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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Trip to Kyūshū, Days 8 and 9 - It's three strikes you're out at the ol'野球 game! 九州の旅5月29日と30日

My last full day in Kyūshū 九州 got off on another early start - up at six, doughnuts and coffee in my ryokan 旅館 room and packed and checked out of the Nogami Honkan 野上本館 by seven. I had time to take a leisurely stroll along the waterfront before retrieving my bag and walking to Beppu Station 別府駅, where I caught an 8:01am local train on the JR Nippō Main Line 日豊本線 bound for Nakatsu 中津, the first leg on the long ride to Hakata Station 博多駅 in Fukuoka 福岡:

In this case, long = cheap. Seeing as I wasn't in any particular hurry, I decided to save some money by eschewing the Sonic ソニック limited express train. I arrived in Nakatsu at 9:20, where I proceeded to change to another Nippō Line local which departed at 9:37. This I rode until 10:45, when I got off at Nishi-Kokura 西小倉, and took a 10:55 Kagoshima Main Line 鹿児島本線 semi-express, which finally deposited me at Hakata exactly at 12:04pm. Famished after four hours on the train, I found a small eatery, pulled up to the counter, and ordered and devoured a bowl of katsudon カツ丼. Following lunch, I quickly located my accommodation, the Hakata Guran Suishō Hotel 博多グラン水晶ホテル, deposited my bag (it was still too early for checking in), and plunged into the busy streets of Fukuoka.

With a population of 1.5 million people, Fukuoka is Kyūshū's biggest city, the largest urban area west of Ōsaka 大阪 and the eight-largest metropolitan area in all of Japan. In fact, it was something of a shock seeing all the people walking about. For the past week I had been staying in smaller cities and towns, and even Kumamoto 熊本 now seemed quiet in comparison. Fukuoka ranked #16 in the 2009 listing of the world's most livable cities, and having spent a week there last year, I can attest to the fact that it would seem to be a good place to live and work. However, in terms of sightseeing, there isn't much to see and do in Fukuoka, and having "done it all" a year ago (so to speak), I was wondering what would be the best way to spend the rest of the day.

The answer, it turned out, was baseball, or "yakyū" 野球, which in this city meant the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks 福岡ソフトバンクホークス of the Pacific League パシフィック・リーグ. On this Saturday in late May, they were scheduled to play an interleague game 交流試合 against the Chūnichi Dragons 中日ドラゴンズ of the Central League セントラル・リーグ in an afternoon contest at Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome 福岡ドーム. The Hawks have a strong fan base throughout Kyūshū, and both they and the Dragons are perennial contenders in their respective leagues, so I assumed the game would be a sell-out. At the very least, however, I would have a good excuse to take a look in the team store outside the dome, so I took the subway to Tōjimmachi 唐人町, and followed the crowds to the stadium:

To my surprise (and delight), tickets were still available, and I came away from the box office ¥2800 ($30/NT980) poorer, but with a great seat along the first-base side of the field, where I quickly consumed a hot dog and a cup of beer, then got on with the business of watching the game:

For those of you who have never attended a professional baseball game in Japan, with its organized cheering sections 応援団, the following video might give an idea of the atmosphere:

In a Major League game, you have the seventh-inning stretch. In Japan, there is "Lucky 7":

As for the game itself, the Japan Times ジャパンタイムズ could summarize the results better than I ever could:

"At Fukuoka's Yahoo Dome, Tsuyoshi Wada 和田毅 struck out 10 and gave up one run over six innings and Nobuhiko Matsunaka 松中信彦 had a tie-breaking RBI single in the fourth as Fukuoka Softbank rallied past Chūnichi. Hitoshi Tamura 多村仁志 tied it at 1-all with his RBI double in the fourth followed by Matsunaka's base hit to left for a 2-1 lead. Katsuki Yamazaki 山崎勝己 led off the fifth with a homer off Chen Wei-yin (3-5) and Yūichi Honda 本多雄一 added an RBI triple in the eighth. Wada (7-3) scattered five hits, and walked two for his third straight win."

Yes, that was Taiwan's own Chen, aka 陳偉殷, in a complete-game losing effort.

The post-game celebration (on-field interviews and fireworks) was a little over-the-top for a late-spring game (there was still roughly four months to go until the start of the post-season), but the crowd was definitely in a good mood. Exiting the stadium and picking up a couple of goodies at the team shop, I opted to avoid the long lines at the bus stop by taking a long, roundabout walk to the Nishijin 西新 subway station, where I caught the Tube to Tenjin 天神, in the heart of Fukuoka's busy commercial district. After catching up on my email at the Fukuoka International Association's Rainbow Plaza レインボープラザ (Japan is a great place for travelers to stay connected while on the road, with many localities offering free Internet access), I took a long, leisurely walk back to my hotel near Hakata Station. Along the way, I stopped to take pictures of the former Prefectural Hall, built in 1910 (and under renovation when I walked by last year), and a pleasure boat cruising the Naka-gawa 那珂川. I also took my time wandering through Nakasu 中州, Fukuoka's semi-notorious entertainment district. I kept my camera in my pocket and let my eyes take everything in here, if you know what I mean (and besides, you can see videos I made last year walking through the district on my YouTube page:

After finally checking in to my hotel, I relaxed with a can of Orion Beer オリオンビール purchased from a station コンビニ, then went to bed early.

The next day (Sunday), I was up around six again in order to get ready for my flight back to Taiwan, scheduled to depart at 10:50 that morning. One great thing (among many) about Fukuoka is that its international airport 福岡空港 is only ten minutes from Hakata by subway, making it arguably the world's most accessible facility for airplanes. What this meant in practical terms was that I had time after breakfast to check out Sumiyoshi-jinja 住吉神社, and still have plenty of time to catch my flight without rushing. The Sumiyoshi-jinja in Fukuoka is the original of the Sumiyoshi Taisha shrines 住吉大社 , and in any event, was an appropriate way to say farewell to the country of Japan (the main shrine building is on the left; on the right are a pair of large 熊手, ceremonial bamboo rakes, propped up in a sub-shrine):

The flight back to Taiwan was quick and uneventful (just the way I like my airplane experiences to be!), and not wanting to face up just yet to the reality of being back in Taiwan, I decided not to take the highway bus to Fengyuan 豐原, but to ride in style on Taiwan's version of the Shinkansen 新幹線. Still in tourist mode, a high-speed train driver kindly took my picture at the Taichung HSR Station 高鐵台中站:

Once back at home, it was time to reconnect with the family, and to parcel out the souvenirs, including some mini-shōchū 焼酎 bottles for myself and a self-serving/ego-gratifying T-shirt for Amber:

In the end, what can I say? Kyūshū was fantastic, and I only wish I had more time to see other places there. These yearly visits to Japan provide me with not only the opportunity to escape Taiwan for a week at least, but to reconnect with a country and a society where I spent so many of the best years of my life, and which sadly, I truly failed to appreciate until after the fact. It isn't easy to explain (not to mention intensely personal as well), but going to Japan not only offers the chance to indulge my interests in the history and culture of the country, but provides an opportunity to find a sense of atonement and redemption for past errors in judgment, a chance to be a 山伏 in spirit, if not in body.

Or something like that. Whatever...Until next time, I say to Japan "じゃまた".

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