Es Con Field Hokkaido - Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters
Photos by Sean MacDonald, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 4.29
Es Con Field Hokkaido F Village Kitahiroshima, Hokkaido, Japan 061-1116
Year Opened: 2023 Capacity: 35,000
Hamming It Up in Hokkaido
In 2016, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters began considering a new stadium as they wanted to leave the Sapporo Dome, a multipurpose facility that they shared with Consodale Sapporo of the J.League. Japanese ballparks are generally functional rather than aesthetically pleasing, but Fighters management wanted to change that.
They recognized the trend that combines sports venues with other forms of entertainment to increase attraction to those who are not necessarily sports fans. Most Japanese ballparks are functional rather than aesthetic, and they wanted to change that. They spent a lot of time looking at stadiums in the United States and employed HKS, an American architectural firm that designed Globe Life Field in Arlington.
Rather than remain in Sapporo, the Fighters found a large open space in nearby Kitahiroshima, where their vision could be fully realized. The result is more than a ballpark, with a new neighborhood being constructed around it. Es-Con, a local developer, bought the naming rights, and the result is Es Con Field Hokkaido, simply the best ballpark in Japan. It opened in 2023, and Stadium Journey paid a visit in the summer, coming away more than a little awestruck.
Food & Beverage 5
The most impressive aspect of Es Con Field is the variety of food and beverages. When you walk in, you will be handed a Gourmet Guide, which lists all of the options inside the stadium. Some boards show what is available in each section.
Unlike in North America, food is not overpriced at sporting events, so you can try a few things here without breaking your budget, particularly given the weakness in the Japanese yen (approximately 150 yen to a dollar at the time of writing).
It is impossible to list all of the options as there are 47 listed in the Gourmet Guide. If you have lived in Japan, you will recognize some of the vendors, such as Mos Burger and Mister Donut, but there are still dozens of concessions that are local to the area. Some less common foods are croquettes that start at 250 Yen, rice balls that start at 380 yen, and squid tempura for 480 yen. Giant yakitori sticks are just 490 yen, while five pieces of karaage (fried chicken) are 600 yen. That's about four bucks. Come hungry.
In addition to these typical concessions, several full-service restaurants are open to the public. Fans wait in line to sit down at these places, which are exactly like eateries in a city. The aroma of food wafting through the concourses is exciting, and you would need to spend several games here to try a few of these establishments.
One example is an okonomiyaki restaurant where customers sit at a counter that is right next to the concourse, while on the upper level, there is an izakaya that has a long line. Get there early if you want to try one of these unusual spots.
In terms of drinks, draft beer (known as nama) is available everywhere, including from young ladies who patrol the seating bowl and serve it to you out of a keg on their back. At 750 yen, it is far cheaper than beer at ballparks in America, and no tipping is required.
Behind the center field wall, there is a craft beer brewpub that had the biggest line of all, though some other concessions did have some craft offerings. You can also order sours (shochu mixed with a fruit drink such as lemon juice) and even whiskey and return highballs. Those not interested in alcohol have a typical choice of soft drinks such as oolong tea, ginger ale, and Calpis.
The only potential problem I saw was that the venue is cashless, a rarity in Japan. I was able to use my credit card, but if you have trouble with yours, you can convert cash to a value card that can be used.
You will first see the stadium as you pass by on the train from Chitose Airport. It looks like a massive airplane hangar and resembles US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. The signature feature is the 230-foot high glass window beneath a large, retractable roof that mimics certain types of houses in Hokkaido.
The roof was closed for the game I attended and is likely closed for most games during Japan's hot, humid summer. It is open when no games are being played as the field is natural turf (a rarity in Japan), and they need some natural light when there isn't a game. The roof weighs 10,000 tons and takes 25 minutes to open.
If you ride the shuttle bus from Kitahiroshima Station, you will be dropped off on the south side of the stadium, which is the first base gate. You can buy your ticket here, but before entering, walk around to see F Village, the neighborhood that is being built on the east side of the stadium. It features a running track, a playground, a dog park, some food shops, a miniature ball field, and even an adventure park that requires separate admission fees but looks to be quite a bit of fun. I recommend getting there at least 2 hours before the first pitch to see everything, or you can make a day of it.
Rather than returning to the first base gate, continue around to the third base entrance, and you will pass by the team's enormous flagship store. I went in briefly, but it was too crowded to do much shopping before the game; afterward, it was a bit more reasonable. Again, with the weak yen, prices are reasonable, especially for smaller items such as caps.
Once inside, you will quickly realize that this is not a typical Japanese ballpark. The asymmetric outfield is only the second in Japan, while there are four distinct levels of seating, with a capacity of 35,000. Seats are padded in some sections, and there are cup holders, essential for all the beers that you will be drinking. The seats behind the plate are inaccessible to those without a ticket, but they look to be very comfortable. Tickets for this section were not available at the box office, and the secondary market in Japan is not as liquid as elsewhere, so if you want to sit here, you will have to do some research.
