I'm always joking to my Fighters friends that I am extraordinarily bad at planning trips here in Japan, and yet things always seem to work out okay. Going to Osaka during "Silver Week" was definitely a prime example of that.
("Silver Week" was a calendar glitch in 2009 wherein the relocation of Respect for the Aged Day to the 3rd Monday of September made it the 21st, and the Autumn Equinox holiday of September 23 gave them a "sandwich holiday" day on September 22nd as well, or effectively, a 5-day weekend for many people.)
Generally, travelling during big Japanese holidays is expensive and a bit of a nightmare, as pretty much everybody in the country is also travelling. My original idea for how to spend the Saturday and Sunday of Silver Week involved not leaving Tokyo, going to some minor-league and college baseball games, as well as possibly kicking it back at Jingu, kutabare Yomiuri style.
Instead, I found myself at the Osaka Dome with Team Shinozawa and friends.
Thanks to not booking my trip until only a week in advance, I took a shinkansen to Osaka at around 6:40am, arriving a bit after 9am, and got to the Osaka Dome around 10am... for a 2pm game. There weren't many people around at that time, but fortunately, I recognized a guy I'd met in Hiroshima that was part of our group for this game, so I got to sit with him and his friends at the very front of the line, as we waited until they opened the stadium at 12:30pm. It sounds crazy to wait outside in the sun for two and a half hours, but it really isn't so bad. I had people to chat with, and I also spent some time in the big baseball merchandise shop inside the Dome, which was open from 10am.
(In case you don't already know, the Osaka Dome shop completely beats the Tokyo Dome shop in every way possible -- it's bigger, nicer, and has tons more merchandise for every team and an MLB corner and then even random stuff like Ibaraki Golden Golds.)
The craziest thing I saw there this time was:
NPB-flavored Crocs! You could get a pair of Crocs for any of the 12 NPB teams here, for around 4000 yen. I don't wear Crocs, but if I did, I would totally have gone in for a pair.
Finally, we went into the Dome, and we staked out what we thought was a prime space for our group -- right behind the ouendan:
Which would have been great, except for when the ouendan leaders stood on a stepstool to lead chants, and were right in my line of sight. Oops.
I did the usual pre-game aisatsu routine of saying hello to a bazillion people, including yelling hello down to Brian Sweeney. Bizarrely, the Fighters cheering section was pretty much packed, but the Osaka Dome itself was relatively empty. I suppose it makes sense -- not only was Hanshin also playing at home, but all the Fighters fans were travelling for the big weekend.
Anyway, there was a game. Keisaku Itokazu started for the Fighters, which was kind of ominous to me since I've seen him pitch a lot this year but he always seems to have bad luck. Yoshihisa Hirano started for Orix.
It ended up being a low-scoring game, though -- the Buffaloes got up 1-0 in the 3rd when hotshot-of-the-future Takahiro Okada singled and was driven in a bit later by Masahiro Abe, three consecutive singles for Orix. The Fighters tied it 1-1 in the 6th when Hichori walked, moved up on an Inaba walk, moved up on a Shinji groundout, and then Terrmel Sledge hit a double to center that went far enough to the wall such that we couldn't see it land from our viewpoint.
(This is one of my friends, wearing a silly American flag hat every time Sledge came to bat. People generally hold up flags of the countries their foreign players come from, but for American players, often anything gaudy that screams "USA!" is acceptable.)
And so it continued, Itokazu vs. Hirano, on and on, 1-1 until we got to the 9th inning. Yoshio Itoi, for whom an entire gigantic cheering group came down from Hokkaido wearing blinking devil-horn hairbands and black t-shirts, hit a single to left, and then Tomohiro Nioka hit a ball that rolled up the 3rd-base line... and WASN'T foul! Ha! Iiyama pinch-ran for Nioka, as we all broke out the Kita no Kuni Kara chance music, some of us using the clicky-clacky Buffaloes noisemakers we'd received upon entering the stadium. Tsuruoka bunted up the two runners successfully, and then Kensuke Tanaka walked. Bases loaded for Hichori, who slammed the ball out to centerfield for a triple! Everyone else scored, making it 4-1!
Bullpen musical chairs ensued for the next two batters, as former Fighter Akio Shimizu struck out Atsunori Inaba, and then Ryan Vogelsong got Shinji Takahashi to ground out.
We kind of figured Hisashi Takeda would come in for the save, but... no, the bottom of the 9th came and it was still Itokazu out there! He retired the side in order for a complete-game win, and was the game hero as well!
After the game, our group split up for an hour or two to take care of things like checking into our respective hotels and dropping off luggage and whatnot, and the plan was to regroup at 7pm at a restaurant called Nakatani, which one of the actual local fans in our group had made reservations at.
Nobody told me anything about the place, other than that it was a chanko-nabe restaurant. They just gave me a map and said it was in the basement, and if I got lost, call one of them and they'd help me figure it out.
Well, I get there a little after 7, half our group is there, and sure enough, it IS a chanko-nabe restaurant, which means cooking a bunch of meat and vegetables in a big hot pot:
But the decor is... well... interesting, to say the least:
After staring at the photos and the jerseys for a little while, I have the sudden realization that HEY WAIT A MINUTE THE GUY SERVING US DRINKS AND FOOD LOOKS JUST LIKE THE BASEBALL PLAYER IN THOSE PHOTOS.
