The Giants are the oldest, most successful baseball team in Japanese history, owned by a media conglomerate with one of the most powerful newspapers in the world. But that’s not worth a bag of salted edamame if you want to enjoy a baseball game on a warm summer evening, since you’ll be stuck inside the inflated trash bag that is the Tokyo Dome, where the Giants play. Instead, you could catch a game at Meiji Jingu Stadium, home to the Swallows, with a sliver of the Shinjuku skyline over the left field wall. The Tokyo Dome is stale and damp and massive enough to dilute the action. Jingu is old and cramped, but you can take in a breath of fresh air before you call out for the beer girl lugging a tiny keg on her back.
The right field reserved seats (1,900 yen, or about $20 U.S.) sit in front of the hardiest Swallows fans. The non-stop cheering, syncopated noisemaking, and drunken trumpet bleating when the home team is batting make you wonder what the hell kind of game we’re watching in the U.S. Join the fun by buying a tiny umbrella at the stadium. You’ll see. Fans break into “Tokyo Ondo,” a lovely festival song, for every run scored and the seventh inning stretch. It’s a song full of nostalgia, but the rowdier version starts off with a chant telling Yomiuri to go @#$% themselves, sometimes even if Yomiuri isn’t the opponent. Beautiful, traditional culture. Also, keep an eye out in right field for the giant ad for Toughman, an energy drink with an elderly mascot that wears what appears to be a giant, golden-testicle-shaped helmet.
If the Yomiuri Giants are the New York Yankees of Japan, then the humble, fermented-milk-sponsored Swallows have to be the Mets. Yet the Swallows are pretty decent these days. U.S. export Lastings Milledge is in his second year at Yakult, stepping in after Norichika Aoki joined the Milwaukee Brewers, and second baseman Hiroyasu Tanaka is nicknamed Beavis, so that’s got to be good for something.
Backpack-lugged draft options include Sapporo, Asahi Super Dry, and Kirin Ichiban, but for 750 yen, you might as well stick with Premium Yebisu All Malt Beer, the beer with enough confidence to dress its staff in red baseball uniforms. As for stadium food, the assorted wiener pile with spicy mustard is a popular option, and so are the yakitori. The grilled whole squid behind center field is tender. Did we mention the women with beer keg backpacks? But the more popular option is to bring your own food and – let this one sink in, America – to bring your own beer. The approach to the stadium from the closest train station (Gaienmae on the Ginza line) is lined with stands selling fried chicken and edamame. Once you get to the stadium, attendants confiscate your beer…so they can pour it in a cup for you.
The quality of play in Japan? These guys are among the best in the world. Some are headed to the U.S., but others are content playing out their days in front of fans that aren’t going to throw batteries at them. The downside: There are far too many bunts. It’s hard to accept the no-out, man-on-first bunt that dominates Japanese strategy, but it’s hard to stay mad when the trumpets light up with a quick-tempo march and the announcer shouts, “Fine play!” Please remember your tiny umbrella.
More information: Tickets can be purchased easily at Jingu stadium on game day, but games will occasionally sell out if the Giants or Hanshin Tigers are playing. Tickets can also be purchased in advance at most of the big convenience store chains (7-11, Lawson, Family Mart); the ticket machines are in Japanese, but the store staff may be able to help.