Your Guide to Japanese Sports

The low-down on Japanese sports old and new - find out how to grab tickets to events and even get involved yourself.

Photo Credit: Krista & Robyn via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Krista & Robyn via Flickr cc

In the popular (western) imagination, Japan is a nation of sportspeople five times the weight of the average soccer player and flying karate kicks. Though true to an extent, be aware that Japan’s sporting landscape is an interesting blend of old and new, foreign and traditional, familiar and alien. The nation’s historical isolationism has given it sports found nowhere else, yet today, foreign influence is rampant. Keep reading for a run-down of the most popular sports in Japan today, including face-saving knowledge, information on how to get yourself to a sporting event and how to get involved yourself. 

Japanese Baseball: 

Photo Credit: Republic of Korea via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Republic of Korea via Flickr cc

Horace Wilson, an American teacher at Tokyo’s Kaisei Acadmey, introduced baseball to Japan in 1872 during the country’s Meiji period. Since, the sport has known no bounds of popularity, with only countries like the USA and Cuba matching the fanaticism of the Japanese.

In 1950, with baseball reaching ever greater levels of popularity, professional Japanese baseball divided in two: leaving a Central League of established teams and creating a new Pacific League. This divide remains in place today, together constituting Nippon Professional Baseball. At the end of the annual season, the champions from each league compete in the Japan Series – a seven-game showdown to decide who the ultimate champion of Japanese baseball will be.

Central League Teams:

Team Name: Japanese Name Location Stadium Name
Chunichi Dragons 中日ドラゴンズ
Chūnichi Doragonzu
Nagoya, Aichi Nagoya Dome
Hanshin Tigers  阪神タイガース
Hanshin Taigāsu
Nishinomiya, Hyogo Hanshin Koshien Stadium
Hiroshima Toyo Carp 広島東洋カープ
Hiroshima Tōyō Kāpu
Hiroshima, Hiroshima Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium
Tokyo Yakult Swallows ヤクルトスワローズ
Tōkyō Yakuruto Suwarōzu
Aoyama, Tokyo Meiji Jingu Stadium
Yokohama Baystars  横浜DeNAベイスターズ
Yokohama DeNA Beisutāzu
Yokohama, Kanagawa Yokohama Stadium
Yomiuri Giants  読売ジャイアンツ
Yomiuri Jaiantsu
Bunkyo, Tokyo  Tokyo Dome

Pacific League Teams: 

Team name Japanese Name Location Stadium
China Lotte Marines 千葉ロッテマリーンズ
Chiba Rotte Marīnzu
Chiba, Chiba QVC Marine Field
Fukuoka Softbank Hawks 福岡ソフトバンクホークス
Fukuoka Sofutobanku Hōkusu
Fukuoka, Fukuoka Fukuoka Yafuoku Stadium
Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters 北海道日本ハムファイターズ
Hokkaidō Nippon-Hamu Faitāzu
Sapporo, Hokkaido Sapporo Dome
Orix Buffaloes  オリックス・バファローズ
Orikkusu Bafarōzu
Osaka, Osaka Kyocera Dome Osaka
Saitama Seibu Lions 埼玉西武ライオンズ
Saitama Seibu Raionzu
Tokorozawa, Saitama Seibu Dome
Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles 東北楽天ゴールデンイーグルス
Tōhoku Rakuten Gōruden Īgurusu
Sendai, Miyagi  Kleenex Stadium Miyagi

Watching a Game in Japan:

Both Japanese professional leagues begin their seasons in March or early April and finish in October with the play-offs. If you’re in Japan during these months, there’s little more you could do to immerse yourself in modern Japan than attend a game. Japanese baseball crowds are noted for their theatrical flair, spurring their teams on through chants, choreographed dance routines and the extensive use of props (like umbrellas for spinning or balloons for DIY rockets).

