Yokohama is famous for being the port where Matthew Perry (the admiral, not the actor) landed in 1854 in what turned out to be a successful attempt to open Japan to the world. A century and a half later, the most important American export continues to thrive here, as the Yokohama BayStars do battle in the Central League, one of two circuits that comprise Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB).
Before delving into the local stadium, a bit of background on Japanese baseball is warranted. There are some similarities to the structure of the American game such as having two leagues (6 teams in each, Pacific with the DH, Central without), interleague play, and three playoff rounds. But there are just as many differences: tie games are called after 12 innings, there is no minor league development system (each team has just one junior squad), and teams have at least one day off per week.
In comparing fans, you might find the most obvious contrasts. In Japan, fans segregate themselves, with the home team fans sitting on the first base side of the stadium while the visitors sit on the third base side. Each team has its own vocal cheering section, called "oendan", which occupies the unreserved outfield seating area, singing songs and cheering loudly while their team bats. Each player has his own cheer tune and you have to learn them to fit in. Most fans bring some sort of noise maker and even a boring game will be loud from the first pitch to the last.
There are countless other differences that are best left to be discovered when you pay a visit to a Japanese ballpark. And a good place to start would be none other than Yokohama Stadium.
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".
Perhaps the best thing about Japanese ballyards is that you can bring your own food and drink in. Even alcohol is allowed, as long as you empty the can into a cup upon entering. As such, when rating the food at a stadium, the outside offerings must be considered along with the concession stands inside. Yokohama Stadium has more than enough variety, particularly with an excellent selection of food items outside the stadium. A must-try is the Kachi Hosshey (Winning Star), a baked good shaped like a star with lemon icing that was very tasty. This was just one of many items in the Hometown Festival area, a large collection of food and souvenir stands on the north side of the ballpark, which is only set up during weekend and holiday games. Among the many options inside the stadium is Mikan Kori, which is shaved ice topped with mandarin oranges "" very refreshing on a humid afternoon. For those with less adventurous taste buds, there's a McDonalds in the first base concourse and a KFC along the third base side.
A good place to grab a bite while sitting down is the Victory Court restaurant inside the stadium. Located on the second level of the concourse behind home plate, this is a cafeteria style eatery where you grab a tray and place your order before carrying it to your seat. Menu items include recipes that are recommended by the players (I tried a beef bowl designed by pitcher Daisuke Miura which was rather unappetizing, hence the penalty point here) as well as your standard stadium fare such as hot dogs (known as the "Bay Dog" here). One clever promotion here is the Harper soda, a combination of I.W. Harper whiskey and soda water. Yokohama currently has Brett Harper on their squad and when he hits a homer, the Harper soda is half price for the rest of the game.
If you are in your seat, you may notice vendors walking by with large boxes. These are bento, which come with a variety of small snacks (sushi, chicken nuggets, vegetables are just a few examples) and rice. There are nine different types being paraded around the park, plus a few more available at the concession stands. These can act as complete meals and are reasonably priced. If you want to try something truly offbeat, there is the unagi sushi bento which is steamed eel smothered in a special sauce "" a real Japanese delicacy.
Finally, Yokohama is famous as the site of Japan's largest Chinatown, and you can pick up some prepackaged shumai and other Chinese delights that are quite tasty and make for perfect pre-game snacks.
In other words, when you come to Yokohama, come hungry.
The team doesn't draw very well. On the absolutely perfect Saturday afternoon I visited, there were only 17,502 in the 30,000-seat stadium. Due to ticket prices being quite high for the good seats, most people sit well down the lines, and with the majority of fans rooting for the home team, the first base side is crowded while the third base seats are relatively empty. I always find this disconcerting, and it adversely affects the atmosphere of the stadium in my opinion. It's not just Yokohama that suffers from this, but on the day I was there, I really didn't get a feeling that I was at a pro game.