Yes, the proprietor is a guy named Tadami Nakatani who used to be a professional baseball player. He is from Kansai and played for the Tigers, Kintetsu Buffaloes, and Orix Blue Wave, pretty much never leaving Kansai. He didn't have an illustrious career as an outfielder but apparently was well-liked, judging from the sheer amount of signed stuff in his store and whatnot. And he certainly SEEMED like a nice enough guy.
One of the other guys in our group asked for a photo with Nakatani-san, so I figured I would bug him too. Nakatani has an Orix jersey hanging by the front door -- it's #132, from when he was doing some sort of instructional work with the Buffaloes. (I was like "Why do you have an ikusei jersey?")
Anyway, good food, good times -- although the bill ended up running around 4000-5000 yen per person depending on how much beer they drank. We had the chankonabe and also a weird kind of rice that I forgot the name of, where you also cook that in the huge nabe pot, with eggs and some other stuff. It was tasty though.
There were really only 3 or 4 tables at the place depending on how you look at it, and our group took up 2/3 of the restaurant. We got a guy at the other table to take a group photo for us:
We lingered at the restaurant a bit, and took some more photos outside the restaurant, and Nakatani-san even came up with us to say goodbye, and so on. I wonder whether the people who come to his restaurant are always baseball people, or if he gets a mix, or what. It was definitely an appropriate place to go to with a big group of baseball tourists, at any rate.
And I got to talk to some people in our group who I hadn't met before, but will undoubtedly see again, either in Sapporo or around Kanto. So that was good. (One guy, he was even in town from Sapporo, but is a Takuya Nakashima fan and was continuing his Silver Week by going to ni-gun games, so we hung out a bit at Kamagaya on Tuesday too.)
I crashed pretty hard when I arrived back at the hotel, and next thing I knew, it was morning, I woke up and checked out and found myself back at the Osaka Dome at 9am. For a 1pm game. Yeah. There were very few people there at that point, mostly just mats on the ground and bags people had left:
Well, and there were several members of the Fighters ouendan sleeping on cardboard slats outside the gate. I have no clue whether they were there all night or not.
I found the place where I was supposed to be waiting, but only one guy was there, and he seemed willing to acknowledge my presence but totally unwilling to talk or anything, so I ended up wandering around a bit again. Went to Lawson's to get some water, stopped back in the Dome store for a while, stuff like that. I also took some silly photos around the Dome, like this one:
(Mister Buffaloes, Tuffy Rhodes!)
And by the time I got back to the gate at 10:45am, it was PACKED!
Even more folks were there on Sunday than Saturday, and from even further places. I saw the Michinoku Fighters boss guy and a few of their group, and I saw a few more Sapporo people that I hadn't seen before. I also ran into some Osaka fans that I've always run into there.
We ran into the stadium at 11:30 when they let us in, and this time staked out a part of the first 3 rows one section over from the ouendan, so I got to sit in the very front!
I ran up to watch batting practice a bit. This time I saw Terrmel Sledge out there catching flies in the outfield, so I waved at him and he actually waved back. We yelled some stuff at each other but I couldn't hear him and I am not sure he heard me, but he made some motions like batting and catching, and someone said "Did he say he will hit you a home run?" Heh.
A bit later, my friend with the ridiculous USA flag hat put it on and asked me in Japanese, "Deanna, how can I tell Sledge that he is cho kakkoi?" and I'm like "well... you would say 'You are cool!'"
But before I could point out that it is really weird for men to tell other men in English things like "You are cool! I love you!" he yelled down "HEY MISTER SLEDGE! YOU ARE COOL GUY!!!!" And a few things in Japanese, and then "GIVE ME HOME RUN!"
I was thinking that Sledge was going to wonder what kind of wackos we were up here.
But Sledge just laughed and waved at us and yelled at me, "Tsuyaku!" ("Translate!")
So I'm like "He's a really big fan of yours. Also he wants you to hit him a home run. Take a look at his crazy hat!"
I would have yelled hello to Sweeney again, but this time he was taking... infield practice?
You know what? This entry has been sitting in my pile for several days now, and rather than just let it continue to slide, I'm going to just sum up by saying: the game was Darvish vs. Komatsu, and Darvish's shoulder is apparently still tired, because he walked SEVEN BATTERS in five innings, and the fact that it only accounted for giving up 2 runs is some kind of miracle.
Despite all that, it WAS actually a 2-2 game for a bit there... until the Buffaloes went and totally beat up on the Fighters bullpen (namely Miyanishi and Tanimoto) in the 8th inning for a whopping FIVE RUNS, with a 3-run homer by Koji Yamasaki. Ouch.
The final score was 7-2.
Here's your game hero, Yamasaki.
Most of my friends went to the train station directly after the game, to take their trains that were scheduled at reasonable times, or go to the airport, whatever. Me, I was taking a night bus back to Tokyo, so I wasted a few hours hanging out near Osaka station, then got on my night bus. The next morning I got back to Tokyo, slept for like 2-3 more hours, then went to Jingu for the Meiji-Rikkio game.