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.