That's not to say all is bad. There are nice views of the Landmark Tower, an iconic Yokohama building, beyond the left field fence and the staff here are helpful and friendly. If they could squeeze another few thousand people in here, it would greatly improve the overall experience.
Yokohama is one of Japan's best cities and has far more tourist attractions than Tokyo. Chief among them is Chinatown, which is just 400 meters from the stadium. Motomachi, where foreigners first settled, is close by and well worth a look. A few minutes more and you reach Yokohama Port, which includes the Akarenga, or Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse. Originally a customs house, it is a long, red brick building that houses a shopping mall, restaurants, and event facilities. If you want to enjoy the outdoors, try Yamashita Koen, a narrow park that borders the water and can be quite refreshing on a hot day. All of these attractions are within a mile of the ballpark and close to each other, so if you are taking in a night game, be sure to spend the afternoon here.
Closer to the stadium, there is Certe, a Japanese-style shopping mall. It's easily reached by a pedestrian bridge just outside the north exit of Kannai station and has two spots inside you might want to visit. The first is the BayStars' team shop, which is on the second floor and hard to miss as you enter the mall from the pedestrian bridge. Team shops here have far more variety than you will find back in the United States, and are great places for souvenirs, and not just of the baseball variety. For example, you can buy chopsticks that are made out of broken bats.
The second place that might be worth visiting is Yankees, a sports cafe located on the 6th floor of the building. Don't be fooled by the name, the friendly owners are unabashed BayStars' supporters and have a large TV for the live games, with recordings of past games (only Yokohama victories naturally) when the team isn't playing. The food offerings should appeal to the western palate and there's plenty of selection, as well as drinks for post-game parties.
Just a couple of blocks away from the stadium is BayStars Dori, a small street that contains a commemorative display honoring the team's 1998 Nippon Series title, the only one in the franchise's more than 30 years in Yokohama. There are hand prints from each player on team (Bobby Rose and Kazuhiro Sasaki are two names you might recognize) and an etching showing the squad throwing their manager in the air in the traditional Japanese celebration. Fans still flock here before the game to remember the good times.
I'll stop here, but could go on much longer. If you are coming to Japan, make sure to spend at least a full day in Yokohama, one of Japan's best-kept secrets.
Despite having the worst team in the Central League (CL), the fans here enjoy themselves. I went to a Saturday afternoon game and was amazed at how many families were there. I wish there were more of them though. The low attendance was disappointing and the cheering section wasn't that impressive. To their credit, they handed out the cheer songs for each player so you can participate with even rudimentary Japanese. It may have been the surprisingly hot weather or the fact that their team was shutout, but the fans were pretty quiet except for one promotion, a dance contest. After the 5th inning, the camera scans the crowd and the more outgoing fans dance up a storm, trying to win audience approval and tickets to a future game. This was the most energetic I'd seen them and gets them a bonus point.
In Japan, fans don't drive to baseball games, they take trains, so parking is not an issue. Yokohama Stadium has the best access of any stadium in the Kanto area, being just three minutes from Kannai station on the Negishi line. The Yokohama Subway also has a Kannai station just 5 minutes away, while the Minato Mirai line's Nihon Odori station is just 3 minutes north.
There are three ticket windows and each sells tickets for a specific area. If you want to sit on the first base side, use the box office next to gate 2, while visiting fans would use the one by gate 6 to get seats on the third base side. Those who prefer the noisier outfield must use the ticket window between gates 7 and 8. Just behind here is a quiet tree-covered park where you can relax before entering the ballpark, as well as the Hometown Festival mentioned previously.
Make sure to enter the gate printed on your ticket. Within the stadium, moving from one seating area to another is not allowed and tickets are checked upon entering the seating bowl, so you will be limited in your wanderings. In particular, you cannot move from the outfield seats to the infield or vice versa. This is common in Japanese stadiums though and doesn't affect the rating.