Tickets for games vary in price. Tickets in the outfield can be purchased for as little as 1,500 yen, whilst infield tickets can fetch as much as 12,000 yen. It’s up to you which class of ticket you select, though note it is often in the cheaper seats where the best atmosphere can be felt. For tickets, follow these simple steps:

Step 1: Check out the season schedule to see when the team of your choice are playing. Go to JapanBall for the complete run-down in English. 

Step 2: Buy your tickets. This can be done on game day or online. For most games, barring rival-games or bank-holiday games, tickets are easily purchased on the day from the stadium. Simply turn up to the ground before the game begins and line-up at one of the many ticket counters (signs typically in English). Ticket counters have ticket prices displayed prominently so simply point to the type of ticket you would like if Japanese isn’t your strong suit. For online tickets, again, go to JapanBall, who can do the hard-work for you or try the official team website, though these are mostly in Japanese only.  

Step 3: Enjoy the game. Japanese stadiums allow attendees to bring in their own food and drink (including alcohol), though a range of refreshments will be on offer within the ground. 

Playing Baseball in Japan: 

Photo via Foursquare cc

Photo via Foursquare

In Japan and want to hone your baseball skills? You’re in luck. Batting cages are everywhere, especially in the major cities. Batting cages are populated by those with dreams of the big-time and fun-seekers alike, and with 24 hour opening hours, they are great places to hang-out with friends into the wee hours. The atmosphere in these places is typically laid-back, with coin-operated ball-machines and a laissez-faire attitude to health and safety. Don’t let this put you off however, there is a lot of fun to be had.  

Round1 in Osaka, Shinjuku Batting Center and Oslo Batting Center (both in Tokyo), are notable examples if you are in these cities. For other locations just follow the sounds of bat against ball and the glow of the floodlights.  

Japanese Soccer:

Photo Credit: Tsutomu Takasu via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Tsutomu Takasu via Flickr cc

The Japanese J-League, the only Asian soccer league to be awarded an A-Grade by the Asian Football Association, is arguably the most successful league in Asian club soccer. Launched in 1993 with ten clubs, the J-League now houses eighteen clubs, stretching the length of the nation. The rise of soccer in Japan has been meteoric, propelled in no small part by the success of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, which was shared between Japan and Korea, as well as the international prominence of players such as Shinji Kagawa, who has enjoyed stints at Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund, and Shinji Okazaki, who also spent time in Germany before playing a leading role in Leicester City’s remarkable title-winning squad of last season.

J-League Teams:

Team Name Location Stadium
Albirex Niigata Niigata City and Seiro, Niigata Big Swan Stadium
Kashima Antlers Ibaraki Prefecture Kashima Soccer Stadium
Omiya Ardija Saitama, Saitama NACK5 Stadium
Avispa Fukuoka  Fukuoka City, Fukuoka Level-5 Stadium
Shonan Bellmare  Shonan, Kanagawa Shonan Stadium Hiratsuka
Yokohama F. Marinos Yokohama and Yokosuka, Kanagawa Nissan Stadium
Kawasaki Frontale Kawasaki City, Kanagawa Todoroki Athletics Stadium 
Gamba Osaka Osaka Prefecture  Suita City Football Stadium
 Nagoya Grampus   Aichi Prefecture  Mizuho Athletic Stadium
 Jubilo Iwata  Iwata, Shizuoka  Yamaha Stadium
 Urawa Red Diamonds  Saitama, Saitama  Saitama Stadium 
 Kashiwa Reysol  Kashiwa, Chiba  Kashiwa Soccer Stadium
 Sagan Tosu  Tosu, Saga  Tosu Stadium
 Sanfrecce Hiroshima  Hiroshima, Hiroshima  Hiroshima Big Arch
 F. C. Tokyo  Tokyo  Ajinimoto Stadium
 Vegalta Sendai  Sendai, Miyagi  Yurtec Stadium
 Ventforet Kofu  Yamanashi Prefecture  Yamanashi Chuo Bank Stadium
 Vissel Kobe  Kobe, Hyogo  Misaki Park Stadium

