Few cultural experiences rival attending a sporting event when it comes to getting a true glimpse of life as a local. Passion, tradition, food, drink, and unique athletic feats combine for a well-rounded, fun social gathering that can be great, even when the game is not. And Japan came through big-time in this regard.
I attended three big professional sporting events here: soccer, baseball, and sumo. Without a doubt, the first two were some of the most raucous I attended on A Great Journey, while the third was the epitome of strength, balance, tradition, and ritual. All three were enriching and recommended cultural outings. And all required patience, as they happened to be packed, sold-out events in a country where ticket scalping just isn’t a thing.
Here’s a look at professional soccer, baseball, and sumo in Japan and how to see them.
I’d seen soccer in Japan before; my first overseas trip was to the Land of the Rising Sun, where I saw Mexico vs. Croatia and Argentina vs Nigeria at the 2002 World Cup. But, those games were nothing like the sold-out, impressively passionate Urawa Reds vs Kashima Antlers game I saw at Saitama Stadium on the outskirts of Tokyo.
I knew it was sold-out, but I made my way to Saitama Stadium anyway. After 20 minutes, I lucked out with a seller outside the train station entrance. 500 yen over face value was a win, and the seats in the upper level weren’t bad at all.
The crowd was fantastic, the soccer was pretty good, and the supermarket sushi from the Aeon Mall nearby was money well spent.
Plus, I learned about a shockingly fantastic Japanese stadium policy: you can BYOB. They even give you the cups and cup holders!
What?! Amazing. Especially as I was closing out A Great Journey and my bank account was in a sad state.
As a result, it was my favorite sporting event in Asia, besides…
I’ve been to Yankees-Red Sox. An MLB All-Star Game. Astros, Mariners, Pirates (awesome stadium), Dodgers, and Padres home games. And a bunch of MiLB games.
I’m no baseball connoisseur by any means, but as far as excitement, atmosphere, and an overall excellent fan experience, the NPB game I went to blew all the others away.
The national sport of Japan, locals love their teams and vociferously support them. And they don’t resell their tickets. I learned this the hard way, after striking out at the sold-out Hanshin Tigers game in Kobe. It was insane. No matter how much I smiled or butchered “ichi chiketto kudasai,” no luck. But if you plan ahead, you can get likely get them from their official English site. I just like keeping things flexible.
I left the revered Koshien Stadium, built in 1924, around the 3rd inning, empty-handed. In disbelief, and truly intrigued by the organized cheers escaping the stadium, I was hellbent on going to a damn game. I later abused my pricey Japan Rail Pass and bounced from Tokyo to Hiroshima, just to go.
It was one of the best decisions of the trip.
On a nice, warm afternoon, Tokyo’s very popular/hated Yomiuri Giants – the Yankees of Japanese baseball – faced off against the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. At the fantastically-named, on-brand, Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium. Bravo, marketing/sponsorship people!
I arrived extra early and ran into an American dude who was about to take an entire Costco pizza into the stadium. I inquired about his ticket source, but no luck there, as they were corporate seats. Yet, it was a win because:
- it reminded me of how awesome the outside food & beverage policy is in Japan.
- it meant there was a Costco nearby. As a former Seattleite, it warmed my heart. And made me wonder what kinda of food they had.
Off I went in search of a ticket about 90 minutes before the game. But not before grabbing lunch and chatting with some LDS missionaries at Costco.
Money in hand, big backpack in tow, standing at a strategic junction between the stadium and the train station, and smiling at the red and white throngs heading to the stadium, I struggled for a bit.
But then, an older couple peeled from the pack and curiously approached me. We didn’t understand each other’s words, but after some quizzical looks, some pointing and smiling, I scored my ticket. At face value. It was a wonderful feeling and there weren’t enough arigato gozaimasus to go around from this gaijin.
I went back to the train station with a smile on my face, walking against the current of Carp fans, to find a locker for my backpack. After a long, fruitless search of nothing but sold out lockers, I eventually found a luggage storage kiosk. Whew.
I soon made it into the game with a couple beers I bought en route. Play ball!
Packed to the gills and loud, the fans were very clean and incredible respectful. There was no trash anywhere; everyone took their trash to the bins and put stuff in the right receptacle.
The local fans were great supporters, banging their tiny little bats in unison, accompanied by stadium-wide cheers. The official supporters groups were in the outfield; left for the away team, right for the home team. And just like in soccer, they had a capo/leader, whistles, drums, trumpets, flags. It was surreal.
Yet, when the opposing team went to bat, supporters respectfully went quiet to allow their counterparts to be heard. It was so very Japanese.
And the seventh inning stretch kicked ass. No Take Me Out or God Bless America, the latter of which is like nails on a chalkboard anytime I hear it at a game.
Instead, everyone inflates long balloons, they do a cool cheer (which, of course, I didn’t understand), and then simultaneously release them. The couple who sold me the ticket even gave me a balloon just before the 7th, so I partake. Really, really cool.
A true slice of Japanese life, I would go back to a baseball game there in heartbeat. Especially if this hilarious little kid’s around. He knew every chant and was non-stop most of the game.
I delayed my departure from Japan by a few days because it would mean an opportunity to check out a Sumo wrestling tournament in Tokyo.
Of course, it was also sold-out in advance, too. But I had a plan, and so did the organizers of the tournament. At 8 am each morning during the two-week tourney, they put 350 (or so) same-day, last-row tickets on sale at the Ryōgoku Kokugikan box office.
After a nice, long walk from the Wise Owl Hostel (excellent spot), I barely made it in time to grab a ticket. Some people left disappointed after not making the cut, so get there early to avoid that.
A sport with lots of history, sumo was full of tradition and ritual, and well-dressed people in the expensive seats (or mats) below. The nice couple beside me shared one of the radios so I’d be able to listen to some analysis in English.
And it was exciting whenever two huge dudes (including champion Yokozunas) were shoving each other.
But these battles last all of 10 seconds. Then it’s a long, long bout of inaction.
Certainly, I did not understand the nuances or meaning of the slow rituals taking place between wrestling matches, so that’s on me. But it really did drag out quite a bit.
Nonetheless, it was a very unique, worthwhile cultural experience I’m glad I checked out. Would I do it again? Probably not unless I had a better seats and an understanding of the pomp and circumstance between bouts. And maybe some company to fill in the gaps with conversation.
Japan surprised in many ways, and their sporting culture was one of the reasons. There’s a ton to see/do/eat in Japan, but pro sports are a fantastic way to be completely immersed in the island’s culture and have a good time. Plus, it’s great value for the money. Truly, one of the best things one can do in Japan and highly-recommended.