Friday, August 21, 2015

Big in Japan: A coma-free report on sports in the far east

When I plan my big international vacation each year, I'm often safe in the knowledge that I'm doing it when little of note is on the sports calendar. Occasionally I miss the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, as I did in 2014 and 2011, but by leaving the country for three weeks in mid-to-late July and early August, I often catch that soft underbelly of the U.S. schedule in which there are no championships won, no postseason games and no major tournaments. Occasionally the World Cup and the Olympics throw a wrench into that mix, but those are easy enough to follow abroad.

What has creeped into my head, though, is the fear that I might miss out on a one-off event just as important, like, say, a no-hitter by a New York Mets pitcher. To this point, I have avoided that impossible-to-predict moment, but the concern will always be there. Traveling in the midst of baseball season usually means I'm going to miss seeing the Mets, though in some cases that can be a good thing, either because they're in the midst of an awful season or because they have an astonishingly good record when I'm out of the country.

This time around, I was fortunate to be traveling to Japan in my first foray into the far east. Because the time difference is 13 hours, most Mets games happened at 8 in the morning, when I was coming back from my morning jog and relaxing as I planned out what I would do each day. This meant I watched nearly every game the Mets played while I was gone, which is either good or bad depending on how you view vacation, but considering how popular the Mets are in Japan, I think avoiding it was a losing proposition.

I saw all the excitement: The bungled losses to the San Diego Padres, the Wilmer Flores affair, the Wilmer Flores redemption and ultimately the early-August hot streak that has somehow thrust the Mets into first place. All of that was great, but my biggest victory was avoiding the fate of Steven Manganello, a Red Sox fan who might have endured the greatest fear we all share in the fall of 2004.

What's that you say? "Dave, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series that year to break the curse of the Bambino. How could that have been a bad thing for a Sox fan?"

A fair point. But suppose your team ends a World Series drought, a moment you've yearned for your entire cognizant life, only you happened to have been hit by a car on your Japanese vacation a month earlier and missed the historic championship because you're lying comatose in a hospital bed on the other side of the world. Irrational? Probably. It's just as likely that I could experience the opposite effect. But as I touched down at Narita Airport, and the Mets were in the midst of their first decent season in years, this was perhaps my greatest anxiety, that I would repeat the tragic mishaps endured by Steven Manganello and somehow miss a long-awaited championship.

With that very real looming threat of not getting to see baseball (or any other sports) in the wake of a random accident in a foreign country, I decided while planning my trip to cram in as many sports-related activities as I could, which, surprisingly, is a bit of a rarity when I'm abroad. Japan has a fascinating sporting culture, and I did my best to touch as many corners of it as I could, right from the first full day of my trip.

Top sumo tournaments in Japan, known as Basho, only happen six times over the course of the year, and I planned my trip so my arrival would coincide with the tail end of the annual Basho in July in the city of Nagoya. If you've never heard of Nagoya, join the club, but it's apparently the fourth-largest city in Japan in terms of population as well as the home of Toyota. Who knew? On my first full day in Japan, my friend Magda and I took the train from Kyoto to Nagoya for the tournament, which was a experience both fascinating and disorienting for an American sports fan, and not just due to what was essentially watching enormous grown men in diapers toss each other out of a ring.

The venues themselves are not generally very large. Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium only holds about 7,500 people, which is both odd for a major sporting tournament and fascinatingly intimate. The noteworthy thing was that the tournament was not nearly as restrictive in terms of access as an American sporting event might be. Because tournaments last all day and the top wrestlers don't go until the late afternoon, the stands are often relatively empty for early matches. This isn't a bad thing, though. If you're one of those intrepid souls who shows up early despite the lower quality of competition, you can sit pretty much anywhere you want that has an open seat. Our tickets were for the nosebleeds (which are still pretty good in such a small venue), but for a brief stretch early in the day I sat ringside to watch these gargantuans try to throw each other around like rag dolls.

Being so close to the action gives you a real sense of the size and strength that each wrestler has. They're big. Like really big. Some are bigger than others, but they're all enormous, and holy cow are they strong. When you're sitting right there, it's fascinating to really see how they try to subtly use their hands or their legs to get a grasp on their opponent, prevent the other from doing the same, or try to use their size to create or neutralize leverage. As well, there isn't a ton of protection for those who sit ringside. A wrestler tossed a fair distance out of the ring could easily land on top of you, and in the case of one unfortunate photographer later in the day, break your nose.

