Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Top 5 Japanese Sporting Events

So, in honour of zero_zero_one, who played his first game of football the other day, today's Japan Top 5 is all about sport. I should say, first of all, that I'm probably the exact opposite of my co-blogger, in that I love literally every sport you could name, and can quite happily sit all day watching or listening to whatever game happens to be on TV or the radio, especially if beer is also near at hand. Nothing can beat the live event, though, and Japan is a brilliant place to watch live sport; one of the things the country is less well known for is its rabid sporting enthusiasm - even if the Japanese remain charmingly incompetent at anything other than Judo and Sumo.

1. Yakult Swallows vs. Hanshin Tigers at Jingu Stadium.

Baseball is Japan's real national sport, and whenever I go to a baseball game in Japan I always think that it's a shame the Japanese didn't invent it. Not that the sport isn't a great American insitution and everything, but imagine it with lively brass bands playing military-style marches instead of the old organ, and flag-waving, and yakitori, and cute college girls serving beer, and fireworks, and everyone in the stadium standing up at the end of the 7th inning and blowing up balloons which they simultaneously let off to fly up into the night sky...

It has to be at Jingu stadium, too. Tokyo Dome is bigger, but the atmosphere is stilted - like Old Trafford; full of rich people 'slumming it' and keeping the real fans out. Jingu is old school - roofless, smelling faintly of beer, sweltering hot in the middle of summer so that the concrete itself seems to start sweating...and when Hanshin, the Osaka team come to town, it gets even hotter.

Yakult Fans

2. The Natsu Basho at the Kokugikan.

Sport in Japan can't be mentioned without reference to Sumo. There are a lot of misconceptions about Sumo in the West; read about it in a guidebook to Japan and you'll get the impression that it's very arcane, mysterious and even semi-religious. Actually it's none of those things. Although there is a ritualistic build-up to each bout, it has no greater mystical significance than two wrestlers trash-talking each other before a WWE fight - it's all mean stares and wrinkled upper lips and chest-pounding before the fun begins. Then there is less than a minute of frantic, explosive power and energy - those guys look fat, but underneath they're built like Evander Holyfield - before one of them is thrown into the front row of the audience and the other struts back to his position to recieve a fat envelope full of cash.

Recently sumo has become dominated by Mongolians and Eastern Europeans (Russians, Georgian, Bulgarians and Czechs so far) so you get to see some fantastic grudge matches as the native, smaller Japanese guys try to take on the foreign invaders. It has all the intrigue and soap opera of WWE, and best of all, it's actually real.

Sumo Wrestlers

3. A J-League Game

Compared to watching football in England, seeing it in Japan takes a bit of getting used to. For starters, they really are bad at it. Games are of such shockingly poor quality that if you approach them as an English football fan you'll spend most of the time with your head clasped firmly in your hands, muttering and cursing. The trick is to be Japanese about it: jump up and down, sing songs, wave flags, drink too much, and forget you know what the rules are or that people aren't supposed to take a shot on whenever they get within 30 yards of the goalmouth regardless of position.

Crap Football Players

4. The Hakone Ekiden.

The Japanese love enduring hardship. Everybody knows that. So the marathon has a special place in the national psyche. An Ekiden is a race where a team of six runners each run a marathon one after the other in relay, covering hundreds of kilometers over several days, so it gets the Japanese going like nothing else. Most popular is the Hakone Ekiden, which starts in Tokyo on New Years Day and finishes in Hakone, the popular resort town to the Southwest. All the way the roads are lined with spectators, like the Tour de France, and there are bitter rivalries between the university teams who take part.

5. The Winter Olympics

Okay, so you can't always watch the winter olympics live in Japan. But watching it on TV is a most entertaining experience, because the commentators have such grossly overinflated expectations of how many medals Japan is going to win. At the last olympiad in Turin it was predicted that Japan would win some ten or more gold medals and a whole host of silver and bronzes; in fact for the first ten days or so they didn't win a single one. In each event, be it snowboarding, skiing or curling, Japanese athletes would get themselves ready and the commentators would ask each other for predictions and say things like "You have to expect gold or silver here," only for their dreams to be crushed seconds later in a tumble of snow and ice. One of my old work mates was massively into snowboarding and every day of the olympics' duration he would come into the office muttering "Just one medal, Dave - I at least expected one medal!" before I could even start with the jibes. He always looked so depressed it felt cruel to rub it in. I did, though.

Eventually they did get a gold. In women's ice skating.


mattiecore said...

Man, I would kill to see a baseball game in Japan....

noisms said...

It's a great experience. I watched some American baseball games on TV in Japan (they get Yankees and Mariners games there because of Matsui and Ichiro) and the atmosphere is quite different. Baseball in America seems to be like how cricket is here in the UK; you go with friends and family, drink and eat and have a conversation, and generally relax. In Japan it's like a party, or a festival. Music, dancing, singing. It's fantastic. And cheap too.

mattiecore said...

I wish baseball games were more of a party in America. When I go to ball games, I'm the only one of my friends that actually gets excited