Watching a Game in Japan:

Photo Credit: Ewan Munro via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Ewan Munro via Flickr cc

The J-League season usually runs from late February or Early March to November or December, with a mid-season break in the summer time. Though the league remains in its relative infancy, its popularity sees big crowds at every game, in stadiums that range in size from the gigantic (The Nissan Stadium in Yokohama having a capacity of 72,327) to the intimate (The Yamaha Stadium in Iwata holding just over 15,000). As with the more established baseball, soccer crowds are not shy in demonstrating their support and you’ll be sure to come away from a game having had your Japanese vocabulary expanded (how useful ‘offside’, ‘pass’ and ‘shoot’ are in everyday life is debatable). Follow these steps to bag yourself tickets:

Step 1: Decide on your new favourite Japanese soccer club and check the game schedule to find out when they’re playing. 

Step 2: Buy your tickets. If you’re outside of Japan and want to secure tickets ahead of time, JLeagueTickets can help you out, delivering your tickets to your door once you’re in the country, though a service charge will be added to the total cost. Also, some of the bigger clubs, including the Urawa Red Diamonds and F. C. Tokyo, run English language online ticket services through their official websites, so be sure to check if your club offers this service. Buying tickets on the day of the game is also a feasible option – do make sure you arrive at the ground early however. Ticket prices vary depending on club and seat type, though as a general rule tickets tend to begin at around 2,500 yen and climb up to around 6,000 yen for the premium seats. 

Step 3: Relax and enjoy the game. As with baseball, refreshments bought outside the stadium are often permitted yet plentiful options exist within the grounds themselves. 

Playing Soccer in Japan:

Though it may be difficult to find twenty-one friends willing to play a game of soccer with you as a tourist, there are options available for those who want to get playing. You could try Craigslist where 5-a-side teams in need of players often advertise, or alternatively, try your luck at a park on the weekend, where informal games are often found. 

Japanese Golf:

Photo Credit: yo & via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: yo & via Flickr cc

Golf is huge in Japan, something you are sure to notice even on a short visit. Golf shops, driving ranges and of course, courses, are everywhere. With Japan’s notoriously demanding work-culture, golf is seen as a welcome break from the grind of the working week for many enthusiasts – allowing one to escape the city for the day and unwind. Whilst there is no escaping the fact that the sport’s reputation for exclusivity and expense do still ring true, options for watching and playing alike do exist. 

Watching Golf in Japan:

The Japan Golf Tour is one of the world’s leading men’s professional tours and your best option for watching some live golf in Japan. Unfortunately, securing tickets to games ahead of time, especially from outside the country, is extremely difficult. If you’re desperate for a ticket, your best option is to contact the host golf-club directly. Check-out the tour schedule here to find out when and where games are happening.  

Playing Golf in Japan:

Photo Credit: MIKI Yoshihito via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: MIKI Yoshihito via Flickr cc

Hitting the links is an addiction for some, and the chance to try out new courses in foreign lands is for many people, top of their holiday priority list. If this sounds like you, keep reading. 

The first thing you need to know about playing golf in Japan is that it is in all day deal, not just a few hours out of your morning. Sprawling cities do not accommodate large golf-courses particularly well so most courses are located a good 1 or 2 hour drive outside of the city. Getting to these courses can therefore be an issue for those without access to their own car. To get around this problem, most clubs provide a shuttle-bus service from the nearest train-station and there is always the option of taking a cab. Most clubs also split a round into two parts with a mandatory lunch break in between and allow time for a post-game soak in the in-house hot-baths. This may be a different way of doing things to what you’re accustomed to but those who have experienced it tend to sing it’s praises. A whole day allows players to relax and enjoy themselves fully, perhaps more so than a couple of hours spent at a regular suburban golf-club.

