings made 3 of their last 4 free throws to clinch the 75-70 victory.

George Leach with the hook shot

To me, Tokyo lost because of fouls and turnovers. Both teams shot around 43% but Tokyo only managed 2 trips to the line while the Kings had 31 free throws. They only connected on 17 of those (54.1%) which is why the game was much closer. Tokyo also turned the ball over 15 times compared to Ryukyu's 9. There's no doubt that the Kings are the much better team, but their one weakness seems to be the charity stripe - poor shooting there always allows the opponent to keep the game close.

5'6" Cohey Aoki guarded by 6'9" Jeff Newton

Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed the game tonight - the unique venue, a good crowd (lots of Kings' supporters too) and a decent game. I do wish that they would can the MC who is always telling the crowd to scream "Defense" on every single opposition possession, but I understand that he's trying to get the energy level up. Still, this is good entertainment in central Tokyo and well worth a visit. All series are back-to-back doubleheaders, but they only play 2 or 4 home games per month (and some games are not in Yoyogi). So check their schedule and plan to see a game if you can.

Cohey Aoki with the running layup

They even have flyers that give you discounts on tickets - only 2,000 yen to sit where you want. I picked up a flyer, so I'll be going again next year. Hope to see you there!



Thursday, December 17, 2009

January Trip Booked - Atlanta, Nashville, and Florida, Here I Come!

My job finishes at year-end, so I've decided to celebrate with a sports road trip in January! It turns out the Toronto Maple Leafs have a 5-game road trip that starts in Washington, then heads south to Nashville, Atlanta, Tampa and Miami. I haven't been to Florida or Georgia since my 2001 trip, and I've never seen hockey or basketball down there. So when I checked the NBA schedules and found some good matchups such as Cleveland at Miami and Boston at Orlando, I decided that a two-week jaunt would be a great way to start the year.

I'll fly to Atlanta first and check out the Sabres-Thrashers and Suns-Hawks games as well as an ECHL game in nearby Gwinnett. The Southern Professional Hockey League is in Knoxville, and then on to Nashville for the first Leafs game. A long drive to Atlanta follows for back-to-back Leaf tilts, and then south to Florida for 10 days, finishing with a National Lacrosse League game in expansion Orlando. On the return to Atlanta, there's an NCAA basketball game in Macon. I'm also leaving NFL conference championship Sunday open in case New Orleans is hosting - I may just fly there for the game.

Here's the complete schedule as of December 21st - note that I sometimes make changes as events are discovered:
Jan 14 Buffalo at Atlanta (NHL) 7:00
Jan 15 Phoenix at Atlanta (NBA) 7:30
Jan 16 Charlotte at Gwinnett (ECHL)7:05
Jan 17 Pensacola at Knoxville (SPHL) 5:00
Jan 18 Toronto at Nashville (NHL) 7:00
Jan 19 Toronto at Atlanta (NHL) 7:00
Jan 20 Wofford at Georgia Tech (NCAA Men's Tennis) 2:00
Jan 21 Toronto at Tampa Bay (NHL) 7:00
Jan 22 Gwinnett at Florida (ECHL) 7:30
Jan 23 Toronto at Florida (NHL) 7:00
Jan 25 Cleveland at Miami (NBA) 7:30
Jan 26 Montreal at Florida (NHL) 7:30
Jan 27 Lynn at Florida Tech (NCAA Men's Basketball) 7:30
Jan 28 Boston at Orlando (NBA) 8:00
Jan 29 Rochester at Orlando (NLL) 7:35
Jan 30 Stetson at Mercer (NCAA Men's Basketball) 3:30 
It should be a great trip, stay tuned for posts on each game!



Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sendai Sights and Matsushima Musings

One of the benefits of sports road trips is going to places that you might not otherwise visit. The sporting event is what gets you there, but once the game is over, there's always much more to see and do. So I'll try to add some posts on the cities I visit on my trips. This past weekend I saw two games in Sendai on Saturday, but spent Sunday touring nearby towns.

Sendai Sights

With the two games on Saturday, including a soccer game that went into extra time, there wasn't much time to do any sightseeing. So this section is rather sparse.

AER Observatory

The AER building is located next to Sendai station. On the 31st floor there is a free observation deck that allows views to the east and west. To the north there is a small window as you step out of the elevators, and if you want the southern view, you have to eat at the restaurant there.

