Fukuoka is famous for two things. The first? It’s ramen, with its unique Hakata named, pork infused tonkotsu broth. The second, its baseball; the city is home to the 2014 Japan Series winners, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. This combination of food and sport is but one of the reasons why we here at Fukuoka Now love this city. But there is only one place you can go to sample this winning combination at the same time, the Hawk’s home ground: the Fukuoka Yahuoka! Dome.
Last Friday, sold on the prospect of ramen, I journeyed to the Dome (as it is nicknamed) to catch my first ever glimpse of the Hawks in action. A natural baseball fan an Englishman does not make, and my only previous experience of baseball was in the USA (where else?), watching the Atlanta Braves walk over a flagging Cincinnati Reds, but oh how Japanese baseball differed. Perhaps not the game itself, that was essentially the same, balls were pitched, strikes were struck and runs were hit. But in almost every other aspect, the game took on its own Japanese identity.
Baseball is one of the great spectator sports because no matter where you watch it from in the stadium, you’re going to have a great time. The thrill of being up close and personal is rivalled by the sense of perspective you get on the game when you’re up in the gods, able to see every hit, every steal. But to cater for ever desire, this season the Dome introduced three new seating options. You want giant double armchair style seats, designed for couples and perfect for relaxing? You’ve got it. You want a sun lounger on ‘Home Run Terrace’ slap bang in the firing range of every long ball in the game and close enough to talk to/distract/throw popcorn at the outfield pitchers? Yes sir! You want a luxury suite with a private balcony, Kirin Beer on draft and the kind of phone that looks like it has Shinzo Abe on speed dial? They have those too, for private sponsors and companies, perhaps the greatest incentive to become a salaryman there’s ever been.
Sun loungers on the new ‘Home Run Terrace’ – Balls Beware
Then there’s the people who occupy those seats, the fans. Japanese fandom, from J-pop to sumo, is like nothing seen in the western world since Beatlemania hit the US in the 60s and it is no different for baseball. For the full experience, you’ve got to join the right wing of the stadium, where the most diehard fans conglomerate to create a hive of flag-waving-trumpet-playing-baton-wielding activity that fills the whole stadium with fervent energy. Of course, to truly feel a part of this you need some props: hat, shirt, balloons and batons (which double up as vuvuzela type horns) which are all on display at the concession stands which surround the ball park. When you do join this section, you’ll be inducted into the myriad of chants and hand movements that accompany each Hawks player’s entrance to the field. Out of these, if there’s one player you really need to know before going, its Korean super slugger, Lee Dae-Ho, who gets the loudest welcome to the field of all.
For those not wanting quite such an intense induction to Japanese baseball, there are of course the rest of the stands, and these do not lack for atmosphere either. Drinks servers carrying 7kg kegs on their backs run up and down the stands all night, making sure everyone is topped up throughout the game. There is also the between innings entertainment: the Hot Dog race after the third, a performance at the 5th by the Hawks Honeys and Mascots, and to top it off, one of those ‘only in Japan’ spectacles in the seventh. Called the Lucky Seven, and perhaps one of the most important innings strategically in a close game, fans show their support for the Hawk’s by blowing up meter long balloons that turn the whole stadium into a sea of yellow. At the closing notes of the Hawk’s anthem everyone lets fly and the balloons zip across the stadium in a glorious rush of colour and sound.
I’ve already touched on the ramen, but food really is another area in which Japanese baseball excels. Sure you can get all the American stuff, the footlong hotdog covered with more cheese than exists in all Japan, as well as churros and french fries, but there is something special about tucking into a feast of Katsu, Yakisoba & Takoyaki whilst watching the nearest things to living samurai battle it out on the field in front of you. And what a game the Hawks play. Fresh off their Nippon Series Championship victory last year they have been gaining more and more momentum since the start of the season and look in fine form to retain the title under new coach Kudo Kimiyasu.
I think I had always been alienated from baseball by its Americanness. Unlike most other major sports, baseball has always seemed a sport confined to the distant shores of the USA so to see it played in such a different context made me appreciate it all the more. Japanese baseball has all the elements that makes baseball a great sport in the USA: incredible catches, balls hurtling from hand to bat to the gods at lightning speed and the ever real threat of a ball landing in the middle of your Katsu Curry. But it also had so much of Japan in it, giving it a unique identity that makes it feel so much more than just baseball. For anyone who’s never been to a game before and for those who have, but never in Japan, it’s an absolute must and I could not recommend it more. To say that I want to go back is an understatement, and next time you’re bound to catch me way up in the fan stand, wielding one of the giant flags or beating the war drums for the next home run. Kattobase Kattobase LEE DAE-HO!
Report by Oscar Boyd