We had the opportunity to see two of Japan’s top sports, sumo wrestling and major league baseball. One is home grown, the other an import from America as a result of the post-WWII occupation. One features absurdly large athletes who don’t need to move more than 3 meters in any one direction; the other has leaner athletes who need to run at least 90 feet in a sprint at a time and range over a large grass field. Both sports require excellent eye-hand coordination and catlike reflexes. We enjoyed both events immensely, and perhaps for different reasons.
I knew that a sumo tournament was going on in Tokyo during the month of May when we were in the city. Tournaments only take place only three times a year in Tokyo, but they last for weeks. The tournament was in its last days, and the Lonely Planet guide said tickets become hard to get and required showing up to the stadium quite early – 6 AM it said in the book. Watching a sumo match sounded cool, but not cool enough to get up and get to the stadium at that hour to buy tickets. (Only seeing giant blue fin tuna being cut up warrants getting up that early.) I put the idea of the sumo tournament on the back burner. Then, fate intervened. When we were at the Edo Tokyo museum there was a big sign in the ticket booth window, “No sumo tickets here.” I asked the ticket lady where could I buy sumo tickets and she pointed to the building next door. The Grand Sumo Ryogoku Kokugikan stadium was right next door! That was not in the LP guide, either. Before going in to the Edo Tokyo museum, we walked over to the sumo stadium to check on tickets. It was 10:30 AM. Tickets? No problem, the man told us. There were lots of tickets available. We bought nosebleed seats that were all-day passes, good from 10:30 AM until 8 PM. Elated that we were going to see sumo wrestling, we went on our visit of the Edo Tokyo museum. (Which, by the way, we got an English speaking docent who basically gave us a private tour of the museum.)
Because the opportunity to see sumo was so suddenly presented to us, we had not done any prior research on the sport. Gigi and I only knew some superficial things about sumo. The boys’ entire knowledge of sumo came from the Austin Powers movie Goldmember. Justin kept making references to Fat Bastard during the matches. We entered the stadium about 1:00 PM. We were up on the upper level, but the stands were quite empty and so we did not bother trying to find our seats; we just took seats on the first row overlooking the lower seats and the sumo ring. Sumo matches were taking place at a brisk clip. Two wrestlers were waiting on the sidelines during each match. The actual wrestling of each match was over in seconds. The ceremony and posturing by the wrestlers preceding each match took much longer and built up the expectations for the seismic collision that followed. Although we would not be able to tell the finer points of sumo, we clearly could see that a throw down or push out of the ring meant victory. We saw a few judge’s decisions of matches, one even required the match being done over. That one was our last match and one of the wrestlers was a westerner. The first matches we saw were Jonokuchi Makushita division. Around 2:30, there was a changeover to the Juryo Rikishi class of professional sumo wrestlers. We watched the ceremonial entrance where all the Juryo Rikishi wrestlers come in wearing aprons and stand in a circle in the ring. We did not see the top classes of wrestlers – the Makuuchi Rikishi and Yokozuna – as their matches did not occur until the early evening, and we had already spent over two hours in the stadium watching sumo. Perhaps we missed something spectacular, but with our limited knowledge of sumo, who knows if we would have been able to discern the difference between a Juryo and Makuuchi bout.
The boys were amazingly engaged in the event. They were betting 5 to 20 yen on each match. The loser of the previous match got to pick their choice for the next match. They identified their picks by either the color of the strings worn by the wrestler, or by giving them names, many of which were unflattering but accurately identified the wrestler – Sideburns, Western Guy, Moobs, Tiny, Mooby Dick, Potbelly, Wolverine, etc.
The next evening, we decided to attend a Yakult Swallows baseball game. They were playing an interleague game against the SoftBank Hawks. The Swallows are to the Yomiuri Giants what the Mets are to the Yankees – the ‘other’ Tokyo team loved by its local fan base, but overshadowed by a richer and more successful cross-town team. The difference is that the Swallows and Giants are in the same league. The Swallows are in last place in their league, which means usually that tickets are not a problem to buy. We took the subway that let us off on the far side of the National Stadium, and we had to walk around this stadium to get to Jingu Ballpark. There was no one around and that got me to wondering just how poorly attended this game would be. Well, we must have taken a route the regular fans avoided, because once inside the stadium, we saw that from first and third base around the outfield the stadium was sold out. We would never have guessed this from the outside, we did not find crowds until we were right at the stadium gates. We bought seats on the first base side just past first base and maybe 2/3 of the way up the stadium.
The ticket girl had asked us, “Swallow side or Hawks side?” “Swallow side!” I answered. I had no idea how important the question was. Of course, I was familiar with visitor sections for football and soccer games, and I did not want us to be crammed in with rabid travelling fans. We were not prepared with the fact that the stadium was split 50 – 50 from home plate right down the middle of center field. When we got inside, the Hawks were batting. The sea of green on the third base side was chanting and clapping and waving banners. Horns were blowing. Our side, the home side, sat quiet. This was how Japanese fans operated. The at-bat side got to make all the noise. When the Swallows were up, our side erupted into sustained chanting, horn blowing and banner waving. One of the big screen ads featured Orlando Bloom saying how much he liked “takoyaki” – octopus puffs – with a diet coke. I had to buy a Kirin beer from one of the neon green clad, ponytailed girls carrying small kegs on their backs up and down the stadium stairs. For the 7th inning stretch, little girl and teenage cheerleaders took to the field for a brief show. The best was when a Swallow hit a home run. Our whole section broke out in song and blossomed into a sea of mini umbrellas that bounced up and down. This was weird! Reading about this afterwards, the message is for the opposing pitcher to ‘head to the showers,’ and the ritual was described as ‘annoying.’ We thought it was brilliant! We got to see this one more time when a Swallow hit a 3 run homer and the ritual was repeated three times in a row. We finished off the evening with a Swallow victory, 4-3, which must have been very sweet for the home team fans as the Swallows have one of the worst records in Japanese baseball right now.
We were perhaps more entertained by watching the action in the stands than the action out on the field, but that does not mean that we did not see a good ballgame. There were not many strikeouts, and the pitchers mostly threw around 80 mph (130 Km/hr was a common radar gun reading, 150 Km/hr was probably the fastest pitch). We saw Japanese ‘small ball.’ Four bunts were attempted – two in the first two innings, but only one was successful. Three home runs were hit, all to deep center. The game got very tense for the home side when Swallows reliever almost blew his save, giving up a two run homer in the top of the 9th. He held on for the win, and the mini-umbrellas and the underage-not-ready-for-American-professional-sports cheerleaders came out onto the field. All the fans stayed for the end of the game, which was another big difference from American fans. Perhaps the 6 PM start/9 PM finish helps keep people from worrying about getting home too late, or maybe it is just not seen as polite to the players to leave early. They even take out all their trash from the stands when they leave and put it in trash bags at the exit gate.. How tidy and civilized!