Also keep in mind that rules and etiquette may be different to what you’re used to. Generally, the dress code is similar to most clubs in Europe and America, requiring the minimum of a collared shirt and non-denim trousers. On the course itself, keep a good pace as to not inconvenience other players and use common sense in respecting local customs. 

The biggest difficulty facing foreign players is making a course reservation. Though most courses allow for online reservations, this is predominantly in Japanese, with only a few courses offering English guidance. The course at the foot of Mt. Fuji is one of the best and most visually stunning courses to offer this service and comes highly recommended. In other areas, private travel agents and hotels may be able to reserve you a round if you ask in advance. 

Japanese Sumo Wrestling:

Photo Credit: heschong via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: heschong via Flickr cc

Japan’s national sport has become an emblem for the country as a whole, a uniquely Japanese sport dating back thousands of years. However, sumo’s iconic status does not translate into the popularity enjoyed by the comparatively modern sports of baseball, soccer or golf. It is a sport caught up in a long decline and the reasons for this are many. High-profile scandals involving match-fixing and violence may have turned many off from the sport, helped by the rise of alternative pastimes and a general perception of the sport as stale. 

As a newcomer to the sport though you should not be perturbed by this – the sheer spectacle of a sumo match being hard to beat. Following the rules is easy: the first wrestler to exit the ring or have any body-part except his feet touch the ground loses. Bouts are normally over in seconds and though thrilling, much of the fun for the spectator is in watching the pre-fight mind-games and complex ritual observed by the wrestlers. 

Watching Sumo in Japan:

Photo Credit: davidgsteadman via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: davidgsteadman via Flickr cc

There are six sumo tournaments each year: three in Tokyo (January, May and September), one in Osaka (March), one in Nagoya (July) and one in Fukuoka (November). Tournaments are 15 days long, with a ticket entitling you to watch a whole day of numerous matches. Tickets go on sale about a month before the start of the tournament so getting tickets ahead of time is a good idea. The easiest way to do this is to go through the official website (here), though be warned that tickets do tend to sell out quickly once released, so plan ahead to avoid disappointment. A limited amount of tickets may also be available at the stadiums themselves on the day of the event, just make sure to get there in the early morning to beat the queues. 

Ticket types vary. Ringside seats unsurprisingly go for the most amount of money, at around 15,000 yen, and are the most difficult to acquire. Box seats can be bought singularly or as a group, with prices starting at around 8,000 yen. For a tourist on a budget, perhaps the best option is a chair seat. These seats are further from the ring than the other options but provide a good perspective on the action all the same, with prices starting at around 3,000 yen per person. 

Another option for those who want to see the sumo wrestlers up close and personal is to visit a sumo stable and watch the morning training session. These are the places the wrestlers both live and train but many are open to the public. In Tokyo alone there are around 45 stables, though the most popular for tourists are Musashigawa Beya in Uguisudani, Kasugano Beya near Ryogoku Station and Takasago Beya near Asakusa Station. You will need to call a day in advance to book your place and make sure a session is taking place that day. To do this it may be best to get a Japanese speaker to help you, perhaps a member of staff at your hotel or hostel would be the best option here. Training begins early, usually around 6am so be sure to set your alarm clock and plan your route in advance. 

Finally…

Whether you’re a sports fanatic or not, attending a sporting event or playing yourself is a great way to get a feel for the country. The atmosphere at events is always a lot of fun, with people blowing off the steam of the working week by getting behind their team (or player or wrestler). Taking part in some sports whilst here is similarly a great way to escape the pressures of travel or work off all them bowls of ramen you’ve been slurping. Whatever sport you choose, you’re sure to come away smiling. 

Share Your Experiences

Jack Heslehurst

Jack Heslehurst

Tokyo-based writer and editor, originally from the UK, with a special interest in politics, history and travel.



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# Things to Do in Japan # Japan Travel Tips

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