Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Monday Adventures in Osaka - Card shops, Tiger shops, Skymark and Koshien

I went all over the Osaka-Kobe area on Monday (9/22) doing baseball-related stuff. I'm sure you are all completely surprised by that.

Mint Card Shop Umeda

Over the winter I got to know a sports memorabilia chain called Mint pretty well in the Tokyo area, going to pretty much all of their nearby locations. (I've posted about it a bit.) I figured it couldn't hurt to hunt down one of their shops in Osaka, especially since I'm still looking for a G.G.Satoh Bikkuriman 2008 sticker, plus maybe they'd have some interesting Hanshin stuff. The Mint Umeda page has a map saying they were in the basement of the Shin Hankyu building.

The thing is, if you have ever been to the Osaka/Umeda station area, you'll note that finding a "Shin Hankyu Building" is a royal pain, as there are about ninety buildings labelled something Hanyku, a bunch called Shin Hankyu, and naturally there's a whole ton of Hanshin buildings as well to mess with your brain.

So, here: what you need to do is find the BIG HANSHIN DEPARTMENT STORE south of all the train stations and then go to the building behind it with the Book 1st shop, and go into the basement:

Go into the basement of the Shin Hankyu building...

...and wander around until you find the big Ichiro cardboard outside.

Sadly, they had exactly 3 bikkuriman stickers and actually NOT that much in the way of special Tigers goods. They DID have the new Hawks and Baystars historical sets out in singles so I could look through them -- that was really neat -- but other than that, eh. Oh, and they had Calbee binders going back to 1973, including one special one of Hanshin cards, so if you want a 1985 Randy Bass card, you can get one there for 3000 yen.

Moving onwards...

Tigers Shop in the Hanshin Department Store

So, noting the building I said to go behind... that's the Hanshin Department Store. If you go in there and go up to the 8th floor, they have a huge Tigers store. So you don't even need to go to Koshien to buy stuff! Of course, the Tigers store is located in the middle of a women's fashion floor, so if you take the escalator to get there, you have to walk through the lingerie section to get to the Tigers merchandise. I wonder if that's on purpose.

Anyway, once you get there, you can buy pretty much anything Tigers that you ever could possibly want. Seriously. (Except, perhaps, for Jeff Williams stuff. WTF? I seriously wanted a Williams keychain or pen or something, but couldn't find one.)

The Hanshin Tigers Store. 8th floor behind women's underwear...

...though naturally they also sell Hanshin Tigers women's underwear too...

...and enough omiyage to shake a stick at. A lollipop stick, of course.

I thought this shirt was unique when I saw someone wearing it, but naturally no, it's a new design in the Tigers store.

Also, in case you have a real tiger at home needing an outfit, or just want to dress up your dog...

And you can decorate your bathroom in Tigers stuff as well.

Seriously, there's a ton of stuff there. It's unreal. I got some omiyage for my students and a few special things for people.

Then, I headed out to Kobe.

Skymark Stadium

I got to Sogoundokoen station and, surprisingly, I could hear baseball sounds coming from inside Skymark. I figured it had to be high school or college, since all of the player's names had "kun" appended after them, but I wasn't sure. First I figured I'd take a walk around the stadium and see what I could see...

Here's a view of the big stadium name from the parking lot.

I was standing on a fence outside the left field gate when I took this one.

And here, uh, I basically slid my camera through a slot in a closed entry gate wall and managed to take a photo without dropping it. I just wanted to see what was going on.

Approaching the home plate gate.

Welcome to Ball Park!

I had seen a few people going into the stadium earlier, though it appeared there was only one gate to the main stadium area open, so I went up that... passing by what looked like some college ball players, and some guys in school uniforms, or at least, white button-down shirts, and gray pants. At first I ignored them and just walked around to the 3rd base side, where there wasn't much.

Came around back past home plate again, and heard one of the guys making a comment like "there's that weirdo gaijin again, what the hell is she doing there?" so I figured I'd go talk to them.

"Excuse me," I said in Japanese, "What kind of baseball game is going on here today? High school? University?"

These three guys look at each other, then one gets a pained look on his face and says in slow and broken English, "This is Kansai Roku -- jaa, Kansai SIX League!!"

I continue in Japanese, "Oh, okay, university ball, I see. What university are you from?"

The kid answers in English again, "We are Ryukoku Daiga... Ryukoku University."

I blink and say, "You are very good at English!!" while still speaking in Japanese, "I've never been here before and wanted to see the stadium, how much does it cost to enter?"

