I went back to Yakiniku Erika after work tonight with my friend Jeff, who is in Tokyo on a business trip. Erika is the restaurant owned and operated by Fighters centerfielder Hichori Morimoto's parents, and I've nicknamed it "Fighters Town Nippori" due to the amount of Fighters stuff in there. Jeff lives near Nagoya and is a huge Chunichi Dragons fan, so he was joking, "Will they let The Enemy into their restaurant?"
Fortunately, the answer is not only yes, but we got there, and sat at the same table I sat at during the Japan Series, AND not only that, the entire back two tables were taken up by six guys playing some variation on Strat-o-Matic baseball, only with NPB teams. They were rolling dice and using chess pieces and whatnot to advance batters on a big homemade wooden board. IT WAS SO COOL!
We had been lamenting that it was the offseason so there wouldn't be a real baseball game to watch there, but it was almost as much fun watching these guys run their simulated games. I pretty much turned around and immediately just asked them in Japanese (as all conversations herein were in Japanese) what they were playing, which teams they were, who was winning, etc. They were playing Lotte vs. Rakuten at the time. "Is Kobamasa in your game?" I asked, and they all were like "No, of COURSE not!"
(Context: Masahide Kobayashi signed with the Indians today. I still can't stop giggling over the idea that Nate Minchey "scouted" him. I guess that's because I still remember when Nate Minchey pitched for Lotte.)
Anyway, we ordered food and beer. Morimoto-san brought us our beers and I said to him, "This place is ALWAYS crazy, isn't it!" He laughed and nodded.
Their game shifted to Chunichi vs. Rakuten. They were like "Wait, who's a Chunichi fan around here?" and one of the Strat guys was, and Jeff also said "Me too," explaining that he lives in Gifu, etc. So the Strat guy asked him, "Who's your favorite player?" "Iwase." "Ah, I like Iwase too."
I chimed in with "I love Morino!!", of course.
"You like Chunichi too?" they said incredulously, since I'd said I was a Fighters fan.
Boy, did I have some explaining to do. But it was all in good fun. I was showing Jeff the Nostalgic Baseball cards I picked up the other day too, and one of the guys was like, "Wow! You have many cards of famous Japanese players and you even know who they are! You really love baseball, don't you?"
"Baseball is my life," I said. "It seems like you guys really love it too!"
"Oh, yeah," he said. "We always meet to play these baseball games together, especially in the offseason when there is no real baseball."
He turned out to be a Tigers fan, so we talked about Arai a little bit, and Kanemura. I was just so happy that I had people to babble with about baseball that it didn't even occur to me how bizarre the situation really was.
"That's the great thing about baseball geeks," Jeff said to me in English. "They don't care who you are, gaijin or not, as long as you speak Baseball. It's universal."
Their game progressed. I sang the Morino cheer song as a joke when the chess piece representing Morino was "at bat", and they rolled a few dice and everyone groaned, saying "Oh no! Your Morino struck out!"
We grilled and ate our dinner and listened to the guys playing their games and occasionally chimed in with things like "Hiroshima won the championship in your league? Impossible!" and "Takeshi struck out again? Whaaaat?" and "Another passed ball for Tanishige? Are you kidding me?"
The entire restaurant emptied out around midnight; I assume most people had to get their last train home. I believe the shop is open until 2am, but I have this feeling many people come there from afar. I did ask the guys if I could take a picture of the game, though they were already taking apart the board and all I had was my cellphone camera:
We were the last people to leave. Jeff had told me I totally had to show Hichori's parents the picture of my Hichori costume from Halloween, so... since I'd had a beer, I guess I was a little less afraid of making an idiot of myself. We paid the bill and were putting on our shoes and having some random chit-chat with Hichori's parents -- the father even told Jeff something like "You must be happy for your Dragons," and so I blurted out something like "By the way, I was Hichori for Halloween!"
"I am an English teacher, so for a Halloween school activity I had a costume, and I was Hichori!" I showed them the picture on my cellphone.
"Wow! That's funny!" said Hichori's mom. "Did people get it?"
"Err..." I paused. "Everyone said it was really interesting!"
They asked how long we'd been in Japan. Jeff of course said he'd been in Gifu for 15 years, but was in Tokyo on a business trip, and would be back next week. ("Oh, come back here again then!" joked Hichori's dad.) I said I'd been in Japan four months, to which they said "Impossible, you speak Japanese too well," and I said that no, I suck, and I explained I'd been to Japan a few times before, which is how I became a Fighters fan in the first place. They asked when, and I said "A couple of years ago? Back in the Tokyo Dome days," and showed them my picture of me with Fighty.
Jeff asked them how long they'd been running the yakiniku shop. "15 years? Maybe 16 now? I can't really remember," replied Hichori's mother. "We've been here a long time."
I guess it suddenly hit me like a Darvish fastball how completely weird we must have seemed, me showing cellphone pictures to Hichori Morimoto's parents!, so I finished putting on my shoes and bowed a lot and said "I'm so sorry I'm such a weird person, I am embarrassed" or something along those lines, and thanked them for the wonderful meal, and said goodnight, and we left.
"I can't believe what a complete dork I was," I said. "Did I even make sense with most of what I said? Am I completely rude? Can I blame it on beer?"
"You were fine," Jeff said. "I am betting they get people MUCH stranger than you in there."
"I guess so," I replied. "Though they're still running the shop, so it can't be THAT bad."
To sum up, anyway, this was yet another one of those "My god, I live in Japan, don't I?" kind of evenings. I mean, I just went to a restaurant operated by the parents of one of my favorite baseball players, where I sat around and chatted with Strat-o-Matic nerds in Japanese and ate yakiniku. Sometimes, it's best not to think how? but instead just think wow.