Friday, March 22, 2013

Trip Overview

I apologize for the lack of posts this week.  My sleep patterns are still a mess (staying up late to watch the final round of the WBC didn't help) and I've been busy in-processing the roughly 700 cards (seen above) I picked up on the trip.  I also loaded all my pictures up to my Flickr account and I've made a very small start at labeling and organizing them.

What I'd like to do with this post is give a quick overview of what I did on the trip (i.e. more bragging). I'll follow up with some subsequent posts on the card shops and ballparks I went to as well as the Japanese Baseball Hall Of Fame.  I'll also do a post on the nine box sets I picked up.

Getting There

I left from Newark Liberty Airport on Wednesday, March 6 on a direct flight on United to Narita.  The scheduled flight time was 14 hours, but we were delayed about an hour leaving due to a mechanical issue with the tug that pushes the airplane away from the gate.  Between that and the fact that we boarded the plane about 45 minutes before our scheduled departure time, I think I was on the plane for about 16 hours total.

I arrived at Narita around 4:30 in the afternoon on Thursday, March 7.  After getting through immigration and customs and exchanging some money*,  I caught the Narita Express to Tokyo Station which took about an hour, putting me into Tokyo Station around 7-ish, just at the tail end of rush hour.  I made my way to the Marunouchi Subway line for the 10 minute trip to the Korakuen station, right next to the Tokyo Dome.

*Currency-wise, I don't think I could have picked a better time to have gone on this trip.  Japan's government has been devaluing the yen lately so the exchange rate is better than it's been in the last few years.  I was getting roughly 93 yen per dollar on this trip, much better than the 76 yen to a dollar that I would have gotten in late 2011.  It's been about three years since the exchange rate was this good.

I stayed at the Hotel Wing International Korakuen, closer than a hop, skip and a jump from the Dome.  Not the fanciest place in the world, but perfect for my needs.  I walked directly to the hotel from the subway stop (thank you, Google Street View!), checked in and dropped my suit case off in my room.  Since this was going to be one of my only free evenings in town, I wanted to head over to the Bunkyo Civic Center to check out the nighttime view from their observation deck.  I took some pictures that didn't turn out well, then headed back to the hotel to crash.

Day 1 - Friday, March 8th

Crashing unfortunately didn't last long.  Jet lag caused me to wake up at around 1:30 AM.  After a couple hours trying to go back to sleep, I gave up and decided to start my day.  At 6-ish, I headed over to the Tsukiji Fish Market where I had a great time dodging forklifts and taking pictures of seafood (until a security guard pointed out that I was in an area that was closed to the public until 9).  Afterwards, I walked through a nearly deserted Ginza, found the Godzilla statue near Hibaya Park and the Imperial Hotel, then headed back to my hotel for breakfast.  After eating, I headed back to the Bunkyo Civic Center for more pictures in the daylight (that turned out a little better), then over to the Dome to check out the Japanese Baseball Hall Of Fame when it opened at 10.  (I'll post more about the HOF later - it was interesting but pretty small.)  After leaving the HOF, I went on into the Dome for the first WBC game of the day - Cuba vs the Netherlands at 12.  After the game, I got an opportunity to briefly meet John Gibson of the Japan Baseball Weekly podcast.  The downside of my jet lag kicked in for the second game, Japan vs Taipei.  Having only had about three hours of sleep in the previous 40+ hours, I was falling asleep in my seat despite the best efforts of the Japanese and Taipei cheering sections.  I ended up leaving the game in the sixth inning with Japan down 2-0.  Back in my room, I put the game on on the TV and in between sessions of nodding off in my bed, I watched Japan tie the game in the top of the eighth, go behind again in the bottom of the eighth, tie it again in the top of the ninth and go ahead for good in the top of the tenth.  I could hear the cheers from the Dome through the window of my hotel room.  I had ended up leaving early from probably the most exciting game Japan would play in the entire WBC. :-(

