By Susan Hamaker

JapanBall: Day 1, Sleep 0

As I sit at the desk in our Tokyo business hotel room, wearing a yukata and drinking an Asahi purchased from the vending machine on our floor, day one of our month-long vacation in Japan is drawing to a close.

The first part of our stay is devoted to JapanBall, a tour of Japanese baseball games, and the first day went off without a hitch, thanks to the planning of the tour’s founder, Bob Bavasi.

Bob met my husband Marc, fellow JapanBaller Rick, and me when our plane arrived at Tokyo Narita airport, simplifying the processes of activating our rail passes, buying tickets for the Keisei Skyliner, and getting us from the train station to the hotel.

Even though Marc and I have flown into Narita several times before, having Bob meet us and do everything for us eliminated the stress of traveling into Tokyo, thereby eliminating the potential for a fight between my husband and me.

The Keisei Skyliner, which transported us from Narita Airport to Ueno Station in an hour’s time, is a fantastic way of traveling from the airport into Tokyo proper.

Once at Ueno Station, we were met by Mayumi, Bob’s longtime JapanBall partner, and she procured taxis to the hotel for us. She’s done this before, so she knew exactly where to go to catch a taxi (figuring that out would’ve taken a few minutes on our own), and she told driver in Japanese where to take us.

Resisting the urge to crash on our larger-than-expected hotel bed, Marc and I showered and walked around the neighborhood to wake up. We then met the group at 8pm in the hotel lobby for a short walk to Cafe Roje, dubbed by Bob and Mayumi as the JapanBall Hall of Fame, where we ate ramen, yaki soba, and fried rice served by Jun, a look-alike of former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Now, almost two hours later, I sit at the computer, wondering how it’s possible I’m still awake, as Marc is lying on the bed asleep, mouth open and breathing deeply, a Tokyo guidebook resting on his chest.

Tomorrow looms large with great promise: a brief tour of the city in the morning and our first game of Japanese baseball.

JapanBall: Tokyo Sightseeing

Day Two began with Marc waking up at 5:15am and going for a run. I couldn’t bear the thought of emerging from the covers until at least 6:30. The JapanBall group met in the hotel lobby later that morning for a bit of sightseeing around Tokyo. Bob Bavasi bought train tickets for those of us whose Rail Passes weren’t yet active.

It’s so nice to have someone who has been to Tokyo as many times as Bob has because he does everything for us. It takes a lot of the stress out of figuring out the maps and ticket machines.

Marc and I have done this many times and are quite capable, but it always takes us a while to wrap our heads around the directions. It put us at ease to have Bob do all the guesswork for us. Besides, we’ll have plenty of time on our own to wrestle with Japan’s public transportation system once the baseball tour is over.

I love wandering around Tokyo. Although Marc and I have been to the Ginza, it was nice to see it again through the eyes of people who have never been. And I always relish the chance to see the Kabuki Theater. I have taken dozens of pictures of this structure, but each time I see it, I take more. It’s almost as if I discover a new little detail that I hadn’t noticed. We marveled over the crowd of people waiting in the muggy air outside of the theater.

After our walk through Japan’s famous shopping center, we found a different kind of shopping area in the Ueno section of Tokyo. Ameyayokocho has its roots in the post–World War II black market, and it is still a thriving shopping arcade. Goods such as clothing, jewelry, and all kinds of food are on display.

Later we walked through nearby Ueno Park’s tree-lined corridors and, as, luck would have it, we ran into a parade. Elaborate floats were carried on the shoulders of young men and women wearing colorful happi coats. We have no idea what the parade was celebrating, but it was fun to watch.

The group reconvened at the massive Ueno Park train station to head back to the hotel. Marc and I bought bread at Andersen Bakery to eat when we were in our rooms. After a quick nap, we were ready to see our first Japanese baseball game.

JapanBall – Game 1: Yomiuri Giants at Yakult Swallows

“I can’t believe you baseball fans spent all this money to go to the other side of the world and spend the game talking to each other instead of watching the game. You could accomplish the same thing in an airport bar.”

I suppose my husband, who is not a baseball fan, was right when he said this. Yes, the purpose of the trip is to experience baseball in another country, but when a group of people from all parts of the U.S. gets together, there tends to be more talking about baseball than watching it.

Frankly, there’s a lot going on inside a Japanese professional ballpark; I was easily distracted from the game by the fans with their chants and their bands, the beer girls and other vendors, the mascots and dancing cheerleaders, the food.

It’s sensory overload, much in the same way that Tokyo itself is overwhelming the first (and second and third and fourth) time on visits.

Sight: The amazing scoreboard.

Sound: Drums, trumpets, chants for each player.

Taste: Chicken kara age and a cold Yebisu.

Smell: Fried food and bento boxes from concessions.

And I caught a foul ball!

Well, I didn’t actually catch the ball; I picked it up off the ground after it nearly hit fellow JapanBaller Rick. I offered him the ball, saying that since it almost hit him, it should be his. He declined and told me the ball was mine.

Bob Bavasi, said that his father, the late Buzzie Bavasi of Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers fame, once fractured his leg while putting on his underwear.

Bob told his father that he didn’t need to tell everyone how this occurred. Therefore, I needn’t mention in the future how the foul ball came into my possession; the important thing is I have it.

I’m learning more about Japanese baseball, even if I’m not watching every pitch. Wayne Graczyk, an ex-pat who has been involved in writing about Japanese baseball for more than 30 years, told me why the games here sometimes end in ties.