The views are quite nice from the top, although we were there on a rainy morning. You can see Kleenex Stadium if you look carefully, but it's not clear enough for a good picture. Definitely worth a few minutes to check this out, it's open from 10:30 to 8:00 and they have some star maps posted there, which leads me to think that there are some good views of the night sky on a clear night.

Looking east at the Shinkansen tracks

Marinel Burger

There is a large shopping arcade called Clis Road right across the street from the station. For those who don't know what an arcade is, it's not a place with lots of video games but a covered, outdoor shopping mall along a street. Clis Road covers 4 blocks and has plenty of shops and restaurants.

One of the more interesting eateries is known as Marinel Burger. It just opened last month and it's burgers are made of satsuma-age, which is a fried fish cake. There's only a few choices of toppings (such as miso and onions), but it's much healthier than your regular hamburger and quite good as well. Many people walking by were intrigued by the new store, but few ventured in. With only 4 cramped seats, you won't be there long, but it's worth trying out in between your meals of cow tongue (Sendai's specialty).

One More Time

Thanks to my friend J.T., who used to live in Sendai, we had a lead on a cool bar outside the downtown core. Called One More Time, it's an American style bar with a menu priced in US dollars. Sounds good until you realize that the exchange rate used there is 120yen/$ (the real rate is around 90 right now) so a $7 cocktail is 840 yen instead of a much more pleasing 630 yen. Suzuki-san is the friendly owner and was happy to talk to us about our trip. If you are in Sendai, drop by; it's a lively crowd and a good place to chill after some sightseeing.

But make sure to let them know you aren't there to support another team - since we were visiting from Tokyo, some of the people there thought we were Kawasaki supporters and were giving us the evil eye. Now I do cheer for Kawasaki, but more as a reason to increase my interest in the J League, and I wasn't the least bit upset that they had lost earlier. So once we told them that we were just sports fans, they warmed up and cheered us. It was a good way to end a tiring day.

Matsushima Musings

On Sunday, we took a short train ride to Matsuhima-Kaigan station. Matsushima is a large group of islands that is considered one of the three most scenic spots in Japan. Matsu means pine, while shima means island; and most of these islands do have pine trees covering them, so it's aptly named.

Anime train at Matsushima Kaigan station

Matsushima is also home to Zuiganji, a very famous Zen Buddhist temple. When we visited, it was under renovations, so we decided to go next door to visit Entsuin, a smaller temple that is the mausoleum of Date Mitsumune, who died at the age of 19 back in 1645. It is suggested that he was poisoned as he was considered a threat to the ruling shogunate of the time, as he died while visiting Edo castle, which was the center of power in those days.


As you walk away from Zuiganji down a tree-lined path, you will approach the seaside. From here you have views of the harbor and some islands, as well as Godaido Hall, a small temple located on an islet. You have to walk over a bridge that requires some concentration as there are only two slats that you can walk along. It's said that the builders of the temple made the bridge more difficult in order to ensure that visitors were appropriately respectful, a state of mind that can be achieved by concentrating as you approach over a difficult bridge.
Godaido Hall

Just down from Godaido is Fukuurajima bridge, which takes you to Fukuura Island. It costs 200 yen to traverse this bridge, and we had a boat to catch, so we passed and headed back to the pier.

Fukuura Bridge

The highlight of Matsushima is the boat cruise through the islands. There are two options: one is a round trip that returns you to Matsushima; the other is a one-way trip to nearby Shiogama. We chose the latter and enjoyed a relaxing 50-minute ride. As you pass by each island, a narrative explaining the history of the island or the reason behind its name is played over the speakers. English translations are given when you buy your ticket, which is only 1,400 yen. Definitely worth the price as there are some very interesting tiny islands, including Senganjima, which has a solitary pine tree on it.

Shiogama Sushi

The boat drops you off at Shiogama, a small town that calls itself the "Sushi Capital of Japan". With the most sushi restaurants per sq km in the nation, it is no idle boast and you should try some sushi if you visit here. By the time our late lunch was over, it was growing dark, so we wandered the streets for a bit. There are some nice small stores that you might encounter, and a few sights such as Shiogama Jinja, but it was too late to do much more, so we walked across town to Shiogama station, which is only 20 minutes from Sendai.