Day 2 - Saturday, March 9th

After a decent night's sleep and a quick breakfast, I headed off to the Tokyo Tower once again check out Tokyo from a tall building.  I still hadn't had my fill of views from above, so I then headed over to Shinjuku, to check out the view from one of the decks of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.  Heading over to the Shinjuku train station, I started to see the kinds of crowds that busy places in Tokyo attract on a weekend.  I took the train over to Takadanobaba to check out my first card shop, Quad Sports.  Following a couple hours there going through boxes of singles, I headed up to Ikebukuro to brave the crowds to hit two more card shops, Mint Ikebukuro and Coletre.  After a couple hours at the two stores (and meeting Dean, an American who had been living in Tokorozawa for almost 30 years who was nice enough to translate for me at both stores), I headed back to Bunkyo for the elimination game between Cuba and Taipei.  Before the game, I was able to meet up with John Gibson for a bit of a longer conversation and got to meet his podcast partner Jim Allen as well.  After the game, I got a cup of coffee with my friend Hiro, who has been my source for new Japanese baseball card sets the past four or five years and who I had never met in person before.  All in all, an awesome day.

Day 3 - Sunday, March 10th

The first stop for the day was checking out Shibuya, home of the famous Shibuya crossing and the statue of Hachiko the dog.  I wandered around aimlessly for a couple hours until the area started getting really crowded and it was time to head out to Nakano Broadway to meet up with Ryan of This Card Is Cool.  (And I saw my first "traditional" Japanese toilet at the Nakano JR station.)  Nakano Broadway is a shopping mall specializing in pop culture stuff that Ryan's had good luck finding vintage cards at.  Unfortunately, the crowds were large enough that they were really putting me off and I think one of the stores Ryan had found cards at before was not open.  So we fairly quickly decided to head back to Quad Sports in Takadanobaba as I hadn't gone through their 2004 BBM 1st Version singles the day before and Ryan is always willing to spend time there.  After leaving the store and grabbing a quick bite to eat (and dealing with an abrupt weather change), we headed over to Ueno to check out a couple more stores, Niki and G-Freak.  Once again, the crowds in the area made navigation challenging.  I parted ways with Ryan for the day and headed back to the Tokyo Dome, for the night's matchup between Japan and the Netherlands.  The winner was clinching a spot in San Francisco and I was determined to stay awake to the end this time.  The game was never really in doubt, as Takeshi Toritani homered to lead off the game for Japan and begin a six home run onslaught that would result in a 16-4 mercy rule victory.  Another great day.

Day 4 - Monday, March 11th

Monday was cold, clear and very windy.  Perfect weather, I thought, for going up in the Tokyo Sky Tree.  Unfortunately, everyone else thought so also.  I got to Sky Tree a little after it opened at 8 and discovered an already long line waiting for tickets.  After waiting for about 45 minutes and not really making any progress towards the front of the line, I decided that maybe this wasn't such a great idea.  I ended up heading back to the Bunkyo Civic Center, where the view wasn't quite so high but it was free and available.  The visit paid off - as I had hoped, the weather conditions had cleared some of the haze out of the region and Mt. Fuji was visible beyond the skyscrapers of Shinjuku.

I headed down to Jinbocho to first check out the selection of baseball books at the Shosen Grande bookstore, then meet up with Ryan at Biblio, a fantastic vintage baseball book and memorabilia store nearby.  Next we headed up to nearby Mint Kanda, followed by a longer walk over to Akihabara, where we hit two more shops - Wrappers and Mint Akihabara.  I then once again headed back to Tokyo Dome for another WBC game between Cuba and the Netherlands.  The winner would be going to the semifinals in San Francisco while the loser would be going home.  I once again met up with John Gibson for a quick cup of coffee before the game.  And what a game!  It turned out to be probably the second best game of the round (and best one that I saw all of at the Dome), with the Dutch winning the game in the bottom of the ninth.  Yet another incredible day.

