Thursday, October 06, 2011

Kobe, Japan

Some of our friends had flown to Japan to watch the Red Sox a few years back, and while they were here they also managed to watch a Japanese baseball game, too.  After hearing about their experience, D and I decided that next time we went to Japan we'd try to do the same.  It took some work (buying the tickets requires an address in Japan, so we had to get my uncle in Tokyo to buy them, and the game we wanted sold out instantly, so he had to scalp them), but we ended up with very nice tickets to see the Yoimuri Giants play the Hanshin Tigers at Koshien Stadium, near Kobe.

Despite living in Tokyo, my uncle has a clinic in Kobe that he visits once a week, so he's quite familiar with the area.  He suggested that he meet up with us there to show us around a bit, and we quickly agreed,  So, the day after the wedding we took the JR West train from Kyoto to Kobe, where we dropped off our bags at the Crowne Plaza Ana Kobe (right above the Shin-Kobe station) and then met my uncle for lunch.

He took us to a pretty traditional-looking Japanese place right next to his office.  He said that he basically ate there every time he was in Kobe, which was once a week.  The food was reasonably priced (about $15 USD per person) and pretty good.

From lunch we took a train to Koshien, which took about 20 minutes on the express. The stadium was right outside the train station, and we couldn't have missed it because there were tons of fans wearing Hanshin Tigers gear streaming towards it. Luckily our friend's mother had given us lots of Hanshin Tigers-branded goodies (including jerseys, noisemakers, and fans) so we could at least try to fit in. My uncle had also recommended that we buy balloons for the 7th inning stretch, and after scouring a few stands, we managed to find some.

It was really hot in the sun, so for the first hour or so I kept looking for cloud cover. There were tons of girls in pink outfits selling beer, drinks, and snacks, and they would prowl up and down the sections calling out whatever they had. They were even wearing knee pads to make it easier for them to kneel and transact with customers.

Overall the crowd was polite and well-behaved, but very enthusiastic. There were complicated chants and songs, which were different for each player. I tried to pick up the clapping part since I didn't understand the spoken chants, but even that was too complicated for me. It even seemed that only the fans rooting for the batting side would make any noise, and the fans rooting for the pitching side would sit quietly, waiting for their turn.

D was psyched about the variety of tasty snacks; we saw takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and lots of other fried goodies. We didn't want to eat too much since we had dinner plans, but in the end we did buy some some sweet potatoes, chicken karaage, and fresh potato chips.

We noticed a few other small differences: the seats were lower and thus more comfortable for me, they didn't sing the national anthem before the game, and no one walked around during at-bats, ever. Each team had two foreign players, who were among the better players on the teams. Generally the outfield play seemed a little suspect, and the home run totals were quite low (looking at the player statistics), but my uncle explained later that they had recently switched from the old lighter Japanese ball to the American ball, so batters were having some trouble adjusting this year.

Anyway, basically everyone was watching the game at almost every moment, until the top of the 7th, when everyone started blowing up their balloons. I almost felt bad for the players since no one was paying any attention to them at that point. As soon as we got to the seventh inning stretch, there was some kind of cue (which I missed) and we all released our balloons into the air at once.
It was quite a sight! We stayed until the bottom of the 8th, when the Tigers were up 9-4, and decided that we'd have to go if we wanted to make our dinner reservation. It was good that we did as the train was quite crowded already.

We met my uncle back in Kobe and he took us to a Kobe beef teppanyaki restaurant called Teishin Chikusan. We ordered a set menu which came with a beef appetizer (I chose roast beef, D had seared beef), a salad, and then lots of types of Kobe beef (sirloin, thigh, fatty sirloin, filet, and one other), served with veggies (purple yam, lotus root, mushroom, pepper, garlic) on the side. My favorite was this sirloin.
We were given ponzu and soy sauce for dipping, with wasabi and fine-grained sea salt. I preferred the salt as I found the wasabi a little overwhelming but D liked it. Other sides included pickled lettuce and cucumber, miso soup, and garlic Kobe beef fried rice. For dessert we had salty milk sorbet, with tea. It was quite salty (more than Bi-Rite salted caramel) but I liked it.

We stayed overnight at the ANA Crowne Plaza Kobe, which was very nice and conveniently located right above the Shin-Kobe train/subway stop. I think they mixed D up with another person of the same name, because somehow we got Priority Club treatment, and a room on the 32nd floor requiring key access in the elevator. It had a great view.

The next morning, we had breakfast at the famous Kobe Kitano Hotel, as recommended by my uncle. We'd thought it would be a Japanese-style breakfast, but upon arrival we quickly discovered it was French-style, but very fancy.

We started with five types of juice: mango, carrot, berry, green apple, and grapefruit:
In quick succession, we were served a giant basket of breads, with fruits, prunes, yogurt, tapioca and coconut milk, and assorted homemade butters and jams.
Later we were served roast ham, soft boiled eggs, coffee and tea. They provided an interesting contraption to take the tops off of the eggs; there was a domed part which sat on top of the egg, and then a metal ball which was attached on a stick. The metal ball was designed to drop onto the dome, and the impact would crack the egg around the bottom of the dome. We had to drop the ball four or five times to fully crack through the egg, but it worked pretty nicely.

After breakfast we just walked around the Kitano and Sannomiya areas and then headed to the Kansai Airport. To get there, we took the Port Liner monorail from Sannomiya to the Kobe Airport, and then took the Bay Shuttle from Kobe Airport to Kansai Airport. Ironically, the monorail had better views than the boat.

It took quite awhile for us to finally get to the airport, as the ferry only runs once an hour, but we did get there in time and even managed to buy some souvenirs for our relatives before flying back to Taipei.

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