The two other guys are by now completely giggling at their third friend who's speaking in English for no apparent reason, but the third guy continues anyway, in English, "It twelbu hundred en. Berry byootifur stajium!"

"Hnmm. Expensive," I say in Japanese. "I just want to take photos. Thanks anyway!"

I smile and nod and continue on towards the first base side. I hear the other two guys making fun of their third friend as I walk off. Whatever. I wonder how they would have reacted if I said I didn't understand English either, or looked at him blankly like "なんでやねん?"

(When I got home later I looked it up, and yeah, sure enough, the games WERE going on for the 関西六大学野球連盟, or Kansai Six University League. I guess a few famous players have gone to Ryukoku, though I only recognized a few from the Wikipedia list, like ex-Fighter Kimoto and current Hawk Yanase.)

Anyway, the first-base side of the stadium is a LOT neater, and even outdoors there was plenty of interesting things to look at and take photos of. For example, there was a whole bunch of floor murals painted:

Nice painting of players going off into the sunset towards Tomotaka Sakaguchi.

By a children's sliding board/play area, a cute Blue Wave rainbow.

The old name for the park was Green Stadium Kobe, before the naming rights went all over the place.

As you can see in that last photo, there was also a Blue Wave Wall of Fame (which also includes their old Hankyu Braves stuff). Many interesting players, but I was obviously most interested in a particular pair of them...

Hisashi Yamada, the legendary submarine pitcher from the Hankyu Braves (who I just saw throwing out a ceremonial first pitch at an industrial league game a few weeks back)

Some Ichiro guy. I thought it'd be funny to try to take a self-portrait of myself with him and had a somewhat inspired pose.

I pretty much could not see into the stadium at all -- I guess that is by design -- and so I decided to just go ahead and leave. I stopped by the Kobe Sports Center info booth, since Skymark is in the middle of a big sports complex, and talked to a lady who used to be part of the Seattle-Kobe Sister City association. Though, she seemed a lot more surprised that I came down from SAITAMA than from SEATTLE per se.

If I had paid more attention to the schedules for the complex, I would have noticed that Orix's minor-league team had practice going on somewhere on a spare field nearby, but alas, I didn't realize it at the time. Not like I am that familiar with their minor league players these days anyway...

Koshien -- A Speck of Blue in a Sea of Gold

I got on a train and headed to Koshien at that point, even though it was only around 4pm. I figured it'd give me a chance to wander around a little, except that due to the Koshien Renewal Project, the scenery seemed a lot less interesting than it did when I was there two years ago:

The fake greenery looks more tacky than anything, to me. I guess it's better than plain old scaffolding, but...

The one thing that does seem to be brand new and nice everywhere is the Tigers Shops, of which there are a bazillion, and yet they are all always crowded no matter when you enter.

The separate Tigers Alps shop seems to have been moved across the highway from where it used to be, too.

I walked around the entire stadium once, because last time I was there I didn't have time to find the Babe Ruth plaque, and this time I simply couldn't find it. I briefly wondered if it was hidden behind some fake ivy somewhere.

Finally, I figured, what the heck, might as well go in. It was about 4:40pm at that point. I went in, climbed up from the front of the outfield to the visitor's ouen seats -- yes, I planned to cheer for the Baystars, and had specifically bought a "visitor's cheering seat" ticket -- and immediately noticed two main annoying things:

1) The section appeared to actually be mostly Tigers fans, even down to like the 3rd row, and
2) There was a big honking outfield light obstructing me from actually being able to see the lineup part of the scoreboard.

I guess I shouldn't be too surprised about the first part. I had a seat in the fifth row and had been a little worried that even there wouldn't be safe, but by the time the section filled up, the front two rows were all Yokohama fans, the third and fourth rows were about half and half, and from there on back it was Tigers fans with some spotty Yokohama fans. I'm really curious what it looked like from afar, to be honest.

Here's my view of the infield, complete with Baystars ouendan guy.

Here's the sunset over right field, and you can see how the board is obstructed.

I snuck out to centerfield to get a different view, and this is what I saw.

Here's that damn light, viewed from centerfield.

I went to get food and use the bathrooms, both of which were vaguely traumatic experiences. Infact, if you are a Hanshin fan or Koshien fan, I advise you to skip reading the next few paragraphs. I realize that perhaps people think it's sacrilege for a huge baseball fan and history nut to say the following, but let me just put it out there:

I hate Koshien Stadium.