While on the way, I spotted a condom machine on the street here in Shiogama. I've actually never seen one of these in all my time in Japan. What was funniest was the slogan above the condoms: "Happy Family Life" - I guess when you have the most densely populated area in Tohoku, keeping families small keeps them happy!



Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix 83 at Sendai 89ers 82 (bj League) - December 12, 2009

After watching Vegalta Sendai's pulsating extra time victory, the evening event beckoned. It was to be my first bj League game between Hamamatsu and Sendai. With the soccer game going long, we had just enough time to head back to the hotel to freshen up before making our way to the Aoba Gym.

bj League

Unfortunately named and poorly marketed, the basketball japan League (bj League for short) has been around for 5 years now. There are 13 teams divided into two conferences, with Sendai being the northernmost team and Ryukyu (Okinawa) being the furthest south. The schedule is 8 months long, stretching from October to May, with playoffs following. Each team plays 52 games, so there's only about 6 or 7 games per month. It seems like every road trip is also a doubleheader, with games on Saturday and Sunday (or in Tokyo's case, back-to-back weekdays).

There are some differences in the rules from the NBA, particularly with the 1-and-1 penalty and 10-minute quarters. There can be no more than 3 non-Asian players on the floor per team, and at least one Japanese player must be on the floor at all times. The foreign players seem to have played Division 1 or 2 NCAA ball but weren't good enough to be drafted.

One of the problems with the league is that home games are played in different gyms which makes being a regular fan more difficult. Imagine if the Lakers played a few games in Riverside or Santa Monica - it would not work. Not all teams do this, but I did notice that the Sendai plays at 3 different gyms this season.

The league is covered in the Japan Times for English speakers, and there are a couple of cable channels that broadcast games, but overall penetration into the sports fan's mindset is not very good. After seeing the soccer game with over 18,000 people, only 1,500 or so showed up to watch the 89ers. I think Sendai is a great sports town, but for some reason, basketball just doesn't rate here.

Getting there

The gym is located just above Kita-Sendai subway station, about 8 minutes from downtown. Follow the signs to Aoba Gym, and try not to get lost - it's not a big place and not obvious from the station exit. However, there should be a few other fans going that way, so follow them.

The Stadium

This is not a stadium, it's just a small local gym that seats about 2,000 people. There are 4 seating choices, the first two are the courtside seats which should be avoided, then the fixed seats which are close enough along one sideline, then the free seating around the rest of the gym. At 3,500 yen for game-day tickets in the fixed seating, it's rather expensive, but given the turnout, it's not surprising they need to charge that much.

There's a small food stall in one corner that serves sausages and baked goods. Otherwise there is nothing worth mentioning here. My friend Chris who joined me said his high school gym back in the U.S. was bigger. The great thing though is that you are really close to the action. Basketball is a great game when viewed up close, and the high tempo displayed in the first quarter on was great to watch.

The Teams

The Sendai 89ers have been around since the bj League started in 2005. They've yet to win a title though, or even appear in a final. They were Eastern Conference champs in 2007-08 but lost the semi-final to Tokyo. This season they have four Americans, most notably Gyno Pomare, who led his San Diego Toreros to a first-round upset over Connecticut back in 2008. This season, they stand 2nd in the Eastern Conference at 10-6 going into the game.

The Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix have been around for a while, but were a new team in the bj League from last season. There were no expansion team follies here though, as they went 36-16 to take 1st place in the East. But they also fell to Tokyo in their first semi-final visit. They are back on top of the East this season with a 14-2 record. Veteran William Knight out of UCLA leads the team.

The Game

The first quarter started fast and furious. The Phoenix were on fire early, sinking their first 6 shots or so, but Sendai clawed back, ending the quarter with a 23-20 lead. It only took 20 minutes to play, and I thought that the game would be over in an hour, but the second quarter was when the game devolved into a more typical game with fouls and timeouts galore. Sendai pressured Hamamatsu into several bad shots while making their own, and went to the dressing room up 40-31, ending the quarter on a 10-2 run.

This slam by Demetrius Guions put Sendai up by 8

Halftime was highlighted by the announcer moving through the stands talking to fans. When he spotted Chris and I, he raced over and told us to say "Go Go Niners". Ugh. I had a thought to say something else but refrained and muttered "Go Go Niners" rather unenthusiastically. Wonder if my lack of energy hurt the team in the second half.