There is excellent wheelchair seating locations just a few rows from the field but still behind the protective netting. As an aside, Japanese ballparks generally use far too much netting, but Yokohama gets it right, with a full net behind the plate and then a triangle of netting to the dugouts that protects those down low but allows fans in the higher seats a clear view.
You can re-enter the stadium should you need to leave by getting a stamp on your hand. On the concourse near home plate, there's a small kids park for toddlers and their parents who can't sit through 3 hours of baseball. I saw several families relaxing here and it's a smart idea that should be taken up elsewhere. At each end of the concourse there is a small raised area reached by a staircase that offers benches in front of TVs. Many people escape the elements and watch a few innings here.
The main problem with access is the cramped concourse, particularly on the first base side with all the home fans. Restrooms were also limited and there were lines for the men's, so a point is docked for these two minor annoyances.
There is only one seating bowl here with nine seating options that are mostly described by letters. SS seats are the best, following by S, FA (field level A), FB, A and B; the other three options are unreserved infield and outfield seats and well as two sections of reserved seats in the outfield. The structure of the stadium is unique, with the field level seats being quite flat and facing second base rather than home plate, but the other seats in the infield rise very steeply and offer great views of the field and beyond.
Tickets here can be expensive, going as high as 6,500 yen ($80) for the SS seats, which are the dark blue box seats that come complete with drink holders. These seats provide an excellent visual contrast from the old and uncomfortable orange chairs that make up the rest of the seating bowl, but they are a bit much for a Japanese baseball game. The remaining seats range from 5,500 yen for the field level seats between home plate and the bases down to 1,800 yen for the unreserved outfield seats. The best value in my mind are the 3,500 yen B seats, which are the upper level between home and the bases. On a hot day, a breeze blows through that doesn't reach the lower parts of the bowl but keeps you refreshed if you are sitting up high.
The field is artificial turf, except for the areas around home plate and the bases, which are dirt. The infield area is colored brown but the underlying material is the same, so there are no funny bounces.
The scoreboard is rather old and has a simple video screen along with the linescore and lineups.
There are ads on fences that line the top of the seating bowl as well as on the fence, although this is typical in Japanese parks.
This is where Yokohama Stadium and the BayStars really excel. There are so many interesting features that you need to show up well before the game to explore the area. First Yokohama is the only team in the country that doesn't use a corporate name in their moniker. Other teams are known primarily by their owners, such as the Yomiuri Giants, who are run by a large newspaper conglomerate. Despite trying to change this perception by adding regional names (Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters or Tokyo Yakult Swallows), the business name usually dominates. Yokohama manages to avoid this trap and seem to have a more loyal, local following because of it.
Outside gate 3 is YY Park, a small area where the mascots and cheer girls congregate before the game. The dance team instructs fans on cheering and then puts on a 15-minute show to get fans ready.
When season ticket holders enter the stadium, they can try their luck on the Hero Photo lottery. A small bingo-like device dispenses a ball and if a special colored ball emerges, you are allowed to take a photo with the game hero afterwards. This only happens if Yokohama wins, so I wasn't able to see it.
Another unique extra is the lights, which are shaped like the letter Y, standing for Yokohama of course. I thought this was a brilliant touch.
The scoreboard has a cool app called Sta-Pri, which is short for Stadium Print, as in a photograph. If you are captured on the scoreboard, you are asked to pose and a picture is taken. You can pick up this picture later to keep as an excellent souvenir.
There are many other little touches that really make being a fan here special. The BayStars know how to create a fun environment for all types of fans and I hope that they can convince more locals to enjoy the unique experience of BayStars baseball.
This is the first review for a Japanese stadium and it can be difficult to communicate just how different the overall experience is here. I'd like to compare these venues to each other rather than to their counterparts in North America. Certainly most Japanese ballparks are lacking when compared to the newfangled stadiums that dot the MLB landscape, but when looking within Japan, there is no doubt that Yokohama Stadium is an excellent place to get acquainted with the game that arrived on these shores so long ago.
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