No, really. I honestly can't find much to like about it. It's not just that it's an old stadium, because it's really only 3 years or so older than Jingu, and I am rather fond of Jingu, all things considered. At least at Jingu, the management realizes that they have to bother making an effort to get fans to come to the stadium, whereas I'm pretty sure the Tigers management knows that they could essentially print "Hey Tigers fans, SCREW YOU" as a slogan on the tickets and they'd still have sellout crowds every night.

First, the seats are really small and cramped. I had enough trouble with this when sitting in the infield two years ago, to the point that I seriously lost circulation in my legs from having them crushed under my seat, but in the outfield, it's even worse, if that's possible, plus if you suddenly move your legs at all you will most likely end up kneeing or kicking someone in front of you, since there are no seat backs on bleacher seats. I was really lucky that the two young women sitting to my left wearing Tigers jerseys apparently decided that despite buying "visitor's ouen" tickets, they didn't REALLY want to sit next to a pesky foreign Baystars fan, and went off to... somewhere. I don't know where, but they never came back, so everyone else in the vicinity swarmed on the free space like vultures; me and two other people put our bags on the seats so we'd have some leg room. And I still regularly got elbowed by the kid next to me, and hit in the head by balloons and cheersticks from people behind me. (As usual the kid next to me was a huge freaking Kanemoto fan as every 9-year-old in Kansai seems to be, and he was actually a good kid and asked me about my scorecard and other stuff, but he was a little overly hyper as well.)

Second, the food is terrible. There's not much variety and most of what there was didn't look all that appetizing, mostly along the lines of overpriced izakaya food. I ended up getting yakisoba because that seemed safe enough, and it was easily the worst yakisoba I've ever had in my entire life. Getting a non-alcoholic beverage from your seat during the game is nigh impossible.

The bathrooms are disgusting. I realize that it's not REALLY a valid complaint to mention that there simply seem to be NO western toilets, but still.

I have no clue whether the infield is any more accessible for people unable to climb a bazillion stairs, but in the outfield area it's pretty much a nightmare. I was also somewhat astounded to note how far you really are from the field when you're out there; you can't even actually go up to the outfield wall because the area behind it is a walkway. I suppose this is actually perhaps by design, but I think it is neat to be able to yell down to players and say hi in other stadiums, which is simply not an option at Koshien. And taking photos from out there is not really an option either. Maybe from the infield seats, I dunno.

I realize the "atmosphere" of having the entire stadium cheering for Hanshin is a bonus if you are a Tigers fan, but if you aren't, it's actually another downside of the stadium. A drunk Tigers fan came up and started an argument with one of the Baystars ouendan, and eventually they had to be separated by policemen, and the cops actually hung out around the visitor's ouenseki for the rest of the game. To protect us or to protect against us? I'm still not sure.

And last, once you've managed to survive the entire game, you have to survive the trip back. Which means either finding something else to do (read: drinking) in the area for an hour or two, or trying to get into Koshien Station with the other 50,000 people who are trying to do the exact same thing. Note: I bought my return ticket when I arrived at the park, and I urge you to do the same.

At least I had the sense to take off my Baystars jersey before leaving the park...

Uh, anyway, Koshien rant over. I think I do want to go back there for the high school tournament someday, but I doubt I'm ever going to go there for a Tigers game again on my own.

So, there was a game, and surprisingly, while the Baystars lost, it didn't involve them getting TOTALLY crushed or anything. Yuji Yoshimi started for Yokohama, and Shunsuke Ishikawa started for Hanshin. Ishikawa was just drafted last year out of Jobu University, and this was actually his first professional start (though not appearance). Again, the Baystars have been a nice opponent for teams to use to ease their rookies from starting in the minor leagues to the major leagues here.

I was overjoyed that Takuro Ishii was in the Baystars starting lineup, since I showed up with my Ishii jersey and towel, but he kind of had a bad day.

The Tigers got off to a quick 1-0 lead in the first, mostly aided by the fact that Saeki was playing left field for the Baystars and he is really slow. I think I counted four foul balls to left field that I am fairly sure any other team's fielder would have managed to catch, but that Saeki didn't. Akahoshi started the game off singling, and Sekimoto should have been out on one of those fly balls, but instead ended up walking, and Makoto Imaoka singled in Akahoshi after that. A bunch of easier fly balls after that ended the inning.

Bottom of the second inning, Asai singled, was moved up by pitcher Ishikawa's sac bunt, and then Akahoshi walked, and Sekimoto doubled to left, and have I mentioned lately that Saeki is slow? Yeah? And that he throws like a girl? And that I love him anyway, but it's still painful watching the Tigers get two runs off of that, to make it 3-0? Yeah.