A large electronic scoreboard is above the seating bowl at each corner, a change from most parks in the country, which have just one centerfield scoreboard. In addition, bullpens are visible here. The only pro ballpark in Japan to have this feature.
In the left field corner is Tower 11, so named because both Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani wore #11 when they played for the Fighters, and a mural of these two is nearby. There is a hotel here with rooms that overlook the stadium (much like Rogers Centre in Toronto), as well as a sauna that is open to the public and provides a view of the field. There is also a museum here that requires separate admission and is not related to baseball. Tower 11 is also open on non-game days.
Japanese baseball generally lacks the between-inning promotions that you see in the major leagues, but some mascots and cheerleaders appear from time to time.
The size of the stadium does limit the noise, and the oendan (cheering groups) are not in their typical outfield seats. The visiting oendan was below me; their cheering was somewhat muffled, while the Fighters supporters were high up on first base. It made things quieter than I am used to in Japanese ballparks.
The aforementioned F Village is the highlight; there is not much else in the area. There are a few restaurants, including a couple that serve yakitori and an izakaya at the Kitahiroshima Station. If you decide to walk to the stadium from here (about 20-25 minutes), you will pass a few more eateries and some convenience stores, where you can load up on snacks. Kitahiroshima is only about 20 minutes from Sapporo, so you are better off returning there for some post-game entertainment.
You will most likely be staying in Sapporo, which has many attractions of its own. It hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics, and the Clock Tower dates from that period. The Sapporo Beer Museum is free to tour and offers tastings at the end. The museum features beers that are not available outside of Hokkaido. There is also a sake museum, Japan’s signature liquor.
Hotels are plentiful, and if you are staying for a while, you might find small apartments available on Booking.com that allow you to have a kitchen, a washing machine, and more space than a typical Japanese hotel room.
In terms of restaurants, there are thousands to choose from, with the Nijo market area a seafood-lover's paradise. One change is that most restaurants in Japan are now non-smoking, which makes it much more pleasant when dining out.
Japanese baseball fans are a different breed, and the Fighters fans are some of the most passionate I have seen. At the game I attended, a crowd of 23,500 was on hand, far fewer than I had anticipated. Even the oendan was not as loud as I recalled, though I think the size of the stadium hurt the acoustics.
With the team struggling in last place in the Pacific League, maybe it wasn't surprised by the relatively poor turnout. Of course, those in attendance were polite and in good cheering form, as their team won easily, but I still have to dock a couple of points here. When the team returns to glory, I’ll revisit and update here.
As discussed, Es Con Field is in Kitahiroshima, just over 15 minutes from Sapporo on the Rapid Airport train (the slower Chitose Line is also an option). From the station, you can walk for 25 minutes or take a shuttle bus for 200 yen. Given how hot it is in Japan in the summer, the bus is a better option, and it drops you off in front of the first-base gate sponsored by Coca-Cola.
It is where you will pick up the bus after the game, but if you attend a nighter, then walking back is more pleasant once the sun has set. Note that buses are plentiful, and I did not have to wait even though I arrived about two hours before the first pitch.
Concourses are spacious, but some spots jam up as game time approaches. Some concessions have long lines, but others are quick. Restrooms and other facilities are as clean as you would expect in Japan. There are escalators to get you from level to level, as well as stairways. It is quite easy to get around, and you should not have any problem finding your seat as all sections are numbered clearly.
Return on Investment 5
I picked up my ticket at the box office at the Coca-Cola gate, which is a hard stub with a picture of the stadium. It is much more preferable to getting one at a local convenience store. I paid 4,600 Yen (about $31) and was happy with my seat on the second level, near an aisle, which is essential for getting the beer girls' attention.
With everything here so affordable and the overall experience one of the best in Japan, this is a great way to spend your money and get a lot in return.
There are so many additional features here that you need to take your time to appreciate everything. Outside the first base gate is a Hokkaido sign that provides a good photo opportunity. The Fighters have been around for a while, and their history is displayed on several panels on the lower concourse. They have won a few pennants, and those are hanging above this area.
In addition to the Tower 11 mural, other artworks can be found around the ballpark. The onsen and sauna are open to the public and are reasonably priced if you want to watch part of the game while soaking your muscles.
Another point for the ingenuity of including F Village, which should make the Fighters attractive to those who may not follow baseball otherwise. There is still work to be done, but when complete, Es Con Field Hokkaido will be a destination in itself.
Overall, Es Con Field is the best baseball stadium in Japan. However, it is not the best stadium experience, which I believe you can find in Koshien, home of the Hanshin Tigers. Still, there is so much to see and do here that you should make a day of it, arriving a few hours before the first pitch to wander around F Village and maximizing your time inside the stadium. Research the food options to have an idea of what to eat when you get there. Then, sit back and enjoy the action.