Anyway, back to the game. The third quarter was fairly even, but it was with just two seconds left that the turning point in the game happened. With 8.7 seconds left and Hamamatsu down 57-47, each team took a 60-second timeout to diagram a play. The 89ers stopped the first chance, but Wendell White got the ball in the corner and fired up a Hail Mary 3 which miraculously drained and the quarter ended with Hamamatsu down just 7 points.

Chris Holm dunks

The Phoenix had the ball to start the 4th, and quickly scored to draw within 5. Sendai was rattled and they couldn't make their shots as Hamamatsu sensed the game was theirs for the taking. Sure enough, a few possessions later and the Phoenix were on top. Sendai had no answers for the Hamamatsu defense and with 90 seconds to go, it was the Phoenix up by 7.

This is when the game stopped dead in its tracks. With little chance to catch up with the 24 second clock, Sendai was forced to foul whenever a Phoenix player had the ball. With the 1-and-1 rule, if Hisamatsu missed the first foul shot, the ball would be loose, and often Sendai would rebound, drive the floor, and shoot a 3. If they made it or not, they would foul again as soon as they could and the process would repeat. Hamamatsu often missed the first shot and Sendai suddenly was draining 3's. The lead grew smaller, and I grew more frustrated as the game had become completely stupid by this point. Fortunately the Phoenix managed to sink their last six free throws and when Sendai drained a meaningless 3 at the buzzer, the game ended 83-82 for Hamamatsu.

Masashiro Oguchi drained this 3

Knight led all scorers with 26 points in only 29 minutes while Sendai's Chris Holm out of Vermont dominated the boards with 16.

I find it difficult to analyze basketball, especially to explain how a team won a game 83-82. Sendai outshot and out-rebounded Hamamatsu but turned the ball over 21 times, many as a result of good Phoenix defense. And of course, the score is much closer than the actual game. Which brings me to the next point: the stupidest rule in sports. Why is it that a team that is in the lead must defend that lead by hitting free throws after being intentionally fouled? Even stupider, if the first FT is missed, the other team has a chance to drive for 3. Even if both free throws are made, the other team still has a chance to outscore you 3-2 on each possession. And all the fouls and timeouts kill the energy of the fans. Clearly, an intentional foul should be 3 shots from the charity stripe.

Watch the end of a close hockey game - the players are fighting for the puck and trying to win. Now watch the end of a close basketball game. Whistles, fouls, timeouts, which are great for TV but bad for fans sitting there. The simple presence of this rule is why basketball is not a lot of fun to watch. You invest your time and are rewarded at the end with either garbage time or foul after foul. Somebody needs to fix this.


The 89ers do have energetic fans, and energetic cheerleaders too. During every time out, they'd race onto the floor, dance for a minute, and race off. At game's end, with time outs all over the place, I think even the cheerleaders were more tired than the players. But they put on a great show and kept the fans entertained during the seemingly endless run of timeouts near the end of each half.

Christmas Cheerleaders with umbrellas?

Next Up

I'll be checking out the Tokyo Apache tomorrow (December 16th) and then visiting Kyoto where I will catch one more game on the 26th. After that, I should have a better idea of how good this league really is. So check back for reports then.



Monday, December 14, 2009

Kawasaki Frontale 1 at Vegalta Sendai 2 (a.e.t., Emperor's Cup Quarterfinal) - December 12, 2009

When the Emperor's Cup Quarterfinal match locations were announced, I was interested to see that Kawasaki Frontale were going to visit Vegalta Sendai. When I checked the bj League schedule, I was happy to find that Sendai has a team, and they had a home game on the same day! It was a chance to take a real sports road trip in Japan, my first in 2009.


The capital of Miyagi prefecture, Sendai is a city of some one million people about 200 miles northeast of Tokyo. It's the largest city in the Tohoku region (Tohoku combines two Chinese characters meaning east and north and includes the 6 prefectures between Kanto and Hokkaido. It's considered one of Japan's greenest cities and is nicknamed the city of trees. It is famous in the world of green purchasing, having hosted the first international conference back in 2004, which led to the Sendai Declaration on Green Purchasing. Of course, you still get plastic bags at every single convenience store, so they've got a long way to go to convince me.

