We’re in a sea of chanting fans, all calling the name of 27-year-old Tetsuo Yamada as he steps up to the plate. Every player has their own chant that’s shouted during every single inning. The fans know them by heart, sing in unison and generate a cacophony of noise.
On one wet summer evening in Tokyo, we saw Yakult Swallows play local rivals, Yomiuri Giants, at their home ground. They’re based at the Meiji Jingu Stadium, which was built in 1926, making it the oldest stadium in the city. It’s open air, and despite the rain, the stadium was packed close to its full capacity of about 31,000.
Although baseball was only imported to Japan during the 1870s, it’s consistently named the nation’s favorite sport, and there’s no better place to experience that enthusiasm than at a Swallows home game.
At Meiji Jingu, the home fans sit apart from away supporters, in contrast to the MLB. It means both sides are loud, but welcoming. The most vocal of the home side sit in the “Swallows’ Nest,” the section of the stadium dedicated to cheering.
We spoke to Ryo Uchida, a Swallows superfan whose dedication to the team has led him to follow them around the country and buy 20 of their jerseys.
“Every American friend I bring here … it’s funny because the game is familiar to them. But this atmosphere is not,” he told us.
Even more extraordinary is the celebration when the Swallows score a run. The team anthem, “Tokyo Ondo,” is blasted out, and fans dance whilst waving around umbrellas. They also perform their signature move at the seventh innings, which they say is lucky.
The roots of this ritual is contested, according to Christopher Pellegrini, a Swallows fan, and co-founder of the Tokyo Swallows Podcast.
“There’s a couple theories of where that came from. One is that back in the day there were no fans here,” he said. “And some guy thought, ‘Hey, if we open these umbrellas it looks like there’s more people here.’
“And then there’s another theory that is maybe it’s telling the opposing pitcher to hit the showers.”
The atmosphere is boosted by cheerleaders, who bring lively dance routines and glittery pom poms. The troupe arrive alongside team mascots — playful swallows who each have different personalities.
On an interesting side note away from the game, one of the mascots named Tsubakuro made his debut as the lead actor in a TV crime drama this June.
The high energy atmosphere might make the Japanese baseball experience unique, but it is the unusual snacks and large quantities of beer on offer that take it to another level.
From takoyaki — balls of fried batter with octopus — to ramen, there are plenty of food options to choose from at Meiji Jingu. The Yomiuri Giants’ home ground, the Tokyo Dome, prides itself on its bento boxes and donburi, or rice bowls served with meat, fish or vegetables.
As for the libations, saleswomen carrying kegs of beer on their backs walk around the stadiums, are ready to serve up cold pints to spectators.
Tokyo is some distance from the World Series, but if you’re looking for a fresh twist on the sport, consider visiting a ballgame in Japan’s capital. It might just be the best in-game fan experience in the world.