The Nippon Ham Fighters were formed in 1948 and spent 55 years in Tokyo, where they were always a distant second in popularity to the Yomiuri Giants. Fighters games often saw the Tokyo Dome nearly empty and the team could never win anything, save a Nippon Series in 1962. The club was widely ridiculed and the corporate owners realized that their brand might be suffering as a result.
Fortunately, there was a savior. In 2001, the Sapporo Dome was built as one of the many stadiums that would be used in the 2002 World Cup. Based in the biggest city on the northern island of Hokkaido, it wanted a pro baseball team for the 2003 season, when it needed to fill up all those summer nights.
Having had enough of being second fiddle in the capital, Nippon Ham were more than receptive to the proposal and decided to move the Fighters up north, re-branding the club in the process. The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters were born to overjoyed northerners who could finally call a ball team as their own. The players responded in turn, winning the Nippon Series in 2006 and making it back again as Pacific League champions in 2007 and 2009.
The move to Hokkaido was unquestionably the best thing to happen to this club; the question now is how does the Sapporo Dome measure up against the Fighters’ former digs in Tokyo?
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Once you enter through your assigned gate, you will find yourself on the main concourse (1F), which is spacious and very clean. Most of the concessions are located here, although there are a few on the second floor as well. My recommendation is the Prince Hotel stand which had a good variety of smaller snacks that looked better than the KFC or Subway next to it. The fried chicken with black vinegar sauce was very nice, although it won't come close to filling you up. As usual in Japan, it pays to walk around and check all the different options as there are about 20 different vendors each with multiple locations and each offering something unique. For example, one had a cucumber on a stick for those trying to stay healthy, while another boasted a very appetizing Hokkaido Steak Donburi. The Luna Creperie on the second floor seemed like a popular choice if you had a sweet tooth.
There is a hot dog stand on the third floor behind center field but I had a look and the product was not tempting in the least. Stay on the first floor and you will be fine.
One difference here is that you are not allowed to bring outside food in, so there are no vendors along the streets as you see in most other stadiums in Japan. I initially thought this to be a bad choice, but after sampling the reasonably priced fare inside, I can say it won't make a difference.
Beer is served continuously by vendors running up and down the aisles, and at 600 yen is somewhat cheaper here than elsewhere.
If you want to sit down at a restaurant, Sports Stadium Sapporo is a full-service restaurant offering passable Hokkaido fare at reasonable prices. It also has a lot of memorabilia from international players that have visited and dozens of TV screens.
This is a cavernous place, the second largest dome in the country (behind only the Fukuoka Dome) and it was perhaps 35% filled at the most recent game I attended. As such, the atmosphere really suffered, there were your usual cheering sections, but they struggled to make much of a difference. There is a dance squad that performed a couple of times, including the Fighters' traditional YMCA dance during the 5th inning break, but they couldn't really get things going.
The Fighters have an interesting balloon operation running here. Fans are given both blue and gold balloons. The blue ones are released in the 7th inning as is tradition, while the gold ones are saved for when the team wins. With a 3-1 lead, I saw many fans inflating their balloons, which I thought was a bit of a jinx move, but the Fighters prevailed. After the win there were a few fireworks as well, which sent fans home with some semblance of having had fun, but overall this place needs to be full to be exciting.
The dome is located about 10 minutes on foot south of Fukuzumi Station on the Toho subway line, which is itself about 15 minutes from downtown Sapporo. There were a couple of izakayas and a family restaurant on the way, but in reality this is one area you will be leaving immediately after the game.
You'll likely head to Susukino, Sapporo's night-life district with plenty of bars and clubs here to keep you busy. Hosui-Susukino is the nearest station and it is only five stops away from Fukuzumi. There is a small café near here called Hippies that offers a "dinch" menu after 5 pm. It is a quiet place that might make a good place to start before heading out on the town. Two bars of note are Rad Brothers, which caters to the foreign crowd although its reputation is that a spot for said crowd to meet the locals; and Locotonte, which has an all-you-can-drink night on Friday for just 2,000 yen.
I expected more than just 15,000 to make it out to an early-season game, particularly with the lower priced tickets for this one, but looking at past seasons, it seems like the visiting Buffaloes are not a big draw, particular on a cold weekday evening. Still, those that did make it were particularly annoying, at least in my immediate vicinity. There were three women sitting two rows in front who kept chatting and moving around, blocking my view, the parents with their terribly agitated child who couldn't sit still and kept kicking me, the dork with the tripod at the end of the row who forced people to climb over seats, and the old guy who came in the 5th inning and sat next to me before proceeding to suck on a toothpick for the rest of the evening. Finally, there was the know-it-all a few rows back whose taunts to the home players got increasingly loud and obnoxious as the game and his beer consumption went on.
It's unfair to punish the entirety of Fighters' fandom (of which I am one from their days in Tokyo) due to a few bad apples, but I'm doing it anyway. They need more fans to go and actually watch the game!
