As a baseball lover, I’ve had the pleasure of catching a game at every professional ballpark in Japan. Nippon Professional Baseball’s 12 teams stretch from tip to tip of the country, and how each team’s fans celebrate the game is as different as the stadiums that house them.

From Hokkaido to Kyushu, I was treated to unique ways of experiencing baseball: hearing the chants, seeing the colors and tasting the local flavors. As stubbornly conservative as the gameplay can sometimes be, the fan experience is refreshingly distinct from city to city and team to team.

Here are the highlights (and lowlights) of my experiences in every pro ballpark in the country.

Stadium Neighborhood

Photo: WikiCommons/ 横浜1978
The surrounding neighborhood has tons of options for post-game celebrations.

Best: DeNA Baystars

Yokohama Stadium is within walking distance of the bustling neighborhoods of Chinatown and Kannai, providing plenty of options for a post-game celebration.

Honorable Mention: Yomiuri Giants

The surrounding area, Tokyo Dome City, features everything from amusement park rides to a shopping mall and a hot spring facility.

Worst: Seibu Lions

Boy, talk about putting your ballpark in the middle of nowhere. Take the train 15 minutes to Tokorozawa if you’re looking for any semblance of human civilization.

Regional Delights

Photo: WikiCommons/ Mai Kana Chan
Regional delights and a ball game.

Best: Rakuten Golden Eagles

Rakuten Seimei Park Miyagi has a great selection of food options, none more tempting than the gyutan (beef tongue) that the Sendai area is famous for.

Honorable Mention: Chunichi Dragons

If you arrive at Vantelin Dome Nagoya early, line up for some crispy tebasaki (local-style chicken wings) done to perfection.

Worst: Nippon Ham Fighters

Hokkaido has a rich food culture and absolutely none of it is made available at Sapporo Dome. Nothing but humdrum chain restaurants there as far as the eye can see.

Adult Beverages

Photo: iStock/ layfsphoto
Ever try a “Ballpark IPA”?

Best: (tie) DeNA Baystars and Rakuten Golden Eagles

Both stadiums have a variety of original craft beer offerings, including the “Ballpark IPA” at Rakuten Seimei Park Miyagi and the “Baystars Lager” at Yokohama Stadium.

Honorable Mention: Nippon Ham Fighters

The beer girls lug backpack tanks of Sapporo Classic, a variety of Sapporo beer only available for purchase in Hokkaido Prefecture.

History

Photo: WikiCommons/ DX Broadrec
An old school classic.

Best: (tie) Hanshin Tigers and Yakult Swallows

Opened in 1924 and 1926 respectively, Koshien and Jingu Stadiums are old-school classics and Japan’s oldest ballparks. With Koshien’s signature ivy and Jingu’s sunset views of the Tokyo skyline, both stadiums offer classic baseball nostalgia in the best way possible. Both are on the dwindling list of active ballparks that Babe Ruth played in, which he did during a 1934 exhibition tour. Koshien Stadium has an excellent museum in an adjacent building.

In-Stadium Entertainment

Photo: Todd Wojnowski
Sapporo Dome deserves an honorable mention.

Best: DeNA Baystars

When tech company DeNA acquired the Baystars in 2011, they poured a lot of financial resources into enhancing the entire gameday experience at Yokohama Stadium. DJs, light-up displays, dance teams, cars that drive out onto the field to deliver the relief pitchers – Baystars games are a show.

Honorable Mention: Nippon Ham Fighters

Sapporo Dome does a great job of keeping the energy high during breaks in the action, with a fun dance team and a gameday DJ who puts together the most engaging music playlist in the league.

Team Celebration

Photo: Todd Wojnowski
Grab a mini umbrella and sing along.

Best: Yakult Swallows

Jingu Stadium is home to Japan’s most unique and iconic celebration, as Swallows fans lift colorful mini umbrellas and sing “Tokyo Ondo” after each run scores and during the Lucky Seven break.

Worst: Nine-team tie

We get it, jet balloons are fun. We blow them up, sing the team song and then release them into the sky in unison. Fine. But why can’t any of the nine (!) jet-balloon teams find something more original to do during the Lucky Seven break? Shame on the Tigers, Baystars, Carp and the entire Pacific League.

Fans

Photo: WikiCommons/ Michael Ocampo
City-wide team spirit.

Best: Hiroshima Carp

Hiroshima adores the Carp. You can spot red merchandise displayed in every storefront window in the city, and it’s impossible not to admire the ocean of red uniforms pouring out of the train station in every NPB city when the Carp come to town.

Honorable Mention: Lotte Marines

Few visiting fanbases manage to overpower the home team’s fans in their stadium, but that’s what the Marines faithful do regularly. These jumping devotees are the gold standard for loudness and passion.

Worst: Yomiuri Giants

Who chooses to sit on the home side of the trendiest, richest (and therefore winningest) franchise? Tickets often go to the corporate crowd and casual fans whose Giants caps were a “Why not?” impulse buy on their way into Tokyo Dome.

Dis-Honorable Mention: Orix Buffaloes

What fans? The current Buffaloes franchise was formed by the 2004 merger of the Orix BlueWave and Kentetsu Buffaloes, leaving neither fan base particularly enthused. Paired with consistently poor results (up until very recently), the Buffaloes struggle to develop a passionate foundation of supporters. The cavernous Kyocera Dome Osaka makes matters worse, as the team’s cheering section sounds as if they’re miles away from the playing field.

Exposure To The Elements

Photo: WikiCommons/ Spitfireap
A sweaty affair at Belluna Dome.

Worst: Seibu Lions

Originally built as an open-air stadium, a dome sitting on massive legs was later constructed over the top of (but not connected to) the playing field. As a result, the hot and humid summer air slips under the roof and gets trapped, turning the Belluna Dome into a miserable sweatbox.

Dis-Honorable Mention: Lotte Marines

Sitting 50 meters from the ocean, Zozo Marine Stadium is susceptible to surprise bursts of gale-force winds, stop-and-start downpours and fluctuating temperatures that require you to wear a T-shirt and bring a heavy jacket.

Team Store And Merchandise

Photo: WikiCommons/ 江戸村のとくぞう
Tsubakuro, the beloved Yakult Swallows mascot.

Best: SoftBank Hawks

Even non-fans will be tempted by the stylishness and excellent variety of colors and designs of their team merch. It’s a bit of a waste, however, as Hawks fans seem to be more a T-shirt and jeans crowd than a sea of team uniforms and caps.

Worst: Yakult Swallows

Tsubakuro, the Swallows’ cute, cartoonish mascot, is prominently featured on far too much of the merchandise in their team store. More subtle designs are needed.

Overall Experience

Photo: WikiCommons/ HKT3012
An overall great experience with views to match.

Best: Hiroshima Carp

Against stiff competition, Hiroshima is tops. The stadium is Japan’s prettiest by a long shot: its seats are wide and comfortable, its food options are good enough and its mountain views are unique. Top-notch fans and city-wide support complete the experience.

Japan is known for its regionality: every corner of the country boasts its distinctive foods, dialect, and natural beauty. Japanese ballparks are no different. The fan who neglects to venture out from his or her team’s stadium misses out on the local flavors that define each region, each city and each team.

What’s your favorite pro-baseball stadium? Comment down below.

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