Like most Japanese cities, there's a central train station (shown above) which defines the downtown core. From here, several lines venture out to the suburbs. There's also a single subway line that travels a 30-minute north-south route (hence the name Namboku line, which means south-north). Another line is due to be built in 2015, traveling east-west and naturally called the Tozai line (which means east-west).

There are a few attractions which I'll discuss in a separate post. There are 3 major sports teams, including the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Pacific League, who play in Kleenex Stadium. Of course, the other two teams were why I was visiting Sendai this weekend.

Getting there

Sendai is on the Tohoku Shinkansen - just 100 minutes from Tokyo station on the fastest Hayate service. There are no flights from Tokyo's Haneda airport, but there are two daily flights from Narita, which are necessary for those Tohoku residents who want to get out of the country.

Shinkansen car guide in Tokyo station

The normal Shinkansen fare is 10,590 yen one-way (about $120 with the strong yen) but there's a special DoNichi ticket that allows unlimited rides on JR (the national rail) between Tokyo and the entire Tohoku region for a weekend (DoNichi referring to Saturday and Sunday - tired of the Japanese lesson yet?). At 18,000 yen, it's even cheaper than buying a return ticket on the Shink, plus you get all your local JR rides (which excludes the subway) for free. So you can spend your Sunday venturing away from the city, which we did, going out to Matsushima and Shiogama, which I'll also write about later.

If you plan to ride the subway more than twice in a day, pick up the unlimited day pass for just 600 yen. Given that even a short ride can be 240 yen, this pass saves you money and also saves you the time of figuring out how much to pay. I was surprised at how busy the subway was, even on the weekend, but I guess when there's only one line, people don't have much choice.

Hotels are plentiful around the main station, and you shouldn't have any problem finding one to book. I'd recommend staying anywhere downtown as it's not a big city and most of what you will want to do is within 30 minutes.

The Stadium

Vegalta Sendai play in Yurtec Stadium, named after a Tohoku-based corporation. Originally named Sendai Stadium (not an original name though), it is located next to the northern terminus of the subway line. As the train approaches Izumi-chuo station, you will notice the stadium on the east side (the subway is above ground for the last few stops). When you exit the station, just walk back south about 5 minutes. You have to walk down a relatively narrow sidewalk which doesn't provide any good views of the whole venue until you are just in front. Below is the main entrance.

The gates were well spread out and there was no waiting to get in, although that was likely because we arrived only 40 minutes before game time. Once inside, you can walk freely throughout the stadium along the concourse, but when you enter the seating area, you need to show your ticket. There are specific seating areas, but most of the seats are free seating within that area, so get there early or splurge for the more expensive assigned seats. There are also standing areas at the top of each section. As is usual, the supporters sit in the end zone, so try to get a seat along the sideline as your ears will thank you afterward.

The stadium is rectangular and made specifically for soccer. A wavy roof encircles the seating area and all seats are covered, so even a rainy day poses no problem here. Along the sideline, all seats are very close and offer great views. Holding just under 20,000 fans, it is cozy and clean, but loud - the Sendai fans chant non-stop and I'd say more than half of them are participating in the cheers. If you want to fit in, wear something yellow.

Sendai Supporters

This stadium maybe one of the best in Japan. It's small enough that you're close to the action, but big enough to allow a great crowd of supporters. Definitely worth a visit if you're in town at the same time as Vegalta.

Kawasaki Frontale 1 at Vegalta Sendai 2 (a.e.t.)

Kawasaki were fresh off a disappointing finish to their J1 campaign, slipping up against cellar-dwellers Oita Trinita in late November. Their 1-0 defeat cost them the league title as I've detailed here before. As well, they had lost the Nabisco Cup Final to F.C. Tokyo and fell against Nagoya in the Asian Champions League quarter-finals, so the Emperor's Cup was their last chance at gaining silverware in 2009.

Vegalta Sendai, on the other hand, were the J2 champions and doubtless were looking to prove themselves against one of Japan's best teams before joining the top flight next season. Back in October, I saw them defeat Omiya Ardija in the 3rd round of the Cup, despite being outplayed, but they then smoked F.C. Tokyo 3-0 in the round of 16, so I had high expectations for this match.