Day 5 - Tuesday, March 12th

Tuesday was Ballpark Day.  First off was a quick trip to Jingu Stadium, home of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.  The Swallows weren't playing there this week, but the 68th JABA Tokyo Sponichi (Industrial League) Tournament was going on there and I arrived in time to watch the first couple innings of the 9 AM game between TDK and Kazusa Magic.  I then headed out to Tokorozawa to see an open-sen game between the Saitama Seibu Lions and the Chiba Lotte Marines at Seibu Dome.*  Then back to the Tokyo Dome one final time for Samurai Japan's victory lapfinal game against the Netherlands.  Still a great day, but much differently paced than the previous ones - nowhere near as much walking!

*Had a moment on my way to Seibu Dome that proves what an incredible thing technology is.  While on the train to Tokorozawa, I had sent a message to Deanna Rubin on Facebook suggesting that we call the feeling you get when you realize that you're the only Westerner at a sporting event "the Deanna Rubin feeling".  She was online at the time and we started having a conversation via Facebook messages.  When I reached the Tokorozawa station, I mentioned that the train to the Dome itself wouldn't be coming for another half hour.  She told me that I should catch the next train to the Nishi-Tokorozawa station, as the trains there ran to the Dome more often.  Once I got to that station, I said something to her about having to figure out which platform I needed to be on.  She told me it was the same platform - even though I had never told her which platform I was on!  She had this website up where she was in San Francisco with the train info and she already knew where I was and what I needed to do.  It was a perfect example of Clarke's Third Law.  And Deanna's mastery of all things Tokyo-metro related.

Day 6 - Wednesday, March 13th

Really only one thing on the agenda for this day - a trip to Yokohama to catch another open-sen game, this time between the Chunichi Dragons and the Yokohama DeNA Baystars.  After the game, I stopped off at another card shop, Mint Yokohama, but was disappointed to find that they didn't have any of the remaining cards that I was looking for.  I headed back to Tokyo and spent my only other evening not at the Dome at a wonderful restaurant recommended by the Japan Ball folks - it was probably my best meal in Japan.  I was hoping to get organized this evening so that I would have time to do something Thursday morning, but I actually fell asleep early - between being very busy during the days and not particularly sleeping well, I was pretty tired and it all caught up with me.  Still had a really good day.

Going Home

Having to get organized Thursday morning meant I really didn't have time to do much.  I checked out of my hotel around 9 and headed back to Tokyo Station.  I locked my suitcase in a locker and wandered around the station area for a couple hours until it was time to head to the airport.  As it was early afternoon rather than evening (like it had been when I arrived), I was able to see the country side on the way to Narita.  I was surprised to eventually see more rural areas than I had seen all week being in the city (it's unbroken urban sprawl all the way from Tokyo to Yokohama and while the Tokorozawa region doesn't have tall buildings, it's still building after building).  

It was scheduled to be a 12 hour flight back to Newark, but we apparently got a good tailwind and arrived nearly an hour early.  After getting through customs, I caught an Amtrak train* to Wilmington, Delaware where I was met by my family.  
*Which was quite a letdown after the trains in Japan

All in all, it was an amazing trip.  My only real regret (other than not being able to make it through the entire Japan-Taipei game) was that I didn't get a chance to check out the Imperial Palace Grounds or the Meiji Temple - I had planned on getting to the Temple early one morning, but I was just too tired to get moving in time.


Jason said...

Glad to see you had such a great time on your trip. I'd love to take two or three separate trips to Japan, one for baseball, one for pro wrestling and one just to see Japan.

Jason said...

...and how is there not already a blog called "Tokyo Dome withstands the earthquake."?

NPB Card Guy said...

I really feel like the tourist-y things got short-shrift on this trip with me packing baseball into every possible minute.

Because of the WBC, the announcements at the Tokyo Dome were the only ones made in English as well. I don't know if they did similar announcements at the other parks. I'm not sure I got a picture of it or not, but my favorite announcement had something to do with unauthorized cheering sections and illegal gambling or something like that...

Anonymous said...

While I eagerly await more show and tell regarding the cards you bought, I'd also like to hear about your experiences at the two open-sen games you attended. For example, many fans here go to spring training games to obtain player autographs--is this something the Japanese do as well?

As far as the WBC goes, maybe if Ryan peaks in here he can give us a sense of the media reaction there when Japan got booted out by Puerto Rico.