Finally, in the top of the 4th, Murata got a single off Ishikawa, and then BOOM, Yoshimura hit a towering fly ball to left field, which was coming back, back, back, GONE! 2-run home run for Yoshimura, and 3-2 score for the game.

In the bottom of the 4th I finally got a video of Kentaro Sekimoto's at-bat intro. I kept trying for the rest of the game, but that pesky bugger Akahoshi kept getting on base right before he came up.

Everybody say - Sekimoto!

I thought it was really cool. I used to really like Sekimoto a year or two ago.

Infact, really, aside from Sekimoto's at-bat music, I did appreciate three things about being at Koshien and the Tigers fans:

1) seeing the ENTIRE stadium doing the Kanemoto right-field wave cheer thingy
2) seeing the entire stadium doing the Wasshoi chance theme, annoying as it may be
3) Kyuji Fujikawa entering the game to "Every Little Thing Every Precious Thing" by Lindberg. It still cracks me up. I would LOVE it, if he someday does become a closer in MLB, if he kept that as his intro song. It's very Kyuji. I can't explain why, it just is (besides that the band wrote it for him, I just mean, it suits him).

The Baystars put some pressure on the Tigers in the top of the 5th, loading the bases with Shuuichi THE MAN Murata at the plate, but... but... but he got called out on strikes. That sucked. I almost think that kind of took the steam out of the Baystars for the rest of the game.

Oh, but hey, Yukiya Yokoyama came into the game to pitch in the bottom of the 6th, with runners on first and third, and those runners DIDN'T SCORE! YEAH! Even better, he struck out Imaoka! Whee!

Sometime around the top of the 7th, the scoreboard showed the out-of-town scores. They put up the Giants-Carp one, where we all saw that the Giants were beating the Crap out of the Carp, and so the Tigers had to win this game in order to avoid falling to second place.

So all of the Tigers fans were like "ARGH!!"

...then they mentioned that Ramirez hit his 41st homerun of the year, tying Yokohama's Murata for the lead.

And all of the Baystars fans were also like "AARRGGHH!!!"

For a minute or so, we were all united as one, like "DIE GIANTS DIE DIE DIE!!!"

Then we came back to our collective senses, turned to each other like "You guys suck, I hope you lose" and went back to cheering our respective teams.

Not that it mattered. Scott Atchison and Kyuji Fujikawa held down the fort for Hanshin, and amazingly Yuya Ishii and Shun Yamaguchi held down the fort for the Baystars.

In the top of the 9th, the first two outs came fairly quickly, and the Tigers fans blew up their balloons, and Takehiro Ishikawa grounded to second... Hirano made the throw... a bunch of fans released their balloons... and the throw was HIGH and Ishikawa was safe at first and he and Sekimoto fell to the ground. Oops. But eventually they got up and play continued. Ishikawa stole second, then they intentionally walked Kinjoh after a 2-0 count or so, and then backup catcher Toshio Saitoh hit a pop fly out to second, which Hirano didn't make a mistake on this time, and the final score was the same 3-2 that it had been for the last two hours or so.

The rest of the Tigers fans released their balloons then, and sang Rokko Oroshi and whatever else, as the few Baystars fans packed up their stuff. The game heroes were Shunsuke Ishikawa and Kyuji Fujikawa, and in the interview Ishikawa kept calling Kyuji "sempai", though I'm not entirely sure why, besides just being on the Tigers staff.

A few more pictures from the late game:

Naturally, I can't go to a Baystars game without stalking Sign Guy.

Blue Baystars flag towards the 8th or 9th inning.

White Baystars flag after Ishikawa got on base... note all the Tigers fans holding up their balloons below.

Oh yeah, and like the moron I am, I stopped in the Tigers Alps store for a second on the way out because I thought I saw a cool t-shirt. I was right:

Wei-tzu Lin t-shirt.

New t-shirts that started selling THAT DAY for Scott Atchison and Aarom Baldiris. But I wanted a Jeff Williams shirt, dammit!

I realized that a flood of Tigers fans were coming out of the stadium, so I figured I'd just start making my way through the sea of people and hope to escape in one piece. It worked, mostly, although for a while there I could barely breathe while being pressed into a gigantic crowd of people trying to move through a small hallway up to the train platform. Eventually I got onto a train, and even got a seat, so I was happy enough.

And I was even happier when I got back to my hotel, watched the sports highlights, and saw Darvish get the win for the Fighters, and Hisashi Iwakuma got his 20th win against Seibu. Yeah!

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