Beyond Sapporo Dome

I had heard that an International Friendly match between Japan and South Korea was going to be played at the Sapporo Dome in August. As a soccer enthusiast, and fan of both national teams as well, I was pretty damn excited at the prospect of actually attending and watching the match in person. Yusuke dashed my hopes though, telling me the match was immensely popular and while he was going to try to buy tickets the moment they went on sale, the odds of being successful were very low. As expected, he wasn’t able to get tickets.

Sometime later, when hanging out with my fellow ALTs, Rebecca mentioned that a teacher in her school was able to get some tickets and she was actually going to the game. My reaction to the news was a little intense, as I did poor job of curtailing my shock and jealousy. Luckily, no one seemed offended. Rebecca was surprised that I was so interested in the match, and very generously offered to contact her teacher friend to see if he had another free ticket. Apparently he was able to buy a whole block of seats! Embarrassed from my outburst, I told her not to go to any trouble, but I admitted that I wouldn’t pass up a chance to attend. A couple days later, Rebecca texted to say that there was indeed a ticket for me and I just needed to bring 7500 yen to pay for it on game day. It was on like Donkey Kong!

Sapporo Dome is a truly massive sports structure. On the outside, it looks like gigantic blob of mercury, a big organic shape with a clean metallic look. Inside, its spacious interior contains not only the playfield, but also several shops and food vendors. What makes the dome especially interesting is that it is convertible to accommodate both soccer and baseball games. Baseball games are played on an artificial turf surface, and soccer is played on a grass pitch. Before a soccer match, the grass pitch is mechanically slid in and the baseball turf slid out. While there are other sports complexes that make this conversion, it seems that the Sapporo Dome is unique in that does it with a fixed roof structure.

The dome’s normal role is as the home to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters baseball team and the Consadole Sapporo football club. I’ve discovered some interesting things about the names of both of these teams. First, I had thought that Nippon Ham was a strange name for a baseball team, and as it turns out, the name actually comes from the meat packing company that owns the team. In Japan, the baseball teams’ names usually include the name of the company that owns them, and this has been a tradition since the beginning of the league. Other examples include the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks (SoftBank telecommunications), the Yomiuri Giants (Yomiuri media conglomerate), and the Hanshin Tigers (Hanshin Electric Railway Co). The owner of the Hokkaido’s beloved “Fighters” baseball team is Nippon Ham, hence the funny-sounding name. It has only been in the last few years that baseball teams have started adding locations to their names.

Consadole Sapporo was named by utilizing an even stranger idea. The name originates from the Japanese word “dosanko” (道産子 – どさんこ), a term used for people from Hokkaido. When the football club moved to Sapporo, they decided to use this word, but with its syllables in reverse; “ko-n-sa-do”. This already was a strange enough name to use, but they opted to include an extra twist, adding the Spanish ‘Ole!’ to the end. The result was the cryptic and slightly ridiculous “Consadole”, which they use to this day. It’s too bad, I think “Dosanko FC” would have sounded so much better…

On Wednesday, August 10th, I took the Toho subway line southeast, all the way down to its last stop, Fukuzumi Station (福住駅). Just outside of the station, one could easily see the silver blob of the Sapporo Dome, glimmering in the distance. I met up with Rebecca at the station and we waited there for her teacher friend who was supplying the tickets. Once he appeared, the three of us ventured on to the dome.

The Sapporo Dome was extremely crowded inside, packed with people for the popular Japan/Korea match. Just walking through the hallways was an exercise in patience and the sheer body heat of everyone around me made these areas uncomfortably warm. As we entered the main playfield space of the dome, I was impressed by the colossal size of the building; it looked even bigger on the inside. The number seats seemed comparable to what I was used to—the recently renamed “Century Link Field” in Seattle, where the Sounders play—but the fact that the dome had everything contained under one roof was pretty spectacular.

We arrived around 3:30 in the afternoon, which seemed fairly early in the day to having a big game. Once inside, I discovered that there were actually two games to be played! The main event wouldn’t start until around 7:30, but first there was an Under-21 match to be played: U-21 Japan vs. U-21 Egypt. The bonus game was a very pleasant surprise.

During halftime of the first match, I bought myself a Japan jersey from one of the many vendors inside the dome. I opted to buy the cheaper version, instead of the nicer quality, 7000 yen variety. All the jerseys I could find had players’ names and numbers on them, so I picked up a Nagatomo jersey, since he was the Japan player I was most familiar with. (Unfortunately, Nagatomo wasn’t playing that day, due to a dislocated shoulder.)

In between the two games, we ventured into the fray of bodies again, trying to cross the phalanx to retrieve some food. There were plenty of choices; ramen, bento, sushi, Mos Burger, McDonalds, KFC, Subway, but each one had a dauntingly massive line. Eventually we decide that the bento line was probably moving the fastest, and also was most likely the healthiest option, so we stuck in out there. As predicted, the line moved very fast; customers only had to select their option and hand over the cash, and they immediate received a premade box of delicious Japanese food. On the way back to our seats, I also stopped to buy a drink. I couldn’t decide between getting a beer or a juice-box of green tea (both Kirin products), so I bought one of each. This proved most satisfactory.

The friendly between Japan and Korea was part of series of international matches called the “Kirin Challenge Cup 2011”, and clearly, the Kirin Brewery Company was the major sponsor of the event. There were at least two raven mascots present, the raven being the symbol of Japan’s National Team. (Actually, it appears that Japan’s soccer emblem and uniform are based on France’s team, just replacing the cock with a crow.) There was also a white blob mascot, who looked like a cross between a kodama (木霊 – tree spirit) from My Neighbor Totoro and the Michelin Man, but I never did figure out was that was all about.

