Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Baseball; not as boring as you might think

Before arriving at Koshien stadium last Sunday I was sceptical to say the least about spending four hours watching baseball. Having only ever watched (American) baseball on TV before I, like many before me, had labelled the game tedious and boring. How can you have a game that lasts for so long only to finish 1-0, I thought. With these doubts hanging over me I gave the live version of the game a try during Golden week. As it turned out the game finished 2-1, hardly a high scoring contest, but boring? No chance. Baseball in Japan is a different prospect from the American game it draws  its inspiration from. It could have finished 0-0 for all I cared, for baseball on this side of the globe is as much about the crowd as the game itself, and the crowds in Osaka are quite something.

Irrespective of my preconceptions of baseball I had actually wanted to attend a game in Japan for a while. As much as I can tell it’s the national sport and having bumped into Hanshin Tigers fans at the central Umeda station with great regularity I’ve been able to get an idea of just how passionate Japanese baseball fans are. To add to the draw, the Hanshin Tigers home is Koshien stadium, which is to Japanese baseball what Wembley is to English football. It’s the sort of place that Japanese children dream of one day playing and dates back as long ago as 1924. After a brief hiatus following the Great Hanshin Earthquake, capacity crowds of nearly 50,000 now regularly attend games. Last week’s game was no exception and I formed part of a sell-out crowd to see the grudge match between the Tigers and the Yomiuri Giants from Tokyo.

The atmosphere around the stadium before the game reminded me a lot of the first time I ever watched Arsenal play football at Highbury. Nothing beats the feeling of anticipation that comes from a sell-out crowd enjoying a sunny day before a match, whatever the sport, and at Koshien there is an incredible buzz. The stadium is surrounded by stalls selling all manner of memorabilia and the smell of the food from the various food stands is intoxicating. Entering the stadium is a breeze and the only hold-up comes from having to decant any cans or bottles of beer into cups or plastics, a small price to pay for bringing in your own cheap booze, a fact seized upon by a large proportion of the crowd.

For those who don't really know the rules of baseball it can take a little while to get into the game itself but at Koshien this is not entirely down to a lack of baseball knowledge. The real spectacle for a newbie is the crowd. Virtually every crowd member arrives with mini plastic baseball bats to hand ready to bang together to the tune of the brass instrumentalists who play well-rehearsed chants prepared for each individual player. A merry band of ‘crowd conductors’ then lead the crowd of nearly 50,000 to sing and bang together for virtually the entirety of the four hour game. It's quite something to watch. 

One of the best parts of the day comes at the end of the seventh innings when the opportunity to witness one of the newer traditions of Koshein takes place. Having purchased some balloons at a memorabilia stall before the game, I joined in with 50,000 others and let them deflate into the sky in unison. Such a description hardly does justice to just how brilliant this is to watch (this video should give a better idea). Its only right that a traditional stadium has certain traditions and though this one may not date back quite as far as 1924 it will no doubt continue for a good while yet.

Baseball in Japan really surprised me. It was far from the bore fest I had expected and even the game itself is quite entertaining. Like most things in Japan it's the unique Japaneseness of the event that makes it that little bit more special though. Next stop on the Japan sport trail for me is football. The crowd will have to be something special to beat the fans down at Koshien though.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Maple Leaf Trail to Minoh Waterfall

As I begin to learn more about Osaka I'm starting to realise that there are plenty of relaxing places to visit surprisingly close to the hectic urban sprawl. Minoh waterfall in the north of the city provides an excellent example of such a place. For just 30 minutes of your time and 280 of your yen you can access Minoh on the Hankyu line from Umeda. Upon arrival a 2.8km walk awaits you that leads to a pretty impressive 40 metre high waterfall set in quite beautiful surroundings

After working in Senri-Chuo in the northern suburbs for the past month I’ve encountered a lot of students from neighbouring Minoh city and all have recommended a trip to the waterfall. Having combined this advice with a little bit of my own internet research I decided to follow up the recommendation last Sunday; the first day of golden week.

Golden week inevitably means that Osaka is even busier than usual with the cities businessmen taking up the opportunity to have a few uncharacteristic days off work to spend time with their families. Judging from the train journey to Minoh it also marks a busy period for Japanese trainspotters. Virtually every station from Umeda to Minoh was packed with middle aged men armed with cameras waiting for a glimpse of their favourite train. This was certainly not a sight I was expecting in Japan!

Deep fried maple leaves
Like many ‘cities’ in Japan, Minoh city isn’t really a city, it’s a small suburban town that thrives around the twin themes of the waterfall and its maple trees. For those in need of a snack for the walk up you can even combine the two by buying a pack of the local delicacy; deep fried maple leaves, to keep you energised. Personally the attraction of paying 700 yen for a bag of battered leaves is minimal so I made do with a packet of crisps.

The walk to the falls may only be 2.8km, but the uphill nature can be a little hard work, especially on a hot day. Thankfully the stunning scenery along the route makes it a little easier and if the walk does become a bit too much there are plenty of opportunities for refreshment on the way up too; together with several stalls selling drinks and snacks there is a butterfly museum and the beautiful Ryuanji Temple Benzaiten to keep you entertained. On Sunday there was even a rather talented woman playing a grand piano loaded on to the back of a truck!

The waterfall itself isn’t bad as waterfalls go, I’m no expert, but I enjoyed it. Equally rewarding was the scene around the waterfall with families picnicking around its foot, and dozens of children playing in the river. Even out here in the country there is no escaping the crowds though and after a taking a few pictures it was nice to get back on the path down and enjoy the relative tranquillity of the rainforest.