Games in Japan do go extra innings, but 12 is the limit. It’s because the majority of fans take public transportation to games, and the subways don’t run 24 hours. The officials at Nippon Professional Baseball recognize this and don’t want their fans stuck in a ballpark in the middle of the night.

I’m looking forward to learning more about Japanese baseball in the coming days and sharing it with everyone. More from Kyoto as we take in games in Nagoya and Osaka.

JapanBall: What Day Is It? I’m Really Behind!

I’m in my hotel in Kyoto on Monday writing about riding the shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto. Which actually happened two days ago. The interesting part about writing this blog (and for YESNetwork.com) means that I should write every day. Hmm, this leads to a delicate balance between the time management of experiencing everything and then writing about it.

So let’s see if I can catch up. The group rode the shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto. As we checked out of hotel, Bob and Mayumi had cabs lined up to take us to Tokyo Station. Again, I can’t describe enough how pleasant it is to have these little details taken care of. There are no worries when it comes to transportation.

I love looking out the window of the bullet train as it speeds through Japan’s countryside. Once we’ve passed Tokyo and Yokohama, it’s so nice to see the green spaces and the rice paddies and the farmhouses and the mountains. I think October is the time of the rice harvest.

One of my favorite things to see from the window of the train is the stack of cut rice fashioned to look like its kanji character (米). The neat lines of the paddies look like the kanji, too (田). The farther west we traveled, the more I saw rice that was harvested and stacked. In the east, the rice still looked green.

As I look out the window, I’m flooded with sights of the countryside. The clusters of houses with ceramic-tiled roofs zoom by. Mountains as a backdrop. Industrial buildings: Shiseido, Knorr, Foleo. I saw two white cranes (or were they herons?), one standing in a rice field, one flying between two rice paddies. People riding bikes on a lonely road cutting through fields.

Once in Kyoto, we take a short walk to the hotel where we have a few minutes to check in, drop our bags in our rooms, freshen up and grab a quick bite to eat before walking back to the train station to make our way to Nagoya for our second game of the tour.

On the train I sat next to a lovely Japanese lady who was on her way to visit her daughter in Tokyo. We spoke in Japanese, mainly about food and travel, and although I understood about 80% of what she said, I was pleased with the conversation.

I find that once most Japanese people realize that I am capable of speaking Japanese, they are happy to talk. They slow it down for me, though, and it’s almost as if their vocabulary changes to accommodate my third-grade level.

JapanBall – Going Backward to Day 3: Nagoya

So I mentioned in my last post that we took the shinkansen to Kyoto then back to Nagoya to see a game between the Yokohama BayStars and the Chunichi Dragons at the Nagoya Dome.

This was an exciting game to see because the crowd was really into it, and the food was great. The shrimp burger is to die for. I also bought a pair of koala ears, and I think wearing them made a big difference in how much I enjoyed the game.

Now let’s move forward to Sunday. In the morning Marc and LA Jon shinkansened it over to Osaka to take a look at the castle there before meeting the rest of at Osaka’s Kyocera Dome.

We took in an afternoon game between the Seibu Lions and the Orix Buffaloes. Sadly, the crowd was sparse, but the food was the best yet. The omusoba, and omelet wrapped around yaki soba noodles, was scrumptious.

After the game we piled onto an express train to Kyoto and had dinner at a bar-b-que restaurant. I’m not talking pulled pork and hush puppies like you’ll find in my home state of North Carolina.

This was an all-you-can-eat, cook-at-the-table feast with platters upon platters of thinly sliced red meat and tons of vegetables.

JapanBall – The Wrap-Up

Our tour of Japanese baseball with Bob Bavasi and Mayumi Smith of JapanBall.com ended more than a week ago, and I’m finally taking the time now to reflect on the trip. It was an incredible experience, regardless of one’s interest level in baseball or in Japan.

As I wrote in my final story for YESNetwork.com, you’ll become a fan of both Japanese baseball and the country after spending a week with Bob and Mayumi.

They’ve been doing this for a long time, and they have it down to a science.

Bob is a skilled tactician, keeping all of the “moving parts” as he liked to call them, in play.

Mayumi, in addition to being our interpreter, made sure that we saw more than just baseball and gave us an opportunity to experience many of Japan’s important cultural sites.

The pace of the schedule was hectic, but it never felt as if we were running around with no purpose.

What did we do and see?

Five baseball games in five stadiums in four different cities (Meiji Jingu Stadium in Tokyo, Nagoya Dome in Nagoya, Kyocera Dome in Osaka, Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome in Fukuoka, Koshien Stadium Osaka)

The Ginza, Ameyokocho, and Ueno Park in Tokyo

A vast dinner at a BBQ joint in Kyoto

Kyoto’s sightseeing spots of Nijojo, Kinkakuji, Kiyomizudera

Genbaku Dome and Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

A meeting with baseball legend Sadaharu Oh


They planned events, but they gave us the option to participate or not; it was up to us.

When Marc and I first decided to go on this tour, we thought we’d be the ones who didn’t participate. We didn’t think we’d be good with the group tour thing and having our days mapped out for us.

Yet we ended up joining the group for all of the cultural side trips because we genuinely enjoyed meeting the other folks and finding out what possessed them to fly to the other side of the world and crisscross the country to watch Japanese baseball games.