I was not disappointed. Both teams were tentative early on, and few chances were found. It wasn't until the 35th minute when Sendai opened the scoring on a great play. Kunimitsu Sekiguchi raced forward and looked right as Takayuki Nakahara made his way to the net. All Kawasaki's defenders thought the ball was going that way, but Sekiguchi made a nifty no-look pass to Yuki Nakashima who had space on the left. He made his way into the box, looked up, and placed an absolutely perfect shot inside the far right post to send the crowd into a frenzy.

I thought Sendai might start to play a more defensive game with the lead, but I was wrong: the game became more wide open in the 2nd half. Kaswasaki nearly drew level just after the restart when Renatinho was alone in front but he put it straight at keeper Takuto Hayashi. Frontale continued to push, creating several good chances but none were able to beat Hayashi.

Meanwhile Sendai used every opportunity to counter-attack and themselves had a number of great shots, only to be denied by Eiji Kawashima, who made at least 4 stops when faced with a 1-on-1.

Kawashima bats one away

It was an amazing back-and-forth game, but Sendai finally broke through 10 minutes from time when substitute Tomoyuki Hirase crossed to Nakashima who bundled the ball home off his chest. Or so I thought. In fact, it hit his arm and the goal was immediately disallowed. There would be no Henry-like controversy to sully the Emperor's Cup!

The teams traded chances and it looked like Sendai would advance when Hayashi made a terrible error. On a cross, he chased the ball well away from his net, palming it right to Frontale midfielder Kazuhiro Murakami, who one-timed the ball into the yawning cage just 2o seconds from the end of regulation. The Sendai supporters were suddenly silenced, but I looked forward to 30 more minutes of soccer.

Naoya Tamura tries to deke

The overtime periods were more of the same - Kawasaki attacks and Sendai counters. Both keepers were up to the challenge for the first 15 minutes, but 5 minutes into the second OT stanza, Kawashima was found wanting. Sekiguchi had the ball on the far left and crossed to Hirase. Although he was well-marked, the ball was slightly low and Hirase bent to head it towards goal. The ball floated ever so slowly as Kawashima leapt in vain - the ball sailed over his outstretched arms and into the goal. The fans went crazy! 2-1 Sendai! Frontale could not overcome this deficit and Vegalta was victorious! What a great game and a great winning goal.

Hayashi parries the cross in overtime

As usual, Kawasaki were technically better but lacked finish when they needed it most. Meanwhile their opponents seemed hungrier and won a lot of the key battles - it was Kawashima who kept them close. This game reminded me of the Nabisco Cup final; I wonder why Kawasaki can't play their usual style when the pressure is on. We'll see if things improve next year.

Meanwhile, Sendai will be facing defending champs Gamba Osaka on December 29th here in Tokyo. It's a work day and a 3pm start, but I've already got the day off, and will go check it out. The other semi-final features Nagoya Grampus and Shimizu S-Pulse, and the two winners meet for Japanese soccer supremacy on New Year's Day.

For those of you who want highlights, this video is good, although a bit strange. The first 40 seconds and last minute are a repeated close-up of a female Vegalta fan cheering and adjusting her bra. Bizarre. But in between are 3.5 minutes of the best plays including all 3 goals.

Annoying Fans

A final note - although I enjoyed the experience, I found a few of the Sendai fans to be bothersome. It was very crowded, nearly sold out, so there weren't a lot of seats to be had. But I noticed one group of 5 had taken 10 seats between them. This is atypical of Japanese, who are usually considerate and follow the rules. To make matters worse, the section in front of me stood for the whole game, despite it not being a cheering section. In Japan, if you are a supporter, you go to the supporter's section, where you can stand and cheer for the whole game. But for some reason, the people near the front of the section felt that it was imperative to stand. Of course, everyone behind them had to stand, which blocked the view of part of the field. Sadly, "Siddown" doesn't translate well. What is frustrating is that there was a standing section nearby - if you want to stand, do it there! I don't want to stand for 3 hours, which is why I bought a seat!

I should note that this is only a few of the fans. The Sendai supporters are by and large very good - after all they filled the stadium when the other 3 quarterfinal games were at less than half of capacity. But as any fan knows, it just takes a few to ruin it for everyone.

It was a good afternoon though, but the day was only half-over. The bj League was also in town in the evening and I'll write about that game in my next post.