Spectators can also walk pretty much anywhere they want in the building, which means that when Magda and I were looking to get down to the front rows we somehow stumbled upon several wrestlers stretching and practicing their stances and how explosively they could get out of them just a few feet from where we were standing. This is pretty wild considering fans are never allowed to get this close to an athlete at a major professional sporting event in the States.

The most memorable moment came late in the event when it was time for the yokozuna to go. One of those yokozuna, a Mongolian named Hakuho, is considered by many to be the greatest sumo of all time, which obviously led to a frenzied crowd when he entered the ring. Hakuho won his match and, eventually, the entire Basho. Hakuho was one of two yokozuna to compete in the tournament (only three are currently active) and the other was Kakuryu, who competed in the final match of the day. Tradition in sumo holds that if a yokozuna loses, fans will then throw their seat cushions into the ring. No one is entirely sure why this custom exists, but Kakuryu ended up being overpowered in a surprising if kind of unexciting outcome, and sure enough the cushions came streaming down like big square purple hail. Hakuho, meanwhilst, took care of business a few minutes earlier.

Two days later Magda and I made our way to Osaka and eventually Kobe for what was probably the sports highlight of the trip, as we headed to legendary Koshien Stadium to see the Hanshin Tigers face the DeNA Baystars. As an American baseball fan, the most amusing thing you first notice upon looking at the lineups is that each NPB team's lineup is dotted with a handful of former Major Leaguers whose names you know or at least once knew. At this particular game, the Tigers' starting pitcher was former-Marlin, Giant and Mariner Randy Messenger. Hanshin's star left fielder was former extra piece in the Nomar Garciaparra deal Matt Murton, whose Major League career lasted a mere 346 games over five seasons with the Cubs and Rockies. Murton is a popular member of the Tigers, with photos of him all over the stadium eating various kinds of food for sale at concession stands from ramen to yakitori to my eventual dining choice for the evening takoyaki. When asked where I was from by fellow fans, after responding "New York" I was told that I had "Murtonface," which I assume means all caucasians look alike. My favorite, "I know him!" moment came a week later when I saw the Rakuten Golden Eagles face the Seibu Lions in Sendai and saw the Eagles lineup included Gaby Sanchez, Wily Mo Pena and former Mets castoff Kazuo Matsui, who is famous for hitting a home run in his first at bat in each of his first three seasons and...not much else.

As for the actual experience of the game, several differences stick out, most of them for the better and some of them just bizarre. For instance, fans are allowed to bring their own beer into the stadium, with the lone issue that cans are not welcome. To get around this, ushers and ticket takers will open your beers and pour them into cups for you as you enter the building. Forget to bring beer? Don't worry. It's sold in the stands not by beer men, but by women walking around with whole kegs on their backs and a stack of plastic cups. There are also cheerleaders and mascots who lead postgame songs with the fans, designated sections for away fans, who travel with musical instruments in tow, and my favorite curious tradition, a seventh-inning break recognized not by stretching, but by the mass inflation and simultaneous release of enormous balloons by all 46,000 fans in the building. And did I mention that they're loud?

They might as well have made noise. The Tigers won in seemingly easier fashion than the scoreline would indicate, keeping them within one game of first place. Since then the Tigers have made like the Mets and moved into first place. Baseball games in Japan are a wild experience with fan enthusiasm that puts us Americans to shame. After seeing three games during my trip -- including a wild ninth-inning comeback by the Giants at the Tokyo Dome -- my only regret was that I didn't go to more of them.

After a weekend in Tokyo I escaped to the mountain city of Nikko for a few days about two hours train ride north. Nikko has some of the wildest shrines and most beautiful hiking you'll see in Japan. This is also my favorite place that I've ever watched a Mets game, sitting in a hostel in the middle of nowhere overlooking a river while I ate breakfast. At the end of my second day there I was walking around with two fellow travelers and happened to notice ads all over the city center for the "Ice Bucks" with a puck underneath them. This being a mountain town with some winter sports, I assumed this was their local hockey team. Hockey isn't enormously popular in Japan, but it is growing and has a surprisingly lengthy history, though I had always assumed the sport was mostly centered in the northern island of Hokkaido.

