It’s often been said
that there’s nothing more American than baseball. But after attending a Hanshin Tigers game in Osaka, I
decided that a baseball game in
Japan is much more entertaining than one in the sport’s
For me, a day at the ballpark is about spending time outside,
enjoying the view, eating a few hot
dogs and probably drinking enough beer to keep myself reasonably entertained. It’s a day of idle chatter with intermittent moments of
fooling myself into believing that I have a chance of catching a foul ball; a
day where drunk hecklers only take a break from yelling to flag down the beer man for another over-priced brew.
In Japan, things could not
be more different.
Entering Hanshin Koshien Stadium, built in
1924, was like taking a trip back in time. With no jumbotron, padded
seats or luxury suites, it is one of those increasingly rare old-school stadiums
that – absent of unnecessary comforts – keeps the focus on the game.
The atmosphere resembled European football more than American baseball. People
stood and chanted in unison, blew horns and clanked mini bats against each
other the entire time their team was at bat, and respectfully let the opposing
fans do the same for their team. Almost
every aspect of the game at Koshien – down to the spectacle of thousands of deflating
balloons flying around the stadium during the seventh inning stretch – was
better than any other I had ever
hot dogs, fans dined
on sushi and takoyaki (octopus balls), and there was not a beer man to be found. Instead there were beer girls, or “biru
no uriko” – Japanese women in
bright pink baseball caps, t-shirts and skirts, utility belts full of plastic
cups and various other accoutrements, and, most importantly, a mini keg
strapped to their backs.
At US games, beer men come up with clever slogans, hoping to
catch the attention of thirsty fans. In
Australian seat mate turned that relationship around. “Ooh. Look at that bird! I like
her,” he would
yell. “Wait, wait! Hold it
right there, darlin’. Now smile for the camera. What a lovely smile you have.
That’s a good girl!”
I’m fairly certain that
by the end of the game, despite drinking a relatively modest amount of beer, he
had taken a picture of nearly every biru no uriko in the stadium.
I couldn’t help but
think that these girls were
subjected to similar behaviour on a nightly basis, all while in stifling heat
with roughly 15kg of beer strapped to their backs. Even in their bright pink
uniforms, the biru no uriko make US beer men, with the 24-or-so beers they
carry, seem like wimps.
have a lot of money on hand (in
Japan, it is infuriatingly difficult for foreigners to withdraw money and the
stadium only accepted one type of Japanese credit card), so I had a difficult
decision to make. I could either spend my 600 yen on the primary ballpark beer,
Asahi Super Dry – a crisp, refreshing, but relatively flavourless beer – or I
could feast on a delicious order of takoyaki.
It was too hard to
justify sacrificing what would have been my first meal that day for a pretty
much substance-less beer. I won’t lie, I don’t mind Asahi Super Dry – but only in
the following circumstances: with sushi, when too full for a substantial beer
or when sitting in the sweltering heat of late July, which this happened to be.
But while it’s one of Japan’s top-selling beers, it is by no means a great brew,
and has even been credited by some for leading the way in the declining
standards of Japanese beer drinkers, who seem to increasingly go for
refreshing-yet-flavourless suds over German-style lagers, such as Kirin and
Sapporo, which were once all that was available.
A faltering economy and
rising prices are also to blame for this movement towards the dull. In 1994, happoshu, a low-malt beer containing
less than 67% malt, was created as a cheaper alternative, because Japan taxes
beer on malt content rather than alcohol content. When the government adjusted
taxes, making happoshu more expensive, the big breweries counted on people’s
love of alcohol trumping their discerning palates, and beer companies fought
back by creating beer with even less malt. This reached its apex in 2004 with
the birth of a new category of beer-like beverages: daisan no biru (third beer). This maltless liquid resembles beer in
the same way that vegan shrimp imitates a real crustacean. It contains similar
amounts of alcohol, but replaces malt with ingredients like pea and soy
protein, and is making up an increasingly large portion of the Japanese beer
market. Today, many of the big breweries offer happoshu and third beer
alternatives to their regular beers, such as Kirin 1000 or Sapporo Creamy White.
Thankfully, when big
brewers were starting to make happoshu in 1994, the government also changed legislation
to open previously closed doors for microbreweries. Serious drinkers have been
enjoying a surge of excellent craft brews – such as those coming
from Kiuchi Brewery in the
city of Naka for the last few years. But
Japan’s best beers are generally not available outside of the country, and even
in Japan they’re expensive and can be difficult to find.
So unless I missed a
renegade beer man in some dusty corner of the stadium slinging bottles of Baird Beer (a brewery in Numazu, Shizuoka
that specialises in unfiltered, keg-and-bottle conditioned beers), there were
no microbrews to be found at Koshien. What was available was Ichiban’s Shibori
Frozen Draft, an ill-advised gimmicky combination that pairs perfectly decent
Ichiban beer (as far as mass-produced Japanese beer goes) with frozen-beer
foam, which resembles frozen yogurt in appearance but has a consistency closer
to the top of a bubble bath.
The idea behind this
frozen foam, created by mixing beer and air, and cooling it to -5C, is that it
will keep your beer cold from start to finish – a problem that doesn’t exists
if you drink at a normal pace. It’s a “problem" others have tried to fix
before: Coors Light invented wide-mouth
cans so we could drink our beer faster, and designed the even more absurd
“cold-activated” beers, where the can’s colour-changing mountains revealed
whether the beer was cold or not, therefore saving us from the arduous process
of actually reaching out and touching the can.
As tempted as I was to enter into this drinking experiment,
I finally decided to go for the takoyaki. I will always be able to drink lousy
beer at baseball games – in fact, at many US stadiums it’s my only choice – but
would I have another chance to grab chopsticks and scarf down an order of squid
balls before the seventh-inning stretch? Besides, the energy of the crowd gave me
all the buzz I needed.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly translated takoyaki. This has been fixed.