Walking from the station is easy enough; you have to go over a bridge to cross the final street at which point you walk up some stairs and find yourself at the entrance to the North Gate. There are three gates in total, with the West and South Gates also open. Ticket windows, the fan club area, and the aforementioned Sports Stadium Sapporo restaurant are all inside the North Gate, which is open to the elements when you are waiting in line. The South Gate is also outdoors, but has nothing else of note.
On the other hand, the West Gate is completely covered, so it makes sense to wait here if the doors to the stadium have yet to open, which they do 90 minutes before game time. Given that Sapporo can still be cold in April, they should really open gates 2 hours prior.
This stadium is rare in Japan in that you can walk the entire way around without losing view of the field, but still you need to show your ticket before entering your particular aisle. Rows are numbered from field level to the top, with 76 being the highest. It is a long hike to the top so you better be in reasonable shape if that's where you like to sit.
The second floor (2F) is where you enter the seating area, which is marked by 118 aisles starting from centerfield and going clockwise. Some of these aisles are only accessible by bridges which provide a view of the main concourse below.
After the game, there is a rush back to the subway station, but I found that it moved well and the train wasn't that crowded. There are also shuttle buses to various other locations in the area, so if you are not staying downtown, you might want to check these out.
When you first lay eyes on the Sapporo Dome, you are likely to think that the city has been invaded by aliens. It is a large, silver, beetle-shaped structure with what appears to be a protruding nose (that's the observation deck, which is not open during the game). Based atop a small hill, it is quite the arresting sight.
After entering, I was heartened to see that there was no protective netting running down the lines. I hate obstructed views at sporting events and every other ballpark I've been to in Japan has some sort of screen that usually extends past the bases. I was sitting midway between home and first just 3 rows from the field and had an unobstructed view of the game. The only problem here is that this section is very moderately sloped, so my view was often blocked. The rest of the seating is very steep and you don't have to worry about that sort of thing.
The Fighters have three game categories and I was fortunate to see a Value Game with my SS seat only costing 3,500 yen. The same seat would have been 5,000 yen for a Regular game and 6,500 for Platinum, which is a bit much in my mind.
My recommendation would be to stick with the SS category for the cheapest games, but try the A seats (or even C) for the other types. I never saw anyone checking tickets once you were inside the seating area, so it is possible you can sit where you want once the game has started, at least when it is so empty.
The field seats are the most expensive but well down the line and protected by a screen and therefore should be avoided. Another seating area that is not for most is the "Cinderella seats," which are the small pink section in some of the photos in the gallery. These are for women only, the catch being that they buy two seats for just slightly more than the price of one, the second seat to be used for their oversized bag.
The scoreboard is average at best, and doesn't have the typical layout that you see at other parks. It's all electronic and rather cramped.
With food and drink being reasonably priced and the Fighters being a competitive and likable team, as well as the great access here, the ROI gets 4 points.
The West Gate has a number of interesting displays on the history of the Dome, including memorabilia from the 2002 World Cup, the Fighters and Consadole teams over the years, other sporting events that have been held there and even concert performers. Definitely stop by to take a look before you go in, because it is not accessible once you have entered the venue proper.
If you bring gym clothes, you can work out at the Training Room, a full gym that costs only 500 yen per entry and is at one end of the West Gate.
There is also a third floor above center field where the Kids Plaza is located. Anyone can walk up and take a look out, it is an impressive venue from this angle.
The observatory is 53 meters above field level and is mildly interesting, but it is not open during the game. You can visit it during off-days or before noon if there is a night game, but at 500 yen, it is a bit much, especially as it costs about 500 yen in train fare to get there and back. If you are a stadium collector though, I recommend that you take the combination tour/observatory package for 1,200 yen (the tour alone is 1,000 yen), at least if you can understand Japanese. You get taken around the venue and can see the locker rooms and bullpen which is not visible from the seating area.
The Sapporo Dome is a unique venue in Japan as it can host both baseball and soccer on two different surfaces. Baseball games are played on artificial turf, while soccer uses a grass pitch that slides into and out of the stadium. This in itself is not unknown elsewhere; the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale also features a sliding surface.
The conversion process takes about 8 hours from baseball to soccer and 13 hours in reverse, when the entire baseball turn must be re-laid. It is a technological marvel to watch this process in fast forward. After the baseball field is removed piece-by-piece and stored, the seats at one end fold into themselves as part of a moving wall. This wall is eventually opened and the soccer stage, which is the pitch resting on air, is slowly moved inside. Then the entire lower bowl is rotated 90 degrees to complete the switch. Due to the elimination of field level seats, the dome has a capacity of only 40,476 for baseball games compared to 41,484 for soccer.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely you will see this process live, but the tour shows the 8-hour process in a 3- minute video.
There are so many good things about the Sapporo Dome that I'd have to say it is the best domed stadium I have seen. That's not damning with faint praise as you might think, this place really should be visited by any fan. The lack of fans and my poor luck in choosing a seating section will hurt the score here, but this place is really brilliantly designed and makes Sapporo a great sports destination.
**Follow all of Sean MacDonald's journeys at Sports Road Trips.
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