In Osaka peace and quiet doesn't really exist, not properly anyway, but Minoh does provide a nice release for those who fancy some fresh country air without having to spend a long time travelling. With a long hot summer ahead such spots will be invaluable.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The brief visit of Sakura

Almost as quickly as it started, sakura season in Japan is over, and all that remain of Osaka’s beautiful cherry blossoms are the discarded petals that litter virtually every street of the city. The past two weeks have been my first sakura experience and having entered into the period slightly sceptical of the excitement with which ordinary Japanese approach it, I have emerged a fully-fledged convert.

Virtually every stretch of water in Osaka, along with myriad city streets are lined with cherry blossom trees, and for just a few short days each year they deliver a spectacular blast of pink to welcome in summer across the city. There can be little doubt that the few days in which the cherry blossoms flower represent a special time in Japan. The visual beauty of the flowering cherry blossoms is, however, just one half of the sakura experience. For the Japanese, sakura season is all about ‘ohanami’, which though loosely translated as ‘flower watching’, has developed today to mean something closer to ‘eating and drinking to excess amongst the cherry blossoms’.

Although there are countless spots across Kansai to enjoy Sakura I limited my excursions to within Osaka. Alas, my life as a professional tourist is over and I have a pesky job now which restricts my opportunities for travel. There are plenty of places to enjoy sakura around the city though, nowhere more so than Sakuranomiya which, as the name suggests, is home to a particularly large stretch of sakura trees. It also plays host to the annual Osaka regatta which, though not exactly Henley, provides a nice distraction for the hordes of people enjoying ohanami on the banks of the river.

In the north of the city Bampaku-koen provides another great ohanami spot in the grounds of the expo 70 commemoration park. The park is surrounded with sakura and is overlooked by ‘The Tower of the Sun’; an enormous statue that formed part of the World Exhibition in 1970. Thanks to the size of the park and its abundant sakura it is the ideal location for ohanami, and the various parties taking place under the cherry blossoms are particularly impressive here. When the Japanese do picnics they do them properly! There are full size BBQs, tables and chairs and incredible food offerings, as well as vast quantities of sake and beer!

For now though sakura season is over for another year, I just hope the tradition of BBQs by the river continues for the rest of the summer!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Escape to the country

For those who have spent any length of time in a big city, a need for escape will be a familiar story. Having spent a little over two months living in one of the biggest cities in the world I found one such escape a couple of weeks ago in the form of a week in Shizouka assisting on an environmental ambassador exchange programme. In the process I got to tick two more things off my bucket list; I saw Mt Fuji AND I went on a Bullet Train!

The first obstacle of the week was to get to Shizouka though which is situated about two hours away from Osaka by Bullet train. Having perfected the art of buying cheap advanced tickets in England it’s come as a bit of a shock to me that train companies in Japan don’t really offer discounts, making train tickets here an expensive luxury. There’s more than one way to skin a cat though and for those who can’t afford the train there is an overnight bus service from Osaka to Shin-Fuji for half the price of the train. On the downside it takes a little over three times as long!

For the outward journey I took the latter option and despite the relative comfort of Japanese buses the nature of an overnight bus trip inevitably means arriving tired and hungry. While the nearby McDonald's (seemingly the only place open in Shin-Fuji at 5.30 in the morning) dealt with the hunger it took something a bit more spectacular to deal with the tiredness; Mt Fuji. This was the first time that I had seen the mountain outside of the pages of books and magazines and the image that greeted me was even more spectacular than I had imagined with the peak densely covered in snow and glowing in the crisp spring sunshine. Mt Fuji doesn't simply dominate the skyline, it owns it. 

Growing wasabi
The source of Japanese hay-fever!
Green Tea plantation

I was lucky enough to see a lot more of Fuji-san (as it's known to locals) over the week with the views visible from my first nights accommodation - the home belonging to a family friend of Eri's who organised much of the environmental ambassador programme - particularly special. The programme  itself catered for ten Japanese, and two girls from Hawaii, taking in the forest and the ocean together with the urban sprawl of Shizouka. Although I was pretty much redundant in my role as 'Cultural Assistant' (primarily due to the fact that 90% of the people on the trip didn't speak English) I did get to have an enjoyable week and I even learnt quite a lot.


Did you know for example that 75% of Japan is covered in forest, which in an age of Co2 awareness is an astonishing fact. Unfortunately as I was to find out the vast majority of this forest was planted artificially following the extensive rebuilding programmes in Japan after WWII and although the fir trees that were planted do a pretty good job of removing Co2 in their first 60 years of life, beyond that they do little more than contribute to the high pollen levels prevalent in Japan that cause such suffering for those with hay-fever. Thanks to the abundant supply of cheap imported timber the Japanese timber industry is all but dead and alas there appears to be little prospect of the government reviving it, even as a means of Co2 removal.  


As you probably guessed from the opening paragraph of this blog my journey home from Shizouka was a considerable improvement on the outward journey and even though it cost an arm and a leg, going home on the bullet train was completely worth it. OK, so I suppose the bullet train is just another train, but that's hardly the point. I remember as a primary school child being utterly amazed by stories of the speeds that bullet trains carried passengers across Japan, indeed the images of Japan that I had as a child were filled with blurred passenger trains speeding past a snow capped Mt Fuji. In the space of just a few days in Shizouka I was finally able to bring these images to life.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

[Day 70] Learning Japanese?

Yep that’s right, after 70 days in Japan I’m taking my first meaningful step towards learning Japanese. OK, so buying the book is the easy bit but I am determined, I WILL LEARN SOME HIRAGANA!  

In fairness, I’ve picked up far more Japanese than I expected to but there’s a limit to how far pointing at a menu will get me in the future, sooner or later one of my guesses is bound to result in something horrible turning up on my plate! 

Japanese is an easy language to learn though… right?