After a long day of seeking out waterfalls and avoiding macaque monkeys we were walking around downtown Nikko waiting for our hostel owner to pick us up when we happened upon a storefront with several Ice Bucks images and logos on it. It turns out the Ice Bucks have been around in one form or another for several decades and have even had a few name players...sort of. (Shjon Podein! Paul Kariya's brother!) As I walked into what I assumed was an athletic goods store, I found it was, in fact, the entire front office for the Ice Bucks, replete with for-sale merchandise and media guides and one employee whom had worked in Michigan and spoke perfect English. Once I told him of my employ at the NHL in the States his curiosity was piqued and we talked about the business for 20 minutes. I soon left with his business card and, after some prodding from Emil, a persuasive Dane who had spent the day hiking with us, a replica team jersey that is oversized, but I'm way too proud of.

Speaking of hiking, I did some athletic activities of my own while I was across the globe. As I'm currently training (poorly) for the New York Marathon on Nov. 1, I went running several times while staying in Kyoto, something I would absolutely not recommend for anyone who chooses to travel in Japan during late July and early August. I had considered looking for a race to run while I was there, and very nearly attempted to enter a half marathon that begins at Fujiyoshida City Hall and ends at the summit of Mt. Fuji 12,000 feet up.

I then realized running a half marathon uphill in high altitude was insane, so I didn't.

That doesn't mean I didn't make it up there anyway. They say if you come to Japan you're a fool if you don't climb Fuji and you're a fool if you climb it twice. I went for the sweet spot and gave it one go. I began my climb with one friend and made two others as we set out into the darkness at 8 pm. After my ill-fated climb on Kilimanjaro two years ago I knew I needed to take my time, and considering the goal was to reach the summit for sunrise and a misreading of the bus schedule led us to begin our climb three-hours earlier than anticipated, I knew I wasn't in a rush.

The climb is arduous and fairly physically challenging if you're going to do it in one straight shot. Many people opt to start the climb early and then spend a few hours napping in one of the mountain huts you pass as you reach each station along the trail. I assume these huts will all have to be rebuilt after Fuji inevitably destroys them at its next overdue eruption. We opted to climb through the night, as many people do, because the huts are supposedly crowded and not that great for sleeping, and are also expensive. Then again, everything on Fuji is expensive, from the Snickers bars and water you can buy at each station to the Coca Cola that can be purchased from a vending machine at the summit.

No matter. We moved quicker than expected, if deliberately, and reached the summit a shade after 2 a.m., which is a blessing, because you're there, and a curse because you have to wait in the cold for four hours until sunrise. Believe me, though, when I tell you, that sunrise is worth it. It might even be worth tempting fate by climbing a volcano that is due to start spewing magma at some point in the future. Time will tell on that I suppose.

The only major drawback to going to Japan is having to get there and back. A little over a week ago, I made an arduous 35-hour journey that included an hour-long train to Narita Airport only to find the check-in counter was not yet open, four hours sitting in the terminal, one awesome bowl of ramen, a 12-hour flight to Chicago, an overnight stay in O'Hare in which I slept on a cot underneath an air conditioning vent, which appears to have given me bronchitis, a run-in in O'Hare with an ex-girlfriend, a standby boost to a 6 a.m. flight, two hours spent sitting on a tarmac after said 6 a.m. flight had a leaky engine due to poorly executed overnight maintenance, a two-hour flight to New York, and then a quick stop at home for a shower and a subway ride right to the office.

I was pretty tired that night. But after three weeks in Japan, I can say I had some fantastic experiences, saw and made some good friends, and got an up-close seat to a fascinating and endlessly entertaining sporting culture. There is much I love about sports in the States, and I love that modern technology enables me to follow it from anywhere (though people will look at you funny if they see you pumping your fist in a tourist information center in Hiroshima because you just saw the Nationals lost), but there are definitely aspects of sports in Japan I would bring here if I could. The wild atmosphere at baseball games needs to be imported, and while it's unlikely, being able to bring my own beer into the stadium wouldn't be too shabby either.

I am glad I got to experience all of it, and I've also returned home to a baseball team with a 4.5-game lead in first place. That's just one of many reasons I'm glad my Japanese adventure didn't also include a coma at the end.

I am back, safe and sound. Now the Mets just have to fulfill their end of the bargain.

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