The atmosphere in the dome was really excellent for soccer. The Japan supporters cheered loudly and constantly, with songs being led by one the diehard group at the far end of the pitch. It reminded me of the Emerald City Supporters in Seattle that energetically lead songs and cheering from the south end of the stadium. This group had essentially the same feel, complete with drums and giant flags. When the squads walked out onto the pitch, the diehard group produced a giant Japan flag and jersey, and dropped banner letters spelling out “KING OF ASIA”. While I thought that the banner displayed borderline offensive insensitivity given the historical context between the two nations, I still admired the fans’ enthusiasm.

The National Anthem of Japan sang by Futoshi (太志) of the rock/pop band Aqua Timez—of which I’m not familiar—and the game was under way. One of the main cheer songs sung by the Japan supporters used the melody from Scott Joplin piano rag, “The Entertainer.” Unfortunately for Korea, Japan dominated the whole match. Considering how well both teams had been doing in international play recently, I expected a pretty good match, but Korea never seemed to step up. In the end, Japan won easily, three to nil. Despite the lackluster game, the experience was fantastic.

Not moving.

Upon exiting the stadium, Rebecca and I discovered that Sapporo Dome’s crowded hallways were nothing compared to the bottleneck of its exits. Getting stuck in traffic while driving is incredibly frustrating, but getting similarly stuck on foot was a new experience. The mass of bodies, all crammed together, moved forward a few steps, and then stopped for perhaps a minute, then forward a bit more, then stopped again. It went like this the whole way out of the building, only opening up out on the street. Thus it took us about an hour just to make it to the subway station. The scene was an agoraphobic’s worst nightmare.

Saturday August 20, 2011, I was back at the Sapporo Dome, this time for a Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters baseball game. There was a group of Shakotan folks bussing in for the game and Yamazaki-san invited me to come along. Since I had plans to be in Sapporo the night before for a party, I opted to just meet everyone at the dome. Completely by chance, I ran into one of the Shakotan guys on the subway heading there, and he led me to the rest of the group.

Along with my ticket, I had been given a Fighters tote bag that included a keychain/cell phone charm, a lanyard, and inflatable noisemaking cheer sticks. Not bad for only 500 yen. The Nippon Ham Fighters have a J-Pop theme song which I could hear from just outside. It’s quite an upbeat, catchy tune, and it quickly got stuck in my head.

Beer: This is how it’s done.

The Shakotan group had a block of seats, apparently three rows worth, behind first base. Inside of the dome looked smaller this time, both the baseball field and the stands seemed to be on a slightly smaller scale than they did at the soccer match. As it turns out, Sapporo Dome has a seating capacity of 67,400 in football mode, but the capacity for baseball games is only 55,000.

My Shakotan friends were very generous with me, and someone returned from the concession stand with a cola and snacks for me. I can’t remember the last time I actually drank pop, but this was a gift, so I humbly accepted and drank it. It was surprisingly good. I also saw many folks drinking beer and iced tea, much like what I had bought at the Japan/Korea match. The food available was your usual ballpark fare; hotdogs, warm pretzels, chirros, etc. The warm pretzel I was given was different than what I expected. It had no salt on it and contained some kind of sweet filling, jelly doughnut-style. More sweet than savory, it was fantastic.

While I’m not really a baseball fan, the atmosphere at the Fighters game was exuberant; great fun to be there with the Shakotan folks. The crowd constantly sang cheer songs, and the fans were always on the same page with each other. Whenever the Fighters were up at bat, the hitter’s name would be worked into the chant. This kind of collective, super-fan behavior is quite common in Japan, and it can make even the most boring sporting events more entertaining. With my friends teaching me songs, I completely forgot how disinterested in baseball I normally am.

As the game was getting into the last inning, the Shakotan group collectively made our exit. The Fighters were up 2-0, so the game wasn’t exactly in the bag, but having seen the nightmare of Sapporo Dome’s exits clogged with bodies, I thought this was a wise move. My good friend Harima Makoto-san hadn’t been able to take the group bus, and had driven his car (a Mercedes, no less) to Sapporo. In his endless generosity, he offered to drive me to dinner in Teine (手稲) and back to my car in Nakajima Koen (中島公園), just so that I wouldn’t miss out. I seriously owe him one.

Dinner was at a “Viking” (バイキング) restaurant, meaning that it was an all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink smorgasbord. Being an American, I have seen my fair share of all-you-can-eat buffets, but Japan’s “Viking” style is, far and away, the craziest conglomeration of food that I have ever seen.

First off, the restaurant was a yakiniku place, with grills installed in every table. There was a buffet of raw meat and vegetables, basically all the things that might want to barbeque. That alone makes for a big meal, but there was more! There were several buffets, each with a variety of options; sushi items, noodle dishes (like spaghetti and yakisoba), fried stuff (like fried chicken and spring rolls), a full salad bar, a huge variety of fruit, a soup bar (complete with white rice, fried rice, and curry). And obviously there was also unlimited beer, soda, iced tea (of many kinds), even a coffee drink machine.

And then there were the desserts. They had a variety of ice cream in tubs, as well as a soft-serve ice cream machine. There was a bunch of cakes (chocolate, cheese cake, etc), cream puffs (and other pastry stuff), and more traditionally Japanese mochi (糯) and anko (あんこ) desserts. What blew my mind was that they had a crepe station! But the kicker had to be the cotton candy (綿菓子 – わたがし) machine. Just grab a stick, sweep it around the bowl, and you had yourself a sugary treat. A gluttonously good time was had by all.

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1 Comment

Filed under Sapporo

One response to “Beyond Sapporo Dome

  1. Mike

    Seriousy, it’s almost as if Japan is trying to be us in some kind of world diabetes tournament or something.

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