Susan Hamaker, a JFR reader who writes the Shrinecastle blog, graciously contributed this account of eating at Japanese baseball stadiums. Hot dogs and pretzels? Oh, so much more! Read Susan's terrific story below. Thanks so much for sharing it with us, Susan! (And your photo, too.)
Every trip I take to Japan is a culinary experience, and my most recent one was no exception. From curry rice in Tokyo to takoyaki and okonomiyaki in Hiroshima, each city offered its own style and flavor. Oh, did I mention that I found these dishes at Japanese baseball stadiums?
I spent the first week of September with a group of twenty-five American baseball fans as part of a tour run by JapanBall. Each year the Seattle area-based JapanBall creators, Bob Bavasi and Mayumi Smith, guide an assemblage of folks from all walks of life through Japan to experience the Japanese version of our American pastime. As a result, tour members receive a healthy dose of Japanese culture, especially Japanese food culture. We saw five baseball games in four different cities: Tokyo, Kobe, Hiroshima, and Tokorozawa. As we crisscrossed the nation jumping from bullet train to hotel to baseball stadium, eating at the ballparks became a necessity. That was fine with me because I love all kinds of Japanese food, whether it comes from an upscale restaurant's finest entrees or a yatai serving ramen noodles on a busy city street.
The first stop on our tour was Tokyo Dome to see the Yomiuri Giants host the Yakult Swallows. A beer garden and restaurants serving fare ranging from burgers to ramen to Italian cuisine surround the dome. I prefer grabbing my food inside the stadium rather than in a bordering restaurant, so that evening I enjoyed edamame and yakitori while I observed other fans eating steaming bowls of udon at their seats. We also saw a game at the other baseball stadium in Tokyo, Meiji Jingu Stadium. Built in 1926, Meiji Jingu Stadium is located on the grounds of a revered Shinto shrine and is Tokyo's oldest professional ballpark still in use. You're allowed to bring your own food and drinks into the stadium - unprecedented in any country - but why would you want to do that? I loved the food there despite reading online declarations that Jingu Stadium has the worst variety. I devoured both curry rice and an omu-rice bento - all in the name of research, of course - while other fans chowed down on gyoza and yakisoba.
The carnival atmosphere surrounding the outer grounds of the Seibu Dome in Tokorazawa, Saitama, brought to mind funnel cakes and corn on a stick. Instead I saw a mural advertising KFC and a truck serving native Okinawan dishes. Seibu Dome is home of the Seibu Lions, a powerhouse team from the 1980s and '90s and, most recently, the 2008 Japan Series champions. The Lions improved concession stands and installed picnic tables behind first and third base after receiving a windfall of money - $51.1 million - when the Boston Red Sox purchased the rights to Seibu's star pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka, in 2007.
My favorite stadium in Japan is without a doubt Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium, the brand new home of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. For variety in food and friendliness in atmosphere, this place can't be topped. Perhaps I fell for the new ballpark flair, but the food sealed the deal. A popular item on the menu was the local specialty in Hiroshima, okonomiyaki. I also indulged in takoyaki, one of my favorite Japanese snacks.
My most disappointing experience was at Skymark Stadium in Kobe, the part-time home of the Orix Buffaloes. The stadium itself was fine, and it offered a large selection of food choices. But I couldn't find my food choice: Kobe beef. Ah, yes, that succulent, black Tajima-ushi meat from the Wagyu breed of cattle that once cultivated rice is now allegedly pampered with beer and massages to produce the world's finest - and priciest - meat. From the moment I discovered the tour would take in a game in Kobe, I craved the tender, fatty, marbled goodness that is Kobe beef, and I made it my mission to satisfy this craving. After passing tables set up with popcorn and shrimp-flavored chips, rack after rack of bento boxes, and, strangely enough, a crepe stand, I finally found a counter advertising Kobe beef croquettes. Jackpot! Alas, the heavenly meat fried in whatever croquettes are fried in was sold out. I could have looked for the Italian stand to purchase the Japanese interpretation of pizza or Panini, or I could have humored myself with a curious, foot-long chicken stick. I could've eaten a regular dog, a curry dog, and a cheese dog, but my when-in-Rome policy of eating only local foods wouldn't let me. Crestfallen over the sold-out status of my Kobe beef, I bought the first thing I saw when I walked away from the Kobe beef croquette counter: I settled for karaage (delicious) and French fried potatoes (not so much, and definitely not local).
Good food needs to be washed down with good beverages, and there's plenty of that in Japanese ballparks. Beer girls with kegs strapped to their backs roam the stands, and vendors mix liquor drinks such as shochu right at fans' seats. Watching the process is almost as much fun as drinking the beer.
In my second year on this baseball tour, I have seen 11 of the 13 stadiums in Japan and eaten almost everything they have to offer. Despite the sadness of not fulfilling my quest for Kobe beef, I thoroughly enjoyed eating my way through these ballparks. Although new MLB parks such as Yankee Stadium and Citi Field in New York lean toward high-end, gourmet offerings from celebrity chefs, I'll take the concessions in Japan any day. Such basic staples as bento boxes and yakitori are fixtures at all parks, yet each park celebrates the specialty of its region. It may seem exotic to the average American baseball fan, but this food is delicious, down-and-dirty Japanese junk food. It may not be as sophisticated as Harris's nabe pots and soy sauce-marinated tuna, but these ballpark treats will provide enough sustenance to get anyone through a dizzying week of travel and baseball.