Greg Dunn

NPB Card Guy said...

I didn't see a lot of people trying to get autographs at the games. I think there's a little less down time for the players before the games than in the US and they don't really have an opportunity to came over to the stands and sign. Plus at both the Tokyo Dome and the Seibu Dome, there's this really annoying foul ball screen that extends in front of the stands all the way to the outfield wall, so it's really difficult to pass anything out to get signed (or take pictures as some of my shots will attest).

I suspect but I don't know for sure that the actual training camps that are held in warmer areas (Okinawa, etc) are probably better locations for autograph seekers than games like I went to.

Ryan G said...

I'll second my comment that autographs just don't really happen much in Japan. There are some proper places and times but Japan doesn't have autograph hounds like they do in America. There are more-open areas to hunt for autographs from players. The minor league, practice, and training fields are much better. I went to a minor league game this year and while I didn't ask for any autographs (and probably wouldn't have gotten one) the players walked through the crowds to get to the bathrooms. And I've heard that at Meiji Jingu, the locker room facilities are at the secondary field, meaning the players have to walk outside between the stadiums. I'm not sure how successful people are though. Autograph hunting just doesn't seem to be as popular.

I am curious (and forgot to ask) how crowded the spring training games were. Overall, that experience would be well-worth telling since it's rarely reported on - getting there, costs, crowds, souvenirs/food availability.

Japanese people I talked to were interested in the WBC and quite proud of their team as long as they were successful, but nobody said a thing once they were eliminated. I don't spend much time in the magazine aisle (it's full of porn, mainly) but it seems like the WBC just disappeared back into obscurity pretty quickly.

NPB Card Guy said...

The crowds at the exhibition games were kind of small - 6000 at the Lions game and 7000 at the Baystars, although actually that might be pretty impressive considering they were afternoon games in the middle of the week. What really struck me was the size of the cheering sections at the games - the visiting Marines had a very impressive Oendan at Seibu Dome and the Baystars did as well. Guess the cheering sections need spring training too!

Ryan G said...

6000-7000 is a good size, I'd say. College students were on break and plenty of people are unemployed, underemployed, or have work schedules that permit game viewing. Cheering sections are surprisingly large evem for visiting teams, but that's partly due to proximity to their hometown and also the price of tickets (usually cheapest).

I went to a minor league game last year on a Sunday and there were a few hundred in attendance - good considering the field was designed to hold about 100 at best. Team fans are really devoted here, evidenced by the continued success of team merchandise and those BBM team sets.

Deanna said...

Hey, as someone who spent many years as a superfan over in Japan I can confirm that people DO indeed go to spring training to get autographs, and that (most) minor-league games are a perfect place to get them, as are college games and indie leagues and other amateur places. It's just the pro games and tournaments that are crowded and a nightmare. I've gotten hundreds of autographs and photos with players over the years in Japan.. and almost none of them were at pro games except for ones where I had special circumstances like field passes or other events I was part of.

And yeah, Jingu is a place that a LOT of fans stalk for autographs, even for the pro games. I guess I got photos with Tateyama and Oshimoto and Igarashi that way, and I've said hello to numerous players but other than that I've mostly stayed out of it because I think it's kinda obnoxious (these guys are just trying to get to their job and you're in their way). Bobby used to make players at Chiba Marine do autographs before the game too, but yeah, the pro games is a major crap shoot for that stuff. Chatting with players in the outfield during pro game BP is a lot easier, I used to yell down to foreign guys on the Fighters a ton.

Also for the record I still think it was really cool that I was able to help you out from here, Dave :)

NPB Card Guy said...

Deanna - thank you once again for your help. Despite actually working in it, I sometimes forget what an amazing thing technology is

Ryan G said...

I think Deanna went the smart route. I didn't phrase things quite right - getting autographs from players at the field seems to be pretty tough. Access to good autograph spots is limited to ticket holders in the areas (and sometimes only in that section). Meiji Jingu has been the easiest stadium to explore and probably would be the best place to get an autograph or photo. (And due to general laziness and exhaustion I'm just now catching up on comments for the past three months, sorry.)