Welcome to Tokyo, one of the largest cities in the world where just about any extravagance you could wish for can be had. But for years, there was one wish many in this city and country were not able to have granted: the ability to see future MLB Hall of Famer Ichiro play a big-league game in front of them.
The first Mariners trip planned here back in 2003 was aborted because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But now, nine years later, Ichiro and the Mariners will finally get to open a season in Japan, taking on the Oakland Athletics in a pair of games next week.
Ichiro won’t be the first Japanese major leaguer to play a regular season MLB game here and will be joined by countrymen Hisashi Iwakuma and Munenori Kawasaki on just his own team. But he remains the player who has done the most in MLB as far as individual accomplishment and that — as well as all of his all-star seasons prior to that with the Orix Blue Wave — still resonates here.
Yes, over the few days since I’ve been here, I’ve had baseball fans stop and ask me what is happening with Ichiro. Whether he can adapt to the No. 3 spot and excel for a few years more, or whether he is done as a player. The fans of Japan, it seems, are well-versed and realistic about the magnitude of the challenge Ichiro now faces.
But that hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm at getting a chance to see him play. That alone might be the single biggest drawing factor for a series between two teams that have been some of baseball’s worst the past few seasons.
I’ll be here covering every minute of this trip, bringing you all features, items and coverage both on and off the field. The team won’t arrive here for another 20 hours or so, but I took the liberty today of getting a headstart on some of that Ichiro coverage by making the 160-mile trek out to his hometown of Tomoyoya just outside of Nagoya.
The purspose was to visit the world’s one and only Ichiro museum, run by his parents. The Ichiro Exhibition Room opened in 2002 and contains more than 2,000 items from Ichiro’s personal and baseball life.
The personal stuff gets real personal. I mean, you’ll know everything you ever wanted to know about Ichiro’s life and more after coming here.
I won’t tell you everything about what I saw inside because we’re running a story on it in the newspaper on Friday and I don’t want to scoop our own paper by nearly a day. But it was quite an interesting journey out to the museum.
The trip began with a ride on the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya, where speeds hit anywhere from 150 to 185 mph. Going that fast makes it a lot easier to cross a significant part of the country in a single day.
I needed it on this trip. It took an hour and 45 minutes to get to Nagoya, but then I needed another 45 minutes to find the shuttle bus that would take me to Nagoya Airport — the old airfield, not the modern international one where it’s easy to hitch a ride.
There is only one shuttle heading to the old airport and a ton of buses going in a multitude of directions to choose from, all within several square blocks of each other. The lettering on the bus stops is all in Japanese symbols so that doesn’t help much and while the drivers were all super nice in trying to accomodate my English, there was only so much they could help out.
Somehow, I managed to happen right on by the very bus I needed just as I was beginning to panic. It was already 1:35 p.m. and the museum closes at 4:30 p.m.
But there was the bus with the AOI company initials scrawled across the front, so I hopped on, paid my 700 yen — putting a thousand yen bill into the automated machine at the front and getting three 100 yen coins back — and waited 10 more minutes while the idling bus sat.
Finally, it got ging for the 20-minute trek out of Nagoya and into Toyoyama, where the airport is located.
From there, I was told you just have to walk up to the nearest taxi driver, say “Ichiro Museum!” and they all understand. That’s exactly what happened as my driver — who didn’t speak a lick of English other than to say “Mah-rih-ners” nodded in understanding and took off for my destination.
We arrived in front of the immaculate, four-storey brick building I’d seen in photos just as the clock neared 2:30 p.m.
The neighborhood you see in the photo below is where Ichiro grew up, not far from the museum. His old house no longer stands where it used to, but was only a few streets away.
Instead, Ichiro built his parents a new, much bigger brick home right behind the museum to live in full-time. He stays there when he comes back home to Japan in the off-season and built himself a gym on the ground level floor of the museum — behind a locked glass door — to stay in shape.
A photo of the new house Ichiro had built is posted below.
Once I went inside the museum, the female employee up front was very helpful and after paying my 900 yen entry fee, I even got to meet Ichiro’s mother, Yoshie, who happened to be working in the back office. One of Ichiro’s parents is usually around, so, when told she had a visitor from Seattle, she came out to say hello.
She doesn’t speak English, but with some limited translating and a lot of head nodding, we were able to have a brief conversation before I headed on inside to view the items on display.
They don’t allow photographs to be taken in the museum, so I have none to show you except for what’s in the immediate foyer area. There are no armed guards or anything and I easily could have snapped away, but I wanted to respect the wishes of Ichiro’s parents so for this one time, the blog will not have photos to illustrate a story.
But I’ve got plenty of photos of the journey there to share with you. And in tomorrow’s newspaper story, I’ll go into greater detail of what was inside the museum itself.
For all news, tidbits and other interesting stuff from this trip, stick right here and follow my @gbakermariners Twitter account. I realize this trip is about the baseball season and we’ll have plenty of that coverage once the team gets here. But for now, sit back, relax and travel with me to Japan.