If you watch sports anime, you know the dream of high school athletes is to go to nationals, and of the myriad sports tournaments in Japan, none is more prestigious than Summer Koshien, the high school baseball championship. The tournament takes place in the beginning of August at Koshien Stadium (also home to the Hanshin Tigers) in the Kansai Region. As it turns out, the opening of the two week tournament coincided with the tail end of our Osaka vacation, so my husband and I got to attend the 99th Koshien!
Actually, we nearly didn’t get to go because of a typhoon. Typhoon #5 hit Kansai the night before Koshien’s scheduled start. So the tournament got pushed from Monday to Tuesday, and for a little while, it looked like it might get pushed to Wednesday, the day we had to return home. Fortunately, the rain let up early Tuesday morning, and we were able to join the crowds August 8 for Day 1 of Koshien.
As former marching band geeks, my husband and I have an appreciation for displays of pageantry, and given that Koshien is a venerable institution, we anticipated a certain amount of pomp and circumstance. We were not disappointed.
The opening ceremony began with a band (playing Sousa’s National Emblem!) marching in with a choir. Next came a series of flag bearers. The flag of Japan entered first, then the Koshien banner, followed by what I’m guessing were Japan’s prefectural flags.
Finally, the baseball teams paraded in. Each team was preceded by a girl carrying a sign indicating their prefecture. Next came a player bearing the team’s banner, and the remaining 17 players followed in rows of three. And they were marching. Like seriously high-stepping and swinging their arms. Teams varied in their level of coordination and the height to which they picked up their heels, but there was no mistaking their energy and excitement. And once all 49 teams were lined up on the field, they made a colorful, festive sight.
It rather reminded me of the Olympics. And like the Olympics, Koshien has its own anthem. After the raising of the Japanese flag, the choir and band led the tournament theme song as the Koshien flag went up.
Speeches followed. I couldn’t understand most of it, but I found it interesting that one speaker sprinkled his address with a bunch of English words. Then a representative player stepped to the mic to lead the sportsmanship oath. Again, I couldn’t understand a word, but the composed young man did a fine job as far as I could tell.
With that, the band played a recessional for all to exit, and it was time to play ball!
Confession: I am not a baseball fan. Most of the time I find baseball mind-blowingly boring. However, I figured Koshien would be different, and it was. Because it’s a high school competition, most players only have one chance to be in the tournament. Because a single loss puts a team out of the running, everyone’s bringing their A-game. And with representatives coming from every part of the country, their energy is palpable. These athletes are living a dream, and there’s nothing jaded about the excitement on their faces.
Of course, that excitement plus their youth brings a certain amount of unpredictability to the matches. In Game 1, Hasami (Nagasaki Prefecture) scored first with a single home run and maintained a lead in the latter half of the game, but eventually lost in a dramatic ninth inning play by opponent Hikone Higashi (Shiga Prefecture). In Game 2, Tochiku (Fukuoka Prefecture) was hitting balls like mad (total 13 hits) but only got four runs in. Plus, they kept making fielding errors, the kind that you wouldn’t see in a professional game, and ultimately lost to Saibi (Ehime Prefecture). Between errors and random home runs, I was pretty well entertained.
Fans, Bands, Traditions
Entertainment was also to be had in the stands. As previously mentioned, my husband and I were in a marching band so we find bands and cheer squads as interesting as the teams they root for. With Koshien being such a huge deal, we anticipated schools and families pulling out all the stops.
They did. Sections of the stadium are designated for the fans of the competing schools (more on that in “How to go to Koshien”). The size of each group varies (i.e. schools located closer to Koshien tended to have more fans present), but they definitely stood out in their identical colors and garb with matching clappers, towels, etc. Fans stood as one, sang as one, shouted as one, jumped as one (yes, one group was jumping). It was the first time I’d seen Japanese cheering, and I was impressed how well-coordinated they were.
Pep bands also varied in size and instrumentation. Saibi had a huge brass section and repertoire to match (they were constantly showing off their trumpets). In contrast, their opponent Tochiku had a band that hardly played at all. Most of Tochiku’s noise came from a massive bass drum and shouting directed by the cheer squad’s cue cards.
Watching the different expressions of school spirit was fun, even if I couldn’t understand cheers or recognize tunes. (We only recognized two: “Popeye the Sailor Man” and “Dr. Who.”) Stadium etiquette is different, too. In the States, bands play when there is a break in the action so as not to distract players. In Japan, the bands (and all the fans) make the most noise when their players are at bat. When their side retires, everyone sits and quiets down while their rivals’ supporters start yelling/playing/clapping, etc. And when a time out is called, everything stops.
