Baseball is considered the biggest spectator sport in Japan but if you find yourself at a Nippon Professional Baseball league game do not expect to merely sit and watch. In most of the Japanese professional sports there are “performance” sections where at the very least you will be expected to sport the correct team’s colors and are likely to be a participant in coordinated cheering led by cheer captains.
Baseball in Japan started in the 1870s when students returning from the United States and visiting professors and other Americans introduced the game. In Kobe the local franchise is the Orix Buffaloes. Nippon Professional Baseball is composed of twelve teams playing in two leagues; the Buffaloes play in the Pacific League. Unlike American professional sports, Japanese teams play in the uniforms of corporate sponsors not their hometowns. The Buffaloes baseball lineage traces back to 1936 when they were one of the country’s first professional nines operated by the Hanshin Kyuko Railway Company. The Buffaloes competed in the Japanese Baseball League at the time and later became a charter member of the Nippon Professional Baseball circuit in 1950.
The franchise came to Kobe in 1991 and became the Orix BlueWave. The 1990s were a time of glory for the team as Orix was led by Ichiro Suzuki, the greatest Japanese export to the Major League in the US. Suzuki set Japanese records for highest batting average and most base hits in a season while playing in the city where he was known as the “Hit Manufacturing Machine.” Suzuki’s lifetime batting average with Orix was .353. In 1996, Orix won its only Japan Series since moving to Kobe. In 2004 the league underwent a realignment and the Blue Wave merged with the Kintetsu Buffaloes to become the Orix Buffaloes.
The team splits its home schedule between the Kobe Sports Park Baseball Stadium and the Kyocera Osaka Dome, two completely different facilities. In contrast to the indoor stadium, Hotto Motto Field Kobe is one of the rare baseball fields in Japan that would be familiar to an American fan – the playing surface is all grass in the infield and outfield and there are dirt basepaths.
Japan loves its big furry mascots and baseball games with the Orix Buffaloes are no exception. Buffalo Bull was the first golden-horned cheerleader to take the field with his repertoire of antics. Bull was popular enough but he has been overshadowed as the lead team mascot since the arrival of his sister, Buffalo Bell. The city loves the pink-haired BuBell who is said to be the most popular of all the Japanese baseball mascots. Her merchandise outsells brother BuBull three to one. He wears uniform number 111, she cavorts about in #222.
Like baseball everywhere, food and beer are a big part of the Japanese baseball experience. You can find traditional American hot dogs at Japanese baseball stadiums but the local delicacies are most sought after. At Orix Buffaloes games that means Kobe beef croquettes. The beer comes from beer girls who roam the ballpark aisles with pony kegs strapped to their back, ready to pour a fresh cold one for fans. And when you go to a game, don’t forget to wear your gold and blue Orix Buffaloes colors.