We got to see this when lingering clouds from the typhoon dumped rain in the middle of Game 2, forcing a halt. Our college band would’ve taken the opportunity to entertain the crowds with our music. The Japanese bands didn’t play once during the break. In fact, some band players fled the stands.
In their defense, the downpour came down hard for a good ten minutes. The ground crew only had tarps for the pitcher’s mound and home plate so the dirt from the infield looked like it was melting into the grassy areas. By the time the rain stopped, the diamond was a sopping mess, and then watching the ground crew clean it up with towels and wheelbarrows of dirt provided a different form of entertainment.
But getting back to stadium etiquette … other interesting differences include the singing of each team’s anthem (couldn’t tell if it was the prefectural or school song) in the first inning, the raising of the winning team’s banner at the end of the game, and all the bowing. Teams bow to one another at the start and end of the game, and they bow to their fans before they exit the field.
One more thing they do before leaving: collect dirt. Players scrape dirt from the Koshien diamond into bags to take home. Kind of odd, but it is regarded the traditional keepsake for participants. At the very least, I didn’t see any spitting so it’s probably less disgusting than dirt from an American stadium.
How to go to Koshien
So if you’re thinking of going to Koshien, I would highly recommend it. If you’re already in the Kansai area, it’s affordable, and aside from infants (the weather is way too hot for babies), every demographic in the age spectrum was present. While middle-aged men were in the minority, I saw more dads with sons than I’d seen anywhere else in Japan. People were selling and buying beer in the stands at 7AM (the sake doesn’t come out till noon), but from what I could tell, no one was being an obnoxious drunk.
Getting to the Stadium
Take. The. Train. Unless you are in walking distance, the train is the way to go. Especially because the stadium parking lot is unavailable to the general public during the tournament.
Plus, Koshien Stadium is just two blocks away from Koshien Station. You can see the stadium from the station, and on game days, all you have to do is follow the crowd. You can get more information on exactly which trains to take from your particular location using hyperdia.com or Google maps (use the public transportation tab).
Koshien offers special box seats, but I’m just going to focus on the four types of general seating, which are shown in the diagram below.
Covered Section (shown in green)
This was the section we sat in. It is the most expensive, but ¥2000 (roughly $20 U.S.) isn’t bad for an entire day of baseball. In addition to getting a prime view, you also have shade, a significant benefit because the heat is no joke. Seriously. During opening ceremonies, one of the sign bearers passed out and had to be carried off. We were also spared having to flee our seats when the Game 2 downpour hit. Along with weather protection, you also get foul ball protection from a metal wire barrier.
Partly Covered Section (shown in blue)
¥1500 will get you here. The awning will shade you for a portion of the day, and only the upper seats will protect you from rain. Obviously, it’s a less centered view of the diamond, and you need to pay attention if there a hit because foul balls will come flying!
Cheering Squad Section (shown in pink)
There’s no shade in the ¥600 seats. HOWEVER, these are definitely the most energetic and rambunctious sections because this is where the cheer squads/pep bands sit.
Bleachers- FREE zone (shown in yellow)
They’re in the outfield, and there’s no shade, but you might get the chance to catch a home run!
No tickets are required for the free seats. It’s simply first come, first served. All other seats require a ticket. However, seats are not assigned. The tickets let you into your designated section for the day, and then you take whatever’s available in that section. So whether you are going for a free or ticketed seat, it behooves you to to go early (or send someone early to hog seats for your group).
As for purchasing tickets, advance purchases are available online a few weeks before the tournament, but this summer those sold out within a day (my Okinawan friend suspects scalpers were purchasing them).
Fortunately, they also sell tickets on the day of each game. As long as you’re willing to get up early, you shouldn’t have trouble getting a ticket. (Ticket sales began 7AM. We lined up at 6:30 AM.) Just go to the stadium and look for the guys carrying the end of the line signs. You know you’re in the right line if the price on the sign matches the cost of the ticket you want to purchase.
One nice (and surprising!) thing was we didn’t have to go through a metal detector to get in the stadium. And if you want to bring your own food or drink, that was okay too, as far as we could tell. So take advantage of that! Bring plenty of cold fluids along with your sunscreen, hat, cooling scarf, etc. because you will need it.
If you forget to bring food/drink, no big deal. They’ve plenty of food offerings at the stadium, and there isn’t a huge markup. (¥200 for a bottle of water, ¥600 for a squid skewer.)
So there you have it. Summer Koskien 2017 continues till the end of the week so those in Japan still have the opportunity to go. If my husband and I find ourselves in Kansai during a future August, we’d certainly go again.